Pamina Dent is a witch. Not the broomstick and black
hat type, but a purple satin-clad high priestess ot
the Church of Wicca in NSW. Each month beneath the shadow
of a full moon and a backyard Hills Hoist in Sydney's
west, Dent conjures up spells, recites incantadons and
pays homage to the moon goddess Diana.
A cauldron boils on the barbecue, and a kitchen tabic
doubles as an altar as she and half a dozen Wiccans
invoke the forces of the night. A white cat crouches
beside a brass gong which is rung in syncopation with
the slow beat of drums. The almost ominous sound echoes
throughout this small corner of the world, but the neighbours
The ceremony stops only once to exorcise - literally,
not spirituaully a Christmas beetle which has flown
down the High Priestess's blouse. A "grand magi" Peter
Scharff, leads the monthly moon-baking ritual, his flowing
blaclk robe barely concealing shorts, thongs and a beer
Draped in long dark capes and hoods, the other pagan
followers oin in the ceremony, which unvolves rituals
not unlike a Christan communion service or a harvest
fesdval. Candles and incense are lit from the cauldron
(fuelled by methylated spirit), lemonade is drunk from
a chalice, and homage is paid to Diana.
For those who miss the monthly meeting, they can read
about it in the Western Witch newsletter, which
promises the latest in "pagan news, reviews and witchings"
and "delivery by broom" under Dent's editorship.
There is no more misunderstood creature than the modern
witch, says Dent, a 48-year old mother of three, largely
thanks to Christian interpretations of "the mother healer".
"We do not cast bad spells, we have incantations to
stop someone from hurting you, and spells that heal
people, maybe help them fall in love. But all we do
is magic. Like nature, we are surrounded by magic,"
Yet the mere mention of the words witchcraft and paganism
sdLI ring alarm bells in the minds of many Australians,
says Dr Carole Cusack, a lecturer in religious studies
at Sydney University.
Other than the Church of All Worlds, an officially
recognised church with about 10,000 members nationally
who practice paganism and witchcraft, Cusack says it
is impossible to estimate the number of witches and
pagans in Australia. Scepticism about their beliefs
have forced many modern urban witches back into the
"broom closet", as witchcraft practioners joke.
Yet in Sydney, the pagan population appears to be growmg.
Sydney University's Pagus, which stands for, Pagans
And Gnostics of the Urliversity of Sydney, has about
100 members; more than 70 people attend meetings of
Pagans in the Pub in a Newtown hotel. While academic
studies pitch paganism as the fastest growing religion
in the US, Christanity is under no serious threat in
Australia. A recent survey showed that Pentecostal churches
nationally now boast Sunday attendances of 200,000,
which make it the fastest growing church and second
only to the Catholics. "Paganism is not like other religions.
You do not have to sign on for church membership or
make donations to the collection plate each week," Cusack
Pagans and witches are not synonymous, but the two
often converge in the modern looseknit collection of
occult practitioners who have merged 1960's sentiment
with 1990's know-how.
As the British academic Diane Purkiss points out in
"The Witch in History" (Nelson, $35), over the
centuries the figure of "the witch" has undergone transformations
as dramatic as those in any pantomime. Romanticised
in literature from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, along
with fairy tales, accounts of witch trials and oral
history, she has been constantly cast and recast in
line with the fears and fantasies of the era.
In the 20th century, film and feminist theory have
borrowed her to create enduring images such as the Wizard
of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West and the "seductive
sorceress" prototype for radical feminist history. But
today the term "witch" is an extraordinarily flexible
"There are almost as many different sects and groups
as there are believers," writes Purkiss, "and the neophyte
can easily get lost among the Gardnerians, Dianics,
radical faeries, Alexandrians, hedge-witches and 'famtrads',
or family witches."
In early England, says Purkiss, the witch was a woman's
fantasy, not simply a man's nightmare, which allowed
women to express and manage powerful and passionate
feelings that still resonate.
Computing is the most common career amony modern witches,
she says, citing an Amencan study as her source - surfing
the Net is the modern equivalent of riding the broomstick.
Purkiss says people who identify themselves as witches
have to rub shoulders, not very comfortably, with eco-warriors,
tree huggers and the New Age movement, a group despised
by contemporary witches, as "nothing but yuppiedom with
However, Cusack points out that witchcraft and paganism
should not be ridiculed as they were in Australia back
in the days when Christianity carried more weight. "Christianity
now has to compete every day in the spiritual marketplace.
Just because you are born into the Presbyterian or Catholic
churches doesn't mean you will stay there all your life
MANY who turn to witchcraft do so out of dissatisfaction
with other religious offerings. Others simply chanced
upon it, like Pamina Dent who first came accoss witchcraft
at the Bankstown markets with her daughter. It was there
she met a women who taught her how to read tarot cards.
and introduced her to the "book of shadows", the Wiccan
book which documents rituals and records "sacred adventures
on the astral journey", says Dent.
"We believe in a whole host of gods. We don't believe
in tbe man who died on the Cross and we are not men
bashers. It is only a few hags who get us bad press,"
Peter Scharff, who calls himself a psychic investigator,
says: "We don't fool with voodoo - that can be dangerous
- there are good and bad witches, and you will always
find some idiot casting bad spells. We believe though
that 'a curse in vain comes back again'. Unfortunately
there are people who give witches a bad name ... there
is a power struggle within witchcraft - it ts no different
to any other line of belief".
A WITCH can mean many different things, according to
Dr Lynne Hume of the University of Queensland, who visited
witches' covens (groups) throughout Australia for her
research into witchcraft and paganism. "Spells and magic
are one of the main components of witchcraft but a witch
can be someone who uses incense, herbs and meditation
to get what she wants, someone who reads tarot cards,
or someone who simply creates a space in their mind
to visualise an outcome.
"The witch conjures up old images from fairy tales
which are in a way romantic. But as far as a witchcraft
ceremony goes, it is very much a celebration of the
Hume believes interest in neoppganism is growing in
Australia. Covens meet regularly in capital cities as
well as country towns for ritual celebrations. At the
rituals she has attended, the witches included academics,
professionals, housewives and students.
Hume says Christian churches borrowed heavily from
pagan rituals, which accounts for the similarity in
"In the past Christian churches were ofien built over
pagan sites of worship, and the times of Christian celebrations
according to the moon are the same as pagan times,"
Nonetheless, many Christian churches remain sceptical
about the practice of witchcraft. Father Brian Lucas,
spokesman for the Catholic Church, says the church condemns
the worshipping of false gods, but acknowledges there
are all sorts of spiritual forces - some sinister and
evil - at work.
"Some of these so-called witchcraft ceremonies are
sinister and evil, but some simply border on the New
Age and are more or less harmless. It depends on how
seriously people embark on their spiritual diversions.
"There are groups who call themselves pagans but they
are not numerically significant and I don't think they
are taken too seriously by most people," says Lucas.
This is exactly the problem with modern witchcraft,
complains Dent. Mainstream churches refuse to take their
beliefs seriously. "The typical image of a witch is
with a pointed hat, a broomstick, long nose and warts.
But a lot of that has simply come about because we work
more by night than by day. It is not Satanic simply
because it is done in the dark."
by Helen Pitt