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Barbecues and Broomsticks

They are more likely to surf the Net in thongs than slip past the moon on a broomstick, but the modern witches still retain most of their rituals. And they are enjoying a growing interest in paganism. But reports HELEN PITT, Sydney's witches of Wicca are feeling most understood. 11/12/96

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 seem unperturbed.

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 belly.

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," she says.

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 says.

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 one.

"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 added hypocrisy".

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 any more."

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," she says.

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 seasons."

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 the ceremonies.

"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," she says.

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."

Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/96

by Helen Pitt

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