Karen Kissane The ancient belief system of witchcraft is on the rise because of modern technology. Karen Kissane reports.
Witches tend to keep to themselves; magick doesn’t lend itself to the scrutiny of unbelievers. But this ritual circle, up in the hills at Olinda, is to be open to all. It’s about witchcraft “coming out of the broom closet”, says organiser Jennifer Sunderland. It is also to heal the earth, suffering from war and to mark the autumn equinox by giving thanks for summer and welcoming the cold to come.
But she phones on the appointed Friday to postpone; it seems it’s too wet and chilly to welcome the cold. “We’ll try for the Sunday,” she says confidently: “We have a hunch it will be better.” Witches, after all, are meant to be in tune with the elements.
When I express doubt, she offers the prediction of a more prosaic science. “And I’ve been watching the long-range weather forecasts.”
Someone got it right. The evening turns out crisp and clear, with long shadows falling across the grass. Cockies squawk in the eucalypts above as the witches create a scene of storybook prettiness on the grass below.
A harpist in a greensleeves dress plays Scarborough Fair as Sunderland strews flowers in a large circle. At its centre, high priestess Buddhy Eldridge, in a black velvet cloak, covers a small table with a purple cloth to make an altar. She lays it with candles, a ritual knife and chalice, a wand, statues of a god and goddess and a beribboned basket of autumn produce – bread and fruit. High-church incense drifts on the air.
A dozen people who had been standing around in jeans or trackie daks don hooded velvet cloaks. Among them is Peter Schofield, a retired policeman with a pencil moustache and military bearing, who likes witchcraft because “it’s not so materialistic”; Annette Dunn, a pre-school teacher, who teaches her children “to respect the earth” and to cast
spells; and a manager with a utility company, who declines to be named “because I’ve got a lot of people with dead fish stuck on the back of their cars at work”.
They are the new pagans. “Pagan” used to be a pejorative, used by People of the Book to deride those who had not discovered the one true God and were, therefore, ignorant or unenlightened. Now the name has been reclaimed by free-thinkers who follow an earth or nature-based belief that does not have a central deity at its heart. They are the hippies of the divine supermarket, their offerings colourful, quirky, romantic and highly individualistic.
Their numbers are growing. In the five years to the 2001 census, they more than doubled to 39,000. Pagans follow many traditions and include Druids, who use pre-Christian Celtic rites, and Heathens or Odinists who follow Norse gods such as Odin and Thor. The pagans at Olinda this evening practise witchcraft, now the fastest-growing belief system in both Australia and the US.
The number of declared witches in the Australian census rose from 1849 in 1996 to
8755 in 2001. Many believe that number to be understated. Douglas Ezzy, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania, estimates that between one in 100 and one in 50 young women have an interest in witchcraft. When he asks any witches in first-year lectures of 200 students to come and see him, “I get three or four every time”.
Since the mid-1990s, things witchy have loomed large in television shows, movies and popular books. Suburban malls have shops filled with crystals and dream-catchers, mojo bags (for holding charms) and texts on astral travel, auras and tarot. In the heart of bourgeois Hawthorn, the fragrant Esoteric Bookshop sells the stuff of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley: hawthorn wands, crystal balls, 300 kinds of herbs, divination tools, runes and spells.
Popular culture is drenched in magick (spelt with a ‘k’ to differentiate it from what conjurers do with rabbits) – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed on TV, J.K.Rowling’s teen wizard, Harry Potter, in books and blockbuster movies. Home-grown episodes of Blue Heelers and House Rules have featured witch characters, courtesy of Melbourne-based Cassandra Carter, scriptwriter, long-standing “wisecraft practitioner” and author of the book Everyday Magic.
Even the law is changing to reflect the increasing acceptance of witchcraft. Attorney-General Rob Hulls has announced the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, which outlaws witchcraft and fortune telling. “We govern for all Victorians, and that includes witches, magicians and sorcerers,” he said in April. “These offences are going to ¤ disappear in a puff of smoke.”
Witchcraft is based partly on a yearning for a mythical past.
But here’s the paradox: it owes its real-life rise to modern electronics and the information revolution.
Ezzy, editor of a new book, Practising the Witch’s Craft: Real Magic Under a Southern Sky, says witchcraft used to spread by word of mouth but now many people first make contact through websites. “It’s very much a religion of the internet,” he says.
In such a supposedly rational age, what is it with broomsticks, cauldrons and cats? Do witches dance with the devil, as the medieval folk who burned them believed? And what does this interest in the occult and do-it-yourself ritual mean for Western Christianity and its rapidly emptying pews?
There is nothing eerie about Eldridge’s ritual. She lights four candles at the compass points of her circle and holds up a censer of incense, praying silently for the blessing of the lord and lady. Another witch uses a broomstick to sweep the circle free of any ill. The chanting is of love and trust, calling on the power of earth, air, fire and water. The hooded figures join hands and Eldridge “casts a spell”:
Raise your voice in Magick Rite
Send your power into the night
All the witches hand in hand
Raise the spirits of the land
Let love and healing come to birth,
Revitalise our ravaged Earth.
They “raise the cone of power” – draw up energy to send out with the spell – by walking a slow circle and chanting. Eldridge then blesses cakes and wine, the products of “passion’s grace” (the union of lady and lord that keeps the earth fertile). Those in the circle share them, saying to each other: “May you never hunger, may you never thirst.”
Two elderly Argentinian tourists who had come up to Olinda for the day stand quietly in the circle too, not quite sure what is happening but respectful of this quaint native rite.
Eldridge and other witches all have the same answer to questions about their relationship with the devil. You have to be a Christian to be a Satanist, they point out. You have to believe in the Christian God and reject him in favour of the Christian devil. They are pagans and do not believe in Satan.
Working out what witches are not (“I do not sacrifice black cats at midnight,” says Carter with dignity) is easier than trying to define what they are. Like magpies, witches nab whatever they fancy from other occult and spiritual traditions and have no single guru, a tolerant state of anarchy that Wiccans – one kind of witch – call “non-prophet disorganisation”.
They do tend to share a sense of the divine feminine, and of the body and the earth as sacred, as well as a conviction that “energies” can be manipulated. David Tacey, Jungian analyst, associate professor of arts at La Trobe University and author of The Spirituality Revolution, says witchcraft focuses on Western religion’s “missing trinity” – woman, body, earth.
“These three things have enormous popular appeal because they are missing elements, and whatever’s repressed from the mainstream has a natural interest of its own,” Tacey says.
“Throughout the millennia, religions based on the feminine have been earth-based. Patriarchal religions are suspicious of the mythical feminine and assume that the realm of creation is inherently evil, that sex and the body is the realm of sin.”
For 37-year-old Fiona Horne, witchcraft is a refuge from teachings about women that she found abhorrent. Witchcraft’s Australian pin-up girl, the blonde and beautiful Horne personifies its cool image and multi-media savvy. Her celebrity gigs have included the television panel of Beauty and the Beast and an FM radio talkback show in which she created spells to order. Her website is a barometer of interest in matters magickal; last month, she says, it scored 633,000 hits.
Horne grew up Catholic and disliked what she read in the Children’s Living Bible – “that women are doomed to bear children in pain and suffering to atone for the sins of Eve” – and the view passed onto her by a priest, “that humans are doomed because
we come from between two pieces of filth, the anus and the urethra”.
With Wicca, the branch of witchcraft she practises, “women are seen as sacred and our bodies are a divine expression of the life force and not something impure and only created to titillate men”.
The Judeo-Christian vision of God as male has spurred many a witch. Carter, now in her 50s, was an observant Anglican as a girl. “If there had been anything like the Movement for the Ordination of Women when I was a teenager, I would probably have sought ordination within the Anglo-Catholic tradition,” she says. “But there wasn’t.” When a book introduced her to the idea of a goddess who was equal with a god, “That was quartz-halogen headlamps going, Chung!”
Gary Bouma, an Anglican priest and professor of sociology at Monash University, says: “Why does witchcraft appeal? Because those women are dead sick of paltry patriarchal pontifications.”
Witchcraft also appeals to greenies and “eco-feminists”. It emphasises rituals based around the elements and the seasons, and many of its rites take place outdoors. “We are here to live on the earth and not dominate over it,” Horne says. She finds her sense of the divine most readily when looking up at the sky or studying a leaf. “Surely heaven is here on earth; this isn’t just somewhere we do penance till we get to a wonderful place afterwards.”
Witchcraft has one golden rule: do as you will, and harm you none. Its adherents hold a wide smorgasbord of beliefs: some believe in a goddess as an entity, others see her as representative of a divine force, and the more Freudian tell you she is a projection of their own psyches.
They use the names of ancient female goddesses interchangeably, believing that all those figures are faces of the divine feminine, and call on everyone from Brigid (Irish) to Demeter (Greek) and Isis (Egyptian).
For male witches – up to a third of the total number, according to the census – the masculine principle is represented by the Horned Lord, partner of the goddess. Although witchcraft tends to be seen as a girl thing, it has always had male followers; men made up a quarter of the 60,000 people executed for witchcraft in Europe and America between 1450 and 1750, according to Lara Apps and Andrew Gow in their new
book, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe.
Today, some witches believe in reincarnation, others that there is no life after death. Some work in covens of up to 13 people, timing their rites with solar and lunar cycles, and others work alone. Some say witchcraft provides them with a moral framework while others revel in the way it does not. Most love the freedom of being able to tailor their beliefs, or non-beliefs, to themselves.
“It’s nothing to do with religion,” says Nicole Good, a children’s face-painter who shared in the rite at Olinda, delicate blue garlands painted on her cheeks. “It’s about who I am and what I think about things. It’s not about belief in God or the lack of it. I’m not a Wiccan; that’s just another structured religion, to me.”
Witches also tend to focus on the innate goodness of people rather than on their failings. Carter was pleased to shrug off Christian guilt. She recalls thinking during one Eucharist, “I don’t feel like a miserable sinner not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table, even if Thy property is always to have mercy”.
Carter studies astrology and the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. She has a prosperity charm in a little satin bag on her desk and has developed her own ritual for sending onto the next world any troubled spirits she meets.
Sunderland, 28, runs a New Age shop in Olinda and says she had out-of-body experiences as a child. Eldridge, 45, is a registered nurse and grief counsellor who says she sees auras.
“Belief is not the key element that leads them into becoming witches,” Ezzy says. “(Pagan) people rarely ask me what I believe; they are more likely to ask me what sort of experiences I have had, or what rituals I have participated in.”
This is a reaction to the dryness of traditional religion, says sociologist Bouma. “The uniform response to, `Why don’t you go to church?’ is `It’s boring’. They don’t want a rational form of religion that’s all words and no experience. They don’t want to know whether you believe in God, they want to know whether you have encountered God recently. The truth is experience; the truth is not words on paper.”
There is also a longing for romance and mystery. Bill Stewart, dean of Ridley College at Melbourne University, has degrees in medieval history and theology and an interest in paganism. He says an influential sociologist, Max Weber, argued that modern science and industry have brought `a disenchantment of the world’.
“Another `missing trinity’. . . is concerned with re-enchantment,” Stewart says. “It is captured in a slogan employed by WitchCraft Magazine: `myth, magick and mystery’.”
He says American witches in the 1970s had a word that summed up how they felt about ordinary life: they called non-witches “mundanes”. That’s not too far off J.K. Rowling’s “muggles”, her name for the ignorant, unimaginative inhabitants of suburbia who have no insight into the parallel universe of Harry Potter’s wizardry.
Witchcraft’s sassy “leaders” are part of its attraction. Horne has helped make witchcraft glamorous (the word belongs to witches, anyway, “glamour” originally being another name for enchantment) and is part of the reason that two-thirds of Australia’s witches are under 29.
She has written several bestsellers on her life as a witch and her latest book is for teen witches. She is now in Los Angeles developing radio and television shows for the US market.
“Fiona is unlike leaders in traditional religions, who are generally either shunned or been largely ineffective in terms of contemporary media,” Stewart says. “(Baptist minister) Tim Costello perhaps could be considered a bit of a media personality but, unlike Fiona, he hasn’t played in a speed metal band and doesn’t have tongue piercings and hasn’t posed for Playboy.
“Fiona has the advantage of being part of (young women’s) world-view. Here’s a young blonde who has a website and answers my emails as opposed to a middle-aged bloke who wears a suit or a dress or something and gives a long-winded and boring talk on Sunday morning when any self-respecting teenager is asleep, recovering
from the night before. It’s no contest.”
But is witchcraft a fashion accessory? For some, agrees Sunderland. “Fashionable Wiccans tend to look, sound and speak just like they consider Satanism to be a music genre; they like heavy metal death movies and music. They work really hard on that image, the Goths. You tend to find them in couples, the musical Satanist and the fashionable Wiccan. One’s the man and one’s the woman.”
Others like the idea of life on the margins and of being linked to a victimised group. David Wilson-Steer, a ceremonial magician who runs the Esoteric Bookshop with his partner, pagan Julie Snodgrass, says he doesn’t like the way some witches “go around Christian-bashing”.
“They’re like reformed smokers,” he says. “There seems to be a great emphasis on witches having been burned millions of years ago instead of looking at what we do now, which is celebrating the forces of nature.”
All this talk of nature makes witchcraft sound as wholesome as stoneground bread and lentil soup. But part of its attraction, at least, has a dark side: the longing for power. Witchcraft involves spells. “Some people think it’s all about power,” Snodgrass says. “They think it’s about gaining control over everyone else. The power is about controlling ourself.”
Snodgrass’s shop has spells for every occasion: to attract love, bless a house or protect against a hex (all carefully labelled “sold as a curio only” to get around laws that forbid charging for charms or fortune-telling). When pressed about spells, Carter and others say dismissively: “What’s the difference between a spell and a prayer?”
There’s a big difference. A prayer calls upon a transcendent being to exert power on one’s behalf; the one who prays is a humble supplicant. A spell is based on the idea that the spell-maker has their own supernatural powers. It takes the idea of sisters doin’ it for themselves to a whole new level.
But Carter says: “In both cases it is the intensity or fervour of the need or wish that powers the magic. It’s just that most Christians don’t think of prayers as spells.
“Gnostic Christianity assumes we are all sons and daughters of God so we all have the power within us; it’s just a matter of recognising it. All the stories of the miracles of the saints would say there is an absolute power in the prayer.”
Witchcraft’s promise of power can be a magnet for the sad case. Carter tells of a woman who rang her asking for a spell to stop her ex-husband’s new wife from turning him against her children. “She’d been to see someone in Thomastown but they wanted $5000 and she didn’t have that much money but she could manage $3000.” Carter suggested she see her parish priest.
Wilson-Steer gave similar advice to a woman who came to his shop seeking to win back her husband – who had left 30 years before.
The pull of power can also lead to black magic, where the elemental forces of nature are called upon not to help or heal but to control the world or people in a selfish or destructive way. “I don’t think a lot of it is the black stuff,” Tacey says. “I think that has a lot to do with maturity. Sometimes when young people get involved in spells and sorcery they do so out of a Harry Potterish desire to gain power over their immediate environment. It’s pure Freudian wish fulfilment.”
He says hostile “sorcery in the suburbs”, while rare, can be dangerous – to the person practising it. “Anyone might have terrible dark thoughts about someone and wish them evil. That’s psychologically and emotionally unhealthy, whether or not you subscribe to a supernatural world view.”
For witches, it’s a matter of math: they believe that the good or evil behind spell-casting returns to them threefold, in itself an incentive to steer clear of the bad stuff. “If you believe what you send out comes back, you don’t need a book of rules,” says Wilson-Steer.
There are some aspects of witchcraft that even some of its strongest adherents avoid. Carter refuses to use “poppets”, little dolls that are ritually named for a person for whom a spell is cast (for example, to cure them of illness).
She doesn’t admit to any wariness of its voodoo-like feel, saying rather that it’s a question of what to do with the poppets afterwards. “Do you have an entire row of little dolls sitting up on a ledge somewhere? What do you do if someone else gets hold of the poppet that has been ritually named? It’s a damn sight safer to work here and here,” (pointing at her heart and her head).
Nor will Carter do love spells, because they interfere with another’s free will. Rather, she recommends concentrating on spells to make oneself more lovable. Horne issues the same warning in Magickal Sex: A Witch’s Guide to Beds, Knobs and Broomsticks. But she nevertheless publishes a “come to me” spell. It involves collecting some of the desired man’s “body bits” (hair or fingernail clippings), carving his name into a candle and making a spice mixture moistened with the spell-maker’s spit – or, for extra oomph, her vaginal fluid. (More tea, vicar?)
Superstition, surely, rather than religion? But Ezzy argues that magical thinking “is part of witchcraft in the same way it’s part of Christianity”. He points to Catholics and their belief in miracles, Pentecostals and their belief in the spirit’s power to heal the body. Is there much difference between a charm and a St Christopher medal on a car dashboard?
Perhaps more confronting is witchcraft’s earthiness: it deals with taboos such as death and menstruation and sometimes uses explicit sexual imagery – and, more rarely, sex itself. Some witches dance “skyclad” (naked) during rituals, and it is not unknown for sex to be used to “raise the power” of a rite.
Have there been rituals where people copulated in the centre of a circle? “There have been,” says Wilson-Steer. “They tend to be people who want to do that. Not everyone joins in. Why is sex wrong? Why can’t it be a method of worship as well? It’s a way of paying devotion to natural forces.”
Ezzy says at Beltane, a festival of spring and fertility, it is common for couples to have sex, but this is generally done privately. “It’s not quite as voyeuristic as it might seem. The idea of an orgy is quite overblown. But sex is part of life and witchcraft celebrates that, rather than saying that sex is something that separates you off from God.”
Ezzy is researching teenage girls and witchcraft and he says it often leads them to be more sexually cautious. “They tell me that whereas before they might have got drunk and gone off and bonked someone, witchcraft has allowed them to take sex more seriously as a spiritual act.” And they find its rituals useful in managing their emotional lives. “I was talking to a young woman who had just broken up with her boyfriend and was feeling very depressed. She used ritual; she wrote a poem about the way she had felt sad about the guy and then burned it within a circle. Witchcraft gives them a ritual way of dealing with important issues . . . Some witches would say magick works on psychological levels.”
Witches talk of a “tradition”. In truth, historians do not know whether there was a matriarchal religion before Christianity, according to Stewart. Their Wicca’d ways have more recent origins; the work of one Gerald Gardner, known as the father of Wicca. He published a book in England in 1954 claiming that witchcraft was a surviving pagan religion and that he had been initiated into it.
But paganism and witchcraft did not begin their resurgence until after the US publication in 1979 of two books, The Spiral Dance, by Starhawk, and Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler. Three years later, the ideas gained wider audience with the best-selling novel The Mists of Avalon, in which author and high priestess Marion Zimmer Bradley rewrote the Arthurian legend as a battle between goddess worship and Christianity.
Unlike Christianity, paganism has no social justice agenda. It is so inwardly turned that it is almost narcissistic in its focus on the spiritual development of the individual. It will note be producing schools or hospitals or strong statements on the inequality gap.
But, says Bouma, not all religions do, either. “Buddhism has no social ethic at all. Meditate and you will feel better, meditate and the rest of the world will go away. It’s only Westerners who think religion should have a social ethic.”
Should the churches be worried? Some of their members are. Carter based an episode of Blue Heelers around a true incident in which a pastor in a Victorian country town gathered up his followers, burst into a local witch’s home and burnt her books on the front lawn.
But when it comes to the numbers, Christianity is so far ahead that it appears to be no contest. Stewart, though, says the bald figures can be misleading. “Most people who identify themselves as pagans are fairly committed to that viewpoint and made a conscious choice. There are stacks of people who tick the census form C of E or Presbyterian and it makes no impact on their lives.
“And also, if you look at the age distribution, it’s mostly young in paganism; in most mainstream denominations it’s predominantly old. I think it is (a threat to churches) if the issues concerned are ignored.”
Bouma agrees that the churches should be questioning themselves. “Can you meet God in this church? If they can’t say `Yes’ with some confidence, they are dying, and they should. They are not offering any product worth getting. People want powerful, numinous, spiritual experiences.”
It’s not just people on the social fringes who are seeking it. At the Olinda rite, the whole Dunn family came. Annette teaches pre-school and her husband, Marcus, is a trained nurse. They are all cheerily open about their beliefs; the children’s school enrolment forms have “pagan” in the religion box.
Rowan, 12, says: “We do magic, our own rituals, at home. Normally we just invoke stuff and we send our energy to people who need it.” Roxanne, 14, adds: “My friends respect it and they’re fine with it. I know kids in class who are weird with it, but nothing serious.”
Their deities? Annette says: “We believe in a god and a goddess. We believe in all gods and all goddesses.”
Marcus hugs her. “This is my goddess.”
She laughs back. “And this is my god.”
And they stand grinning, their New World jeans and trainers topped by their Old World ruffles and cloaks; living proof that witchcraft has sashayed its way off the screen and out of the broom closet. Suburbia will never be the same.
First published in The Age.