Many years ago, during a time of great confusion and loss in my life, I stayed with a friend who identified as a witch. She performed a divination ritual for me that left a deep impression, as it charted out the sequence of events that would play out in my life for about a decade. At the time, many women and queer people in my life hid their identities as witches, but in this late pandemic era, more and more are comfortable proclaiming this side of themselves publicly. Indeed, the rise of “witch” as a public identity is helping to cast off the stigma of that phrase, at least in certain circles.
Spell Bound: A New Witch’s Guide to Crafting the Future (Smith Street Books), written by Chaweon Koo and illustrated by Kring Demetrio, contributes to the growing literature on modern magic and witchcraft. With rich illustrations and a multicultural perspective that encompass both Eastern and Western traditions, it helps readers curious about the craft to both see and understand the wide array of expressions that magic can assume, including in the context of new technologies.
Spell Bound’s chapters are organized by the five Chinese wuxing, frequently translated as “elements” or “phases”: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each chapter is then organized along the phases of Western alchemy: nigredo, or burning; albedo, or the the flash of insight; and rubedo, the purified form that remains.
In the chapter titled “Fire,” for example, Koo traverses time, from ancient caves to modern-day VR spaces. The nigredo section starts with the fire that our homo sapiens ancestors used to navigate the Lascaux caves in France, where they painted the ghostly animals now famous in art and cultural history. The author uses this story to discuss the roots of ritual in contemporary magic traditions.
The albedo section introduces the idea that ritual can and should be glamorous; as Koo reminds us, even the lotus posture in meditation is itself a form of performance. “For any witch setting down their path,” she notes, “if you want to understand ritual, there is no better place to start than a playlist of BTS videos.”
The rubedo section of “Fire” explores the idea that ritual can enter the metaverse, with new implications for everything from sacrifice to making sacred space: “The hallmark of a powerful, modern witch is her ability to execute high-performance rituals, grounded in history and traditions. She isn’t afraid of change and technology.”
Koo combines reflections, meditations, and exercises, accompanied by Demetrio’s rich illustrations, which bring the book’s concepts to life. For example, a meditating femme figure with hair flowing out of an astronaut helmet reflects on what magic might look like on the moon. In a reflection on what magic means today, koi fish, symbols of good fortunate and perseverance, hover through Koo’s observation that magic is, fundamentally, about mastering our mental focus — perhaps the most important lesson for crafting a better future.
One of the boldest design elements is the author’s use of the layout to emphasize certain aspects of the text — words glide along bodies and wrap around in circles and spirals. While initially I found this confusing, it forced me to pause, rotate the book, and move it around in order to understand the phrases. The materiality of the book recalls what Koo writes about the material world: namely, that we exist in bodies and in the physical world. Books are not just conduits for knowledge, but are physical things that we hold in our hands and that we can, and perhaps should, flip through, spin around, and thoroughly handle.
Spell Bound is a pleasure to read cover to cover, but it functions best as a reference book, a beautiful object in itself to peruse for inspiration. Readers can glide from topics like incense and NFTs to lucid dreams and Tibetan chöd meditation (a death meditation that involves imagining one’s own body being chopped up and fed to spirits and demons). As both introductions and provocations, each of these topics will likely awaken the reader’s curiosity about the breadth and range of areas to be explored under the umbrella of witchcraft.
Why is modern magic so ascendant today? We live in an age of great uncertainty, to be sure, and the spiritual comfort that magic offers can help us navigate turbulent times. As archaeologist and historian Chris Gosden has argued, magic has played a role in human society from before science and even religion, and helps us understand how we shape the world around us, which in turn shapes us. And one particular observation from Koo helped me connect the 21st-century witchcraft phenomenon to a larger move toward decentralization — of media, technology, spirituality, and identity.
“Witches are inherently decentralized,” she writes; “there isn’t a witch council, ruling as the authority on everything. Instead, magic moves swiftly, peer to peer, with more powerful nodes holding more code. But every node, no matter how small, is capable of transacting in the ecosystem — of performing magic rituals. This is exactly how blockchain technology works.”
Spell Bound: A New Witch’s Guide to Crafting the Future by Chaweon Koo, with illustrations by Kring Demetrio (2022), is published Smith Street Books by and is available online and in bookstores.