“I laugh to keep from crying.”
–saying of the Old Country
If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent a non-zero amount of time wondering why the Witches of old Salem, back in the Burning Times, which is to say, the Witch Trials, didn’t smite more of those who killed them.
Having spent a significant portion of my life studying, not simply Magick (which, as many modern practitioners will tell you, can be a perfectly healthy and natural thing, practiced daily by our ancestors and practiced frequently by many students of that craft)
—but rather, because I’m horrible, I’ve been boning up on the sort of occult secrets normally forbidden by anyone who either is, or once was, relatively sane—
(you need not be familiar with any magickal theory to see why there’s clearly something dreadfully wrong with yours truly. Think of it like this: How many people do you know who’ve studied biology? Some, right? Of those, how many thought that the best thing to do with their degrees, both morally and practically, would be trying to reproduce the killer plague from some apocalyptic scifi or horror novel? Not a lot, right? Fortunately.)
—ergo, having steeped myself in the study of things which humans were never meant to know and which no mortal mind ought attempt to comprehend, I’m reasonably equipped to give you some useful thoughts on what might otherwise be a mysterious historical puzzle, like the vanishing crew of the Marie Celeste, or the way nobody seems to care that New Coke tasted way better.
And, I’ll tell it to you straight. Unlike most of my colleagues, I see no reason to hide the fruits of my esoteric and hideous understanding behind cryptic glyphs or codes, since, haha, I have an almost-total faith that people will continue to believe the convenient idea that I am writing fiction here.
Though honestly, this bit is pretty obvious. I’m not going to be giving away any secrets of the Dark Arts; you could arrive at these conclusions through a real quick skim of some Crowley, a little understanding of history, and some basic inductive reasoning.
Or you could just stare at your phone and scroll through social media a couple more times. Go on. I’m pretty sure there’s some more pictures of household pets doing hilarious things. I’ll wait.
Broadly speaking, I think there’s three major points you should consider, in terms of the vengeance of the Witches of Salem. In my not-particularly-humble opinion, here’s why they didn’t simply blast hexes out upon their hunters:
- First: Vulgar magic is quite difficult.
And yes, I’m using a term from a tabletop roleplaying game. It’s partly because I think it’s a good term, and partly for my own protection; the more you think I’m talking about stuff that isn’t real, the less I am subject to the Psychic Censor. That latter might also sound like something I made up, but it isn’t. You can find reasonable references to it, if you look, although without having some background into this particular sorcerous problem, it can get confusing; much of what comes up on the Internet is how to use Chaos Magick to avoid the Psychic Censor, and that gets complicated. But I (very slightly) digress.
“Vulgar” magic would be the manifestation of our sorcerous will in ways which are not only visible to all those around us, but which also clearly contradict the usual physical laws under which we live. Magick comes from will, will comes from some degree of self-belief. (When was the last time you succeeded in psyching yourself up for top performance by staring into a mirror and saying, “THIS IS HOPELESS AND IMPOSSIBLE WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HERE?”
Imposter syndrome makes it hard to write, hard to practice any trade or craft. Now what if everyone else around you thought what you were going to do was impossible? Only a real visionary, or someone seriously out of touch with reality, would find it easy to proceed. And seeing yourself is a “real visionary” is pretty hard to do when fighting the aforementioned Imposter Syndrome…
That’s part of the psychic censor; it helps protect us from trying to fly straight into direct conflict with consensus reality, which is an important safety feature.
Also, think about some of the ramifications of what would happen if magic simply worked by manifesting all of your thoughts as physical realities. Even if you do want to bend the world to your will, you probably don’t want your every momentary whim to come true. Ever had some driver cut you off on a busy street and had the sudden thought, “Hey, YOU, go to HELL” flash through your head? If Magick just zapped your desires into tangible actions, you’d actually send them to Hell, and that’s no good. You’d probably feel remorse; they’d probably be missed by their friends and family, and besides, I’m pretty sure that condemning other drivers to eternal damnation is a moving violation.
Also, if sorcery could get around ordinary laws of nature, and do so easily, we’d use it all the time. We’re humans; we use any resources we can find. Oil, coal, sweat, innocence; the oddly naive belief that the only reason we’re unhappy is because somebody picked the wrong system or government or economics; the available retail spaces at your local mall; the highly-prized navigational paths which route us around those sea monsters that nobody wants to talk about… if we can squeeze utility out of a thing, we will. If magic were as simple as (for example) just saying a couple of “magic words”, and having flames shoot out of the sky, everybody would eventually figure out how to do that, and those who survived the first six months would all be living underground, and only venturing out of our holes when we were wearing protective asbestos suits. If there were any of us left.
Plus, sorcery itself would probably object. Natural law just happens; that’s what makes it natural. Magic defies natural law, and, as I have mentioned before, that has a cost; not for reasons of narrative symmetry, but for the purposes of having a workable Universe. Physics says that matter can neither be created nor destroyed; Magic says, “Here, I made you this matter, have some!” That’s a lot of work. ‘Physics’ is a set of existing principles which describe the action of things in the Universe; that’s not a thing which thinks. Magic is, as Uncle Aleister said, the art of causing change in accordance with will. If some force is going to take the stuff in your head, interpret it, and spit it out into That Which Is, that takes something close enough to ‘thought’ for my standards. And if something can think, it can get really tired of doing your work for you. You can do amazing things with Magic; but it doesn’t take a student of the Unseen to know that if you mess with it too hard and too often, things go very bad, very fast. That’s one of the many reasons why, in this world, those who most loudly proclaim their abilities are most often proven to be frauds; those with serious power don’t necessarily intend to share.
- Which leads us to my second point:
Most of the people who were ‘caught’ weren’t Witches, and most of the ones who were Witches weren’t caught.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disrespecting those who had powers but were taken and executed. That doesn’t mean they were weak. It often meant that they didn’t think they’d done anything wrong.
Forgive me for injecting what you might see as a note of grim realism into what you (presumably, if wrongfully) believe is a work of fiction, but this was drummed into my head as a child:
“Jeffrey, you must never forget that the reason some of us didn’t make it out of Transylvania is because they thought they were good citizens, like everyone else; they hadn’t done anything wrong, and so they thought they were safe.”
(Doesn’t “Transylvania” make that whole thing sound a little more Halloweenish and comfortingly little less real? Please feel free to think of it as “a kooky fictional place full of creatures from ‘The Monster Mash'”, if that helps. It’s certainly more pleasant than thinking of it as ‘a part of Hungary, which became Romania when it was was annexed by the Third Reich in the 1940s”.)
Some of the Witches they caught never expected that anyone would come for them; why would they? They weren’t using their skills to hurt anyone. The town’s farmers didn’t sew fields of hemlock and feed them to the people; the blacksmith didn’t spend his time making human-sized beartraps and place them at random points throughout the town; the physicians didn’t go around trying to solve medical problems through removing your blood (oh, wait a minute. Yes, that’s exactly what the physicians did. But at least they thought they were helping.) And anyone who might have let on about having any abilities or powers, magical or otherwise, attributed them to some other kind of skill, or to prayer, or to old family recipes.
Anyone who really used the Dark Arts, who really, really sought to use the supernatural to influence those around them for the gain of the practitioner and the misfortune of others?
They were the most protected. Because they were always hiding. Plus, they had the natural advantage of the intentionally malicious:
Those who would harm none sometimes hold the naive, but understandable belief that innocence will protect them. Those who are fine with harming others have already figured out that nobody’s entirely safe.
(Which is the reason, by the way, that I do not believe that the any of the malicious spellcrafters of Salem took part in prosecution or promulgation of the Witch Hunts. There’s safety in leading a mob until the mob turns on you. And given enough time, it will turn. Malefactors like positions of safety, and there’s no real safety in a time of armed hysteria. Mob rule does hurt wrongdoers, in the same way that a blazing forest will likely take out that nest of cobras…and the non-poisonous snakes, and the birds, and every animal and tree in its path, and you, if you’re close enough.
(Television serial killers sometimes taunt us by leading us right past the door to the basement where they keep the bodies. Real serial killers are much less likely to do this; they don’t have plot armor.)
- And the third reason is really less a reason than a question, and that question is:
who says they didn’t?
Because we’ve been through the Salem Witch Trials. We still learn about them in schools. We still have movies about them, and Rob Zombie videos.
So who cast this damned spell of forgetting on us?
You might think I’m kidding. I’m not. I mentioned earlier that the psychic censor tends to prevent really blatant manifestations of magic, like lightning bolts and fireballs. That’s true. But odd effects which come from seemingly-believable causes? That’s pretty much the basis of modern magickal theory.
Striking down all the witch-burners before the witches could be burned? Not, unfortunately, the kind of things that magic’s known to do.
But mass forgetting?
Mass rationalization of that long-ago-disproven idea that horrifying things await us in every darkened corner and at the back of every metaphorical cave?
That’s got magic’s pawprints all over it, friend.
You’ve got a curse. I’ve got a curse. EVERYBODY’S got a curse.
This is GREAT NEWS!
…you probably think I’m being sarcastic. I’m not. Think of what this means: the world isn’t insane. YOU’RE not insane. (Not unpleasantly so, at any rate.) And it’s not your fault, and it’s not the fault of people you don’t like, either, or (and this would be more disturbing) the fault of those you do like. It’s the fault of a bunch of individuals who went around burning Witches, and got us all smacked down hard in the process.
That doesn’t mean that your actions aren’t your responsibility. You’re cursed, not possessed. It just means we’re not doomed.
Now, we just need to break the curse.
All you have to do is:
- Build a very large bonfire.
- Find a bunch of people you REALLY don’t like.
- Take the anger and pain you feel, and put it where it belongs.
- Namely, roast it in the damn fire.
- Now, go have a reasonable conversation with the people you don’t like.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some kind of goody-two-shoes morality tale. I am a Villain; I don’t go in for that stuff.
OBVIOUSLY the people you do not like are all EVIL MONSTERS. We’re not FORGIVING them. We are just making the curse REALLY CONFUSED. This isn’t about changing the world; it’s just a sort of metaphysical life-hack.
After the curse is lifted, and we start being able to treat each other like a bunch of fallible human beings who sometimes have opposing views, rather than a packet of horrifying vileness temporarily inhabiting human skins…
THEN you can go right back to hating everybody, but this time, do it for YOU. Don’t let some CURSE push you around; it’s up to YOU to destroy any real hope we might have of reconciling our differences.
We are enacting the horrors of the Witch-Hunt because we have forgotten where that bloody and destructive path goes. Stop that.
Go down that bloody and destructive path because you totally remember where it goes, and how much suffering and damage it did last time, and you feel super competitive, and you want to see if we can BEAT that score.
You can do it.
I have faith in you.
The inedible Villainpunk Jeff Mach frequently seeks new, interesting ways to rewrite this part, but then tends to just hit copy-paste, because biographies are hard.
Jeff is a writer and creator who has long aspired to be the sort of person who neither needs to promote his other work at the bottom of his short stories, nor need speak of himself in the third person. Alas, this ambition is clearly tragic.