Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Siempre Bruja (Juan Pablo Gutiérrez/Netflix), Charmed (The CW), Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix), Graphic: Allison Corr
Danette Chavez and Katie Rife

The arrival of a new trio of Charmed ones and a certain enchanting teen proves that witchy offerings on the big and small screen are no longer relegated to Halloween, or even the month of October. And it’s not hard to see why tales about powerful women fighting persecution through magic resonate so much right now. But with five witch-centered series currently airing or streaming —including the OpenTV web series Brujos and an upcoming Chicago-based show titled BrujasThe A.V. Club decided it was time to take a closer look. Here, we help our readers determine who at least glanced at the Book Of Shadows before conjuring up a story.


The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

Which witch is this? Honestly, the Satanic Temple had a point when they said CAOS gave Satanists a bad name. Although the Spellman family and their fellow witches and warlocks worship the goat-headed god Baphomet—first conceived by French artist and occultist Éliphas Lévi in 1856, and frequently used as the symbolic incarnation of Satan—the Satanic Church of the Night’s brand of magic has very little in common with the actual Left-Hand Path, as practitioners of so-called “black magic” prefer to call their belief systems. Neither of the major Satanic groups, The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple, believe in Satan as a literal deity, for one. (There are a few theistic Satanists out there who do believe in an actual devil, but not in great enough numbers to be statistically significant.) And even if they did, they don’t believe in forcing anyone, let alone minors, to join up. They’re all about free will.

The show’s frequent name-checking of ingredients, tools, and deities frequently utilized in real spellcraft, as well as its use of concepts like astral projection and familiars as plot devices, are similarly loose—some might even say nonsensical, from a magical point of view—in their interpretations. If anything, the coven’s ritual cannibalism and practice of signing their names in the Devil’s book are more akin to the rhetoric of witch hunters in early modern Europe, who fed the public salacious (and baseless) tales of midnight orgies and shapeshifting witches in order to justify burning rebellious women at the stake. Of course, there’s not a lot of dramatic tension in an organization whose first guiding principle is “one should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason,” so it makes sense that the writers of CAOS would take some liberties when designing the show’s fictional witches. But if you’re a fan of the show and meet a real-life Satanist, don’t worry—the most dangerous thing about them is likely to be a libertarian streak. [Katie Rife]


Charmed (The CW)

Which witch is this? There are three in Jennie Snyder Urman’s Charmed reboot: sisters Macy (Madeleine Mantock), Mel (Melonie Diaz), and Maggie (Sarah Jeffery), who discover they’re witches after their mom dies. Their magical abilities have been slightly tweaked; what was once Phoebe’s (original cast member Alyssa Milano) premonition is now Maggie’s telepathy. They’re still strongest when they’re working together, so the Power Of Three remains intact (aww).

But where, exactly, do those powers come from? Well, in its original iteration, Charmed was informed by general Wiccan tenets, e.g., spell-casting, potions, the use of familiars, etc. The Halliwell sisters—played by Milano, Shannen Doherty, and Holly Marie Combs—even had a Book Of Shadows, a similar copy of which was bequeathed to 2018's Charmed ones. For the most part, the reboot has followed the same path, despite having a male witch in their writers room and the fact that the main characters (if not all of the cast) are Latinx. Season one hasn’t explored brujería much at all, even though there’s a long and rich history of it in Latin America. But the fourth episode, “Exorcise Your Demons,” introduced a bit of Santería, a syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion that draws from Catholicism and Yoruba beliefs, to the world of the Vaughn-Vera siblings. (The incantation was even in Spanish.) But Charmed is still leaving a whole lot of culture untapped while cobbling together a fairly generic form of witchcraft. We mean, if Starz’s Vida can feature a limpia de huevo, Charmed could have a barrida or two. Okay, so maybe that’s more curanderismo than anything, but the fact that we’ve already cited several Latin American-originating practices here proves there’s a lot more where that season-one spell came from. (Incidentally, Vida creator Tanya Saracho is developing a series about Afro-Latinx witches called Brujas). [Danette Chavez]


A Discovery Of Witches (Sundance Now/AMC Shudder)

Which witch is this? The source material for A Discovery Of Witches is Deborah Harkness’ historical-fantasy novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by Harkness’ work as a historian and her decades-long private research into magic and the occult. The spell-casters on this Sundance Now series are a special brew—they’re informed as much by Harkness’ studies of “the transition from the superstitious Middle Ages to the rational, science-loving Enlightenment” as they are the occult. Dr. Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is a very powerful, very undisciplined witch who’d much rather get tenure at Oxford than join a coven, but soon destiny—and a dreamy vampire played by Matthew Goode—come calling.

Though there aren’t many fun incantations a la Harry Potter, A Discovery Of Witches does touch on alchemy, which once seemed like magic. Much of the story in the first season centers on Ashmole 782, a book that’s more myth than manuscript. As our colleagues at io9 demonstrate, Ashmole 782 doesn’t actually exist, but the works of 17th-century alchemist and astronomer Elias Ashmole do. Harkness really did her homework, drawing inspiration from medieval alchemy, which was full of all kinds of fantastic occurrences and creatures (possibly even including vampires, though probably not ones as hot as Matthew Clairmont). [Danette Chavez]


Legacies (The CW)

Which witch is this? In short, the “just for funsies” kind. In this spinoff of a spinoff of The CW’s long-running supernatural teen series The Vampire Diaries, witchcraft and magic are heritable conditions. That means that you can chant in all the esoteric languages and draw all the arcane symbols you want, but if the blood of ancient magicians doesn’t flow through your veins, you’ll never be able to develop psychokinesis, manipulate time, read minds, or do any of the other cool tricks that the witches on the show can do. That puts Legacies, about a supernatural high school for witches, vampires, and werewolves, closer to Harry Potter or X-Men than any religious form of witchcraft. (The school’s called the Salvatore School for the Young and Gifted, for goodness’ sake.)

As for what these witches actually believe, vague gestures are made towards a pagan nature religion akin to Wicca: “I was a witch like you ... we believe in the natural order of things,” an undead witch tells the biological daughters she’s never met (don’t ask) in one episode. That being said, the actual mechanics of the spells performed on screen are more reminiscent of the alchemical and theological systems of hermetic magic than Wiccan goddess-worship. Not that it really matters in the context of the show, whose characters spend a lot more time discussing who has a crush on whom than the philosophical underpinnings of the duality between “light” and “dark” magic.


Siempre Bruja (Netflix)

Which witch is this? Caracól Television’s Siempre Bruja, which was inspired by Isidora Chacón’s novel, Yo, Bruja, centers on a time-traveling witch named Carmen (Angely Gaviria). When we first meet her, Carmen is a slave in 17th century Cartagena, who’s on trial for being a witch. She’s condemned to death, but as the flames grow around her at the stake, she begins to chant. Suddenly, she washes ashore in Cartagena some 300 years in the future, where she’s in only slightly less danger. Siempre Bruja is part Buffy The Vampire Slayer, part Outlander—there’s plenty of teen drama mixed in with the time jumps. 

Though it’s not referred to by name (at least, not in the first half of season one), there are plenty of clues that suggest Carmen and the other witches in the story are followers of Santería, which has a long history in Colombia. She chants in Lucumí, a variation of Yoruba that’s used as the spiritual language of Santería. (In fact, “Lucumí” can also be used as a synonym for the belief system itself.) Carmen also acts as a curandera, using plants to heal wounds in the past and present. She’s also able to communicate with ghosts, and spiritism is a huge part of Santería.

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