Sitting in one of Wellesley College professor Julie Walsh’s most in-demand classes — “Philosophy and Witchcraft” — you might envision historic Salem and conjure up the image of a witch trial. But before the class is over, you’ll delve into the philosophy around this peculiar event in New England history.
In this class, offered each fall, Walsh, a professor of philosophy, focuses on witchcraft, its prosecution, and, of course, Salem, Massachusetts. Hers is no history course — not in a conventional sense at least. Yes, students do survey historical records and sermons. They also make a field trip to Salem, where this year the Peabody Essex Museum is housing an exhibit on the witch trials. But in this classroom, the discussion extends far past Halloween and far beyond the late 17th century. How Puritan society dealt with their superstitions may be a thing of the past, but how we remember them is surprisingly relevant. And, depending on who you ask, distressing.
Although these particular trials are thought to be the domain of historical annals, Walsh argues that modern society can learn a lot from these episodes. Her research deals with epistemology, a branch of philosophy that is concerned with knowledge, belief and their relevant theories.
“I'm really curious,” Walsh says, “thinking of how people from the historical past thought about standards of evidence and thought about causation.”
The fascinating thing about witchcraft during the 17th century is that everyone in these puritan communities believed that it was, in fact, A Thing. They believed women would turn to Satanic forces for sexual gratification because they were unable to be satisfied by men in the mortal realm. On top of that, the thinking goes, these women were immoral and adulterous and stupid — in short, they were easy to trick into consorting with the devil (see: Eve, Eden).
Possibly the most frustrating part is that accusations of witchcraft were nearly impossible to disprove. Evidence, Walsh explained, hinged on “the contingency of being.” In this case, it often met women on the margins: those who were poor, outspoken, widowed, destitute, old, “sassy” or “salty.”
“We still live with the legacy of the connections between contingent features of somebody's being and their moral character,” she notes. “We as a society have these ideas about how a person looks, and the way that they are sexualized or racialized in our society has some connection to their moral character. So that's sort of the philosophical framework that I'm really excited to share with the students.”
It should be noted that, in theory, a class on philosophy and witchcraft could cover any society where witches were deemed sinister — England, Scotland, France, Germany — and Walsh doesn’t skimp here. (One of the texts her students pick apart is the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century witch hunters' guide.) But the pull of Salem is so singular in the American theater of bewitching mania, that you have to ask, “Why were so many of these trials concentrated there?”
First you’d have to consider that New England, as a collection of colonies, was full of colonists who were, as Walsh put it deftly, “too religious for England.” Some have argued that violent conflict with Indigenous peoples led to widespread PTSD in the nascent colonizer settlements. Walsh disputes this, because intrusion on Indigenous land happened all over New England (let alone the continent). She also disputes the theory that heavy rainfall led to a proliferation of ergot — a grain-affecting fungus that has an effect upon exposure not totally dissimilar to LSD — because rain was not exclusively dumped on Salem, and nearby towns also harvested rye.
Instead, Walsh believes that Salem was a hotbed for this kind of activity because it had a charismatic leader. Samuel Parris was a puritan minister who promulgated some very puritan views: it’s us versus them, the devil is among us, murder the devil, beware the witch. And it was under his auspices that accusations of witchcraft exploded, as did executions because, again, such accusations are obnoxiously difficult to defend.
It should be noted, too, that the first woman accused and convicted of witchcraft was a woman named Tituba, who happened to be enslaved by Parris himself (she apparently managed to escape Salem). This, Walsh says, opens up an entire discussion about class, and who would be targeted. Apparently, the people of Salem wouldn’t tithe, and Samuel Parris needed fuel for his literal fire during those winters. What better way to get your parishioners to pay up than going full tilt into a crisis that demonstrates just how much you need your spiritual leader?
Walsh’s goals for her students are clear in this class: she wants them to “turn their potential into power,” look for the holes in every bogus argument that comes their way, and “think about the way that biases of communities influence their behaviors.” (And if they decide to major in philosophy, too, then great.)
Why is this relevant for anyone not pursuing high marks in this particular class? The answer is almost frustratingly simple: she just wants us to think.
“In many rituals, we participate often without thinking about where they come from, or thinking about what we are endorsing via our participation in them,” Walsh points out.
Halloween is an obvious example. Walsh challenges us to think about where a lot of the imagery — specifically witch imagery — comes from. The pointy hat and crooked nose? Antisemitic holdovers from depictions of Jewish religious ritual and physical caricature. And green skin relates back to that whole bit about outward appearance being linked to moral stature. Even the ritual of trick-or-treating, Walsh argues, mimics the action of a poor woman going door to door for food (the treat), lest you refuse her and suffer a hex (the trick).
Walsh speculated that rituals may come untethered from their origins, but that the untethering doesn’t have to happen in the first place if we accept our roles in contemporary society as agents of positive change. And she does not take the discussion and interpretation of these events lightly: her class debates the appropriateness of levity in the witch hunting text Malleus Maleficarum, and the ethics of modern-day Salem capitalizing on its troubling past. She also points to the idea of the witch in contemporary politics, like Wellesley alum Hillary Clinton’s likeness being transformed into the evil witch.
“When a political person who's a millionaire today, who has tons of power, says ‘I'm the victim of a witch hunt’ — oh, it inflames me,” says Walsh. “We see the real witch hunts where destitute people, for the most part, were targeted in virtue of being destitute and executed and tortured and imprisoned. That turn of phrase is not neutral, that has baggage and that has a lot of — there's a lot of blood on that phrase. And I think it should be respected.”