The Real Witches of New England: History, Lore, and Modern Practice by Ellen Evert Hopman. Foreword by Judika Illes. Destiny Books, 380 p., 58 b&w illustrations.
TWH – In 1683, Mary Webster of Hadley, Mass., was accused of witchcraft for having “had familiarity” with the devil in the form of a cat, and for allowing his imps to suck on her “extra teats,” writes Ellen Evert Hopman in her mesmerizing new book, The Real Witches of New England.
Webster was taken to Boston for trial but was found not guilty (as were some 80 percent of the women and men accused of witchcraft in the New World). Webster returned to her home village, but her neighbors continued to accuse her of practicing witchcraft and took matters into their own hands: They hanged her by the neck, cut her down the next day, and buried her.
But Mary Webster wasn’t dead.
“You’d have thought that not dying after being hanged would have been deemed as proof that she was indeed a witch,” says Steven R. Dunn, one of eight descendants of accused New England witches to be interviewed by Hopman.
“But as far as I’ve read, no one took any further action against her. The hanging was illegal, but nobody was charged for this crime.”
“Half-hanged Mary” lived for 11 more years and died at about age 70 in 1698.
After living in western Massachusetts for 30 years, Hopman only recently discovered the story of Mary Webster, and that the accused witch was buried a short drive from her home. That startling discovery spurred Hopman, a Druid, herbalist and author of Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today, to write The Real Witches of New England: History, Lore, and Modern Practice.
Real Witches is composed of three sections: “History of Witch Persecutions,” “Accused Witches in New England and Interviews with Their Descendants,” and “Modern Witches of New England.”
“History of Witch Persecutions” includes a hopscotching timeline that stretches from 1400 B.C.E. and the “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” passage in the Old Testament, to the 1997 murder of a Russian woman by farmers who believed she used “folk magic” against them.
That section also includes an overview of “Practices and Traditions of Real Witches,” in which Hopman, who is also the author of Tree Medicine Tree Magic and A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year, examines “Pagan folk religion” and its practices as reflected in ancient texts.
“I leave it to the reader to decide if such curses and spells would have been effective,” she concludes at the section’s end.
The next two sections, “Accused Witches in New England and Interviews with Their Descendants” and “Modern Witches of New England,” are oral histories – Q&A interviews in which the descendants and modern Witches are each asked a set of questions and allowed to speak for themselves.
The descendants are asked how they discovered the accused witch in their family trees, their thoughts about most of the accused being women, how they define witchcraft, have they felt any contact from their ancestor or otherwise have a strong impression of them, and have they had any experiences with modern Witches.
The descendants include the atheist Steven R. Dunn, who says he likes his coworkers who happen to be Wiccan, but also sees Wicca as “just another silly religion” ; photographer Frances F. Denny, who is “not sure yet if I can consider myself a Witch”; and Kathy-Ann Becker, who doesn’t identify her spiritual path but says the life of her ancestor “has gifted me with strong impressions of her.”
Hopman takes a similar approach and asks her subjects a set of deceptively simple questions, among them: “How and when did you decide you were a Witch?” “How do you personally define Witchcraft?” “What tradition of Witchcraft do you follow?” “Is Witchcraft a ‘craft’ or a ‘religion’?” “Whom do Witches worship?” “Do Witches really do ‘spells’ or can they do ‘magic’?”
Yes, such classic works as Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today, Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do, Janet and Stewart Farrar’s The Life and Times of a Modern Witch, and Doreen Valiente’s An ABC of Witchcraft have rightfully earned their place in the canon of foundational modern Witchcraft texts.
But Hopman’s Terkel-esque approach to what some modern Witches are thinking, believing and practicing today is a documentary history that is likewise quite valuable. These interviews are fireside chats about basic beliefs that Pagans, Witches, Wiccans, polytheists and Heathens too infrequently express (in my experience) at festivals or even in covens or smaller group meetings.
Other than a generic “What Goddess/God do you follow?” or attending a spell-working workshop with only fleeting interactivity, when was the last time you had a conversation about how you decided you were a Witch, how you define Witchcraft, or what exactly is it that you do on days that are holy to you?
Such matters are at the core of belief and practice, yet how often does one examine them in oneself or fellow spiritual travelers? Indeed, a valuable practice for any modern Pagan would be to take Hopman’s questions and conduct a self-interview, and put one’s responses in writing – and imagine your answers are going to be read by thousands of Pagans and non-Pagans alike. One might be surprised at what such a practice may conjure.
The responses of these modern Witches are not startling, yet they are filled with unexpected, quiet but resonating insights, as when Lyrion ApTower, Priestess of the New Hampshire Granite Tower, says, “I discovered that most people don’t even know they have the option to create their own spirituality.”
Also, the practices revealed may range further afield than many Pagans initially suspect. Consider Christopher LaFond, who labels his path as “animistic Paganism,” which has “a noticeable lack of deities.” Yet he also reveals he is an “astrological priest.”
“I make invocations and devotions and conduct rituals to and for the beings at the hearts of stars and planets,” he explains. “I guess that’s the most unique part of what I do.” (And perhaps he has proved the validity of ApTower’s insight.)
Eclectic solitary Christopher Giroux, meanwhile, notes his path has included encounters with Ifa of the Yoruba people, the teachings of a Mohawk elder, Buddhist meditation, the “contemplative meditation” of Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton, the feminist liberation theology of Barbara Walker and Mary Daly, puja with Hindus, and more.
While many commonalities abound in these interviews (e.g., Witches prefer to “venerate” their deities rather than “worship” them, as the book reveals), it is surprising that the vastly varied traditions, practices and beliefs expressed here give rise to a sense of community.
Noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., in an introduction to the book Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century, notes that a motto for the diverse voices within its pages could be “I write, therefore I am.”
A similar dynamic is at play in Real Witches through the simple declaration: “This is who I am, what I believe, and what I do.” LaFond the astrological priest is bound in community with Gardnerian Laura Wildman-Hanlon, with Sancista Brujo Luis and his Puerto Rican Espiritismo Criollo path, and with the many others covered by the term “Witch” in these oral histories.
Yes, the scope of Real Witches can seem unwieldy and incongruous as it jumps from medieval European woodcuts of burning witches and accounts of the fiendish, 17th-century “witch-finder general” Matthew Hopkins, to the outlier perspectives of many of the descendants, to the revelations of these modern-day Witches.
But Hopman makes it work. Indeed, one of the peculiar strengths of Real Witches is the juxtapositions that occur across its historical breadth. We learn that the misogynist Formicarius, written in 1475, was the first text to claim witches were primarily female, all because women were considered physically, mentally and emotionally inferior and thus susceptible to the devil.
Later we read of the hanging of Rebecca Towne Nurse at Salem, followed by the reflections of one of her descendants, a non-Witch who experienced recurring dreams of a dark-haired woman long before discovering her ancestry, and who has “no doubts that if I were alive at that time I would be labeled a ‘witch.’ ”
Then later we learn that a teenaged Christopher Penczak was attending a Catholic high school when his art teacher revealed she was a Witch. “I was shocked and thought she was crazy,” Penczak says. “I learned all I could to try to get her out of what I thought was a cult and soon realized it wasn’t, and she was fine. I wanted to learn more.”
That art teacher introduced Penczak to her teacher — Laurie Cabot, who set Penczak on his path by giving him his first-degree training in her own Witchcraft tradition.
Though such threads are not outlined in red lipstick, many can be grasped or intuited throughout The Real Witches of New England, making the book at times tragic, at times triumphant, at times educational and enlightening, even as it fosters community and self-discovery.