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The Wonder of Witches – Stacy Schiff Reading List

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Posted by Mary Ann

1witchesStacy Schiff’s book The Witches: Salem, 1692 shook me up. The rational part of the human mind wants to believe that people are well intentioned and logical. Well…..sometimes they are. Sometimes they definitely are not. The Salem witch hysteria, which Stacy Schiff called “our national crack-up,” was one of those times when reason fled the scene.

This book got me thinking about witches, and how they are believed to be either forces of evil (more the historical view) or good (the modern view – more on that in a minute). But before I dive into books on and about witches, I want to bring up one more Stacy Schiff book, my favorite among those of hers I have read.

4 cleopatraThat would be Cleopatra: A Life, and I bet a number of our viewers have read it – it was on the best-seller list after it came out in 2010, no small accomplishment for a work of historical scholarship.

We mostly think of the real Cleopatra as the Elizabeth Taylor version, the sultry spellbinder who managed to seduce both Roman emperor Julius Caesar and his rival for power, Mark Antony. True. That’s only a piece of the story. Cleopatra was one of the first women in recorded history to rise to power, and she used everything in her arsenal of talents to accomplish it.

Like a lot of Egyptian rulers, she was the child of incest (the Egyptian royalty was heavily into hanging on to power by intermarrying). She married her brother. She murdered her siblings when it suited her purposes. She became a mother of four children.

She was not beautiful – ancient coins portrayed her with a big hooked nose – but she was determined to keep her kingdom from being crushed by the Romans. Schiff does a great job in putting this story in the frame of the politics of that time. The Romans needed wealthy, educated Egypt, rich in agriculture and learning. The Egyptians needed to stave off a complete takeover by Rome. It was Cleopatra’s job to walk this tightrope.

Cleopatra’s story was turned into that of a seductress by Roman historians, men like Plutarch and Cicero, who wrote about her hundreds of years after the fact. They reduced her, said one critic, to a “marginal exotic with a few womanly wiles,” a sort of power-mad nymphomaniac. Stacy Schiff does a superb job of showing who she really was – a superb leader who gave everything she had to keep her country together.

Getting back to witches – I’m surprised that the Roman historians didn’t try to paste that label on Cleopatra – I have been reading a superb work of history that highlights something I realized as I read Stacy Schiff’s version of the madness in Salem – how horrified the Massachusetts colonists were by the terrible Indian wars waged in New England in the late 17th century.

2devilssnareThat book is In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton.

Norton is a much-honored historian who teaches at Cornell University. She can also write a clear, compelling book, which many historians have never learned to do.

Norton makes two things very clear. The first is that the Massachusetts colonists did not think like you and me. It was in the age before the Enlightenment, when humans began to apply science and reason to the question of how things worked.

The colonists believed in what one historian called a “world of wonders.” They believed that invisible spirits, both good and evil, governed their lives. “For them, visible and invisible realms coexisted and often intersected,” Norton writes. They had no doubt that witches were real. That went for the Devil, too.

The second is how traumatized the settlers were by two horrible wars that took place in the late 17th century, King Philip’s War and King William’s War. The tribes in Maine, enraged by the colonists’ incursions there, began a terrible counterattack on white men, women and children, and many of the settlers witnessed their loved ones being tortured, maimed and killed by Indian raiders. Many of those settlers fled south to Massachusetts, including some of the young girls who would end up as accusers in the Salem trials. Their collective experience had a powerful effect on the whole Salem narrative. The “black man,” the Devil many of the Salem villagers believed directed the witches, looked a lot like an Indian. This book examines the psychological impact of that trauma, and how fear and shame can turn into its own form of aggression.

3hangmansAre you ready to get out of the 17th century? Me too. But before we go, I want to mention a novel about witchcraft set in Bavaria, an entirely creepy and well-written book called The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzch.

It’s 1659, and the Thirty Years War has ended. The villagers in a small Bavarian town are worn out by fighting; food is hard to come by, and children are starving.

In this combustible atmosphere a young boy is murdered, and a tattoo signifying what people think of as a witch is found on his body. The villagers suspect the local midwife and almost kill her before she’s rescued at the last moment by the unlikely hero of this tale, the village executioner, Jakob Kuisl. One of a long line of executioners in his family, Kuisl is an odd combination – executioner (he tries to be as humane as possible – to most people, anyway), keeper of the peace and medical man.

Charged with torturing her until she confesses, Jakob, his daughter and her sweetheart start a race against the clock to find the real killer. Just to make this book a little more interesting – the author is descended from a well-known line of Bavarian executioners, who inspired the novel!

4witchesAmericaLet’s turn to witches, 20th century version. I have just discovered a completely fascinating work of nonfiction, a documentary approach to the whole world of modern witchcraft. It’s Witches of America by Alex Mar.

This book is an outgrowth of a documentary Alex Mar spent years working on. In the film, American Mystic, she followed three practitioners of modern-day spirituality, including a devotee of the modern version of witchcraft.

In the book, as Mar interviews them and films them, she participates in their rituals, and eventually finds herself, the enlightened rationalist journalist, being drawn into their rites and beliefs.

In one way you want to snort and make fun of Mar’s subjects – the weird, painfully applied tattoos, the costumes, the blue hair, the anything-goes sex. A witches’ convention at a Doubletree Inn? Really?

But in another way, you grow to understand, as Mar did, how deep a need these religions and practices fill for these people. In one scene (at the Doubletree, no less), the participants participate in a ritual to banish shame, fear, greed and rage. No wonder the Puritans, raised to believe they were going straight to hell for any number of offenses, were afraid of witches.

5practicalFinally, to lighten up a bit, here’s a book about witches from one of my favorite novelists, Alice Hoffman. That’s her 1995 novel Practical Magic.

It’s the story of two orphans, sisters, who are being raised by their aunts in a small Massachusetts town. For 200 years, the townspeople have been accusing the Owens family of all kinds of odd events – the Owens women “have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town,” the story begins. “If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street.”

The orphans, Gillian and Sally, are ostracized, though Gillian is such a stunner she attracts plenty of attention from the boys in town. Eventually they both leave – Gillian runs away, and Sally, after becoming a widow with two children, moves to the Long Island suburbs. All she wants is a normal life.

Wish away – Magic follows these two sisters wherever they go. Alice Hoffman is a superb writer; great descriptions, great characters, a sense of humor and an almost uncanny way of weaving the supernatural into her stories, and making you believe.

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