Student witches

Perri Roach spoke to the witches of the University of Sydney

Perri Roach spoke to the witches of the University of Sydney

“Whenever someone says they’re going to dress as a witch for something I laugh a bit,” says Katie*, a social work student who was brought up by her Pagan mother. “There’s not really a true ‘witch’ costume. One of my Mum’s best friends is literally a dental assistant and a witch.”

Speaking to some of the witches here on campus, who are so far removed from popular culture’s understanding of witchcraft, makes me a little embarrassed about the many times I have gone dressed a witch for Halloween. When I mention this to Katie, she corrects me. “Actually, Pagans call [Halloween] Samhain.”

Witchcraft is a complex and diverse concept that varies considerably from person to person. While many modern witches follow better known traditions such as Wicca and Paganism, an increasing number of witches are choosing to instead create their own eclectic, self determined paths.

“It just made sense to me as a child,” says Arabelle*, a visual arts student at SCA who found witchcraft as a teenager and describes her personal practice of witchcraft as something she grew up into. “When I was sixteen I got more into the aesthetic and read a lot of Aleister Crowley and historical texts of sorcery and witchcraft. Reading about [witchcraft] was more of an explanation for my habits and way of thinking than a resource.”

Arabelle’s practice is intimately linked to her art. “These days my main focus is in transforming emotions – trying to find ways in communication and expression which makes people I care about feel better… my favourite thing to do is draw on people’s hands or body.” Although her craft is very personal, Arabelle finds joy in being able to share it with those close to her. “I was making music with this friend who has the most ethereal voice I’ve ever heard, I would write spells for her to sing and she would always get them perfect right away– it was really beautiful and satisfying to share that.”

History and Archaeology student Jenna* loosely describes herself as an “eclectic secular witch” and talks about her craft with articulate reverence. “The craft everyday for me is checking my cards in the morning, noting the phase of the moon, carrying specific crystals or wearing specific jewelry to promote a certain energy. It’s a very subtle movement of energy and intent from one place to another…it’s fluid and adaptable.”

By “intent,” Jenna elaborates, she means a witch’s desire and purpose in performing a spell or ritual. “Intent is everything. Sort of. Intent is what makes the mundane activity of saying a few random words while lighting a candle a magical and powerful experience. It’s the witch’s intent that brings a spell into reality.”

Katie, Arabelle and Jenna all concur that technology has shaped their practice and personal understanding of witchcraft considerably. This makes sense; modern witchcraft’s fiercely individualistic DIY culture is well suited to the internet. Social media gives both novice and experienced witches a platform to connect and share with one another. Websites such as LA mystic Bri Luna’s provide a wealth of information about witchcraft and new age spirituality to hundreds of visitors every day. A quick google search on “beginner’s witchcraft” yields around half a million results and dozens of forums and niche social networks for those interests in all things esoteric and occult.

“I’ve learnt a lot online and in my own readings that has shaped my craft very distinctly away from the one I grew up with,” Katie says, “I’ve been doing a lot of research into chaos magic lately, which is super interesting. There’s a lot of great YouTube channels and podcasts.”

Jenna cites the Tumblr witchcraft community (which is distinct, she notes, from the Tumblr Wiccan community) as her main influence. “The Tumblr witchcraft community is about an individual approach to witchcraft. It shares beliefs and ideas and spells and associations and all the good stuff about magic. It is also a place where the main issues with witchcraft are discussed… It really exposes you to a lot of beliefs and ideas that maybe you didn’t think of. Perspective is important in the craft. And all the information is free.”

“The Hexing of Brock Turner” that took place in June earlier this year was organised online through a Facebook event. Hundreds of Pagans and witches from around the world, many survivors of sexual violence, took part in the ritual, many sharing photos of their altars and descriptions of the spells they had cast on the US man who was sentenced to only six months in prison after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

The nature of each ceremony varied widely between practitioners. Whilst many targeted Turner directly, cursing him with constant pain and nightmares, some also conducted positive rituals, giving blessings and positive energy to the survivor and others affected by the assault. This is what witchcraft is to many practitioners: a means of personal empowerment and healing.

Modern witches don’t abide by the traditional rules of spirituality. Instead of rigid dogma, Arabelle emphasised a focus on flexible, self-driven exploration. “I think a lot of witches and practitioners would agree with me that the source of your power isn’t in an attachment to any regulation – but to expression and the power of memory.”

“I’ve never needed to follow one specific method,” she says, “because I’ve invented my own.”

*names have been changed