The eighth episode of Mythical Beasts on Science Channel aims to explore the origins of 16th century demons in Europe. It explains how they’re linked to fairies and witches, the role the Great Plague may have played, and how a third nipple could get you burnt at the stake.
This episode starts off dark, and only gets more morbid as it goes. In this case, it works out in favor of the entertainment aspect of the show, by offering to lure you further down the rabbit hole of curiosity with more scientific anecdotes than previous episodes offered.
In the beginning…
Mythical Beasts simplifies the origin story of demons as beginning within the pages of the Christian holy book, the Bible. They’re fallen angels in allegiance with biblical baddie Lucifer, and their goal is to corrupt humans, steal their souls, and win a war against God.
If that doesn’t sound rough enough, according to cultural historian Marion Gibson, a demon could come in any form, anywhere, at any time, and enter your body against your knowledge or will. She explains that medieval people believed anything from a mist in the forest to a piece of fruit could masquerade as a demon, and that simply eating or breathing could cause you to become possessed.
Onyeka Nubia, a medievalist, believes that what perpetuated the idea of demons was the combination of intense religious belief and lack of scientific understanding of the natural world, symptoms associated with illness, and then-unknown medical disorders. With no scientific knowledge, the only explanations were supernatural ones that played into the fears of the time. Witnessing someone have a seizure would be completely confounding, and could easily be misinterpreted as demonic possession.
According to Mythical Beasts, the only way to get rid of a demon, once a person becomes possessed, is to drive it out by placing the body under extreme stress. Calling an exorcist was generally in order and the methods of exorcism are walked through.
Archeologist and bone expert Trish Briers presents a 2,000-year-old skull with a deliberately scraped-out hole. Briers says there is documented evidence that this act, called trepanning or trepanation, was occurring in the medieval ages as another way to rid someone of demonic possession. The practice still goes on today, but it was an excruciating procedure to sit through without modern medical technology.
Comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg takes on the challenge of experimenting on a pig skull to show how trepanning would have worked during the medieval ages. There is no way to adequately describe the disturbing-yet-oddly-satisfying crunch in this cringeworthy, slightly stomach-churning procedure you’ll see performed in this scene of Mythical Beasts.
From exorcists to witchfinder armies
Archeologist Matt Champion explores sigils that were used to keep demons from entering buildings. The pentagram as we know it was once used as a method to trap demons and control them, and he explains how the once holy symbol was turned into something sinister.
Historian Lara Thorpe provides a demonstration of how a protective plague mask would have been worn, and she believes there’s a connection between demons and the terrifying disease. She explores the similarities of the idea of inhaling a demon and the belief of medieval medics that plague was caused by bad air.
Mythical Beasts digs into the belief that young, single women became prey for demons through otherworldly sexual encounters and favors, and in turn became witches that gained supernatural powers. The entire idea of witches and spellcasting can be simplified to finding someone to blame for anything negative happening, large or small.
Nick Barratt looks at a book that was used to classify and hunt humans that were accused of witchcraft called Daemonolgie, written by an educated, devout Christian man, King James VI of Scotland. He would eventually become King James I of England, and then release his own version of the Bible that would continue to be used as a means to spread hatred toward those identified as wrongdoers for centuries to come.
King James truly feared witches and ordered them to be wiped from the land. Witchfinders stepped up to the task and identification procedures were set up. The belief that witches would float in water, and non-witches would sink, is explored by physicist Scott Melville, as he performs a simple experiment to shed light on why more women than men may have been identified as witches.
Witch trials lasted for more than 300 years across England, with the last recorded death being an Irish woman suspected of being a fairy changeling, which is very similar to demonic possession. As science grew our understanding, the hysteria behind demons and possession began to pass.
There is darkness in the truth
This episode of Mythical Beasts is a bit of a change from the previous format. It does well to showcase how people in the medieval ages attempted to understand their natural surroundings by creating answers for things they didn’t understand. This episode is a perfect example of how fear of the unknown can become the entire basis for wild, lingering myths and rationalizing unspeakable acts of harm.
It’s the darkest episode thus far and part of that may be because it’s no longer limited to obvious CGI animations and gorgeous sketches; we have our first live action bits! These dramatically change the feel of the show and help to make a much needed connection between the viewer and the experiences of people of the past.
Surely some will dispute the pentacle being King Solomon’s sigil, rather than the Star of David, and there will be those that will debate the idea that bad air causing the Black Death was the most prolific medical theory of disease. We should also acknowledge that trepanation had other uses, and evidence supports it existed even during the Neolithic period.
The major upset with this episode of Mythical Beasts in relation to the series is that there is no explanation how demons came to be. Yes, they were written into the Bible, but there’s no mention that Lucifer (the morning-star associated with Venus) and many Pagan gods of the ancient times would wind up becoming the demons of the Abrahamic texts.
It seems like they sidestepped bringing forward the mythos, as in previous episodes on the Kraken, Minotaur, and Sphinx, after building up a fairly clear vision of those entities. This would have been a great place to discuss how the Abrahamic religions appropriated the pagan pantheons.
Maybe it isn’t addressed because it’s something to be brought up in the future, or maybe religion is simply too tricky and sensitive of a subject to dive into on television, and we should all just draw our own conclusions. It would be somewhat understandable that the Science Channel may like to avoid alienating some of their viewers.
This episode of Mythical Beasts does a good job up stepping up as close as possible to that proverbial religious edge, without jumping off. To end this episode questioning the patriarchy while pondering the murders of tens of thousands of people in the name of religious belief without coming off as pushy or anti-religious is actually pretty damn impressive, even ballsy.
You can catch the demon episode of Mythical Beasts tonight at 10:00 pm eastern time on the Science Channel.