It’s no secret by now that witchcraft is having a moment. If your algorithms haven’t led you to #witchtok (the wildly popular TikTok hashtag, which has grown from 6 million to 6 billion views since January), then maybe you’ve seen members of the witchcraft community making headlines for hexing the moon and Donald Trump, among other things.
Young people have long been moving away from organised religion, and towards spirituality and self-care (millennials, I’m looking at you). Now, thousands of gen Zers are becoming witches from their bedrooms. You can see why: the world in 2020 is a messy mix of late-stage capitalism, culture wars and an overwhelming climate crisis. The practice of magic—which involves tapping into the power of nature and the self—feels like both a reaction and an antidote to the world we find ourselves in.
Then there’s that tiny weeny pandemic. More uncertainty and more spare time, which we’ve mostly spent online, looking to cure our existential crises. Witchcraft, it seems, is one of those answers. Make no mistake, magic isn’t new to the internet: witches have been forming online communities since the internet’s inception. But these pockets of Reddit or Tumblr have largely stayed out of public consciousness until now.
This feels different. We are seeing the mass adoption of an ancient spiritual practice happening almost entirely via people’s phones. More than that, this surge of activity in the witch community is spawning entirely new forms of the craft, with new witches harnessing the digital tools that are now just as much a part of our ecosystem as the plants, stones or household objects that have been used historically.
Our devices are undoubtedly a powerful source of energy. Not only are they electronic, but they now process pretty much every thought, feeling, desire, and curiosity that we have. Witches like Nancy (@thehomebrewwitch) are sharing spells that can be cast using technology, while practising ‘techwitch’ Maxine (@spookthespoon) tells me how they “use games such as Minecraft to set up virtual altars, create art pieces based on [their] craft or cast spells,” explaining how “it’s a great way to have fun with your craft” and “can be cheaper and easier for those starting out.” Emojis, meanwhile, have reached their ultimate symbolic potential, being repurposed by many as sigils, which are groups of symbols that are used in spells to represent a desired outcome.
Aryn (@driftwooddreamer), who identifies as a green witch, describes how some tech witches harness electronic energy in their magic using circuit boards to charge their crystals. For her, the use of technology is simply more practical. “Whenever I find medicinal plants that I want to work with I have to memorise where they are, so I use Google Maps. I’ll put a pin that says, like, ‘rosemary’ on the map, so then, whenever I want to find rosemary, I can just look at Google Maps to find the herb I’m looking for.” For identifying plants, instead of carrying books around with her, she uses plant identifier apps like PlantSnap.
Tech is, crucially, the ultimate educational tool. The witchcraft community has a complex past, plagued by oppression, violence and, more recently, racism and cultural appropriation. Having infinite access to information via our phone screens might make it easier to borrow from other cultures, but it also makes education completely non-negotiable. New witches are using the internet to actively work against the spiritual colonialism of previous decades, encouraging each other to educate themselves of the history, nuances and sensitivities of various traditions.
“Google is [a witch’s] best friend,” eclectic witch McKenzie (@mckenzie.limonoff) tells me, and it’s true. There’s infinite Youtube videos and TikToks, Instagram accounts and Reddit feeds, plus a host of Google Classrooms and Discord servers that have been set up by witches to learn and collaborate together. Armed with knowledge, young witches are able to practice respectfully and creatively, carving out their own craft using whatever feels authentic to them.
This joyful emphasis on respect, accessibility and democracy seems to define the mood of the Witchtok generation. Rallying against the pretty gross commercialisation that witchcraft has seen over recent years (see the ‘Starter Witch Kit’ that was created and later cancelled by Sephora after accusations of ‘spiritual theft’), younger witches are championing the resourcefulness of their predecessors, shunning overpriced, over-marketed, mass-manufactured tools and accessories in favour of household objects, local wildlife, and tech.
On social media platforms now, perfectly curated witchcraft content is kept in happy company by practitioners making fun of their improvisations—from the obvious (who needs to buy expensive dried herbs when you can get them in Tesco?), to the less so (pasta for smudging, anyone?)—and whole hashtags dedicated to practising magic on a budget. Many ‘tips for beginners’ posts see practitioners urging new witches to forego expensive tools and instead work with what they’ve got, citing the use of tech, in all its abundance, as a great way to do this. It echoes a wider move away from Instagram’s filters and fakery, into a world of authenticity, spontaneity, and TikTok.
Some witches have found it difficult to accept the new forms of craft that are emerging online. “That’s something that the community is juggling at the moment,” Aryn says, but “technology is a part of human life now, so there’s no need to be old fashioned.” She makes the point that someone had to be the first witch to practice any kind of magic. “Witchcraft is something that works with cosmic or earthly energies and gets results, so what’s to say it’s not valid?”
You only have to look at the amount of energy bursting out from Witchtok, where young people all over the world are sharing spells to aid anxiety or promote self-acceptance, working to educate each other on everything from religion and philosophy to geology and botany, and conspiring to topple capitalism. It’s some kind of magic, that’s for sure.
Many people associate witches with medieval connotations—wrinkly old ladies wrapped in black cloaks, jars of pickled frogs, public executions in town squares. Others, like me, associate them with middle-aged mediums and palm readers, imparting spiritual advice for a hefty price in back-alley stores or the comfort of their living rooms. But TikTok, the world’s fastest-growing social media app, has introduced an entirely new brand of witches. Witches of TikTok, as they’re referred to, are typically young girls with a keen interest in witchcraft who use the platform to create a community of people fascinated by the occult. And it seems to be working, as some of these witches have thus far amassed hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers.
The TikTok witches extravaganza did not appear out of the woodwork. Over the past few years, as the chaos unfurling in the world has consumed every ounce of our attention through the news and social media, many people have turned to mysticism in search for answers and comfort, as well as to ponder the greater questions about the meaning of life. Astrology, palm reading and witchcraft have become increasingly popular, particularly among younger generations. Popular culture echoed this rising fascination with shows like the Netflix reboot, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
It is out of this mystical resurgence that many young people (typically women in their mid-teens to early twenties) have created the image of the new witch—savvy, semi-gothic yet colourful in style, and reasonably engaging and entertaining. TikTok, which in 2019 ranked as the most downloaded app in the Apple Store, has been instrumental in cementing the identity of young witches and giving them a container in which to thrive.
As of July 2020, the hashtag #witch has garnered over 194 million views on TikTok, #witchesoftiktok has received over 693 million views and #witchtok has currently more than 2 billion views. But what is it about TikTok that lends itself to fanning the flames of friendly witchcraft?
Many TikTok users and media experts point out to the platform’s inclusive and inherently social structure as a possible reason. The app’s brief 1-minute videos (which usually respond to previous ones) and user-friendly editing features have enabled ‘veteran’ and ‘baby’ witches (as well as anyone who’s interested) to share content freely in a creative, humorous and engaging way—from snippets of crystal healing tutorials to music-infused Tarot spreads and viral threads of Pagan rituals.
“On TikTok it’s quick tips and things that anyone can do,” said Selby, a TikTok witch with a following of 283,800 in an interview for WIRED. “It also humanises witches. There’s a lot of negative stigma surrounding witchcraft and witches but with TikTok, I can show the more personal side of myself, like being a mother.”
TikTok’s unique algorithm, specifically the one operating the app’s For You page, has also been identified as a primary advantage of the platform in fostering a witch-hub. Unlike its evil older sibling, Instagram, TikTok’s algorithm does not trap users in inescapable echo chambers, but rather exposes them to content creators they wouldn’t have otherwise come across. Also, compared to Instagram, TikTok is less associated with commodification and profit, and tends to inspire fewer feelings of frustration and incompetence in its users (at least so far).
“The For You page is a very important feature because it doesn’t make us live in a bubble,” Selby further told WIRED. “Even though I’m a witch I’m not only showing on other witch’s feeds, like you would on Instagram. It helps you reach people you normally wouldn’t. It’s nice to be on a platform that supports creators, and doesn’t just look at us like advertising opportunities.”
Witches on the video-sharing app have just recently claimed they have “hexed the moon.” To put it simply, fellow WitchTok users have started explaining exactly what happened on Twitter.
Is the moon fine, scientifically speaking? Yes, even witches on TikTok have admitted that. Apparently, some witches were upset at the audacity of the few people that would want to hex the moon, which is sacred in witchcraft. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s an understandable reaction coming from witches but the moon is the same as it always is—no amount of incantations can change that.
TikTok’s growing community of young people delving into mysticism can be viewed as a sign of hope in a world increasingly ravaged by sarcasm and isolation, and with mainstream, institutional religions monopolising on spirituality and discouraging many of us from contemplating and discovering the core essence of our being.
Could this viral witch phenomenon be the gateway for millions of people to genuine spiritual exploration? Or is it, as most things social media, merely a fad that will evaporate as soon as our attention flutters to the next trending craze? Perhaps a deeper question would be—can genuine communities be formed on online platforms that revolve around saturated feeds and visual snippets geared primarily toward the imbibing of attention?
Only time will tell. Or the crystals.