Bloomington witches find supportive community online
Local witchcraft practitioners connect with one another in the “Bloomington Witch Collective” Discord server.
Fjuna Lark kneels on the floor of her Bloomington apartment and calls on the North, South, East and West, their associated elements, and on Saint Mary.
“I open this space and ask that it do only good to heal those who are seeking healing,” she said.
The stone fireplace in front of her is arrayed with devotional candles and dried yellow roses. Two long olive dishes she rescued from goodwill, now filled with a mixture of salt and herbs, rest on a slab of marble. Frankincense smoke wafts in front of a small video camera looking over her right shoulder.
Fjuna chooses a slender white candle, anoints it with a blend of essential oils and sprinkles it with dried herbs and rose petals before placing it upright in the bowl of salt.
She picks up a slip of paper from a golden dish in the shape of a hand.
“This petition is for Stephanie,” she reads. “They ask for better job performance and huge sales from their commissions.”
She rubs the excess oil and herbs from her fingers on the slip of paper. It turns translucent, the candlelight glowing between the letters of Stephanie’s prayer, transcribed in Fjuna’s handwriting from her Etsy messages.
Fjuna folds it carefully, then, grasping the small square in a set of tongs, passes it through the frankincense smoke, lights it on a large candle and uses the new flame to ignite the candle she prepared moments ago. She drops the piece of paper, now consumed in flames into a small metal cauldron and picks up another.
“This next petition is for InHye,” she continues. “They ask that their gastritis be cured.”
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Fjuna is one of many self-described witches using the internet to take their craft in new directions. She offers spiritual services, such as candle ceremonies, to clients who find her on Etsy.
There’s been plenty of talk about the growing ranks of Gen Z occultists forming around the hashtags #witchtok and #witchesofInstagram. But older witches who have been practicing for years are buoyed by the same currents that are causing a groundswell in popularity for the witchy aesthetic.
But for many practitioners of folk magic, celebrities taking up crystals and tarot cards hasn’t completely erased centuries of stigma.
Last year Louisa Dean and Meg Rosenbriar, co-founders of Witch With Me, what they call “an online community for new witches,” developed the Witch Census with the help of a statistician and a graphic designer. The anonymous online survey attempts to "find out how modern witchcraft is developing and provide us all with insight into this magickal world we are a part of,” according to the website.
The 2020 census, which included questions about demographics, beliefs and practices such as “Do you keep a book of shadows?” garnered more than 16,000 responses from 74 countries — though the majority came from the United States and United Kingdom, where Rosenbriar and Dean are based, respectively.
Dean pointed out the survey offers only a snapshot of those who were willing and able to respond. The team relied on their budding platform and word of mouth to push out the questionnaire, but faced an additional obstacle: suspicion from witches themselves.
“We had a lot of people who were really frightened of us, and they thought we were witch hunters, and they thought we were the CIA,” Dean said. “It just went to show just how frightened people are still of being open about this kind of thing and the potential repercussions of being associated with witchcraft."
Yet Dean recognizes that this project would not have been possible at any other point in history.
“I mean, for a very long time, witches haven't been able to connect at all,” she says.
Dean explained the internet has not only made it possible for witches to connect on a global scale, but for her team to reach around the world with a survey that allows respondents to share the details of their practice anonymously.
Dean said she hopes having comprehensive data about what witches actually practice will help to dispel misconceptions in the media and give closeted witches, who don’t openly practice, the sense that they aren’t alone.
In the “Bloomington Witch Collective” Discord channel, anonymous users — some openly practicing, some still in the broom closet — share tarot memes, swap metaphysical shopping and podcast recommendations and offer recaps of advice from their spirit guides.
According to Dean, virtual spaces like these are an important — and unprecedented — avenue toward acceptance.
“Being able to connect anonymously online gives people a lot of freedom, and one of the biggest things that you need when you find that you're part of a marginalized group, is connection and community.”
— Louisa Dean
Kara Bookwalter started the discord in February 2021 to foster that sense of community when in-person socializing seemed out of the question.
Visitors to her and her husband’s country home northeast of Bloomington are greeted by a black cat and the smell of incense. Artifacts from their wedding decorate the house — a dried bouquet, hand-painted signs and candles treated with herbs and runes.
In the kitchen Kara chops apples, slicing them carefully to reveal a star at the apples’ core, on an island crowded with pumpkins and a vase of marigolds. It’s the week after Samhain, the sabbat, or seasonal pagan holiday, that marks the end of fall and she’s making her favorite seasonal potion: a spiced cider with pomegranate seeds.
Her mother, Kara said, raised her as a witch without ever saying so, treating Kara and her siblings with herbal medicine and giving them crystals to wear. As a child, Kara learned to ask trees permission before climbing them and not to pray when she visited church with her Christian relatives.
“You don’t know who you’re praying to,” Kara recalls her mom saying.
Kara graduated from high school in Wheatfield, Indiana, where she found her crowd with the “outcasts,” queer kids and atheists. She said she’s always been attracted to things that are “not the norm.”
These days Kara works as a massage therapist, which she considers part of her magical practice. Tattoos, many of which she’s gotten in exchange for massage work, adorn her arms: a dragon, a golden snitch, a black cat riding a broomstick — her departed kitten Purrsephone.
Her husband, Bryce Bookwalter, also considers himself a witch. As a chaplain’s assistant in the Army, he became interested in Wicca, a neopagan religion that is officially recognized by the U.S. military. His interests have since turned more towards Thelema, a philosophy based on the ideas of early 20th century occultist Alistair Crowley.
Their books share space on a shelf dedicated to magical texts.
Across the room, tucked amongst shards of crystal, jars of moon oil, curling rose petals, snake skin and butterfly wings, is a small vial containing honey and dragon’s blood resin, pieces of crystals and plants: a love spell Kara made to bring Bryce good fortune and vitality, to protect him and draw the couple closer together.
Standing in their kitchen Bryce unspools his “threefold definition” of magic. Magic is will, manifested through intent; it’s the natural occurrence of the world revered, and it’s recognition of one’s place in the world, he said.
He points out commonalities with other systems of thought, such as prayer and meditation being other forms of focusing intent. Many religions share a respect for nature, he said, but the “reverence” for nature in witchcraft takes it a step further.
The fact that human molecular makeup happens to have endowed us with sentience, he said, is pure magic.
Kara, leaning against the counter, hums in agreement and snaps her fingers. These are things she feels, she said, but has never articulated that way.
For her, magic is about bringing together different elements to create something new. Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it’s really about exchanging and converting energies. This can be quite literal, as in exchanging chicken feed for the eggs produced, or more abstract, like converting experiences into goals and devoting emotional energy to these intentions to manifest results.
Whether it’s storytelling or music — "the literal manipulation of the air waves to create emotion,” as she describes it — Kara sees examples of magic everywhere. She infuses the mundane chores of modern life with magical significance: sweeping the floor becomes a purification ritual, cooking dinner is crafting love potions and putting on her makeup is casting a glamor spell.
This “everyday magic” is an idea she got from a friend. Kara’s philosophy is an example of that synthesis in practice. She draws on ideas from astrophysicist Carl Sagan and neopagan feminist Starhawk, mythology from the ancient Greeks and “cultural ancestors” like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and David Bowie. She also incorporates the spiritual practices of friends and family.
This highly individualized milieu of influences and beliefs is typical of eclectic practitioners, and combined with the abundance of folk traditions, new wave beliefs and neopagan religions that have all been labeled as witchcraft, is what makes a precise definition of the term witch so evasive.
Kara has been involved with the pagan community in Bloomington since 2016, but hasn’t always embraced the word “witch.” She worried about alienating people who might not be so comfortable with it.
But in early 2020, one of her best friends attended a conference with her favorite occultist and favorite astrologer and brought home some of their guidance: “The world is getting weird,” Kara summarized, and it was time to double down on being weird. After years of chaotic national politics and the descent into a surreal “new normal,” the message resonated with her.
“So my friend and I both were like, ‘Yeah, it's time to just say we're witches and not back off from that,’” she said.
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Dean of the Witch Census said times of instability often see an uptick in magical practices.
“When the political landscape is uncertain, or it feels like there's a lot of corruption afoot, people tend to turn to spirituality or different ways of coping to try and give themselves some kind of control over their own personal domain,” she said.
She believes this is part of the explanation for the explosion of witchy content online in recent years.
“This is an unprecedented time, though,” she said. “We've never had a time where even celebrities are actually able to talk freely about being in practicing witchcraft or keeping crystals and manifesting.”
The trendiness, she says, is making it more acceptable and more accessible.
Still, Dean said, she completely understands why some people choose to stay in the broom closet.
“People are horrible! People are really freaking mean, you know? I was bullied for my interest in the craft when I was a teenager,” she says. “We asked a lot of questions about this in the census — whether or not people feel intimidated or frightened — and a lot of people do.”
Fjuna Lark started studying witchcraft in the early 2000s, but didn’t feel comfortable calling herself a witch until recently. As a people-pleaser, she said, she didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
“It took me a long time to accept that term because it’s so taboo,” she said.
But the popularity of the aesthetic on social media, she said, gave her the confidence to start using the word witch for herself online about two years ago.
“It was scary to be like, ‘Hey, by the way guys, I identify as a witch. I don't know exactly what that means,” Fjuna said. “But that's kind of the road I’m going down.’”
Fjuna, whose legal name is Tiffany Dobrzynski, was raised Catholic. Her childhood was what she calls “not psychologically stable.” She always had to read the room. This, she suspects, is where she got the ability to sense when people around her were going through something.
When she worked full-time at Hobby Lobby, one customer would come in just to get hugs from Fjuna after losing her husband.
In 2020 Fjuna left her full-time job there to focus more on her Etsy business, so now she’s a part-time bank-teller, part-time lightworker; she performs spells and candle ceremonies for customers who reach out to her on Etsy for spiritual assistance with issues from infertility to car payments.
“A lot of people just need someone on their side,” she explains. “And so that’s what my candle services have been.”
The empathy that allows her to connect with clients from South Korea to South Africa also leaves her vulnerable to the bad moods of people around her, she said. Her first spell was a protection charm against negativity around her. She was skeptical, but after performing the spell she began to feel more comfortable in social situations. Seeing the results inspired her to keep practicing.
Now she considers herself a hearth witch. Creating a safe bubble at home is what gives her the energy to keep practicing — but that can be challenging in a townhome with thin walls. She regularly scatters a protective blend of herbs and salt around her house, but occasionally bad energies from her neighbors still make their way in.
The candle ceremonies are draining for Fjuna. As she reads the prayers of her clients, she tries to visualize their situations, see things play out their way. Thoughts of them stay with her for days afterwards, she said. She checks in with many of her clients, having worked with some of them regularly over the months. She gets involved, messaging them ideas or questions about their situations as they come to her.
As much as it can be taxing to take on the worries of strangers, Fjuna said witchcraft has been healing for her. She’s been practicing “shadow work,” confronting past traumas and mentally processing them. She glows when she talks about the successes some of her clients have had, and her plans to grow her business.
Last year her Etsy work brought in about $3,000. After Etsy fees, taxes and the cost of materials, it was a meager profit but enough, she said, to consider her online store more than a hobby. In February she registered as a limited liability company.
The dining room table in her rented townhome overflows with a mix of magical and mundane flotsam: popsicle sticks and twine, dried herbs and cicada wings, candles and sealing wax, nail polish, unread mail and sticky notes to self.
A nearby cabinet is stuffed with tarot decks — Fjuna has more than 30 — and jars of anointing oils and altar salts she puts together for her store. The top is decorated with occult paraphernalia and a crystal charging array.
Having witchy trappings on display in her house is a big deal for her. At age 39, she still hasn’t told her parents about her beliefs, but she decided when she moved into her apartment more than four years ago that she wasn’t going to hide her altars when they came over.
When her mother visited for the first time, Fjuna remembers her commenting “So, you like rocks.”
On the mantle above the fireplace where Fjuna conducts her ceremonies now sits a little tree made of wire and amethyst crystals. It was a gift from her mother, after she discovered that Fjuna liked rocks.
“I love that she thought of that and saw that and got that for me,” she said. “That was probably the first step of me knowing that I don't have to be so closed with, like, my stuff.”
Next to the tree sits a picture of her grandmother, a small cup of water and a teacup she sometimes fills with coffee. Nana loves coffee.
Someday Fjuna hopes to connect with her grandmother; she has questions for her.
“She would snicker a lot and you knew she knew stuff she wasn’t going to tell you,” Fjuna said.
But for now, spirit work is something she’s working up the confidence to try.
In one of her many notebooks, there’s a recipe for a protective anointing water should she ever attempt it. The top of the page reads “Do not drink!!”
Fjuna’s notebooks are full of aspirations, ideas and recipes. Sometimes at work, she’ll be in the middle of a transaction with a customer and an idea will strike. When they leave, she has to grab a notebook and jot it down before she can get on with her day.
In a current notebook, she’s highlighted a recipe for a “flying salve” with wormwood and mugwort to help with astral projection and scribbled a plan for “Magick emergency kits” involving “magic unicorn fabric” and felt.
“The entrepreneur in me is totally on call all the time,” she said.
Fjuna feels like she’s on the right track.
“It just makes me happy.”
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Fjuna comes to the final petition of the night, taking a deep breath: “This last petition is for Linda.” She presses her wrist to her forehead, eyes closed. Her voice falters, then raises in pitch as she closes: “Please heal her into knowing her own worth.”
After the ceremony she usually sits with her thoughts and a cup of tea as the candles burn down.
Her thoughts might turn to Linda, who she’s worked with for months.
“It weighs heavy on your heart when you see people not have that confidence in themselves,” she said. “They deserve so much and I just want them to get it.”