Once demonised, a modern cohort of ‘witches’ are turning to magical practices once again to stay balanced and healthy
Witch costumes will be the most popular Halloween rig-out this year, according to Google Trend’s annual Frightgeist report. But for a growing number of young women, becoming a witch is much more than a spooky Halloween ensemble.
Buoyed by social media, a new generation are turning to witchcraft and embracing ‘magical’ practices. They collect crystals, observe lunar phases and assemble altars. And yes, they even cast spells.
On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #WitchTok have more than 20 billion views. On Instagram, some of the best-known ‘witchfluencers’ have hundreds of thousands of followers.
The rise of witchcraft has spawned a billion-euro industry, with sales of witch supplies like smudge sticks, crystals and tarot cards becoming big business.
Meanwhile, more women in the public eye are either coming out of the broom closet and identifying as witches, or referencing witchcraft in their work.
Take singer Lana Del Rey, who admitted she tried to put a hex on Donald Trump. Or look at Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, who recently took to Twitter to share the famous Tish Thawer quote: “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.”
“On a global scale, people are getting into witchcraft and using the image of the witch probably since the late 60s, but here in Ireland, it’s become more popular over the last decade or so,” says Shannon Spence, who recently completed her thesis on ‘The Reclamation of the Witch as a Symbol of Female Empowerment’ as part of her MSc of Science in Sociology in UCD.
“I think it became really prominent here during the Repeal campaign with the ‘We Face This Land’ video. They drew on imagery of witches and then there was that line — ‘Centuries ago, women accused of witchcraft faced, among other ordeals, trial by water…’.
“Witches have always disrupted the status quo and now there is this reclamation of it among young women,” she adds.
“They’re reclaiming the image of the witch and going even further by using witchcraft and using the rituals that people were accused of in the past.”
For Jessica Vaughn (23) from Limerick, witchcraft is a way of staying balanced and healthy. She practises traditional Irish Celtic witchcraft, which she describes as a “nature-based religious practice”.
“It’s about being connected to nature, but also that you owe it to the green world to look after it and respect it,” says Jessica, who has turned her spare room into a meditation space where she has two altars — “one for my ancestors and one for my deities”.
Witchcraft was an obvious route for her, she says. “I always had very strange experiences as a child, so it was something I was destined to get into eventually. I always had prophetic dreams.
“Then, when I was maybe eight, my mom brought home these clear quartz crystals and I remember telling her I could feel them. I said, ‘This one is vibrating, this one has a heartbeat’. My siblings thought I was making it up but I said, ‘Honestly, I can feel the energy going through these things’.”
Dubliner Kellie-Ann Moore (32) of Moon Medicine Ireland says she had similar experiences growing up. Her mother and sister are also practising witches but, unlike them, she has decided not to focus on one particular type of witchcraft.
As an “eclectic witch”, she cherry-picks different rituals and beliefs, mixes it with “Ayurveda, yoga and Buddhism” and steers clear of TikTok.
“I’ve no embarrassment in saying I’m a witch,” she says, “but when I started studying witchcraft, I was the weirdo. People would be like, ‘She’s a bit mad’. Nowadays, people seem to be a bit more open-minded.”
Shannon doesn’t identify as a witch, but she incorporates some aspects of witchcraft into her daily life.
“If there is a full moon I might have a cleansing bath, light a few candles and set a few intentions for the month ahead, but I don’t stand in the forest naked under the full moon or anything!” she laughs.
She’s much more interested in the history of witches from an academic perspective, she says, and as part of her thesis, she interviewed a number of practising witches in Ireland.
“They all spoke about this innate feminine power that they all have, and they kind of linked it back to that feeling of ancient Celtic power.”
The participants also spoke about social media and their concerns about young women concocting spells on WitchTok.
“It kind of brings up the concept of consent,” says Shannon. “If you’re doing a spell, there’s a dodgy line there that you don’t want to pass because you’re taking someone’s free will away from them.”
“On WitchTok, the spells are all ‘manifest your crush’ and ‘get him to be obsessed with you’,” says Jessica. “It’s extremely unethical and I don’t agree with it at all. Obsession isn’t love and if you do a love spell on someone, you’re never going to get them to fall in love with you. You’re going to send them a cloud of infatuation and that cloud is eventually going to dissipate.”
People often ask Jessica to perform love spells on their behalf, but she refuses to do them in the way they usually want them done.
“I’ll absolutely do a spell to make you more confident in yourself or to make people notice you a little bit more.”
Kellie-Ann is also asked to perform spells and she has noticed that requests for banishment spells are becoming much more popular.
“I call them f***-off spells and you get a lot of people using them when they have bad neighbours.”
For Barbara Lee, an Alexandrian witch who was initiated into Wicca in 1980, the rise of young women exploring witchcraft on social media is both promising and concerning.
“It is ultimately about people expressing their individuality, which I approve of,” she says. “But my concern is that they make it look very easy and it is very much about the aesthetic. They’re influencers and the problem is that anyone who is an influencer puts themselves into a category that witches shouldn’t be in.”
Jessica and Shannon share similar concerns about the commercialisation of modern witchcraft and the rise of #WitchTok, but they think its resurgence is largely linked to the feminist movement and, therefore, something to be celebrated.
“We live in a patriarchal society and I think that’s part of the reason why witchcraft was so demonised for so many years,” says Jessica. “It teaches you how to live in your own power and your own strength.”
Shannon agrees: “I think any woman who will risk rocking the boat or upsetting the majority will be called a witch. They’re either a witch or a bitch. It’s the same meaning. Just two different words for two different times in history.”