Whimsical, powerful witches have once again made their way to the small screen, as reboots of “Charmed” and the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” come out this month.
Popular depictions of witchcraft tend to foster misconceptions that are caricatured versions of reality. It’s important to recognize that the history of witches and witchcraft goes far deeper than what’s shown in pop culture. In doing so, people can develop a greater respect for these women that are often misunderstood.
Perhaps what makes the understanding of a witch so complicated is that the definition for a witch is truly broad and can cover many different variations, said Gayle Brunelle, a professor of history who teaches a course on the history of witchcraft.
“The problem is that there are so many different understandings of what a witch even is that it’s hard to pin down — one person’s misconception is another person’s correct conception,” Brunelle said.
For example, the reboot of “Charmed” unites two sisters with their long-lost older sister shortly after the death of their mother. The three sisters then discover that they are witches.
With their new abilities, the sisters have to work together to battle the demons that become entangled in their day-to-day lives, stand together to protect humanity and search for their mother’s murderer—the ideal vision of female empowerment and mystical intrigue.
Popular portrayals of witches, however, only represent a romanticized version of what it means to be a witch. Pop culture likes to focus on the more optimistic factors of witchcraft, like their relationship with nature or casting spells to fight evil, but in real life it’s far more complicated.
One common misconception is that witchcraft is simply an example of the supernatural. However, witches during the 15th and 18th centuries actually had a prominent role in society and were taken seriously. Witchcraft from 1450 to 1750 (early modern Europe) was considered to be an epistemology, which is “the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
This changed during early modern Europe, when people fully embraced science and rejected the legitimacy of witchcraft and began more fervently persecuting the predominantly female base.
Early references to witches were often actually referring to female healers, but churches and scholars believed practicing this type of witchcraft meant doing dastardly deeds for the devil, twisting the intent of female practitioners.
They rejected the occult and saw these types of magic as demonic and practitioners as devil worshippers, according to Brunelle.
A renewal of magical interest began in the 19th-century Romantic period, which brought back witchcraft with Pagan religion. This tends to be more of what people think when it comes to witches, even if it’s a far more specific kind of representation.
Today’s perception of witches is largely influenced by popular culture, but with a broad definition and a history that’s rarely told in television or movies, this creates a misconception and masks what it truly means to be a witch.
To truly be a witch, Brunelle said someone has to believe that witchcraft works, gain expertise in the body of knowledge and make others believe it works as well.
This represents a much greater variety of witches, whether it’s someone that practices it as a study of knowledge, wants to perform black or white magic, follows Pagan religion or just wants to explore something for fun.