It's been an eventful year for Etsy. This month the online crafts marketplace turns ten years old. Its IPO debuted in April. Oh, and it's just updated its rules, forbidding the sale of spells, enchantments, and any supernatural service which promises to change your life.
You might not have known that Etsy was full of witches, or "spellcasters", as many identify themselves. Historically, the website has been a favourite for supernatural sellers, and not just because its DIY aesthetic fits with home voodoo and casual shamanism.
But now, in a move even clairvoyants might have missed, the witches of Etsy are being ousted from their online home. Forum threads have sprung up filled with embittered hoodoo practitioners and sellers of healing crystals, detailing the ban of sales of "spell packs, herbs, and blessed jewellery."
Victoria Zasikowski, a seller of spells and readings on Etsy and Bonanza (another online marketplace more tolerant to sellers of "intangibles") contacted me by email about the notifications she and other sellers had received. "Shop owners like myself discovered 'Shop Suspension' notification emails in our inboxes," she wrote. "Huge numbers of sellers there have been affected, and will continue to be affected… Swathes of us have now had our sales and shop views tank, and there is great distress in the metaphysical community."
The witching community previously sold on eBay, but was unceremoniously kicked off in 2012 due to a policy change that added spells, potions, and metaphysical guidance to its list of banned goods (this also includes such oddities as human remains, Native American crafts, and paid-for tweets). Shocked and embittered by the sudden ruling, the community migrated to Etsy, which was more tolerant of supernatural sales as long as they kept to Etsy's rules. Listings often ended with the disclaimer "FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY," and were anchored to a tangible product, most often an enchanted piece of jewellery or even a "haunted object."
But selling supernatural services on Etsy has always been a balancing act, and listings required careful wording to sell tangible objects with intangible benefits, or the implied promise of love, or weight loss, or transformation into a vampire (once common, vampire and werewolf spells have since been purged, though you can still buy transformative vampire sorceress art).
"No product or service that even remotely suggests or claims to have some kind of effect in a person's life is permitted," Zasikowski elaborated. "Things like distant healing, spell cast candles, enchanted jewellery, spell kits, spirit conjuring, crystals or oils or other items attaching any kind of metaphysical properties are prohibited." The new updates forbid services even when they're attached to a physical object for sale (e.g. bath salts or enchanted jewellery which are sold with the promise of a love spell or, more commonly, one for revenge). Only tarot readings have been spared, as long as they come with a digital download of the readings.
"A prayer that cures cancer would be just as prohibited as a spell that cures cancer."
Sara Cohen, Etsy's director of communications, explained the changes: "Services have always been prohibited on Etsy. Any service that does not yield a tangible, physical item is not allowed, for example: tailoring, restoring or repairing an item, photographic retouching or color correction." Cohen also sent me Etsy's statement on its metaphysical sellers: "Our goal is to support as much of the metaphysical community on Etsy as possible… Sellers may continue to sell astrological charts, tarot readings, and other tangible objects, as long as they are not making a promise that object will effect a physical change or other outcome."
The crackdown was not entirely without warning, as Etsy has become increasingly tough on metaphysical sellers in recent months. Zasikowski mentioned that, "Up until June, many sellers had been contacted by Etsy warning them their listings would be deleted and/or shop suspended unless they updated these kinds of things to include something tangible." Even within the community, there has been controversy around sellers rumoured to be taking advantage of their customers, preying upon hopes and insecurities with spells costing hundreds, even thousands of pounds.
Cohen noted that many of these listings actually fell outside Etsy's original remit. "What's not allowed (and never has been) are services and promises of future outcomes, regardless of connection to any religion. A prayer that cures cancer would be just as prohibited as a spell that cures cancer," she said. She pointed to spells promising to treat illnesses or give the customer bigger breasts or a bigger penis as typically problematic, adding that "the motivation behind this policy clarification was twofold: one, to reiterate that we do not allow services, and two, to protect our community from business practices that prey upon vulnerable and desperate shoppers."
In one way, Etsy's magic listings offered a simpler form of the spell advertising weaves over us daily: the skincare products which claim to reverse time, the food products which imply they'll keep us healthy, or help us to lose weight. Every purchase is invested in some small way with hope and aspiration—but magical services, it seems, make the trade a little too explicit.
Speaking to me last October for a Halloween piece about her then-permitted Etsy spell shop, Zasikowski spoke of her role as a kind of supernatural shrink, soothing the souls of troubled customers: "I have to be respectful of people who come to me laying bare their souls… There are customers who are emotionally distraught, people with a lot of trauma in their lives."
When you're trading in karma you need to take people's feelings into account. Which is why Etsy's executives might want to stock up on protection charms, to shield against a legion of angered witches.