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Vol. 37 - The Female Version Of The Roman Empire
the big spooktober issue
Happy Sunday, everyone! I hope you are all well and have had a wonderful week. Just two things before we start - Firstly, The first of the Rhubarb Society caps have now officially launched! Thank you to everyone who has bought one so far, and we have already very nearly sold out (I’m hoping by the time this goes out, there are still some left). You can pre-order one here, and these will be shipped on the 15th of October. Secondly, congratulations to both alebrousset and Claire Chapman for winning the recent giveaway — please keep an eye on your emails/DMs as I will be contacting you to discuss your respective goodies! With that out the way, let’s crack onto this week’s issue. Whilst the internet has been busy discussing the Roman Empire and its prevalence in men’s lives, the girls have been asking what our equivalent is. There have been plenty of topics suggested; The Ancient Egyptians, the Salem Witch Trials, Astrology, Greek Mythology, and The Romanovs…just to name a few. From the most popular suggestions, I’ve realised that, whilst we are just as invested in history as the men are, ours tends to lean towards the supernatural. I’m not sure if there is any real reasonable explanation behind this, but I like to think that it somehow ties in nicely with the fact we also love Autumn and Winter so much…particularly when it comes to getting spooky. This issue is a love letter to just that, so we will be exploring everything from the Salem witch trials and the origins of Halloween to our members’ very own brushes with the supernatural. With that, let’s begin!
The Salem Witch Trials seems to be one of those historical events that everyone has heard of and knows a small amount about — ‘that was the witch hunt where women were accused of practising witchcraft and sentenced to death, right?’. Right. Witch hunting as a whole was occurring centuries before Salem, and their damage was far more brutal and widespread. However, Salem (and other witch trials) are still referenced in modern media. They’ve inspired countless fictional stories, and to this day, they are still referred to in numerous films and TV shows. The term ‘With Hunt’ is also a term that is still a part of our modern vernacular. I personally think the reason why so many women today still think about Salem and the witch trials on a regular basis is because it feels like hundreds of years later, not much has changed. Whilst the methods may be different, the modern-day woman is still persecuted, hunted and punished, much like our unfortunate witchy ancestors. For this part of the issue, I wanted to take a deep dive into the history of it all.
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The Salem Witch trials took place between February 1692 and May 1693 in colonial Massachusetts, apparently after a group of young girls in Salem Village claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. However, before we dive into Salem itself, we need to go back a few hundred years. Prior to these trials, across the pond, a witchcraft craze had already been spreading across Europe as early as the 1300s, which resulted in tens of thousands of ‘witches’ (largely women) being executed. This witch hunt lasted over 300 years and only began to wind down just before Salem began. Historian Steven Katz explained that Europe’s witch hunts stemmed from “the enduring grotesque fears (women) generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society.” None of this was anything new, and witch hunts had occurred long before this period in history. This resurgence, however, came with the ‘support’ of the Church and was accompanied by a number of developments in Christian doctrine, which acknowledged the existence of witchcraft as a form of Satanic influence.
Interestingly, this phenomenon of witch-hunting was not whittled down to an exact location or succinct reason but rather, in my opinion, a worldwide exercise in misogyny due to its length and breadth. The only actual consistency across space and time was that large numbers of women were being brutally killed. When historians try and search for evidence of the ‘why’, they always seem to point to ‘several’ factors, which are then passed off as evidence. Religion, wars, tensions, paranoia, power…the list goes on. Ultimately, Steven Katz hits the nail on the head by mentioning that men of the time feared the power that women yielded over them. When trying to pinpoint how and why the Salem Witch Trials escalated to the point it did, I found the following;
Evidence points to several factors that may have contributed to the mass hysteria: “An influx of refugees from King William’s War with French colonists, a recent smallpox epidemic, the threat of attack from Native Americans, a growing rivalry with the neighbouring seaport of Salem Town, (Editor’s Note: In reading about this, I learned that Salem was divided into two regions at the time which was ‘Salem Town’ and ‘Salem Village’ - the town being more ‘urban’ whilst the village was mainly agricultural) and the simmering tensions between leading families in the community created the perfect storm of suspicion and resentment.” Many historians believe the “witches” were also victims of scapegoating, personal vendettas, and social mores against outspoken, strong women.
Salem is a strange case because whilst it still found any excuse to kill off women, it also presented as an ample opportunity to gain land (and we all know at that time, land = power), and this is where men being accused (and eventually murdered) entered the equation. Supposedly, if you confessed to being a witch, you lost your land as punishment. If you refused to confess and you were executed, your family were allowed to keep their land. The witch trials also took place after the laws were changed from giving voting rights to members of the Puritan church to the land owners themselves, which seems timely. Should you have wanted another person’s land, it seems it was as simple as accusing them of witchcraft with enough conviction. The process of identifying witches started as just that — accusations and suspicions. During the European witch trials, over 40,000 people were tried for witchcraft — Single women, widows and women on the margins of society were especially targeted. Interestingly, Germany had the highest witchcraft execution rate, while Ireland had the lowest. The tests themselves were nonsensical, and many women often died during the tests. One of the more famously known ones was the ‘swimming test’, where a woman would be stripped and tied and thrown into the nearest body of water. An ‘innocent’ woman would sink, whilst a ‘witch’ would float on the surface. As you can imagine, many accidental drownings would occur. The Witch’s Mark was another test that involved stripping the suspect down and looking for a blemish, supposedly received during their pact with Satan. Crazily, moles, scars, birthmarks, third nipples and tattoos could all qualify as a Witch’s Mark. One of the tests even included using an affected girl’s urine to make a cake and then feeding it to a dog. I shit you not.
People often confused elements of the European Witch trials with that of the Salem ones. For example, I learned that nobody was burned at the stake during Salem, which is a very common misconception (this actually happened during the EWT and not the SWT). Most of the accused were sentenced to death by hanging, and one was even crushed under stones. Plenty of the accused were often tortured and left to rot in jail under inhumane conditions, which ultimately led to their death. So, why is Salem referenced so heavily? The Salem Witch Trials were unique, given the context. As mentioned earlier, there were growing tensions between the colony and the Native Americans, resulting in the people of Massachusetts living in constant fear of being attacked. In 1689 the Colony governor was overthrown and imprisoned in the Boston Revolt (this was for various reasons, but there was also a fear that he was causing a divide in the Colony among the various Puritan sects). For a very tight-knit community, the fact that they allowed mass hysteria and extreme paranoia to tear them apart, resulting inn the murder of numerous innocent people, is shocking. It was a lethal combination of prejudice and fear (for example, one of the first people accused was an indigenous slave known as Tituba…A coincidence?…). Tituba did actually confess to being a witch and began accusing others of using black magic, and it spiralled from there. One of the youngest to be accused of witchcraft was 4-year-old Dorothy Good, who was jailed for 8 months. Whilst this may feel like a time gone by, witches (actual or accused) still face persecution and death today. Several men and women have been beaten and killed in Papa New Guinea in the last decade, including a woman who was burned alive for practising witchcraft. Similar stories have been logged across the globe in regard to the modern-day prosecution of witches.
New England had a very high literacy rate at the time, which meant that the SWT were far more documented than its predecessors. Americans are also awfully good at branding and monetising, and Salem itself became somewhat of a tourist attraction, which is probably why it’s still so heavily referenced. Puritans were also great record keepers, which meant that a lot of documents from the time survived, and it was much easier to trace one’s ancestors back to Salem, adding to the layers of storytelling as well as current-day connections. So, what happened to the actual witches (if, of course, you believe in them) during this time? Did they catch wind of what was happening and flee before they could be caught? Did they go into hiding? Use their magic to live? Maybe they all actually survived and continued to pass down their knowledge for generations. I’m sure many members of this society are far more well-versed on this topic, so I would love to hear any stories or tidbits that you may have!
Traditionally, Halloween stemmed from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced ‘sah-win’). It marked the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time, people would light bonfires and wear masks in order to ward off spirits, as it was believed that during this time, dead ancestors were allowed to walk among the living, often revisiting their homes and families, seeking hospitality. Other household festivities included games and divinations, used to fortune tell, and they often centred around the topics of death and marriage. Apples and nuts were also used (this is where traditions such as bobbing for apples come from), as well as scrying and dream interpretation. Food and fortune-telling sounds like my ideal girls’ night in, and as someone who takes hosting seriously, I’d want to ensure that my dead ancestors were being fed well. So, here are a few ways to celebrate the traditional Samhain way, complete with some delicious recipes.
Have a ‘Dumb’ Supper - Apparently, this is a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, and it simply means having your dinner in silence as a way to honour your ancestors. Light candles at the beginning of the supper to welcome in the spirits. You can decorate your table with photos of those you wish to celebrate, maybe even add any other bits that remind you of your loved ones. Be sure to put out extra plates for those joining you from the other side.
Make a Samhain Pumpkin Bread - One of the foods offered to ancestors during Samhain was a loaf of bread left on the kitchen table as a way of showing that they’ve been remembered.
Clear The Old and Make Way For The New - Samhain is believed to be a good time to clear the things that no longer serve you in order to make way for new things in the coming year. Make a list of things that you want to let go of and burn them. This is particularly effective if you can burn the list in a bonfire. Then make a list of all of the new things you hope to take into the new year and keep it safe until the Spring.
Make Colcannon - Whilst reading up on Samhain, I came across this dish that is my DREAM. It’s a creamy mash with cooked greens (traditionally leek and cabbage, I believe) and onions. I do not need an excuse to make a potato based dish, so I’m excited to crack on with this one.
Embrace Your Inner Witch For The Sabbath - Samhain is also known as the Witches’ New Year for some, and for many modern-day witches, there are plenty of rituals to be practised during this period. Now, every witch has their own beliefs and unique ways of practising, and it’s certainly not one size fits all. However, if you are new to it all, allow me to provide a little starter advice as well as some resources. So, I’ve already mentioned clearing out the old with a burning ritual, but it’s also important to cleanse your home around this time. You can use black crystals, fluorite and clear quartz to clean your space or use sound and sage to cleanse your home’s energy (make sure you get into the corners of the room where energy is stagnant, and always move clockwise). Remember, before you begin any ritual, you need to ensure you have a safe and sacred space to conduct from. Some people have altars set up, but if you don’t, that’s fine; just make sure you have a safe, private area where you feel comfortable and won’t be interrupted. Cleanse yourself first (either with a salt bath or with palo santo), or place bowls of cleansing salt in your ritual space. If you want easy resources, you can scroll through the r/Witch and r/Witchcraft subreddits or refer to these beginner books. This blog post also gives quite a nice overview of it all.
Stock Up on Apples and Nuts - Apples were believed to be the fruit of the Other World, and they are often used for magic and fortune-telling (think about how often apple symbolism is used in films and folklore!). Traditionally, young women would peel an apple in one sitting and throw it over their shoulder on Samhain Eve, and the peeling would take the shape of the first initial of the man they would marry. Another tradition we all know and love is to bob for apples, and it was believed that those who succeeded in getting one would have good fortune the following year. Hazelnuts were also often used in matrimonial divination. Two groups of “Sweetheart” hazelnuts were placed within the hearth fire; one group marked with the names of the village’s eligible maidens and the other with the eligible bachelors. As the nuts popped, the names of the pairs were romantically linked.
The Original Trick or Treat - In 1000 A.D., the church designated November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, a time for honouring the dead. Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as "souling," the practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale. Traditional soul cake recipes seem pretty straightforward and mainly consist of eggs, sugar, butter, flour and raisins. You can always jazz them up with different spices, such as pumpkin spice, or perhaps even make a pumpkin spice frosting to go on top.
This week, I asked the members of the society to share some of their Halloween traditions and supernatural stories with me. We are lucky enough to have a community that is now nearly 9,000 strong from all over the globe, so it’s wonderful to be able to hear everyone’s different perspectives and experiences! I have chosen a handful to share, with very minimal editing, so that you can read them *pretty* much exactly as the respective member shared them with me. Thank you to everyone who emailed me or submitted via the chat :)
There is a Jewish holiday called sukkot which is one of the main holidays outlined in the torah. As part of the observance, people build temporary shelters outside that are open to the elements (and for guests). As part of the decorations, people put up pictures of loved ones who have passed, other religious figures, and folks whose energies they want to invite into the space. Each day ( there are 8 days), there is a specific Torah ancestor who is honored. The point of the observance is to open our homes to the community and to the world around us, while remembering where we came from as a people. It's one of the few holidays in Judaism where we actively engage with the dead/ancestors so I thought it fitting to bring up around now. Similarly, there is a holiday called Purim which has been called Jewish Halloween by some folks. The holiday commemorates Queen Esther saving the Jewish people from an evil advisor. To celebrate, people dress up in costumes and do dramatic readings of the story so that, as a people, we don't forget. It is also said by some that we are commanded to get so drunk that we can't tell our enemies from our neighbor so it turns into a fun and high-energy event.
Halloween actually originates from Ireland, so with being from there, we always got lessons about the history of the holiday. E.g. people wore masks that night, so the spirits mistook them for other spirits and therefore left them alone, or that pumpkins are only used because of the holiday being brought to america by Irish immigrants and they are easier to carve than the original turnips/swedes. (google pics of original jackolaterns, v scary) 🎃 Editors Note: these are creepy as hell and you can see one here.
A gane we used to play on Halloween always though, (of course apple bobbing but I think that’s international), not sure what it was called, but you make a mountain on a plate with flour and place a grape at the top, you need to then cut a chunk away of the flour and if the grape falls on your turn you need to stick your face in the flour.
Halloween has only become popular in Australia in the last few years so I don't have Halloween traditions, but we do enjoy paranormal investigations so I have a few ghost stories. The most memorable are from Z-ward, Glenside which was the asylum for the criminally insane back in the day. We went on a tour with a work group (I'd been there multiple times before) & the guide & most of the group were in a cell listening to a story. I stood in the hall with some others who were scared. We saw someone come down the hall & the other girls started to get scared, so I said "it's just the other guide, Michael". The figure went into the cell next to us and then we heard the piano playing. I thought, that's a weird thing for Michael to do, next thing another figure comes down the hall & Michael appears! The girls start freaking out & I said, "we just saw you go into that cell". We went into the cell and there was a piano but there were boxes on top of the lid & no one in there. Another time there were just 4 of us doing an investigation. We were in a cell & could hear muffled voices. We said "oh we've left the laptop running, it's playing YouTube". Went down the hall to the rec room, no the laptop was closed. Went back to the cell, could still hear the voices. Someone went out to the hall & someone stayed in the cell, in the hall couldn't hear anything, in the cell could hear it. It was like hearing the radio in another room, so weird. We also saw a ghost cat there too! Another time we were investigating at the railway museum, standing at the end of a platform. The guide was telling a story and I interrupted him to ask who was at the end of the platform. He said there was no one else, and I said I could see a man getting on the train, hanging out the side, like railway conductors used to do. Someone went to the end of the platform and couldn't see anything but half the group could see this man and half couldn't. It was odd. Ive also heard footsteps, had voices on the ghost box, had *something* respond to questions by lighting up lights or moving balls.
I’ve had two very real supernatural encounters in my life where I visually did see the ghosts and one of them attacked me. Other than the two of these I’ve had some other smaller encounters such as seeing human shaped shadows walk by windows in areas where there was no pathway to walk (like the window looked out to a very deep huge pit) or someone ran its hands down my back when I was sleeping on my side, and no one was next to me. So while I have experienced all sorts of supernatural events, I would like to share the two main ones (Editor’s Note: I have only included one in this issue) where I fully witnessed the ghosts, saw them while fully awake and can recount how they look in detail. For context, I am Southeast Asian and a devout / actively practicing (Theravada) Buddhist. In our religion, we don’t reject ghosts but only understand them as merely existing in their own realms. It seems like most people who can see ghosts are people who, in Buddhism, are considered to have “more pure” minds. Another important context, I am a researcher and a policy analyst who works on humanitarian aid and peace efforts in real life so I would like to think I have a very objective brain.
Anyway the first real ghost I ever saw was in 2017. I had arrived back home after graduating from my undergrad degree in the US. Due to the extreme time differences, I was very jet lagged. It was like 2:40 am ish and I was very awake and used the bathroom. I knew I wasn’t going to easily fall asleep and thought I might as well try but I just laid there with my duvet over my head. All of a sudden, I heard footsteps. At first, I was like nah you’re just out of it and you’re just hearing shit because it’s common for me to hear weird sounds and nothing would happen. But I heard them again and this time it was extremely close to me and I was like okay no what the fk there is something here. I start sweating immediately and I’m very scared. Then I slowly looked outside my duvet and saw a very very big man - he was bald, really fat, and really tall like he was standing in front of my door facing it. He was so big, he covered my door and I couldn’t even see my door anymore. It was almost like his way of saying I cannot leave. Immediately I went back under my duvet and I’m absolutely terrified. In my head all I can think of is “oh my god this is real. It’s real and it’s happening. I’m in so much trouble. This is real.” Then he comes right next to me in my bed and he says “I’m sorry” in a very terrifying croaky voice. Then he literally rolls onto the bed, rolling on top of me in the process. He was so heavy and I was so horrified. The bed is creaking and I know he is literally laying down next to me. He says again “I’m sorry” and the voice is even clearer because he’s right next to me. Then he slowly removes the duvet which I’m hiding under and literally puts his hand over my mouth and nose saying again “I’m sorry”. I am at this point literally suffocating. I try to scream-call on the Buddha but I cannot because he has his hand on my mouth. I’m freaking out at this point but I suddenly had an idea: to call on the Buddha in my mind. So I actually stopped fighting him calmed myself down, cleared my mind, and started thinking clearly of prayers that call on the three jewels of Buddhism and the moment I thought of the Buddha’s name clearly in my head, he IS IMMEDIATELY gone. I jump out of my bed, he is completely gone and I literally ran out and slamming on my fathers door, waking him up and broke down crying when he opened the door.
the spooky edition of one of our reoccurring features
The Craft - The 90’s classic about a girl who moves and ends up at a Catholic high school, only to befriend a bunch of outcasts who practice witchcraft. They form a coven, and well, it all goes tits up from there.
American Horror Story: Coven - We all know how I feel about Coven, and I stand by the fact that it’s the best of all the AHS seasons. It’s dark, brutal, biting and simply iconic. Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett are the stars of this fucked up show.
The Lost Boys - Vampires are second to witches when it comes to my supernatural obsessions, largely because I grew up on 80’s films like The Lost Boys. The film is about two boys who move to a small Californian town and end up being sucked into a strange underworld of bikers, vampires and vampire hunters — the whole thing is very 80’s punk rock. It’s a mix of comedy and horror; starring both Corey’s and Kiefer Sutherland.
Queen of The Damned - Admittedly, this film actually isn’t any good (it has a flaming 17% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it’s iconic, mainly due to Aaliyah and how insanely good she looks. ‘Vampire Lestat awakens from his slumber and becomes a rock star. But chaos strikes when his music awakens Akasha, the vampire queen, who may not rest until she makes Lestat her new king’. You get the idea.
Practical Magic - You get Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, and Stevie Nicks songs all in one go (this one is my favourite). What else could you possibly need? The story is about two sisters (witches, of course) who have to move in with their aunties after their parents die. After a while, they attempt to break a family curse so that they can find true love.
Lore Podcast - A bi-weekly podcast (now also a TV show) that explores dark historical tales. It covers the creepy, the confusing, and the tragic, and with over 200 episodes, there are plenty of stories to choose from.
No Sleep - So, you like to read creepy stories late at night that make you too scared to even close your eyes? Well, look no further than this subreddit. If you’re lazy like me, you can start with this summary of the best ones.
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Tamsin & Rhubarb
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