What does witchcraft mean to Americans?

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As we move into the summer, Salem—and other tourist-friendly Massachusetts outposts such as Provincetown—will swing into action with tarot card readings, spells, and rituals staged for avid clients. Any contemporary reference to witchcraft in America carries a range of associations; common superstition, Pantheism, persecution, politics, and alternative lifestyles.

An outline,...

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As we move into the summer, Salem—and other tourist-friendly Massachusetts outposts such as Provincetown—will swing into action with tarot card readings, spells, and rituals staged for avid clients. Any contemporary reference to witchcraft in America carries a range of associations; common superstition, Pantheism, persecution, politics, and alternative lifestyles.

An outline, beginning in pre-colonial New England until the present day, follows:

Salem Witch Trials: The accusations of two girls from a prominent family touch off a wave of accusations and executions, in an echo of European witch purges. The key prosecutor in these cases was Cotton Mather.

Euro-styled American Mysticism (or witchcraft as a subset of domestic mysticism): As the timeline advances to the latter 18th century, it was fashionable to attend seances and otherwise engage in mystical group activities. Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky demonstrated her psychic powers for an indulgent public.

At the turn of the 20th century, escape artist Houdini (at one point, the world’s most famous entertainer) made it his business to debunk any number of mystics.

The Red (Communist) Scare and Blacklisting: The authorities came down on various public figures, branding them as Un-American. To quote Jared Brown (from Zero Mostel): the congressional Committee on Un-American Activities hearings offered

a way for conservatives to seize the political initiative and thus had the fervent backing of the right wing for its investigations in alleged Communist influence in education, government and the arts throughout the 1940s.

During this era, with the national mood of fear and suspicion it represents, the term witch hunt was introduced, a clear allusion to the bad old days in Salem. This series of events is also the basis for Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, with uses the witch trials as a contemporary political metaphor.

None of the above takes into account the ongoing practice of Wicca, an occult craft or spiritual practice observed by Americans from every walk of life.

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