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 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.