Where Will the Devil Show the Most Malice
By John Demos
Not so many years ago, I was part of a festive group slowly rafting its way down from the Koro Highlands in Sumatra along the Alas River. One hot afternoon we stopped at a small village, and in the course of looking around, I developed quite a following of village children (and some too old to be considered children), all gazing at me with helpless, entranced intensity.
I am no great beauty; I have amelianosis – my skin is chalky white, which renders the pink of my eyes and gums all the more noticeable. The attention I was receiving wasn’t admiring – it was fearful. I put a brave face on the awkwardness of it and eventually rejoined my group as we resumed our trip. Several group members inquired if I were alright (they’d had three weeks to get accustomed to the way I look), and when I asked about the word I’d heard my onlookers whispering, phyiipho, phyiipho, one of our guides informed me that it was a term meaning ‘witch.’
It’s difficult to relate how helpless it makes you feel to be singled out for something over which you have no control, but the complex of reactions I experienced was a tangle running far, far below my conscious mind. The children following me that day had been curious and apprehensive, but they were also (albeit slightly) cross-culturalized: remote as they were from my world of cafes and Internet access, they still knew enough of its basic parameters to know they couldn’t simply, say, stone me to death, or chase me with sharp sticks. I was part of a group of Westerners passing through, something they’d seen enough times to know that their village customs didn’t apply to everybody.
When I think of the countless thousands of people in mankind’s history who’ve been labeled ‘witch’ by those around them, I can’t help but imagine how that day in Sumatra would have gone for me if all the outside cultures those children (and their parents) had encountered had agreed with their own about how to deal with odd-looking or odd-acting strangers in their midst. Back then, while I was being followed (always at a polite distance) and whispered about, the strongest urge I had was to whirl around and shout “Boo!” It must be a natural reaction when you’re being stigmatized by a crowd in vaguely fearful ways, the first and most visceral way for the singled-out person to stop feeling helpless and take some kind of control of the situation.
It’s the worst possible thing to do, of course, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because that “Boo!” does more than assert your control over the situation – it confirms the situation’s basic assumption, that your difference is an active, volitional thing, something you’re inclined to use. Since the dawn of time, I have no doubt, many so-called witches have gotten themselves into a great deal of trouble by thoughtlessly indulging in that reaction.
It’s a huge subject to think about, all those witches in their countless variations of my Sumatran scenario. Witches are in the Bible, after all (proscribed against, yes, but also consulted, with Saul seeking advice from the Witch of Endor), and they have manifested themselves in virtually every culture and time period of humanity. At the exact same moment those children and adolescents on the Alas River were trying to work up their courage to throw a rock at me, thousands of Americans were sitting in their living rooms enjoying reruns of Bewitched or Charmed; a subject so vast is daunting.
Massachusetts resident and Yale University history professor John Demos sets himself this daunting task, covering the entire subject in his new book The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. The book is barely 300 pages long, so readers are necessarily jogged through huge stretches of time at a fairly brisk pace (and as Demos’ sub-title implies but doesn’t state, the focus here will be on witchcraft in – and opposed to – an explicitly Christian setting). His second chapter, for instance, is a witch-hunting “panorama” that follows the subject from AD 150 to 1750 in less than 50 pages. Demos is an expert on colonial New England history and lore (he is the author of a previous book on the Salem Witch Trials, Entertaining Satan, and his book The Unredeemed Captive, centering on Indian abductions of white women, won the Francis Parkman Prize for American history), and throughout these early segments of The Enemy Within, you often sense he’s eager to move the picture along to the town and events with which he’s so familiar.
The resultant book only seems disjointed because of its misleading subtitle, which implies a comprehensive history where none is offered. It’s more accurate to think of this book as Thoughts on Witchcraft, and although they’re necessarily tightly compressed, even Demos’ summarizing chapters are marked by lots of insights and easy-going prose. He’s been studying and teaching this subject for most of his professional career, so even when he’s writing about the origins of Christian-persecuted witchcraft 1700 years ago, he’s still very much worth reading. His “panorama” chapter traces the phenomenon of witch-accusing as a gradually-evolving thing that grew up alongside its accusers:
Above and beyond its local operations, the Church was involved in a lengthy struggle for self-definition that would increasingly engage popular culture around witchcraft, diabolism, and the foundation of faith itself. Its core was nothing less than the problem of evil: how to account for the myriad, often surprising, always unsettling uncertainties that attend every human life.
As that struggle for self-definition grew older, it grew more complex: rites and rituals developed in the Church, and, as Demos points out, they were inevitably mirrored:
The sabbat … was reframed as an elaborate worship performance, with traditional Catholic elements directly inverted (the Black Mass, and its “devilish” accompaniments). Witchcraft was an organized, Satan-centered antithesis to Christianity – here was heresy indeed!
Part of Demos’ task in explicating this mess is especially tricky, because witchcraft has always been characterized as much by its intensely personal nature as by its intensely impersonal nature. On the one hand, accusers are imputing nefarious supernatural motives to a specific person, but on the other hand they’re also accusing that person of being a pawn of Satan, subverted in a way that virtually anybody might be subverted. There’s no way to reconcile these two aspects of the same phenomenon, and you have to admire the brazen ingenuity with which Demos tackles this problem: he enthusiastically pushes forward both aspects and confidently refuses to acknowledge the conflict between them. It’s both everybody in group-think:
As time passed, the picture of witchcraft would gain strength from a growing emphasis on its collective aspects: shared rites, nocturnal meetings (the so-called sabbat) to renounce God and Christ, particular strategies of witch-to-witch recruitment, the making of an explicit “pact” with Satan. Indeed, without the sabbat and without pact, witch-hunting on a grand scale would hardly have been conceivable.
… and it’s specific, individual people involved in specific, individual circumstances:
Always and everywhere, charges of witchcraft were grounded in a web of local, intensely personal relationships. Every episode that would ultimately grow very large started small – a quarrel between neighbors – about cattle, about crops, about the terms of trade or the payment of debts, about the boundaries of fields or social space, about more bits and pieces of everyday experience than could possibly be enumerated here – thus was a seed sown, a process begun.
It’s in telling the stories of these individuals that Demos excels. His survey of pre-Salem New England witchcraft is one of the two highlights of The Enemy Within, a remarkable, memorable gallery of persecuted women (and, rarely, men, as in the case of John Godfrey of Andover, Massachusetts, who was so cranky and litigious that accusing him of witchcraft was the least his long-suffering neighbors could do) who were either socially nonconformist or maladjusted (rude people got accused of witchcraft ten times more often than courteous people, a fact one would bring to the attention of cell phone users if one could get them to shut up long enough to tell them), or just plain unlucky. Ann Hibbens of Boston, Eunice Cole of New Hampshire, the widow Harrison of Connecticut – these and many, many others faced accusations, trials, and sometimes death because they were unpleasant, or because they were present when a baby sickened, or because their husband died without warning.
“To describe the history of witchcraft is one thing, to explain it is quite another,” Demos writes, but this doesn’t deter him from making several game attempts to explain it, all of which are interesting. 17th century New England (to which his narrative flows like water running downstream) was a cold and forbidding place, beset on all sides by inclement weather, stingy soil, rapacious government in the form of distant England, and constant threat of attack from native Indians irritated at being summarily dispossessed of their land. In such a setting, it’s entirely natural that witchcraft-persecution might have a collective, therapeutic function, as Demos writes:
…whole communities, no less than individuals, derived important gains from their encounters with witchcraft. When a troublesome person had been removed, following conviction as a witch, a village or neighborhood would experience a fresh surge of unity; moreover, the process of removal might itself seem restorative: The evil that was formerly among us is no more; we are stronger, purer, better now. Simply to join in cosmically important struggle – God versus Satan, with their bitterly-opposed followers – was a major route to self-enhancement: We have faced down the mighty enemy, and our lives are the larger for it.
Indeed, one of the most famous witch-hunters of all time, Cotton Mather, took this sense of collective assault and redemption a step further, saying it was only natural that Satan should feel a special hatred for New England:
If any are scandalized that New England, a place of as serious piety as any I can hear of under Heaven, should be troubled with so many witches, I think ‘tis no wonder: where will the Devil show the most malice, but where he is hated, and hateth, the most?
And with Cotton Mather’s appearance we come to the centerpiece of The Enemy Within, the most famous instance of witch-hunting in history, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93. As mentioned, Demos has covered this material extensively in the past, and he comes to it here with the skill of an expert.
The basic outline of the story will be familiar to readers through a variety of popularizations, from books to comics to movies and TV shows: in the winter of 1692, a young girl named Betty Parris began acting weird, running from room to room, hiding from imaginary attackers, raving. Her friends, 11-year-old Ann Putnam and teenager Mercy Lewis, soon began acting the same way (and, when questioned – first by their parents and Salem Village elders, ultimately by the famous author and preacher Cotton Mather himself – saying suspiciously the exact same things). Once they had everybody’s attention, they started making accusations of witchcraft and naming specific people (most famously including the black slave Tituba). The girls put on extremely convincing shows (teenage girls need little coaching in simulating – or succumbing to – hysterics), and inquests were formed, and trials were held, and the wildfire spread for a few months. Demos’ chapter on the mass mania that followed is the second highlight of The Enemy Within, and when the madness ends, he writes, there were
Twenty dead, over a hundred imprisoned, dozens more cast under suspicion; neighbors set bitterly against one another, families sundered, property and reputations lost or destroyed. It was, by any measure, a heavy, shattering toll.
Cartoon showing Tituba performing acts of sorcery for Betty Parris, Abigail Williams,
and other children in the household of Rev. Samuel Parris
He points out how in one sense there was no discreet ending for this particular eruption: “be sure, the actual witch-hunt was over. But in Salem Village the fallout from the trials – divisions, recriminations, a feeling of ruin – would continue well into the future.” And again, your heart goes out to those poor people who stood accused by these screeching girls: what could they do? Their lives were connected with Salem Village; they couldn’t just uproot and move at the first sign of these inexplicable accusations, but neither would it have been wise to do the equivalent of turning around and yelling ‘Boo!’ Facing the wrath of the village elders for non-payment of a debt or non-attendance at church was one thing, but how do you defend yourself from accusations that you’re in league with the Devil, when the Devil never actually makes an appearance one way or the other? I was lucky: I was able to just head on down the river away from the villagers who might have wanted to accuse me of being phyiipho. The men and women accused by those girls that winter in Salem had no recourse to sanity (those who did escape – usually by breaking out of jail – had to abandon their lives and start over elsewhere).
Demos concludes his Salem chapter with a quick but thorough tour through the various explanations historians have put forth for what happened and why it happened, everything from mental illness to political repression to the accidental ingestion of hallucinogens. By far the most convincing of these, as Demos agrees, comes from Mary Beth Norton in her 2002 book In the Devil’s Snare, which reminds students of the subject that since 1675, English settlers in New England had been in a state of almost uninterrupted and often savage warfare with the Wabanaki Indians. Norton finds all kinds of evidence that the hysterics of the Salem Witch Trials might have had their origin in the psychological pressures of living only a day’s ride from scenes of sometimes unspeakable savagery.
Mather merits his own chapter in The Enemy Within, as do such modern-day variations on the witch-hunting craze as the Red Scare of 1919 and the McCarthy persecutions of the early 1950s. Demos also gives a damning account of the 1984 scandal that engulfed the Massachusetts town of Malden when several of the children at Fells Acres Day School were pressured by their parents and other alleged well-wishers to “remember” sexual abuse on the part of school personnel – another case in which lives were ruined and reputations blackened on what turned out to be no factual basis at all. These chapters work surprisingly well at putting the apparently inborn human propensity for witch-hunting in perspective; one wishes Demos had given us more such contemporary cases, perhaps instead of his sweeping but over-generalized “panoramas.”
Only a brief chapter on the origin and history of Dominican friar Heinrich Kramer’s infamous 1486 witch-hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, feels tacked-on to the book as a whole. It’s fascinating reading (Demos is a very engaging writer), but since little work is done to link it directly to many of the large-scale persecutions that followed its publication, the chapter just sits there, like an appendix that’s wandered onto the main body of the book.
That main body makes delightful though thought-provokingly alarming reading. It’s a fine testament to the fragility of innocence, and Demos’ concluding plea to end witch-hunting through greater tolerance, though laudable, is probably doomed. If my own experience is anything to go by, people will always be quick to spot the servants of the Devil.
Rita Consalvos works for an architectural firm in Sao Paolo, Brazil. This is her first publication.