Nature worship, spell casting, and, er, meeting at the pub - Melbourne's pagans are more active than ever, and they say their ranks are growing as people seek paths to the sacred outside monotheistic religions. Denise Mooney talks to witches, a Satanist and other proud heathens about what it means to be a modern-day pagan.
Despite her long dark hair, Monica McHugh is not a very convincing witch. There's nothing sinister about the lively 24-year-old. But the Melbourne nurse has practised the ancient art of witchcraft since she started a teen coven eight years ago. Her conversation is peppered with terms like "positive energy" and "responsibility". "One day we're hoping the image of a witch will not conjure up someone who's mean with green skin and a pointy hat," she laughs.
According to Gavin Andrew of the Pagan Awareness Network (PAN), Melbourne is the witch capital of Australia. The number of Australians turning to 'alternative' religions continues to increase. The 2006 census figures show a 13% rise since 2001. The movement is also experienced a boom in the 1990s thanks to the internet and films like The Craft. Television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer also played their part in making witchcraft cool, especially among young women.
According to the census figures, there are more than 30,000 pagans in Australia and about 5000 of those live in metropolitan Melbourne. Paganism covers numerous traditions, most with their roots in the ancient world. They include druids, animists, witches, shamanists and wiccans.
Andrew says the real figure is probably closer to 40,000. 'Lots of people don't want to come out of the broom closet,' he quips. He estimates there are about 17,000 pagans in Melbourne with another 1000 scattered through regional Victoria. PAN, an educational and advocacy group, organises social events like Pagans in the Pub, to bring like-minded individuals together for meet-ups in regional and city areas. Larger festivals are held to celebrate important dates on the pagan calendar like Samhain (Halloween) and Beltane (Mayday).
Andrew says the rise of paganism is partly due to dissatisfaction with mainstream religions. 'God is this strict parent figure who punishes or redeems depending on the situation. Pagans look for different types of relationships with the sacred, such as seeing the inherent beauty and complexity of nature.'
Bendigo-born McHugh became interested when a classmate gave her a book on witchcraft. 'It enabled more free thinking, a lot more initiative and responsibility on the individual's part,' she says. 'It just fitted with me so well.
Like many witches, McHugh doesn't approve of putting spells on people. 'What you're sending out you will get back eventually. We're also very concerned about placing influence on other people.'
She admits to trying out love spells and 'please, let me pass my exam' charms as a teenager. It worked in the opposite way. The person you were chasing would ignore you or find someone else, or you would get a D on your test.'
Although McHugh has had negative reactions to her faith, she says it wasn't easy being a young witch in Bendigo. The move to Melbourne two years ago enabled her to get more involved in the pagan community.
'Up until recently I've been quiet about my beliefs, purely because of fear of persecution. I might be socially excluded and people might think I'm going to put curses on them. But I've become more self-confident. I figure that if people want to be a part of my life, they'll accept me whoever I am.'
Carlton artist Caroline Tully says her parents were 'unimpressed' when the former Catholic schoolgirl turned to witchcraft at the age of 19. 'They used to be embarrassed about it,' she says.
Tully, a witch since the 1980s, has been studying ancient magic and pagan religions at Melbourne University for four years and writes extensively for anthologies and publications like Spellcraft and The Pagan Times. In the early days, curiosity played its part.
'I was interested in the promise that these ritual performances would provide you with empowerment,' she says. 'You're taking on a priestly role yourself and you don't have an intermediary. It's a little bit nefarious, so that always makes you feel a bit edgy and cool.'
The census figures also reveal female pagans and witches outnumber men by about two to one. Tully says women are attracted to witchcraft because they can play a prominent role. 'What womanhood represents in modern witchcraft is valuable. Ancient pagan goddesses are much more realistic, they're not expected to be a virgin. Look at Aphrodite ' she's sexy.'
Tully says some of the mainstream churches have the wrong idea about pagans and witches and she scoffs at priests who perform exorcisms. 'They've made out that they are the only religion and other religions are bad. They don't do any research. If you look at the theology curriculum at Melbourne University, it teaches Christian theology with a look at Buddhism, Islam and maybe Judaism but there are millions of other religions.'
Tully says her experiments with spells have yielded unexpected results, like the time she invoked the spirit of an ancient goddess to get her cat back. "I was by myself up the country in a caravan. My voice changed and I could see my shadow on the wall, and it was like that of an old woman. I was really scared. In my experience some goddesses are not that noticeable, but that one was.' Her cat did come back, though. "I thought it was lame (to have done the spell). It could have come back anyway.'
In Murrumbeena, Esoteric Bookshop proprietor David Wilson-Steer has run the gamut of people's attempts at magic. He and his wife have run the shop for four years, selling herbs, incense, crystals, candles and other spell-making necessities. While many customers are practising witches, the shop attracts its fair share of amateurs. "Some people get into witchcraft because they run out of solutions. It can be a path of last resort whether it's money, love life, court cases or custody battles. We try to get them to see it from a broader perspective. If you help someone do something nasty, it bounces back."
University of Ballarat academic David Waldron has just published The Sign of the Witch, which traces the evolution of modern witchcraft and paganism. He says many people are drawn to pagan faiths because of their connection with the past. Waldron says witchcraft can provide an antidote to feelings of alienation caused by changes in lifestyles and "long-term frustrations dealing with patriarchal imagery".
"It inspires a powerful sense of belonging," he says.
Gavin Andrew says pagans and witches tend to be "independent thinkers" who are not interested in following the herd. 'It's a very central part on paganism, the idea that it is a personal journey and along with that comes an ethic of personal responsibility. You can't put off your problems onto a guru figure or a symbol or an icon. You have to deal with things yourself.'
One person who is proud to be an 'outsider' is Satanist Drew Sinton, owner of Melbourne's Haunted Bookshop. While most witches and pagans practise nature worship, Sinton says black magic and 'sex magic' are more his scene. The Church of Satan won't reveal its number in case of 'Satanic panic', but census figures indicate there are nearly 500 Satanists in Melbourne. This figure is unlikely to be accurate, however, because some people declare a Satanic affiliation for shock value, while others are afraid to admit to one.
Melbourne-born Sinton says being an 'individual' is a positive thing in the Satanic Bible, which makes it popular with 'disaffected youth, Goths and emos.' He says Satanists live up to their adversarial image. 'If anyone crosses me, forget about turning the other cheek. Don't cross us. We're vindictive and vengeful.'
But for witches like McHugh, witchcraft and paganism are more 'touchy-feely', with a focus on positive thinking and having a conscience.
'It's a nature religion. If you ignore the impact humans are having on the environment, I think you're not getting the point of the religion,' she says. 'It's about working in harmony with the world.'