Why has Romania slapped an income tax on witches?

A new labor law in Romania has expanded the ranks of the self-employed; along with car valets and astrologers, witches will now be required to pay a 16 percent income tax. Is this persecution by another name, or a step toward legitimization for a long-maligned occupation? Believing the former, one group of witches responded to the news by throwing mandrake into the Danube and concocting protest in the form of a cat-poop-and-dead-dog potion. But another self-identified witch reacted with enthusiasm: “Our magic skills, which are recognized and accepted worldwide, are now authorized in Romania, too.”

But, to start, how did witchcraft—subject throughout continental Europe to persecution and prosecution from roughly 1400 to 1800—become business as (not-so) usual in Romania in the first place? The answer might have something to do with the level of superstition that persists even in modern-day Romania. In 2009, following the presidential elections, the leader of the Social Democrats—a man who had previously served as the ambassador to Washington and was expected to make a strong showing at the polls—blamed his surprising demise on an occult attack. In 2010, after the release of a nationwide study, the English-language Romanian newspaper Nine O’clock wrote that fortune-telling and evil-eye precautions play a large role in many Romanians’ lives, and that three-quarters of the population “believes” in horoscopes. And lawmakers reportedly backed down from a similar act to tax witches last September out of fears that they would be cursed.

Meanwhile, people claiming to be witches have capitalized on public superstition. The exact scale of the witchcraft economy in Romania is difficult to gauge, but, ten years ago, the BBC reported on “Romanian witches’ roaring trade,” and business seems to have boomed in the meantime. Flyers with lists of available services are stapled to telephone poles, and ads for witches run in mainstream newspapers. Several witches have marketed themselves into household names, including Mama Omida, supposedly once the official witch of the prominent Ceauşescu family, and Maria Campina, a self-proclaimed “White Magic Queen.” A 2009 Al Jazeera documentary reported that Romania’s TV regulator attempted to pass a law limiting advertising by witches. “We were in danger of seeing television in Romania turning into a permanent fortune-telling business,” he told the network. Also, as a sign of how wealthy witches can become, one woman profiled in the documentary drove an Audi and lived in a large, pastel-painted house, the interior plush with carpets and shining chandeliers.

It’s no surprise that the Romanian government has been eager to tap into this sometimes ostentatious stream of wealth for years. But could its new tax on witchcraft be motivated by more than money? Witches’ main activity is fortune-telling, an occupation that has long been associated with the Roma population (often called “Gypsies”), toward whom prejudices run deep. A 1991 poll revealed that 41 percent of Romanians believe that the Roma should be “poorly treated,” and a 1994 study found that Romanian newspapers might have directly incited hatred toward the Roma. And this negative attitude toward the group has shifted little since then. As far as I am aware, the Romanian government has not drawn any connection between the new tax legislation and anti-Roma politicking—and the Romanian embassy did not respond to my phone calls or e-mails—but some Romanians still think that the new taxation is an attempt to satisfy latent prejudice by drawing attention to and taking money from a marginalized population. As writer and poet Andrei Codrescu sees it, the new law represents “a cheap populist, nationalist move” that “plays well to the yo-yo’s.”

On the flip side, the tax represents a certain degree of legitimization by formally making witchcraft part of the mainstream economy. Some witches are happy about this; in fact, some have actively sought such measures. In 2006, a witch named Gabriela Ciucur reportedly mounted a campaign to force the Romanian government to officially recognize her profession. And a witch interviewed after the recent tax was announced welcomed the news: “It means that our magic gifts are recognized, and I can open my own practice.”

This recognition might actually be good news for some witches; but is it good news for Romania as a whole? As Brian Pavlac, author of Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials, told me, “Making a tax is recognizing that it’s real.” In Pavlac’s opinion, the tax sets a dangerous precedent—offering indirect government approval to something he sees as mere superstition and deceit. What other vestige of superstitious tradition might now gain its sanction? Vampire hunters in Transylvania, perhaps?

Chloë Schama is the assistant managing editor for The New Republic.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.