Australia does not have festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering or PantheaCon, which draw hundreds, thousands even, of Pagans from all over the U.S. That’s not a criticism; it’s simply a difference, one that largely reflects numbers and processes. However, Australia does have important and meaningful festivals that continue to shape Pagan culture Down Under.
Australia is about the size of the U.S. with a population slightly less than that of Texas. According to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the U.S. is the third most populated country in the world. Australia comes in at 52. A benefit of this is space. It’s not difficult to go to a park, to the beach, or to the bush, and discover you’re the only one there. Pagans can find private ritual spaces outdoors without much difficulty. The drawback is the small number of Pagans with whom to gather.
According to a survey by the Pew Forum on religion, there are over one million Pagans in the U.S. In the 2011 Australian census, 32,083 respondents identified as Pagan. In Australia, the population is small and the Pagan pool is even smaller.
Most Aussies, about 63%, live in Australia’s major cities along the coast, with nearly 40% of them in Sydney and Melbourne. That leaves a lot of people living in towns and regional areas. The more regional and remote you get, the worse the infrastructure. This can make it challenging for Aussie Pagans to travel to festivals, which are often held near major cities.
A major obstacle to the development of festivals, as well as other small events, is the “nanny state” – federal and state government policies that are viewed as over-regulating, overprotective, and unduly interfering. Small groups struggle to afford, for example, the $1200 needed for the insurance required to hold a gathering that is unlikely to attract more than 80 people. Earlier this year, administration changes at Parks Victoria threatened Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering, the state’s longest running Pagan festival. Organisers called the amount of bureaucracy and red tape “simply astonishing”.
Despite the odds against them, Aussie Pagans have organised festivals that have secured themselves a place in the history of contemporary Paganism in Australia.
Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering, Victoria
In 1981, Linda and Michel Marold founded Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering, and they’ve been running it ever since with the assistance of volunteers. Over 34 years, hundreds of Pagans have traveled to this mountain, which was created by a volcanic eruption about 470,000 years ago. The free weekend camping event is held at Beltaine. This year’s program included workshops, a swap/barter market, drumming, a main ritual, and, of course, a maypole.
Shaz Lizzy has been attending Mount Franklin for over 10 years. “When I first started going it was one of few opportunities to attend a public ritual without the need of belonging to any particular group,” said Lizzy. “At the time, being a solitary Druid, it was the only place to be amongst like-minded folk. It was very satisfying as Senior Druid of Silver Birch Gove ADF, that we were able to offer the ritual this year. It was a wonderful experience and very satisfying to be able to give back to the community.”
Mount Franklin Pagan Gathering 2015 [Photo Credit: Kylie Moroney]
Australian Wiccan Conference, various locations
The Australian Wiccan Conference (AWC) began in 1984 as the Annual Gathering for the Pagan Alliance of Australia, which was incorporated in New South Wales. One of the AWC’s unique characteristics is that it moves every year and a different group of volunteers organises it. Last year, it was in Victoria. This year, it was in South Australia. Next year, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, will host the event. As of 2008, the AWC has been held in every state and territory in Australia.
The AWC is traditionally held on a weekend around the Spring Equinox, and it is more eclectic and less formal than its name suggests. Past workshops have included introductions to various Pagan traditions, advanced ritual techniques, teaching methods, divination, historical examinations, and approaches in the Southern Hemisphere. Presenters and panelists have included local teachers, well-known practitioners such as Tim Hartridge, founding figures such as Julia Phillips, and scholars such as Caroline Tully.
Eostre, New South Wales
The annual Eostre gathering took place between 1985 and 1997 and was a largely driven by the well-known Sydney-based Witch Tim Hartridge. The camping event held over a long weekend in April was designed to be a small gathering for Witches and magickal practitioners that included beginners as well as Hartridge’s students and coven members. Attendees could expect to learn some of the coven’s core ritual practices as well as other techniques, and then put it all together during rituals that included a wicker man and bone-fires.
Pagan Summer Gathering, Queensland
Since 1998, the Church of All Worlds (CAW) Australia has been holding Pagan Summer Gathering (PSG). CAW’s annual general meeting takes place during PSG, and that is for members only, but the general festival is open to non-members. Held in January, the weekend program includes workshops, rituals, and stalls. Previous workshop topics have included conflict resolution, ethics, shamanic approaches, environmental workshops, Vodou, and various kinds of rituals.
In her book Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia, academic Lynne Hume describes her experience at PSG.
An entire sensory repertoire is used to convey dramatic messages: breathing, dance movements, body posture and decoration, masks and paint, olfactory stimulation, the use of light and shadow, the mystery of foreign words, tone, inflection and even silence, all of which are fully employed to heighten activity and emotional response.
In play, there is a freedom from normative constraints; one steps out of one time into another and enters an enclave within which is seems anything may happen. Paganism is not only about play, but this is the spirit of Paganism, its quintessence, and I began to look at it more along those lines rather than taking a rational, logical approach.
Since the first one in 2000, Euphoria has been Victoria’s, and possibly Australia’s, most controversial Pagan festival.
Taking place over four days in bushland near Melbourne, Euphoria has offered numerous workshops on topics such as body image and body magic, ritual techniques, sacred sexuality, and trance. Rituals have included a rite that recalls the Eleusinian Mysteries where participants come face to face with their mortality, a Dark Goddess ritual of trance, shapeshifting, and ecstatic magick, and the NOX ritual, described as a trance-dance ritual of initiation with a Thelemic and Middle Eastern feel. These workshops and rituals were meant to prepare participants for the main event, that which lies at the heart of Euphoria – the Baphomet rite.
The Baphomet rite is inspired by European records of the Witches’ Sabbats from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, down to the infamous Kiss of Shame. And, it plays with Margaret Murray’s witch-cult hypothesis. The rite deliberately draws on symbols and practices that are unsettling. Described as erotic and ecstatic, as well as liberating, it was designed to be challenging and transformative.
Melbourne Pagan Gavin Andrews attended Euphoria and was twice an invoking priest during the Baphomet rite. He said it generated a lot of discussion in the Australian Pagan community. The nudity, sexual activity, and shadow work were seen as too risky for a public festival, and there were concerns about what kind of support participants had once they went home.
“Much of the controversy centred around whether it was appropriate to present dark ecstatic rituals, with the potential to facilitate deep personal transformations, within a festival format,” said Andrews. “Others found Euphoria’s presiding deity, Baphomet, problematic – not least due to the genderqueer associations of this deity, openly contrasting with the heteronormative – I hesitate to use the term ‘orthodoxy’ – accepted within the Pagan scene at the time. Personally I found the event mind-bending, occasionally frustrating, usually rewarding, and always fascinating. It worked as well as it did because a community quickly coalesced around the ritual and the event. Magick ensued.”
The last Euphoria took place in 2009. In 2013, the Baphomet rite made a brief return. At this point, it is unknown if we’ll see it again. Sociologist Douglas Ezzy immortalised Euphoria in his book Sex, Death and Witchcraft: A Contemporary Pagan Festival, in which he anonymised it as Faunalia.
Other Festivals of Interest
There are other festivals that are not specifically Pagan, but friendly enough. One of them is ConFest, an alternative bush camping festival in New South Wales. Another is Seven Sisters, a three-day women’s festival in Victoria.
Big festivals are only one of many ways to create and shape Pagan culture. In fact, most Pagans don’t go to big festivals at all. They connect at small, local events such as the WildWood Faery Parade and Beltane Ritual in Brisbane, Pagan Pride Days, and Reclaiming WitchCamps. And Pagans work really hard to put these events on. They struggle to keep expenses down and draw enough people to make events viable.
With such a small and scattered Pagan population, if Aussie Pagans want community, they have to be flexible around traditions and practices. Inga Leonora Westerberg, an animist and polytheistic Witch from Hobart, Tasmania, recently facilitated the Tasmanian Pagan Alliance’s inaugural Beltaine event attended by about 22 people.
Tasmanian Pagan Alliance Beltaine 2015 [Courtesy Photo]
“Some struggled with the ritual format,” Westerberg said. “For others, it totally vibed with them, and they found the sweet spot having a much deeper experience. I work a lot with Indigenous myth and story and native flora and fauna, and for some that was something entirely new. Others said how they’d often thought about it, but never knew where to start. Others confessed this was not a path they had any interest at all in. And yet, there was not a single negative moment. What a sublime creature the Pagan community can be when it is at its best! I realised that regardless of what any single person brought to the event, and how they might influence themes and rituals and talking points, which they must in such a small group, it was not possible to cater to ever path and every tradition represented there. And one didn’t need to, because all were prepared to let go and try and experience, to openly discuss their thoughts without judgement.”
It’s an approach that Combined Covens Social Club takes as well. Formed in 1996, Combined Covens is made up of covens and other groups as well as solitary Pagans and Witches. The highlight of its calendar is Spring Camp, a weekend of workshops, rituals, music, and a market. This year, it also included the first Pagan Pride Day in Western Australia.
“I really do think that festivals offer the best opportunity for people to get a better understanding of what being Pagan may mean to them in a supportive and non-threatening environment. Even better when workshops are offered so that people can learn and talk about their own experiences,” said Shaz Lizzy. “Having attended some bigger festivals, Wellspring in the U.S. and ConFest here in Australia, it would be great to have other festivals offered. Social media is helping us to communicate between groups more readily and I hope to see more Pagan festivals and Pagan Pride days in the future.”