Australia’s Northern Territory (sometimes just called “the NT” or “the top end”) is the country’s third-largest federal division, covering over 520,902 square miles (1,349,129 square kilometres). This vast space is made up of rugged coastline, a national park spanning around 12,000 square miles (20,000 square kilometres) and larger settlements in the north; the south has smaller settlements, sacred rock formations and mountain ranges dotted across the immense, red desert. For more than 40,000 years this land has been comprised of a dozen different indigenous language groups, Pitjantjatjara being the largest and best-kept language.
The NT’s great spaces are sparsely populated: the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent demographic data have the region’s population sitting at below 250,000, with just under half of that number residing in the capital city of Darwin.
What does all this mean for Pagans living in the Northern Territory? What Pagan community can possibly exist over such a huge distance? How does the experience of being Pagan in the NT differ from other areas of Australia and the world?
In her 1997 book Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia, academic Lynne Hume reports that the Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance, which was started by Julia Phillips and Matthew Sandow and was at the time based on Britain’s Pagan Federation, had “regional councils in every Australian state and territory,” however looking back at that time Phillips confessed this may not have been the case in all states:
“…the principle was sound. The Pagan population simply wasn’t diverse or large enough to support that management model. In practice, getting just one coordinator in a state was a major achievement! The state coordinators have always been, and remain, the backbone of the Pagan Alliance however, and their contributions over the years have been outstanding.”This points to an active Pagan community in the NT, albeit a very small one, during the 1990s. There had also been smaller, less public groups prior to this, but the Pagan Alliance was the first organisation that covered the whole state.
One of the first times that Paganism hit the mainstream media in the NT was in 2003, when Christopher Dixon, also known by his Pagan name Elfrend, was banned from teaching his two courses, Introduction to Witchcraft and Neo-Pagan Rituals for the Top End at the Northern Territory University’s Katherine Regional Centre. The Cambridge-educated father of two was given no reason as to why his courses were cut from the centre’s curriculum offerings, but this did not deter him from nurturing and assisting his local Pagan community in other ways.
Tess Hudson moved to the NT from Canberra in 1997, leaving behind an active Pagan community only to come across something much smaller and more underground.
“There were no real occult shops or anything, just a few ‘hippy’ shops that had some new age stuff in stock, and occasionally a decent book or tarot deck,” she remembers. “I’m sure there were Pagans aplenty up there, but there was no way of knowing or meeting each other: no gatherings, no moots, no occult shops with notice boards.”
Having been involved in the Pagan Alliance in Canberra, Hudson was soon contacted by Elfrend, and went on to help him establish the organisation in the Northern Territory. She attended café moots for a little while, but stayed in touch with Elfrend for much longer as she acclimatised to a Pagan spiritual practice in a place so different to what she was accustomed.
“The major thing to get used to up there was the seasons. I had come from Canberra, which is a place of four definite seasons of roughly equal length that correspond fairly well to the English seasons, just at opposite times of the year. In the Top End, you have the Wet, the Dry and the Build-up and Build-down. This pattern changes as you head south and inland. Katherine, only 350 kilometres south of Darwin, has totally different seasons. The centre is different again being desert….Once you get your head around the local conditions it gets somewhat easier.
“There is still a sort of dissonance to celebrating the very British, Wicca-based style of Paganism that I was used to….Instead of celebrating the horned god, holly/oak kings, or classical moon goddesses, it became a lot more about being out in nature somewhere and just attuning to the energy that was currently there – drawing it into me, savouring it, meditating on what it might mean in my life at that moment. My moon work followed the more traditional Wiccan-style esbat format, but my seasonal work took a different direction. I never tried to incorporate indigenous practices into my own, as that felt disrespectful to me. I worked a lot in the indigenous communities as well as working closely with indigenous students while I was at uni[versity], so I did learn some of their mythologies and cosmologies, but it never felt right to incorporate any of it into my own practices.”
Elfrend went on to co-organise the 21st annual Australian Wiccan Conference (AWC) in 2005. It was the first time an AWC had been held in the Northern Territory. Around 60 participants enjoyed workshops, an equinox ritual and music by Wendy Rule. The flyer from the event described the NT Pagan community as “vibrant and growing,” and a source of support and companionship for its members and their chosen paths.Elfrend was also listed as the NT contact for the now defunct Australian Pagan Alliance (a new incarnation of the Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance) until the end of that decade, when the organisation wound down in several states. A number of public and semi-public circles and meetups continued around the NT during that time, mostly centred around Katherine and Darwin.
Elfrend and the NT Pagans (now a subcommittee of the Pagan Awareness Network) ran the 2013 AWC on the Mary River, around an hour’s drive southeast of Darwin. Entertainment was provided by members of rock band Valanti. The equinox ritual was hosted by Nik Fullerton.
All this had technically been going on unlawfully: in late 2013, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was finally repealed in the top end. The act, which marked the end of witch trials in Britain’s early modern period, made it illegal for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. The maximum penalty set out by the act was a year’s imprisonment. The law was considered outdated: NT attorney general of the time John Elferink said he wasn’t aware of anyone ever being charged under the act in the Northern Territory. Indeed, the act had been so overlooked that it had had little to no impact on the NT Pagan community before its repeal.
Nik Fullerton, who helped host the 2013 AWC as part of NT Pagans, joined the group in 2006 initially for fellowship and information. The group started as a Yahoo message board some years earlier but around the middle of the century’s first decade expanded to include some face-to-face rituals and full moon get-togethers. A retired nurse and current tutor in the healthcare field, Fullerton took over as lead organiser/moderator of NT Pagans in 2008.
“Elfrend is off doing other things these days, but he’s still part of the community. I consider him an elder,” she writes.
Fullerton describes herself as a practising Pagan. “My religion is also my culture… built into my daily life. I’m often surprised when people ask for my help. It might be as simple as smoking a house or business or something a bit more personal like doing a card reading.”
Are the Northern Territory’s large area and small population obstacles to organising a Pagan group?
“Sadly, due to members moving house and distance issues….It does make it difficult to all get together in one place. We try not to lose members even if they go interstate. We started the Facebook page for anyone to access,” says Fullerton. This means the group is made up mostly of solitary practitioners.
It’s a similar story for Marian, who has lived in the NT for most of her life.
“I have found that due to the limited population, that there are very few groups or people in close proximity to connect with, and minimal shops who cater for particular needs, so I take advantage of online shopping and when I go away on holidays to check out shops down south,” she says. “I have joined a few Facebook groups to be in contact with other like-minded people but it isn’t the same as face to face interactions.”
Marian grew up being taught about spiritualism alongside more mainstream religious beliefs. “I knew from a young age that organised religions were…not for me. The older I grew, the more I felt justified in my own beliefs. There is still a lot of discrimination against people with alternative views, and I think many of us older ones keep our beliefs to ourselves rather than face ridicule.”
A mother of young girls, Marian has chosen to focus on raising her children to be open-minded. “As my girls are growing older, I will start giving them the opportunity to question, learn and develop their own views.”
Hudson moved back to the southern states in 2011. “One of the obvious challenges of being in the NT would be the vast distances involved,” she says. “You’re a long way from everywhere else, so the gatherings that happen in southern parts of Australia are difficult to attend – even if you manage to know about them. Trying to organise just a local gathering can still involve long distance travel for some attendees, and because it will only be small numbers at is likely to be expensive.”
Australia’s Northern Territory quite often seems remote and rugged to those who have never lived there, but for locals, there is lots of appeal: a laid-back lifestyle, multicultural society and ancient landscape which seems almost infinite in size. Although she resides in the southern states now, Hudson agrees.
“There’s a wildness to the place I’ve never experienced anywhere else in my travels. Nowhere at all.“
Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed.
Drury, N., & Tillett, G. (1980). Other Temples, Other Gods: the occult in Australia. Perth: Methuen Australia.
Hume, L. (1997). Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Maharaj, R. (2003, February 21). “Witch Can’t Teach Craft at NT Uni.” Northern Territory News.
NT Pagans. (2005). Event flyer for the 2005 Australian Wiccan Conference.
Phillips, J. (2008, Winter). “A Personal History of the Pagan Alliance.” Raven’s Call: the Tasmanian Pagan Alliance Newsletter, pp. 9-10.
“Spellboard Community Notices. Spirit Guide to Spellcraft Magazine” (2008, Winter). Spellcraft Magazine. (9), pp. 66-67.
Tully, C. (2005, September-October). Magickal Year. Witchcraft Magazine(46), pp. 12-13.
Waldron, D. (2008). The Sign of the Witch: modernity and the pagan revival. North Carolina: Carolina Academic Presss.