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"Spells bound"

Dabbling in witchcraft used to mean having alot at stake.
But for many modern women, it's making a comeback.

11th April, 1998 The Australian Weekend Magazine

By Jean Norman

"Never again the burning times..."
Pagan/Wiccan mantra

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 accuses witch.

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 property".

"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 and misery."

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 for women."

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 of Wicca."

As the witchy ones like to say, "So mote it be."

Top 13 notable witches, archtypal and authentic

Lilith Pagan: She-demon and witch; according to Jewish mysticism and Biblical sources, the first woman and Adam's first wife. They never got along as she demanded equal rights and rejected the missionary position.

Circe: In Greek legend, she was the daughter of Helios the Sun God and an enchantress. Homer had her using drugged wine and incantations to turn Odysseus' crew into swine, thus making the integral connection between men, pigs and patriarchy that is still with us today.

Morgan Le Fay: Was King Arthur real? Historians can't say. But his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, could almost be a direct decendent of Circe. The healer, "shape-changer" and temptress has contributed much to the Arthurian legend. Merlin, apparently, hated her guts.

Jeanne d'Arc: The Maid of Orleans started hearing voices at the age of 12, and at 19, led an army against the English. She was tried for sorcery and burnt to death in 1431. She was later found innocent and canonised.

First Witch, Second Witch and Third Witch: Hubble bubble, toil and well, yes, they did bring trouble. The three furies of Shakespeare's Macbeth cast such a spell actor's can't bring themselves to actually utter the name of the piece, referring to it only as "the Scottish play".

Mother Shipton: Renowned as a prophetess of the 16th century, she predicted thoughts would one day "fly around the world in the twinkling of an eye." Etchings of the time depict her in a stag-drawn sleigh, looking uncannily like the Queen Mother wearing a witch's hat.

Temperance Lloyd: In 1682, she became the last "witch" executed in England. The evidence was not exactly conclusive: "The informant saith he saw a cat leap at her window when it was twilight and informant further saith that he verily believeth said cat to be the devil..."

Rebecca Nurse: Perhaps the best known of the "Salem witches". Devout and virtuous, she was nevertheless handed for witchcraft in 1692. It's now thought the accusations against the Salem witches were related to land feuds rather than to any actual dealings with the devil.

Glinda, the Good Witch of Oz: All Frank Baum's novels are infested with witches, wicked and good. But Glinda is the "most good" of all. "Her hair fell in flowing ringlets over her shoulders. Her dress was pure white but her eyes were blue and they looked kindly upon the little girl".

Magica De Spell The svelte Italian filthy-tempered witch-duck who lives on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius is a fine Disney creation. The "saucy sorceress" constantly plots to get Uncle Scrooge's first dime for its "talismanic powers".

Starhawk: California-based withc and author of Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, and the Wiccan classic, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Religion of the Great Goddess. She conducts workshops and retreats and has her own website.

The Australian Weekend Magazine 11th April, 1998

 

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