Witches and magic in Salem

Salem Witch

Salem, Massachusetts is in love with witches. It took three hundred years or so for them to come around, but they’ve fallen in a big way. I spent some time in Salem this weekend, and I can attest that, in addition to the various museums and tours, the “witch on a broom” motif is everywhere, including the local newspaper.

While it’s no big surprise for a town to embrace whatever helps its tourism receipts, two things do jump out at me. One is that I grew up in the Bible Belt (North Carolina), so the whole idea of a town embracing witchcraft is amusing and encouraging. It’s hard to imagine a witch museum in Branson or Pigeon Forge. The other surprise in Salem is that there seems to be so much in the way of “serious magic”. I apply this term very loosely to a New Age-y collection of people who call themselves witches or wiccans or pagans or simply working-stiff astrologers and chiromancers. The point is that the witch is not the Other to be mocked, even in a light-hearted way, but rather a pillar of civic life. Breadwinner and boon bestower, she is celebrated. Which is all rather odd when you consider that this is so only because a handful of people wrongly labeled as witches were tortured and murdered here three hundred years ago.

This brings me to the magic stores. I’m fascinated by these stores. Some of them are cynical and tacky, but others are quite serious. They are packed not with hocus-pocus tricks, but with books of spells and crystal balls and scrying glasses. The magic spells in these books offer what you might expect: money, power, true love. But do they work? I didn’t try any, but consider this. If they did work, if they were potent, demonstrable, and consistent, then they wouldn’t belong in a spell book. Because they wouldn’t be magic anymore. Lightning, eclipses, magnetism, these things once belonged to the magicians, but scientists took them away.

This is one of the essential characteristics of magic. It is not simply unreliable; it is by definition unreliable. The whole experience of visiting the magic shop thus reduces to a problem in aesthetics. I find this very liberating. If you like it, you like it, full stop. If you think the crystal ball looks cool, you should buy it. It’s not a vacuum cleaner. There’s nothing to test, nothing to verify. Does it work? Of course it doesn’t work. Or rather, its charms work inasmuch as it charms you. De gustibus non est disputandum. That’s the real trick.

4 thoughts on “Witches and magic in Salem”

  1. “This is one of the essential characteristics of magic. It is not simply unreliable; it is by definition unreliable.”

    This is why we should worry whenever Bill Gates says, “the magic of software”… And I should know.

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