Last summer, G and I took a trip through New England, and spent a day visiting Salem, Massachusetts. It's one of the cheesiest places on earth - touristy in all the worst ways. But, being the pagan that I am, and all my studies regarding spiritual practices and rituals which were looked upon as witchcraft, I couldn't help wanting to just go there. As a teenager I was fascinated by the history and the idea of the place, and understanding the mania and paranoia that led to so many horrible, needless deaths. The Crucible was one of my favorite plays. It was also around this time in my life that my inner beliefs began to stir, and I would collect stones and flower petals and imagine I heard voices in the wind. My fascination with the Goddess developed then, and I realized this was also something that was considered devilish, and witchy. I imagined how it might feel to visit a place where, ages ago, young girls who felt and did and talked like me were burnt for it. I did childishly wonder if I wouldn't feel magic crackling through the air. Visiting Salem has always been a fancy of mine.
I admit I also had a more private ulterior motive. One of the few times I've tried my hand at writing something which would morph into a novel one day, it was a story which takes place in that locale, during those times. It was very long ago, when I was very young, and the story opened itself up to me, and then faded to white. I realized that this was I journey I would need to find my way through, this story and it's double-plot. I saw how it started... but I didn't know enough about a normal person's life in Colonial New England to really see it unfold. Without knowing how that character's life was going to play out, I couldn't work on the other character's life either. I was stuck. It was an interesting lesson, and I remember all those years ago, calmly stuffing a notebook into a drawer, knowing that I'd come back to it someday. I always felt that if I did the research, the rest of the story would reveal itself to me.
I spoke of my fancy to visit Salem to G, and we decided to add it to our itinerary that summer. When there came a day when it was a bit chilly and rainy, G decided it would be a good day to go to Salem, rather than the beach. I agreed. The weather just seemed appropriate.
Salem was just as unimpressive as I had feared. The tourist-trap element is terrible. They have capitalized on the cartoon images of witches and witchcraft for far too long. The history is buried underneath layers of decoration and Halloween imagery, and a few disaffected tour guides will blah-blah-blah to you about how there was never any real witchcraft here at all. They seem so disillusioned in their own town.
G and I toured "The Witch House," which I wanted to see simply for that glimpse of everyday life in the 1600's which I had been missing for my book - housekeeping, bedding, stitchery, cooking, etc. Now, there were never any witches in it at all – this place was where discussions were held regarding what to do with all these devilish deviants in the town, and apparently some accused witches may have been questioned there. The house itself does indeed date from those days - it's the only complete original building left in the city. It has been moved from its original plot of land, but has only been marginally restored over the years. The architecture is typical of the time, and it’s a nice little example of the kind of history I had hoped to find… sort of.
G and I joined a tour group of about twelve pasty-faced suburbanites. We tromped through the place, listening to the tour guide describe the antique furniture.
In the kitchen area, I asked, "What are those herbs hanging to dry over the stove?" I was imagining rosemary, thyme, parsley, nettles, mint, and other easily grown herbs for cooking and medicinal uses. The tour guide, however, had no idea, and admitted it was likely just a decoration, probably bought at some local craft store and hung there for looks.
"These chairs have straw seats," I pointed out in the upstairs bedroom. "Was a lot of caning done in this area?"
Confused looks. A giggle from G. It took me a while to realize that everyone thought I meant the Chinese disciplinary form of caning. (Thwack!) I tried to explain with some humility that caning is the craft of hand-weaving straw seats onto wooden chairs, and it was a highly specialized skill.
"I'm from the Midwest, and they did a lot of caning in the 1800's back home,” I said, fingering the ladder back of the chair, looking at the dusty straw seat. “Chairs from that time period are worth a lot of money."
Everyone in the room turned to look at the dusty straw seat. A few looked probingly at me. "I really don't know where that chair came from," said the tour guide. "I doubt it's very old."
In the downstairs main room, where meetings were held, there was a framed bit of tatting on the wall. "Is this colonial-era tatting?" I asked, immediately wishing I hadn't said a word. I could tell nobody knew what tatting was. "It looks like hand-made lace, in such great condition... “
The tour guide looked thoughtful for a moment, and my heart surged with hope. "That may very well be an antique,” she said, “but I don't know if it's from this time period or not. It was probably put there..."
"For looks," we both said together. G laughed out loud. The rest of the tour group looked irritated. The guide was amused. I was grateful for that.
When a tour exits the Witch House, you go by way of the gift shop (of course.) Here, I actually managed to dig up some research material. I bought some rather dry books about life in colonial times, and picked up a few transcripts of the trials. I considered buying some stupid touristy thing like a coffee mug, just to prove I wasn’t a complete academic nerd, but I just couldn’t blow six bucks on that. I made my nerdy purchases, and G and I went on our way.
As we walked down the street, it started to pour. Torrential, hard, driven downpour unleashed from the heavens, complete with winds that blew our umbrellas inside out. Now I know I asked too many questions, I thought, looking miserably at my soaking wet feet in my wedge sandals. Sorry, I thought, to no one in particular.
It seemed to be a good time to duck indoors, and we were on a block of commerce. Shops lined the street, including a comic book shop right next door to an artsy import shop. He ducked into the former, and I the latter.
I perused the very hippie environment created by the grey-haired, tie-dye wearing shopkeeper. Why old hippies seem to gravitate towards all things Pagan, New Age, or occultish I've never really understood. They're also really into Harley Davidsons. Wasn't the hippie movement supposed to be socio-political? What does that have to do with Paganism? I know there were some people who were just in it for the beads and tie-dye, but what’s with wearing huge pentacles on your chest? I figure it’s the identification with the satantic, anti-christian and therefore anti-establishment fallacy of earth-centered religion that draws these disillusioned souls. Which irks me. I mean, I definitely went through my rebellious youth period, and played with the occasional Ouija board, but I was fifteen. Even nowadays I don’t wear my pentacle for the world to see. My spirituality is personal and I don’t need to shove it in people’s face. To see people just playing dress-up, trying to turn themselves into… what? I should be more tolerant I suppose. But I do get irritated.
Even sadder... what if some of these folks are believers, and are unabashedly cashing in?
Anyway. They were selling earrings for $2 a pair, and had a rack full of Celtic swirls and knots and such. (That's another thing you'll find in all these occult-oriented places: Irish "imports." People just LOVE that Irish druid stereotype.) The earrings were pretty and cheap, and I was bored, so I bought them. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t spend six bucks on a coffee mug to save face, but I had no problem spending two bucks on some silvery swirls, just because I liked them. Phoebe and Paige would approve.) They are just a little something I was drawn to, and bought for myself, a souvenir that reminds me of a nice vacation every time I wear them.
Yesterday, seven months later, I wore them.
At some point in the day, I stopped by my colleague's cubicle. She's a wild, sassy African American gal with a very no-nonsense personality.
She immediately zeroed in on my earrings. "Do you know those are African symbols in your ears?" she said.
Of course I didn't; I thought they were Celtic swirls. My friend immediately rolled up her sleeve and showed me a tattoo on her bicep of the exact same symbol. I was amazed.
She proceeded to show me a website full of these things. They are called Adinkra symbols, and were created by the West African people of Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire, also known as the Gold and Ivory Coasts. There are around 100 of them, and they all have meanings. Some of them indicate that a certain type of person is here; others are symbols of warriors, or warnings against evil. The one in my ears, however, and tattooed on my friend's arm, the one that caught my attention in Salem, Massachusetts, means something deeper:
"Dwan Nin Amen" - Horns of the Ram
Humility and Strength
Wisdom and Learning
I thought about how I had abandoned my novel because I wanted to research it more. I thought about how silly so much of Salem was, and how hard it was to extract anything historically relevant to the story I wanted to write, but I managed to do so anyway. I also thought about G, and how he had bought me a Tarot card reading while we were there, just because he knows I'm into that. I thought about how hard it had been for me to hear two Tarot readers in the space of 6 months practically order me to seek more education in some form or another, predicting some rather drastic life changes, including career focus... and how right they were.
I thought about how much I wasn't learning in this temp job at the bank, and how much I had hoped to learn here, which never materialized. I thought about all I had learned in the beverage industry, how much I had loved it, and how nobody valued me or my passion enough to give me a job that let me use that knowledge.
I looked at my friend. I don't know what her educational background is, but she has a passion - and a talent for - asking the right questions to de-mystify processes, and then write it all down, and distribute it to everyone. She is a teacher, and a guide.
Wisdom and Learning.
I thought about the history of women in this country. Of women in Ireland and Africa. Of women everywhere. I thought about the journeys of our peoples, and the lessons I have learned from the Goddess over the last two years, along the journey of my life.
Humility and strength.
I thanked my friend. She smiled.
I'd better get cracking on that research.