If reports from the US are anything to go by, witchcraft today is more popular than ever. Witches are on our television screens, they’re binding (casting "restrictive" spells on) the US president, reading Tarot cards on podcasts and sharing spells on Tumblr.
More and more young people are turning away from organised religion in favour of more personalised and adaptable practices. But in the age of #witchesofinstagram and dark remakes such as The Chilling of Sabrina, what does it mean to practice this ancient craft?
Wicca is a modern, nature-based religion that developed in England in the mid-20th century and reached mainstream Australia in the 1970s. Followers incorporate ancient pagan practices to worship a great god and goddess and follow the natural cycles of the earth.
In the ‘90s, Australian musician Fiona Horne’s book, Witch: A Magickal Journey, modernised the practice at the same time that The Craft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer stylised the new witch as edgy and full of punkish riot grrrl energy. The new witch was powerful, feminist and reclaimed much of what had been demonised about women in the past.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 21,835 people identified as either Wiccan or Pagan in the 2016 census, but Wicca and witchcraft don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and many who call themselves witches today – especially young witches – don’t necessarily follow a Wiccan path. Instead, they make up their craft from a combination of the traditional practices that once saw their historical counterparts demonised, such as herbalism, nature worship, divination, tarot, crystals and spell work.
"I think young people are drawn to this 'think for yourself' type of religion where listening to your intuition and creating your own bespoke spirituality is empowering. For young women in particular, Wicca appeals for the gender equality that has been lacking in other monotheistic traditions," says Julia Knight, who calls herself a modern witch with a vintage aesthetic.
"I find that witchcraft is generally moving away from being a tool used to manipulate outcomes to a toolkit for self-empowerment and personal growth as a means of achieving meaningful goals."
For Brydie Kosmina, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, many are drawn to practice because the figure of the witch is so diverse and complex.
"She's a monster, a victim, an ordinary housewife, a mother, a powerful young woman coming of age – all these things and more, all at once. That's a powerful and transgressive symbol for women trying to find their way in the world, and one that appeals on multiple levels – we can be angry wicked witches, and powerful goddess healers, and confused teens, all at once."
Tamara', the high priestess of a coven on the south coast of NSW, has noticed the dramatic increase in the uptake in witchcraft amongst young people. As part of her role, she offers mentoring to those who lack support and guidance at home and believes that witchcraft offers a haven for the misunderstood and oppressed.
"Throughout history we see a rise in practice whenever political power reaches detrimental proportions," she says. "Those who are downtrodden are often drawn to it as a reclamation of personal power. It’s the people’s magical revolution against the tyrants."
Her coven includes women, trans and non-binary members, and even a few men. They meet for coffee or tea on the new and full moon, and together they share their workings and practice divination.
But, for many modern witches, such moon-based gatherings are a thing of the past. Instead, their practice takes place at personal altars, in bedrooms and online, where Facebook groups and the hashtags #Aussiewitches and #southernhemispherewitch unite the small but lively community of practitioners.
"I use Instagram as a platform to connect with like-minded people,’ says Julia, who blogs about her craft and vintage aesthetics at @_witchy_juju. "I don’t meet in-person with any other witches. However, I actively engage online with witches worldwide. When used with purpose, Instagram's algorithms are effective in creating a community and I, personally, feel a real sense of belonging."
In Facebook groups, witches share tips and advice, post pictures of their altars and their favourite tools, and mentor and support one another. It is a safe space for those who feel they might be judged by those in their real-life communities.
It also allows southern hemisphere witches the chance to properly celebrate the eight seasonal sabbats of the witch’s calendar. Beltane, the celebration of spring and fertility, is celebrated from the 31st of October to the 1st of November in the southern hemisphere, the same time that Samhain, where many Halloween traditions come from, is celebrated in the north.
"I have found it lonely at times celebrating opposite seasonal themes to the Northern Hemisphere, of which the vast majority of witchy Instagram users seem to be," says Julia, who launched a Southern Hemisphere Instagram challenge and giveaway with her online friends to support each other in their Beltane celebrations.
Whether they take part in old school coven, or find their community online, ultimately, modern witchcraft is a personal and powerful way to develop confidence and self-love. As 2019 comes to a close, time will tell if the witch continues her meteoric rise into the next decade.
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