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Not all witches are into bubble, bubble toil and trouble

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From campfire tales to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and modern pop culture, tales of witches have always haunted the world. But in modern day Canberra, witchcraft looks nothing like the movies.

The idea of witches—people with magical powers and supernatural abilities—living in the nation’s capital might sound like the beginning of a horror movie. However, modern witches aren’t the stuff of nightmares, old hags or demons in human flesh, but mothers, fathers, friends, and every-day people who believe in something greater than themselves.

In the 2016 Census, over 15,000 Australians stated that they subscribe to a pagan belief system, the practice of ancient, pre-Christian religions, while more than 6,500 said they are practicing Wicca.

This number is but a rough estimate of those who practice witchcraft in Australia.

What is witchcraft?

 According to Spheres of Light, an Australian witchcraft organisation, a witch is a person who seeks to live in harmony with nature, understanding that everything has a rhythm and a heartbeat.

Witchcraft itself is as diverse as its followers, and while there is no correct way to be a witch, there are some titles used to describe the branches including Alexandrian, Gardenarian, Wiccan and many more.

 Samantha* has been involved with witchcraft her whole life. Growing up as a hereditary witch in Melbourne, she moved to Canberra seven years ago after falling in love with the region.

As a traditional witch, Samantha’s path is deeply influenced both by her Indigenous Australian and Romani heritage.

“Hollywood kind of talks about witchcraft in terms of Neo-paganism, or Wicca, for example, which was invented in 1950, but traditional witchcraft and the witchcraft that we know is based on folk magic from pre-Christian days,” she says. “It can be anywhere from strega in Italy to the Romani people all across Europe, to the people that practice Voodoo in Haiti.”

“Traditional witches would be looking to their ancestors, and to those that have come before us for guidance…and we also connect to our regional environment…And that’s where my Indigenous heritage kind of crosses over quite beautifully with my traditional witchcraft heritage as well.”

 

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With a background in biomedical science and formal qualifications in herbalism, Samantha explains that magick is as simple as a manipulation of energy.

“I look at it from a very scientific point of view in that way and to me, magic is just science that we haven’t proven yet,” she says.

“We can go all the way back to alchemy. Alchemy was the very first form of chemistry and that was seen as magick at the time.”

As a new witch in Canberra’s eclectic community, she says when she first moved to the nation’s capital she didn’t even know the witch community existed.

“Honestly, until I started five years ago going out and about to markets selling my wares, that was when I really started meeting people… I wouldn’t have known that Megan was a witch either.”

Megan* is Canberra’s resident house and tea witch, selling hand blended organic teas through her business Soul Potion to help people build thoughtful rituals for the home and soul.

Growing up in Canberra before moving to Melbourne, Megan recently came home in 2020.

She says that in one form or another she has always identified as a witch and while she doesn’t necessarily label herself as pagan, for her it’s about her connection with nature and the way she moves in the world.

“It’s funny because people would always call me a witch, long before I even called myself a witch,” she says. “I think for me, finding those moments of magick and connecting to the magick around me is what sparked that word association for other people.”

To Megan, magick is ritual and intention, both of which can both be found in her practice.

“House magick for me is using my space to create energy, and create a feeling,” she says. “When you create a certain feeling in your house that you’re essentially marinating in that energy. So, if you’ve got really lovely vibes around you, that can help to amplify magick and other areas of your life too.”

“It’s quite powerful when you can tap into what you desire, and just create a little moment of magick around something that might be considered quite a boring task,”

While both Samantha and Megan are active and vocal about their practice on their social media platforms, which combined have over 15,000 followers, there are several members of the community who remain in the ‘broom closet’ and practice in private.

When Sean* was asked for a dream interpretation several years ago, he never imagined it would end with his boss threatening the whole office with dismissal.

“I gave them my opinion of the dream, they then left the building and a friend picked them up in a brand new car…they jumped behind the wheel and at the first intersection they went through somebody ran a stop sign and t-boned them,” he says.

“Everyone was okay but completely unbeknownst to myself…the person went to their pastor and their pastor said, ‘Obviously he’s a witch or a Satan worshipper, he put a curse on you’. They rang my boss… The next morning, everyone was called in for a staff meeting where my boss is asking what people are doing in the office because there’s been accusations of witchcraft and curses on people and if anyone’s doing anything untoward they will be fired.”

After experiencing this, Sean likes to keep his practice to himself but witchcraft has always been a part of who he is.

Growing up as a baptised Roman Catholic and attending a Protestant High School, Sean says he had no strong connection to Christian religious practices and it wasn’t until he reached high school that he was told he is a hereditary witch.

“My mother turned around and sort of explained that she was a pagan, which then sort of moved on to being that she is a Wiccan and into witchcraft…I can remember asking her at the time ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘We don’t pontificate and it’s important to have an understanding of religion’.”

According to Sean his mother believed people should come to the path themselves and “the idea of telling somebody and teaching somebody what they should know is not necessarily okay.”

After living all over Australia and dabbling in various forms of traditional witchcraft, Sean’s practice incorporates aspects of shamanism, chaos magic and is strongly influenced by Wicca and traditional witchcraft.

However, Sean says both in and out of the witch community, he is often told that he can’t possibly be a witch because he is a man.

Something wicked this way comes

Often portrayed as the female rebels of history, witches have always represented the outcasts, the strange and those who don’t fit into society’s norms.

However, men and non-binary peoples are also a part of the craft, often ignored due to a stereotypes that can be linked to Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century witch hunting guideline which argued that women were more inclined to witchcraft because they were inherently weak and susceptible to the devil.

With Hollywood’s iconography saturated with witches represented as the perfect perky woman fighting demons or the evil, depraved, satanic witch, elements of truth behind the craft are lost behind a depiction focusing on women known only for their iconic style rather than their magical prowess.

“The representations are either completely fictitious, or there’s an element of truth,” says Sean.  “And I always love it when you see some  element of truth in pop culture references.”

“But sometimes the Hollywood stuff can go too far. The best example I can give you is Satanic Panic. Going back to the ‘70s, anyone who wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons or played heavy metal music was obviously being possessed by Satan and all that came out of Hollywood, and a number of horror movies…there’s a fine line.”

The ‘90s saw a resurgence of witches in pop culture and as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch ruled the airwaves, Samantha and Megan grew up appreciating the fun depictions on screen.

However, Samantha says that Hollywood is still underrepresenting people of colour.

“In terms of the representation, there’s not a lot of witches of colour really represented now and they weren’t represented then either,” she says.

“Given that traditional witchcraft involves a lot of people of colour, that’s probably the only thing I noticed growing up…we all do our bit to kind of change that and break down those stereotypes.”

Starting her business Natura Maga because she’s always “loved the idea of the friendly neighbourhood witch”, Samantha is happy to share her practice with others.

Often attending small business markets around the region with her magical wares, she says sometimes people point and stare.

“They’ll say, ‘Where’s your broom?’ and all that sort of stuff but most of it is good fun.”

“There are some stereotypes like Harry Potter, riding around on a broomstick and all that. For me a serious one is devil worship…the devil is a Christian construct and witches don’t even believe in the devil.”

 

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Megan says a common stereotype witches face is people assume all witches are quick to curse those they don’t like.

“I’m not saying that other people might but I definitely don’t believe in cursing people, I don’t believe in wishing harm upon people. So I think that that’s a big one, you don’t have to be afraid that you’re just gonna have bad energy thrown at you,” she says.

According to Megan, Samantha and Sean, the truth in pop culture can be found in small elements because, like fairytales, the stories originate from somewhere.

The references of wands, cauldrons and the rhyming scheme of some spells are from original witchcraft practices, however, as the world faces another witch resurgence and as social media becomes the home for modern witchcraft, the meaning of the word ‘witch’ is ever evolving.

There’s a little witch in all of us

Often joked about as the most boring city in Australia, the magick in Canberra runs deep underneath the surface.

From the first Pagan shop in Gold Creek to small witchy businesses popping up online, the attraction to the spirituality of the practice seems to be becoming increasingly common but unless you know where to look, you won’t find what you’re looking for.

Moving to Canberra nine years ago, Sean says the witch community is a little bit like the city itself.

“There are very few eclectic groups within Canberra, they all kind of click with themselves. They don’t necessarily communicate with each other actively, but they will,” he says.

“Sometimes if there is a larger group gathering or public gathering you’ll find people come across from all these different groups and they will get together, then they kind of like disappear off into the woodwork and do their own thing.”

Since COVID has forced the world to retreat behind closed doors, the Canberra witch community has mostly been interacting online, allowing witches like Megan to meet people in a community where witches “practice individually and for themselves.”

“When COVID first hit last year I ran an online workshop for samhain which is our Halloween, that was in May last year… but I have also done quite a few workshops online,” says Megan.

“There is an opportunity to connect with people that you wouldn’t have an opportunity to connect with, so in that sense it’s really nice to just talk about widening the circle.”

While they laugh at pop-culture and shape their own path within the craft, all three want the outside community to know a simple truth: not all witches are into bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

“[The Canberra witch community is] diverse, incredibly community focused and highly motivated to make the community better,” says Samantha.

“Really I’d just love people to know that we’re just regular people.”

*Last names have been removed for privacy

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