My fascination with witches was born out of reading “The Crucible” my sophomore year of high school. I read aloud the voice of Elizabeth Proctor to the class, my voice trembling as I pleaded with the judge for my innocence, that I did not harm Abigail Williams through supernatural means, that John Proctor was a faithful husband, that I wasn’t a witch. But the judge didn’t believe me, nor did the town of Salem, swept away by a fear only God could instill. Soon I’d be hanged with 18 others, one of 20 victims of the trials.
Arthur Miller’s recount of the events of Salem is nonetheless historical fiction, an allegory for the Red Scare of the 1950s. Abigail Williams wasn’t a teenage Winona Ryder but a little girl, and John Proctor wasn’t a strapping and brooding Daniel Day-Lewis but an old man. There was no affair between the two that led to Abigail accusing Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft.
But the characters mentioned in the play were all real residents of Salem. Abigail really did accuse the Proctors, as well as dozens of others, of witchcraft. And both Proctors really did die as a result of Abigail’s accusations against them, making them two of the 20 victims of the Salem Witch Trials, not counting the four who died in prison and the hundreds of others who were imprisoned on the charge before the chaos ceased in 1693.
This semester, I revisited my fascination with witches and signed up for History 375: History of Witchcraft. Telling my friends about this particular course registration meant I was soon met with raised eyebrows and scrunched faces. They all had the same question: Are witches even real?
The short answer: Yes, but not in the ways one might expect. While there are practitioners of witchcraft today, they are separate from the ‘witches’ of the trials conducted against people like Elizabeth Proctor.
For the United States, much of our understanding of witchcraft is filtered through the lens of Salem. And yet, the events that occurred in Salem pale in comparison to the European trials of the Early Modern Period — a few centuries earlier than Salem. While estimates vary wildly, the most recent numbers are that between 40,000 to 50,000 people were hanged and burned at the stake, 75 to 80% of whom were women, during the European witch trials. In context, as Shakespeare was writing his sonnets and Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, supposed witches, most of them women, were being burned for crimes they did not commit.
One purpose of History 375 is to dissect the various reasons, events and players behind the atrocities that occurred during the Early Modern Period, and therefore, no one simple explanation exists for why each victim was accused. However, one reoccurring element of witch trials throughout history is apocalyptic thinking, that demonic evil is present and those involved must be defeated. This line of thinking characterized the Red Scare of the 1950s and Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Today, conspiracy movements such as Q Anon rely on this same sensational notion that people, specifically the “elites,” are secretly engaging in child sacrifice and devil worship.
With a basic understanding of the accused witches of Salem and Europe and the hyperbolic ways in which they were portrayed and ridiculed, I wanted to know what the real witches were like, here in Ann Arbor.
I sat in the Sweetwaters on State Street with a raspberry ginger tea to calm my nerves. I knew what Kai Belcher looked like from the picture on their website, Sanctuary on the Shore: A Place for Pagans and God-Thoughts — an older millennial with soft features, a blond undercut and pierced ears.
I’d already paid in advance for a divination session. (Divination is the art of foreseeing possible outcomes and knowledge through supernatural forces; in my case, through a Tarot card reading). I’ve had a few Tarot readings in my life, once at a birthday party when I was 10 and another in the East Quad Residence Hall, but this would be the most professional and daunting one yet.
Belcher is a spiritual worker and priest who worships a Native Irish deity named An Mórrígan. Deciphering between titles like Belcher’s is difficult, as one of the main challenges in the modern Pagan community is establishing a common vocabulary among all the different traditions. It’s understood that not all Pagans are witches, and that not all witches are Pagan, but as you delve more into specific labels and traditions, the meanings of Pagan, witch, wicca and other associated religions can vary greatly depending on who you ask.
In Belcher’s case, they define themselves primarily as a Pagan, a witch and a magician. But which label is used is heavily dependent on the space they’re in. If they’re in a less familiar or less tolerant space, they’ll avoid uttering the ‘w’ word.
Another challenge within the community is verifying one’s sources and information regarding their practices and beliefs. The term Belcher used frequently was ‘UPG:’ Unverified personal gnosis, referring to information that is gained through means that cannot be verified by hard sources, such as established literature or traditional understanding. With interweaving of traditions over centuries, word-of-mouth practice and Elder teachings to less experienced practitioners, it can be difficult to cite the historical origins of Pagan beliefs with exact sources.
Personally, I don’t think UPG serves as contention against the Pagan belief system. Many religions rely on illusive information to construct their ideological foundation, just as I can’t go up to a Catholic priest and ask how they consecrate bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood. There is no factual, undeniable evidence for the transfiguration. We must rely on faith.
Belcher was originally Catholic and had aspirations for priesthood, but at the same time, they wanted a religion that was more jovial and connected to the earth. They first learned about magic through the Irish Pagan School, which teaches the Native Irish tradition of magic.
A key element of the Irish tradition is respecting the fairy folk, or aos sí, who are supernatural beings believed to live beneath the ground or in an invisible world. The importance of fairies in the Irish tradition sparked Belcher’s curiosity in fairy witchcraft, a more modern approach to the study of fairies. From there, Belcher also became involved in star worship, which involves noting the star cycles and how they align with other astronomical cycles.
Hence, the ideological path of every witch or Pagan is different, even between those who practice the same traditions and worship the same gods or goddesses. Belcher used the metaphor of looking at color; two people may agree a color is green, but how they see that green can be different.
While each witch has a unique perspective and line of work, Belcher waved off the rumors and misconceptions that witches eat children, sacrifice babies and dance with the devil at night, joking that they are not a modern-day ‘Sanderson’ sister. Much of Belcher’s practice is dedicated to research, various forms of divination and creating community spaces. For example, Belcher served as the public outreach coordinator for the Ann Arbor 2022 Pagan Pride Day.
To conclude our meeting, Belcher pulled out their Tarot card deck, selected six cards and arranged them on the table, one closest to them, two in the center with the bottom card hidden and three cards at the top.
The first card, the centermost one, represents the subject. Belcher pulled the king of rubies, which usually refers to material wealth and finances. The king of rubies also suggests a tendency to be self-sacrificing and sometimes focused on work.
The card below the first card represents what is holding you back. Belcher made a little noise when they saw the card, the ten of swords. It’s considered one of the worst cards, symbolizing utter, repeated defeat. But they noted that whatever it is, the source of this defeat I’m feeling is nearing its end.
The three top cards are what will get you to the truth, which is represented by the bottom centermost card. Belcher flipped it around and placed it on top: the page of bottles. This means my truth is that I’m still a novice trying to find my way, but that I am on the right path and should look for unexpected allies to show me the way forward.
I see Belcher as one of those allies, reaffirming for me my goals and sense of self. Even though I am not a practitioner of witchcraft, I believe in the genuity of the reading.
For both the accused witches of the past and real witches of today, experiences of stereotyping and judgement are pervasive, and all motivated by the same forces: power and fear.
The idea of the witch is a powerful one, and we must understand who modern-day witches like Belcher really are and what they stand for.
Statement Columnist Elizabeth Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.