The craft of being a witch, or ‘vrăjitoare’, is alive and kicking in Romania—and it’s had a makeover for the Internet age. A tradition central to travelling Roma groups, fortune-tellers would pick up potential clients wherever they wandered. Now, the encounter begins on the web, where witch ‘businesses’ livestream ritual videos from their popular Facebook pages. Transformed to suit the present day, the practice is situated somewhere between mysticism and spectacle, with each witch as savvy about her self-presentation and online marketing as the tenets of the ancient craft.
Intrigued by the thriving contemporary practice and inventive aesthetics of the Romanian vrăjitoare community, Slovakian photographer Lucia Bláhová teamed up with an ethnologist to document the movement. In a bid to fuse science and art, their project shows the radical changes technology has had on the age-old craft, as well as charting the recent history of the practice and the shifting demographics of the vrăjitoare themselves.
In this interview, Bláhová talks to LensCulture about the entrepreneurship of the modern witch, their fraught place within Romanian society and her own experience of fortune-telling, which lies somewhere between curiosity and skepticism.
LensCulture: What drew you to the practice of vrăjitoare? Was there a personal connection?
Lucia Bláhová: I grew up in a Christian family in a small village in Slovakia—and that meant a lot of rules. One of them was that I was forbidden from anything associated with occult practices, the argument being that it comes from Satan. I couldn’t even read horoscopes because my parents were afraid it would have a negative effect on my life. They see it as a sin. But the forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. I was curious, so I used to read them—and nothing happened to me. This is the same reason I started my project Vrăjitoare, visiting the most famous witches in Romania, letting them read my palm. The public has associated Roma women with mysticism and supernatural powers for generations. It is a bit of a stereotypical image of these women, mostly linked to nomadic Roma groups wandering through European territories.
LC: How did Vrăjitoare begin? Does it resonate with any of your previous work or was it a step in a different direction?
LB: I mostly focus on storytelling about marginalized communities. I’m also fascinated by the syncretism of Christianity with other religious movements or cultural origins. In 2013, I was researching and looking for a new photography project when I discovered a video of a Roma woman named Rodica and her thriving witch business. I was interested in her wealth, and started thinking about whether it was the result of her work as a witch. There’s a long tradition of Roma photography in Slovakia and the Czech Republic—Josef Koudelka, for example. Most of them captured the Roma from a position of social exclusion. You can see black and white pictures of people who live below the poverty line, but who still find some dignity and pleasure in their life. The Wallachian Roma community is smaller than other Roma groups, and witchcraft and fortune-telling is really rare in the Roma community of Slovakia. I was totally fascinated to see how alive it was in Romania.
LC: You worked with an ethnologist on this project. How did this come about? What was this collaboration like and what did it bring to your own working process?
LB: I received financial support from a university to continue the project. I started working with a Slovak ethnologist, my friend Ivana Šusterová, who is a PhD student at the Institute of Ethnology at Slovak Academy of Sciences. Her studies focus on the everyday life and culture of the Wallachian Roma community. We decided to fuse photographic work with an ethnological study, linking science with art in a visually-engaging book. For over four years, we have researched the world of Romanian Roma women who practice fortune-telling and witchcraft professionally. We met and talked to several witches and visited 24 households. My photographic work is based on Ivana’s ethnographic research, allowing me to understand the phenomena on a deeper level.
LC: Witchcraft is an ancient practice. Can you tell me a bit about the work of the vrăjitoare, their historical roots and the trajectory for becoming a witch? How has it evolved in the present?
LB: In literal translation from Romanian to English, the word ‘vrăjitoare’ means ‘witch.’ The unique ability to become a witch is usually linked to Roma origins; a special ‘gift’ was given to a select few Roma women from God, allowing them to work with the supernatural. The work is seen as traditional, because it is passed from one generation to the next, but also because this ‘gift’ is different than the one given to non-Romas. From around the age of seven, young girls start to observe their mothers and grandmothers working with clients. Mothers also observe their own children, in order to see if their child has the gift, since not every child from the family is blessed with it. For several years, the young girls work with their mothers, and then open a practice depending on their skills.
There are many differences between the past and present. In the past, the tradition of fortune-telling was strongest within many travelling Roma groups, who wandered across the European area. Fortune-telling abilities were primarily attributed to older women, undoubtedly due to their lifelong experience. They found prospective clients everywhere they went—in the streets of the villages and towns where they stopped their caravans to set up camp.
Today, these women no longer walk the streets in search of suitable palms from which to tell their owners’ future. Instead, clients seek them out after seeing ads in the media or on social networks, visiting them in their splendid homes. Rather than palm-reading or fortune-telling from tea leaves, it is now enough to know the client’s name and date of birth, and perhaps have a brief chat through social media. The profession has transformed into a business, inherited across generations.
LC: Traditionally, it was older women that practiced. But in your project most of the images are of young women. What brought about this change?
LB: There’s been a significant increase in the number of women offering fortune-telling or magic following Romania’s revolution in 1989, and the numbers are still growing. Under the previous Communist regime, the practice was forbidden, and practitioners were arrested for doing it. A major reason for the large number of practitioners today is the Internet. In particular, the live broadcasting of rituals is incredibly popular, though they used to be kept a secret. Now, you can find ritual instructions and spells on witches’ websites or Facebook pages. Everyone can learn the practice and start their own business. We met some women who claimed to come from a long line of witches, which we later discovered wasn’t true. Having spent a lot of time with the community, I noticed that there is a kind of competition between the women. There’s also this feeling that it’s more of a performance for the client.
Sandra, one of the witches I photographed, told us: “In the past, the processes were simpler. Today, every witch wants to have something special and unique, only for her, so they have started adding new things to seem more interesting to clients. They complicate the process of the work. They want to be like a big company, celebrated for its greatness. I can also buy my own golden crown and be a self-proclaimed queen of magic. In these times, you can be anything you want to be. It depends on your imagination.”
LC: In the photographs, the relationship between this ancient craft and our tech-driven present is fascinating. Can you tell me more about how technology has affected the practice?
LB: Now, there are many more opportunities for self-presentation without being dependent on advertising in official media. Witchcraft has always been under attack in Romania, and in 2007, a law was passed by the Romanian television regulators banning the TV advertising of any occult practices. Their intention was to reduce the numbers of people who are “swindled” by witches, and to also comply with the requirements of EU membership. After that, Romanian witches had to reduce their advertising in the newspapers, instead using small, DIY banners in the streets of Bucharest.
These days, you can only find a few of these posters, because according to them, every time they went up, people would destroy them. So naturally, they have transferred their advertising activities to the Internet, which allows them more freedom and unlimited content without any regulations. Many witches have their own Facebook page. One of the women I photographed, Vanessa, gets more than 10,000 views on her livestream videos and thousands of comments on her Facebook profile. Some of them are positive, but some are also negative.
LC: You mention witches have faced persecution in Romania, particularly from the pre-1989 Communist regime. Can you tell me more about this, and the relationship between vrăjitoare and wider society?
LB: While part of the population seeks help from them, much of society considers them liars that take money from people. In recent years, the popularity of their services is on the rise again, and the topic is widely discussed, at home and in the media. Many Romanians have sent us messages on our Facebook profile asking for our recommendation on a reliable witch. On the other hand, their names are mentioned in police reports, they are charged with blackmail and manipulating with their clients. In 2011, Romanian prosecutors searched 13 houses in Bucharest and arrested several women who had allegedly scammed people through fortune-telling. Two fortune tellers from Bucharest, and four of their accomplices, were arrested for allegedly taking €450,000 from the Romanian TV star Oana Zavoranu.
But, as I said before, the government has placed restrictions on Romanian witches. Alin Popoviciu is a Romanian politician from the Democratic Liberal Party. In 2011, he proposed a new law to tax fortune-tellers and witches. They were also going to hold them liable for lawless predictions, but Romanian witches protested against this law by doing magic rituals against politicians in the streets of Bucharest. The tax proposal was scrapped due to the fear of becoming the targets of terrible curses.
LC: Can you describe a typical visit? What kind of people use their services and what happens during a meeting?
LB: Clients are usually Romanian women aged between 25 and 30. These are women who start to notice that, unlike themselves, the people around them are leading stable lives with families, houses and work. So they come with questions concerning their future, hoping to bring about better days. And then there are women facing a crumbling marriage, or post-divorce, or parents with children who suffer from bad dreams, insomnia or fear.
Visiting a witch or doing a phone consultation costs money. Despite the fact that it is a type of service, the exact price list is not available on websites. Most of the witches charge a similar price for the first meeting. The first contact between the client and witch is usually by phone. In the case of a personal visit, a witch welcomes the client into her house—either in a spacious entrance hall or in a special room in the house dedicated to this activity. The first step is reading the cards, to ‘diagnose’ the individual’s problem. Just as doctors perform various analyses and tests in order to figure out how to solve the problem, a witch reads the cards to find out what to do next, and to see if the client needs a ritual. The price for this is usually between €10 and €20. If you need an amulet for protection, you will pay more—up to and sometimes over €100 euros. The ritual can cost around €900 euros or more, depending on the client’s problem.
Vrăjitoare use many tools and objects in their work, describing them as old, valuable, inherited and unique. Each woman has cards. Other objects include a crystal ball, mussels, dolls, crosses, pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, candles, a lock and a key, a horseshoe, etc. Last but not least, they use a broom and a wooden stick. They also work with natural elements: water, fire, herbs, plants and animals, producing ‘leac’—medicines and protective talismans—from several ingredients. To achieve the desired effect, everything must be cleaned, and the actions carried out with these objects must be instructed, or directly performed, by the witch. A witch usually cannot help with physiological problems or issues that the person has suffered from since birth.
LC: Can you tell me about the image of the labelled bottles of water?
LB: The bottle on the left contains a potion used for love spells, and the bottle on the right contains a potion against charm. I have been focusing on the DIY aesthetics of these objects and their diversity. It can tell us a lot about the self-presentation of the witches. Some of them have very decorative glass bottles, and the others just have plastic bottles. There is holy water and some herbs and flowers inside of them.
LC: Did you ever have a reading done? What was it like? What did it demonstrate for you?
LB: Yes, I let them read my palm. I’m not a superstitious person—I didn’t want to make my opinion on these activities without personal experience. In the project, my own skeptical feelings towards the personal readings I received were confronted with the experience of those believers who make a lot of their daily life choices based on these prophecies. But I believe these women provide many clients with support; in times of need, they can lighten the burden of responsibility, listen to them and even give them what they were lacking from their loved ones.