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Australian Media on Paganism

She Magazine, Dec 1995

Pentagram picture

The
Witches
Of Suburbia

By Stephanie Osfield

Covens! Cauldrons! Canberra?

Behind the quiet facade of suburbia, a new wave of witchcraft is brewing. Casting off their clothes, groups of pagan public servants are turning to sorcery and magical rituals to weave spells, reveive spiritual guidance and heighten their supernatural enegies.

The middle of a Canberra winter produces air that is crisp enough to eat. Your fingers and toes turn white, then blue in protest and you can easily imagine your breath freezing into icy stalactites on your tongue. Yet angry skies and below-zero temperatures don't prevent some of the local witches from going "sky- clad" or naked in the "livery of the goddess".

"Removing clothes is just one way to achieve altered consciousness," says 35-yearold witch Leone Moyse. "It's designed to strip away all the props we hide behind every day."

Pic of Alan Moyse

To ensure that both body and mind are purified, many fledgling witches don't eat or drink for 24 hours before initiation. "Then you're stripped naked, with your hands tied behind your back and sometimes your feet are bound as well," says Leone's husband, Alan, who has practiced witchcraft for the past 20 years. "You're brought to the edge of the circle and challenged, with the point of a sword at your throat. But before being accepted, you must convince the coven that you're there of your own free will. One of the witch's most important code of ethics is "Do what you will but harm none."

Casually dressed in jeans and jumpers, Alan and Leone seem an unlikely pair of witches. From nine to five, they're engaged in paper chasing for the Department of Housing and Comcare. But come full moons, solstices and the odd equinox, they join a plethora of magic-making public servants who've grown tired of the misogynistic, guiltridden teachings of conventional religion and choose instead to shimmy into robes, tunics or pseudo-medieval garb and new-age jewellery, to worship the earth and weave spells.

Whether it's the physical setting or the latent Aboriginal energy, the nation's capital is said to have the perfect lay lines for practising magic. When flooding creeks prevent safe passage to their secret locations on Canberra's outskirts, the eight members of Alan and Leone's coven have been known to conduct rituals in their backyards.

Pic of Fiona Judge

"It's not a case of anything goes. As a witch I practice a worldwide, nature-based religion which teaches me to take responsibility for all my actions," says Alan who, this very morning, has been swapping ideas with American witches on the Internet.

Before our arrival, I'd imagined a front pathway lined with goat skulls or at least bathroom tiles shaped like pentagons. But in their modest suburban home, the evidence of witchcraft is more subtle: a sideboard covered with crystals and dragons; a bookshelf boasting titles such as The Encyclopedia of Demonology; a black-and-white pentagram wall-hanging and an Arthurian-looking sword tucked away in a side room.

"Practicing witchcraft enhances my concentration and visualisation skills, particularly at work," says Leone. "Collectively, I see it give others direction by providing inner peace and the insight to understanding their fellow man. It's not just hocus pocus - magic has practical applications."

"A few years ago I had my gall bladder removed and when things went wrong, the coven got together and successfully worked a ritual to help me get better," agrees Alan, whose English lineage has been traced to a 17th century Kentish relative burnt at the stake. "But if I've got a headache, I don't mutter incantations - I take an aspirin. For trivialities, why bother the gods?"

Why indeed, when they include forces such as Shiva, the Hindu god of cosmic destruction, or Hecate, a three-headed Hellenic sorceress of the underworld. In the Stevie Nicks song, Rhiannon, the witch Rhiannon was portrayed as a romantic cliche, but in Celtic folklore she's accused of devouring her own son and smearing her face with the blood of puppies.

Pic of the Turner Family

Leone questions the commonsense and wisdom of some pagans who, in sheer ignorance, choose ambivalent deities such as Rhiannon as namesakes. "Taking a secret witch name is not the same as calling your pet Sooty," she points out. "All magic is like a loaded gun. When you open a gateway to invite spirits into your circle, it's like lighting a candle and waiting for the moths to come. If you don't close the gateway properly, like psychic parasites, some of the moths stay and strange things start to happen."

Witches don't have a formal church, so when they meet - accordrng to the cycle of the moon - they bless their space by invoking energy from the north, east, south and west and acknowledging the four elements: earth, air, fire and water.

"This is an athame, which represents the dual edge of truth," says Margaret Turner, as she pulls a small dagger from a b lt around her waist. "As a witch, it's one of my most important tools. During rituals I might move it through the air to cast a formal circle."

Pic of Margaret and Naomi Turner with Candles
Into the melting pot

Most pagans and witches draw from a range of belief systems that include:
WICCA The nature-based religion of Europe and (in particular) England. Witches (pagans who follow Wicca), can be male or female.

PAGANISM A belief structure that worships a pantheon of gods and goddesses and links the cycle of the seasons to spiritual practice. It operates outside conventional faiths such as Judaism and Christianity.

SHAMANISM Magic ritual and practices in the American-Indian tradtion.

VOUDOUN A native Christian religion with heavy pagan overtones, practised on Haiti and other Caribbean islands.
REIKI A new kind of new-age faith healing.

Festivals of the witch

In Australia, eight pagan festivals honour the seasons and celebrate an aspect of the life cycles of the goddess and the horned god, who dies and is reborn each year.

SAMHAIN (May1) Seen as the day of the year dies and the earth opens up so that spirits can walk the land. The goddess goes to the underworld where she learns the secrets of witchcraft. She mates with the god and conceives a child who will be born at Yule.

WINTER SOLSTICE - YULE (June 20 to 23) Worships the birth of the sun-god, the child of the reigning moon-goddess.

IMBOLC - CANDELMAS (August 2) Marks the quickening of the year. With white flowers and a feast, the goddess is celebrated.

SPRING EQUINOX - EASTER (Sept 20 to 23) Celebrates the return of the god who died at Mabon.

BELTANE ((Nov 1) By the mating of men and women in the fields, the earth is made more fertile through a land/spirit marriage.

SUMMER SOLSTICE - LITHA (Dec 20 to 23) Celebrates the god and goddess at the peak of their power.

LAMMAS (Feb 1) The child of the god is seen in two aspects - as the horned god or king and his son, the younger god. The two engage in battle and the king is wounded.

AUTUMN EQUINOX - MABON (March 20 to 23) The king and his male child die and go to the underworld; the goddess enters cronehood.

In their home in Liverpool, in Sydney's south-west, Margaret, a State Rail phone technician, and her partner, Ken, have set up an altar to face the east. It is covered in candles which are lit daily in honour of a god and goddess, a chalice, a pine cone, an assortment of crystals and shells and a stone pentagram, where a piece of jewellery or food might be placed for consecration. Margaret and Ken belong to a Sydney coven called Eldergrove. At witch meets, Some of the spells they use are as old as Stonehenge. Others are more modern and free-form. In the centre of the circle, a castiron cooking pot doubles as a cauldron and might be filled with water to form a reflective surface for prophetic seeing. Or it might be turned placed over a fire, to magically charge a herbal liquid or powder, which is then used to bathe a sick person's forehead or wrists. There are no bloodcurdling ingredients like eye of newt or bat's blood. In fact, in ye olde days, these were just code words for herbs, so that secret medicinal recipes could be handed down from one generation of healing women to the next.

Few modern witches dabble in love potions or curses. They're more likely to cast a spell to help a coven member get a new job or house or open up to the right partner. "We might do healing work or candle magic, where you charge the flame with magic through your intention and a protective oil such as verbena," says Margaret's teenage daughter, 15-year-old Naomi, who plans one day to get a blue woad tattoo (1ust like Mel Gibson in Braveheart). Once the ceremonial formalities are over, the group closes circle, feasts on cakes and ale and often parties late into the night.

"That doesn't mean we leap over the fire and conduct orgies," says Margaret, holding up a trident-like staff which represents one of her witch names, ghost-gum. "But if I want to throw my clothes off during a ritual, I've been known to do so without feeling embarrassed. Wicca [modern witchcraft] is a fertility religion, so my coven celebrates the dance of life between the male and female."

Formerly a practicing Catholic, Margaret became interested in witchcraft four years ago, after her eldest daughter brought home a book written by a Salem witch. Now Wicca dominates her social calendar. "In Christianity, the earth is characterised as hell, but in paganism it's seen as the goddess. That's why I call witchcraft the spiritual side of environmentalism. At home I recycle, compost, use biodegradable products and bucket water from my washing machine for re-use. To be a good witch involves a great deal of self- development and respect for nature."

For the layperson, this is known as white witch-craft. But, according to Australia's 5,000 or so practising pagans, there's no such thing as white or black magic. "I think of darkness as being hidden energy or crone energy, but it's not black in the sense of evil," says Fiona Judge, who is a co-founding member of the Australian branch of the Church Of All Worlds (CAW), an international pagan organisation.

With her flaxen hair and aquamarine eyes, Fiona, 31, has all the synergy of a high priestess, which is the level to which she has been ordained by her pagan church. Had she lived in 1595, not 1995, she might have been accused of the "obscene kiss" (kissing the devil's backside) and her fluffy white cat, Pavlova, would have been called her evil "familiar". But at the Department of Education, Employment and Training in Canberra, where Fiona works, she doesn't hide her beliefs.

In the 15th to 17th centuries an estimated nine million women who were accused of witchcraft died after being stripped, flogged, pressed under stones, burned at the stake, drowned or subjected to having their fingers and toes crushed in a vice. Those who practise modern magic fare better, but are still accused of debauchery or suffer prejudice from sceptical employers or neighbours.

"I'm often called a devil-worshipper, which I think is amusing since I don't believe in the Christian ideology of God versus the devil," Fiona says, nibbling on a vegetarian roll as she runs late for an appointment to get her legs waxed. "The fact that we have become so technologically advanced but haven't concurrently worked on developing our spirituality is, in my view, one of the biggest problems with our world."

Around 312AD, the Romans decided the fastest road to conversion was to superimpose Christian ceremonies on pagan festival dates and incorporate many of a pagan tribe's spiritual beliefs into the Christian religion. Some pagan practices, however, were considered far too liberated and were stamped out.

On the first of May, pagans once lit bonfires and men and women who lusted after each other could consummate their attraction in the hills and fields, then part company with no strings attached. In the '90s, some pagans still celebrate this fertility festival of the Beltane fires by engaging in free love and dancing around the maypole - the wooden rod representing the male phallus and the head-piece where the red (for menstrual blood) and white (for semen) ribbons attach, symbolising the yoni or vagina.

"For me, Beltane is about the marriage between land and spirit, male and female, god and goddess," says Fiona. "We raise energy through ritualised dance, song and music, empowering the May queen and king (who are the vessels of the community), with our hopes and desire for the upcoming year. This is where paganism often becomes threatening to people, because it doesn't renounce or separate sexuality and spirituality."

In Australia, spring begins in October when a maypole seems palpably out of place. So come the change of season, Fiona gets into creative mode to devise a regional Beltane festival. "I might design a ritual around the mating patterns of the magpie, with ritualists depicting magpies through body paint, feathers, movement and sound," she says. "They would be on tall stilts, from which they would take turns dive- bombing onto the unsuspecting people dancing below. The ritual might also incorporate people in trance, drumming, dancing and chanting."

Two years ago, when Fiona pierced her nose, she put herself in such a trance. "My eyes were open and I was fully aware of what was going on, but the pain didn't affect me and there was no bleeding," she explains. Controlling pain through sheer willpower is a common shamanic practice.

Among modern witches and pagans, shamanism, Voudoun and tribal lore have overtaken crystals and reiki healing as the new buz concepts. "I embrace aspects of Aboriginal and American Indian culture," says Arghiah Sowelu, 42, who became involved in magic when a friend suggested they share a "cup of healing water".

Pic of Arghiah Sowelu

At her bush home Arghiah, who calls herself a high priestess, holds occasional healing groups for women. At witch and pagan gatherings, she follows the Celtic tradition of the bard, who tells self-devised stories in speech and song. "Most of us become disconnected from our innocent spirit because of what society and family impose on us," she iays. "We learn to accept pain into our lives. But since embracing paganism, I've realised I'm not the product of my experiences. I spent many years feeling as though I hadn't found my true purpose. Now I realise it was the sacredness of ritual I'd always craved. There's ritual involved in speaking, listening, touching, even making a cup of tea. But in modern society, we've minimised sacredness so that we have no Dreaming."

In every culture, tribal beliefs have always embraced the union between nature and nurture. The Aztecs worshipped the Sun-God, Koori tribes revered their animal totems and the Nordic tribes believed in the power of rune magic. The tradition of reading the runes is similar to prophesying with tarot cards. "Runes can be catalysts or you can meditate on them, sticking your hand in the bag and pulling them out to get a daily reading for guidance," says Chandra, a 28-year-old Can- berra hairdresser who carved her 26 runes out of the wood from a friend's apricot tree.

Pic of Chandra

Chandra is a former member of CAW, and is now studying religion at the Australian National University in Canberra. "Most orthodox religions are very patriar- chal. But with witchcraft, women are not marginalised," she says. "That's why I think magic and paganism are regaining popularity. By practicing ancient traditions, we're recalling times when women were revered as village wise women and healers. We're reclaiming our feminine power."

The Pagan Information Service (0055 20293) has information on pagan events and literature.

She Magazine, December, 1995

 

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