A Brief History Of The Tumblr Witch

The Establishment
Jul 10, 2016 · 18 min read

By Mikaella Clements


It’s safe to say that witches are having a socio-pop culture moment. We love witches in all their permutations, strengths, spells, and darkness. After centuries of persecution, distrust, and disdain, witches are even being viewed positively, in a cloak of mysterious light. This isn’t always the case — the witch as a festering image of cruelty, synonymous with controlling, enigmatic, or needy women, is still everywhere — but slowly, surely, some of us are beginning to embrace them. The witch is becoming a hero as much as an outcast — she is even a hero as she is an outcast.

But as we turn newly to the witch, we remake her; and a particular online reconception of her, on Tumblr, is shedding new insight into the politics of modern feminism, notions of gender, and self-care.

Witchiness has come creeping back into fashion slowly and steadily over the past half-decade. The aesthetic is rarely far from the fashion scene, but collections by Alexander McQueen and Hermès in 2011 introduced a new kind of witch: angular, blocky, strange. The resurgence of ’90s fashion has brought back chokers and introduced a whole new generation to (and reminded another generation of) The Craft and Buffy — still quintessential “Witch Looks.”

Flickr — Victor Soto. Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2001; Spring/Summer 2001; Spring/Summer 1998

Meanwhile, online publishers like Rookie and The Toast have been redefining the role of the witch in online society, in divisive but complementary ways: Where Rookie focuses on the idea of a raw teenage power, Mallory Ortberg is at her best in a clever, humorous roll around in witchiness.

Taisia Kitaiskaia’s Ask Baba Yaga column for The Hairpin indicated the stage of a new coupling between modernity and folklore witchery: A reader writes in with a question about whether they should continue to live with a now-ex-boyfriend with two months left on the lease; Baba Yaga responds, “It is not good to live with such a large rat, such noisy cheese-nibblings, such large & everywhere droppings. It was his choice to turn into a rat; it is yrs to ask the rat to leave, or leave yrself.”

Tumblr has taken this new witch — a heady mix of humor, purpose, and power — and run with it.

Frequently the butt of wider internet jokes, Tumblr skews young; with 23% of teenage girl internet users on Tumblr, and an estimated 50% of Tumblr’s users under the age of 34, it’s easy to deride Tumblr as a hub of immaturity. Tumblr’s links to fandom and fan-fiction — traditionally also the realm of women and young people — don’t help its cause, no matter how intelligent the fandom or brilliantly absurd the humor, as detailed in Elle Reve’s masterful piece on Tumblr teens.

But the youth of Tumblr allows for experimentation. Delving into Tumblr’s tags and communities can often feel like a little kid lifting a rock to reveal the grubs squirming underneath — fascinating, kind of gross, somehow sweet before our adult instincts of revulsion kick in. It’s a simile that feels particularly apt for the new Tumblr witch: self-satisfyingly grotty. Tumblr witches rarely pretend to possess any sophistication.

The new Tumblr witch is hard to define: She is notable for her absurdist, Dada-esque humor, and it can be difficult to tell sometimes how seriously Tumblr witchery is to be taken. Because this is Tumblr, with its thousands of blogs and varying aesthetics, the sum total of witches, witch blogs, and their particulars are near impossible to categorize. But cautiously, I think it’s fair to break them into three sets: the witches who are not necessarily religious, but nevertheless deeply invested in their own magic (which is an actual and practical force in the world); the witches who are religious, tied either to Wicca or some other spiritual force; and the Tumblr witch.

Baba Yaga’s Hut (Credit: flickr/Jeanne)

Our first coven provides what are essentially online spell-books, long lists of ingredients for amulets and charms. One blog offers a Time Passing Powder, where combining cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and ginger, and sprinkling them on all your clock faces, can speed up your day; a “Bitch, Be Gone” spell requires cinnamon, black pepper, rosemary, sage, garlic salt, and chamomile to be sprinkled around doorways. The latter has 3,500 notes — some of them focusing on the merits of replacing the garlic salt with kosher salt.

Many of these blogs are quick to point out that they’re not associated with Wicca or any religion at all. One post with over 20,000 notes gives a handy list of what you “don’t have to be” in order to be a witch, including religious or non-religious: “witchcraft is a secular practice.” Depending upon practice, these witches will post nastier or more benign spells (one particularly sweet post offers some “kitchen witchery” for sore throats — essentially honey, lemon, and ginger tea), but in general they’re notable for steering away from religious practice. Wicca is incidental, not the point. Similarly, there is nothing particularly Tumblr- or even internet-specific about these blogs. Some spells may be based online — as with this curse on Donald Trump, or a list of emoji magic — but for the most part, Tumblr simply provides a new medium for witchcraft to be shared and practiced, rather than any real change to the form itself.

This grouping stems from the fact that most of Tumblr’s young, cynical user base is not religious, but there is plenty of religion to be found, if that’s what you’re after. Which brings us to the second coven: spiritual witches.

Wicca blogs on Tumblr form an occasionally overlapping but usually quite separate presence. While Wicca blogs are not immune to nastier spells, generally — like the Wicca practice springing up from Gerald Gardner’s founding tradition and especially popular since the New Age movement of the ‘70s — the Tumblr Wicca practice is focused more around good energy and the natural world, rather than any concrete potions or charms.

In her 2015 collection of essays, I Put A Spell On You, Sam George-Allan describes Wicca’s “emphasis on a spiritual connectedness with the universe and the fertility-based God and Goddess, but its rules are fairly flexible . . . you’ll find a mash-up of Celtic, Roma, Native American, Norse, and Egyptian traditions and deities. This sort of magic is the gentle kind of ‘spiritual manifestation’ or ‘realization of intent’ ritual designed to instill a sense of peace and connectedness.”

Wicca blogs follow the same guidelines, and for the most part, when fights break out in Wicca’s Tumblr communities, they’re around the idea of hereditary witches vs. new witches, or different expressions of paganism and Wicca and the intersection of the two, rather than around spells.

Credit: flickr/Miroslav Vajdic

At the end of 2015, Wicca blogs entered a brief and public spotlight in what was dubbed #Boneghazi, when a Tumblr post calling out another Tumblr user for stealing human remains blew up overnight. Tumblr user pastel-prouvaire accused another user, littlefuckinmonster, of “stealing human bones from cemeteries in Lousiana.” Both blogs are now deactivated, but the post was quickly expanded on and detailed, with screencaps of littlefuckinmonster posting on Facebook (as Ender Darling) explaining that after rainfall, she is able to — and frequently does — collect washed-up bones from a local graveyard: “femurs, teeth, jaws, skull caps, etc” that she then proceeds to use for “curse work and general spells that require bone.” She went on to offer to send more bones to anyone else who wanted to use them and were willing to cover shipping costs.

Tumblr exploded in shock and cruel delight over the post, with a lot made over the fact that the “last meme of 2015 is literally stealing human bones.” Users were quick to point out that aside from any bizarre humor that might be found in the story, the act was racist and classist, exploiting what Ender Darling herself admitted was a “poor man’s graveyard.” One user wrote: “maybe have some decency and don’t turn the degradation of black bodies into a meme,” while another pointed to the “white neopagan bullshit” underlying the massive entitlement of stealing human remains. The overwhelming Whiteness of Wicca in both its colonial legacy and — it must be faced — the majority of its practitioners is something that still distinguishes the Wicca community on Tumblr, though they rarely acknowledge it.

For the most part, though, Wicca blogs took a sharp step back to distance themselves. The Wicca tag on Tumblr — once near full with practices and potential spells — is now mostly made up of aesthetic imagery, or crystals for sale on Etsy. In a hasty attempt to scramble after the sense of peace George-Allan defined as central to Wicca spirituality, more and more Wicca blogs have emphasized their spiritual side; the non-practical uses of magic.

In a way, the Wicca blogs and the online spell-books provide a nice complementary whole: the spiritual side of magic, the actual spells. But for everything else — for the weird, angry, grotty side of magic — there’s the Tumblr witch.

“Tumblr Witch” is not an identity, but the Tumblr witch is concerned with identities. Unlike the Wicca bloggers, the Tumblr witch is unlikely to define herself seriously as a witch. But undeniably the concept of the Tumblr witch is tied up in intersectional feminism, in a desire to reclaim power, and to laugh as she does so. The Tumblr witch couples intersectional feminist theory with humor and self-deprecation, and she also presents a mirror for an increasingly frantic millennial generation. As such, there are several crucial elements to her: the knee-jerk snarl of amusement at older generations and their criticism, the mirror image she presents to self-care movements, and an aesthetic and consumerist impulse that underlies, contradicts, and complements her identity politics — which are often more anti-capitalist inclined than her buying habits.

One user analyzed Tumblr’s apparent neo-Dadaist approach to humor and politics as inevitable:

“Growing up in a constant state of questionably justified war, income inequality, an economic recession caused by the actions of a handful of wealthy fucks who didn’t even get properly punished, growing awareness of police brutality, being called lazy and self-absorbed by the generations that gave us these problems in the first place… of COURSE we make nonsense jokes.”

Tumblr’s reaction to millennial criticism has been outraged amusement, and is ongoing: “this generation is so lazy! get off ur ass and start a war! or ruin the economy or something! how do i send an e-mail!” The Tumblr witch seizes on this humor and takes it a step further, into the land of magic and absurdity: debating career choices, she wonders whether to be a “holy roman emperor [or] village witch.”

Credit: flickr/Miss Hask ▼▼▼

The Tumblr witch is usually more amused than angry, but it’s a humor that’s turned to in the place of fury. It’s the Slits interview where instead of answering boring questions (“What’s it like to be a woman?”), the band played back recordings of witches cackling; it’s teenage girls as the true mouthpiece of god; it’s both Sophie and the Lying Cat from Saga; it’s being gay or sick of the bourgeoisie or both. The Tumblr witch discusses her mental health frankly and dryly, reacts to street harassment by turning into a flock of bats, dreams of wealth (though she is broke), and gets told off by demons. The Tumblr witch feels like a uniquely online invitation to relish being something old and dangerous and female — but also exhausted, young, broke down, laughing bitterly because she can’t do anything else.

Far from the racism and classism of Boneghazi, the Tumblr witch strives to be if not politically engaged, then at least politically aware, and usually politically pissed off. Unlike the “white neopagan bullshit” of Wicca blogs, the Tumblr Witch is not restricted to her ’70s New Age white witch counterpart; the bourgeois hippie concepts of Reiki healing and Birkham yoga and its like are, for this kind of witch, at best wildly embarrassing, at most culturally appropriative and condemned.

The Tumblr witch can be found in “Queer Punjabi witch vibez” or in just about every version of herself that Rihanna presents to the public. (Irreverent, political, intensely successful and yet somehow projecting an image of someone who has the time to lounge around smoking pot and telling people to stop “riding my dick,” Rihanna is perhaps the celebrity who comes closest to accessing the multifaceted nature of the Tumblr witch.)

#ANTIdiaRy. Courtesy of YouTube.

But more importantly the Tumblr witch is as much about politics and what she reblogs between witch quotes as she is about any visual representation; though, of course, she doesn’t always get it right, she tries damn hard. And the Tumblr witch is newly made, an online creation shared and differentiated between thousands of users. She doesn’t come bearing Gerald Gardner’s colonial legacy. She comes fresh from our generation’s climate and political understanding of racism and misogyny; she comes angry and exhausted.

It seems particular to the platform she’s on, where witch aesthetics and jokes appear on a user’s dashboard between political screeds and calls to action. Alexandra Edwards, a writer, Emmy award-winning storyteller, and academic, blogs on her fannish Tumblr with — amongst many other things — several witch tags. “I don’t think modern witchcraft is necessarily political,” Edwards says, “but that the convergence of witchcraft and Tumblr as a social justice-friendly platform makes it possible for us to see those links, to find the girls who are doing witchcraft as a political practice.”

Edwards continues:

“For me, personally, the concepts and aesthetics of witchcraft give me access to a bunch of things that I find meaningful: women’s ways of knowing, expressions of female power that looks fundamentally different from male power, recognition that there are spiritual practices that center women and pre-date patriarchal religions. And yeah, there’s a bit of that angry-funny, almost-ironic embrace of the far right wing stereotype of the Satanic witch or whatever. Like, it’s a bit of a fantasy, as a woman facing all the attendant disempowerment that brings, to joke about summoning demons and like, turning men into newts or something.”

The fantasy element of the Tumblr witch is crucial. If we dig into what draws a Tumblr witch toward being a witch, it’s clearly a separate concept from the magical or spiritual calling that the Wicca bloggers experience. Being a Tumblr witch doesn’t have the perceived practical use of the online spell-books, and, though political, for the most part it’s of no especial use as a political pursuit. What makes the most sense is to see the Tumblr witch as a mirror image of the ongoing self-care movement: a tool to make oneself feel better.

But it’s a mirroring in that it’s backward. The self-care movement, like any movement, comes with a hundred different theories and facets, and the ones frequently circulated online are often confusing, or alienating, or plain stupid. For the many, many people suffering from mental illness and blogging about it online, being told that lighting a candle and taking a long bath will make everything better is laughable, if not downright dangerous. The Tumblr witch steps up and says so, or points out the tired absurdity of the idea by making it into a joke: Okay, if we’re casting spells, why not get rid of that pesky old anxiety disorder while we’re at it.

Just as Tumblr at large has reacted to criticism of millennials, one Tumblr user rolls their eyes at a long parody of self-care activities: oh… I’ll remember to do that… *hasn’t showered in four days* Another skips straight to a horror gothic reading of self-care straight out of the Tumblr witch handbook: drink water, eat fruit, rub yourself in dirt, scream.

Being a Tumblr witch offers a way around this version of the self-care movement by accepting it as inherently ridiculous, and offering up something more ridiculous in response. Taking a bath will solve your problems? Cool, why not bathe in the blood of virgins! On a deeper level, what the Tumblr witch is doing is rejecting the adult responsibility that self-care demands. Self-care asks us to take some very adult measure of standing up and taking charge of yourself, often coupled with a childlike way of retreating afterward — accepting blame, and then cuddling yourself better.

Credit: flickr/Ariel Grimm

The Tumblr witch is weary of and cynical about such concepts. She’d rather turn to astrology and superstition: random occurrences, otherworldly reverberations, echoing a millennial lack of control over external circumstances. The concept that any direct actions an individual could take would make things better in a world that’s often stacked against us seems absurd, or at least magical . . . so let’s take that magic as a given and hex our opponents.

Yet the Tumblr witch and the self-care acolyte continue to mirror each other, continue to throw up shadows and echoes of the other. Most particularly we can see the convergence of the two in an easy capitalist definition. Self-care at its shallowest takes a Parks and Recreation quote on as slogan: Treat yourself! Buy new moisturizer, eat artisan granola, take the time to go on long holidays — as if achieving such things only require a little extra positive thinking. Smart critiques of self-care often center around these; too often we’re seeing acts of consumerism as acts of self-care, rather than the critical thinking and problem solving that other self-care fans advocate.

But it’s undeniable that the act of buying something good for ourselves can feel virtuous when it’s actually nothing more than a treat; the Tumblr witch is not immune to this way of buying products under the disguise of actualizing selfhood.

In her essay “The Undead Hipster,” Kashana Cauley discusses the relief and soothing nature of hipster consumerism: “Buying affordable luxuries makes sense as a method to survive and find pleasure in an exclusive economy that’s shrinking the middle class . . . Thirteen dollars will buy you a craft cocktail in Brooklyn, but you’ll have to scrape together $739,610 to buy an apartment.” The Tumblr witch will never have the latter sum, but she’ll use that $13.

“Clothes aren’t free, not even the boring ones,” Sara Louise, a Tumblr user and Etsy shop owner, agrees, so you may as well buy the ones that make you feel good. “If buying a crystal necklace or a black dress or a bunch of silver jewelry is what you need to feel like what you wear expresses who you are or want to be, party on. It goes back to the costuming thing . . . if you need to be a witch today to get through work or school or dealing with your life, then be a witch.”

Tumblr functions foremost on visuals. Most of what can directly be linked to the Tumblr witch comes with its own explicit text, fashion imagery, interior decor, and — to put it simply — things that look good. The witchy style is hard to define: It’s not characterized by those initial movements in fashion that brought witchiness back into style.

Credit: flickr/plaisanter~

But it does bring us back to Zadie Smith’s categorization: an instinctive movement toward yes, whether it be in the curling hair and glasses of a girl in a red sweater whose blog is otherwise full of tarot cards and candle imagery, or something about Amandla Stenberg’s pink pastel mouth in her “‘70s album cover.”

Beyonce in Formation is a witch (Southern Gothic and political); Grimes in armour is a witch.

Sara highlights this idea too, reeling off the “witch vibes” she’s drawn to in curating her shop: “Goth witches in black maxi dresses and capes, Wiccan girls in flowy boho looks with handfuls of rings and jarred herbs . . . sea witches with mermaid hair and tattered shipwreck looks, prairie witches in calico dresses magicking tumbleweeds across the dirt, pink-haired mall witches in anime buns and belly shirts.” The fact that nearly any item of clothing can be adapted to a witch vibe is part of the charm of Tumblr’s witch adaptability; but it’s also a new excuse for buying whatever you’d like.

It’s quite easy for witchiness as an aesthetic to become its own justification. Things we wouldn’t normally buy become worthy of money that we can’t afford: “spring witch vibes,” I murmur, before an unnecessarily expensive haircut. Our Amazon Wishlists fill up with books, poetry, beauty products, accessories. Urban Outfitters cottons onto the fact that you can just as easily be an athletic witch (jock witches: long limbs and squinty eyes, high school running champions) as you can be Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus. The aesthetics of the Tumblr witch are beautiful in that they are malleable and extendable.

But one important non-witchy thing that stands out is nudity, because nudity in its purest form cannot be accessorized. Bitten-down nails are, arguably, just as much a part of the Tumblr witch as a dangerous blue manicure, but ragged nails alone do not a Tumblr witch make: Their aesthetic must be completed with other things — new sneakers, a pair of Nike socks. The Tumblr witch can’t be made entirely out of your own closet. We must always want something more. Somehow, an inherent part of being a Tumblr witch is found in the act of purchasing.

For Sara, this is both inevitable and not entirely a bad thing. “Most trends are linked pretty tightly with consumerism,” she says. “If anything I think witch goals are linked to feminism, visualizing yourself in this costume, as this magic-making woman, to take back your power in a world where everything is stacked against women.”

Credit: flickr/Surian Soosay

And she’s right: All clothes cost something. The consumerism linked to the Tumblr witch isn’t really more condemnable than any other trend in capitalist society. On the contrary, it often provides an affordable offset to self-care movements; it doesn’t excuse itself, it doesn’t necessarily pretend that it’s anything high or noble, and it’s frequently easier and cheaper than many of the purchases self-care as a popular movement demands. We’re trained to feel better after buying things: The Tumblr Witch can at least buy small things, or twist necessary purchases into something witchy (a $5 plain t-shirt from Amazon: normcore witch vibes).

Still, the purchasing impulse behind Tumblr Witchery is noticeable, as is the strange feeling of power that comes in making a witchy purchase. It feels like a justifiable way to spend money — more than that, like a good way to spend money, virtuous in what it’s giving me, and all the other Tumblr witches out there. What I wonder, though, is whether in this case, that feeling of power is actually ours.

Here: a list of different things you should buy for the different witches in your lives. The Tumblr witch is broke, like most of our generation. But like Cauley’s undead hipster, she’ll use the $5 she can’t put toward an apartment for a new set of crystals.

The reasons for the Tumblr’s witch appearance seem clear, though I’m unsure how long she’ll stick around. Witches have remained popular parts of our mythology for centuries, and for as long as it’s been safe to self-identify as one, women have been doing it. But it seems hard to cling to an identity that is half-formed by being open to anything, by embracing every potential aesthetic, and by demanding that no one identify as it as the be-all-end-all. Not to mention the speed of the internet’s mass removals: The Tumblr witch is possible on Tumblr, but who knows how long Tumblr will be here.

Still, I like her. She’s brave and frightened, angry and amused. And she makes sense to me as something we can embrace, some way to justify the boring, upsetting, desperate, tired ways we live. The Tumblr witch takes our stained sweatshirts and cheap silver rings that leave green marks on our skin; she looks at bags under our eyes and says, witch vibes. She lets us turn away from cat-callers with a strained smile and tweets — all men are already toads, the magic is in revealing it.

Somehow, bad days are easier to stomach if I can accept responsibility in a universal way: I didn’t wear that necklace. I forgot to wish at 11:11. I didn’t touch wood. The Tumblr witch’s brand of magic gives us a way to own bad circumstance and coincidence, without having to sort tiredly through responsibility. She creates a community: tired, filthy, bored of being told how to fix our lives by our parents and how to fix our heads by our more successful peers. The Tumblr witch offers up an answer to the kind of exhaustion you feel after everyday oppression and the forms it takes: Care too much, don’t care at all, stay in a burrow in your bed and cast hexes on your enemies. Formed seething and seeping from a swamp of ways to tackle a world that seems skewed against you, the Tumblr witch is resolutely unfriendly and intractable. She’s something to meld to when the only guides are moving up and out. She offers new ways to burrow in and down.

And I like her nastiness, her paranoia, her bitter laughter. “Take a bath and moisturize well,” the self-care guide soothes us. The Tumblr witch howls: “Mercury is in retrograde, lock your doors and don’t go out!!!”

I’ll grin in response, getting up to flick the latch.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

Written by

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded & run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

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