Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Spell of Salem

Artayous and I recently spent time in Salem, Massachusetts for the Official Salem Witches Ball.  We were returning visitors to the Ball as well as the city itself.  There is something very particular about Salem when it comes to the modern magical community.  This place, which was besieged by the hysteria, backstabbing and fear that was the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the setting one of the darkest points in our history has managed to revamp itself as a haven for Witches and magical practitioners of every stripe.  Though this may sound odd, the odd has a perfect home in Salem.  Every trip there seems to show me more and more of its strangeness.

For many Witches, the trip to Salem is like a pilgrimage to Mecca -- a spiritual journey where the devotion to going is just as important as what takes place once the destination is reached.  Those who live nearby like to mention how often they visit, how close they live and who of its many celebrity inhabitants and visitors they have personally met.  Its like a Pagan Disney World.  Though I always have felt that Salem has a particular charm all its own, there are a few things that I seem to learn by being immersed in the magic that is the Witch City.  For those of you who have never been there, are planning to go or have gone again and again, here are my insights into the most famous magical city in America.

  • For starters: Not everyone is Pagan or a practitioner, even in what would be considered shops catering to that clientele.  The fella at Witch City Ink (a stop noted in the magazine NewWitch as a must for Pagans wanted to get a permanent souvenir) is a real dickhead, snapping at our children for walking near the scrawny flowers he supposedly tends.  Artayous gave him a few words he probably hasn't heard since covering his arms in tattoo sleeves.  Warning one -- some people are jerks, just like anywhere else.  You're not stepping into a hippie commune but a business district.  Be wary and be ready to stick up for yourself.
  • Magical shop workers are not possessed of all knowledge.  I was actually rather saddened by how little some of them knew.  Every shop can direct you to Mandrake in their herb section but no one is actually selling Mandrake.  It's always Mayapple, a totally different plant, but no employees seem to know the difference.  Take their advice and information with a grain of salt.  And don't be shy to correct them or add your own knowledge to the conversation.  After all, sharing is how each of us learned what we know.  You're not being an upstart but a part of the greater community.  This is how celebrities begin.
  • And speaking of celebrities -- choose your adoration wisely.  Be sure that when you gush over someone famous there, it is because they are actually producing something instead of just doing interviews or other bits of media.  As has been my experience, those lower on the totem pole are more full of themselves.  They can be very pompous and disagreeable.  It is my belief that as they go along (like a spoiled teen slowly reaching the responsibility and humility of adulthood) they will give up the attitude and take their proper place as inspirations to those under them.  Don't take it personally if you get a snub from a person like this.  Rushing around looking important is their goal right now.  It's not you.
  • Okay, now for the good news.  Celebrities who do produce and make contributions to the community are amazing.  Some, like Judika Illes and the Dragon Ritual Drummers, have said that though its technically a working trip, it is a vacation to them.  You'll know the higher celebrities: these folks are the ones walking slow, no matter where they're headed, and chatting amicably, no matter how precious their time.  They love meeting new people and adding advice when possible.  And, like everyone, compliments and (specific) words of adoration always bring a smile.  
  • There is something strange going on in the city.  Artayous hypothesized that, due to the large convening of magical people and all their ritual performances while there, the city itself has taken on a charge.  Fall leaves whip into dust devils in open streets, clearly not influenced by the typical eddies between buildings.  People blurt out with enigmatic statements and movements.  Strange objects turn up on the pavement, like a well-worn playing card, for no reason.  When you go, prepare for the "strange and unusual".  It will find you sooner or later.
  • It's almost impossible to have a bad time.  This I've noticed no matter how unhappy the circumstances of searching for a particular store, hunting a parking space, walking all day, or dealing with heavy bags or an increasingly light wallet.  When you get home, you might end up reviewing anything that went wrong with some frustration or disappointment, but you are almost certain not to notice while you are still there.  
  • There are psychics (or those claiming to be psychic) everywhere!  Many shops have resident readers but I'm talking about the random stuff. I've been handed unsolicited advice about my future, my true self, things I should study or the true meanings of what I say and do.  Most of it is the sort of thing that would impress newbies, since it often said with firm conviction, but they're mostly amateurs trying their hand at random reading ... 
  • ... Or cold reading.  This happens A LOT.  Not just here but anytime a large amount of Pagans gather.  Be on the watch for it anytime someone approaches you. You have two options: play along and listen, but stay aware of what you know to be true about yourself, or tell them nothing other than if they got a hit or a miss.  Do not volunteer information -- they can work it around to make guesses look like precognition and if it doesn't fool you, it will certainly fool someone listening in.  If you don't feel like watching this show play out, just walk away.  But watching someone try to cold read you (while very quick) can be humorous in its silliness.  Think, the stuff they cut from John Edwards' readings. 
  • The parties are over-the-top, glamorous and wild.  Yes, it is worth the ticket price.  Yes, you do want to go! 
  • Bargain shop.  Most places carry the basic products and some at very different prices.  
  • If you have something in mind that you'd like to get while in Salem, write it down!  It is incredibly easy to get overwhelmed in this city and forget what you were doing.  If you came for a crystal ball (f.y.i. good prices, lots of selection!), you're liable to cheerfully walk out with a new pentacle, tarot deck and vials of condition oils.  D'oh!

Yeah, I know, that advice was all out of order and continuity.  But so is Salem!  It's a dark, wild, crazy occultist's dream in October and a sleepy, beautiful, magical land all year long.  It has the same troubles that can be found anywhere else magic congregates, but here it's tucked in small pockets where it rarely causes problems for we honored, joyful travelers.

As a final note, the community is not in some far-away place.  It is wherever you are.  Set up events with your coven, between covens, for the public, or for newcomers to the path.  Teach and learn.  Speak up!  Your hometown can become just as beloved to local practitioners as Salem if you make yourself heard and your presence felt.  Places like Salem cannot make you a better Witch or Pagan but it can give you a template of what your own life can be like.  Live magic everyday.  It's not just on vacation but on the job, at your house, on the road, in your family, with your friends, in your reading, your writing and part of everything you do.  Make living a magical act and you will step into places like Salem, not as a tourist, but as an ambassador.

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