I love the film, "The VVitch." Like a lot of folks, I was very excited when it came out in 2016 showing us a horror version of a New England folktale. One of the things that made the film so effective was how it played with fear. Fear of the winter, fear of the noises from the woods, fear of the dark... I like to rewatch it for obvious reasons around this time of year. But as I was watching it recently I was struck with an eerie sort of deja-vu: that we’re still living in a colonist’s nightmare.
What do I mean by that? The social, political, and environmental nightmares that we face today are the the result of the fears of the early colonists. As they laid our foundations in those original colonies, they put into it not only their hopes and dreams but their frailty and sinfulness as well. And the hateful rhetoric driving the American political landscape today was inherited from these forefathers the way that sin is passed through generations, resulting in a cultural trauma 400 years old.
In the mid-1600s, there were few things more threatening or fearsome to a New England puritan than poor virtue, indigenous peoples, witches, and the very environment they called the New World. These four threats were enough to keep the weakest of souls in church, saying their prayers, and renouncing sin.
lt might seem peculiar to some people to fear the environment, but in the mid-17th century the relationship that colonists had to the land was harsh, embattled, and deadly. Not only was it a literal matter of survival, but it was also a spiritual quest. They had come to this land to create a “new Jerusalem” where their particular vision of religion could thrive. The devil, then, lived in every frostfall and barren patch of soil. In his attempts to deter them from their divine mission, he would assault their spirit by withering cattle and spreading disease. This meant for the puritans that the land was something to be wrestled, like a fallen angel, and subdued until it blessed them. Crop growth did not reflect a relationship with the land as much as it revealed about your relationships with God and the devil. To the 17th century puritan, the land was the backdrop for a war against heaven and hell.
It’s a nightmarish image, and one that we as a culture haven’t fully woken from. Biblical notions of Adam (and by extent his children) receiving dominion over all land and animals still affect the United States’ attitudes towards climate change. Many of the objections to global warming are faith-based, and stem from a fear that any devilry in the environment means that we have failed and God is abandoning us. This creates cognitive dissonance to our puritan sensibilities because it defies the notion that we have been ordained to rule this land. It is a new way of saying that the Old Deluder is trying to thwart God’s kingdom on earth, the United States of America.
But while the devil could hide in the colonial landscape, other enemies took human form: indigenous americans. In the puritan imagination, natives could move in complete silence, were possessed by an inhuman battle rage, and had other marvelous predatory skills. They were built of the most fantastic fictions, designed to be less than human. Unlikely to out-maneuver them in battle, New Englanders would often kidnap native family members and hold them ransom instead. Indeed, Pocahontas was captured this way in 1613.
The practice of separating families will go down as one of the greatest atrocities of our current administration, but it is a actually a US tradition - while it didn’t become federal policy until the 1800s, it appeared in the puritans’ time in the forms of kidnapping and ransom. Even the infamous wall which threatens the United States’ southern border is only the swollen grandchild of the stockades and fences built by our colonizing ancestors in order to keep natives out and stolen land in. This intergenerational trauma has survived the centuries. It has not returned, but adapted and maintained its protocol this entire time because we still have not woken from this colonist’s nightmare.
The puritans did fear some of their own, though, and that has led to what is perhaps their most enduring legacy: the New England witch trials. Heinous, often fatal affairs of the state whose convictions resulted in the deaths of over 30 people and at least two dogs. New England witches were distinct from their European cousins in several ways. For one, they were not known to fly as often. Their familiars were less exotic, and their powers tended to be more domestic than infernal. While European witches caused storms, rode hyenas, and caused three-year pregnancies, in the colonies they mostly soured ale, wove uncommonly fine cloth, and had a knack for picking the ripest fruits. Indeed, when Massachusetts hung its third witch, her former Minister remarked that she, "had committed the capital offense of having more wit than her neighbors."
Three out of four times the witches were women. These women’s diabolical ability to upset the domestic order of god’s kingdom in New England made them fearsome villains in the puritan mind. Not much has changed. Women who demonstrate skill, ambition, or capability are still feared by men. The testimonies of Dr. Christine Ford and Hillary Clinton were modern, televised versions of the search for a witch’s mark: a rigged spectacle intended to discredit the woman concerned and prove her achievements in this world unnatural.
The witch trials were also spurred forward by a paranoid culture full of prying eyes and pointed fingers. What is particularly fascinating to me is how instead of hawklike gazes peering out of white bonnets, we now have white women making police calls about black men barbecuing. Pretending that our concerns are for the safety of the community, we take extreme measures knowing that the state-sanctioned response will be swift and likely fatal. Our forms of community policing are persistent, insidious, and poisoned.
You see, the puritans believed that salvation was earned, and it was one’s duty to abide by a strict moral code. The events in life were thought to be the result of moral virtues or failings. Because our forefathers believed that their success was spiritual in nature, as a culture we still view achievement as a matter of personal virtue over structural cause. We mistake our own privilege as a mark of personal merit rather than systemic arrangement. Individual exceptionalism is the rule, and structural inequality the myth. This has caused a national crisis around homelessness, health care, and race relations in America. When white voices become the spokespeople for God’s will, then the fates of POC and the marginalized will always be seen as a moral failing.
So, as witches, and especially as white witches in America, we have to ask ourselves: if we are stuck in a colonist’s nightmare, then how do we wake ourselves from it? The answer, it seems, is lucidly. With clear, open minds and full awareness of our surroundings. We know from history that the medicine to heal this wound won’t come from the system that is producing it. So instead of trying to maintain control in the situation, let us check ourselves and look to indigenous populations to hear what prescriptions are needed. Let us pay attention to and learn from the environment before it is too late, rather than try to subdue and deny it. Let us dismantle the systems of privilege that maintain the illusion of white male exceptionalism.
And let us practice fucking witchcraft. Decolonial witchcraft. Intersectional witchcraft. Detoxifying, eco-feminist, queer, punk, mixed-race witchcraft. The sins of this country have been handed down to us in the form of a cultural trauma that is devastating us still. The colonial nightmare is all around us. But as magical people, shadows do not frighten us, and dreams are our place of power. Descendants of colonizers have a spiritual obligation to repair this situation.
Wands out, white witches. It’s time to wake up.