Dabbling in witchcraft used to mean having alot
But for many modern women, it's making a comeback.
11th April, 1998 The Australian
By Jean Norman
"Never again the burning times..."
The estimated number of "witches" executed in the 16th
and 17th centuries varies, depending on whom one believes,
from 100,000 to a mind-boggling nine million. What did
you have to do to be accused of witchcraft? Not much.
In the horrific Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer
of the Witches), a witch-hunters' manual first published
in 1486, it is made clear that the "normal rules of
evidence and trial" did not apply in the case of an
Modern-day witches do not share the concerns of their
Dark Age counterparts, but the conflagration continues.
Broomstick jokes aside, witches are most irked by the
like of Sabrina the teenage witch, Samantha the housewife
witch, the tarty trio from the film Witches of Eastwick,
the four school girl witches in The Craft, and
a legion of other misrepresentions. Nor are they keen
on negative energy, patriarchal oppression and the idea
that they are involved in black magic or Satanic rituals.
"Most witches don't even believe in Satan," snaps "public
witch" Fiona Horne.
This is a relief, as witchcraft is now the fastest
growing alternative religion in English-speaking countries,
according to Martin Katchen, a specialist in the subject
and PhD graduate of the School of Studies in Religion
at the University of Sydney.
Modern witchery began early this century with a revival
of interest in occult and pre-Christian traditions.
A host of interesting characters were involved, including
the notorious Aleister Crowley, magician, hallucinogenic
druggie and self-proclaimed "Great Beast 666". But it
was retired customs clerk Gerald Gardner who coined
the term "Wicca", from the Anglo-Saxon "craft of the
wise", and founded what is thought to be the first witch
cult organised as a religion.
According to Katchen, Wicca remained marginalised until
the publication in 1965 of Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch,
which coincided with the growth of the counter-culture.
The rise of feminism further popularised Wicca as a
form of spirituality, Katchen says. "Wicca has articulated
the feminist and environmentalist aspects of the New
Age movement and drawn them together so well it is an
integral part of many Women's Studies programs."
"The point is Wicca as a religious tradition exists,
it's growing and it's here to stay," insists Horne.
"More and more people are seeking it out".
So, it seems, are publishing houses. While witchy tomes
have always been available at alternative bookshops,
mainstream publishers are catching the revival. Just
published in the US and UK are 21st Century Wicca:
A Young Witch's Guide to Living the Magical Life
and the ambitious sounding Be A Goddess: A Guide
to Celtic Spells and Wisdom For Self-Healing, Prosperity
and Great Sex.
Horne's first book, Witch: A Personal Journey
- a seeming hybrid of autobiography and Witchcraft 101
- has just been published by Random House. It includes
spell recipes, interviews with pagan types and resources
to help aspiring Wiccans locate their nearest friendly
neighbourhood coven. Then there are Horne's song lyrics
from her time as singer of rock band, DefFX - things
like: "And I dream of crystals glowing to the rhythm
of my breathing...Starry-eyed I'm spinning ...Slowly
...A Spiral Dance..."
A glossary defines such terms as hand-fasting (a Wiccan
wedding ceremony); path-working (meditating to reach
"ever deeper levels of the psyche"); and skyclad, which
is when you nude-up. The book also incorporates a guide
to the witch's year. We've just finished Mabon, "a tiem
for renewal of vows and initiation". Horne suggests
thinking along the lines of "Autumn leaves, nuts, dried
fruits and herbs, books for study and a dark shawl to
cover the head while contemplating death". Presumably,
Random House has already spotted the 1999 Witches Desk
Diary-potential inherent in this concept.
Whatever else they may be, thoroughly modern witches
are not Luddites. The Internet is infested with witchy
activity. Online witches are storming a home page paying
homeage to The Craft, a 1996 movie starring sundry
starlets as young "witches". The site seems to be run
by an innocent young fan, but Wiccans with names like
Autumn Crystal Greywing and Sylver Fyre are sening e-mails
protesting that The Craft doesn't represent modern witchery.
They always sign off with "Blessed Be", the Wiccan equivalent
of "Have a Nice Day", but the fan is so fed up he sending
a message starting: "I AM TIRED OF BEING TOLD HOW TO
TURN MY SITE INTO A WICCAN SHRINE..."
Witchcraft is such a "scene" it is possible you know
someone who hasn't "come out of the broom closet yet".
Astrology is gaining such unprecedented respect and
loyalty that Life magazine recently devoted a 10-page
cover story to it. And what about the proliferation
of "witch-operated" psychic hotlines, advertised in
the back of mass-market magazines? Sneer if you will
but, to many, these are dangerous occult activities
which, in another time and place, would have seen the
practioner tied to a burning stake.
Indeed, in the Middle Ages, it did not take even that
much to attract the ire of the witch-hunters. As the
feudal system broke down, witch hysteria was a way of
keeping the peasant class in its place. "The 16th and
17th centuries were revolutionary times", writes contemporary
witch Starhawk in her book, Dreaming the Dark, "but
the persecutions underminded the possibility pf a revolution
that would benefit women, the poor and those without
"Witches made convenient scapegoats, diverting the
rage of the poorer classes to members of their own class.
They provided a target for men's hostility to women
and encouraged women to blame each other for misfortune
instead of looking for conditions that caused suffering
The witch-hunts also coincided with the rise of the
male-dominated medical profession, which had been threatened
by the status of the wise-woman healer. Medical techniques
lent towards the "heroic"; cutting, bleeding, purging.
Witches preferred preventative medicine and boosting
a patient's "vital force" with herbs. Midwives attrached
particular attention with their attempt to ease the
pain of labour at a time when it was considered the
"curse of Eve" to suffer in childbirth.
Dut despite the claims that there once existed a matriarchal
civilization, historians have found few signs of it.
"Britain and most parts of Europe were Christianised
too early for these traditions to survive," says Katchen.
"But traces have been found in places which were Christanised
late, such as Iceland, where people still believe in
elves and trolls, Estonia and Russia, currently experiencing
a massive revival of interest in witchcraft."
So, if there really is a big new turn-of-the-millennum
witchcraft-based religion as many academics say, why
now? Alec Pemberton, senior lecturer in sociology, University
of Sydney, thinks the late-ninties Wiccan revival and
neo-Pagan attitudes in general, are a result of disillusionment
with a conventional "patriarchal" church system.
Horne cheerfully admits that she is - or was - a Catholic:
"We would all agree that we looked for a path that revered
the female in all and emphasised environmentalism and
deity in nature, the very things that the Catholic faith
de-emphasised or even dismissed."
The feminist spirituality movement may well have encouraged
many to seek a more "wimmun"-centred religion and/or
view of "herstory", but what has it done to feminism?
"It possibly diverts women away from the more mundane,
practical, political necessities," says Jean Curthoys,
a philosopher, feminist and author of the controversial
new book Feminist Amnesia, which argues that feminism
has become corrupt and influenced by pseudo-theory.
"A lot of people are attracted to 'goddess worship'
because it seems to offer the possibility of developing
extraordinary powers. There is, in these movements,
a distorted notion of the spiritual as consisting of
the 'super-normal' - magic rituals. It's a pity and
possibly a danger if this becomes one of the main directions
Curthoys is at pains to say she's not against the paranormal
as such. "Women have been, traditionally, comparatively
powerless, and in such contexts it is natural to emphasise
the only source of power that one thinks one has: one's
superior morality", she says. "Movements which claim
that women are intrinsically more spiritual than men
or closer to the earth are making just this claim. It's
crap and it would be a huge pity if, just at a time
when women can use their abilities in a wide range of
activities, we're once again taking up the woolly minded
fears and superstitions which have been a part of the
female condition for so long."
Another controverial academic, Camille Paglia, thinks
our current period "resembles the era when Rome rose
to rule the Mediterranean. It was a sprawling, cosmopolitan,
polyglot world of sexual permissiveness and spiritual
anxieties. Mystical New Age cults sprang up everywhere
and major dieties like Isis, Cybele and Juno were syncretistically
merged." It does sound sort of familar.
Australia is now home to hundreds of witchcraft sects.
To name a few: the Church of Wicca; the Seance of the
Sable Witch; Applegrove Coven; the Church of Ancient
Mysteries; the Temple of Set; the Coven of Lothlerien
(The latter seems to be influenced more by Tolkien's
Lord of the RIngs than by any pre-Christian religion.)
A hilarious yet empathetic account of the Wiccan scene,
its rivalries and pretentions, is contained in a Jessica
Berens novel, Queen of the Witches. Sheenah, High Priestess
of the Divine Order of Isis and Director of the Witches
Liberation League, is vying with Myra, Wiccan Mother
of the South London Sisters of Diana, to be offical
Queen of the Witches. The tale is told in a rollicking
Jilly Cooper style.
"Sheenah...grew more and more distracted. After every
session she delivered histrionic warnings about the
Daughter of Branwen's stone and begged Rosaleen to be
careful. The quartz, she insisted, once belonged to
the White Tornado of Tiverton. What, Rosaleen asked,
was that? 'I don't know exactly,' she was told, 'but
he was a wizard and he died of syphilis'"
Yes, it's fiction. But in Fiona Horne's book she is
"trying to communicate the concept of the Craft as a
lifestyle." Horne was not exactly raised in a neo-Pagan
community. She grew up in Sydney's beachside Cronulla,
where "nothing is more important than having a great
tan, blone hair and a cool boyfriend." It has to be
said: while pale-skinned, Horne is blonde and lives
with an "incredibly cool" boyfriend.
"I lead a normal life," she says, "I don't walk around
piously, burning incense and greeting the day." But
she did do a Full Moon ritual with a girfriend recently:
"W went out and had a beautiful dinner to celebrate
the fullness and opulence of the time. We went to a
park, cast a circle and read the Charge of the Goddess.
We had white lilies that we blessed to the Goddess;
and we asked for clarity in our lives."
There is obviously an argument that Wiccans are simply
replacing one set of arcane rituals (those of, say,
the Catholic Church) for another. But Katchen, for one,
feels that witchcraft as a religion is here to stay.
"For many of its practioners, Wicca provides a socially
acceptable religious outlet that emphasises individual
religious expression and innovation," he says, "There
are few religions that sanction the casting of spells
to get what one wants. This is the powerful attraction
As the witchy ones like to say, "So mote it be."