Strange brew

Witchcraft is growing in popularity but today’s pagans are more interested in self-improvement than in casting nefarious spells. Claire Halliday reports.

If you believe statistics, Melbourne is the witch capital of Australia. According to the 2001 census there are 4155 pagans in the metropolitan area the highest concentration in Australia. Another 1459 lurk mysteriously elsewhere in Victoria.

Are more people falling under witchcraft’s spell? There is no doubt. The number of Australians identifying themselves as either witches or wiccans more than quadrupled in the five years between the last two censuses.

Pagans in the Pub, Pagan Awareness Network and the Pagan Alliance are just a few Melbourne organisations for those who want to come out of the “broom closet”.

With these strangely bedazzling statistics and groups, the definition of a witch is changing with the times.

Leonie is proud to announce her witchery but the location of her coven is secret witches’ business. “Just say it’s in the inner suburbs,” she says.

What goes on there, Leonie, 34, says, is simply a celebration of nature and a rejoicing in the seasons of the sun and moon through chanting, dancing, invocations and laughing. Not a warty nose or a broomstick in sight.

In the Coburg backyard of her friend and fellow member of the Pagan Alliance, Lilith, Leonie dons a soft red robe and offers a taste of these celebrations in the witches’ circle that Lilith has constructed near the corrugated iron shed.

It’s hardly atmospheric. Lilith’s three dogs compete for attention, her teenage son trots a steady path from inside to out (in the process of repairing his pushbike) and Leonie’s son appears from the house waving a Carlton Football Club flag.

But still they chant. Witchcraft, says Lilith a nurse in the regular world is about celebrating diversity. Everything is beautiful in its own way.

“You don’t really question things when you’re little,” Leonie says. “I became a witch when I started to search for something that made more sense to me.”

So much sense that, shunning the initial ceremony attached to the Christian marriage between her and husband Peter, 35, the couple recently renewed their vows, witch-style with a hand-fasting ceremony, a pagan form of marriage.

“It just felt right,” Leonie says. “It meant a lot more to us.”

In the 1996 census, 1849 people identified themselves as either witches or wiccan; in the 2001 census, the number had grown to 8755. Identifying under the umbrella term of “pagan” (including witches, druids, heathens and shamans), the 1996 census numbers were about 10,000, compared to 20,000 in 2001.

“It is clearly growing in popularity,” says Dr Douglas Ezzy, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania. Regarded by many to be one of the foremost local experts on the subject, Dr Ezzy was the editor of a book compiled by modern-day witches, Practising the Witch’s Craft, an overview of the various witchcraft traditions in Australia.

As an academic who has studied witchcraft for about 10 years, Ezzy says that the misrepresentation of the practice is something that he is particularly sensitive to and that the definition of a witch has become more varied.

“Witchcraft used to be about people who followed the rituals and practices of the Gardnerian witchcraft Book of Shadows (a book of rituals sort of like the Anglican book of prayer). But now there is a huge variety of people who call themselves witches,” he says.

“But, in the same way that there are different versions of Christianity, there are different traditions within witchcraft. Some of these traditions have strict criteria for who can or cannot claim to be a member of their tradition.”

And the charm of witchery?

According to Ezzy “in this increasingly fast-paced and materialistic world, followers can reclaim the sacred and spiritual aspects of their lives”.

Due to the associated stigma, Ezzy suspects that the census figures are a substantial underestimation. Ezzy also cites the large proportion of younger people whose parents may not correctly record their children’s beliefs.

Media stereotyping has done little to redress mainstream fears.

“The witches on Buffy or Charmed or The Craft place a great deal of emphasis on spells and fighting demons. Most real witches don’t do these things. Witchcraft is much more about self-development and self-understanding,” he says.

“The other media image of witchcraft as a dangerous ‘cult’ is based on medieval stereotypes and Monty Python. In my opinion going to a witchcraft ritual is no more dangerous than going to a Catholic Mass, a Pentecostal prayer meeting, or to watch the football. There are dangerous people in all walks of life, and witchcraft is no exception.”

In recent years a strengthening and solidarity within the local pagan and witch community has come about through the internet and meetings. Although there is not one centralised organisation, umbrella groups such as Pagans in the Pub do co-ordinate regular gatherings where members meet monthly.

Gavin Andrew, state co-ordinator of the Pagan Awareness Network a pagan education and advocacy organisation says such groups are an important first port of call for likeminded people.

Andrew says he developed an interest in the occult when he was a teenager and found the history of witchcraft far more fascinating than “sitting in church singing doleful hymns”.

Not all in society see such beliefs as positive. In June last year City of Casey councillor Rob Wilson, who was last week elected mayor, issued a press release accusing witches of trying to attack and “take over” the municipality in Melbourne’s south-east.

Naming a local witch in his press release, Wilson suggested that the witch’s religion made her a threat to the community. Wilson also called on local churches to hold a day of prayer to ward off the forces of darkness.

Letters to the local papers revealed a deep divide in the community.

“The Pagan Awareness Network has been pursuing him through the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria and VCAT, using religious vilification laws,” says Andrew who hopes for a result that will embrace religious diversity, rather than scaremongering.

Faedrah, who opened The Witchy Shop in Warrandyte about 12 months ago, runs daily workshops for people wishing to stick a toe into the bubbling cauldron of bedevilment.

“We get a mix of women and men coming in,” Faedrah says.

At The Esoteric Bookshop in Murrumbeena, proprietor David Wilson-Steer says the most popular items are “herbs, charcoal (and) candles fairly evenly distributed between male and female customers”.

Australian witches have had to re-jig some of the information in the most widely-read witchcraft tomes in order to cater for our Southern Hemisphere differences.

“Most cast their circles anti-clockwise. In the Northern Hemisphere it’s the other way. Real witches in Australia celebrate Halloween at the end of April but most people would think of it as being in October,” he says.

With his partner Julie Snodgrass, David Wilson-Steer first opened The Esoteric Bookshop in Hawthorn 12 years ago where the business relied heavily on the passing trade of private schoolgirls doing the ritual teenage flirtation with purple and patchouli.

The recent move to Murrumbeena, with less passing pedestrian traffic, has seen a move to people more seriously interested in the necessary ingredients that witchcraft requires.

Today, according to a website, is International Witches Meetup Day, where witches in more than 612 cities worldwide will get together. A read of the website reveals a collection of mostly university-aged women, who, in Melbourne at least, have voted on an inner-city cafe for their meeting tonight. Cafe owners take note: the witches gathering at your establishment may not be easily identifiable by dress or ritual chanting.

“We just like to get together for a drink like everyone else,” Lilith says.

Gavin Andrew can laugh about the stereotypes that most people conjure up when they think of a witch. The reality, he says, is quite mundane. A modern-day witch could easily be dressed in slacks and a cardigan at the desk next to you.

“Many of us don’t even bother with the robes and wands and other accessories that have become associated with us,” Andrew says. “We do tend to wear a lot of black though . . . it’s slimming.”

Today is International Witches Meetup Day. Visit witches.meetup.com for details.

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