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Illustration by Michelle Urra

Before TikTok, Witches Traded Their Spells on This Ancient Internet Forum

At a time when 'Satanic Panic' ran wild, PODSnet helped connect occult practitioners on the early internet. Now, it's preserved as a digital grimoire.
August 4, 2021, 1:00pm

Long before the witches of Gen-Z claimed TikTok as their digital coven, and even before the Geocities-scattered digital landscapes of Web 1.0, a thousands-strong community once formed via the world’s phone lines to trade spells, advise on sigils, and correspond on spiritual guidance. It was called the Pagan And Occult Distribution Network, or PODSnet: a slice of occult internet history that helped pioneer mass online collaboration.

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Today, it’s easy to take for granted that online communities are only a few taps away, but in the 1980s and early 1990s, finding like-minded individuals in niche subject areas was practically revolutionary. And in the case of PODSnet, it provided an unusually free space to discuss the esoteric arts—for many of its members, for the first time ever.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, accessing the social media of the day was very different than it is today,” Farrell McGovern, a PODSnet cofounder who came to Paganism through books about quantum physics such as The Dancing Wu Li Masters, told Motherboard. “It was louder, slower, and connectivity was perilous.”

In the early 1980s, computing enthusiasts began using Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) to communicate with each other. These systems were a precursor to the World Wide Web, and although relatively primitive, paved the way for the always-on communication of today. 

Because BBS ran on phone lines, discussions were asynchronous and often confined to local groups due to the dramatic costs of dialing farther afield than your own state. What’s more, the boards were isolated from one another: an analogy might be if every single subreddit needed its own website, and you could only speak to users in your immediate area.

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But in 1984, artist and technician Tom Jennings created FidoNet, a network that could connect all of these BBS systems. With the advent of cheaper modems, FidoNet’s popularity exploded into a huge 20,000-node network that connected users all around the world. Eventually, something called Echomail was introduced by a system operator, or sysop, called Jeff Rush, allowing for the support of public forums. 

Instead of simply picking up your smartphone, BBS users would have to connect their computer to a modem, which was linked to a phone line—translating digital 1s and 0s into audio information and back again to the modem and terminal operating the BBS.

Popular BBSes would frequently return a busy signal: unlike today, actually logging off was necessary because only one connection was allowed at a time. A successful login returned a screen of text and a list of messages grouped into categories, with the software tracking the ones you had read. Here, users would respond to text, download what they could, and hang up.

Here, a BBS called "Magicknet" flourished, but one problem in particular spurred its users to found their own splinter network: Christian fundamentalists had infiltrated the group to spy on members.

This infiltration led to a number of incidents, including McGovern being written up in the magazine of infamous cult figure Lyndon Larouche as a “well-known witch from Toronto”. Given the various tabloid-led "Satanic panics" at the time, founding an independent BBS was not only right for promoting lively metaphysical discourse, it was a matter of safety too. 

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“People were losing their jobs, child custody, etc,” McGovern told Motherboard. “People had to move to escape persecution in some areas: very much so in the Bible Belt, but in other places, too. Unless you were in a major metropolitan area, and even then, you ran some degree of risk if you were outed.” 

McGovern was first involved in his local BBS scene around Ottawa in the mid-1980s. Working at a local computer store that sold Apple and IBM PC clones, McGovern set up the Data/Sfnet BBS to advertise the business. In doing so, he became a SysOp—a system operator who ran, maintained, and in many cases built a network—granting him honorary entry to the computing elite at the time.

Being based in Canada, McGovern was the first to help Magicknet go international before it split into PODSnet, which would swell to 10,000 members who accessed the BBS by dialling into the 93 "zone number"—a reference to Thelema, the spiritual movement developed by Aleister Crowley. 

The logo of the PODSnet bulletin board system

For author and occult store supplier Dorothy Morrison, who was raised Catholic but eventually joined a coven of practicing witches in California before forming one of her own, discovering PODSnet was an “incredible way to find so many people of like mind at one place”.

“It was a place where I could be myself, regardless of the fact I really was living in a very conservative, buttoned-down state,” Morrison told Motherboard. “It wasn’t just a safe haven for me, it was an escape from having to appear to be someone I wasn’t for safety reasons."

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“When someone wants to burn you at the stake—at that time Missouri was not a place that would’ve taken kindly to Witches—you certainly don’t tell them where you keep the gas can,” she said.

The atmosphere on PODSnet was typically collaborative and friendly, said Morrison, and the most arresting dramas on the board she was aware of usually related to the enormous phone bills that came from connecting to the network. (Although once or twice these charges “damned near landed some folks in divorce court.")

But, like the internet today, there were hints of gossip, rumours, and fake news. One popular cause for the community was the supposed persecution of 9 million witches by Christians (The whole idea was based on bad scholarship, according to McGovern). At one point, there was a six-year-long debate on whether or not Kate Bush is Wiccan—perhaps one of the most heated internet disputes of its time. 

Whatever the topic, much of these PODSnet discussions would have been lost to time were it not for a community effort to archive the cherished message board. Still accessible in its archived ASCII form today, PODSnetters worked together to produce what was perhaps the first mass collaborative online project of its type: a massive, crowdsourced digital grimoire  called the Internet Book of Shadows.

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The name of the enormous seven-volume text references the catch-all "Book of Shadows," a name commonly used for tomes of spells and rituals, and the text covers the A-Zs of alternative spirituality from "Asatru to Zen Buddhism." Chapter one alone is 70,000 words long, and there’s a varied store of stuff available within, including an essay about bashing fluffy bunnies (the tendency among some well-seasoned practitioners to troll newbies, as opposed to bashing actual rabbits), a guide to cleansing rituals called "smudging," and an introduction to the suppressed traditions of Gnosticism.

Plenty of contributors to the Book of Shadows remain involved in esoteric spiritual communities today, and some, like Morrison, became authors in their own right. 

Rhyming Charge of the Goddess, by Kalioppe

Morrison says the book of rituals, spells, stories, legends, and “other magic-related miscellany” took seven 5-inch loose-leaf binders to contain it when she once decided to print out the information the community had amassed. The community then began compiling the grimoire into downloadable digital files. 

Once it was finished, PODSnet users agreed to offer the Book of Shadows as a gift, free of charge, to the community. While they were copyrighted, they were free to use and copy under the proviso that there was no charge for their acquisition—leading to later frustrations about unauthorized reproductions of the manuscript for profit. 

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“It’s probably the largest collection of pagan thought that was freely available to copy for non-commercial use,” McGovern added.

According to Dan Harms, an author and librarian at SUNY Cortland, magick practice has thrived on community-produced documents throughout history. Even during the print era, there was a “tremendous sort of traffic in books, manuscripts being passed back and forth between people,” chopping and changing aspects of the manuscripts they liked before copying them out.

“What was really different here, is that when the material was copied or created, it’s put up online for everybody to see,” Harms said. “It becomes a collective memory. It’s not something that’s stuck on somebody’s shelf, it’s something everybody can get into.”

Harms told Motherboard that communities like PODSnet were of enormous importance for establishing networks of occult practitioners and helped lay the groundwork for driving a boom in occult publishing. 

“I was growing up in rural Kentucky with an interest in these kinds of arcane topics,” said Harms, who wasn't involved in the occult internet at the time of PODSnet but was an active Usenet user. “It was just so hard to find any sort of information – you would have to rely on the local library.  But the local library in rural Kentucky is probably not looking to fill up its shelves with books about magic and paganism and things like that.”

Today, what was once a recondite pocket of the primordial internet has hit the mainstream, with even the Financial Times covering the "WitchTok" phenomenon. Speaking with PODSnetters, there’s a sense that in today's online spaces, community and information exchange can often take a backseat to clout and hostility. “[But] how much of that is getting older and yelling ‘get off my grass’,” asks McGovern, “or true insight – only time will say.” 

Whatever the case, PODSnet—which closed around the turn of the millennium before hopping to Yahoo Groups, LiveJournal, and now with its remnants on Facebook—proved that digital technologies can bring disparate people together in a meaningful way, where they are happy to create and produce for the good of their communities.

“I remember those I met along that journey, what they taught me—not only about the Craft, but about myself—and the connections I made," said Morrison.“I remember how fortunate I was that PODSnet was there for me. To a large degree, that experience formed the person I am today, and I'll be forever grateful.”