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Australian Media on Paganism

Witches, Rituals and Spells

By Bill Ayres

Map of Dayesford, Kyneton and Castlemaine Area

Mt Franklin rises out of the horizon in Central Vctoria, a dark, menacing shape with a dense covering of pine trees. It is to this mountain that the witches come.

Fires are lit, there is chanting and singing and plenty of energy generated around a circle they form as they and their followers pay reverence to the god and the goddess, the earth mother.

There are rituals, spells, potions and secret ceremonies, but they do no harm. They anger at suggestions of human or animal sacrifice at any of these ceremonies.

But when a nearby grave was desecrated recently and the hand of the 98-year-old female corpse severed, there was an automatic link with the occult.

While there is a dark side to witchcraft and there can be little doubt that such shocking incidents do take place in the name of the Antichrist, people such as Phillip Day try to distance themselves from such sinister events.

Phillip is a witch. Being a witch in the Wiccan tradition is a title men or women can hold. He lives in the tiny town of Newstead on the banks of the Loddon River near Castlemaine in central Vctoria, part of the Golden Triangle of sorcery.

Pic of Phillip Day

Phillip doesn't own a black cat; he doesn't even like cats. He wears the circle and five-pointed star that symbolises his religion around his neck and shudders to think anyone could contemplate violence, bloodshed or vandalism.

Wicca, which Phillip follows, is a modern revival of the ancient folklore and magical practices of Europe. Wiccans generally perceive divinity in the form of a goddess and a god, who have many different aspects.

"Any form of abuse is an anathema to us," he says in an exclusive interview with New Idea. "Paganism, which is what we practice, is not a bloodrelated religion at all."

Satanic ritual

He also explains that police ruled out any link with the occult when the grave was desecrated at nearby Dunolly. A marble slab was removed and the coffin smashed open with a crowbar. The body was mutilated and the right hand severed before the body was returned to the cofffin and re-buried.

Spiritualists pointed out that it was similar to a satanic ritual where the hand of an executed thief was cut off, embalmed with wax and turned into a candlestick to ward off any thieves from entering the house.

Two youths have been charged with unauthorised exhumation and criminal damage over the Dunolly incident.

Yet there has been a series of incidents in northern and central Victoria that has terrified traditional church leaders.

Three years ago at Glenlyon, near Daylesford, an alternative festival was organised and local pastors heard that witches' covens would be meeting there. Three pastors from the town went to the local oval where the festival was to be held and conducted a prayer meeting and claimed the area in the name of Jesus.

One minister, who asked not to be named, said the festival went ahead but it was a financial disaster and has not been held since.

Other incidents include the theft of crucifxes and candlesticks from churches, animal blood smeared on altars and altar cloths, and candlesticks that have been filled with blood, the candles replaced and then lit. An ox tongue was found in a convent's rose garden.

The Assembly of God pastor at Daylesford Rev Jim Fisher says occult activities are flourishing in the district. He believes the area's geography, the natural mineral springs and lakes of central Victoria are important to the spiritual beliefs of these people.

"I have a knowledge of its presence, but it is difficult to come up with specifics,'' Rev Fisher explains. "We are aware of it and we are aware of its opposition to the word of God.

Pic of Michelle Maher

"We have had 'Satan rules' graffitied on our church walls and a black cat spreadeagled in front of the church, pointing in the direction of the altar."

The former Church of Christ minister of Castlemaine Rev Peter Haylock conducted regular prayer meetings to rid the area of occult forces.

There is a proliferation of alternative religious groups throughout Australia, but there is a large concentration of them in places such as the coastal areas of northern NSW, the hills surrounding Canberra, the Adelaide hills, north Perth and in various parts of coastal Queensland.

A clairvoyant in the central Victorian town of Taradale, Michelle Maher, says if any of these people are tending towards evil, she is able to sense it.

"We have to be careful of groups like this,'' Michelle says, "but it should also be pointed out that it is not always evil.

"The black side is totally wrong and these are the people that I sense around me. I can centre on them. I have very strong connections on a spiritual level.

Concentration of energy

"People who form these groups like to meet on mountains because of the concentration of energy found there.

"A lot of people have lost the spiritual side of life and are seeking an alternative. I find people are coming to me to be centred in their life again."

Phillip Day stands out with his long, grey hair, full beard and piercing eyes. He is a regional official with the Pan Pacific Pagan Alliance and says it is time witches came out in the open and put an end to people's fears.

"The local people here are tolerant of us," he says. "They see us and raise their eyebrows and walk on by.

"Some will say this area is significant because of the hills and geography, but there is also a strong artistic community, there is a big gay community and a strong alternative healing and agriculture community.

"All of those are close to the concept of what pagans believe, so there is some crossover. There are also fewer rednecks per square mile.

"And what makes an area grow is you will find someone with a reasonable amount of charisma who will attract people to them and it becomes part of the local area."

There are many forms of paganism, including Asatru, Celtic, Dianic Witchcraft, Druidry, Environmental Paganism, Shamanism and Wicca.

Most Wiccans celebrate eight festivals each year, including the summer and winter solstice and even a form of 'witch's new year.

Marriage is recognised and, while most remain monogamous, it is not demanded of members.

"Celibacy is very rare," says Phillip, who became a witch more than four years ago. There is a ritual called 'handfasting' during which a couple pledge themselves to one another for a year and a day.

"Their wrists are bound and the priest and priestess call on the four elements - air to bring intelligence, rationality and reason; fire to bring creativity and emotion; water to bring sexuality and love; and earth for a solid grounding.

"The couple then go and jump over a broomstick to indicate to others present that they are housekeeping together, so the witch and broomstick do adually have some significance."

They pledge their love for one another for a year and a day and thereafter for as long as love lasts. If they want a divorce, they attend a ceremony in which they stand back to back and walk away.

"We believe in the sacredness of the earth, of the mother, of the fad that we, as creatures of the earth, are bound to the cycles of the earth, the seasons, the moon cycles, perhaps even the stars," Phillip explains.

"There is a very strong ecological basis to most modern paganism."

Another festival, Beltaine, is, according to Phillip, a joyous sexual celebration.

"Not that we wander around having orgies, but it is one where sexuality and a recognition of the joys of sexuality is a very important aspect."

Beltaine celebrates the marriage of the young sun god to the love goddess, who teaches him the mysteries of love.

Private ceremonies

Apart from Beltaine, which is celebrated at the summer solstice and one or two other ceremonies, Phillip generally celebrates in private, setting up an altar in his home, lighting candles and incense so each time he enters the room he is reminded that it is a special day.

"Most of us are solitary, but some of us celebrate very formally. There are groups of Wiccans who have rituals that are well planned, rehearsed and worked to a specific pattern.

"Some covens just go into a circle and let the energy lead them. For others it's almost a scripted psychodrama. I've been to both kinds and I get things out of both."

Local police generally turn a blind eye to the various ceremonies and rituals, provided no laws are broken. One senior officer says he is aware of people who claim to be witches but they are usually law-abiding citizens who keep largely to themselves.

"I guess we have to keep an eye on what's going on in the area and we soon get to know what's happening. But we leave people alone if they are not doing anything wrong or anything against the raw,'' the senior officer says.

But cult-buster Natalie Gilby, who has worked with many families of people caught up in withcraft, says that while these various organisations may seem harmless, a careful watch needs to be kept on their activities.

"People, especially young people, are seeking a bit of excitement and something different in their lives these days and these groups are offering that change," Natalie says.

But I believe it is a lot like the first alcoholic drink you take. You aren't an alcoholic after that first drink and you aren't addicted to smoking after that first cigarette, but that can happen further down the track.

"With cults, covens and these other fringe groups, it might look exciting on the surface, but there is always a chance that people can be brainwashed into doing all sorts of things.

"What people need to know is that people like myself are in the community and we can help them come out of these sorts of groups if they do need any assistance.

"You generally find they are secretive organisations and there is a lot they are not saying. I just urge people to be extra-cautious before they go ahead and join these groups."

Queensland academic Dr Lynne Hume believes discontent with religion over the past 20 years might be behind what appears to be a resurgence in paganism.

She was reported recently as saying: "If one looks carefully into the background of some members, it might be discovered that they are far from being lunatic, but are simply dissatisfied with religions that have not been able to consider the demands of a new era."

She says the image of the evil old witch dressed in black is left over from the Middle Ages.

"They are people who have some very interesting practices, and it's a very agriculture-based society,'' she says.

Pic of a grave stone

"Followers of modern paganism say it is a nature-based religion concerned with the environment and getting back to the mother earth image."

It is this very philosophy that forms part of the beliefs Phillip and his friends live by.

"We have a community-based lifestyle, believing in a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, but believe that wealth is irrelevant. Consumerism is wrong because it is such a waste of the earth's resources.

"We are different, but I don't know too many pagans who are particularly anti-Christian," Phillip says.

"The only time we really get annoyed with some forms of Christianity is the concept that 'my way is right and you will follow it or else'."

Casting a spell

Phillip says ceremonies do take place on hills, some witches use potions and some cast spells.

"A spell is really a concentration on something that you want. It isn't much different to a prayer.

"Asking people if they are a black or white witch is the equivalent to asking them if they are good or evil. Any individual can be neurotic or psychopathic in any religion. Evil exists and people can pervert anything they want.

"I don't know anybody who works what is popularly perceived as black magic. We have a three-fold law of retribution. Whatever you do to someone else will then rebound on you three times.

"The only curse I would put on someone is, 'May you get everything you deserve'.

"I know of one definitely evil person by repute who is also a suspected pedophile. He keeps trying to get recognised by the pagan community to legitimise his actions, but I have warned people in the community to be wary of him.

"We do not abuse children. It is contrary to everything we stand for."

Phillip, a musician, travels to most of the folk and Celtic festivals around Australia, where he also conducts workshops and gives information about his beliefs.

"Many people have thanked me for putting a name to where they belong," Phillip says. "People have nothing to fear from us except fear itself."

Pictures: Bruce Magilton

New Idea, 15/7/95

Page Updated 2nd April, 2000
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