How Harry Potter Can Help Teach About the Salem Witch Trials

by | Aug 7, 2019

The Harry Potter books are all about a society of witches and wizards who inhabit a world adjacent to ours, and yet deliberately, wholly separate. That’s why it’s such a shock to Harry Potter when he finds out that he’s a wizard. Raised by Muggles (non-magical people), Harry Potter—who, it turns out, defeated Lord Voldemort, the Dark Lord, when he was just an infant—had grown up believing witchcraft and wizardry was just something you read about in books, not something that certain individuals could harness for their own use. But on his 11th birthday, he was told about his heritage—his birthright—and he is suddenly plunged into that world, becoming the reader’s eyes and ears in this fabulous space that is at once strange and familiar, but always just out of reach for we non-magical folk.

Harry learns that wizards wish to be left alone. They protect their schools, their sporting events, even their shops and bars with protective spells that make Muggles move along, forgetting what they’ve seen. And if Muggles do see something totally beyond the realm of possibility, there are witches and wizards whose job it is to make us forget, with spells and other less innocent procedures.

Escaping detection by Muggles is treated as something as a joke by witches and wizards; as a whole, they tend to view non-magical people as hapless and innocent and amusingly befuddled by all their fancy magic. But at the same time, there are hints in the books about why witches and wizards are so secretive. It has the ring of truth about it, when in Harry Potter in the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid, the groundskeeper at Hogwarts (the school where witches and wizards learn their magic), tells Harry that if Muggles knew about magic, “everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”

And then later, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s homework has him answer the question of why “Witch burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless.” Harry’s answer is amusing; he replies that witches and wizards have plenty of spells to protect themselves from the best efforts of Muggles. But, if we really think about the question, and his answer, there’s a darker side to what was supposed to be a light and amusing moment at the start of a book for kids.

To start with, there’s the believability of Muggles wanting to burn witches and wizards. Using violence to deal with (alleged) witchcraft is something humans have been known to do on more than one occasion. Whether it’s medieval torture or the classic Inquisitorial pyre, humanity has always suspected those accused of having powers beyond the everyday, and treated them with horrifying cruelty. And of course, there’s also the question of what happened to non-magical people who were accused of doing magic. They would not have flame-freezing charms with which to save themselves. They, like their counterparts in the real world, would have died, and probably horribly.

While this may seem like a heavy trip to lay on a series of what are basically children’s books, it isn’t—not really. The central conflict of the Harry Potter books is that of Harry versus his enemy, Lord Voldemort. While Harry defeated Voldemort as a baby, the Dark Lord comes back in the fourth book of the series and begins to wreak havoc anew.

Voldemort’s main goal is to establish magical supremacy. Voldemort hates Muggles with a passion—he believes they are inferior beings, even to the point of wanting to forbid Muggle-born wizards from coming to Hogwarts to learn magic.

This sort of discrimination has all too many real-world analogues that resonate with political movements of the past and (sadly) of the present, too. Arbitrary hatred based on heredity, ability, or culture is nothing new to anyone, and it’s admirable that the Harry Potter books tackle that mentality and identify it as truly villainous. Readers will obviously come away with their own feelings about what the Harry Potter books are really “about,” but it’s intriguing, as a thought experiment for the classroom or the dinner table, to think about the relationship between the Harry Potter books and real witch burning, the sort that once happened in Salem, Massachusetts.

These days, more than ever, we’re hearing the phrase “witch hunt” bandied about, whether it’s from politicians, or through the eye of recent social justice movements. But the phrase “witch hunt” conjures up other, sinister associations.

The Salem Witch Trials are one of those episodes in American history that we cannot stand as a nation (or as citizens) to forget. Between February 1692 and May 1693, over 200 individuals were accused of witchcraft, nineteen of which were found guilty and subsequently executed. Contrary to the homework assignment in Harry Potter, these witches were not burned—rather, these fourteen women and five men were hanged to death. There were other deaths of the Witch Trials as well, including a man who was pressed or crushed to death, and at least five others (that we know of) who passed away while still imprisoned. There are other witch hunts in American history, but the Salem Trials were the deadliest. Because of this, the Salem Witch Trials are often pointed at when we wish to discuss the dangers of mass hysteria, religious extremism, and the need for due process.

While the details of how and why the Witch Trials came to be are beyond the scope of this article, they have been well documented by historians. There are amazing resources out there for anyone who wants to learn more about the Salem Trials, including the fascinating legal side of them, and possible biological causes for the symptoms of those said to be afflicted by witchcraft, including ergotism—a condition caused my eating rotten rye grain. The Trials have also captured the imagination of writers and other artists, and there are many books and plays out there that take inspiration from the Witch Trials, such as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible of course, and novels such as The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes (who wrote Johnny Tremain), and more recently the movie Hocus Pocus.

Pop Culture Classroom - Harry Potter Salem Witch

But whether or not the “witchcraft” experienced by the accusers was rooted in ergotism or even some sort of avian flu, the real heart of the matter was prejudice and ignorance. After fleeing England due to earning the disfavor of the King and of the Anglican Church, the Puritans fled to the New World and pretty much immediately started organizing a society that served their needs.

Unfortunately, the Puritans didn’t practice what they preached in terms of tolerance. Theirs was a morally and culturally restrictive society, and anyone who stepped out of line was considered a suspicious character.

Women and people of color were easy victims of those who wanted to enforce their ideas of what society should be like… and that is likely why the people who were the victims of the most witch-fueled hysteria were women, including women of color. Tituba, the first woman arrested on suspicion of being a witch, was a woman of color. While her exact origins are unknown, it’s believed generally that she was of South America or African ancestry. We do know, however, that she was a slave, and she was accused first, likely due to telling her accusers about witchcraft and voodoo. Not long after Tituba’s arrest, two more women were arrested: Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

Pop Culture Classroom - Harry Potter Salem Witch

Tituba, illustration by John W. Ehninger, 1902

It’s believed that a family feud may have spurred some of these initial accusations, but one of the main reasons an accusation of witchcraft was at all credible was due to Puritan attitudes toward women and people of color. Tituba was a slave—due to her birth and the color of her skin she had limited rights in Puritan society. And women of all colors were believed to be more sinful and more susceptible to temptation and demonic or devilish influence than men.

It’s crucial for all of us to remember that just because people are different, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad or inferior. In the Harry Potter books, many Muggles (and wizards) die or are grievously injured due to wizarding prejudice against Muggles and Muggle-borns. In our world, prejudice takes different forms, but it’s just as serious. While the Salem Witch Trials are obviously hundreds of years in the past, people die even today because of prejudice and ignorance and the negative attitudes people hold towards others who are different. No matter who we are, or when we were born, it’s of vital importance to push back against these attitudes, lest we find ourselves in another situation like the Salem Witch Trials, with people taking advantage of a moral panic to enact their dangerous, and even life-threatening agendas.

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