‘Charmed’: 10 Demons Who Actually Had Roots in Myth & Literature
From 1998 to 2006, fans tuned in to the supernatural fantasy phenomena Charmed to watch the Halliwell sisters fighting to protect innocents and banish the evils lurking in every corner of San Francisco. For eight seasons, the original series followed the trio of witches working together with the ‘power of three’ to take down the creatures of the underworld. To the show’s credit, fans suspended their disbelief that all the evils of the underworld were wreaking their hellish havoc right there on the West Coast.
Watching the witches balance boyfriends, businesses, and occasional run-ins with forces of pure evil was a weekly treat. But it was the demons of Charmed who sometimes stole the show. Many of the supernatural creatures who appeared in the series have their roots in classical myth, folklore and literature. While sometimes staying true to the original myths, there are also a lot of occasions when Charmed took creative license and adapted the characters to modernize or menace.
Of Celtic mythological origins, the tale of the banshee (or bean sidhe) began in the 8th century. The banshee is a fairy who attaches herself to a family, and her wail foretells of the impending death of a family member. She takes many physical forms, appearing variously as a hag, a young woman, a washer woman or a matron.
The banshee is re-imagined in Charmed as a demon preying on pain and suffering. In legends and folklore, the banshee doesn’t kill anyone. Rather, she is a harbinger of death, foreshadowing but not causing it. The Charmed interpretation has the banshee screaming at people until they bleed out of their eyes. A little dramatic license never killed anyone, except for the people who bled to death from the face.
Furies were Greek goddesses born of the blood that fell from Ouranos when his son, the Titan Cronos, castrated him. They have a particular interest in bringing justice to family matters, given that they were created from a gruesome family feud. Pitiless punishers of mortals who have immorally shed blood, they were sometimes depicted as having wings symbolizing swift vengeance. Identified in some sources as sisters, they were hideous women with snakes in their hair and around their arms.
Given that Piper became a fury when grieving the death of her sister Prue, this idea sits quite neatly with the concept of furies being connected with family feuds and unfair bloodshed. But there are some departures from the originating myths: these furies breathe smoke, and the snakes entwining their arms are a more cast and budget-friendly body paint.
The Jinn or djinn featured in Arabic mythology – they can take human or animal form, or inhabit inanimate objects. The “genie in a bottle” trope first appeared in One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, a famous collection of Middle Eastern tales told by Scheherazade. Genies are not inherently evil, and have the ability to punish or bring inspiration.
The Genie of Charmed follows the trickster trope well – he makes choices about being good or evil, choosing to punish or help. Following the Arabian Nights tradition of living in a bottle, this genie takes human form as French Stewart, and at one point as Prue’s date, adopting the metamorphosis of the Jinn of folklore.
With origins in Norse myth, in the earliest legends the Valkyries were demons of death. Riding dragons or white horses through the sky, the Valkyries gathered the heroic dead from the battlefield for the army of Odin in Valhalla.
The Book of Shadows entry on Valkyries is spot-on, stating that they “scout battlegrounds for dying warriors then take their souls to Valhalla…” But there’s a great deal of artistic license taken with the Valkyries steeds, which are Harley-Davidsons in this iteration. Another departure from myth is the location of Valhalla. The Charmed Ones find Valhalla in The Maldives, which seems an unlikely locale for Odin’s heavenly Hall of the Slain.
Hecate is the Greek goddess of necromancy and farming, bizarrely combining death and fertility. When Persephone was abducted, Hecate used her torch to help find her, and was thereafter attributed to torches at crossroads. Her domain is thresholds and boundaries, and Hecate is sometimes depicted as having three faces to see in all directions.
The Charmed story of Hecate’s attempt to consummate with an abducted groom and kill him does some justice to the connection between fertility and death in the originating myths. But the original Hecate presides over earth, sea and sky, not the underworld as Charmed posits. The creators have also opted for a serious make-under, giving Hecate a monstrous appearance, which may have offended the ancient Athenians who held her in high regard.
The succubus was identified in Judeo-Christian folklore as Lilith, and appears in the 1487 treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum. There are various takes on the succubus, and she also appears in Sumerian, Greek and Roman folklore. She tends to be a demon disguised as a beautiful woman who seduces men, draining their life with a kiss.
In some tales, she comes to men in their sleep, which explains why Phoebe first connects with the succubus in her dreams. But there isn’t any mention of a terrifying, testosterone tongue-snake in the original stories. The Malleus Maleficarum also notes that to vanquish a succubus, one must confess their sins, which would have made for a decidedly duller final showdown for The Charmed Ones.
In Greek mythological tradition, the Titans were the offspring of heaven and earth. Older than the Olympian gods, Hesiod‘s Theogony mentions twelve original Titans. They overthrew their father, but then Zeus, son of the Titan Cronus, engaged a ten-year battle with the Titans for supreme control.
Charmed ticks the boxes of the Titans being very large and supremely powerful, their defeat only being possible at the hands of Gods. However, viewers will need to suspend their disbelief to accept that the all-mighty Cronus was defeated and sent to Hades, which seems to be localized entirely beneath a home in San Francisco.
Luring men to their deaths with a lethal song, the siren is a half-bird, half-woman, most well-known for her mention in Homer‘s Odyssey. Odysseus had his men put bees wax in their ears and tied himself to the mast when their ship traveled past the sirens. Avoiding the siren’s song would be the only way to pass alive, as their song causes anyone who hears it to blindly follow and crash on rocky shores.
The biggest difference here is that Melinda Clarke has human legs and is not, in fact, half bird. There’s also not a shipwreck in sight, and all of this siren’s conquests take place on solid ground. She does sing a song that casts a spell on her prey, but that’s where the similarities with the originating myth stop.
Of Persian and Greek origins, the manticore (from the Persian ‘man-eater’) is similar to a chimera. With a lion’s body, a human head and a venomous, spiky tail, the manticore was included in Naturalis Historia as though it were a real animal. It has a loud trumpet-like roar, three rows of teeth and red skin.
The manticore of Charmed doesn’t seem to have any of these characteristics, aside from some nasty looking chompers. This manticore is more of a lizard person than the whacky composite creature of myth. The Book of Shadows entry on the creature mentions venomous claws, a slight departure from the scorpion-like tails of mythological manticores.
Of ancient Greek origins, Harpies were first described as personifications of storm and wind. Their interpretation morphed over the centuries, and they came to be known as half-bird, half-woman monsters who stole men from battlefields or abducted children. Similar to Valkyries, Harpies punish evil-doers, and work with the Furies to enact vengeance on the guilty.
The leather-clad Harpy Queen of Charmed lacks any bird-like features. Only appearing briefly, it’s hard to discern how much credence the creators have given to her original backstory. Yet on appearance alone, nothing about this character says “Harpy”.