Netflix released Season 3 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in January 2020, continuing the macabre tale of a teenage witch juggling high school drama with high-stakes supernatural fights. The semi-episodic series reworks actual folklore, mythology, and religious beliefs to create original and entertaining narratives, though this storytelling approach can sometimes misrepresent its source inspirations.
This is certainly the case with the series' third outing, in which the writers pit Sabrina, her aunties, and the recently de-Satanized coven against a roving band of carnival pagans hell-bent on world annihilation. While some aspects of these new characters are technically in line with real-life pagans, many of their actions and behaviors are totally incorrect and border on the offensive.
Paganism Is A Broad Term Encompassing Numerous Ways And Beliefs
Early in Season 3, a traveling carnival rolls into Greendale. Called "Professor Carcosa's Traveling Carnival and Phantasmagoria," this roaming attraction could be a reference to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and its carnival, "Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show." Much like in Bradbury's novel, the showpeople in Sabrina have dark secrets hidden behind smoke and mirrors - namely, that they're pagans who wish to return the world back to its "natural" roots and rid the Earth of all humans.
Much like the depiction of Satan-worshipping witches in the series (which aren't really a thing), these pagans are purely fictional and not meant to represent real-life practitioners. Many details about these characters are indeed accurate to certain pagan practices, especially their polytheism and kinship with nature.
However, the series' writers specifically depict pagans as universally dangerous. As Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto) says of them, "causing havoc" is their specialty. To borrow from Sabrina's sister series Riverdale, if the coven is the Southside Serpents, then the pagans are the Ghoulies (i.e., downright morally bankrupt).
And this isn't a particular sect of pagans who seek only mayhem and annihilation; all pagans in this universe are evil, period. This is particularly odd given that Season 3 takes pains to differentiate between the different sects of witchcraft, possibly as a means of alleviating previous fan outcry over the depiction of witchery as purely Satanic.
The Green Man Is A Symbol Of Humanity's Survival, Not Its Destruction
It is revealed late in the season that the pagans plan to use an ancient figure known as the Green Man to eradicate the Earth of humans. The figure appears as a towering, human-like structure made of plants and grass. Whether or not the Green Man is sentient isn't clear, but it requires a human sacrifice to be placed inside its torso in order to activate flowers growing from its body that simultaneously cause greenery to proliferate on Earth and turn all humans into weird plant zombies.
The Green Man in Sabrina is a clear reference to the legend of the Wicker Man and the 1972 film of the same name. But while the horror movie homage (something the series does well and often) is delightful, the Green Man depicted on the show has very little in common with its real-life counterpart.
According to Ancient Origins writer Riley Winters:
[T]he Green Man is believed to have been intended as a symbol of growth and rebirth, the eternal seasonal cycle of the coming of spring and the life of Man. This association stems from the pre-Christian notion that Man was born from nature, as evidenced by various mythological accounts of the way in which the world began, and the idea that Man is directly tied to the fate of nature. It is the natural changing of seasons that presents the passage of time that ages Man, thus by depicting the Green Man in such a way that overwhelmingly illustrates Man's relationship with nature highlights the idea to worshippers that one cannot survive without the other. This union with nature and mutual reliance upon one another is evidenced historically and archaeologically through Man's cultivation and development of the natural world, and the fruits nature thereby provided.
While the Green Man does also symbolize death, it isn't so much about annihilation as it is the natural cycle of life - all things are born, all things decay, and to a degree, all things are reborn.
Human Sacrifice May Or May Not Have Been Practiced
Folk horror films often depict paganism and human sacrifice as going hand-in-hand. Sabrina follows in this tradition with The Green Man. The pagans place Harvey (Ross Lynch) inside this tall, humanoid plant sculpture as a sacrifice to cleanse the Earth of humanity. This plot point is a clear reference to the climax of The Wicker Man, in which the cult burns the protagonist inside the titular effigy.
While modern-day pagans obviously do not ritualistically slay people, there is some evidence that ancient practitioners did. However, this evidence must be taken with a grain of salt. In an article about the rituals depicted in Midsommar, a film also heavily inspired by The Wicker Man, Telegraph writer Jason Goodwin notes:
According to Caesar, the Druidic priests of the Gauls burned the slaves and dependants [sic] of important people along with the body of their master... Caesar was hardly unbiased, though: he meant to extirpate the Druids and conquer the Gauls, so trash-talking them and their rituals was a good beginning. We may never quite know what the Druids really got up to...
While the pagans in Sabrina are a fictitious amalgamation of various ways and beliefs, it is odd that the writers would demonize them in this way. As The Mary Sue writer Jessica Mason comments, "The idea that the pagans were bad because they made human sacrifices to their god also wasn’t very meaningful, considering that many of our 'heroes,' until recently, worshipped the devil and ate people."
The Pagans Claim To Worship Old Gods, But The Old Gods Are Among Them
This is one of the more confusing aspects of Sabrina Season 3. Polytheistic pagans are certainly common, but why would old gods like Pan and Circe or a demigod like Nagaina (she's a Gorgon) walk among their own worshippers?
Is this meant to be a juxtaposition against the coven and their strict worshipping of gods and goddesses that are more remote? While Lucifer, their former god and source of power, sometimes appeared before members of the coven, he more or less kept his distance, and the same is true of Lilith, whom the coven prays to in Lucifer's absence. Perhaps this is meant to establish the pagans as more egalitarian, and thus, less likely to recognize hierarchies of power. If that's the case, why is this a bad thing?
Pan Is More Associated With Revelry Than Madness
"The great god Pan is amongst the oldest of the pagan monsters," says Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) of the Greek god, masquerading as the carnival's de facto leader Carcosa. "He is madness personified. His very gaze engenders insanity in witches and mortals alike."
This is somewhat true of Pan, according to his mythological origins. The word "panic" does derive from his name, but this is mainly due to Pan's shout and his occasional - and unintentional - ability to drive mortals mad with his presence. Overall, Pan isn't really a ferocious figure, but one of music and revelry.
Sabrina's depiction of Pan as an inducer of madness may be a reference to The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, a cosmic horror novella about humans going mad at the sight of an unseen force.
Pagans Are The Bad Guys, And Yet The Good Guys Worship A Pagan Goddess
With Lucifer out as the coven's main source of power, the Spellmans and their flock spend the majority of Season 3 seeking a new god or goddess to worship. They briefly put their faith in Lilith (Michelle Gomez), the queen-regent of Hell, but when she cannot restore their magic, the coven looks elsewhere, ultimately calling upon Hecate (also spelled Hekate), one of the most important figures in witchcraft, for a power boost that allows them to defeat the pagans once and for all.
There's one problem with this scenario: Hecate is of the same Greek pantheon as Pan and Circe, two of the very gods the coven wishes to defeat. In other words, the goddess is pagan.
It is established in the series that the old gods despise Satanic witches because they are derived from Christianity, the religion that largely wiped them out. This raises the question: why would another pagan goddess help the coven eliminate her own kind?