Is the TV Show Salem Based on Real Witchcraft Practices?
Witchcraft in TV's Hit Show Salem: Made up or True?
Just last year a thunderstorm of fans were drawn in as they watched the new hit TV show from network WGN titled simply "Salem". The show boasted to let viewers in on the secret truths behind the historical Salem witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century. With a cast of attractive celebrities, a beautiful setting, and an intriguing plot, many people fell in love with the new show. But it left the masses wondering, who were the real witches of Salem? Surely the characters on the show are exaggerated and complete fantasy.
But what about the actual witchcraft practices woven throughout the show: Mary Sibley's toad familiar, the secret meetings of the witches, talking to the dead...were these practices based on real witchcraft today or of the past? Or were they completely made up for television entertainment? The answers might surprise you...
Be Warned: If you haven't watched the show, there may be some spoilers below...
The Show As A Whole: Fact or Fiction?
Before I go into detail on each individual witchcraft practice, I would like to break down the show Salem as a whole. Is it mostly fiction or mostly fact? There are some historical facts used throughout the show, including dates, names, places, and particular events; however, overall the show Salem does not follow true to history.
Here are some of the show's characters based off of real historical people that were a part of the Salem Witchcraft Trials:
- Giles Corey - a man pressed to death for refusal to go to trial for accusations of witchcraft. The character on the show and the event shown was very close to historical truth.
- Cotton Mather - a puritan and writer present during the Salem Witchcraft Trials, though he claimed he never attended an actual trial. The character Cotton on the Salem show was very far from the actual historical Cotton Mather.
- Mercy Lewis - one of the "afflicted" or "bewitched" girls during the Salem Witchcraft trials. She was a real person but the show Salem makes her into a character that did not exist in reality.
- Mary Sibley - was historically one of the "afflicted" girls' mothers in opposition to the show in which Mary Sibley runs the town of Salem and is the head witch (very far from historical fact as you can see).
- Tituba - historically was a servant within the Samuel Paris household who fed a "witchcake" to one of the afflicted Salem girls. She was one of the first to be accused of witchcraft in Salem, historically speaking. This is much different from what the TV show leads us to believe.
These are just a few of the historical names used in the show Salem. The show is mostly exaggerated for Hollywood appeal and to draw in the masses, so history has been used in certain aspects but I would say that the show is mostly fiction in regard to the actual events of Salem in the seventeenth century trials. There are many more characters and events from the show that I could compare and contrast with history; however, let's get down to the nitty gritty witchcraft and how it compares to true witchcraft practices of the past and present.
Mary Sibley's Toad "Familiar"
We will start by examining the "familiars" of the show. In Salem, Mary Sibley (the head witch) has a pet toad that she calls her "familiar". This pet toad is kept hidden within her handicapped and mute husband George Sibley's stomach. Every once in a while we will see Mary Sibley remove it from her husband's mouth, and then she will "feed" it from what seems to be a sore or extra nipple on her thigh. Surely this bizarre scene was completely falsified to add to Mary's creepiness...right?
Actually, if we look at the folklore and history of witchcraft dating back centuries to before the time of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, we will see that many accused witches were said to have "familiars". Familiars were "devils" or spirits that would take on the form of an animal and do the witches' bidding. These animals were not pets, they were spirits attached to the witch after the witch had made a pact with them. They would do the witch's bidding as long as the witch would feed it in return. During the Inquisition, witches were searched for an extra "teet" from which they were said to feed these familiars.
In addition to Mary Sibley's character having her toad familiar on the show Salem, we also get to see her friend Tituba's even more terrifying familiar...a large tarantula.
The Devil in the Woods
Of course the witches in Salem have to have some sort of God to serve, so the show brings in the element of the Devil in the very first episode. They don't call him "Satan" or the "Devil" or even give him a name in the first episode...but they allude to it simply by the creature that comes to Mary in the woods in her time of need. This creature is frightening looking with what seems to be blood-soaked or black skin, a horned-head, and hooved feet. So then we can only assume this is the Devil that these women are in cahoots with, right?
In the Malleus Maleficarum, a book written in Germany in the 1400s, the author Heinrich Kramer gives great detail into the "god" of the witches...better known as a Devil or Satan himself. Because of this book, the "witch craze" in Europe began, and thousands of men and women were accused of selling their souls and bodies to the devil for earthly riches and power. Often witches were depicted in paintings and epitaphs as being in groups in the woods surrounding a large horned or antlered creature that was said to be Satan. Ironically, the Bible never mentions Satan as looking this way - an animal with horns and hooves, etc. So where did this idea originate?
Looking back to ancient times, we see that many of the old pagan gods were "wild" gods of the woods...one in particular was known as the Horned God in ancient Celtic times. The Church used this image to suppress any of the ancient beliefs left-over by frightening people out of them. And this image of Satan has carried through to today's mainstream society as evidenced by the "Devil in the Woods" on the show Salem.
So to answer the question, yes the devil from the show Salem is based on the pages of history...is he real? Only you can answer that question for yourself.
The Sabbat and the Circle
In almost every episode of Salem, the witches either go to or at the very least discuss having their "circle" or "sabbat".
What is a circle or sabbat like the ones in Salem and does it actually have anything to do with what we know of witchcraft according to folklore?
When the witches on the show Salem speak of their circles and sabbats, they are referring to meetings in which they perform rituals of magic and worship. A circle would refer basically to a circle of witches, usually they are surrounding a fire or altar of some sort. And a "sabbat" is another term for "sabbath" or a religious day.
The circle was broken in the episode of Salem when John Alden and Isaac see the witches emerging from the black tar and forming a circle. Some of these witches had traveled by means of dreamwalking (discussed later in this article) while others there physically attended.
Are circles and sabbats actual parts of witchcraft? According to modern day witches, circles are indeed a part of their practice. The circle is formed by people but is also a spiritual concept of protection and power during certain rituals. The sabbat is a high pagan holy day to many modern day witches. Within the pages of history and folklore, both of these terms date back hundreds of years as far as "witches" are concerned. In the pictures above, you can see a couple of old paintings depicting witches in their circles with the "devil". This is the type of illustration the show Salem is trying to paint to its viewers.
The Hand of Glory
In one episode of Salem, we are shown two of the characters pulling a dead man's hand from a tree trunk. The hand has symbols carved into it and is a "tool" used by the witches in their dark practices.
But was a dead man's hand like that in the show Salem really used in practices of the craft in centuries past?
Indeed it was! I bet you weren't thinking the answer to that question was yes! This dead man's hand was once called the Hand of Glory and was used as a candle-holder or simply a charm of sorts. The Hand of Glory is spoken of in numerous texts and often it is said that it is made from the left hand of a hanged criminal. The hand is used as a beacon or used to ward things away. There is a Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum (as pictured to the right) that has a book with it detailing how to pickle and preserve the hand for magical use.
Dreamwalking and "Flying"
Throughout the entire first season of Salem, Mary Sibley and her fellow witches are shown going into a trance-like state or even sleeping and projecting themselves into other places within the town. They refer to this practice as "dreamwalking" in the show.
Is dreamwalking an actual practice or is it just made up for the show Salem?
Dreamwalking is an actual practice used historically not just in witchcraft but by Shamans and religions dating back centuries. It is a practice and belief that a person's consciousness or soul can leave its body and go to other places. The other names for this are astral travel, astral projection, and out-of-body experience. Some shamans refer to it as "journeying".
In the show, Tituba anoints Mary Sibley with oil on her face and lips and also performs an unspeakable act in order to "send" Mary Sibley to a circle/sabbat. This could be considered dreamwalking but in the European Witchcraft trials witches were said to have the ability to "fly on broomsticks" to their sabbats. In reality, witches were said not to be able to physically fly but to fly spiritually to meetings. They would use ointments known as flying ointments with special herbs that were said to "send" them from their bodies to other places. This is where the idea of flying witches is believed to have originated.
So did witches take part in "dreamwalking" as the show indicates? They very well could have...or at least they might have believed they could. Some modern day witches practice dreamwalking and use flying ointments to this day.
Trivia: Test Your Salem Show Knowledgeview quiz statistics
Is It All Just a Load of Hocus Pocus?
You might be thinking, what a load of crap. I don't believe in real witches or that these witches could actually do any of these things mentioned in the show or otherwise. Whether you believe in witchcraft as history and folklore suggests is totally up to you. At least this article might have served as entertainment, right?
Witchcraft is something that has baffled and scared the masses for centuries. Some people say witches are real and that they are simply misunderstood...painted into a bad picture by misconstruction of the past. Could it be that the show Salem does not help this matter much? Ultimately the decision of belief or disbelief is up to the individual.
It could be true that witches existed in the past and used some of these practices to their advantage, or it could all be a load of hocus pocus...
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© 2015 Nicole Canfield