by Paul Marlowe






From Issue 13 (Sept 2011)


FOR AS LONG AS WE’VE SOUGHT to understand and manipulate the world there has been magic. It could be the painting of animals’ images on cave walls to control or placate them. It could be the plotting of the stars’ motions and the tracing of their effects on earthly events. Or just ways to win friends and influence people. And for as long as some have looked for occult power, others have condemned that power, real or imaginary. Two trials show how far attitudes towards magic can change with different times and circumstances.

The African writer Apuleius is best known for his book The Metamorphoses (also called The Golden Ass), the only complete Latin novel to survive from the ancient world. The story is one of shape-shifting and sorcery, in which Lucius’s attempts to learn magic go pear-shaped – or rather donkey-shaped – resulting in him spending most of the story in the form of a beast of burden. It could perhaps be considered an early fantasy novel. But magic is even more central to his other most widely known work, his Apologia, or “defence”.  This wasn’t a work of fiction, but was his actual legal defence from the occasion, in the year 158 CE, when he was tried for witchcraft.

As with many accusations of witchcraft, envy was one of the motivations. Apuleius had married a wealthy widow whose relatives were incensed by his getting in the way of their hunt for a lucrative inheritance. After a long period of animosity between the parties, a trial finally took place before the Proconsul of Africa near what is now Tripoli in modern Libya (where no doubt another sort of trial will soon be under way when the current unpleasantness is over). At his trial, Apuleius was accused of employing witchcraft to seduce the widow using the magical properties of certain fish which he was known to have bought. He was known to have purchased a statue of Hermes, too, a god associated sometimes with magic. These, and other accusations, Apuleius easily explained with non-magical reasons; he was interested in natural history, and was studying the fish; he wanted a statue of a god, one that was a perfectly acceptable member of the official pantheon of gods. As he goes through the charges – mocking his accusers in the process – Apuleius shows that the “crimes” all have innocent explanations, and that the real reason for the trial is the greed that made his wife’s relations falsely accuse him of a capital offence.

At that time a false accusation was itself a crime, and the accusers would have laid themselves open to the risk of being executed for doing so had they not cynically talked a minor into making the charges on their behalf (being too young to be legally responsible, he could get away with it if things went badly). It’s a curious co-incidence that Salem’s witch trial also involved the testimony of children.

Magic was a complicated business in antiquity. It wasn’t always considered evil; some magic, like love philtres and healing potions, or spells to improve harvests, were considered acceptable, and there were, in various places and times, plenty of medicine-men, seers, purifiers, charlatans, and curse-writers, some relying on herbs, some on incantations, some casting horoscopes, and others using demons as intermediaries between humans and the gods (though it’s important to remember that classical pagans considered demons to be minor gods or ghosts, not the wicked devils that later Christians interpreted them to be).

Suffice to say that Apuleius, being witty, intelligent, and sophisticated, made mincemeat of his opponents in a way that would have been impossible for many later, less urbane, victims of witch trials. His victory was made possible not only by his eloquence, though. The empire was an old, cosmopolitan society which accepted a complicated jumble of religious and magical practices as more or less normal so long as they weren’t antisocial. (In fact, Apuleius was widely believed by later pagans and Christians to have been a magus or magician, and his writings certainly indicate a familiarity with magic.) Moreover, it was a period of unusual peace and stability that lent itself to tolerance, being near the end of the reign of the “Five Good Emperors” – an island of calm before the empire’s long turbulent slide into disintegration, with three centuries of civil wars, assassinations, mass barbarian migrations, and the switch to Christianity as the state religion.

Skip ahead now 1500 years. After a long period in the Middle Ages in which witchcraft was regarded more as ignorant superstition than a dangerous reality, magic and demons were again on everyone’s minds. For centuries, Christendom had been undergoing a series of upheavals. The crusades that had begun as an obsession with fighting heretics at home, such as the Cathars in France, and infidels abroad, had ended in total failure with the loss of Jerusalem and, in 1453, the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, who continued to annex more and more of Europe. The plague in the 14th century killed as much as a half of all Europeans, and drastically affected society at all levels. The Renaissance brought a revival of classical learning that challenged the traditional order with secular humanism. And the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century shattered the religious unity of Europe, leading to over a hundred years of religious wars during which the hunting of witches reached a bloody crescendo with thousands of executions, especially in those countries divided along religious lines. All magic was by this time commonly thought to come from dealings with demons, or Satan, and some of the sciences of the day were considered dangerous if not diabolical – attitudes that would trouble such men as Galileo and John Dee. In England, the Puritans felt the Church of England hadn’t reformed enough. Their persecution led to a wave of immigration to the Massachusetts area in the 1600s, where they hoped to establish a community based on their own fundamentalist beliefs. Meanwhile, in England, turmoil continued with the Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution.

Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, was largely isolated from the disturbances in Europe. A virtual theocracy with a history of seeing itself as an embattled and righteous minority, the Puritan colony had followed the course that sadly so often goes with persecution – the persecuted, when they have the power to, persecute others, as when they hanged the Quaker “Boston Martyrs” for their religion. Salem was about as different a place as can be imagined from the pluralistic culture of Apuleius’ 2nd century North Africa. Puritans had cut themselves off from the rest of the world by choice, out of suspicion of different beliefs and in the certainty that they were the only right-minded people in a world full of heresy, paganism, and Satanic influence. They even banned Christmas. Add to this the tension of the French and Indian Wars in the colonies, and a minister – Samuel Parris – who was disliked and who fed rather than reined-in the hysteria, and you have the overwrought conditions in which a community can turn its paranoia inward until it begins to devour itself in a horror worse than any witchcraft.

All it needed was a spark, which came when the minister’s daughter and niece seemed to suffer inexplicable nervous complaints. Inevitably, when no medical explanation came, people turned to the supernatural for answers. The accusations started in the easiest way, directed at a slave and other outsiders. But they didn’t stop there. More people were accused, even upstanding members of the community, and once it was established that neighbours were in league with Satan the door opened for anyone to be under suspicion, denounced at any time. Those who defended the accused were denounced. If one of the girls accusing people confessed to lying, she was accused of witchcraft. It was safe and effortless to go along with what everyone else was doing, and believe what they were saying. In the courts, anything supernatural was taken as fact, from fits and twitches to “spectral evidence”, and confession (which would save the life of the confessor) only confirmed in everyone’s minds that there was a real Satanic conspiracy operating in the town.

The brave – the real outsiders who refused to go along with the mob and who valued truth more than their own lives – were the ones who denied the lies all the way to Gallows Hill, neither “confessing” nor passing the blame along by accusing another victim. One of them was my 9th-great-grandmother, Mary Towne Easty, who was hanged on September 22, 1692.  Her final petition was not a plea to save her own life; she begged the magistrates to reconsider their handling of the trials so that no other innocent victims would go to their deaths as she was about to. At least one of her grandchildren had his fill of Puritan life in Massachusetts, because he left to settle in what would become the Province of New Brunswick in Canada, where he started a new life in the quiet village of Maugerville on the St. John River, a place where no-one ever got hanged for witchcraft, and where the most sinister thing today is a giant statue of a potato that looks like a rather evil version of Mr Peanut.

It was a simple matter for those who had caused so many deaths in Salem to soothe their consciences by accepting their mistake after the fact, when it could do no-one any good, and many blamed the whole affair on the wiles of Satan. Mary Easty’s family was compensated for her murder with a payment of £20 – small comfort when the guilty minister earned more than three times that amount per year. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the events of Salem, and from other witch-hunts, it is that we should ask ourselves how a peaceful, law-abiding town can so swiftly and so terribly change until the community itself becomes a serial killer. And could fear, conformity, and self-preservation drive any of us to do the same? Or can our witch-trials be like Apuleius’, where no-one dies and where the liars are all laughed out of the courtroom?

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Paul Marlowe

Paul Marlowe lives in Canada, and since his latest story in Something Wicked contains some religious themes he would like to clear the air by stating that he is not a practicing member of Canada’s official religion (Hockey – or, as some heretics in warmer climates erroneously refer to it, ‘Ice Hockey’).

He would also like to assure the reading public that his latest book, Knights of the Sea: A Grim Tale of Murder, Politics, and Spoon Addiction is every bit as silly as it sounds. And speaking of sounds, for a taste of the sort of fare you can expect in Knights of the Sea, listen to “The Resident Member”, a radio play of Marlowe’s short story of the same name, produced by Something Wicked, and available for free download, either on the Something Wicked website, or from Marlowe’s own website at

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