In the third chapter of her mini-series, Toni Roberts discovers that witchcraft is alive and well in Romania. Looking at Lucia Sekerková Bláhová’s photography series, Vrăjitoare, the modern, technologically savvy face of magic and witchery is revealed.
A light, night breeze. A burning candle I try to keep alight. A folded piece of paper. Moonlight shining in the darkness. I speak a prayer, cast a spell, believe in the magic. I feel ethereal and powerful, imagining my silhouette cast against the dark sky. It’s the night that gives the magic power because the night is fundamentally intertwined with magic and the supernatural: the witching hour, black capes, hats and cats, Halloween parties and graveyard visits.
From a young age, I’ve been fascinated and enthralled by witchcraft and magic. I grew up, like many people of my generation, with Harry Potter, Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I wanted so badly to have magical abilities, and have fond memories of concocting potions and performing spells with my sister and friends. On a family trip to Stonehenge, my aunt bought my sister and I a book entitled 5 Easy Steps to Becoming a Witch by Gilly Sergiev. It was one of our most treasured possessions. We learnt spells and witch lore from that book. It opened our minds and ignited our creativity and imagination.
Slovakian photographer Lucia Sekerková Bláhová grew up in a Christian household and was forbidden from engaging with anything to do with magic and the occult. But she was curious. Her inquisitiveness piqued and she began to read horoscopes. This curiosity eventually led her to embark on a project with ethnologist Ivana Šusterová to document the lives of Romania’s modern-day vrăjitoare, or witches, primarily focusing on how technology has influenced their practice.
In one of Sekerková Bláhová’s photographs, a huge, green dollar sign adorns the ceiling. In another, a beautiful, golden crown encrusted with coloured jewels and coins sits atop a dark-haired head. Throughout the series one sees luxurious marbled floors and sculptures. So that one cannot help but notice that these women have wealth; they are businesswomen with power and prestige. Witchcraft is very much a business and a means for them to make a living.
The average person may not think of witches existing today in 2020. They may not believe magic is real, but something that only exists in stories. I’m sure many people, when asked to think of witches, still conjure the image of women in black hats and capes, holding a broomstick and accompanied by a black cat. This is the archetypal image of witches we have been presented in the form of films, television and literature. But witchcraft, fortune-telling and other occult practices are just as prevalent today as they were in say the Middle Ages, a time famous for witch hunts and accusations. One only has to look on Instagram for evidence of this. The hashtag #witchesofinstagram has had 5.4 million posts. Many of the women invoke the classic image of black clothes and a gothic air. In a way, this is performative; they are feeding into our expectations of what a witch is. But this idea of performativity and theatre is very much the same for the Romanian vrăjitoare. Lucia Sekerková Bláhová describes practices as being like a performance for their clients, perhaps to make the work appear more believable. The clients will no doubts have ideas and assumptions about how a witch might act and what she might do; the witches, in turn, comply, living up to certain expectations, so that their clients will believe in their magic and keep coming back.
What of the night though? We know from films such as Practical Magic (1998) and Hocus Pocus (1993) that the night-time is a space to connect to the spirits and the earth. It’s a time when magic is at its most powerful and potent. In Netflix’s recent remake of the popular 90s television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch (known as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and The Vampire Diaries (based on the book by the same name), witches always go back to nature (usually a forest or a secluded green space) in the dead of night to perform their most powerful spells. This is also a time for contacting the dead, as the veil that separates the mortal world from the spirit world lifts. When talking to Lucia Sekerková Bláhová, I asked what significance the night holds to these Roma witches, what rituals and celebrations are carried out during nocturnal hours, and whether this time of day forms part of their “performance”.
For some of the women that took part in the project, night is a time to connect to the spirits and access more powerful energy. For others, especially the older and thus more experienced witches, it is about spirituality and awakening a person’s faith in the witches’ magical powers and abilities. This is again an example of how they cater to societal expectations in order to keep their business running and successful. Night rituals are used for promotional purposes for their social media sites. These rituals are livestreamed on Facebook so that they can be watched online by many. In one photograph (see feature image above), Sekerková Bláhová captures a young witch, Monika, taking a selfie just before one of these rituals. She holds an embossed silver, gold and black cross and looks into her iPhone with a slight smile. Monika stands out in a bright flash against the fuzzy greens and blues of her surroundings.
This ancient craft, passed down through generations of Roma women, has transformed and adapted for the modern, technological age. Where travelling Roma groups once had to walk the streets in pursuit of clients in the towns and villages they stopped in on their journey, they now market their services online, reaching a much wider audience. Even the interaction between witch and client has changed. No longer do the clients need to attend rituals to reap the benefits. It is now enough to know some key facts about the client, communicated through technology, for the vrăjitoare to work their magic. Lucia informed me that there were never any clients present at the night rituals she attended during her stay. Smartphones and laptops are now just as much part of a witches’ toolkit as her tarot cards, candles, crystal ball, dolls and crucifix.
A flora-littered river. A white coloured board floats on its surface; red potted candles, some toppled, and flower crowns. The bluish-grey smoke hovers like a mist. Night has descended. The effect is somewhere between mysticism and a reality steeped in performance. The flash used by the photographer takes away some of the mysticism of the façade.
The photograph described above was taken after the Sanziene celebration. This pagan tradition is celebrated on 24th June and takes place during the summer solstice, celebrating nature and fertility. It coincides with the Orthodox holiday of the birth of St. Ioan Botezatorul, or St. John the Baptist, and, according to folk beliefs, is a night when the heavens open, allowing the witches to cast their most powerful love spells. It is said that fairies walk the fields on the night of 23rd-24th June, dancing, singing and bestowing special powers onto the flowers. The young witches use these enchanted flowers to make crowns, which they throw into the river with burning candles. If all goes well, other girls should be able to find their promised love.
Another important feast for the witches is Mărţişor, meaning little March. This tradition is celebrated from 1st-9th March and celebrates the victory of life over death as winter moves to spring. This is a time to acknowledge women and show them respect and admiration. The mărţişor, which is like a trinket of red and white ribbon or string, is given as a gift.
According to Sekerková Bláhová, the feasts are more important than the night itself. The feasts are steeped in Romanian tradition and the cultural element holds great significance. What then does the night give these women? I believe that the darkness and the lateness of the hour brings success to the business of witchcraft and fortune-telling. It is about associations and expectations. The night is integral to the spectacle; it helps with the mysticism and the intrigue. It enables people to believe in the magic, to feel it working for them. The night is a time to connect to the earth spiritually and feel the force of nature. There is a sense that things are possible at night that seem less so during the day. People all over the world tune in to the live broadcasts of these nocturnal rituals, to bear witness and share in the magic. Because of this, the vrăjitoare are able to earn the money they need to survive in the world and to live comfortably, even excessively. They have power and agency, not just as witches but as women. According to Christopher Dell (author of The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic), the recent increase in popularity of witchcraft can be directly linked to the feminist movements of the twentieth century. The longstanding preoccupation with fertility and the feminine is at the core of this.
Historically, witches have been feared by people who believed that they may negatively succumb to their powers. Witches have been persecuted since 1486: subjected to torture, death and criminal charges. The modern-day vrăjitoare have faced a similar fate. In 2007 a law was passed in Romania banning the advertisement of occult practices on television. They have also been charged with blackmailing and manipulating their clients. The fear of some and belief of others give the witches power, a kind of female superiority. It’s unsurprising, then, that witchcraft is often linked to feminism. The strength of the witches’ power is brilliantly illustrated in an event that took place in 2011. Democratic Liberal Party politician, Alin Popoviciu, proposed a law to tax witches and fortune-tellers and hold them liable for making lawless predictions. In retaliation, Romanian witches protested in the streets of Bucharest, performing magical rituals against the politicians. In the end, the law was not passed, because the politicians’ feared they would be cursed.
The darkness of the night, then, is part of the witches’ aesthetic. It helps enable belief and atmosphere. It facilitates the business, allowing, with the presence of the internet, the craft to become a lucrative profession. And as we have learnt from fairy-tales and stories, the night is when spirits and supernatural creatures appear, making it an opportune moment to perform black magic. The night is an important time for this kind of magic in particular. Witches wear special clothes, such as white, glittery dresses and scarves, during their night rituals. These clothes offer protection against evil.
A black hen is held aloft by the witch’s hands. Her white dress stands out like a beacon of light in the darkness. This animal is offered as a sacrifice. A ritualistic removal of evil magic, from human to bird.
About Toni Roberts
Toni Roberts is a writer from and based in London. She primarily writes plays and had a short play performed as part of The Platform at The Bread & Roses Theatre, which ran on 23rd and 24th February 2020. She studied English Language and Spanish at the University of Westminster where she first got into playwriting and has recently expanded her writing range to include poetry and essays. Follow Toni on Twitter @tonihroberts and on Instagram @toniroberts
This piece has been commissioned as part of a mini series, Women of the Night, conceived and written by Toni Roberts
Night has many associations: death, darkness, horror, the supernatural, secrecy, discos, drunkenness, dancing, disorder and dreams. But it is also a time and space associated with women; throughout history, in myth, legend and the everyday, women have looked to night for liberation, even at the risk of incurring violence towards themselves. From nocturnal revels to sex work to Wiccan rituals in a moon-lit forest, women have worked, suffered, triumphed and plotted well into the dead hours of the night. In this mini-series, I will explore women’s relationship to the shifts and changes, turns and oscillations of night, as depicted in film, theatre, visual art, literature and music. Including works by the likes of the playwright Federico García Lorca, the photographer Ana Casa Broda, the poet Muriel Rukeyser and many more, my personal essays will reflect on the role night plays in women’s lives and how, in turn, their lives shape and inform our conception of what night is and could be.
This mini-series is part of our theme Night / Shift, which will be open for submissions until the end of November.
Feature image taken from taken from Lucia Sekerková Bláhová’s series, Vrăjitoare. © Lucia Sekerková Bláhová.