In­ves­ti­ga­tion:

The most re­cent data from Eng­land, the US and Aus­tralia shows that witch­craft is on the rise, but not the craft as we know it. Sa­man­tha Trenoweth meets three thor­oughly mod­ern witches who have left broom­sticks and pointy hats be­hind.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Content -

the rise of witch­craft in our sub­urbs

It is a wet Sun­day af­ter­noon. Rain is fall­ing in sheets, the creek is burst­ing its banks, the ground is sod­den and pools are form­ing in un­ex­pected places all over the com­mu­nity gar­dens at Ka­toomba in the Blue Moun­tains west of Syd­ney. It is the eve of the Au­tumn Equinox. Witches and pa­gans, the chil­dren of witches and pa­gans and a team from The Weekly are gath­ered be­neath um­brel­las at the end of a lane of ap­ple trees.

Jane Mered­ith steps pur­pose­fully across the muddy grass and, cast­ing a cur­sory glance heav­en­ward, notes that the rain is eas­ing. Ev­ery­one looks up and in­deed, the clouds are dis­pers­ing and a patch of pow­der-blue sky has ap­peared. In an­other 10 min­utes the mist and rain that have en­veloped the moun­tains all week will have van­ished.

“I be­gan hold­ing these pub­lic rit­u­als 20 years ago,” says Jane, who calls her­self a pa­gan priest­ess and is a ma­jor fig­ure in an Aus­tralian oc­cult resur­gence. “I had a child and I wanted to cre­ate a sense – for my­self as well as for him – that we were part of a com­mu­nity that cel­e­brated the sea­sons and the earth, and held the earth as sa­cred. I didn’t want him to grow up think­ing we were a tiny mi­nor­ity of peo­ple do­ing a weird thing that no­body else un­der­stood.”

Peo­ple are hun­gry for the sa­cred.”

Jane is at the van­guard of a re­li­gious move­ment on the rise. Pa­gan­ism, an um­brella term that en­com­passes most na­ture-based re­li­gions in­clud­ing witch­craft, had around 33,000 Aussie ad­her­ents at the last pub­lished census and, in the US, witches are thought to num­ber more than one mil­lion.

A rep­utable di­rec­tory of covens and other pa­gan groups cur­rently lists 66 around Aus­tralia, in­clud­ing the long­stand­ing Ap­ple­grove wic­can work­ing group, the Spir­ited Syd­ney Pa­gan Pub Meet, Pa­gans in the Park at Budge­woi,

Un­cle Fes­ter’s free online wicca course and the Samhain Witches’ Mas­quer­ade Ball. There’s even a pa­gan dat­ing site, re­plete with im­ages of “sky­clad” (naked) pa­gans frol­ick­ing in na­ture.

To­day, Jane will lead a pub­lic rit­ual to hon­our the Au­tumn Equinox, the point of equal day/equal night at which pa­gans cel­e­brate the har­vest and wel­come the dark months of the year. There is a good turnout in spite of the rain, and that’s not sur­pris­ing. Michelle Claire White, who is a spokesper­son for the Pa­gan Aware­ness Net­work, says there has been a par­tic­u­lar surge of in­ter­est in the “re­claim­ing” witch­craft tra­di­tion of which Jane is part. One rea­son for the in­ter­est, she be­lieves, is a need, par­tic­u­larly amongst city dwellers to feel con­nected with the nat­u­ral world.

To­day’s rit­ual ad­dresses that. The group gath­ers in a cir­cle, sur­rounded by wa­ter­logged veg­etable plots and trees hung with rain­drops. Mem­bers call out to the el­e­ments and di­rec­tions, of­fer­ing thanks for the gifts they pro­vide (light, warmth, air to breathe, and wa­ter to drink and nour­ish crops). A har­vest al­tar is cre­ated with of­fer­ings of grains, fruits and pulses, and fi­nally, the earth’s energy is raised in an ec­static, spi­ralling dance, driven by drums and chant­ing.

These are not the witches of pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. There are a lot of hand-knit­ted jumpers in the crowd but no pointy hats; there’s some or­ganic spanako­pita to share when the rit­ual is done, but no gob­lets of blood or an­i­mals sac­ri­ficed. Which is not to say there are no blood-swill­ing, broom­stick-wield­ing witches about at all; it’s just that they’re less com­mon than these gar­den-va­ri­ety witches, who are al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from your lo­cal li­brar­ian.

Like your lo­cal li­brar­ian, how­ever, even mild-man­nered witches can be sub­ver­sive. The Re­claim­ing move­ment was founded back in 1979 by two Amer­i­can witches, Starhawk and Diane Baker. “The key em­phases,” says Ca­role Cu­sack, Pro­fes­sor of Re­li­gious Stud­ies at The Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney, “are fem­i­nism, god­dess wor­ship and a strong ac­tivist tra­di­tion.”

Witches, she ex­plains, have been ac­tive, and some­times in­flu­en­tial, in the anti-nuclear, anti-war, women’s rights and green move­ments. And witches have re­cently cir­cu­lated spells online that tar­get US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Michelle says that her coven mixes pol­i­tics, spir­i­tu­al­ity and per­sonal growth pretty seam­lessly. “At our Summer Sol­stice rit­ual we cre­ate this big fig­ure of straw, which we call the Burn­ing Man, and in­side him we place things about our cul­ture and about our­selves that we feel need to be trans­formed by fire. We ask peo­ple to call out the things they would like to see trans­formed and, as we set fire to our wicker man, peo­ple might call out coal min­ing but they might also call out their own in­ner in­se­cu­ri­ties or fears.”

In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, witches follow a se­cret and an­cient path that can be traced back through medieval times as far as the sibyls of an­cient Greece, but that, says Ca­role Cu­sack, is at least partly fan­tasy. Witch­craft in the mod­ern West, she says, has sprung from the covens of an oc­cultist called Ger­ald Gard­ner, who prac­tised in the 1950s, “and we know he made a lot of it up. But there are mytho­log­i­cal texts and an­cient sites that are im­por­tant to mod­ern pa­gans and mod­ern witch­craft does feed off his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial.”

Much mod­ern witch­craft is an on­go­ing DIY project, with an eclec­tic grab-bag of in­flu­ences in­clud­ing fem­i­nism, shaman­ism, spir­i­tu­al­ism, an­cient mythol­ogy and Jun­gian psy­cho­anal­y­sis. The per­sonal growth move­ment of the 1980s also cast a spell.

“As I’ve pro­gressed with my mag­i­cal stud­ies, it’s be­come much more about my own per­sonal de­vel­op­ment than controlling out­side forces,” says Lisa-Jane Ma­son, whose coven, Ba­balon’s Ris­ing, is based in the Illawarra, south of Syd­ney. “So in rit­u­als, we ex­pe­ri­ence the el­e­ments within. We ask, what does the earth mean to you? And some­one might say it is sta­bil­ity or the home, nour­ish­ment or a ground­ing force. Then we chant the el­e­men­tal name and con­nect to those en­er­gies. Wa­ter might mean blood or the womb to you and, when you chant that name, you feel a shift within as you con­nect to the wa­tery as­pect of your­self.”

Lisa-Jane is not your shy, re­tir­ing type of witch. She sports a spec­tac­u­lar col­lec­tion of tat­toos and most of her coven’s rit­u­als are per­formed sky­clad af­ter dark. Per­form­ing naked is a prac­ti­cal as well as a sym­bolic choice, she says, smil­ing. “We gen­er­ally have a fire in the mid­dle and we’re danc­ing, so robes can be hot and un­com­fort­able, and flammable. But it’s also sym­bolic be­cause these rit­u­als are about be­ing bare and real and vul­ner­a­ble with your­self and the uni­verse and your coven.”

Lisa-Jane be­longs both to the coven and to the Ordo Tem­pli Ori­en­tis, a se­cret so­ci­ety and oc­cult church which was led by the “no­to­ri­ous” English ma­gi­cian, Aleis­ter Crow­ley, at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury. An in­ter­est­ing piece of witchy trivia is that Crow­ley’s long-time lover and tem­ple priest­ess was the Aus­tralian vi­o­lin­ist Leila Wad­dell, and Aus­tralia has a colour­ful mag­i­cal his­tory. The most fa­mous char­ac­ter was Ros­aleen Nor­ton, an artist and devo­tee of the god

Pan, whose work was con­fis­cated for ob­scen­ity in the 1940s and ’50s, and who was known as “The Witch of Kings Cross”.

The spir­i­tual prac­tices fol­lowed by Ros­aleen Nor­ton and witches to­day are ex­pe­ri­en­tial and im­mer­sive. Lisa-Jane says she knows a rit­ual has been suc­cess­ful when she ex­pe­ri­ences “some sort of psy­chic shift or vi­sion or mes­sage”.

Michelle, who grew up a Ro­man Catholic, be­lieves that the ex­pe­ri­en­tial as­pect of witch­craft has been crit­i­cal to its pop­u­lar ap­peal. Witch­craft is one of a tribe of new re­li­gious move­ments that have picked up ad­her­ents as num­bers of tra­di­tional church-go­ing Chris­tians have dropped.

“What’s miss­ing in main­stream Chris­tian­ity,” Michelle says, “is the ec­stasy that’s in witch­craft, and the danc­ing, the singing, the los­ing your­self in the spirit of cer­e­mony.”

“Peo­ple are de­prived of, and hun­gry for, the sa­cred,” Jane adds, “and also, per­haps hun­gry for rit­ual be­cause it can con­nect you to deeper mean­ings in the story of your life or the life of the world around you.”

Jane traces her pa­gan­ism back to time spent alone in the bush on child­hood camp­ing hol­i­days. “I also had a very strong con­nec­tion with fairy­tales and myths,” she says. “I think most peo­ple have that – I just hung onto it. I al­ways wanted to be­lieve in magic.”

Michelle be­came in­volved with pa­gan­ism through pop cul­ture. “When I was about 13, I watched The Craft and went down to my lo­cal book­shop and asked what I could read about witches.”

Lisa-Jane was in­tro­duced to the oc­cult through prime-time cur­rent af­fairs. “There was a 60 Min­utes episode when I was about seven years old on Ouija boards and my dad flipped out and kicked us out of the lounge room. I was in­trigued be­cause I thought, if Dad’s tak­ing this so se­ri­ously it must be real. The next day I went to school and told my girl­friends that you can talk to dead peo­ple.”

It was the be­gin­ning of a ca­reer in do-ity­our­self magic. Lisa-Jane’s pri­mary school coven vol­un­teered as sport mon­i­tors and cre­ated their first tem­ple in the sports shed. They ex­per­i­mented with Ouija boards, séances, love po­tions and, “one day I came across a book of spells and I thought, ‘wow, that’s a real tra­di­tion’.”

Af­ter school most of Lisa-Jane’s friends moved away from the coven, but Lisa-Jane kept prac­tis­ing and, she be­lieves, the spells be­gan to yield re­sults.

Do her spells ac­tu­ally af­fect the real world? She would say yes but, for many witches, spell cast­ing is a lit­tle like prayer – they of­fer up a de­sire or an in­ten­tion and some­times the wished-for re­sult even­tu­ates. But how can they ever know whether life would have un­folded that way without the spell?

Witches do be­lieve that rit­ual af­fects the phys­i­cal world, and that the phys­i­cal world af­fects rit­ual. “We work with na­ture,” says Michelle. “So at the time of the new moon, we might tune into that energy of growth by be­gin­ning a new project.

“At the full moon, that energy will come to full­ness. If you were work­ing a spell to at­tract money, for ex­am­ple, you would start it on the first day of the wax­ing moon and work it through to the full moon.

You could equally use the energy of the moon dis­ap­pear­ing and ban­ish some­thing that you didn’t want in your life. We work with the so­lar cy­cle in a sim­i­lar way.”

Most witches work loosely within that frame­work, Michelle ex­plains, but from there they might spe­cialise in “div­ina­tion, med­i­ta­tion, pro­tec­tion work, heal­ing, hexes, herbal­ism or chan­nelling di­vine energy and speak­ing as a de­ity,” which is var­i­ously known as “as­pect­ing the god­dess” or “draw­ing down the moon”.

The god­dess fac­tor has been crit­i­cal to witch­craft’s re­cent up­swing in pop­u­lar­ity – more im­por­tant even than Harry Pot­ter and teen witches.

The rise of witch­craft has par­al­leled the rise of West­ern fem­i­nism. Witches’ hats have min­gled with “pussy” hats (quirky pink bean­ies pro­moted by fem­i­nists in Amer­ica) at re­cent women’s ral­lies.

As Michelle says: “I feel very em­pow­ered to call my­self a witch.”

They came by train, car and by bike to this com­mu­nity gar­den in the Blue Moun­tains. The priest­esses and novices brought along friends and chil­dren for their rit­ual, com­plete with drum­ming and chant­ing. The at­mos­phere was more pic­nic than pa­gan.

Lisa-Jane Ma­son (above) and her coven, based in Wol­lon­gong, NSW, per­form their rit­u­als naked, or as they call it, “sky­clad”.

Many rit­u­als are far from un­der­ground – The Weekly was in­vited via Face­book to this gath­er­ing in an or­ganic gar­den near Ka­toomba.

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