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Covens Versus Coders: How Witchcraft Apps Are Pissing Off Real Witches

May 31 2016 6:25 PM
Covens Versus Coders: How Witchcraft Apps Are Pissing Off Real Witches

Screengrab of Tarot Card Readings Marseilles

Can divination be done through algorithm?

The ceremonies and traditions involved in most forms of witchcraft may seem exclusive and arcane, passed down for centuries through covens and other secret groups, but today, trying your hand at the occult can be as easy as downloading an app on your smartphone.

For everything from spells and rituals to numerology and tarot card readings, there is now a digital counterpart on iTunes. With thousands of reviews on some of the top occult apps, it's clear many of these programs have amassed a large user base. However, some seasoned witches are skeptical that their spiritual traditions can be successfully converted into code.

Read More: Step Inside Smoke-Filled Witchcraft Market of Mexico City

Tea Cake, a tarot reader, psychic, and practicing witch, said she has found the majority of witchcraft apps to be "extremely gimmicky and next to useless." She does use a handful of scientific apps like lunar calendars and star charts as a basis for her work, but she remains skeptical about any services claiming to offer digital expertise on spells and potions.

"In occult and metaphysical fields, many people like to call themselves experts without any credentials or qualifications, so unfortunately it can be difficult to sort out what is bullshit," she said. "There is no such thing as facts in this kind of field, so when it comes to information about magic and mystical and metaphysical properties, you can't prove those things are real. It comes after trial and error over years and years in a field that isn't medically recognized."

Many people like to call themselves experts without any credentials or qualifications, so unfortunately it can be difficult to sort out what is bullshit.

Due to witchcraft's inherently subjective nature, many witches rely on books from publishers trusted in the community in order to learn about different herbs and their properties for potions and spells. Maria Palma-Drexler, who practices Wicca, uses apps from verified scientific sources as she delves into new practices like herbalism, including one from cancer treatment center Memorial-Sloan Kettering.

"I think that technology has a place in witchcraft, but only as an aide," she said. "For example, I have done online research on the healing and curative properties of plantain oil—but what is the use of studying something if I don't actually go and make it and use and see if it works?"

Blue June, a professional tarot reader at Brooklyn-based witch shop Catland, said practices like divination are better carried out the way they have been traditionally: by humans, not apps.

Screenshot of the 'Witches Guidebook' App

"We've been doing divination person-to-person for centuries; we've been doing this for so long in this way. There is no need to add technology," she said. "This is one of those things that is probably better off left alone."

She added that tarot apps can be useful for beginners to learn more about the art, but they should not be relied on for an authentic reading. In her practice, clients choose cards based on what she calls "the law of attraction," finding themselves drawn to those they are destined to choose due to metaphysical forces that couldn't easily be distilled into an app.

"When it comes to tarot reading, each client comes with their own energy and selects cards specific to their experience," she said. "The problem with an algorithm that draws the cards for you is that it's just random—it has nothing to do with intuition."

Tina Gong, coder and creator of Golden Thread Tarot, said she did use a completely random algorithm for choosing the cards in her app, which she designed and illustrated herself. She said Golden Thread Tarot is more focused on making tarot accessible to the wider public than on producing accurate divinations. When a user draws cards and gets readings, they are prompted to input emotional reactions, mood, and other reflections as well as to log the question they asked. Over time, the app tracks the information, giving insight into mental wellbeing like a meditation or mood app might.

"Our approach is all about helping unravel patterns in yourself. We're doing that through data," she said. "I personally believe that tarot is a great tool for insight into your own unconscious. It is a language that exists beyond words, and it spans our universal experiences as human beings. When we try and introspect it can be difficult to put your thoughts in order, but tarot gives us something tangible in which we can narrate our experiences."

The creators of electronic tarot company The Fool's Dog, which has more than 50 digital decks available on iTunes and Google Play, say their apps incorporate much more than a randomized algorithm. With user-responsive code that bases readings on behavior like screen taps—and a magic spell they say was embedded into the app by a priest—their tarot readings are considered by many witches to be just as accurate as traditional cards.

Screenshot of Fool's Dog Tarot App

The company was founded by Caroline Kenner, who has more than 30 years of experience in shamanic practices and tarot reading, and her husband Jason Linhart, an MIT-trained software designer. As a wedding gift to the two, Wiccan priest Ivo Dominguez, Jr. created a spell he said connects the app to the oracle of the tarot and embedded it into a junk code, which does not change the function of the app but still remains in its system.

"That 'junk' code is in every copy of the app," Kenner said. "It is essential with both physical cards and the app to create an energetic connection between the person and the reading. We've tried to maximize the opportunities for energetic connections in the design of our apps."

Users of their tarot apps, including high-profile practitioners like Mary K. Greer, have noted many benefits the app has compared to traditional cards. In the past, doing a reading required having a full deck of dozens of cards and a space to spread them out comfortably. Now, tarot readers can practice on the move, selecting from dozens of kinds of cards at any given time.

Kenner said many of their users still do readings with physical cards, especially if they practice professionally, and then use the app to send a summary of the reading directly to the client. In her eyes, the introduction of electronic tarot is just the next logical step in the evolution of divination, which has its roots in casting stones onto a board or a skin hundreds of years ago, and was only converted to paper cards when the printing press was invented in the late 1400s.

"Our app is not for everyone, and we never thought it would be. People who are very focused on having their physical decks are the kind of people who cling to traditions, and that's not a bad thing," she said. "But technology marches on."

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