American Horror Story: Coven’s Wiccan Origins
By THELONIA SAUNDERS
During its 13-episode run, American Horror Story: Coven introduced an array of mystical powers that the witches specialized in. The amalgamation of mystical occurrences throughout the season served to confuse the central mystery of the show: the identity of the new Supreme, the witch who would exhibit all “seven wonders,” or seven magical powers that most witches only got a taste of.
From the inclusion of real life serial killers such as The Axeman and the singularly sadistic Madame Lalaurie, to the presence of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, Coven took great care to use historical accuracy in its storytelling. But to what extent was the portrayal of the witches’ powers in keeping with real Wiccan practices, both past and present?
The Supreme: The Supreme is something that does not exist in Wiccan lore, but seems to be used in the similar role of High Priestess in Wiccan circles. The difference between these two positions is that the High Priestess does not receive her title based on how many powers she can replicate—or how many people she will kill to get there—but rather based on her experience, desire, and capability to commit to a leadership position at the heart of a group. Really, the position of High Priestess is more akin to a group leader in any religious context, something which I think we can all agree does not represent Fiona “terrible life decisions” Goode in any way, shape, or form.
The Seven Wonders:
Divination: In American Horror Story, Divination is tightly linked to objects, focusing on what they are, where they are located, and their historical background. Although it only made an appearance in the finale, the power involved a simple wave of the hand over a bunch of rocks to sense the location of a completely different object. It is closely related to, but different from, the Second Sight, which was a power only Cordelia possessed and was the result of a glass of acid and pair of gardening shears to the face. This power related more to revealing past events through touch, but both are related to the Wiccan practice of Divination. The jury is out on whether or not it’s better to know where your keys are or if your husband cheated on you, though.
Since the time when people first began to wonder what the weather would be like in a week or whether or not there really would be someone tall, dark, and handsome in their future, there have been those who claimed to be able to read the future. In order to carry out these readings, a variety of instruments, ranging from runes and tarot to tea leaves and astrology, are used. However, more important than the instruments used is the person translating—the one interpreting the signs and peering into future. Divination is a way to interact with the “divine,” by obtaining information from a deity, but which deity is entirely dependent upon the beliefs of the reader.
Vitalum Vitalis: One of the least developed wonders on the show, Vitalum Vitalis, is the power to transfer life energy from one person to the other. This power is highly similar to that of Resurgence, to the point where it gets pretty confusing. However, Vitalum Vitalis seems to differ from Resurgence in that it uses life force rather than an entire soul. Vitalum Vitalis can be used to give yourself a quick facelift if you, like Fiona, find yourself in a bind and want a quick fix to make yourself look like a young girl of 50 again. The only catch is you need to find yourself some poor sap you can just suck the life out of. Then again, there are those who are able to use Vitalum Vitalis in the same way that Misty Day uses the power of Resurgence: to heal or bring people back from the dead, using their own life force. All in all a much more noble gesture than Fiona’s rather inventive use of disposable characters’ lives.
While an herbal facemask will probably do more good for your skin than spiritual healing, the practice of “magnetic healing” is one that is widely used in Wiccan practices. This idea relies on the existence of a universal electromagnetic flow, which sometimes gets jammed and needs to be straightened out by a healer. However, unlike AHS, the healer is simply a conduit to the healing flow of energy, using the patient’s force rather than contributing their own.
Descensum: Descensum is the spiritual journey to the afterworld, where you have to relive your worst nightmare over and over again until you manage to break free of it. But beware—linger too long and you turn into a fine dusty mist as the sun rises. It is not really clear how this power is supposed to help the witches in any way, except for maybe the brief rush of no longer being in Hell, but that would require actually making your way back—which seems to be rather difficult. Chalk this power up to being the worst self-motivational exercise in existence.
The idea of an “astral projection” of the soul is one that exists in a variety of religions, including Wicca. However, the portrayal of this power is tightly related to the practice of not only Voodoo, but also more generally to Christianity, proven by its basic reliance on the presence of a Christian afterlife. The gatekeeper, Papa Legba, is a figure of Voodoo that is a mixture of the African Loa of the same name and the Catholic figure of St. Peter. Still, it must be duly noted that, historically, the actual figure of Papa Legba is not a coke fiend, nor does he generally lust for the “blood of innocents.”
Transmutation: While in the show this power is basically teleportation, the Wiccan idea of transmutation is more akin to its alchemical origin: a change in one’s very substance, whether it be physical or mental. For Wicca, the magic that brings about this transformation is termed the “Great Work” or the “greater magic.” This power is one that cannot only be summoned in rituals but also in everyday life, in which case it can be connected with any sort of ongoing spiritual or personal growth.
Telekinesis: Telekinesis, or the ability to move things with your mind, can be used either for a full-on Carrie effect or a more muted Matilda move, to your discretion and/or moral sensibilities. Sadly, once more, the power of Telekinesis is very, very fictional.
Pyrokinesis: An offset of Telekinesis, Pyrokinesis involves lighting fires with your mind. While fire is important to Wiccan practices, it can only be created here in the real world with a lighter, some matches or, for the very handy, a couple of flint stones. No psychic fire lighting skills for the non-fictional among us, sadly. Alternatively, you’ll have to think of other methods to rid yourself of your neighbor’s curtains and create a dramatic exit. Maybe invest in a flamethrower.
Concilium: In Coven, Concilium is the imposition of one’s will onto another person; basically, mind control. This can be resisted, to some extent, if you want to risk having your head explode à la Scanners.
The idea of mind control is one that does not have any basis in real life, unless you get into heavy debates about the validity of hypnosis and brainwashing, but that is not so much magic as it is psychological manipulation—although you could make the argument that all magic is some kind of optical manipulation.
Black Widow (aka: Death by Vagina): Zoe has either the coolest or the worst power imaginable. Fortunately for her, the two people she winds up bonking with were both dead at some point prior, so no harm, no foul. Good thing her powers don’t pull a reverse Pushing Daisies and kill off the resurrected mid-sex—can’t imagine that would be fun.
The closest this power gets to Wiccan beliefs is the presence of a Succubus, but Wiccans in general don’t seem to want to associate with Succubae, since they perceive them as evil. This idea has many historical origins, but the most relevant one is the Bible, which claims that a Succubus is only out for human males’ semen for later nefarious devil pregnancy scams and, afterward, will most likely kill you. Later ideology seems to put forth that Succubae are just out to absorb people’s life forces, via sexual energy. This idea combined with the notion of a “killer vagina” plays into the idea of women as a destructive sexual force, being used to hurt men—who are the only ones killed during sex.
Injury Transference: This power is unique in the show to Queenie, who calls herself the “Human Voodoo Doll,” and can transfer any sort of harm done on herself to another person.
This does not have any relevance to Wicca, but rather to Voodoo practices. There is no physical power that works exactly like this one does, but the idea of a Voodoo doll does exist, albeit more so in pop culture than the actual religion. This notion is mostly falsehood, because while there are “Voodoo dolls” in the Voodoo practice, they are not used to inflict harm on other people with pins and needles. This idea would be more akin to Southern folk magic practiced in Louisiana, or the European “moppets” that are used in magic rituals, than to Voodoo. There is, however, a Voodoo practice that involves nailing the dolls to trees to serve as guides to spirits, so the idea doesn’t entirely come out of nowhere.
Clairvoyance: The ability to read minds, though not a selective power. As Nan can attest, being able to constantly hear everyone’s thoughts is pretty terrible and is not at all helpful for one’s concentration, which is why she always carries around headphones. However, she does know that this power can come in handy too (Oh, lemon cake is the hot neighbor’s favorite food? What a coincidence that I just baked one and brought it over).
This power, which represents more of a “general psychic ability,” is perceived very differently by certain sections of the Wiccan community—although there are many factions disputing the argument and at least some of them seem to be of the “14 year-old online Goth” variety. While a good deal of people (at least online) claim they possess some sort of psychic ability, there is another group that chooses to avoid the concept of “party tricks” as part of the Wiccan religion. In between these, there is the vague concept that all human beings, to a certain extent, are born with a sort of clairvoyance and have the ability to focus those energies into a connection with a higher consciousness.
Resurgence: While she does have the power to bring the dead back to life, Misty Day probably should have stuck to Jesus’ example and limited herself to one miracle—any more and it loses its magical wonder. Then you get what Coven wound up being for a good chunk of this season: devoid of tension and probably better off staying in the ground than coming back for one last go.
This is another power that doesn’t have any Wiccan relevance. If someone out there could really resurrect the dead, we probably would have heard about it by now and would have either started worshipping them or shooting them (hey, I’ve seen zombie movies, I know how these things start).
Despite the magic in American Horror Story being based, to varying degrees, on actual Wiccan and Voodoo practices, it is also highly based on stereotypes and artificial Hollywood ideas of what would look coolest on screen—an idea which summarizes a lot of issues that littered this past season. While seeing these witches do magic was pretty entertaining in the first few episodes, the overwhelming number of different powers as well as the fact that each witch exhibited more than one power at once throughout the season gave the impression that most of the powers were underdeveloped (with the exception of a handful like Cordelia’s “Second Sight,” which featured heavily in the main plot). As with most things in Coven, it probably would have been best to stick to “less is more,” and focus instead on the actual process of learning at the school for witches, rather than have it all be waved away with a montage and musical number—great as it was to have Stevie Nicks sing.