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Australian Media on Paganism

Back From a Spell


July 4, 2000 The Age


Something most irregular is occurring in the world of pentagrams and pointy hats. After 2000 years of persecution and bad publicity, witches have finally been rehabilitated as icons of female power.

Don't believe me? Switch on the television and there's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the sisters of Charmed acting as unofficial pagan ambassadors. Visit the newage section of any bookstore and behold how the shelves are crammed with dozens of glossy tomes devoted to spells and magic.

On the Internet, ecovens and Wicca mailing lists are a growth area.

It is a curious phenomenon, this resurgence of interest in the dark arts, particularly among otherwise rational, 21stcentury women. Is it a quest to reconnect with an authentic, intuitive inner goddess or another manifestation of an innate sense of powerlessness?

Certainly the idea of being able to wave a magic wand over a particularly trying situation has great appeal; the thought that a spell might exist to turn a frog, if not into a prince, then into Dr Kovak from television series E.R., is positively intoxicating.

"Women want more control over their lives, that's why they are turning to magic," says Gillian Kemp, author of The Good Spell Book. "All women are witches and everybody can do magic, simply by accessing their intuition," she insists. "What makes a spell work is the emotion you put into it. So if someone wants to get their husband back, there isn't much point getting an official witch to do a spell - it's far better to do it yourself."

This is where her book comes in handy, containing as it does spells to cover most of life's more pressing requirements, including To Get a Lover to Call, Eternal Triangle and To Communicate with an Absent Partner. There are also spells for avoiding divorce, dieting, finding a job and winning the lottery.

My favourite was To Deter Straying, until I discovered it was a spell for pets and involved burying a lump of the animal's fur in a hole in the garden. Would it work as effectively if you used a clump of an errant spouse's hair? Kemp thinks not, but then the effectiveness of her enchantments is dubious to begin with. After all, why has she not won the lottery herself and retired by now?

"A spell is like a driving test," she says. "They don't always work first time. You need perseverance."

With this in mind, I search for a suitable spell. The section on love looks promising, but they all seem to demand ingredients more appropriate for a forensics lab than a romantic encounter - lumps of hair, fingernails, clothing samples. If we had access to such intimate parts of our chosen love god, would we really need spells to entrap him?

Some of the incantations are a bit worrying, too. "May the flame of passion burn within your heart/From me you will not part" reads a spell To Attract the One You Love. But what if I get sick of him? Even the author admits her spell To Rid Yourself of a Persistent and Unwanted Lover is "more complicated than most".

Kate West heads the Hearth of Hecate, a coven in Norfolk, in the UK, with 20 members. She believes women are embracing "the craft" in droves, not because they need miracle spells but because they want to form more profound links with nature and their own unconscious. "Ultimately, it's about the belief that you can change the world around you - that's a nurturing, female concept. It is also liberating to accept that there is a goddess protecting us and our Earth."

Every week, West is inundated with requests for spells, or "magical assistance", and for advice, both from the local community and the Internet. "There isn't exactly a poster in the window saying Witch Lives Here, but people do know. There's a lot of fear of us, particularly from men, but that has ever been the case. I get email from worried parents about daughters who have just got into magic."

Now she is writing a handbook for young witches for the postHarry Potter market, offering stepbystep guidance to becoming a witch. "There are a lot of misconceptions. People think magic will solve all their problems and it won't. Most of my work is used in healing. I do 10 to 12 spells per month but I don't charge. Often I do them for people who have done my babysitting.

"Money spells are the hardest because you have to be really specific - there's no point in just asking for cash or you'll wake up to find a 5p piece on your doorstep. Love can be tricky, too, because I think it's immoral to tamper with the emotions of a third party."

West is adamant that the vast majority of witches use their power to good ends. Even her own principles have their limits, however. "I'm not ashamed to say I often cast spells to find a parking space in a hurry."

West claims not to have read Harry Potter, probably the real source of the current boom in bewitchment. "I'm not sure if Harry Potter is a good thing," says Sally Taylor, a thirdgeneration witch who has read the books. "It makes magic seem too simplistic."

Taylor should know; she previously ran a school for witches, the Kent College of Magic and Metaphysics, which sounds suspiciously like the Hogwarts School of J.K. Rowling's fiction. "There are fake covens around, people with plastic bats nailed to their doors - we've got a real bat cave here. There's a lot of hypocrisy, too, particularly when dealing with kids. Most children are taught their first spell at the age of three - blow out the candles and make a wish. Then it's all stamped out of them."

Taylor, now 60, is pragmatic about the use of magic in women's lives. "Most witches I know have to combine their day jobs with the craft, which can be very stressful. They're not all going around with pointy hats, you know ... I even go to church, which freaks people out. I think they're scared of what a witch represents."

It is interesting to examine why witches have historically been outcasts, while male practitioners of pagan rituals have by and large been allowed to conduct their business without fear of the ducking stool. Some of the unease clearly stems from a universal fear of female power. Wiccan lore celebrates the triple goddess of maiden, mother and crone, three archetypes of womanhood.

"The crone is the most feared because she is postmenstrual; the mother is feared because she has the secret of reproduction, a form of immortality she is withholding from men; the maiden is feared because of her suppressed power," says Shahrukh Husain, a folklorist and editor of the Virago Book of Witches. Her own research among teenage witches explores links between witchcraft and adolescent sexuality.

"Being a witch is about embracing your dark side, which women are not supposed to accept. It lets you celebrate the part that's a slut or that has a foul mouth. Ultimately witchery is all about accessing one's own power, dressing up outrageously and showing off." With a manifesto like that, what woman could resist? - GUARDIAN

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