The only thing I really like about Halloween is that it gives equal opportunity to witches. We scarcely even think about witches the rest of the year, and we certainly don’t give them the respect they deserve. But during the last days of October, we can scarcely think about anything else. Even the latest mini-skirted mega-celebrity can’t hope to keep our attention, unless she sails into the headlines on a broomstick.

This annual descent into the dark ages has its unfortunate aspects, including the plague of plastic pumpkins, dime store ghosts, and all trick or treaters over the age of five. But at least it reminds us that witches, like angels, are everywhere.

Once, in a radio essay about Halloween, I made a disparaging remark about witches. I had assumed, without really doing the necessary research, that very few public radio listeners were in fact witches. But, almost before I had finished speaking, protests began to arrive on my e-mail. Witches do have e-mail these days, along with hundreds of Web pages, and why not? What better place for witches to hang out than on a Web? My correspondents pointed out that witchcraft or “Wicca” is a perfectly respectable neo-pagan, woman-oriented religion which goes back all the way to the Stone Age, or to 1939 depending on which authority you believe. I was admonished not to make jokes about things I did not understand, and advised that there are some nasty spells designed especially for skeptics like me. I hastened to apologize.

It’s unfortunate that our present-day image of witches comes almost entirely from The Wizard of Oz.  The two wicked witches in that movie gave the whole profession a bad name with their silly costumes, anti-social attitudes, and outrageous overacting. At Halloween, the fake witches on sale in the stores always have the same black robes, the same pointed hats, and faces that are always yellow or green – suggesting either serious liver problems or motion sickness brought on by the unsteady flight patterns of their broomsticks.

At this particular juncture in American history, we might learn more about real witches by going back to the seventeenth century Massachusetts witch trials. I’ve been re-reading a book called A Delusion of Satan by an old friend of mine, Frances Hill (a lovely woman, possibly a witch). The book shows that Puritans back then were almost as sexually neurotic as Puritans now. Their fears and fantasies focused on women they felt were dangerous, women who were in some way different: unmarried, solitary, argumentative, or eccentric.

The more I read about these persecuted women, the more I realized that they were exactly the kinds of women I have always liked – strong, independent, unorthodox to the point of being weird, active, rebellious, articulate, and smart – all the things a woman was not supposed to be in the dark ages before 1968. In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, all the women I have ever admired would have gone up in smoke – after due legal process, of course.

Women have always scared men simply because they know so many arcane things that men don’t know. It’s all too tempting to put these strange skills down to witchcraft. Women also upset men by giving them unwanted advice, like the three witches in Macbeth, who (if you read the play without prejudice) seem quite a jolly bunch of ladies, and rather more helpful than sinister.

In spite of all our talk about individualism, we don’t value unconventional or eccentric women any more than they did in the 1600s. Modern young women aspire to be arch-conformists, usually lawyers. But they don’t aspire to be witches, and this may be a mistake. Witchcraft is much safer than it used to be, and it could be the deal career for an independent woman. Casting spells must be a lot more fun, and probably more effective, than serving writs. The pay and benefits are not great, but a witch can always compensate for the lack of medical coverage by brewing up her own prescriptions. And, as a witch, she will attract all the most interesting men, and women.

The world would be a better place with fewer witch hunters, and more witches.  If we are determined to go back to the dark ages, let’s do it right and go back all the way.