For modern witches, the occult provides something the church can't

For modern witches, the occult provides something the church can't

For modern witches, the occult provides something the church can't

Updated 20 September 2017, 9:20 AEST

More than 22,000 Australians identify as Pagan or Wiccan, and their reasons for seeking alternative spirituality are equally diverse.

The orphan wizard is a character we're all familiar with, thanks to the success of Harry Potter, but for Marque Caban it's his own reality.

The Sydney-based psychic, who also goes by the name of Panther, spent his childhood in and out of foster homes and orphanages, some government-run, others led by religious orders.

It was during these early years that Mr Caban realised he wasn't like the other kids.

"Even though I was in an orphanage, I spent most of my time alone. I was the weirdo in the group," he says.

"As a kid, I would see colours around people and I would see beings, I guess you'd call them spirit guides.

"I thought that what I saw everyone could see, but I found out later on in life that that wasn't the case."

Seeking an explanation for why he could sense the emotions of others, Mr Caban considered entering the priesthood, but early experiences of abuse — which he prefers not to discuss — turned him away from Christianity.

After coming out as a gay man, he says he faced further discrimination from the church.

"I wasn't accepted by the church because of my sexuality. I wasn't accepted by the church because of my belief system, and because I could see energies," he says.

"It was hard enough having that pointed at me, then to be gay and [for them] to say 'you're an abomination' was just horrific.

"I didn't know who I could talk to — in those days you didn't talk, you hid it."

But that all changed when Mr Caban was introduced to the occult.

Paganism and witchcraft in Australia

According to the 2016 Census results, there are 15,222 Australians who subscribe to a pagan belief system, and 6,616 practicing Wicca (witchcraft) — numbers that are slightly down from the 2011 census.

Newcastle University's Associate Professor Marguerite Johnson says the popularity of the occult ebbs and flows. It peaked at the turn of the 20th century, again in the 1960s, and again during the New Age movement of the 70s and 80s.

"Witchcraft today encompasses a whole lot of different pockets of people who ... practice magic to affect change in the world — to cast spells," she says.

"One thing that unites practitioners of witchcraft, magic, neopaganism and the occult is a belief the air is animated with forces — the ocean, the trees — and if you can undertake certain practices and rituals, you open yourself up to be able to communicate with those forces."

Contemporary Pagans generally follow one of the ancient polytheistic religions of Rome, Greece, Egypt or the Celts.

Wiccans, on the other hand, are defined by their uniting belief in the Wiccan rede, which instructs: "Do what thou will, as long as it brings no harm."

"Wiccans are usually people who follow particular paths; that could be the path of Gerald Gardner, who was an English occultist during the last century, or the Alexandrian tradition," Professor Johnson says.

Other occult movements include the Church of Satan, a Judeo-Christian tradition founded by Anton LaVay in 1966, and Aleister Crowley's Eastern-influenced practice of "sex magic".

Learning the craft

Psychic Leonora Jackson doesn't call herself a witch, or a Wiccan for that matter, but as a Sydney-based coven leader, she's intricately involved in the occult.

"I do practice and teach the craft of the wise, so in that sense you could say I'm a witch, but I don't necessarily call myself one," she says.

"I am pagan as an adjective, because I like to dance in nature with nothing between me and the divine."

Back in 1986, when Mr Caban was working behind a bar, and Ms Jackson was singing in front of it, the pair's paths crossed.

"She knew straight away that I was a hyper-sensitive person, and that I could feel and see things that I wasn't quite sure how to control," Mr Caban says.

After striking up a friendship, Mr Caban was inducted into Ms Jackson's coven, and he's been an intermittent member for the past 30 years.

Ms Jackson says the term coven refers to a group of people — usually about 13 — studying a particular form of philosophy.

"A coven is a place of security, safety, where people can come and learn certain things, and express themselves in certain ways that might otherwise be unacceptable in other parts of society," she says.

Grounded in understanding oneself, both spiritually and sexually, coven rituals can include "sky-clad" or naked rituals.

The covens of Kings Cross

Sexual liberation was a key theme in Ms Jackson's path towards the craft, and like Mr Caban, she had been a victim of abuse.

After falling pregnant as a teenager, she says her baby was taken away, without explanation or support.

"No-one told me why they took the baby away, where the baby was," Ms Jackson says.

Isolated and greatly affected by the trauma, Ms Jackson started working as a stripper.

"I needed to work, I needed the money and I finally found a support group that would let me do that without causing me damage," she says.

"And I needed to understand that it was OK to express myself in a sexual manner and still be a clean-living human.

"I was indoctrinated for all those years by the church telling me, as it does to everybody, that if you express yourself sexually on any level that's not within the sacrosanct boundary of marriage, that you're a dirty, filthy person going to hell."

It was during her years spent working in the Cross that Ms Jackson met the famous Australian occultist Rosaleen "Roie" Norton.

Known by locals as the "Witch of Kings Cross", Ms Norton sparked controversy for her erotic pagan artworks and sexually liberal coven.

"I said: 'Am I a witch? I'm sure I'm a witch!'" Ms Jackson recalls.

"She said: 'Well, darling, yes you are, but I'm not your teacher.'"

Three years later — as predicted by Ms Norton — Ms Jackson met the man who would become her teacher and coven leader, German-born Edgar Pilkie.

"I was 19 when I met him, and three months after that I decided I'd actually go into it full-time," she says.

Empowerment in the occult

According to Professor Johnson, it's no surprise that magic and witchcraft appeal to people who have experienced trauma or hardship.

"There are sociological theories to magic and why people practice it, and one of those theories is that magic is the last recourse for disempowered," she says.

But the empowering aspects of paganism and witchcraft can also strike a chord with the broader public.

"Where religion requires subservience and sacrificing oneself to a higher power, magic doesn't; it's about empowering the self, and that appeals to a lot of people," says Professor Johnson.

"[Magic] lessens the likelihood of disaster in a lot of people's minds; it makes the world more certain."

For coven leader Ms Jackson, life-altering experiences are often the impetus behind spiritual searches.

"I think most [people who] study the occult or psychic awareness and so forth, they have a calling — it's part of them," she says.

"But … if they're going to do it in any sense of a lifestyle, they always have to go through some dark night of the soul.

"They have to go through some life-threatening challenge — a car crash or a hideous childhood, or some dreadful personal loss — something is going to trigger the need to go searching further.

"Because they know there's something beyond just plain, old living, and they're driven to go look for answers."