In fewer than three hundred years, New England moved on from witch trials and executions and became a place where people openly call themselves witches.
But there are many ways to practice modern magic.
This is the second episode of The Real Witches of New Hampshire, a collaboration with New Hampshire Humanities.
Listen to the rest of the series:
- Part 1: The Rarest of Witches examines historical witch trials in New Hampshire.
- Part 3: The Road to Witch City, a look at the commercialization of witchcraft, feminism, and tragedy.
Historically, if someone was accused of witchcraft, they were being accused of making a pact with the Devil. But witchcraft means something very different for modern practitioners like Roxie Zwicker.
“What do I call myself?” she said, laughing. “When people ask me that question, I always have such a hard time with it because I know, as soon as I say what I think I am, immediately someone's going to have their perception of what I’m trying to say.”
Zwicker is an author, teacher, and artist. She runs New England Curiosities, leading haunted history tours in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“I always tell people at first blush that I’m pagan and follow earth-based spirituality. If you want to dig in a little bit deeper, then I will tell you that I do practice witchcraft.”
But she wonders if the word “witch” will lead to judgment.
“Is that going to skew you now? You’re going to be thinking, she’s going out in the woods and worshipping the devil. I’m not. That’s not what I believe. You’ll find me at the ocean, sitting there and meditating. That’s what I do.”
Zwicker grew up in western Massachusetts in the 1970s, and she was the kind of kid who encounters spirits and talks to ghosts. When her mother realized what was happening, she introduced Zwicker to magic.
“She had tarot cards. She had incense. And right away she started showing me ways to look at the incense and to derive pictures and to do fortune telling.”
And a few years later, “she took out the big blue. Buckland’s Book of [Witchcraft].”
Zwicker had encountered the writing of Raymond Buckland, the man who introduced Wicca to the United States and brought New Hampshire to the cutting edge of the occult.
A Magical Transformation
In the decades after the Salem witch trials in the early 1700s, there was a kind of collective silence around the whole affair.
“Nobody wants to talk about the Salem witch trials. This is seen as something that’s incredibly embarrassing,” explained Rachel Christ, director of education at the Salem Witch Museum.
While Massachusetts paid some reparations to the victims of the witch trials, the colony mostly tried to forget about them.
“To whatever degree of guilt people are acknowledging, there is kind of this general consensus that something went wrong. Innocent people had, at least, been accused, if not executed. There was even a legal ban that the governor put out that said you can’t publish about the Salem witch trials. We’re done talking about it. It's over and we're moving on.”
Over the next few hundred years, some things changed dramatically.
First, the United States was established, and with it, a new government and legal system.
“It’s not necessarily a direct connection. You can’t draw a straight line, but I think it would be a massive oversight to say the reminder of the Salem witch trials didn’t impact our judicial system as it was being formed,” said Christ.
Elements of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights speak to the legal problems of the Salem witch trials, including the right to a trial by jury, to confront your accusers, and the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
Second came scientific understanding, especially when it came to natural phenomena and the causes of disease.
And in the meantime, writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe popularized new genres of literature, including horror and science fiction.
Finally, the popularity of stage magicians helped demystify the idea of magic. Audiences paid for the pleasure of being tricked, and sometimes the performer even demonstrated how it was done.
New Hampshire even had its own very famous magician and ventriloquist, Richard Potter.
By the 1930s, the collective idea of witchcraft and magic had transformed significantly.
In 1938, the town of Hampton exonerated the only person convicted of witchcraft in New Hampshire, Eunice Cole. The town celebrated her in a public ceremony attended by 3,000 people, including Bess Houdini.
New Hampshire and Figures of the Occult
“Important occult people have been here… for some reason, their paths have taken them through New Hampshire. They were drawn here for some reason,” said JW Ocker.
Another New Hampshire notable is Raymond Buckland, who brought Wicca to the United States in the 1960s. He was initiated by Gerald Gardner, the “father of Wicca.”
In 1954, Gardner laid out the central tenets of Wicca in Witchcraft Today.
In his book, Gardner contends that Wicca was an ancient system, surviving unbroken in corners of Western Europe since a pre-Christian, Paleothic era. Wicca is a duotheistic religion, centered around a god and goddess, and revolves around the “wheel of the year,” including seasonal festivals like Samhain (which falls on Halloween), Beltane, and Yule.
In 1953 (just a year before Witchcraft Today), Arthur Miller published The Crucible, a play inspired by the Salem witch trials and seen as an allegory for McCarthyism. So, as attention began to return to Salem, a form of modern witchcraft began to come out into the open.
By the 1970s, when Roxie Zwicker was growing up, interest in the occult was growing significantly, with increased access and exposure to ideas and tools of magic.
Wicca helped open the door, partly due to Buckland’s work; while Gardner had required new members to be initiated into a coven by a high priest and priestess, Buckland invited practitioners to initiate themselves and start their own covens.
The first edition of the classic fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons was released in 1974, and it was a golden age for horror in movies and television. The TV show Bewitched even filmed a few episodes in Salem, Massachusetts.
And by 1973, Buckland moved to Weirs Beach, New Hampshire.
Buckland had started collecting occult objects and artifacts from the neopagan movement in the United States. He’d founded a museum on Long Island, but after getting divorced in the early seventies, he moved it to the lakeside tourist town.
“Literally, you’d go there, you’d hit the beach, you’d go to a ferris wheel ride, and then you’d go see the witchcraft museum,” said Ocker.
“When you think 'witch museum,' especially in New England and in Europe, too, you think of museums dedicated to the tragedy of witch trials…. so it’s a much different experience.”
The Buckland Museum remained in New Hampshire from 1973 to 1976, and after moving in and out of storage, the collection is now on display in Cleveland, Ohio.
“We have a lot of stuff going back to Ray's early coven,” the current director Stephen Intermill explained.
“One of my favorite pieces to talk about is a mandrake root that is estimated 200 years old… it’s carved to look like a woman carrying children, so it was probably actually used in magic to help with fertility,” he said. “That is really special.”
“I love to point the DIY nature of a lot of the artifacts that we have, because Wicca is a religion of DIY, do-it-yourself.”
Not much is known about the museum while it was in New Hampshire. But for a moment, Weirs Beach was on the magical map.
Since then, neopagan traditions have branched off, including the “official witch of Salem” Laurie Cabot, who started her own tradition, and the Temple of Witchcraft in Salem, New Hampshire, founded in 1998.
Many Ways To Practice Modern Magic
Plenty of people identify as pagan, but not Wiccan. That includes Erika Shoukimas and Veronica Light, the women who run Spirit Wise Herbs. They make plant-based remedies like salves, tinctures, and Erika’s specialty, moon flower essences. You might describe them as “green witches.”
“I think a big part part of being a witch is living mindfully in everything you do, and everything is with intention,” said Shoukimas. “It is a lot to do with living within the ‘wheel of the year’ and the seasons, and just knowing that you’re a part of something much larger than yourself.”
“Being a witch has everything to do with how you walk in your daily life,” said Light. “There is a witches' creed. For me, the most powerful is really the last line: ‘in harming none, do what you will.’”
But there are many, many ways to practice modern magic.
“Magic, to me, is using energy and your will to bend the will of the world,” said Knate Higgins. He's a modern occultist and program manager at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The practices of magical people like Erika, Veronica and Knate are connected and overlapping in some ways, and quite distinct in others. But as both Light and Higgins described their definitions of magic and witchcraft, they both used the same keyword: will.
This word reveals the influence of Aleister Crowley, one of the most important figures in the history of the occult and a person who had a huge influence on pop culture in the twentieth century.
“I’ve studied lots and lots of different systems of magic, and I found a lot of them come back to Aleister Crowley,” said Higgins.
“He was one of the foremost occultists, probably the foremost occultist of our entire generation, [our] lifetime.”
Crowley was born in England in 1875. In the early 1900s, he founded a religion called Thelema.
“I think he kind of set a modern precedent, not just for not being ashamed of what he wanted and what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, but being good at interacting with the press. Setting himself up with a person,” said Ocker.
“He was also known as the wickedest man in the world, and that’s a title that he absolutely relished and loved,” said Higgins.
Crowley experimented with sex and with drugs, and he incorporated both into his rituals and philosophy.
“His [Diary] of a Drug Fiend, we get mirrored by Hunter S. Thompson and all those guys later on,” said Ocker.
Crowley wasn’t just an occultist. He was also a poet, mountain climber, and world traveler.
In 1916, Crowley visited Hebron, New Hampshire, for four months to ghost write for noted astrologer Evangeline Adams.
“He wanted a magical retirement. It’s what he called it because again, he loved drama. He couldn’t just take a vacation, or go away for a few months,” said Ocker.
Crowley spent his time in Hebron writing and practicing magick (the spelling is Crowley’s). In his diaries, he also states that he captured a frog, ritualistically crucified it, and ate it.
Crowley appears in pop culture in many places but perhaps most especially in rock and roll.
Watch: Ozzy Osbourne performs "Mr.Crowley" in 1981
“The Rolling Stones mention him... Led Zeppelin is obviously the most connected with him,” said Ocker.
Crowley even appears on the album cover of the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“‘Classic rock’ was [about] opening up morals and, social mores… drugs, free sex.. that’s directly from Aleister Crowley,” said Ocker.
“But also, again, that self-fashioning, persona-building that every rock star has to do, that David Bowie was so great at… they took him as a template. How do we be bad guys but still have culture not hate us? That’s exactly what all those guys did.”
Aleister Crowley died in 1947. Despite, or perhaps given, his larger-than-life influence, his legacy is complicated. He made misogynistic and racist comments, and some considered him to be an instrument of Satan.
“I always took everything about Aleister Crowley with a grain of salt. I think there’s lots of ways to look into the history of him and feel icky... kind of weird and gross,” said Higgins.
While Crowley is certainly an influence on many systems of magic, including Wicca, modern practitioners like Roxie Zwicker, Erika Shoukimas, Veronica Light, and Knate Higgins make their practices their own.
Higgins practices "chaos magick," a system that revolves partly around setting an intention around a symbol.
“You set it aflame with either an excitatory practice or inhibitory practice. So, excitatory practice would be playing music around it, dancing with it,” said Higgins. “There’s also inhibitory methods, so meditating with it, doing sensory deprivation and holding it there. So, using both extremes of energies.”
In his Portsmouth apartment, Higgins has an altar space with books of magic, shelves of herbs and animal bones, stones and grass clippings from sites like Stonehenge.
A couple years ago, Higgins began incorporating part of his excitatory practice into his performance as drag queen Bunny Wonderland. He often performs a “banishing ritual” to a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”
“Sometimes we need to just banish or neutralize our feelings,” Higgins said. “I just say, while I perform this for you, take all the bullshit that you have in your life, feed it through me. I'm the conduit. Let my performance be your sanctuary in this moment. We're all here together in this room. If we have a collective energy together, we can banish whatever we want from our lives.”
This kind of performance is an example of a public and communal experience that is difficult to imagine happening regularly before the mid-20th century.
In 2019, Higgins was the Grand Marshal of the 25th annual Portsmouth Halloween Parade. The previous year, the crowd was estimated to be somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000 people.