Incantations for the smart phone generation
Does this string of emoji have meaning for you?
How about these images?
For many, they are simply chains of loosely linked, cartoonish pictures. For those versed in emoji spellcraft, they represent incantations for bringing good things into the future or banishing the bad.
The first step in constructing an emoji spell is signalling its magical qualities and purpose. The crystal ball emoji (🔮) is a common choice, normally placed at both the beginning and end of the spell. Next, the caster will often choose an emoji to represent themselves. The girl with hand raised is common (🙋🏼♀️), signalling a call-out to the universe or a granter of wishes. A spell designed to impact a larger group of people does not need such a specific face emoji, and could rely instead on a flag or an animal to signify its target.
After this, the body of the magical request should follow. This might be ‘I want to be a musical superstar’ (👩🏻🎤💫🎼), ‘I want to adopt the perfect cat soon’ (🔜🐈✨), or ‘I want to stop smoking so I can be a better runner’ (🚫🚬🚫🏃🏾♀️). There’s no wish too big or small. The only limitation is the spellmaker’s imagination and their ability to find emoji in accordance with their need.
Witchcraft is not a unified movement. It’s a loose term that a great variety people have identified with. Casting a spell is one of the core functions of a witch across cultures and times. In some regions, these spells are seen as dark and dangerous. In others, they are viewed kind and affirming. Emoji witchcraft is most closely connected with modern, Western Paganism — an umbrella term for a set of movements that often revive ancient magical rituals. These include a belief in the power of spells, and the ability of a human to change the world in keeping with their will.
Emoji spells were brought to the public imagination in 2015 by Tarin Towers who published her how-to guide on Vice. Before long, bloggers on Tumblr were experimenting with this modern witchcraft. Emoji spells lend themselves to social media, as they must be shared with others in order to be cast. The Tumblr platform allows any given post to be ‘liked’ or ‘reblogged’. Users began to ask that a spell be ‘charged’ via a like, or cast via a reblog. This allowed people who resonated with a spell to either devote psychic energy to its power, or to deploy it for their own benefit. Before long, Tumblr was full of emoji spells requesting everything from finding a set of lost keys to impeaching the US president.
Many people who cast emoji spells are sincere in their efforts, seeing these popular keyboard images as representations of feelings, processes, or beliefs — much like more ancient symbols such as runes. If a group of people view a symbol in a similar manner, it can act as a powerful manifestation of shared thoughts and emotional energy.
Of course, many others partake in a casual emoji spell out of curiosity, mild hope, or even humour. Some people are so desperate to de-tangle themselves from an ex-partner that they will try anything available to help them out. Others add an emoji spell to their arsenal of weight loss techniques, while some reblog spells in order to spread a political message such as fear over Brexit and its financial aftermath. Some are merely having fun with a cute technology and its cheerful visual lexicon.
Despite the mystery surrounding emoji spells — or perhaps because of it — they inspire a great deal of interest from those outside of the craft. When I wrote an ethnography of the pro-anorexia movement, I was surprised by how many people reached out to discuss emoji spells. The same thing happened when I presented my research at conferences. Of all the strange, sad, and confronting topics I spoke on, emoji spells were by far the most engaging for my audience. They wanted to know how and why a person could create a spell for rapid weight loss or to banish their natural appetite by selecting images on their phone and texting them to friends. Their curiosity took me by surprise.
I had no answer other than ‘magic evolves’.
In an era of smart phones, social media, and emoji, it is any wonder that these technologies have merged with ancient witchcraft practices? Modern humans still yearn to improve themselves, banish fear, and announce their will to the universe. Emoji spells are simply a new language for a very old behaviour. And I predict they are here to stay.