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Australian Media on Paganism

The Rite Stuff

By Bill Ayres

From Shakespeare's trio of "hags" in Macbeth to the saccharine Samantha in Bewitched, women who choose a pagan lifestyle have long been the objects of fear or wonder. MELISSA DEITZ profiles the modern face of witchcraft.

Fiona Horne is the lead singer of Sydney-based band Def FX-and a practicing witch. Though she was brought up as a Catholic, she began looking for an altemative belief system when she was 12 years old.

"To me at that time, witchcraft was about being the opposite of Christianity, of Catholicism, which was to worship the opposite of God-the devil. It didn't take me long to realise that witches didn't necessarily believe in Satan because they weren't Christians - you really only believe in Satan if you believe in God. I didn't broadcast it, but I was calling myself a witch from when I was 20."

Four years later Home's band began to take off and, reckoning witches could use some positive publicity, she "came out".

"Witchcraft in this day and age can be anything you want it to be. It's an observance of natural cycles, a collation of older religions and a sense of self. It teaches you that you can change the course of your life. The way I feel about it is that it makes me experience my own reality in a total, all-encompassing way."

For Libby Blakey, a 28-year-old solicitor, the female nature of witchcraft provided a solid centre for belief. "It was essential for me-who'd grown up around a male-centred idea of spirituality and religion-to explore a more feminine-sided religion. It made me much more aware of the power of women... It was an empowering thing to discover something about me that perhaps wasn't of this world.

"I'm not completely involved like I once was, although the philosophy and the spirituality behind it will always be a part of my life."

In common with devotees of many religions, the women we spoke to discovered witchcraft (or "wicca", meaning wise or to will) while searching for something to give their lives more meaning. Fiona Nomchong is a public servant who got into witchcraft when she was 16 and living with a boyfriend who was into Tibetan Buddhism. She developed an interest in his beliefs, then met a friend who was involved in witchcraft.

"I trained by myself and did some work with other solitary witches. I spent a year or two working with wiccan ideas and after that I moved onto working with shamanic practices, like Native American Indian, Aboriginal stuff."

"Nomchong, now 30, is high priestess with the Church of all Worlds (CAW) in Canberra. "It's taught me to be more focused and responsible for my actions. It's easy to blame others when things seemingly go wrong. It's taught me that I don't need anybody else. It's taught me to love and respect myself and others.

"Once you start on this path you never stop training. My whole life is devoted to being a priestess. Once you get into a magical lifestyle-and I'm talking about working on yourself spiritually towards enlightenment-it's all-encompassing. I have an altar set up in my house and the person I live with has their own personal altar. In everyday life I work by myself, but as a priestess with CAW, I have to work with a lot of people."

Nomchong doesn't believe that witchcraft heals or necessarily provides answers to people's problems; rather, she as a priestess acts as a facilitator. "I support people and I allow people to see what they have to do to get over or through whatever it is that is troubling them."

Witchcraft, according to most devotees, is a flexible system that allows followers to define their own parameters of belief. Witches either work alone or in a group, but there are no set "rules" that define the notion of a witch and promote exclusivity.

Fiona Horne always works alone. "I'm not very formal at all, but I also think I've got to a stage where I'm pretty instinctive, after years of learning and observing traditions and rites.

"I think the exciting thing about witchcraft is that it reflects the attitudes of the people involved. It's not an inflexible dogmatic tradition that was written four centuries ago to suit the people's head-spaces of that time.

"Patriarchal religions have tended to put an emphasis on the spirit world-on ether and air and angels-and the real world of flesh and blood and guts and shit and semen and sex and fucking, they associate with evil, the devil and Eve. Witchcraft is a way to explore your own reality, your own sense of self. It's a big responsibility to create your own religion for yourself," she says.

According to Horne, wicca is a more forgiving, empathic sort of religion. "My beliefs change and shift as I do. They're not the sort of beliefs that only fit into certain parts of my lifestyle and not into the rest of it, which is what happens with Catholicism. You end up feeling hypocritical or that you've failed."

Sydney-based Hawthom, 38, is a high priestess married to a high priest. She first became interested in witchcraft at 17, then at 30 trained with a high priestess from England. A busy woman, she runs two covens and is the mother of four children.

"You're a witch in soul from the word go it's a lifestyle, a religion. Training never stops; I'm still reaming and sometimes I'm still amazed with the things I come up with.

"Wicca is extremely empowering for a woman. On a physical plane a female is negative and receptive, and a male is positive and projective. On a magical plane the roles are reversed and so it balances out. I can see more of an equality within the movement than any feminist movement can possibly acheive.

Witchcraft, or paganism, is a way of life that practices respect for nature and belief in self-determination and self-empowerment.

A witch is pagan, but a pagan is not necessarily a witch. A witch is usually practises magic; other pagans may also, but a witch almost always does.

There are many types of withc, but their basic belief is a form of worship involving the earth, sun and moon cycles and male and female deities.

Witches worship nature in the form of the goddess, who often honours the male principle - "the Horned one", "Lord of the Hunt", Pan. The two deities may be equal or the goddess may take precedence. Most witches, theoretically at least, honour both.

"I would say it's an individualistic religion, but not necessarily feminist. There are feminist wiccans, but I'm not. I believe in the polarity and the balance of the male and female, and my covens are run along that line," she says.

The empowemment of women is a subject that is close to the heart of all witches, but not at the expense of men, according to Fiona Nomchong. "In my organisation, which is made up of many types of pagans, one basic belief is that the earth is our mother. Women create life and are strong and volatile, just like the mother. We're always changing, and to me women are magic. Men are too.

"While people go on about the feminist side of witchcraft and paganism, we also remember that part of nature is reproduction and the earth is feminine and masculine. As males and females, we have to be in contact with both our feminine and masculine sides. Men may have different roles, but we can live in harmony."

In such a nature-based religion, fertility has always been of great importance. In ancient times there were certain sexual rites enacted by followers of witchcraft. In a Christian-based society these rites (described by devotees as natural and joyous) have been easy targets for moralists and Christian judges.

"We value sex as pleasure, as the symbol and embodiment of life, and as one of the sources of energies used in magic and worship." says Nomchong.

"I write quite a few rituals and put them on with other people. These vary immensely, celebrating seasonal festivals. Sometimes they are for healing energies for the world, sometimes for endangered species, sometimes they're about personal growth, or to clear entities out of houses."

Some ceremonies do incorporate sexual imagery, considered appropriate when those involved want to create a sense of union between the masculine and the feminine. Participants are adamant that rituals are not an excuse or cover-up for orgies.

"If you want to use that orgasmic energy, it's much better to fuck someone you know and trust rather than a stranger in an orgy," says Home. "The image that ignorant people have of witches fucking anyone doesn't make sense-you can be masturbating and get the same energy."

Hawthorn agrees: "I've always been fairly comfortable with my sexuality. I'm a monogamous sort of person and I'm not into group orgies. I know there are some pagans who are polypamous, but it certainly isn't a requirement for the religion."

Hawthom's children are two, eight, 11 and 13 years old. She says they enjoy the celebrations of the sabbats and the communal nature of the gatherings. "We celebrate the sabbats (holy days, like the solstices). I have a women's rite that I do with women whenever we go to a large gathering. It involves being in touch with your consciousness, celebrating first menstruation and menstruation ....the power of the woman.

"We also perfomm handfastings, which are like wiccan marriages; and wiccanings, which are like christenings. This rite welcomes the child into the world andputs them under the protection of the old ones, but doesn't symbolise placing them on the wiccan path. We also do puberty rites-crossing the bridge from childhood into adulthood-and lots of other celebratory things.

"We don't work with them [children]-the working circles are adults only. We're not bringing them up to be witches. It's not a religion which goes out and gets converts; it's something that you choose. They go to a Salvation Army Sunday school as well as observing our lifestyle, so they are exposed to a good cross-section. What they choose for themselves when they get older is up to them," she insists.

None of the women we spoke to for this article had encountered undue problems or harassment over their devotion to witchcraft. "I have a friend who lives up the road from me who is a retired nun. She still lives as a nun. She has been to our handfastings and she's been to a few of our rites and rituals and she thinks it's wonderful. She just can't cope with the idea that I call myself a witch," relates Hawthorn.

"Pagans don't necessarily have the same morals as Christians," says Nomchong. "We believe in being responsible for oneself and if you do something destructive, the consequence of that action is going to be destructive on you or people close to you. Society has always tended to project its fears onto those who seemingly threaten it.

"I use witchcraft techniques in my magic and I don't have a problem with people calling me a witch, but as I develop more I try to move away from labels. I call myself an eclectic. I study different traditions and I take what I like from them. I guess it's like an alchemic process-I end up with something that is uniquely mine.

"We're just a group of people who have alternative ideas about religion and we would like the right to practice that with- out being condemned. Because we live in a Christian-based society, most of our laws are based on Christian beliefs and morals. Paganism was always a threat because it generally teaches people to be in control of their own lives," she adds.

Despite this, very few witches make a point of telling people about their private practices, unless asked. "I don't go out of my way to tell people who I am-it's a very personal thing and I'm not into selling my religion or selling my belief structure," says Nomchong. "Lots of people at work don't like what I'm into; they don't understand and feel threatened by it. Which saddens me, but that's the price I pay I guess."

Libby Blakey adds: "Men particularly, but people generally, are often frightened of witchcraft-it's a fear of the unexplained and the feminine side. Also, they're cynical-they think it's escapism, or refusing to deal with material reality."

Hawthorn says that people often recognise her spintual power, but don't equate that with the concept of witchcraft. "People stop me and ask for healng advice-a lot of them don't know I'm a witch. I've had old friends that have found out along the way and some have been surprised.

"My eldest son was watching a TV program about paganism with a friend once and the friend's father lost his temper and said, 'They're all satanists and if you boys ever get involved in that sort of thing, there'll be trouble.' When he left the room my son fumed to his friend and said, 'That's not true! It's got nothing to do with devil worship. My Mum and Dad are into it and they worship the god and the goddess. It's all about nature."'

Although they live in urban surrounds, many witches are able to integrate the "natural" side of paganism into their daily lives. "Even though it's about the earth," says Nomchong, "people can cast circles in their houses. I live in suburbia in Canberra. The way I deal with it is that my walls are green and my house is full of indoor plants and I have an altar. But I do try to get out into the bush as much as I can."

Hawthorn agrees. "I have my little plot of earth out in the back garden that is very important to me-I grow herbs and vegetables. We are also very much into recycling and respecting the environment."

Hawthom can be contacted by writing to PO Box 428, Granville, NSW2142. CAW can be contacterJ on (06) 299 4100 or the information number 0055 20293.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic
by Scott Cunningham

Where Witchcraft Lives; ABCs of Witchcraft; Witchcraft Past and Present
all by Doreen Valiente

The Complete Book of Witchcraft; Practical Candleburning Rituals
both by Raymond Buckland

Charms, Spell and Formulas
by Ray Marlbrough

Australian Womens Forum

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