Witches and Indians and a Feathered Serpent in Salem, Mass.

Julianne Jennings

In 17th century colonial North America, the supernatural was considered part of everyday life; many people believed that Satan was present and active on Earth. This concept emerged in Europe around the fifteenth century and carried over the Atlantic by people sailing to North American shores. Throughout the Middle Ages, peasant farmers were completely committed to the use of supernatural methods to invoke particular charms (fertility for example) for farming and agricultural success. Over time, the idea of white magic transformed into dark magic and became associated with demons and evil spirits. From 1560 to 1670, witchcraft persecutions became common as superstitions became associated with the devil. One hundred thousand people in Europe were killed during that time because they were suspected of being a witch.

Dr. Edgar Martin del Campo, 39, whose maternal grandfather was Wixárrika (“Huichol”) from Nayarit, in west Mexico, believes his father was a mara’akame shaman. He asserts, “Relatives confirm that my grandfather did perform rituals for his family.” The shamanic traditions from his Huichol roots and many childhood visits to Mexico inspired his early interest in Mesoamerican religion, especially Aztec folklore and mythology; and in 2013, he opened Feathered Serpent Imports in Beverly, Massachusetts, bringing his passion full circle. Prior to the opening of his store, Feathered Serpent only sold items on-line. Martin del Campo will tell you, “I originally moved to Salem to participate in the witchcraft culture, but then decided to open a shop in Beverly because of its vibrant artistic community. While Feathered Serpent Imports does have a complement of ritual pieces, the aesthetic and cultural value of its collection better fit the latter over the former.”

Feathered Serpent Imports is dedicated to showcasing Mexico’s diversity of indigenous artistic and religious expressions. Foremost among the store’s collections are ceremonial masks, wooden sculptures, ritual items, and the Days of the Dead. A recent consignment deal has extended the Feathered Serpent’s scope to include Navajo jewelry, the first native nation in the United States to be represented in the store. He adds, “This could prove the catalyst for further cooperation with native artists, especially in New England.”

Over a dozen ethnic groups are currently represented in his shop. He says, “Since beginning the business last year, I have made four purchasing tours in Mexico, each including new regions. Buying directly and fairly from native artists is the first priority.” He continues, “I select pieces for the store through three criteria: cultural relevance, aesthetic quality, and affordable access. I draw from my academic background, field research, and personal experiences to confirm their authenticity.”

Beverly was originally part of Salem Towne and the Naumkeag Territory, which produced a vast majority of witchcraft accusations and trials during the infamous Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693). It’s a city with a long cultural identity related to the supernatural, and in 2012, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts chose Salem as the recipient of their inaugural “Best Shopping District” Award. More recently, Feathered Serpent received a visit from Mayor Michael Cahill, of the Greater Beverly Chamber of Commerce, for a ribbon cutting ceremony and certificate of recognition in becoming part of the community’s retail family (http://featheredserpentimports.com/).

Imagine, some 300 years ago, in Puritan New England, it was believed that the wilderness was the natural habitat of the devil. Since American Indians belonged to the wilderness, their familiarity with the ways of the devil seemed obvious to the settlers. Indian conflicts, disease, and over ridding fears of the devil proved the New English needed to work harder at godliness; and saw it as their duty to rid the wilderness of “savages” and “witches.” The Salem Witches Trials, were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, most of them women. Indians, were allegedly considered witches, and also became part of the hunt! Martin del Campo mentions, “John Indian” as a good an example. Historical writings indicate, Tituba, was the first person to be accused by Betty Parris and Abigail Williams of witchcraft. Her husband, John Indian, and through the trials, had a number of “fits” when present for the examination of accused witches. Some have speculated that this was a way of deflecting further suspicion of himself or his wife. It has been argued, both Tituba and John were Arawak or “mixed-race” Indians from the Caribbean.

Tensions erupted between English colonists settling in “the Eastward” (present-day coast of Maine) and the French-supported Wabanaki Indians in what came to be known as King William’s War, 1688–1697; only thirteen years after the devastating King Philip's War with the Wampanoag and other indigenous tribes in southern and western New England, where over 600 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans had died, including several hundred native captives who were tried and executed; while others were enslaved and sold in Bermuda.

King Phillip’s War essentially ended the relationship with the natives that pilgrims kept for so long before the war. These two events played a major role in religion and the test of faith of the Puritans in order to fight the evil forces of the devil and not to fall prey to the supernatural.

There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact that while Salem’s reputation was formed as a result of its fear of witches and Indians, it is now a place where both gather openly. Attractions such as Salem Witch Village make it clear that modern-day witches are entirely different from the twisted view of witchcraft promulgated centuries ago by the church. They don’t worship the devil, or even acknowledge his existence. Instead they have a reverence for the cycles of nature and celebrate closeness with the earth. Today, there are between 800 and 1600 witches in Salem. A number of the downtown shops are operated by Wiccans or believers of the supernatural, selling herbs, charms, talismans, and other magical notions. If you want to have your palm read or a spell cast to find a new love, there are plenty of people in Salem who can help you out.

For Martin del Campo religion and spirituality informed all of his academic career. He explains, “My bachelor’s degree focused on Buddhism, my master’s on Gnostic Christianity, and my doctorate in Mesoamerica. Across these disciplines I was drawn to their magicians, the agents of the arcane and masters of the esoteric. I have had important magical and visionary experiences through the second half of my life, and I explored the mystical and magical traditions that explained them most intelligibly.” He continues, “I taught undergraduate anthropology for seven years. I left academics in 2013 after a traumatic experience at a state university in New England, to which I vowed to never return. Despite my departure from academics, it was in fact a former anthropology student who inspired the idea for the store. I embraced the concept because it would keep the opportunity to share my appreciation for Mexico’s indigenous cultures – with those genuinely keen to listen.” He adds, “I chose the Feathered Serpent to name the store because he is Mexico’s most renowned deity, the god who created not only human beings but also the civilization through which they could fulfill their cultural and spiritual potential. As a god worshiped among most of the ancient civilizations, he was the best symbol for their common spirit.”

Julianne Jennings is an anthropologist.

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