Dante's Cove has really captured my attention as a person who is infatuated with magical things. Sometimes I wonder how much the writers even actually know about magical history. I mean, from the interviews it sounds like they're just making it up as they go along, but maybe all those years of movies have finally paid off in giving people a rudimentary (though skewed) understanding of magic. So, what I'm going to do is go through some of the main elements from the show and talk about them in the context of the show and also in the context of general magical history and theory. I'll be looking at these pieces, basically in the order in which they appeared in the show.
The Magic of Dante's Cove
Western Witch Cults
One of the things that's blaringly obvious to me is that the magic of Tresum, the witchcraft of Dante's Cove, is not indigenous to the tropical island where they live. It is TOTALLY based on concepts of western European witch cults, ala the work of Margaret Murray. It's unclear where the island of Dante's Cove exists (it's actually been filmed on both the Turks and Caicos and Hawaii), but either way original island religions tend to be more focused on the environment of the island and on ancestor worship. Tresum on the other hand is more of an astrologically oriented practice, with lots of focus on family lineage, book lore, elemental correspondences, and lots of other traits that to me scream western Europe. So, I see this practice as a transplanted magical tradition, completely unassociated with any indigenous religious practices.
Family Traditions of Witchcraft
One of the things that we learn very early on in the series is that Tresum is a family tradition of Witchcraft. Grace inherited her power from her mother and she becomes the nominal head of the family coven (though they are never explicitly called as such). In the first season we see that there is a twist in this family tradition though. Once the head of the family line has produced a female heir and the child reaches a certain age the father is killed and all of his power is taken by the mother. Call me crazy, but I wouldn't want to be a part of that family trad. In the sequence of events Grace was supposed to marry Ambrosius, however because of Ambrosius's gay affair with the servant Reynaldo the tradition became suspended in time. Grace could not move on from Ambrosius, and Ambrosius would never fall in love with Grace, and thus never produce an heir to Tresum. So, the two of them have been suspended in time for the last 150 years. Family traditions are something that are hotly contested when they are revealed, and sometimes they are even the butt of jokes. When anyone says that they learned about Witchcraft from their great great auntie or something they get a lot of eye rolls. Whether or not any actual evidence exists for family trads the idea that they could have existed is definitely out there
The first stirrings of magic that we see used in Dante's Cove are curses. Grace uses her power to inflict a curse upon Ambrosius to be horribly aged and that only the kiss of a handsome youth will set him free. This was the most obvious curse used so far, but I believe that the death spells could be counted among curses. Cursing has been around as long there have been things to curse. Ancient curse tablets have been found from some of the earliest civilizations. Whether or not those curses worked is another matter entirely.
The Book of Shadows
While never explicitly stated that this was a "book of shadows" that is in essence what the Book of Tresum is. For whatever reason the island historical society acquired all these objects relating to the families of Grace and Ambrosius (never mind the fact that they're both still very much alive) and among those objects was the book of Tresum. In season one Van finds the book and uses it to release Kevin of the spell that Ambrosius used to make him his thrall. In season two we find out that there is more than one Book of Tresum, and that Van can't read all of the book, but she can read some of it. All of these will be explained below. Grimoires have been around for centuries. Books like The Key of Solomon and the Black Pullet were discovered in the late middle-ages. The idea of having a magical book associated with a tradition of Witchcraft, however, is mostly an invention of Wicca, which is a 20th century development.
Another thing that is never explicitly stated but that we see occurring is that someone will materialize (Grace or Ambrosius) practically out of nowhere only to dematerialize shortly thereafter. Sometimes they are actually physical, but other times they are little more than spirit. So, there are actually two elements to this, one is astral projection the other is more teleportation.
While we don't see typical spiritualist styled table tapping or seances, we do encounter spirit children. They remind me of the children from "The Shining," but they have some other kind of role to play. That role is still unclear as they didn't make much of an appearance in season 2. If you look at the image below you can see the painting between Grace and Van is actually of the two spirit children.
Van being an artist (as you can see from this image) lends herself to being open to creating sigils, practically without realizing it. One of the more striking images was a specific painting (the image of which I couldn't find) with an inverted red pentacle two large eyes and lots of jangley scribbling in the background. When Grace first saw this image she was immediately struck with the vision of Ambrosius having sex with Reynaldo. That's what sigil magic is supposed to do, drill into your third eye and leave a huge psychic impression upon the viewer, and Van captured that without even realizing she was doing it. Sigil magic is something that became more important with the work of the Chaos magicians, particularly the work of Austin Osman Spare.
One of the elements particular to the western magical traditions are the concept of degrees. It's generally accepted that this practice comes from Masonry and other Lodge traditions. Wicca usually operates on a system of three degrees roughly equivalent to initiate, apprentice, and high priest. Apparently the religion of Tresum has a system of degrees as well. At the very least from what we've seen in the show we know that there are two degrees of Avatar (high priestess) and Aspirant (initiate). The website indicates that there are two other middle ranking degrees.
Masculine/Feminine Sun/Moon Polarity Balance
Where this season REALLY caught my attention was right here. One of the plotpoints that we learn about early on is that there is not just one tradition of Tresum, but there are two and possibly even three. In season 2 episode 2 we learn about Diana and her father (also Grace's father) and about how their father was a priest of Tresum, of the Sun house. Tresum is apparently a masculine/feminine polarity based magic, where women are affiliated with a house of the moon and men are associated with the house of the sun. This is a VERY common practice in modern witchcraft traditions, and it's a hotly debated topic among queer people. Must there be masculine/feminine polarity in order to have a balanced magical working? This is where we learn that there is a second book of Tresum, a book for the House of the Sun the male lineage, and that the female line threw the entire lineage out of whack. It appears that the new character Diana's ulterior motive was to bring the balance back to the two houses, and according to the website there is some prophecy about a third house (Sky) that will combine the magic of the two. This thrilled me to the core.
Moon and Water. Sun and Fire. When we learn about the two different houses we learn that they have elemental correspondences as well. These are standard correspondences in the western magical traditions. I don't think I need to go on about them. These are the only elements that were discussed in the series though others were discussed on the website.
Love Charms and Free Will
There were hella huge problems with free will and love charms this season, and last season too, but we didn't know about it! One of the common ethical quandaries in discussions about Witchcraft is about messing with other people's free will. There was lots of that last season with Ambrosius and Kevin, and that continued this season. What we witnessed though was that there was a specific love charm employed, an enchanted doll. The doll itself had a spell upon it such that anyone who came into contact with it would fall in love with the next person that they saw. But it's powers weren't 100% effective. For those with weak wills (Kevin's friends) it was extremely powerful, but for others with stronger wills (Toby) it was not. This also kind of reminds me of poppet magic as well. The strongest problem with messing with someone's free will though was Van erasing Michelle's memory. Sadly there was very little in the way of a comfortable resolution to that.
Astrology & Power Points of the year
Okay, this has been my biggest pet peeve of this entire season. I don't mind that the writers are recognizing that the solstice is an important power point in the year, and one where things switch. There's reason for that. But please, if you're going to use astrological nomenclature, for the love of god let it make sense. The most major plotpoint of this season was that there was a "Libra Solstice." *eye rolls* No. There is no solstice in Libra. The solstices happen on June 21st (roughly the beginning of Cancer and end of Gemini), and December 21st (between Sagittarius and Capricorn). Libra falls right IN BETWEEN the solstices, at the AUTUMNAL EQUINOX. *sigh* Now, there could have been a couple of other explanations behind what they meant by a "Libra Solstice." Perhaps it had something to do with the procession of the equinoxes. See, the astrological calendar is a little askew because, well we have a galactic rotational cycle of about 26,000 years as well as our own little orbit. You know that we're "at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius?" Yeah, well, that's because we've rotated out of the galactic cycle for Pisces and Aquarius is next on the list. If we go by the procession of the equinoxes in order for us to have a Libra solstice we have to have equinoxes in either Capricorn (the next on the cycle of succession after Aquarius) or in Cancer. Given that we technically haven't even begun to hit the age of Aquarius (it technically arrives sometime around 2600 C.E.) we're not going to hit the age of Capricorn until the year 4800 C.E. Now they could have meant some other kind of thing as in each year has some astrological sign associated with it or something, but I don't think there's any kind of precedent for that. Or alternately they could have meant that there were a preponderance of proper planetary influences in Libra, but that's not what they said. Who knows what they meant really. I'm obviously overanalyzing something that they totally made up without thinking.
The final thing that blew my mind, in a good way, a VERY good way, was to see the resolution of the "Saint" subplot. Throughout the course of season 2 we see a few characters who have become addicted to this plant drug that they call "saint." It basically is a vine or a root that is ingested and produces a kind of euphoria in people. However, in the final episode of this season we see Grace using the plant. Van calls her out on it and Grace explains that the plant is called "Starflower" and that the Tresum witches have used it for centuries as a means of inducing trance. This is a classic case of the difference between the Shaman or Witch who ingests a plant in order to commune with the spirit of that plant and to receive visions from the green world as opposed to the uneducated stoner who ingests the plant to go on a trip. The drug is too potent for the uninitiated, and they don't know how to control themselves. The Tresum witches though have rituals associated with the use of the plant and know it's purpose and it's power and respect it as such. That was an amazing reveal. There was one element that was a little strange though. After Van came in contact with the starflower she was suddenly able to read the book of Tresum in its entirety. As if the magical language was only clear after having touched the plant. Honestly, I don't know of any plant drugs that make reading easier, if anything they make it more difficult because of the spinning visuals and colors. Entheogens are plants that are believed to have godlike powers dwelling within them. Common ones are the Death Vine, Banisteriopsis Capii, which is used to make the purgative hallucinogen ayahuasca; Salvia Divinorum, a part of the sage family that creates a misty, cloudy, out of body experience; Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, aka the magic mushroom which produces heighted awareness in dreams and gives the body a floating feeling; and Jimson Weed, Datura Stramonium, which raises the pulse, sometimes to the point of heart arrhythmia, gives the "pins and needles" sensation of the entire nervous system and sometimes causes mental dissociation. All of these plants have been used by Shamans and Witches for centuries in order to produce intense visions and out of body experiences. The Starflower seems to be extremely similar.
This entire essay was an exercise really. I mean, I can't believe for a minute that the writers of the show actually understand these things in the same way that people who study this stuff actually understand it. But it does amaze me when I see things done that are done right. And I feel like this season there were two really good amazing highlights. I'm glad I've continued watching it.