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Magic for sale: Doing business with the witches of the internet

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Jun 13, 2018

After a tough few weeks of work, studies, the crumbling political sphere, and general life stresses, I fell into something of a funk. These moods can be hard to get out of and induce a lot of self-doubt. Sometimes nothing can help and you simply need to wait it out, but what if there was another way? Perhaps... magic?

Witchcraft and mysticism are thriving on the internet. What was once an oft-maligned subculture veiled in mystery has become more accessible than ever. Once upon a time, if you wanted a tarot card reading, you had to know where to look for it. Now you can buy one on Etsy or watch countless versions of your star-sign’s predictions on YouTube.

Anais Alexandre is a YouTuber who discusses everything from how to celebrate Beltane to her experiences as an Afro Wicca woman. For her, YouTube is a striking opportunity for the community, as well as her own work as a vlogger.

"There's something about seeing someone casually sitting there talk about Witchcraft naturally without a script, cackling in the background or decked out in full-on ritual garb. Videos are so personal and intimate to me, like hanging out with a friend ... Having YouTube as a resource when you’re starting out is priceless. It gives you a face to relate to and a direct contact to reach out to. Usually these people have communities of followers just like you, which makes it an inviting and comfortable space to learn and grow in, even if you're just dabbling and have a passing interest. I feel like opening up the way I have on YouTube has only helped me become a better Witch because it holds me accountable for the information I share and what I'm teaching. My community are not scared to call me on my sh*t if I mess up!"

The internet has proven to be a haven for experts and novices alike, an accessible realm where centuries of history, culture, and information are available with a quick click, and anyone can join in. Business is booming, as witches and mystics of all types — the practice is wholly unique to everyone who participates — share their wares and talents to the world. That also makes it easier for curious newbies like myself, who have always been intrigued by this world but had no prior route into it.

The internet has revealed untapped markets for the enterprising mystic. Amalia is a YouTuber who does ASMR tarot and fortune readings. As someone who "enjoyed watching esoteric-themed ASMR videos," she wanted to find more that suited her interests in tarot, and when YouTube proved lacking, she combined her interests. Thanks to the channel, as well as a side business doing personal readings through Patreon and PayPal, she has managed to partially earn a living through her work. She has also formed strong relationships with many of her regular customers.

"When it comes to the business model, I think this same perspective is allowing me to earn a (partial) living with my channel. I didn't want to have ads on my videos because they are annoying, loud and they disrupt the relaxing atmosphere an ASMR video is supposed to have. As it turns out following the ad-pocalypse, I wouldn't even be making a fraction of the money I'm making now had I decided to go that way. Instead, the idea from the beginning was to receive donations from people in exchange for personal readings, which happens on Patreon or via PayPal. I'm absolutely humbled by the high number of people who have decided to contribute to my channel in any way since it came into existence — people who offer financial support, who send me tarot decks, equipment, all kinds of things that improve my content, people who offer me tarot readings, or just shoot me an email with some words of encouragement. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive and I'm really thankful for all of it."

Unsurprisingly, this is a community that’s heavily dominated by women and attracts primarily female audiences. The infamous 1487 treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, which is credited with turning sorcery into a criminal activity during its day, claimed that "Where there are many women there are many witches." The mere act of women gathering together was deemed suspicious, and those who were seen to be going against societal norms were declared witches. Historically, we have seen how toxic that label could be, but nowadays, women have returned to practices of witchcraft and Wicca in droves.

Gabriela Herstick, the self-described "witch Carrie Bradshaw of LA" writes in her book, Craft: How To Be A Modern Witch, what makes witchcraft so enticing for the modern woman.

"A witch is many things: the medicine woman, the slut, the one without children, the activist, the outcast; the witch has always lived and will always live. A witch is a healer, a woman in tune with her sexuality, someone who works with the Earth, anyone who abides by her own rules. Very often, witches were the protestors, the catalysts, the ones calling for justice and using all their tools, physical and otherwise, to create change. A witch has always been someone who refuses to abide by the societal constructs of the time. She is an outsider, rooted in her own decisiveness; the witch has always been a threat."

Alexandre also notes the inclusiveness of the community and how it is reflected in her own channel of fans.

"It honestly makes me so happy when I see people answering other people’s questions in the comment section. If the people that get drawn to this community are women then that's amazing, but witchcraft in general isn't focused on one gender or the other but rather a holistic view and balance of all genders. This might be refreshing for those who want to move away from patriarchal religious systems and spiritual practices."

It's not hard to see why witchcraft is so alluring to many, although, as noted by Alexandre, the misconceptions found in pop culture like Salem and American Horror Story don't allow for the true stories to be told.

"Those are great to watch with friends and are good for scares that make you throw your vegan snacks up in the air. They're also incorrectly portraying witchcraft, which is fine as long as you know that. So far, I haven't seen anything remotely accurate to true witchcraft, except for the super cheesy film The Last Keepers (which has its cheesy FX parts too). I think the biggest thing media gets wrong is spells aren't as easy as snapping your fingers and saying some pretty rhymes. There's no quickie drive-thru pick up for magick. It comes from within and it's a daily practice, it's a lifestyle."

Finding myself in need of good fortune, I took to Etsy and purchased a spell for a very reasonable price. Promising a healthy boost of the Sun's positive energy directed my way, the spell description detailed the process, requirements from the customers — simply my name or nickname — any specific focus I may desire, and a disclaimer that "spells are not a substitute for your own actions." Three days later, a video and photographs of my spell arrived.

My Etsy receipt came with a series of photographs showing the beginning, middle, and end of the spell, the tools of which included a golden candle, a Sun Tarot card, and burning incense. The first of two videos opened with ringing bells, which the caster of the spell informed me were Devil Drivers in my receipt. These are used to "cleanse and protect the space" for the spell. She then cast the spell in both Romanian and English, including my full name, which made the process more personal than I had originally envisioned. It reminded me of how odd and surprisingly rare it is for people to hear their name said aloud in such a manner. The process itself was quick — the two videos added up to just over four minutes — and highly relaxing to watch unfold. More than any mystical qualities the spell may have possessed, it was the process of it all that kept me hooked. Each step of this simple but still unique procedure encouraged a relaxing sensation. Perhaps that’s what incites the good fortune — you’re free of the world’s stresses through visual calmness.

I returned to Etsy for another mystic purchase, a mini tarot card reading that set me back £2 and promised speedy results. Whatever your need and however quickly you need it, there’s a shop on the site that can cater to your needs. I paid my fee and asked my question, wondering about my long-term career status, and the reply came, as promised, within three working days.

My reading results arrived as handy-to-download PDF, with the seller explaining what each card indicated. What was seen for me was vague but encouraging: positivity and emotional fulfillment in my work, and direction to move past negative thoughts or self-doubt; a reminder not to get too focused on financial success over the thrill of writing itself; the road to literary success will be bumpy and self-publishing may be an option.

I can't say that I came away from my mini reading with a certain sense that yes, this tarot reading was on the money. Perhaps if I had seen the reading take place, I would have felt differently, but as it was, what I got from it was more akin to a confidence boost than anything deeper or more mystical. The vagueness of what was said didn't promise much, but the final part that encouraged me to believe in myself and my talent certainly didn't hurt. Sometimes you just need that mental boost, in whatever way you can get it.

In 2015, Etsy began heavily reinforcing its policy that banned sales of "metaphysical services," and as a result, lots of witches and mystics saw their shops deleted from the site without warning. Getting around this has proven a task for many of the remaining sellers. Both purchases I made came with detailed disclaimers on what the reading or spell could and could not do. No promises were made, I couldn’t ask for specific details on issues like lost pets or future world events, and heavy emphasis was put on how each element was dependent on my active involvement in the process. Some shops outright say that their spells, readings, and mystic wares are solely for entertainment purposes in an attempt to get around Etsy’s policies, but that hasn’t stopped customers from flocking to the site for their witchy needs.

It was Amalia who summed up my experience — and the excitement of this world — the best:

"The most common misconception comes in the form of a question: 'Do you believe in the Tarot?' For the longest time I didn't know how to answer that and it has always bugged me. I've recently figured out why — it's an irrelevant question ... The Tarot will not solve any of your problems and it will not save you. When used properly however, it can provide a perspective you wouldn't have thought of otherwise, it can inspire new ideas, decisions, creative processes and it can potentially change your life. It certainly did mine. But here comes the second analogy that I find to be useful when thinking about the Tarot: it is not only a tool, it is also a game, a game you play with your own subconscious and the universe. When it comes to games one might be inclined to assume that they are all about silliness. I disagree. Games are a serious business, and the first rule of the game of Tarot I believe is exactly to take it very seriously. Unless you make an honest effort to allow it to speak to you, it won't work. It requires openness, imagination and intelligence, and the people who come to me for readings are generally like that. They are people who are willing to play the game, and they intuitively understand what it's all about."

For me, this was a world of beauty and intrigue but not necessarily the one for me. Still, my spell and reading did bring a satisfying glow to my week. Call it magic or the placebo effect or just entertainment, but I felt it. Granted, I was also coming at this as a self-confessed tourist, and not someone looking for a major spiritual change in my life, which is probably a rather glib way to approach this beautiful, complex, and oft-maligned world. 

Whatever you believe — and there are as many belief systems out there as there are believers — it is important and necessary that you do so with an open mind, a clear heart, and the dedication to commit to what is right for you. I believe this is why witchcraft and mysticism have proven increasingly popular over the past several years. Women march for their rights with banners proudly proclaiming themselves as a coven; they band together to share in their strength and resourcefulness; they are driven by desires to heal, to learn, to work in tandem with the world and its power. This is not a world of oppression or limitations based on your gender or identity. Rather, it’s one of true potential and limitless possibilities. A tarot reading on Etsy or a YouTube video answering your most-asked questions may be what spurs on your own path of discovery. You’ll never know unless you open yourself up to it.