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Where Your Witches Come From


I have a confession: I will devour any show, good or bad, with even a drop of magic in it. But after watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Satanic Christmas special on Netflix, I decided I needed to take a step back and look at the origins of magic and what happens when it grips the popular imagination.

It’s fair to say that magic is never written on a blank slate. When writers decide how to imagine their mages, they’re drawing on ideas that have not only a history of their own, but present-day consequences. Magic has been alive and well as an idea for a very long time, and its past has more than a few skeletons, especially in the West.

Like elsewhere in the world, Europe has always been rich with magical beliefs. Legends of powerful sorceresses like Circe and Medea predate Christianity, but magic was and still is a part of everyday life. Tales of untrustworthy fae, told to children at night for centuries, continue today in shows and books like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. But magic has always been more than just tales. Centuries ago, Westerners practiced their own lesser magics: agricultural rituals, amulets to protect from the evil eye, and in some places they relied on the counsel of druids, depicted dramatically in Amazon’s exciting Britannia about the Roman conquest of the British Isles.

Eventually Christianity made its way across Europe often via missionaries targeting the nobility. As monarchs violently expanded their domain, Christianity spread, trickling down to the rest of society and fusing itself with folk beliefs. The Christmas tree, for example, has pagan origins, rooted in Nordic legends featuring a pine tree. The pentagram and pentacle, ancient Sumerian symbols, made their appearance in Christian texts as a representation of the five senses, the five wounds of Christ and the five joys that Mary had of Jesus. Magic still remained, with the poor often holding on to their old traditions, using both Christian and non-Christian explanations for their spells, incantations, medicines and herbs. Even monks practiced “natural magic” recording the magical uses of herbs in folk traditions and making monasteries centers of healing.

The Arthurian legends capture this relationship well. While the legend of Arthur may have arisen from a 5th century Roman-affiliated military leader, it is the wizard Merlin who set the mold for what most of us in the West think of as “magic.” Some say he might have been a Welsh bard, others hypothesize that Merlin was a title, not his name. A merlin, according to these historians, was a wise man who knew magic and lived in the woods as a hermit… very much like a druid. Merlin is typically celebrated as a magical aid to Arthur’s Christian rulership. Perhaps the most disturbing re-imagining of the Arthurian legends is the BBC’s Merlin, in which a young Merlin happily aids a Christian monarch’s persecution of magical creatures, a proxy for the pre-existing culture of the British Isles subdued by Christian “civilization”.

Several centuries later, the persecution of magic became very real and very violent. By the 14th century, charges of “witchcraft” were at the forefront of a cultural war against European folk traditions and Romano-Persian science. Priests who practiced folk healing traditions were among those accused of witchcraft (one might see echoes of this in the plotline of Netflix’s Castlevania).  By the 15th century, the European witch hunts were in full force, heralding 200 years of torture and murder. People of all stripes were accused of witchcraft, the witch hunts often inflected with sexism and personal conflicts, but in broad strokes it was an act of cultural genocide. Everything non-Christian was viewed as Satanic–an idea some people still hold today–and dehumanized to the point that it was acceptable to torture and kill people in the most brutal ways.

In 1486 Heinrich Kramer wrote the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Against Witches) used as sort of a witch hunting guide, heavily relied upon by the Inquisition. Kramer took existing traditions and perverted them into descriptions of Satanism. “It is always necessary,” Kramer insisted repeatedly: “for the demons to cooperate with sorcerers.” Magic, previously derived from nature, was increasingly thought of as demonic. Some of his assertions are lesser known (Kramer concluded from Egyptian fertility rites that male redheads were considered vampires with voracious sexual appetites that should be burned at the stake), but many popular conceptions of witchcraft derive from this document, making their way into stories by the Brothers’ Grimm and Disney movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Stories of the Black Sabbath and the Malum Malus (the evil apple of knowledge) were most likely inventions of Christian extremists to rationalize the persecution of people practicing folk traditions. Today they are key story elements in TV witch stories like Salem and the new Netflix adaptation of Sabrina.

A far cry from the Archie spinoff comic of the 70s and the cute sitcom of the 90s, Sabrina was recently rebooted both as a graphic novel and as a Netflix show… depicting Sabrina as a Satanist. Throughout The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, nature is the domain of witches and Satan, while mining is the centerpiece of the mortal town and symbolic of its dominion over nature. In the Christmas special, Sabrina’s family celebrates the winter solstice and lights the Yule log to keep out evil spirits, while praying to Satan in the same breath. The problem here is that people who practiced the tradition of the Yule log were most certainly not Satanists, and I’m not sure but I doubt that Satanists would ever light a Yule log. Only the people responsible for the witch trials and the Inquisition would actually conflate these practices. And that’s where Netflix’s rendition of Sabrina (and the graphic novel upon which it’s based) becomes troubling.

As the show goes on, it’s revealed that witches are archaic and highly patriarchal, and Sabrina, the modernist half-mortal, is an iconoclast feminist icon. But what if the older power structures were actually more matriarchal than their Christian successors? In Ireland and Wales, it may have been female power among the Celts, especially as druids, that Christians found reprehensible. Moreover, historians view Christian accusations of witchcraft as an instrument of patriarchy: during the Salem witch trials, sixteen women were accused, thirteen of whom were past child-bearing age, largely in an attempt to seize their property and influence. That’s why it’s so troubling that Sabrina re-casts witches as agents of patriarchy instead of its victims.

In contrast, the Showtime period piece Penny Dreadful handled magic in a very different way. From the Renaissance through the Victorian era, there had been a strong interest in re-discovering ancient knowledge.The rediscovery of Greek philosophers brought about the Enlightenment and the advent of science, but with it came a parallel interest in re-discovering the Occult. In Penny Dreadful, the central character Vanessa Ives struggles with her own powers, and the ethics that surrounds them. The story is very much an example of the Victorian fascination with the occult, prominently featuring vampires, the devil and inner struggles with evil.  But the show breaks from the mold of the Malleus Maleficarum and the genocide of the Inquisition in Vanessa’s backstory, where she studied under a hedge witch who practiced “natural magic”, modeling magic as a tool for good in the right hands, a key element of Vanessa’s inner struggle to use mystical powers for good or evil. In the magic of Penny Dreadful, Christian and non-Christian mythologies and moralities interact, instead of one subjugating the other.

Much like Vanessa Ives and perhaps the occult aficionados of the Enlightenment, today self-described neo-pagans, wiccans, and witches seek to reconnect with long-lost traditions. Some find Sabrina‘s latest incarnation all in good fun, but others are disurbed by the way that the victims of witch hunts and inquisitions of the past are now re-imagined as perpetrators. It’s only been a few decades since the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s, with three Wiccan high school students in Memphis, Arkansas being not only wrongfully conflated with Satanists, but convicted of murder with questionable evidence.

“They weren’t witches!” Tim Robbins’s character in the Hulu show Castle Rock insists as people in a bar tell ghost stories of dark deeds done in the past. “They were Satanists.” With a single line, Castle Rock is much more mindful of the distinctions, and to a lot of people that tiny bit of effort makes a huge difference.

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