Season of the Witch: An Oral History of Crypto Coven
Mary Carreon

Thu Feb 10 2022

The High Witches open up the project's unlikely beginnings, how they collectively conjured such a detailed world, and breaking the spell of the male gaze.

Aletheia and Nyx, two artists who work in tech, were bleaching each other’s roots during the 2021 lockdown when they noticed a new Twitter fad unfolding: People were uploading NFTs of Apes and pixelated punks as their profile photos. They started exploring various NFT projects, but none resonated with them personally, let alone enough to use as an avatar.

Aletheia and Nyx knew they wanted to create a femme-forward PFP project — one that offered an alternative to the loud, cartoonish aesthetics dominating NFT culture at the time. Aletheia suggested that they build a project around witches, and Nyx fell in love with the idea. Nyx rallied a coven of talented friends to contribute: Nyx would code the art generator and create the witches and lore for the project; Aletheia would guide the art and aesthetics; Xuannü would code the smart contract and coordinate the coven; Aradia would build the code for the website and devise names for each witch; and Keridwen would be the lead writer.

Over roughly two months, the High Witches, as they began to call themselves, channeled their respective strengths into the project. The result, a collection of 9,999 witches called Crypto Coven, was one of the most elegant and, in a short amount of time, beloved NFT projects in the space. From the immaculate code, which developer and artist Manny404 described to Works in Progress as setting a “new standard” for NFT projects, to the art, which features a spectrum of skin tones and unique personality archetypes, Crypto Coven staked a claim for the existence of a nook in Web3 for people who don’t (necessarily) identify as a crypto bros. It was the rare celebration of all things femme that seemed to reject the male gaze: Whether they are staring straight back at you or closing their eyes in contemplation, each illustrated witch is an invitation to acknowledge their beauty, not as an object of desire, but as a unique amalgam of physical characteristics, accessories, and attitudes.

The Coven’s priority was to make witches accessible to people who had never purchased an NFT before. So when minting opened up to the community on Halloween (and then again to the general public in December), they priced them at roughly $200 per witch, while the smart contract kept gas fees at around $20 or less. Between the mysterious premise, the arresting images, and the relatively affordable price point, the Coven provided a rare gateway for crypto-curious women, non-binary folks, and other marginalized people who might otherwise struggle to find their footing within NFT culture. According to a Dune Analytics dashboard made by a Coven community member, 7 percent of the wallets that minted were making their very first transaction.

Since the start of the year, the enthusiasm around the project has crescendoed: The floor price for Crypto Coven NFTs currently sits at 2 ETH, or more than $6,000, with some witches selling for as much as 12.88 ETH on the secondary market. While the rising costs raise concerns about accessibility, including for the High Witches themselves, the project’s creators are keeping their focus on cultivating community: Inside the Crypto Coven’s 6,012-person strong Discord group, witches connect with each other based on shared archetypes of power (of which there are six: Enchantresses, Hags, Mages, Necromancers, Occultists, and Seers), convene for the sporadic meditative sound bath, and openly share resources on everything from wallet security to astrology.

We asked the High Witches of Crypto Coven, along with a few of the project’s biggest fans, to tell the story of its inspired but unlikely beginnings, the thinking that informed it, and how they collectively conjured into being such an enigmatic and detailed world.

These interviews have been edited for clarity.

Inception of the Coven

Nyx, conjuror of visions: Over the pandemic, Aletheia and I started bleaching each other's hair — we would sit for six hours every Saturday and do our roots. That’s when we started looking at the crypto space, specifically crypto Twitter, and the burst of profile photos that came out. On one hand, it seemed like a really fun example of a generative art project. On the other, there weren't any photos that we would want to use for ourselves. We've both been artists in different parts of our careers and we thought, Hey, we can get together and do this. It'll be fun.

It started off pretty unambitious. Originally, we thought we'd just draw some drawings and upload them to OpenSea. We debated about what we wanted to make, but Aletheia very specifically suggested we do witches, and it stuck. The idea of witches for avatars caught our imagination, especially because they have agency and are characters with their own stories. Witches aren’t anyone’s wife, or defined by a relationship to someone else — they’re sort of standalone agents. That was basically the inception of the project, and then I somehow swindled everyone else into helping us.

Aletheia, aesthetic artificer: I would say all the High Witches are quite self-reflective and introspective, and I think that in itself is closely tied to the occult. Maybe not according to the pop-culture definition, but more in the sense of, There are things that happen in our lives that might not be quantifiable on paper, but they leave an indelible mark on who we are, our values, and what we decide to do. I think witches dovetail into that nicely, because being a witch can be as surface-level or as deep as you want it to be.

Keridwen, the witch of wordsmithery: I think astrology is a good example of that — being able to skim the surface or go as deep as you want. Outside of the occult, we also all have a deep interest in fantasy, sci-fi, narrative, and the fictionalization of magic and power. The idea we’ve been working with is that we're architecting a universe that, at its core, is fantastical and a work of fiction, but also deeply resonates with people in a real way.

Building a World

Aletheia: All of the High Witches felt pretty strongly that Web3 should be a playground. The first step towards achieving that was providing diversity and representation in our witches. I think Keridwen was the first one to say they wanted a Fenty-level of diversity and skin tone.

In terms of the face shapes, I wanted to make sure that they were different enough to not come across as superficial. For instance, ​​some ethnicities have high cheekbones or higher nose bridges. The face shapes of our witches are taken from real life. We are actually referencing models and real people to influence the final form of our art. @beautyisboring is one of our inspirations for this project.

Bhoka, digital artist and designer: I discovered Crypto Coven through my friend @kanakhey back in October, when Crypto Coven announced they would do a project, which is unusual because most projects wait until they are basically ready to mint. So it built up a lot of good anticipation. But also what's cool is they [invited people to] contribute to the art direction — they had people submit mood boards of inspiration for vibes, styles, and attributes the witches would have. That’s what makes the project different: The community input.

Aradia, weaver of webs: One thing Nyx pushed early on was the actual gaze of our witches. Some look at you straight on, but they don’t have the same gaze. There are ones that give you a side-eye, while others have one or both eyes concealed. They’re not demure, or staring at you in a “come hither” kind of way. I think those small details are how we would like to be seen, and I think that's also something people have resonated with.

Nyx: There was an art history class I took where we went over the history of female nudes. Women have been the central subject of “fine art” for the entirety of history, but it's usually by men for the consumption of men, and that was captured by the fact that nude women in paintings [almost] never look at the audience. We learned about this scandalous-for-the-time nude where a woman is looking directly at the audience, and people found that very concerning. The reason for that is you can't look at someone without them looking back at you. You have to acknowledge their humanity. So bringing in that touch for the witches was important to us.

Aletheia: If I had to describe the female gaze in a sentence, it would be like when you're in the bathroom at a club and everybody's a little bit drunk. You see a stranger and you say, “Oh my God, I love your outfit.” And then she responds, “Oh my God, I love your outfit.” That is the female gaze. You can be sexy, but the appreciation comes through the acknowledgment of taste, rather than from the perspective of consumption, which is what I imagine the male gaze to be. I imagine the female gaze being more of appreciation and a celebration of each other's beauty, one that’s rooted in support and the energy of, “I love what you're doing. And I would love to be a part of your world rather than conquer it.”

Nyx: At the beginning of the project, we did a collaborative brainstorming on what we wanted the Archetypes of power to be. A lot of the witches have virtues and vices, and I wanted that to be wrapped up in the archetype. For example, even though we wanted Enchantress to be beguiling, we also wanted them to be drunk with power machinations. Same for Occultists: They're just doing strange things, breaking the boundaries and dancing with fire, and that's their vibe. Hags inherently want to maintain balance, but can set off avalanches with precise-but-small nudges. Mages must rip the world apart to understand every detail of a thing and then put it back together to be satisfied.

Aletheia: One reference for the Necromancers that I like is The Old Kingdom book series. It's something that both Nyx and I have read, and it's all about necromancers, but a special kind of necromancer where instead of raising armies of the undead, they are binding evil spirits and putting them back into death and protecting the kingdom. We wanted to give different options to different archetypes and not just good or evil for each one. Dungeons and Dragons was an inspiration we all kind of pulled upon.

Keridwen: The idea is also that any witch of any archetype can embrace all the different stats, which brings them a texture and a roundness that some game systems — not necessarily in D & D — fail to capture and center. There's such a range of choice, and one of the really fun things has been seeing the community interact with these archetypes.

Xuannü, keeper of the coven: The astrological signs are charted by the stars — which, in this case, manifests as random selection by our witch generator. But we have seen delightful and magical combinations emerge from that randomness, which is part of the fun.

Keridwen: I came at the writing for this project from more of a literary prose/poetry kind of angle. I wanted to have epithets. I wanted it to have the rhythm of an epic poem. I kind of wanted it to lean into more of a Homer lyric system of writing, but that's also modern, weird, and eccentric. I’d say I'm pulling from fairy tales, folk tales, magic and fantasy, and also a little bit of literary magic realism. We wanted it to feel like epic poetry, but that centers women.

Nyx: When coming up with the description for the witches, we had a moodboarding process where we gathered images and snippets of stories we felt fit. I sent one, long, incoherent fever dream to Keridwen of the vibes I had for each one, and she coaxed them into something powerful and real.

Keridwen: Writing our own lore is a reclamation of power. Bestowing new meaning on a word like “hag,” used to vilify women and certain kinds of practitioners, is a statement against expectation. We were intentional in making each feel concrete and a little spooky. I went with the second person to really pull at the “you,” or the person reading, and envelop them in the world we were building.

Scrying Smart Contracts

Nyx: We pulled the team together in late August, so it was a sprint to get everything rolling by Halloween. We ended up taking a whole week off work before the launch to dedicate time to learning Solidity.

Xuannü: We pushed it off until the very end because we knew it would be challenging. We had almost all the other pieces in place and planned to take time off to properly focus on learning everything about smart contracts, so we could create our own from scratch. I think it turned out okay in practice, but it was definitely stressful.

Manny 404, developer and artist: The biggest thing that got me into the project was the smart contract. I ended up minting more after reading it. I was taken back by how neat the code was — just from a typographic perspective. It was neatly indented, formatted, spaced out, and commented. It’s aesthetically pleasing, which is how the art is, too.

Digging deeper into the code, there were interesting optimizations they made to save users gas, which means the NFTs were cheaper to mint. For a typical NFT, each token probably costs anywhere from $60 to $100 [to mint]. But for this project, I think every token was $20 at most, which made it accessible to a lot more people. They also included another optimization that allows you to make secondary listings for free and not pay gas. I read every contract I come across, and I definitely see NFT projects that have cloned the Coven’s contract. That’s what people do when something is really good.

Xuannü: I think one thing that’s cool about smart contracts, and just the way code on the blockchain works in general, is that it's programs you write that are publicly accessible. You can read the code, you can verify for yourself what a code is doing when you interact with it. We wanted to make our smart contact readable and accessible to people who were new — to the Web3 space specifically, but also those who don't necessarily know how to program at all. Making things as simple as possible was valuable for us, because it allowed for an inclusive community to take shape, one that’s open to educating each other in a kind way on an array of topics.

Launching a Coven in Bro-Land

Xuannü: I don't want to speak for everyone, but I think we were worried upon entering the Web3 space about being a group of women, which is a big reason why we work under pseudonyms. I've had very negative experiences [on Twitter] at times, seeing how targeted harassment and dog piling can snowball very quickly. We were worried about that, particularly since we wanted to have a relatively opinionated stance on what it looks like to be a woman in this space.

Nyx: Early on, random people would come into our Discord and start drama. I think it happened because what we are doing is almost like a clash of two cultures. We're trying to set a counter-tone to the main NFT narrative that's mostly about success and finding that “pile of gold,” or capturing the “American Dream,” in this new technology. Instead of that, we’re trying to do something that's more of an art project and making our community a really inclusive space. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, to see people who hop in with that mentality and pick up our vibe and acclimate.

Keridwen: It's been heartening. When we set out to make the project, we were very firm about the idea of wanting to push a femme aesthetic, but also not pushing something that's only for women, which is a line we've had to clarify a few times. People of any gender can enjoy and feel powerful with a feminine aesthetic. We’re creating a safe space catered toward women and all people of marginalized genders, but it’s also a space for men to embrace their femininity — to put a beautiful bedazzled character as their profile picture and feel the love, joy, and warmth that it can bring.

Nyx: We've been overwhelmed with the support that we've gotten from the community, especially once we started posting more behind the scenes and proving our technical chops. The post Manny 404 wrote up about our smart contract was absolutely incredible. Supporters like Dame, who picked us up really early on, were great, too.

Aradia: One thing that’s been cool to see is men coming into our community and saying, "I'm a beautiful witch now." That's also been an interesting topic of discussion for us in this new space. For example, does your PFP need to actually represent you? Can it just be this character that you think is awesome? Can men use a witch or an avatar of a woman? Can you use a witch that has a different skin tone than you? That's been a topic that's come up a bunch in our Discord and internally with us.

Keridwen: There are so many different facets and cultures coming together in what we're building. Yes, the female gaze is present, but so is a deep sense of nostalgia for the early internet. Our love for fantasy, fashion, and wanting to create a safe space for people who look like us are key parts of this space. But I wouldn't say that it's all of what we're bringing to the table, because there is so much more coming.

Future of the Coven

Manny 404: It’s tough to say how the future of the Crypto Coven will go. For comparison, I think Bored Apes have done well because the team has put out multiple successful projects and collaborations. I think Crypto Coven has much better art, though, so if they can execute at the same level as Bored Apes, I think the Coven could become a leading PFP community in the space.

Xuannü: Someone that we follow on Twitter was talking about how fandoms are some of the most powerful decentralized communities on the internet. That's something I've found to be true. People are generating fan fiction, fan art, and coordinating all kinds of campaigns, from adopting whales to planting forests together.

A lot of this stuff gets dismissed when it’s communities of women doing it, versus ones made up of mostly men, [but] this is very much in the vein of what we would like to create down the line: A community that’s able to co-create with us and build on top of all the lore and narrative building that we're creating.

Aletheia: We’ve also been blessed with a wonderful community that has self-organized into various initiatives: The Library, headed by Kagami, is a community-led project that gathers various threads of wisdom, from coven resources to security practices, and weaves them into a centralized Notion App repository that anyone can freely access. Many a witch, myself included, became first-time swappers through [Kagami’s] incredibly thorough sudoswap tutorial, and we’ve even had folks from other servers drop by to extend their appreciation for this guidance. The Weird Wilds Detective Agency, led by OldKing, is another delightful project born out of the desire to help unite coven members with their dream witch. It has since expanded to include security workshops and lessons in navigating Etherscan.

Keridwen: We're also doing a book club for [Erin Morgenstern’s] he Night Circus, led by our community cultivator Astrea, who is based in Australia. We will have our two final two meetings on Sunday, February 13 and 20.

Nyx: We are still planning to launch a second batch of witches on layer 2. It was the one thing we were confident about putting on the roadmap very explicitly that we intend to do. Transacting on the mainnet is prohibitively expensive for most.

Xuannü: We emphasized a clear set of principles for the community pretty early, and that established a pretty strong and resilient culture. Some of these principles are around inclusivity. Others define the kind of community we want to have, like “lore over floor,” which is a phrasing we drew from the wonderful project Forgotten Runes Wizard Cult. [That principal] enabled us to build what I think will be a stronger foundation long-term, because it’s based on shared interests — not just the hype cycle of price trends that can be so fleeting.

Mary Carreon is an independent drug and culture journalist from California who’s always looking for a 15-minute window to power nap. You can find her posting about the underground on social media @maryyystardust.

Reinterpretations of original Crypto Coven NFTs by Mykola Dosenko.