Abby is nervous. This weekend, the high school junior will take the SAT for the first time and has a very specific score in mind. In order to ease her “total fear of failure,” Abby (who, like many of the women interviewed for this story, asked not to share her full name) turns to her blog on Tumblr.
At first glance, Abby’s Tumblr looks like any you’d expect from a suburban 17 year old: There are memes, GIFs of Grimes, and snippets of Maya Angelou’s poetry spliced together in a vivid collage of modern girlhood. Where Abby’s blog starts to look unfamiliar, however, is in the collection of posts with custom sigil designs, tarot readings, and high-definition pictures of crystals. Unlike most others who will be taking the SAT this weekend, Abby is a digital witch.
“It’s times like this I’m really glad I have my practice,” she says as she starts typing up a fresh blog post. Instead of unloading her fears and frustrations into a wordy diatribe, Abby carefully crafts a string of emoji: books, sparkles, a pen, the sun — which she then works backward so the line mirrors itself. Beneath this, she adds the caption: “Spell for success on all of your tests! Likes charge it, and reblogs cast it.”
Abby has been practicing witchcraft since she was 14 years old. She says her interest in magic started much earlier than that, but it wasn’t until she first came across an emoji spell on Tumblr that she realized that her interest had a practical application. “I think the person who reblogged it was trying to be ironic,” Abby says. “But whatever. I was hooked.”
Within just a few hours, Abby’s spell has over 400 likes and reblogs. “It’s getting powerful,” she says with a grin.
Even for a centuries-old practice, witchcraft is remarkably popular in 2016. In 2009, ABC News reported that the number of self-identifying Wiccans in the United States had increased to 342,000, up from 134,000 in 2001 (a number that’s significantly smaller than practitioner counts for major religions, but higher than that of Scientology and Neo-Druidism). Meanwhile, the more loosely defined, individualized, do-it-yourself practice of “witchcraft” has become trendy: Last year, the New Republic proclaimed “The Rise of the Hipster Witch”; also in 2015, a Guardianstory referenced Azealia Banks’ magic-infused Twitter rants and American Horror Story: Coven as indicators that witchcraft is an ascendant, female-driven youth movement. Just earlier this year, hundreds of witches made the news when they banded together to hex Brock Turner.
Witchcraft is one of the few spiritual schools that, even in its most primitive stages, has always been associated with women.
For today’s young, outspoken witches, the online world is integral to their practice. The #witch tag on Instagram boasts more than two million images of crystals, altars, and black-and-white portraits; a Tumblr search for emoji spells like Abby’s yield hundreds of incantations for love, protection, and the disempowerment of misogynists: “A curse on ANYONE that leaks anyone’s nudes, specifically Leslie Jones’s,” one reads.
The popularity of emoji spells has drawn some critics (even from fellow witches) who argue that today’s digital witchcraft is consumeristormeaningless. “There is no practice being put in place by reblogging a line of emojis,” Tumblr user aspiritual wrote in May. “If you want to cast magic with emojis, actually put some time and energy into it.” Yet, rather than viewing the spread of digital witchcraft as the religious equivalent of sharing a BuzzFeed post, digital witches I spoke with expressed how online witchcraft is a spiritual path that moves at the speed of pop culture, a fact that magnifies its relevance, and perhaps even its radicalism.
D, 23, has been a practicing witch for five years. She says she grew up in a strict Christian household and attended church every Sunday until she was 18. Though her congregation celebrated the principles of love and acceptance, D describes how the community around the church fed off of petty gossip and how her discomfort with the church grew when, as a young teenager, she realized she was bisexual. “I knew that, no matter what they said, I would never be accepted,” she says. “It would be like a literal witch hunt,” she adds with a laugh.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that witchcraft is gaining in popularity just as America’s predominant, far more traditional faith is on the decline. Between 2007 and 2014 alone, the number of Americans who identified as Christian (including Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic) fell sharply from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent; in 2014, only 56 percent of Millennials identified as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. The same survey, meanwhile, found that those participating in non-Christian faiths jumped from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent from 2007 to 2014, and that the 1.2 percent uptick was comprised mostly of Millennials. Though young Americans are shunning organized religion, they are more in touch with their spirituality than ever before.
In Christianity, doubt can jeopardize one’s status as a Christian or eligibility for eternal life. But for some witches, the practice’s space for doubt (while some witches pride themselves on never questioning their practice, others admit to experiencing a daily struggle with their belief) gives them the strength to believe. “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s real or not,” Sam, 20, says. “I recognize that, even if it’s [all a] placebo effect, and I’m actually doing absolutely nothing, I feel better and have made a positive change without harming anyone else.”
The longstanding intersection of witchcraft and feminism gives the practice additional appeal for young women in particular: Witchcraft is one of the few spiritual schools that, even in its most primitive stages, has always been associated with women. Some strains of witchcraft explicitly position themselves as alternatives to more patriarchal forms of faith: In her essay “Queering Feminist Witchcraft,” Catherine Telford-Keogh studies “Goddess Centered Feminist Witchcraft,” which, by her description, “places women’s experiences, such as menstruation and childbirth, at the center of spiritual practice.” For Telford-Keogh and many more women, this practice affirms goddess-worshipping and female-centric spirituality is not simply an alternative to the patriarchy, but a natural and intrinsic path.
In modern times, witchcraft has developed directly alongside the feminist movement. In the 1970s, second-wave feminism explored Wicca and Neo-Paganism, leading to Generation X’s fascination with all things New Age. Today, “this [witchcraft] trend is tied to the rise of a new wave of feminism, and is also a response to living in an increasingly digital culture divested from nature,” says Kristen Korvette, New School lecturer and author of the forthcoming book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive. “Witchcraft is self-directed and isn’t built upon the subjugation of women as so many major religions are, which is one reason it’s so appealing.”
Each of the 10 witches I spoke with considers themselves active participants in the feminist cause — several use their magical rituals to invoke political progress for women. Sam says her beliefs as a witch and a feminist developed separately, but are now intertwined. “Feminism is certainly close to magic and witchcraft, because it is historically a women’s practice and women were the ones persecuted the worst for it,” she says. “It’s baffling how people talk about the witch trials as if they’re just a weird thing that happened and weren’t an enormous crime against women.”
Though in recent years, contemporary mainstream religion has adapted to be more feminist-friendly, for many, news items like Pope Francis’ recent criticism that the Catholic Church is “obsessed” with the abortion issue don’t do enough (the Church’s stance on abortion has not actually changed since he became pope). “That’s just it,” D says. “Why does the church think that having a female preacher suddenly makes up for thousands of years? Why not just start from scratch somewhere else?”
Historically,one of the most powerful (and dangerous) statements for a woman to make was to proclaim herself a witch—as recently as the 1940s, self-identification could have warranted imprisonment. “Choosing to practice witchcraft can still be a very subversive act in certain communities because it often means rejecting patriarchal ideology and embracing female agency, whether it be spiritual, sexual, or philosophical,” Korvette says. “There is liberation in reclaiming a word and an identity that has been manipulated to ostracize, torture, and murder women for centuries.”
Though a modern-day, digital witch might not protect her identity as rigidly as a woman living in, say, Salem Village in 1692, secrecy remains a self-preserving principle online. Anonymity can preclude the judgments of friends and family members who don’t understand, or the aggression of anonymous Internet users on forums on 4Chan and Reddit. Many of the witches I spoke to said they had received hate mail or threatening messages one or more times; these messages, they say, range from the casual troll saying “you’re hot for an old witch!” with innuendos relating to magic in the bedroom, to more threatening direct messages with heavy Christian overtones. Modern witches agree that their practice still isn’t socially accepted — and isn’t likely to be at any point in the near future.
“There is liberation in reclaiming a word and an identity that has been manipulated to ostracize, torture, and murder women for centuries.”
The Internet provides a flexible middle ground where a witch can choose to reveal as much or as little about her true identity as she feels comfortable doing: Tumblr in particular, where a few pictures and first names are the only identifying information for most, often acts as a home base for digital witches.
The anonymity of the Internet has also helped make digital witchcraft a safer space for marginalized groups. The online witch community takes pride in its position as a magical shelter for those facing other forms of discrimination in their day-to-day lives: Groups like the Asian Witchcraft Assemblage, The Queer Witch Collective, and Black Femme Witches Brew all cater to specific subsets of the witching world and work to embrace aspects of identity, share information, and foster a worldwide network of like-minded practitioners.
Dalia (whose name has been changed for this story) is a 19-year-old, self-proclaimed “brown, trans witch queen.” She tells me that, during her high school years, witchcraft acted as a digital shelter that helped her deal with the bullying that she says she faced on a near-constant basis. It also helped her connect with other trans women around the world; witchcraft, she ways, helped her navigate her identity in a “really positive, eye-opening way” that she “had never been allowed before.”
Posing a challenge to its openness, however, is witchcraft’s current popularity as a consumer trend. In the new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Movement, Andi Zeisler argues that“marketplace feminism” — selling feminism as a consumable brand, or, in layman’s terms, reducing complex philosophical ideas to a slogan that can fit on a Beyoncé T-shirt — dilutes its strength as a political movement.
In Los Angeles, an aspiring witch can now buy a bundle of sage or a ritual candle in “artisanal goods” shops; in New York, blogger Gala Darling hosts a “Bad Witch Workout,” an exercise class for “people who wear make-up to the gym.” Subscription boxes like Witch Crate promise a “monthly brew of witchery” delivered directly to one’s door, while the young women’s website College Fashion explains that witchcraft is “not a trend for believing in the supernatural; it’s a trend for the postmodern belief in believing in it.”
Just as marketplace feminism has watered down and commodified a long-standing quest for gender equality, marketplace witchcraft has the capacity to threaten the legitimacy and security that witches have worked for so long to build: A 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that sexualized images decreasesupport for “ethical campaigns” among both men and women.
Marketplace witchcraft has the capacity to threaten the legitimacy and security that witches have worked for so long to build.
Trendiness, moreover, threatens witchcraft’s status as a protected space for women of color and LGBTQ groups. When white witches take pieces of Santeria and hoodoo that suit their needs but fail to acknowledge the roots of those practices, witches of color say it’s an example of cultural appropriation. “We have a ways to go before witches of color can really feel welcome and appreciated and safe,” Sam says.
Witchcraft’s current popularity as an aesthetic movement raises another question: How will the emoji spell fare when the iPhone is obsolete? Is witchcraft merely a fantastical online escape, never meant to survive in the real world?
It’s not an unfamiliar query for witches today, as media outlets wonder whether the practice is a passing fad. And yet: Witchcraft has existed for thousands of years. There will always be a witch to practice it, on or off Tumblr. The current media attention may even increase the practice’s popularity in the long run, Korvette argues. “Media representations of witches and witchcraft can be addictively fun to watch, even if those representations aren’t necessarily based in reality,” she says. “With any luck, some will be drawn to the trend, but end up digging deeper.”
Digital witchcraft provides an exciting and inclusive way in to the practice— with a bar as low as typing a crystal ball emoji into Tumblr, and goals as lofty as coming to terms with one’s identity. And though it may have some trappings of a trend, it is a trend borne out of necessity. To be a girl in 2016 can be frustrating, confusing, and lonely. For today’s young digital witches, finding and exercising the very real magic they possess is a powerful act.