a.k.a. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Instagram and Teen Vogue’s Witchcraft Column
It may have been a harbinger of things to come, but back when I was a kid, at a middle school book fair, I bought a copy of E. W. Hildick’s “ The Active Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch.” The book is a YA comedic romp where the main character, Allison, finds a book on witchcraft in her attic and begins experimenting with the spells inside. Hilarity ensues as spells work in unintended ways, and while Allison ultimately doesn’t stick with the Craft, she does grow from her adventure.
First published in 1973, the book is now out of print. It was clearly a product of its time, when the counterculture of the 1960’s began to awaken second wave feminists and witchcraft and interest in the occult was higher than it had ever been. The fact that I loved the book was probably a good indicator of my eventual decision to take up the mantle of witch and priestess.
We are again in such a time. Between Harry Potter, television shows like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “Charmed,” and witches hexing politicians making the news, interest in the Craft is high once again. And with the most current wave of feminists feeling affinity for all things witchy, it’s no surprise that even Teen Vogue has started a regular feature extolling the virtues of magic as a tool to make your life better, even including a feature on doing magic with one’s menstrual blood.
I’ll admit that I have been conflicted about this. To Teen Vogue’s great credit, the columns do take their information from actual practicing witches. But I had some reservations. As I unpacked them, I soon realized that a lot of the reservations I was having with it were really more about me than about either Teen Vogue or the witches contributing the content.
Most of the witches that the magazine is using as sources have presences on podcasts and Instagram and hold themselves out to the public as “professional witches.” Some offer divination services, others offer rituals and spellwork, and all of them have websites where you can buy a bit of their witchyness and bring it home.
My personal tradition and practice of witchcraft is based in a hierarchical coven structure that is connected to worship of the old gods, and draws in no small part off of the occult traditions that date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the hermetic principles that date even earlier than that. By comparison, I’ll own it — these Instagram witches make me feel a little…. old.
But age and wisdom are important, especially in a practice where crones are not dismissed, but seen as powerful. And while old-fashioned may be tired and potentially irrelevant, old school has a certain cachet, and I prefer to think of myself as the latter. I’ve been critical of digital witchcraft because I do believe that there is something that can be lost in translation when your sole connection to your teachers and material is via cyberspace. And there is a lot of discussion in our community about selling the Craft to others for money, particularly when it comes to teaching the Craft to others. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to maintain a healthy level of suspicion of people who make their living by selling their spirituality as a commodity,
But the more I thought about it, the more I had to check myself, and dig in with a lot of self-questioning. Because it is completely legit to operate on the principle that those offering a service ought to be paid for it. One should not be functionally required to take a vow of poverty to teach the Craft. Being young or making oneself attractive to the masses is hardly a crime. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a witch on Instagram. There is nothing wrong with having a podcast. (I’ve thought about having a podcast myself, and I AM here on Medium writing a blog, so there’s that.)
It would have been very tempting to presume that the consumer friendly veneer that these witches present on Instagram, with their websites and in write-ups in trendy places like Teen Vogue or Girlboss is all there is to them, and that they are not actually serious about their craft. And that presumption would be an extremely misguided one. A witch does not have to have a fancy pedigree in order to be a “real” witch. Many of the most credentialed and powerful witches I know make it a practice NOT to throw their weight around in public spaces. Witches learn early the need to carefully manage their public and private personas and to keep secrets. There is no one right way to dress or look or talk or act to be taken seriously as a witch. And credential-checking other witches simply because the outward trappings of their practice don’t match yours is not helpful to anyone, not to mention fantastically lame.
There are many, many ways to be a witch, and not all of them come from pagan worship traditions or occult societies. There is a rich tradition of magic and witchcraft in many cultures that would reject the idea of self-identifying as “pagan.” The Rule of 100 is always in effect — nothing is 100 percent true for 100 percent of witches 100 percent of the time — and for that reason alone one should always think long and hard before making blanket pronouncements judging the craft of witches one does not really know.
And in reading the posts and articles, a lot of the magic they talk about is legit. And this is where I confess some more of my hesitancy comes into play. Because they are teaching magical technique to teen girls through the filter of a magazine that offers up the idea of using blood magic to fix your life in the same tone it uses to talk about using make up to cover acne. As someone who teaches magical technique to others, that makes me uncomfortable.
Magic is not a toy, it is a tool. But one does not hand a 14 year old a gas powered chain saw when she’s never used one before and tell her to go out and trim a 100 year old oak that is overhanging the driveway. That’s irresponsible. On the other hand, even a six year old can be taught to use a hand saw to cut a two-by-four.
I’m a parent to a teen as well as a magical practitioner. I’m not sure I’d really want my 14 year old messing about with blood magic without a lot more instruction than a single column could provide. Hell, I don’t recommend that ADULTS mess with blood magic without thinking long and hard about it. One’s own blood, menstrual or otherwise, is a powerful magical agent that binds you to a working on a deep genetic and generational level. Spells worked with your own blood are a big commitment, and can create consequences and side effects that are difficult to deal with. It’s not something you just “try out and see what happens.”
And again, here is where I check myself. Actually, checking myself here involved a conversation with a trusted mentor, the one who taught me to be careful with blood magic. He reminded me that safety in the Craft is a personal matter. Some witches will play fast and loose. Some will take precautions upon precautions. Unless a student has specifically entrusted themselves to our instruction, telling them “they’re doing it wrong” is a bit presumptuous. Everyone is entitled to set their own risk levels.
With children, however, that’s less true. As a mom, my instinct is towards safety. I want to make sure that there are appropriate warning labels, lots and lots of instruction, so that nobody gets hurt. I am acutely aware that as a parent, I am responsible for my kid until they turn eighteen. I have a responsibility to them. A minor’s entitlement to set their own risk levels is moderated by that responsibility of their parent or guardian. I spent many years as a professional tarot reader, and part of the code of ethics of that profession for me involved not reading for a minor without a parent’s consent. I certainly wouldn’t perform a spell on a child without their parent’s consent, nor would I presume to give magical instruction to a child without their parent’s consent.
But I also recognize that no one needs anyone’s permission to do magic, no matter what the age of majority is or the legal issues attached to that fact. If you are old enough to know how to want something, and old enough to feel the forces of the Universe around you, you are old enough to do magic. And the fact that your parents might not approve isn’t going to stop you, nor should it. Magic has never been for those who wish to play by other people’s rules or who feel the need to ask permission for things.
Being a teen is a liminal space between childhood and adulthood, and as a witch, living in liminal spaces is something I understand probably better than most.The job of a teen IS to test boundaries, to try things that might not be safe. Like Allison in the book I read so many years ago, and like me when I was a teen, and like my own child now, the point of adolescence is to reach for things that might be more than you can handle. Teens experiment with adult things. It’s part of what they need to do to become successful adults. And yes, parents will hold their breath when it happens, and even disapprove because it scares us. That’s part of why teens need privacy — because it’s really hard to start piercing the veil of childhood into adulthood with mom and dad looking on. The job of being a parent to a teen is to stand on the outside of that liminal space, with open arms and a listening ear, ready to catch them if they stumble, offer a bit of encouragement, and then push them back out into their tentative between existence. It’s nerve-wracking and frustrating, but absolutely necessary.
The fact is, particularly with young women, we need to get over being so protective. This is where my feminism kicks in. Our society does a lot of telling young girls they “shouldn’t” go to certain places or do certain things or wear certain types of clothes because of what might happen to them. The overall message to our girls is to make themselves as “safe” as possible in a world that wants to harm them. Meanwhile, young men are told to take chances and explore the world and try all the things. This is one of the many ways that patriarchy seeds within our own brains as women the means of our own repression. The work of women should not be to make ourselves safe by self-selecting out of spaces and activities. It should be to take chances and push boundaries and go where we might not have dared to before. And so yes, that might mean encouraging young women to work blood magic, despite it’s being a serious thing.
In the end, that means I really can’t get too mad at Teen Vogue’s witchcraft column. Everyone begins their journey with the Craft somewhere, and reading a column that draws from the expertise of witches of varying backgrounds isn’t a bad place for anyone to start. (No worse than a crazy YA novel penned in the 1970’s was at least.) And as much as the mom in me wants to see more “safety first,” I also recognize that we don’t always need to present the Craft as deep, dark, and dangerous. There is room for a lighter touch, without sacrificing seriousness of purpose. Young women benefit from being empowered to throw caution to the wind sometimes. Those that are truly interested in taking up being a witch (and not just dabbling) will find plenty of people ready to help them along in their journey, in many places and on many topics, including safety. And yes, some of those folks may even be on Instagram. And as an old school witch, personally I’m finding that seeing how folks just entering their journeys now are making their way and what they find relevant is intriguing.
Which reminds me….. if you want, you can now follow me on Instagram: @alythia_cotka.