In the 1600s, witches were burned at the stake, drowned in rivers, hanged at the gallows and beheaded for their perceived sorcery.
In 2020, witches go viral for “hexing the moon” on a platform the US president wants to ban, facing mockery and criticism from both inside and outside the TikTok community.
Whether you believe in magic or not, the online witchcraft community is real. Very real. In recent years, witchcraft and magic has transcended into a cultural phenomenon that is spreading over the internet. There are countless witches all over the world, working jobs like nurses, teachers and accountants. They just happen to burn sage and post magic-inspired videos to the internet as well.
And the community is growing rapidly. More and more “baby witches” are spending hours exchanging tips, tricks and ideas with like-minded witches in virtual family-like groups, known as covens, on platforms like TikTok and YouTube.
It’s this influx of witches using social media and technology that has brought increased attention to the witchcraft community — but with a significant amount of double, double, toil and trouble. Social media has created a schism between the tech-friendly young witches and the older witches who remain worried it might set the community back centuries of progress.
“We’ve been working on trying to rebuild witchcraft’s image and make it seem less ludicrous,” said one older witch, who asked to remain anonymous. “Then these ‘fake witches’ come along and take us 10 steps backwards. It’s wrong and they shouldn’t be encouraged.”
But modern, online communication methods have also allowed new witches to connect with one another and find solace in a burgeoning community. And they don’t have any intention of stopping.
The covenant of a virtual coven
Anais Alexandre, known online as Hearthfire Fox, is one such witch. Running successful YouTube, Twitch, Instagram and TikTok channels, Alexandre has built an audience of over 100,000 aspiring witches, published her own “modern witch’s grimoire” (or spellbook) of potions and even created an online school for magic and witchcraft.
Thanks to creators like Alexandre, those interested in learning to be a witch can find an abundance of resources online — tools, books, mentorship, a whole community.
“I, like many others around the world, view the black mirror of my cellphone to be a portal to all of the media I love to consume, a space where I can find a genuine community to be a part of and a place where I can share my voice,” she said.
It’s not surprising to see young witches embracing the latest platforms. Where once witches might have had to rely on proximity or paper, now they have the opportunity to connect on a larger scale.
“It just seems natural that friendships and deeper connections like covens happen in those places as well,” said Alexandre.
Diamond Altieri, a mod at Reddit’s r/witchcraft, has seen those same connections develop firsthand. The popular subreddit now has over 180,000 members.
“For witches that practice in groups, being able to socialize and connect with their peers is very important to their craft,” she said. “Having the option to connect virtually makes the whole practice much more flexible and will have its uses well after quarantine is over.”
And TikTok is the ideal platform for it.
On TikTok, witches can create 15- to 60-second videos, bringing entertainment and education together into one digestible snippet. As a result, some of the top WitchTok creators now have platforms of over 500 thousand people.
But bigger platforms mean more potential for outliers and people who just want to watch the world burn. Well, maybe not the world.
Maybe something a bit more celestial.
What did the moon ever do to you?
Earlier this year, “baby witches” on TikTok attempted to “hex the moon.”
The move incited the ire of other members of the WitchTok community and acquired an unforgiving international audience. Twitter was in an uproar, and people all over the internet were openly denigrating not only the witches involved, but the wider community as well.
At the peak of the moon-hex mania, space archeologist Alice Gorman dispelled concerns the hex might have done any real damage to the moon. She confirmed that scientifically and physically, the moon is fine.
“In reality, you know the moon isn’t going to fall out of the sky, tides aren’t going to stop happening,” she said. “It won’t turn blue or green, but it does demonstrate that there are continually new ways that people find emotional connection to the moon.”
In her mind, we should be less concerned about the moon and more concerned about what this incident says about our treatment of communities like witchcraft.
“There seems to be this broad societal tendency to just denigrate anything that young women are interested in, whether it’s music or games or all those other communities,” said Gorman.
Even before the moon hex, anyone online claiming to be a witch faced backlash. Sure, they weren’t strung up at the gallows, but they were ostracized, accused of devil worship and had their sanity questioned, as though anyone who believed in magic or spiritual intent couldn’t possibly be sound of mind.
In the glow of a hexed moon and a TikTok ring light, this backlash ramped up even more. For an influencer like Alexandre, this comes part and parcel with her job — but that doesn’t make it any less toxic.
“I’ve come to learn that backlash more often than not comes from people who are deeply wounded and hurting who feel compelled to bring others down with them to share in their misery,” she said.
But the backlash from the moon hex isn’t limited to just one platform, nor is it all directed at witchcraft as a whole.
The biggest problem? The stunt gave rise to a subsect inside the witchcraft community who believe technology is causing more harm than good.
When I was a young witch…
Platforms like TikTok and YouTube have aided witchcraft, providing avenues for new witches to learn the ropes and connecting covens in a time of social distancing. But self-confessed traditional witches argue that using social media to gain clout is diluting the practice.
An older witch, who requested to remain anonymous, believes TikTok witches are trend-hoppers who practice purely because of the aesthetic and the following it grants them.
“Whether it’s stunts like hexing our moon or making a mockery of the rest of us by posting clips with crude sounds and effects, the whole thing sets us back,” she said.
It’s easy enough to understand why some might be wary. Witchcraft has historically had a bad rap, but according to most “modern” witches, decrying the use of technology altogether isn’t the most productive way to move past that reputation.
Miss Tea, a mod for an Australian Witchcraft Facebook group, witnessed division within the community after the TikTok moon hexing stunt.
“I don’t think that it’s helpful to tell people to change their practice or that it’s ‘incorrect’,” she said. “There is room for both [methods] and it’s a huge spectrum. I have heard of some who shun technology entirely, some who barely use it and then there are those that are weaving spells on the internet using their devices. No one way is more correct than another.”
Reddit mods like Altieri say it’s hard to imagine practicing without the use of technology, especially seeing how many new witches rely on it to find their bearings.
“I prefer to see it as addition, not subtraction,” she said. “With each new idea, our community is adding something new, not subtracting something old.”
TikTok’s impact on the community’s continued growth is undeniable. Even with the potential for dramas like the moon hex, Gorman ultimately sees it as a positive and scientifically harmless outlet.
Under the #witchtok hashtag, newbie witches can find themselves mentors, resources and, ultimately, human connection. It has brought together people from all over the world, creating an entirely new form of coven.
Admittedly, TikTok has its own dramas. With a potential forced sale on the horizon and the US president as one of its biggest naysayers, TikTok may not be the most stable way forward for witchcraft.
“There are so many big uncontrollable factors in the world around us at the moment,” said Gorman. “Something that offers people a capacity to take action in themselves or gives a sense of personal agency is really appealing — you can hardly blame people for wanting to gain knowledge or gain reassurance, or just have some satisfying rituals for themselves.”
As quarantine stretches longer, it seems almost inevitable that we’ll see continued growth in communities like WitchTok. Whether you’re a believer or not, the fact remains: Thousands of people are flocking to this way of life in the face of coronavirus-enforced separation.
Because while technology and witchcraft may seem diametrically opposed, when used in conjunction they help create safe spaces for people all over the world — people who may not have an in-person support system — and that’s something we all need in times of uncertainty. It’s also something that creators like Alexandre rely on.
“I’ve never been more appreciative of spaces like TikTok and other social media platforms to connect with a community who loves to learn about witchcraft, self-growth and changing the world for the better,” she said.
“I never want to be the elder witch complaining about how to open the PDF, or whatever the ‘newfangled thing’ is in the future when I’m a crone. I’ll be the pink-haired granny cottagecore witch with her anime eye contact lenses, living it up in the VR world.”