[Around the World is a monthly weekend column. It features different Pagan and Heathen writers from outside the U.S.A. bringing varied perspectives to The Wild Hunt. Today we introduce Cosette Paneque, a blogger and Priestess in the Georgian Wicca Tradition, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.]
Greetings from Down Under!
I’m an immigrant twice. The first time, I emigrated from Cuba to Miami in 1980. In 2012, I moved to Melbourne, Australia to be with my Aussie partner. I left behind an incredible spiritual community. I belonged to Beachfyre Coven and to the Everglades Moon Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess through which I held ministerial credentials. I was involved with Cherry Hill Seminary and the Pagan Newswire Collective. I belonged to an ilé. I went to Florida Pagan Gathering and PantheaCon. I am Wiccan and I counted Santeros, Druids, Heathens, Hellenists, and various other kinds of polytheists as friends and acquaintances. I expected that Australia would have the same kind of vibrant community, but, if it does, I haven’t found it.
Australia has a smaller population than California spread across a vast and diverse country roughly the size of the United States. The Pagan pool is much smaller here. In the 2011 census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 32,083 Australians identified their religion as a Pagan. Pagans are also widely dispersed, but no one is ever too far when you have the Internet. I made contacts and met some people and, eventually, made some friends.My experience with Aussie Pagans has been delightful. They are intelligent, talented, caring people with a hunger for knowledge and community. But many of them – in fact almost every Pagan I’ve met – have had extremely negative experiences with other Pagans, which has left them deeply wounded and suspicious of each other.
The negative experiences fall within a few categories. There are those who know very little and place themselves in positions of leadership, the responsibilities of which they are unable to handle. They are quickly challenged by others or they burn out. There are those out to make a quick buck and manage to succeed for a while before they acquire a terrible reputation. Some groups are little more than cliques. The worst are the stories of abuse – of initiates coerced into getting tattoos as a sign of membership and allegiance; of priests who accept only young women as students; and of priestesses who make sex a requirement for participation and twist sacred rituals into something sordid.
Even organizing a casual lunch can be challenging because Pagans are afraid of running into someone who has hurt them. There are a few well-regarded groups such as Reclaiming and ADF, but covens remain largely hidden. Most Pagans that I’ve talked to prefer to remain solitary.
Many, however, express a longing for community and access to teachers. They seek information and a sense of kinship on Facebook and other online sites. I’m primarily speaking of Wiccans, Witches, Druids and other kinds of eclectic Pagans. I haven’t met other kinds of polytheists and, if there is a community of African diasporic religions such as Vodou or Lucumi, it is deeply hidden.Contemporary Paganism has been in Australia for a long time. By the 1970s, Alexandria Wicca was established and came to be the most popular initiate tradition in Australia.* And yet Australia has since developed very little infrastructure to support and connect Pagans. The most well-known organization may be the Pagan Awareness Network, but it’s difficult to say how active the group is or what its impact has been. The media release on the website’s home page is dated 2012, and my attempts to get an interview with a representative have gone nowhere. There are few festivals, but most of these suffer from organizational problems. The most well-known festival may be the Mt. Franklin Pagan Gathering, a casual weekend camping event that has been taking place for over 30 years.
Legally, Aussie Pagans don’t fare very well. The 1901 Constitution of Australia prohibits the Commonwealth government from establishing a church or interfering with the freedom of religion. However, none of the Pagan religions are legally recognized. Here in Melbourne, I’ve met three Pagans who are marriage celebrants (marriage is a civil act) and none who are clergy. Although I do know of at least one Pagan church, the Community Church of Inclusive Wicca Incorporated (CCIWI)in South Australia. Strict weapon laws generally mean that athames are illegal and difficult to purchase even from abroad.
When it comes to rituals and magick, a major struggle is that much of the Pagan material comes from the Northern Hemisphere, primarily the U.S., and it doesn’t easily apply here. Our seasonal cycle is opposite; some of us just observed Imbolc while our friends in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated Lughnassadh.
That one is easy, but others things are sources of conflict. For example, the sun travels from the east to the west through the north, as opposed to through the south. There are countless arguments among circle-casting Pagans about the direction in which to cast the circle and whether the elements should be associated with different directional points. It’s the old debate on whether to use what we inherited from the symbolism in the Western Mystery Tradition or to apply a geographical interpretation. When it comes to correspondences, there has been little work done with Australia’s unique flora and fauna, and many Australians have simply been working with material developed in the U.S. and England.
There’s a great divide among the Pagans that I’ve talked to regarding what they want. Some just want to be alone. Some want community, but they don’t think it’s possible to achieve it due to previous negative experiences. Therefore, they don’t support efforts to develop it. Many others want to develop friendships and networks, build infrastructure, and establish festivals that could create access to teachers. Many Aussie Pagans are familiar with well-known American Pagans, especially authors, and bemoan the fact that they have neither the means to bring them to Australia, nor the funds to travel to the U.S. to see them at events such as PantheaCon or Pagan Spirit Gathering.
I am thrilled to know some wonderful Pagans doing great work here in the Lucky Country. More groups, publications, and festivals are popping up every day. I know Aussie Pagans who are podcasting, writing, facilitating public workshops and rituals, and doing research on Australia’s unique plant and animal life. Many are interested in exploring Aboriginal culture, but that presents its own special challenges.As for me, I’m in the curious position of being well-versed in a particular form of Wicca from the Northern Hemisphere and being a complete beginner Down Under. Everything is different here – the land, the spirits, the wildlife, and plants. I have a lot to learn. After being unable to find my niche, I decided to create it. After two years of networking and five months of teaching an introductory course on Wicca, I have formed a coven. I am excited and privileged to be working with such bright and talented people, to re-introduce the Georgian Wicca tradition to Australia, and I look forward to learning as much from them as they might from me.
* Reference: Douglas Ezzy’s essay “Australian Paganisms”, Handbook of Contemporary Paganism edited by Murphy Pizza, James R. Lewis