Visit Us, Sisters: An Exorcism Litany of “Witches”

What makes a sacrament ‘real’? Does human choice matter? Do we have free will in face of transcendent sources of power? What does it mean to be a woman today?

Rather than being discussion topics in an introductory religion course I might teach, these questions emerged from Netflix’s new series this fall, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. A much darker version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who originated in the Archie comics of the 1970s and became known to a new generation with a sitcom in the 1990s, the new version went all-in with a modern-day coven in Salem, apparently adjacent to the revamped Riverdale of the 21st century.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix 2018

I had to watch one scene from the first ten episodes repeatedly. In “The Exorcism,” Sabrina and her aunts perform a ritual rid a local man of the demon that has taken up residence in his body. What the witches do, however, is call upon a litany of “witches.”

Because I have amazing students, one of them quickly sent me a transcription of the names recited with the refrain: “Visit us, Sisters, Intercede on our behalf.” (Thanks Jackson!) Some of the names are familiar, some are less so. I knew enough even when I saw the scene the first time to understand that a much more significant commentary on the social construct and phenomenon of “woman as witch” was being made than many viewers might have noted. Did they say Anne Boleyn? Hildegard of Bingen?! Yes, and many more.

Here is a transcription of the “sisters” invoked during the litany, with a very brief description of who each is. Note the themes:

Lilith … original woman, first wife of Adam, subject of midrash by Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow

Aradia … daughter of Diana and Lucifer, title of a folklorist’s Gospel of Witches

Morgan Le Fay … magical ruler of Avalon, part of the legends of King Arthur

Black Annis … blue-faced ogre woman said to feast on children and lambs

Anne Boleyn … second wife of King Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I, beheaded

Witch of Endor … woman who counseled and cared for Saul in the bible

Hecate … goddess of witchcraft, magic, night, the moon

Hecate

Artemis … goddess of the hunt, twin sister of Appollo

Luna … divine embodiment of the moon, name for Earth’s moon

Hildegard of Bingen … 12th century mystic, nun, abbess, visionary, medical innovator

Marie Laveau … famed practitioner of Voodoo in New Orleans, fortune teller and advisor

Tituba … Indian slave of Samuel Parris, first accused in 17th century Salem witch craze

Mary Bradbury … accused of witchcraft in 17th century Salem, mysteriously escaped hanging

Nemain … personification of chaos in war, with Badb & Macha part of the Irish legend of a goddess/witch trio known as Morrigan

Badb … war goddess who assumes the form of a crow, with Nemain & Macha part of the Irish legend of a goddess/witch trio known as Morrigan

Macha … sovereign goddess, with Nemain & Badb part of the Irish legend of a goddess/witch trio known as Morrigan

Circe … goddess of sorcery who lives with her nymphs on Aeaea

Moll Dyer … English immigrant woman said to have cursed 17th century Leonardtown, Maryland

Juventas the Virgin … Roman goddess of eternal youth

Juno Mother of Juventas … Roman goddess daughter of Saturn, wife of Jupiter, protector of Rome

Sybil Leek … 20th century author, claimed to be Britain’s most famous witch, astrologer & psychic

Priscilla, Francis, Evanora, and Locasta Spellman … ancestors of Sabrina Spellman

The Furies

Kindly Ones … also known as the Furies, female figures of vengeance in Greek mythology

Mother of Darkness … many references throughout pop culture, self-descriptive

Reading this list and seeing these descriptions, I am struck by how actual historical women are mixed in with mythical goddesses. Among other things, this suggests that religious and mythical images inevitably affect our perceptions and experiences of the real world. More bluntly, the way that maleness and femaleness are depicted in the spiritual realm defines how we experience men and women in the physical world. Mary Daly said in 1973, “if God is male then the male is God,” so we might also say that “if fearful monsters are female then the female is a fearful monster.” Our theologies and our sociologies are mutually dependent.

It is this theme of women’s monstrosity that has been replicated throughout patriarchal history and religion. That the “Kindly Ones” are figures of vengeance and that Black Annis is an ogre who ate children become inextricable from attempts to understand why Anne Boleyn was murdered and why Moll Dyer was feared. Even sacred texts from Judaism and Christianity prod us to ask why the woman medium from Endor in the Hebrew Bible is referred to as a witch, and why Saul consulted her in the first place. We are also left to wonder what we might do with the rabbinic literature on Lilith, the alleged demon-woman. Judith Plaskow answers that with her marvelous feminist midrash on when Eve, Adam’s second wife, wonders:

“Was Lilith indeed just another woman? Adam had said she was a demon. Another woman! The very idea attracted Eve. She had never seen another creature like herself before. And how beautiful and strong Lilith looked! How bravely she had fought! Slowly, slowly, Eve began to think about the limits of her own life within the garden.”

One fact remains in the face of patriarchy: Women with power are more often than not feared, misunderstood, and deliberately marginalized. This reality has been written about, analyzed, and explored by multitudes of feminist scholars like Carol Christ, Mary Daly, Starhawk, and others.

This has also been seen in every generation where women aren’t trusted, heard, or believed. Look no further than the news of the day to recognize once more how narratives about women are conflated with a mythical ogres out to destroy innocent men.

Visit us, sisters. Intercede on our behalf.