A visit to Salem offers numerous opportunities to see dramatizations of the witch hysteria.
Numerous theories have been put forth to explain this frenzy, including one I mentioned in an earlier post – ergot.
However, I think it important to remember that the Puritans who came here for religious freedom, came out of a history of witch trials. In Europe there were recurring trials and burnings. Some of these outbursts seemed to have roots in ordinary human nature – heirs who accused a wealthy widow to obtain property for example. But the strong religious fervor clearly played a large part. One only has to look at the Spanish Inquisition to see to what lengths men will sink, convincing themselves all the way that they are operating for some higher purpose.
And magic was already a part of the culture. Witch balls, glass balls with elaborate designs inside to capture the witch’s essence, had been in use in Britain for years. I mentioned the witch cake in a previous post. But there was also other beliefs. an egg dropped in a glass of water could help determine one’s future husband. Dried apple faces were used to keep away evil spirits. An ear of corn on a woman’s belly as she gave birth would protect her and the baby. The effect of spells could be lessened by dry apple seeds. Of, if one was in the woods, witches could be frightened away by the clacking to two sticks together. And so on.
So the residents of Salem were already primed to believe in the existence of witches. When Tituba recounted stories and spells from her religion to the girls, they took root and helped inspire the hysteria.
Witch hunts and trials continued in the United States until well into the 1800s.
One last comment: I don’t think we can sneer at these poor superstitious fools from this earlier time – not when shows such as Ghost Hunter on the SYFY channel are so popular.