Thoughts on the Salem witch trials, with remarks about female hysteria and the witch hysteria in general

Here are some thoughts about the witch hysteria of the past (whether they’re true or not I don’t know):


I think everyone knows about the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.  This caused girls to have fits which alarmed many people eventually causing a witch scare.

I’ve heard all sorts of causes for the girls fits, such as:

  • The prohibition of doing magic in Puritan society. Though there was a prohibition, many Puritans did do various forms of conjuring and magic in their life.  This was viewed as the work of the devil.  This is possible but I have a hard time believing this, by itself, caused it.
  • The effects of the strict Puritan lifestyle. This is possible but if it is then why hasn’t other girls suffered like this?  I also tend to think this is a point of view of the 1800’s as a result of the French Revolution and its effects in which everything is portrayed as oppressing everyone and, as a result, we are all fighting for freedom against this oppression.  In this case, the Puritan lifestyle is viewed as the oppressor and the people are wanting freedom from it.  I have doubts about this point of view.
  • The female being oppressed by society. This, to me, is just part of the Victorian portrayal of the female as a victim and the attempt to make the female an oppressed person. I don’t accept this point of view.
  • Some form of sickness.  I guess this is possible but I doubt it.  Too many people are involved.

The actual cause of these fits is unclear.  Often, it is supposed that Tituba, an American Indian slave, had inspired a “circle” of girls with voodoo and magical stories and techniques.  There is no proof of this.  I get the impression that people just assumed it to be true because she was brought up in a non-Christian world.  It was the most obvious explanation at the time.

But there is a story that was told by Pastor John Hale who said that the fits were apparently caused when a girl was looking at the white of the egg in a glass of water.  The shape of the egg white in the water was supposed to tell the profession of their future husbands.  As she looked at the shape that appeared in the water she saw that it looked or resembled a coffin.  This, it is said, precipitated the girl to have fits (he states these fits lasted to her death).  These fits are what was supposed to of started the witch hysteria of Salem in 1692.  Soon, other young girls she knew were doing fits and other odd behavior.  Some aspects of the fits and behavior that the girls did include:

  • Crawling into holes
  • Getting under chairs and stools
  • Getting into rigid postures
  • Making weird nonsensical statements
  • Weeping
  • Laughing
  • Shaking
  • Shivering
  • Sweating
  • The tongue was curled back on itself in the mouth and could not be moved
  • The tongue was extended over the chin
  • Body pains
  • Feelings of being strangled
  • Speaking through closed lips
  • Becoming deaf
  • Becoming dumb
  • Becoming blind
  • Opening the mouth so wide that their jaw becomes dislocated
  • Getting in weird contortions and shapes
  • Barking and purring
  • Seeing specters or images . . . hallucination
  • Running around the room on their toes, flapping their arms, as if flying
  • Claiming they’ve been hit, roasted, stabbed with knives, having their head nailed to floor, etc.

Many of these are qualities are seen in female hysteria (see below).

Is John Hale’s story true?  I don’t know.  Or did Tituba teach the girls magical techniques?  I don’t know.  I don’t think we will ever know.

But, interestingly, the story told by Pastor John Hale reveals something interesting.  It tends to fit into a scenario that I have seen in regard to females, motherhood, and hysteria and brings up some interesting points.  Keep in mind, though, that this is speculation.

An Old Maid??? . . . The Fear of the “Infertile Female”

Why would the coffin elicite a response of fits and odd behavior in a young girl?  Here are some possible thoughts:

  • It refers to the fear of death and damnation because she was doing the sinful act of magical conjuring . . . I see this as possible
  • That her husband will be an undertaker . . . I have a hard time believing that
  • That her husband will die . . . perhaps, but why would that cause fits?
  • Something unknown . . . possibly some personal meaning of hers that we will never know
  • That she will not have a husband . . . perhaps

I had another alternate scenario of the possible meaning of the coffin.  Could the coffin be a reference to the idea of a fear of being an old maid?  That sounds funny when you hear it and seems rather trivial.  But this fear was prevalent in many females minds.  I’ve heard it many times in England and here in the U.S.  Even when I was a kid girls sometimes threatened each other by saying that that they will “become an old maid”.  I recall asking a girl why that was such a big deal and she said that it means that you won’t have any children.  This statement supports some aspects of my observation over the years.

We must remember that these are young girls on the verge of motherhood and are starting to feel motherly feelings as well as a wonderment for their future.  To be an “old maid” is a frightening thought as it means that you are, in a sense, infertile.  By this is meant not being able to have children for whatever reason.  This doesn’t necessarily mean in a physical sense (such as having some ailment that prevents a female from getting pregnant) but in a more overall sense, particularly as a result of conditions.  In this way, the fear of being an “old maid” is a fear of being infertile, of not having any children, where the female does not ever become a “complete woman”, so to speak . . . a great and terrible fear.  I’ll refer to this as the “infertile female”, referring to the female that has no children and, therefore, never becomes a “complete woman”.  Remember that this was in a time when females respected and saw value in being a mother, an all important point of life.  To not be a “complete woman” was frightening.  This is unlike today where all females worry about is getting a job, doing the latest social ideal, and who treat motherhood like an inconvenience.

Naturally, there became many types of people who represented this “infertile female”.  Some of these include:

  • Old maids . . . females who never married and had children
  • Old ladies, often described as “old hags”
  • Widows
  • Ladies who live alone
  • Deformed people
  • Ugly people, especially females
  • People who are not socially accepted
  • People who are rejected by society

And who did the young females generally first condemn as witches?  From what I understand it is primarily people that fit the qualities described above.  These became the people who were usually first accused as “witches” during the witch scare era.  Of particular importance is the image of the old lady as the source of accusation of being a witch.  To me, this is particularly revealing as the image of the 0ld lady is one of a female way past her childbearing years and often seeming to be withering away to nothing, so to speak.  It is the person who is exactly opposite of what a young female is.  The old lady is the best image of an “infertile female” for young females.  As a result, the old lady brings up fears associated with motherhood.  Because of this, there is often a great fear, apprehension, or disgust of older ladies for many young girls.  This is one reason why there are many bad connotations about older ladies, such as that they are “old hags”.

What all this shows is that the image of the witch originates from a representation of the “infertile female” which reflects the fear of being an “old maid”.  This, then, associates the whole witch phenomena to the theme of motherhood . . .

The Association with Motherhood . . . Hysteria . . . “Womb Sickness”

Naturally, the fear of the “infertile female” – the childless female – is associated with motherhood.  As a result of this, it entails themes and issues that are related with it.  One of these is hysteria.  Hysteria means “womb sickness”.

To me, hysteria is the result of the effects of the emotions, passions, impulses, etc. that the mother instinct creates.  For some girls this can create problems all their life and greatly affect their character.  It often creates problems in young girls because they are prepared for it when it first appears.  This is why hysteria is common in young females in the teens and twenties.

For centuries it has caused some unique phenomena in the female.  Common symptoms include:

  • Epileptic fits
  • Feelings of being choked
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Paralysis
  • Weird sensations
  • Anesthesia
  • Problems with speech, such as being unable to speak
  • Speaking in unusual ways, sometimes as if speaking a different language
  • Also includes many of the symptoms the girls displayed above

These symptoms were somewhat prevalent from before Christ to the 1800’s.  These symptoms are primarily physical in manifestation.  I tend to think that there was a change in hysteria that took place in the late 1800’s and is largely in response to the new conditions created during this time.  Basically, hysteria turned to neuroses . . . the “womb sickness” went from physical manifestations to mental manifestations.  As a result, the “womb sickness” in females primarily appears as mental problems since the 1800’s.

A common psychological manifestation of hysteria, that we see nowadays, is when females see themselves as victims of everything.  They find victimizing in just about anything you can imagine.  They then start to accuse people of victimizing them.  This is the “I’m-a-victim-of-you” mentality which is very prevalent nowadays.  Sound familiar?  Isn’t this the same point of view taken by many females in the witch hysteria?  The females would have a fit and then falsely accuse someone of bewitching them.  Nowadays, they feel themselves a victim and then falsely accuse someone for it.  Its the same.

An important point is how the female hysteric uses the belief of the times to justify their accusations:  in the witch scare it was Christian themes of Satan . . . in modern democratic times it tends to be themes of oppression or sexual abuse.  In actuality, they originate from the same source and have the same cause . . . motherhood.

The females in Salem displayed characteristic and classical signs of hysteria that have been described from Ancient Egypt to the 1800’s.  This suggests, to me, that the first girl to suffer from it was probably a genuine female hysteria reflecting aspects of motherhood.  This may be why the coffin had such an impact on her personally.  The dilemma then manifested itself in her hysterical fits.

But this first female hysteria then spread to close friends who then displayed it.  After a while it then to many other females.  This shows a fact about hysteria, of how it has an infectious quality.  This brings up another aspect of hysteria . . . the absence of a self and its effects . . .

The Absent Self in Female Hysteria

One of the fascinating effects of the mother instinct is that it tends to create an absent self in females.  I often call this the Partial Mind.  Its probably no surprise that this often appears strongest about the time the female starts menstruation and for a little time after words (teens and twenties) which is the common age range of many of the accusers in witch hysteria.

It seems, to me, that the absent self, or Partial Mind, is a manifestation of motherhood.  Basically, the mother instinct creates a natural “motherly love” in females.  Contrary to what is often supposed, motherly love is not an emotion.  Instead, motherly love is an absence of self which creates a need for another self – the child – to make them whole.  In this way, the child is an extension of the female making motherly love a form of female self love.  As a result, several things are created:

  • A feeling of “absence”, of something missing
  • A desire for “something”, another person, to fill the “absence”
  • A desire to incorporate this “something” into ones self

This desire to incorporate the “something” into ones self tends to create an infectious quality in hysteria.  It causes a tendency to incorporate “anything” into ones self, regardless of what it is.  Hence, it causes an infectious quality. Its particularly infectious with other people with the same absent self quality.  Typically, girls with the infectious quality tend to imitate other girls symptoms, sometimes almost exactly.  What this means is that there is a first girl, with genuine hysteria symptoms, whose symptoms are then imitated by other girls who don’t have the genuine symptoms.  The next thing you know there are a bunch of girls with the same symptoms.  This is hysterical contagion.  This is what happened in the Salem witch trials and in other witch hunts.

The “womb sickness”, the absent self, and hysterical contagion, predispose females to hysteria which makes them more prone to this phenomena.  But its not the only form of hysteria . . .

A Society that Demands a Loss of Self . . . Creating a Social Hysteria

Puritan society requires submission and conformity to a great extent.  Basically, this means that it demands a loss of self by a denial of self in favor of Puritan ideals.  As a result, people are very “suggestable”, they “follow along” very easily, and do what they are told.  This makes people prone to hysteria.  Its for this reason that once a scare starts it seems to of spread throughout the society rather rapidly. It had now turned from female hysteria to mass hysteria which brings it to a whole new level.

Just like the females, with their loss of self, this social form also displays a hysterical contagion.  Its different in that it tends to revolve around social themes whereas the female form tends to be related to motherhood themes.  In this way, we could speak of it as social hysterical contagion.  This then brings the witch hysteria to a new level.

The Social and Power Structure Supports the Social Hysteria

Once the social hysteria gets noticed by the social and power system of a society it will often try to influence it generally to get rid of it.  In this way, the social and power system takes the social hysteria and justifies it with law and politics.  It now becomes intellectualized and formal belief starts to appear.  Once the social and power structure takes hold the witch scare tends to get out of control.  This is because the social system is harnessed and used.  Because of this, its when the social/power system starts to make an appearance that it truly becomes tragic.  It causes the witch hysteria to be  thrown into another level.

This becomes particularly bad when there is a belief in a greater conspiracy like the black mass.  Once this happens the social and power structure gets involved with the witch hysteria and tends to make it go out of control.  This means that much of the witch hysteria wasn’t about witches, diabolic possession, etc. but the idea of a conspiracy of a group of witches with a leader who are signing pacts with Satan.  In the Salem witch trials it reached this point when George Burroughs was accused as being the leader of witch meetings and signing the devils book with blood.

The Inability to Understand Female Hysteria

The appearance of female symptoms is hard for people to understand.  Throughout the centuries this is a common event. This is because of things like these:

  • The symptoms appears in weird, unexpected, and unusual ways
  • Its not associated with motherhood . . . in fact, its hard to tell what its associated with
  • It appears out of nowhere

As a result of these there is a tendency to try to explain it.  The physical manifestations of female hysteria has a resemblance to demonic possession or magical bewitchment which is why, in Christian times, they saw it as just that.  In this way, the “womb sickness” would become associated with the witch.

I have never really seen the physical manifestations of female hysteria, as they are somewhat rare nowadays, but it appears to of had great impact on people.  In the Salem witch trials it had a tremendous impact.  At the beginning, the girls were admitted into the court room and they would go into fits from time to time.  Once the girls were no longer in the court room the Salem witch trials slowly began to end.  This shows that the girls fits had a tremendous impact on people in the court and influenced their decisions . . . to the point of 20 executions and over 150 imprisoned!  This point, I think, has never been acknowledged in regard to these trials.  It shows that the Salem witch hunt is a reaction to the physical manifestations of female hysteria which alarmed people to a great extent because it was dramatic and in which they could not understand.  When the girls, and their fits, were removed from the court it dramatically affected the trials.  In this way, one could say that the Salem witch trials were a product of the reaction to the fits of the girls.  It caused it and kept it going.


I always thought that there are stages that often take place in the development of many witch hysteria’s in history.  In other words, its a conglomeration of different things that add up and create it . . . not just one thing.

Keep in mind that I am speaking of a witch hysteria that begins in female hysteria.  This was only a form of witch hysteria.  Some witch hysteria’s were caused by things like misinterpreting facts, ecclesiastical mania, overzealous witch hunters, and such.

The stages of a witch hysteria, originating from female hysteria, seem to be:

  1. The manifestation of female hysteria
  2. A fear and apprehension of the manifestation of female hysteria with an inability to explain it
  3. The accusing of people by the female hysteric
  4. The society starts to try and possibly execute people
  5. A social panic and fear develops as a result
  6. When the idea of a greater conspiracy beings to appear (such as the black mass) then the witch hunt gets the greater social/power structure involved
  7. It turns into a great hysteria

We could say that there are three levels in the progression of witch hysteria:

  1. Personal – female hysteria, womb sickness
  2. Social – hysterical contagion, social hysteria
  3. Legal/Political – the power structure steps in and often escalates the problem

It seems that the further it progresses the worst the hysteria becomes.  This is primarily because it begins to harness more and more of the power structure of the society.

In this way, the different levels all contribute to the hysteria in different ways.  Because of this, the witch hysteria took many forms, levels, severity, and manifestations, depending on how many levels it had gone through.  This is further complicated by the fact that the conditions that surrounds the witch hysteria affect how it appears as well as its severity.

In some cases, 0nce the witch hysteria progresses, particularly after the social/power structure gets involved, the influence of female hysteria decreases, often to the point that it completely disappears.  The witch hysteria then becomes more “abstract” and intellectual, based in legal, theological, and political viewpoints.  This “abstract” image is the origin of how the witch hysteria has been portrayed down to today.  In other words, the effects of the legal/political phase has completely overshadowed the female hysteria.

Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Historical stuff, Male and female, Mass hysteria, mass society, and the mob, Mother instinct, womb sickness, female hysteria, and such, Psychology and psychoanalysis and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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