Science Behind the Fiction: Where Sabrina's witchcraft and shamanism come from
Presented by: Cassidy Ward
Twelve thousand years ago, in what is now modern-day Israel, a woman died. Found at a burial site of the Natufian people, she was laid on her side, her arms and legs intentionally positioned, a dozen large stones were placed on her body to keep her in place. She was buried with various objects, including 50 tortoise shells; body parts from a boar, an eagle, a cow; and a human foot.
The woman, estimated to have died at the age of 45, was one of at least 28 individuals found buried at the site.
Most of the remains were found in one collective location. But she was buried apart, and only she was arranged so intricately and buried with so many ornaments.
Some scholars argue this is evidence of shamanism, an early form of magical practice. The precise date of shamanistic behavior in early humans is one of some debate but this burial site provides evidence that it existed at least 12,000 years ago and represents one of the earliest forms of religion in human beings.
Now, all these years later, it provides fodder for endless entertainment, including Netflix's new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
A shaman, in these types of societies, would act as an intermediary between the physical world and the spiritual. Scholars believe they were responsible for ensuring success in hunts and other events important to the society in which they lived.
"We believe in a bewildering world where we don't have a lot of control," Maria Makhulu, a Duke University professor of cultural anthropology, studying witchcraft in Africa, explains. "And we can imagine doing things through magic that we can't do as ordinary human beings."
There's something familiar about this woman, so far removed by time, with her tail of cow and dead man's foot. She conjures intangible forces in an attempt to manipulate the lives of the living and for all that, she's venerated in life and in death. Yet, somehow, as the millennia marched on, our relationship to those who would use the arcane arts — especially women — shifted. In time, we would come to see witchcraft as something to be feared and, later, something to be disregarded or made light of.
The practice of witchcraft still exists in many parts of the world but to the average reader, it's the stuff of Halloween costumes and children's tales. If one thing is clear, it's that our fascination with witchcraft is alive and well, despite our shifting, and sometimes painful, relationship.
Witchcraft, as we understand it in the modern sense, has its roots in shamanic tradition. The word "Shaman" probably comes from the Tungusic peoples of Siberia where a šamán acted as the intermediary between the physical and the spiritual realms.
Anthropologists began, after a time, to use the term broadly to refer to any religious or spiritual practice with similar traits to those found in Tungusic practice, specifically that there is an individual within the group who maintains a link with the spiritual realm and uses that link in an attempt either to help or harm the collective.
Shamans, in the broad sense of the word, were well-regarded in traditions the world over, and still are in many cultures. But the introduction of Christianity threw a wrench in the gears of the existing religious practices.
As Christianity spread, previous traditions were deemed "Pagan" a largely pejorative term referring to any practice that was non-Abrahamic.
One of the earliest documented references to what would be considered modern witchcraft is in 1 Samuel, believed to have been written between 630 - 540 BC. It states, in a nutshell, that King Saul engaged the services of a witch in order to retrieve the spirit of Samuel in order to defeat an invading army. Saul later died as a result of his actions, as stated in Chronicles.
There is no shortage, within Christian scripture, of guidance against consorting with witches. Leviticus has several examples of doctrine outlining the ills of witchcraft and prescribes that "a man or a woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads." Revelations goes further, demanding that "...those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars, they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."
It's no wonder then, that as religious philosophy progressed in Europe, attitudes toward spiritualism outside of sanctioned practice grew fatal.
Around the year 906, the Canon Episcopi was published. It stated that "The bishops and their ministers should by all means make great effort so that they may thoroughly eradicate the pernicious art of divination and magic, invented by the devil, from their parishes, and if they find any man or woman adhering to such a crime, they should eject them, turpidly dishonored, from their parishes."
The views of the church in regard to witchcraft were, more often than not, aimed toward women and, several centuries later, in 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum — translated as Hammer of Witches — was published.
This became the second most best-selling book of the time for nearly 200 years, behind only the Bible, and outlined the ways in you might identify and exterminate witches, primarily women thought to be in league with the Devil.
Publication of the Malleus Maleficarum fed a mania against witches which resulted, at least in part, in the deaths of approximately 80,000 people between 1500 and 1660.
Just when the hysteria was dying down in Europe, it took root in the American colonies, culminating in the famous Salem Witch trials of 1692 wherein 20 people were killed for the crime of consorting with the devil.
All of those convicted of witchcraft were hanged, but one among them stood true.
Giles Corey originally participated in the witch trials, even against his own wife. But when charges were laid against him he refused to admit any macabre machinations. As a result, he was forced to endure days of torture, laid naked on the ground while weights were pressed upon him.
Knowing that, should he admit to wrongdoing, his estate would be forfeit, Corey remained steadfast, never confessing.
According to witness testimony, Corey's tongue, under pressure from the torture, protruded from his mouth and was forced back in by an official. In his final moments, unwilling to admit to a crime he did not commit, Corey called for more weight, and died an innocent man.
Government officials eventually admitted of wrongdoing and vacated convictions in addition to paying restitution to the families of the accused.
Witch hunts have become, in modern parlance, synonymous with paranoia and it might be easy to relegate the events of Salem, Massachusetts to an episode of the mind, fed by religious fervor, however, scientists have a more concrete explanation.
According to a study published in the journal Science in 1976, Linnda Caporael suggested the events of Salem might have been due to the effects of ergot.
Ergotism, a result of eating contaminated foods, leads to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, and hallucinations. All of which were symptoms common among the population of Salem.
Ergot is comfortable among rye, wheat, and other grasses, all of which were staples in the community. It's likely, though not entirely confirmed, that a fungal contamination contributed, at least in part, to an atmosphere of mania which resulted tragic events in Salem.
Other hypothesis allude to ongoing social strife among the colonists of Salem and even a minor ice age.
While the events of Salem have fallen into the distant past, witchcraft persists even today, in cultures around the world and in pop culture. Though its influence has diminished, there's something innate within humanity which hungers for control over a seemingly indifferent universe.
"We need enchantment in our lives because the world has become disenchanted. We need faith that promises something bigger and better than we have," said Makhulu.
This desire flowers in superstition, in horoscopes, in little rituals that permeate our lives beneath the surface. And while science might sufficiently explain why we itch, it sometimes falls short in its attempt to scratch. So, Halloween persists, haunted houses continue to bring in millions of people who want to feel some primal fear, and horror remains a persistent player in popular media. There may not be any witches appealing to the spirit realm on our behalf, or against us, but that shouldn't stop us playing along.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is streaming now on Netflix.