Medieval mania

National | Salem's celebrated witches are more in vogue than ever

Issue: "The historic Christian faith," May 11, 1996

Theresa Pendragon's long chalky face and blood-red lips tense when she is asked how she got her interesting name. But she warms up when offered $30 for a 15-minute tarot card reading. Mrs. Pendragon runs Salem, Mass.'s famed Crow Haven Corner, a witch shop founded and still owned by Laurie Cabot, the "Official Witch of Salem." A Cabot disciple, Mrs. Pendragon raises her white brow in therapeutic kindness, her face framed by long tar-black hair and dangling blue-jay earrings.

"I'm sorry about earlier," she coos, saying she was in a hurry with something; her husband, she now reveals, is also a witch, and they draw their name from one of his earlier lives as European royalty.

A black shawl sags on her witch's shoulders as she pulls shut a beaded curtain that separates her trinket-filled back room from the outer store, in which the faint sound of synthesized Celtic music can still be heard and potions, pentagrams, and "Be Witched" bumper stickers can be purchased. Mrs. Pendragon lays tarot cards on a small round table. "Our religion pre-dates Christianity," she boasts, explaining that the tarot cards are also ancient in origin, a predecessor of the current standard deck of 52. Long before Christ, humans worshiped and used the powers of the earth, she notes.

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Now, Salem worships them.

Four years ago, WORLD visited Salem during its tercentenary observance of the infamous 1692 witch trials that led to the deaths of 20 men and women for allegedly practicing witchcraft. Today, boosted by the 300th anniversary's glut of publicity, Salem's modern witches enjoy more empathy than ever; their numbers have grown to exceed 10 percent of the local population of nearly 40,000, and tourism has continued to increase from its initial 15 percent jump back in 1992.

So much has changed. Back when Salem was still largely a town of God-seeking Puritans, witchcraft was viewed as bad for the soul; in today's Salem, witchcraft is viewed as good for the economy. Aided by a magic wand of relativism, contemporary witches in Salem and nationwide have made a covenant with Americans: Like us and we'll admit we're real; oppose us and we'll call you superstitious.

But last week, cries of superstition and ignorance lost their bewitching magic when Maine resident Valerie Van Winkle hissed at a church colleague and threatened to put a hex on her. A Reuters report said Ms. Van Winkle exhibited behavior that sounds similar to that of the young girls 304 years ago whose trances and ravings led to Salem's first witch trials.

Back then, Puritan leaders learned the wild-eyed girls had been meeting secretly with a Jamaican slave woman, Tituba, who admitted to practicing black magic and seeing the devil in the form of hogs and "great dogs," a bit of a departure from claims by modern witches aided by revisionist historians that witches don't commune with the prince of the air.

Like the 17th century Puritans, when Maine church members last week considered Ms. Van Winkle's hissing and hexing, they traced it to her own claims to be a witch; devilish or not, it was proof enough for them to throw her out of their church for violating their "constitution and by-laws." Ms. Van Winkle wasted no time protesting to the Bangor Daily News that her treatment "was like a witch trial."

But her comparison breaks down on every front. First, the group conducting this modern witch trial is none other than the 2,500-member National Spiritualist Association of Churches, a group that shares many New Age beliefs with witchcraft including an antipathy for the Puritan brand of faith in God and belief in a literal devil. Second, Ms. Van Winkle's alleged threat to "hex" another person blows holes in the typically unchallenged insistence by modern witches that their creed includes promising to "do no harm."

In the back room of Mrs. Pendragon's store, 11 colorful tarot cards are spread over a table, revealing both malevolent and benevolent images: crossed swords, water lilies, pink tea cups, and court jesters. Mrs. Pendragon runs her hand along her customer's hand, analyzing its crevices. Her too-close-to-home observations indicate she's either superbly intuitive or, in fact, the witch she claims to be.

The air in the room seems to drip spiritual sweat, as finally the session ends. Mrs. Pendragon poses for a picture, appearing much like a bouquet of artificial flowers-so real she has to be fake. Are witches such as she outright frauds, or pawns in the hands of a master deceiver? Perhaps Mrs. Pendragon and her cohorts are both at once, or maybe they are even deceived themselves. For Christians, past and present, there's comfort in this: God, for one, isn't fooled.


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