THE long-legged coyote man had an animal tail hanging from his tail. The male witch had an ankle-length velvet cloak. The man who called himself Pixie looked like Braveheart.
“You should have been here yesterday,” he said. “My face was painted with woad” – the blue herbal dye the Celts used in warfare to terrify the enemy.
The 24th Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering was held on an extinct volcano near Daylesford at the weekend.
This was worship at its freest. Today’s paganism is a religious smorgasbord encompassing Wiccans and witches (who are not the same thing), pantheists, who call on ancient gods and goddesses of Greece, Rome or other cultures, and many others whose self-selected beliefs defy categorisation. (Paganism and modern witchcraft does not involve satanism, with witches pointing out that Satan is a Christian figure).
Common to many pagans is the use of “the wheel of the year” to link ceremonies to the seasons, a belief that the divine is both feminine and masculine, and a conviction that sacredness is centred on the Earth and the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The Mount Franklin festival is held each year on the weekend closest to Halloween. It recognises Beltane (“bright fire”), a festival that celebrates the fertility of earth and animals.
Pagans believe it is a time when “the veil is thin” between the mundane and supernatural worlds, an uncanny moment when the air is filled with spirits.
On Saturday night they lit and encircled a bonfire, which symbolised the increasing power of the sun, and invoked the lady of the moon and the lord of the sun. Yesterday, 15 men and 15 women danced ritually around a Maypole. When it was tightly wound with red and green lacing, they “read” its weave to try to foretell what the coming year would bring.
Many children were among the 230 campers, and medievalism mixed with modern domesticity: a blue hatchback parked among the tents had a sign offering “Mead for Sale”.
On weekdays, Pixie is John Biggs and works in a plant nursery with disabled people. Male witch Morphix is Paul Franzi, a youth worker for kids with drug and alcohol problems.
And the man with the coyote totem is Josh Orth, a medical scientist. He says he has adopted the coyote as his symbol because the animal is “playful, energetic, wild and free”.
Several people at the festival declined to be interviewed, saying they had lost jobs before when their employers found out. But there are signs of a dawning acceptance of alternative religion. Nicole Good says she is one of four pagans who have been registered as civil celebrants.
At the end of all the interviews, this reporter’s hand was aching from a tight grip on the notebook. What did witches recommend for arthritis?
Forget spells and chants and magical balms. The answer came in a pragmatic chorus: “Deep Heat!”
First published in The Age.