Mainstream Acceptance in Salem

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 14, 2008 — Leave a comment

A few days ago I mentioned a panel discussion on Wicca, Witchcraft, and Paganism taking place in Salem that featured author/journalist Margot Adler and Pagan activist Jerrie Hildebrand. Today, The Salem News reports back on the event, and paints a portrait of increasing mainstream acceptance.

“Witches get more respect than they used to here in the Witch City. That was a recurring theme among about 40 witches, pagans and Wiccans at a city-sponsored forum held Saturday night to educate the public and challenge stereotypes about their religion. Salem resident Mike Gleason said local witches are no longer shunned or feared. During Halloween, little kids ran up to him to ask questions. Ten years ago they cowered behind their parents … Throughout the evening, the panelists described a mainstreaming of their religion that they never dreamed possible.”

What else did the reporter (and us through reading her story) learn? Well, for one, some Witches are uneasy with the mainstreaming of their faith traditions.

“Nial Hartnett, a witch who lives in Danvers, wondered if this growing acceptance is a good thing. ‘You have mentioned the word ‘mainstreaming’ several times. I wonder if we are in danger of losing who we really are, the mystery and the magic,’ he said. ‘Maybe we don’t want to be like everyone else.’ But Hildebrand insisted that the freedoms gained to practice their religion will be lost unless they work within some official structures, like the federal government.”

Adler admitted that the community isn’t as “edgy” now, as it was when she got involved. Speaking of “edgy”, we also learned that an unnamed freelance writer for Modern Witch magazine thinks Witchcraft is a race.

“A freelance writer with Modern Witch magazine wanted to know if either woman thought it was racist to put a broom-riding witch logo on city police cruisers.”

The general consensus seemed to point to the witch logo, instead of being a point of contention, is actually pretty cool (something of a sea-change from the early days when an assortment of Wiccan crusaders sought to stamp out the Halloween witch). Hildebrand also spoke highly of the local high school team being “the Witches” (would that be the “Fighting Witches” or the “Hexing Witches” I wonder).

Another big topic was Wicca and Witchcraft in Salem, where things are good, but not without repercussions.

“In Salem, the city has benefited from a witch-friendly mayor, Hildebrand said. Recently, Hildebrand wrote a short piece about the modern-day witch that was included in the city’s official tourism guide for the first time. In a further sign of her religion’s growing legitimacy, Hildebrand serves as the first Wiccan chaplain for the state Department of Correction … Here in Salem there’s more tolerance, but also a higher standard placed on witches, Hildebrand said. She said she would be reluctant to report a hate crime, not out of fear, but because she would worry that the media would sensationalize the case, and witches around the country would be harmed. “It’s embarrassing sometimes when I have to listen to what other people think a Salem witch is,” she said.”

You have to wonder if Hildebrand was thinking of the recent Salem “psychic wars” when she formulated her response. Like it or not, when people think “real live Witches”, they think of Salem. While sensationalist press coverage is always a problem, I’m not sure that refusing to report a hate crime would be a good response. Justice should always be served, even if it comes with the occasional embarrassing media interview.

On the whole, the event seemed very positive and productive. The real challenge now is to work towards having such consciousness-raising events outside places with Pagan-friendly politicians and large active communities, and into the places where education is desperately needed. Perhaps someday soon we’ll see a Pagan-focused barnstorming tour across the country, visiting places where Pagans don’t dare come out of the closet. Until then, this panel discussion is a great first step. Congratulations to the organizers and participants.

Jason Pitzl-Waters