Why Netflix’s new “Sabrina” is shockingly well-researched
There’s a lot going on with the new Sabrina series. Some watch it and focus on its feminist themes, either positively or negatively. Actual practitioners of Wicca, Hoodoo, and other kinds of ritual magic don’t much care for the show. They believe that it puts them in a bad light, since they are trying to fight the “black magic” or “dark magic” stereotypes that plague them. That may or may not be true. That’s not the point of this article. Instead, I’m interested in how much about perceived witchcraft the show got right.
According to Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, notions of a pact with the devil––Sabrina’s “Book of the Beast” goes back some time, as far as the 4th century in which a member of the church allegedly made a deal with the devil but was saved from it miraculously. Another such case involved a man from the Byzantine Empire during Justinian’s rule who also experienced miraculous intervention to free him of the deal. Montanism, a stricter, old-school Christianity, was gradually viewed with suspicion by the mainstream Christians. In the mid 4th and 5th centuries, Montanists were accused of cannibalism. Augustine similarly accused the Manichaeans of orgies. The devil worshipping sect stereotype was in place by 1100, but there’s no evidence that any group actually did this. That’s very important to keep in mind: there is no evidence to suggest that there was ever any witch covens, meetings, or devil-worshipping sessions. So this show is not trying to portray any real group of demons. Instead, it’s playing off the stereotypes about witches that Europeans believed to be true.
There are a ton of little details about witchcraft belief in the show. It was widely believed that witches kept familiars, that they could fly, that they could convince mortals to do whatever they wanted (like swing a sword wildly?), they they were involved in demon possession, and so on.
It also cites an almost impossible number of horror references.
And for a fun snippet about hunting witches, see this from Puritan minister Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World:
“…there have been ways of trying Witches long used in many Nations, especially in the dark times of Paganism and Popery, which the righteous God never approved of.” Those shoddy methods were an invention of the devil designed to condemn innocents. All of these methods are magical and superstitious: “scratching the Witch, or seething the Urine of the Bewitched Person, or making a Witch-cake with that Urine: And that tryal of putting their hands into scalding Water….sticking an Awl under the Seat of the suspected party…casting them on the Water, to try whether they will sink or swim…”
Posted by Josh Taylor