Conjure up the mean girls in your high school. Their very human capabilities of spreading rumors and doling out dirty looks were probably unpleasant enough on their own. Now, imagine they could cast spells — and had bad intentions. That's what Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) must contend with even before starting at the Academy of Unseen Arts in the new Netflix show, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The mean girl clique's formal name — because let's face it, most mean girl cliques have one — is the Weird Sisters. Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Dorcas (Abigail Cowen), and Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) slink around with identical, slithery gaits, wearing the same frock in different hues. Technically, the Weird Sisters are all orphans who were raised as sisters. Prudence is the obvious leader, Dorcas is the obvious follower, and Agatha has the most purely evil streak.
Though they're probably loathe to admit it, the Weird Sisters' brand is hardly original. The Weird Sisters of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina stem from a long line of other witches in literature and pop culture who group themselves in threes, dating all the way back to ancient mythology. Both Greek and Norse mythology feature a trio of witches who determine the course of a person's life using a cosmically important thread: One witch unspools the thread, one measures, and one snips. The Fates, as these witches are called in Greek mythology, appear in the Underworld in Hercules. In Norse myths, these arbiters of destiny are the Norns.
Examples of the witch trio are all over modern pop culture, too. The Charmed Ones in Charmed, both the original show and the current CW reboot, are comprised of three witches. When Prue (Shannon Doherty) died on the original Charmed, her two sisters conveniently discover they have a secret half-sister (Rose McGowan) who can join their coven. There is no summoning "the power of three" if there are only two witches. Further proof of the witch trio abounds: The Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus the friends-turned-witches in The Witches of Eastwick, the Kindly Ones in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, and even the cosmic beings Mrs. Whosit, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which in A Wrinkle in Time. In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina and her two aunts, Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) fit the trope's mold, too.
Often, witch trios are representative of the cycle of life. The Greek goddess Hecate had three faces: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. Standing at a crossroads where the past, present, and future meet, Hecate encompasses the phases in a woman's life. As a nod to Hecate, the website TVTropes refers to all (magical and nonmagical) formations of three women in different life stages as "the Hecate Sisters." In American Horror Story: Coven, Fiona (Jessica Lange) is the cold and experienced crone, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) the coven's aspiring mother, and Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) the maiden, just coming into her powers and sexuality. There's flexibility to this trope. In the movie Practical Magic, Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock) is the mother because she has children, her free-spirited sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman) is the maiden, and their two older aunts form the crone together.
A group of three magical women can't be reduced to a descriptor like 'evil' or 'good.'
The most iconic witch group of them all, though, is undeniably the Weird Sisters who begin Shakespeare's Macbeth with the foreboding line, "Double double toil and trouble," and proceed to spin Macbeth like a top. Like the Fates in ancient mythology, the Weird Sisters in Macbeth could predict the future. And if the show is based on the original comic books, there's a chance Sabrina's Weird Sisters will possess the same power of prognostication. In the comic book series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Weird Sisters predict that witches will have to start having children with humans if their race is to survive.
But why is culture populated by groups of three witches, not one witch acting independently, like Mrs. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina? In terms of disposition, there's certainly a gulf between Sabrina's two witch trios – the Weird Sisters and the Spellmen women — and Mrs. Wardwell. The trios contain their own politics and personalities. They are representative of a woman-centric community that forms adjacent to the patriarchy, coalesced by its own customs. Without any trace of the bonds that bind even the most morally questionable witches together, Mrs. Wardwell is just plain sinister.
A group of three magical women can't be reduced to a descriptor like "evil" or "good." Even the Weird Sisters in Sabrina have mutable moral alignment. Throughout the show, Agatha, Dorcas, and Prudence go on respective journeys towards and away from the conventional understanding of goodness — and so do the Spellmans. These trios are complicated ecosystems of female power (and friendship, and love).
Notably, the orphaned Sabrina doesn't grow up in the quintessential heteronormative "human" trinity of a father, mother, and child. She's one prong of a complicated (and glorious) Hecate trilogy. The Spellman witches challenge each other, check each other, and teach each other. They provide an image of an unconventional, but wholly valid, family unit. Together, their shifting dynamic is complicated enough move the show's plot along. Three is a magic number indeed.