Australian paganism: Remnant of the past or way of the future?

Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Lynne Hume Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1997 (xiii, 272 pp). ISBN 0-52284-782-X (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Douglas Ezzy (ed.), Practising the Witch’s Craft: Real Magic Under a Southern Sky, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2003 (vii, 256 pp). ISBN 1-86508-912-5 (paperback) RRP $29.95.


Australians are not an overtly religious people. Melbourne sociologist Gary D. Bouma has suggested that:

Australia’s religious plurality presumes that religious commitment will be at a low temperature … Religion in Australia is most tolerated when it is not obvious, not worn, not demonstrable, does not interfere with ordinary life by dietary or feast/fast days, or special clothing; so long as it is private and unnoticeable (1999, p. 8).

Bouma’s observation is significant in the light of the contemporary religious scene, in which new and diverse movements struggle for recognition and status amidst the more ‘established’ religions.

Religious data from the 2001 Census suggest that the patterns discernible in the 1991 and 1996 Censuses continue. More and more Australians deny any religious allegiance—2,957,304 specified ‘no religion’ in 2001, but to this we can add other categories such as the 17,567 agnostics, the 24,464 atheists, the 1,617 rationalists and the 5,041 Humanists to top 3 million unbelievers. The larger Christian denominations are declining, and the number of believers is not restored by growth in newer forms of Christianity like Pentecostalism or by the rapid expansion of paganism, Buddhism, and Islam. The rising number of pagans and Buddhists can be explained by conversion (from Christianity or religious indifference); whereas increased rates of adherence to Islam is a mixture of higher birth rate, migration, and conversion.

Buddhism and Islam are both ‘world religions’ that have endured for centuries and gained a certain respectability as a result. Yet, Islam is a rather too visible and ‘high temperature’ religion to be broadly acceptable since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States on 11 September 2001, the bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002, and the 2000 gang rapes in the outer suburbs of Sydney (Deen, 2003, passim). The ‘ordinary’ Australian also often greets paganism with dismay, although paganism’s recent news profile is nowhere near as compelling as Islam’s.

Indeed, the reappearance of Paganism since the 1950s is one of the more fascinating changes in the religious landscape of Western culture. It inverts the trend of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, when Christianity triumphed over the indigenous beliefs of the Celts and Germans, the Slavs, the Romans, and the Greeks.

The Context of Modern Paganism

The ‘ordinary’ Australian also often greets paganism with dismay.

Australian academic Lynne Hume’s pioneering study Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia is dedicated to ‘all victims of religious persecution’. Her dedication poignantly connects the historical effacement of paganism with the discrimination and vilification often experienced by contemporary pagans. This discrimination is in part due to false images of paganism that circulate freely, fuelled by media controversy and Christian activism. More significantly, discrimination may result from the profound and radical challenge paganism poses to post-Enlightenment Western culture, and to more recently fashionable Eastern spiritualities. As Erik Davis notes:

Wiccans—the more inclusive category of Pagans—reject scientism, dualism, and the pure drive for escape velocity found in many transcendental Eastern paths … And though generalizing about such a ragtag crew is like painting a rainforest with one shade of green, it can be said that all Pagans, recognizing humans as little more than animals with particularly swelled heads, seek to plug themselves into the imaginative and energetic matrix of nature (1993).

Paganism questions the most cherished assumptions of Western society and culture. Pagans do not find it more logical to believe in one god; therefore, they do not find monotheism intellectually superior to polytheism. Pagans also prefer to experience the divine through ritual and nature, rather than to talk about it and develop doctrine that inevitably sets like concrete. Although it has rules and standards, the pagan world is fluid compared to the dogmas of Christianity and the empirical standards of science. For pagans, rationality is a useful tool but not the yardstick against which all should be measured; if it were, magic would be impossible to find in life and nature, and for pagans magic is real and relevant, more powerful, and compelling than reason.

Pagans do not find it more logical to believe in one god.

So it is fitting that, although genealogies can be constructed to connect modern pagans with earlier eras, it is widely agreed by scholars and pagans alike that the founder of this religion was Gerald Brousseau Gardner, a retired English public servant with a history of involvement with esoteric and occult movements including the Ancient British Church and the Order of the Golden Dawn. Gardner claimed to have been initiated into witchcraft in 1939 by Dorothy Clutterbuck, a ‘traditional’ coven member resident in Bournemouth, near the New Forest. Dorothy died in 1951, the same year that the Witchcraft Act was repealed, and Gardner transformed Wicca into a religion for the future with the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954. Wiccan High Priestess Vivianne Crowley says of Gardner:

The religion of Wicca which emerged from Gerald Gardner’s books is a religion based on initiation into a Mystery tradition which practised rites based on the seasonal cycle, out of doors, often skyclad or in naturist fashion, using the Wise-craft of our ancestors and giving honour to the female Divine—the Goddess. Three major strands of belief and practice had merged: the Dionysian ecstatic and shamanic practices of the Paganism of the woods and groves; the more Apollonian temple religions of later Paganism; and magic. In the twentieth century the word Witchcraft had come to mean not just a particular form of magic using incantations and spells, but a whole system of religious philosophy and belief (1996, pp. 34–35).

Gardnerian Wicca rapidly generated a myriad other forms of paganism, including Alexandrian Wicca (founded by Alex Sanders), Dianic Wicca (for women only, and particularly strong in the United States), (indirectly) Asatru and Theodish heathenism, and generic non-initiatory forms of paganism. Wiccan groups all have a strong Celtic emphasis, with festivals derived from the ancient Celtic seasonal cycle. The Northern heathen movement concentrates on the Scandinavian gods and goddesses; and there are also worshippers of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman pantheons. The Church of All Worlds, which has been officially recognised as a church by a number of governments, including those of the United States and Australia, was founded in 1962 by Lance Christian and Tim Zell (later called Otter), two American students who wanted to recreate the fictional church founded by Martian Valentine Michael Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s cult novel Stranger in a Strange Land (Davis 1993). As myths are just narratives upon which to build, a novel might provide as good a basis as any ancient text.

Australian Pagans According to Hume and Ezzy

Hume and Ezzy are aware that the growth in paganism is often presented as a fad.

We don’t know precisely when paganism appeared on the Australian religious scene, though Lynne Hume suggests that its presence in the 1970s was preceded by a significant occult and esoteric subculture. This began in the mid-nineteenth century with Druid lodges, Freemasonry, Spiritualism, and the Theosophical Society. It continued throughout the twentieth century with the Rosicrucians and the Ordo Templi Orientis (founded by Aleister Crowley, the ‘Great Beast’), and charismatic figures such as Rosaleen Norton, the Witch of Kings Cross (Hume 1997, pp. 30–40). The 2001 Census figures suggest that the pagan population of Australia is still small, but fast growing. To get a total figure, we can amalgamate the following groups: Druidism (697 members), nature religions (2,176 and 49 members), paganism (10,632 members), pantheism (1,085 members), and Wicca (8,755 members), giving a total of 23,394. This is more than twice the number of self-identified pagans appearing in the 1991 Census.

Lynne Hume and Douglas Ezzy are aware that the growth in paganism is often presented as a fad, promoted by television series such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and films like The Craft. The target market would seem, then, to be young women, particularly members of the ‘Goth’ and ‘feral’ subcultures. Both Wiccan, Hume and Ezzy themselves manifestly do not fit this profile. They are both academics in the humanities who have chosen to write about paganism because of their own gradual and evolving commitment to this new faith. Hume is a distinguished scholar of Australian Aboriginal religion and Ezzy is a sociologist of marginalised groups who has written on the unemployed and HIV sufferers, among others. Their books are very different, but both reflect the changing perception of paganism in Australia and its growing acceptance and incidence as a religious choice. Hume’s study is carefully academic, and employs classic modes of analysis (such as the late Ninian Smart’s ‘seven dimensions of religion’) to demonstrate paganism’s legitimacy as a religion. She also discusses legal problems that may affect pagans (such as discrimination) and explains the rise of paganism as a product of the secularisation of Western culture and the growth of diversity. She concludes, rather hopefully it seems, that in the future paganism will seem as legitimate a religious choice as any (pp. 226–238).

Douglas Ezzy’s book confirms Hume’s hopes for the future. His volume, published six years later, is essentially a collection of testimonies: fifteen chapters in which sixteen practising pagans (including Ezzy himself) speak of how the practise of paganism has affected their lives. The tone is warm and conversational, and the pagans emerge as charming and interesting people, ranging from youth to late middle-age. Common themes include the feeling that the Christianity of their upbringing did not fit their view of the world; the electric experience of working ritual alone and in a group; a concern with both feminism and the environment; and the celebration of human life, from birth to sex to death. Olvar and Yavanna, a pagan couple, write:

Many non-Witchcraft traditions tend to denigrate sex and the body as merely physical. Witchcraft teaches us to celebrate the body. More than that, the Craft teaches us to see the pleasures of the body as part of spiritual worship. This transforms the role of sex (p. 110).

Paganism, a religion of the pre-Christian past, has been resurrected as Christianity’s influence declines.

Ezzy himself notes how witchcraft taught him not to feel guilty; Kathleen McPhillips describes the rituals designed to celebrate menstruation, particularly the menarche, performed by her feminist spirituality group for members and their teenage daughters; and Lewis, a retired pagan living in the country, challenges readers’ assumptions about what is ritual and what is spiritual, recommending quiet sitting in the dark to listen to the sounds of nature, and nude bushwalking. His smile is perceptible through his words:

Nude bushwalking is highly recommended to witches and anyone else who yearns for a truly liberating experience. For the record, nude bushwalking is not so unusual as it may sound. Until a short while ago, a mere 200 years, nude bushwalking was the universal fashion in Australia. Every body did it (p. 252).

Pagan Prospects

Australia is growing steadily more diverse, despite a more conservative political and religious climate of late, due in part to the dominance of the John Howard-led Liberal Government and world events such as 11 September 2001. Lynne Hume’s excellent volume published six years ago provided an academic introduction to the pagans of Australia, an exotic subculture for the anthropologically minded student or interested layperson. In 2003 Douglas Ezzy invites a far broader reading public to recognise pagans as neighbours, friends, and fellow Australians. The validity of his perspective is supported by Kelly Burke’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘No rest for the Wicca’ (June 2003) in which she stressed positive aspects of the pagan community, rather than the usual hostile journalistic clichés. Burke notes that the Australian pagan community is well educated, concerned for the environment, and involved in charitable work—in short, much the same as everyone else.

Paganism, the religion of the past that was all but extinguished by the advance of Christianity, has been resurrected as Christianity’s influence declines. It remains to be seen whether Paganism will be a significant player in Australia’s religious future, but the evidence of the 2001 census and publications such as Hume’s and Ezzy’s indicate that it is a vibrant and creative small religion, contributing substantially to our multi-cultural, multi-faith Australia.


Bouma, Gary D. 1999, ‘From hegemony to pluralism: managing religious diversity in modernity and post-modernity’. Australian Religion Studies Review, vol. 12, no. 2, Spring 1999, pp. 7–27.

Burke, Kelly. 2003, ‘No rest for the Wicca—growing pagan population shows its political spirit’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 2003, p. 3.

Crowley, V. 1996, Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium, Thorsons, London and San Francisco.

Deen, Hanifa. 2003, Caravanserai: Journey Among Australian Muslims, 2nd ed., Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle.

Davis, E. 1993, ‘Remains of the deities: reading the return of paganism’. Voice Literary Supplement, November [Online], Available:

Carole M. Cusack is Lecturer in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include factors influencing religious conversion, secularisation, and the growth of ‘New Age’ religion, and European mythology.

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