Come home to the birthplace of modern witchcraft, Salem Massachusetts, with author Sarah Robinson
My companions and I disembark our train from Boston onto red brick streets under a soft white sky that is threatening to snow. Almost at once, I see a badge worn by a policeman that reminds us that this is ‘The Witch City’. The town of Salem feels all at once cosy, quaint and eerie. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn hangs in the air. Soon the snow begins to fall through smoke and curling steam from machines and food carts. In the festivities of the Halloween weekend, almost everyone is dressed up and smiling. In the hustle and bustle of people, lanterns and pumpkins shine from perches on hay bales and windowsills, and witches of every age laugh, feast and wander with freedom that their ancestors could only have dreamed of…
Journey to a magical place
The stories of Salem are very powerful, with a spectrum of horrors and joys in its past. But on a special 31st October some years ago, when it snowed in Salem on Samhain, I journeyed through this magical place. The memories are still with me, as is the ceramic coaster I bought whilst there. It is emblazoned with ‘Salem, MA – The Witch City’ (the same message as the policeman’s badge) and a witch in flight over starry skies. She holds my coffee mug every morning on my writing desk, where I now write about witches for a living. So you could say this experience and my time with the witches cast quite the lasting spell!
Like Glastonbury, some consider Salem overly touristy, but like all the most powerful places there is much history, meaning and magic to be found for those who seek it, behind the trifles and trinkets. So, and in this time when
few of us can travel as freely as we’d like, it is a joy to share these little sparkles of memories with you.
Remember the old witches
The witch trials of Salem in colonial Massachusetts occurred between February 1692 and May 1693. They have gone down in history as one of the most extreme purges in such a small area. Two hundred people were accused of witchcraft, 19 of whom were executed by hanging, seven or more died in jail, and one man was crushed to death.
The history of witchcraft is a challenging one to delve into. Amazing rituals and customs lie in foundations of torture and trials that we can barely imagine now. How do you walk a joyful path from such horrors? I believe the key is to remember the history upon which you walk; respect it and take joy that this path is here for you. Show our fore-witches respect and humility; to call yourself a witch is to be part of a legacy – a lineage of the wyrd and the wise, those who walked (and flew) before us. Samhain is the perfect time to both visit Salem and connect to its witch history remotely.
Celebrate a Salem Samhain
Many modern witches and pagans have adopted Samhain as their end of year. It’s a popular idea, as Samhain marks the end of the harvest period and the start of winter. People would have a chance to slow down and reflect on the dearly departed, to visit cemeteries and tend graves. Families would gather for special dinners; people would share memories and stories of their beloved ones and ancestors.
It was thought that one’s ancestors and loved ones who had passed on could visit during this time, and a person would prepare a favourite meal or leave out treats for spirits. Candles were lit as a way to honour the departed, the guiding light in the window helping the spirits find their way back home. As all kinds of beings inhabited the spirit world, a person could also disguise themselves with a mask and costume in protection from more nefarious characters. They might prefer to keep safe and warm with feasting and games at home or seize the opportunity to face their fears by telling stories, dressing up as these beasts of the darkness and making fun of what they were afraid of.
Salem is a city on the north coast of Massachusetts above Boston and has a population of almost 45,000
Invite the spirits in
Every Halloween, huge crowds visit Salem and revellers dress as witches, ghosts and ghouls. Families take ghost tours and wander around magical fairs, food carts and live performances. Salem has also become home for thousands of Wiccan practitioners and solitary witches, pagans and druids. May you, wherever you are, enjoy seasonal festivals and a sense of mystery, magic and stories that many more than just witches and pagans can enjoy. Everyone can enjoy the light, warmth and scent of a bonfire and the joyful light of fireworks and of candles lit in carved pumpkins.
There are connections with the dead, but also traditions are about love: celebrating lost love and departed loved ones. Invite the spirits in this Samhain if you wish, and send a little love to the witches of Salem, old and new, and the spiritual heritage they carry.
“The stories of Salem are very powerful, with a spectrum of horrors and joys in its past”
Walk through the Witch City…
Salem Witch Trials Memorial
The Salem Witch Trials mean the town will be forever known for seams of witchcraft that run deeply through its history and folklore. Today, the memorial site for some of those victims serves as a reminder of the mass hysteria that occurred. Built in 1992, the stone memorials are etched with the names and dates of each victim. While in Salem, be sure to take time to visit the memorial, and take time to remember not only those named, but those that died in jail who never even got their trial, and the hundreds who suffered during harsh accusations and tortures.
There are eight historic cemeteries in Salem and along the Salem Heritage Trail. They are interesting, but it’s useful to remember that none of the witches were given burials here – they were denied proper burial. So places such as the oldest cemetery, Old Burying Point Cemetery, hold only those that accused and killed the witches. The Howard Street Cemetery is where Giles Corey was taken to be pressed to death, a torture chosen because he refused to stand trial, so he may still be within the cemetery.
Salem Witch Museum
Salem Witch Museum is a beautiful gothic building with tall windows that light up in jewel tones each evening. It brings the Salem Witch Trials to life and guides us through the Salem trials and witchcraft throughout the ages, including modern practices, stereotypes and superstitions.
One of the newest memorials was funded by donations from some of the descendants of Salem’s accused witches. It incorporates memorial stones around a single oak tree. The memorial was dedicated to the 325th first anniversary of the hangings on 19th July, 2017. On that day in July 1692, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes were all hanged from a tree on the ledge.
An embodiment of the kinder, gentler form of the witch was featured in the show Bewitched, which filmed several episodes in Salem in the 1970s. A bronze statue of the actress Elizabeth Montgomery (who played the witch Samantha) upon a broom in front of a crescent moon stands downtown. It is ironic perhaps that Samantha would once have been tortured and killed for her skills; she is also a symbol of the changing attitude towards witches and a change and freedom to embrace new ideas.
Sarah Robinson is an author and yoga teacher based in Bath, UK. She has published two books Yoga for Witches and Yin Magic: How to Be Still, both published by Womancraft Publishing. Book number three, Kitchen Witch is on its way for Imbolc 2022! See more about Sarah at sentiayoga.com and womancraftpublishing.com