by Jessica Rosenberg
As she begins to unpack the myths surrounding witchcraft and magic, she is distracted by a loud buzz in the room. “They say they are the messengers of the gods,” she says, as she nods towards the fly. “Maybe we need to eat it to find out what the message is?” But would she do it? “No way!” and dispels all preconceptions one could have about witches. The fly returns, and she coaxes it out, gently, cooing ”Come precious. Come out little one.”
Magic is complicated. “It’s not a wand where you can go abracadabra and things happen,” says shamanic witch Rebecca Ryan. “Magic, in general, matches our desire to express ourselves and define ourselves and explore ourselves as individuals.”
The cynics are certain it’s new age nonsense. But increasingly, people in contemporary society are turning towards alternative ways of understanding the world, their place within it, and the unexplainable. The number of Australians identifying as wiccans, witches and pagans continues to grow, totalling 25,266 in the 2011 Census. And they aren’t the only ones relying on alternative forms of therapy to understand themselves.
Humans are inquisitive creatures. In searching for answers, mainstream society encourages us to turn towards psychologists, counsellors, or personal development coaches for advice. However, magic offers an alternative route, encouraging the spiritual realm to be the source of guidance. This realm can incorporate witchcraft, magic, paganism, and trance-like states.
In explaining what people are looking for, Rebecca says, “Well, everyone is always looking for an escape from pain. Pain is what drives us. Well, pain and fear. They will always be the things that get the phone ringing.”
With both mainstream and alternative approaches to self-exploration focusing on improving understanding of oneself, Rebecca says, “ By the time they get here, I am the end of the road; they’ve done everything else, such as a lot of Western medicine, and so they come desperate and quite open.”
Rebecca has done away with the cauldron and fire image of witchcraft, preferring to blend blessings and spells with her clay mortar and pestle. Sessions are conducted in the front parlour of her white Art Deco suburban home, with its white grand piano and white leather armchairs. Occasionally, the family cat will pounce out from the windowsill.
“Magic, like anything, is a slog. Anyone who applies herself to anything will grow as a person,” Rebecca says. “I don’t know how long Harry Potter was at Hogwarts, but it’s a long process of the development of the psyche and the self.” Like many psychologists, Rebecca offers her clients the opportunity to improve their mental health through an increased understanding of self. It just so happens her approach is tinged with magic.
Much of contemporary magic has its roots in science. Locating magic within a scientific doctrine may make it a more palatable concept to skeptics. Dr Nicholas Herriman, an anthropologist at La Trobe University, says, “In new age movements (such as Witchcraft), there is a trend towards scientification. New age movements see science as a part of the coherent picture.”
Rebecca, too, understands her use of magic as borrowing heavily from the sciences. Her magic draws on ‘process oriented psychology’, with shamanic witchery borrowing from Jungian psychology, the psychology of shamanism. The increasingly popular psychological practice – parapsychology – also relies heavily on science to help explain paranormal activity.
Dr Lance Storm, of the University of Adelaide, confirms the scientific nature of parapsychological practice. He says “most parapsychologists work in laboratories conducting experiments on paranormal phenomena” which can include telepathy, contact with spirits and near death experiences.
“Parapsychologists will need to see good evidence, and to get that, they would ideally like to set up controlled experiments in a laboratory,” he says. Scientific explanations for magic have become an integral part of explaining how the paranormal works.
Rationalism, borne of the Enlightenment, has been both a friend and foe of magic. The Witchcraft Act of 1735, which criminalised any practice of witchcraft, was based on the understanding that witchcraft and magic were illusory. The act claimed that such a superstitious belief was not in line with modern post- Enlightenment thinking. However, rationalism also paved the way for a ‘religious supermarket’, allowing people to explore their individual identities outside mainstream constrictions.
While many new religious movements borne in this period focused heavily on dogma, witchcraft did not. Without a central authority, power was dispersed, and followers were not required to make fundamental changes to the ways they conducted their lives. “Witchcraft is integral to the modern and post-modern experience,” Dr Herriman says .
According to Nicholas Herriman, with a deeper understanding of the relationship between our actions and nature, many worldly, rational people have been attracted to witchcraft, developing a community of modern thinking and intelligent people, generally from a wealthier Anglo background.
He says he suspects the Internet had a profound impact on the development of witchcraft. “They (witches and wiccans) thrive on the Internet to stay in contact and share ideas,” he says. Rebecca Ryan thinks that because change in societal experiences is increasing at such a rate, there is a sense of need for some sort of anchor or core sense of self.
However, contemporary magic and witchcraft represent more than just fantasy, escapism and Harry Potter. “A lot of people look at wiccans and pagans and think they’re crooks. There is no way an anthropologist would look at them like that. We find them just as authentic or inauthentic as any group,” Dr Herriman says.”
Rebecca isn’t afraid of the sceptics, either. “Because the curious and the testing minds are what we need to take us forward, blind faith is of no importance to anyone or anything.”