Witchcraft in Australia
This article was written in April 2010 for an Australian independent magazine. Unfortunately (as often happens in the freelance writing industry) the article was put on the back-burner.
If I’d written this article today, it would look a little different. It is interesting to see how my understanding of Witchcraft, Paganism and spirituality has evolved over time. I’m mostly happy with this article but must confess to cringing a little when reading about dichotomies of “Goddess” and “God”. It is not incorrect to state that many Witches believe in this concept. And it is also accurate to say that many, including myself, don’t necessarily view deity as a reflection of gender.
The light of day has long since faded and night has fallen upon an urban parkland in Pascoe Vale, Victoria. Six figures move carefully through the trees, their way illuminated only by the shadowed full moon and two or three lanterns that flicker with weak candle light. Low murmurs arise from the silhouettes as they take their positions in a circle at the centre of a small clearing.
Suddenly something clatters loudly and one of the shadows mutters an oath. The rest of the group laugh softly and the reverent procession is temporarily broken– until the clouds part momentarily. The full moon’s iridescent glow falls upon the group who turn their faces upward in unison. It is time.
A lone figure circles the group in a counter-clockwise direction holding a ritual knife aloft. She calls out into the night.
“Elements of Air! Fire! Water! Earth! Come forth into our Circle! We call to the Gods and invite them to bear witness! …The Circle is cast… We are between the worlds.”
The rite begins.
It may sound like some fantasy novel or a Hollywood script, but every month in this country Witches meet in places such as these to celebrate the natural wonder and beauty of the moon which we view as a divine symbol of the Goddess.
The popular yet often inaccurate image of the Witch is embedded in the psyche of most. It is true to say that Witches do sometimes meet at night, sometimes around cauldrons and even occasionally naked. However this stereotypical image is only a tiny fragment of the complexity that is the religion of the Witches.
Leaning up against the kitchen bench in a modest house in Glen Waverley, Gavin Andrew calmly surveys the room around him. Dressed in neat casual attire he watches as 40-odd Witches indulge themselves in Samhain (Halloween) revelry, offering a few words here and there to those who approach him for conversation. The party’s masquerade theme appears lost on him yet the quiet dignity with which he stands in his own space clearly names him witch.
Over a year later he recalls exactly what we discussed that night, point by point, precisely and accurately. It is unsurprising then that Gavin has been appointed a spokesperson for the Pagan Awareness Network (PAN). His knowledge of Witchcraft is evident yet it is his authenticity and ability to impart information concisely that makes him perfect for this role.
Asked for his definition of witchcraft, Gavin states quite simply, “Witchcraft is a nature-based religion. Witches identify with the archetypal figure of the witch in European folklore – a figure that symbolises feminine power and stands on the border between the human world and the world of the supernatural.”
There is incredible diversity in the way that witches define their spirituality. In a very large nutshell witches believe in a balance between a God and a Goddess who are personifications of the natural forces of light and darkness. This philosophy is expressed in celebrations of the moon cycles and the concept known as the ‘Wheel of the Year’. These eight solar and agricultural festivals, called sabbats, mark the transition of the seasons throughout the year. Each sabbat conveys a mythology which reveals the mysteries of birth, growth, sex, dying and renewal. Witches therefore view all these aspects of life as sacred.
Gavin believes it is this respect for sexual union as a fundamental aspect of the natural cycle that is helping to change attitudes towards sex.
“I’ve heard of teenage girls who used to have casual sex, but stopped once they begun practicing Witchcraft because they understood that sex is a sacred act – and that one should choose their partner carefully,” Gavin reveals. He goes on to explain how Witchcraft’s philosophies regarding sex and the body are major factors in attracting young people to the Craft.
“Witchcraft provides many opportunities for self-empowerment. It can break unhealthy patterns relating to poor body images and teaches that every woman is a Goddess, no matter what her shape. The Feminine, the Body and the Earth; these have been largely ignored or even demonised by mainstream religions. But I think there’s an increasing desire in people to honour these.”
“Witchcraft promotes sex-positive attitudes that are more in step with modern society – Witches don’t make moral judgements about what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms!”
At just 21 years old Sarah is a newcomer to the Craft. Having done only a few simple candle spells Sarah feels she would like to learn a lot more before calling herself a Witch. However Sarah already echoes the same sentiments expressed by Gavin.
“The repressive patriarchal-religion driven society that we live in made me feel very bad about my independence, my sexuality and how I generally felt as an individual. Witchcraft seems to embrace these gifts and I feel as though I am able to embrace my open sexuality without feeling guilty.”
Sarah exhibits a hesitancy that is common to new Craft practitioners and non-Witches alike. While she does feel that many people have the wrong idea about magic being the work of ‘Satan’, she does believe that there are negative forces out there that all Witches should protect themselves from, particularly beginners. While Witches have differing opinions in regards to negative forces, it is apparent that Sarah is serious enough about her path to err on the side of caution.
“I think it’s important for all Witches to focus on protection and purification, read as much as they can and make sure that Witchcraft is a totally positive experience. A lot of Witches talk about ‘Love and Light’ but the darkness is definitely out there. I think beginners should be careful.”
Not keen to discuss her interest in Witchcraft with parents who she feels she does not communicate well with, Sarah prefers to remain in the broom-closet for now. Her thoughts regarding Witchcraft is restricted almost exclusively to her Myspace page which is decorated with pentagrams and pictures of various heavy metal bands. One gets the impression that Sarah feels as though she can only express herself completely while remaining concealed behind the relative security of a computer. This is emphasised by her obvious excitement at having recently made a few friends who share her interest in Witchcraft. “It’s lovely to be in contact with them! It makes life a lot more pleasant and easy.”
Others are much more fortunate when it comes to openly practicing Witchcraft.
Wearing dark and dramatic make-up, Ellie certainly looks the part. But this 24 year old university student asserts earnestly that she has practiced Witchcraft long before she was old enough to wear cosmetics. Ellie recalls fondly a childhood filled with stories, books and cartoons about witches. She tells of a time when at 12 years old her parents gave Ellie her first credible book on Witchcraft.
“From there on I knew beyond any doubt exactly what my path was. At no stage have I ever looked back.”
Ellie is not shy about her beliefs and is seeking to enhance her practice through her university course. Having already completed a BA in Sociology she is now working towards a Ph.D. in Egyptology, a common area of interest for Witches.
Getting married on 31 October, Ellie is aware of how lucky she is to have parents who support her choices. In fact, Ellie’s mother is helping her to design the dress she will wear when she is ‘Handfasted’ to her fiancé. This Pagan ceremony will also be a legal marriage.
Seline Cardamone-Cairns, who just so happens to be an authorised pagan marriage celebrant (though not the one marrying Ellie), is a prominent figure in the Melbourne Pagan community. Similarly, she is entirely open about her choice of religion.
Sitting at the head of a laden table, Seline is in her element. Having cooked a lavish Italian feast she delights at being able to offer exquisite home-cooked meals to her family and friends. As two of her children are all grown up, it is only the youngest who is still at home to enjoy the pampering.
It is amusing then that this full-time mother and part-time photo lab assistant, who greets everyone with a warm lingering hug, can sometimes find herself embroiled in controversy.
Seline is the co-creator of an annual festival known as ‘Euphoria’. Central to this weekend event is the ritual in which the demonised god Baphomet is invoked. Perhaps not surprisingly, the dark nature of the ritual has provoked a mixed reaction from many. Yet in complete contrast Seline herself is warm and endearing. When asked about the so-called ‘dark path’ Seline laughs. “The left-hand path is about going within and discovering who you really are, warts and all. No one can deny their darker aspects for long without repressing emotions and becoming unbalanced.”
Anyone having participated in Seline’s rituals will understand this without a shadow of a doubt. Standing naked in a darkened room filled with the smell of burning sage and frankincense, I am moved to tears by a grandmother who exclaims excitedly that this is the first time she has ever felt comfortable enough with her own body to stand proudly in her own skin; that by removing her clothes she has also removed her fear of how others perceive her. The flames from the cauldron are unmerciful in the stifling hot room, but the sweat pouring down our bodies in rivulets seems to be drawing out the personal anguish of each person present. One by one, women bare their soul, some crying openly as they toss a representation of their pain into the flames to be consumed.
It is the magic of rituals such as these that can truly be life changing.
Essential to the spirituality ingrained in contemporary Witchcraft is the process of understanding the Self. While outwardly Witchcraft may appear to be primarily concerned with spellcraft and seasonal celebrations, equally important is the inner understanding which these celebrations attempt to evoke.
For instance the sabbat known as the Spring Equinox, a celebration of the return of Spring and fertility to the land, is also a way that we may seek to understand the life-giving gifts that we each contain within ourselves. In this way our fertility is not simply a physical phenomenon but is just as importantly the incredible potential that each of us have in being able to create our own realities.
It is here that spellcraft becomes much more than simply a way to obtain our every whim. It is the way that Witches evoke change in their lives and bring into existence the ultimate potential that resides in every human being.
It is this potential that Gavin Andrew sees growing among young practitioners.
“Many Witches show their dedication by honouring Mother Nature. They make a conscious decision to break away from the mindless consumerism shoved down their throats every minute of the day and walk more gently on the earth. This might take the form of becoming vegetarian or choosing public transport over a car. They might plant a permaculture vegetable garden where they live or buy cruelty-free beauty products.”
This certainly is a common theme. Witchcraft promotes conscientious and independent thought, and honours the values of environmentalism, social responsibility, religious tolerance and equality for all. It is for these reasons and more that so many Witches articulate the oft-stated catchcry, “It felt like coming home,” when describing their feelings toward discovering Witchcraft.
This sounds like a simple progression; one of encountering the philosophies of the Craft and of things just slipping neatly into place. However for most the transition is anything but smooth. By far the most common story told is one of drastic upheaval and loss of all that is familiar and secure in one’s life. For these people the discovery of Witchcraft is a beacon of hope and a way out of the darkness.
Softly spoken with a gentle nature, it is a mistake to think that Alex is timid or apprehensive in claiming the title of ‘Witch’ as her own. A medical receptionist by day who is eagerly looking forward to the birth of her first grandchild, Alex attributes her very sanity to Witchcraft.
“I had the biggest breakdown of my life. It was only when I discovered Witchcraft that I discovered my own power. This spirituality gave me hope and a reason to get up again. It is my life-force. It is knowing that we are so much more than our bodies. I can honestly say that it saved my life.”
Alex is happy to share her beliefs with a few close friends but is a private person by nature. When asked what Witchcraft means to her, Alex describes her spirituality with emotive eloquence.
“It is natural, like childbirth, like death, like love, and hate. It is being connected with the ancestors, being at one with the Deities. Witchcraft is being in touch with the very essence of who we are.”