Modern witches are more interested in self-help than spells
Oliver Roberts delves into the culture of modern-day witchcraft in South Africa
It's Friday evening and I'm in a witch's house, ie a neat facebrick cluster in Joburg's northern suburbs. On the coffee table are candles, bottles of red wine, snacks and a selection of books (A Witches' Bible, What Witches Do et cetera.) A chocolate-point Siamese cat runs by. The flatscreen TV is showing mostly naked, circa 1970s, men and women doing mysterious witchy things in black and white. "Skyclad" is the pagan term for ritual nudity.
Tonight is one of (not-his-real-name) Ryan X's "soirée evenings". It's a rare opportunity for anyone interested in the occult, in esotericism, in "the craft" of Wicca, to meet a Wiccan high priest, as in Ryan, and discuss mysteries and magick while generally drinking too much red wine.
Apart from me and Ryan there are five people at tonight's gathering, including an interesting dude who sits cross-legged and barefoot on his chair and air-drums to Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven when it comes up on Ryan's playlist.
You could call Ryan a witch - Wicca, a term coined in the late '60s/early '70s and meaning "wise one", is really just a gentler word for witch - and he follows what's known as the Alexandrian craft, one of the more ritualistic and secretive branches of Wicca. Other branches include Gardnerian and Eclectic - these were established in the '50s/'60s. Witchcraft itself is, of course, ancient. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca are named after their respective "founders" Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders, both British.
To become a high priest or priestess is seriously hard work. First of all, when it comes to initiation into the Alexandrian craft, you'd have to send a hand-written letter to a high priest or priestess explaining why you want to enter the craft. If you're selected, you get one-on-one training, which includes copying out the Book of Shadows, a sort of Wiccan bible containing sacred texts and instructions for magick rituals. Note the difference between "magic" and "magick" - the former is card tricks and rabbits and women being sawn in half et cetera.
"Wicca is a religion and Alexandrian craft is a priesthood, a vocation in the same way as something like the Catholic priesthood," Ryan says. "People underestimate the kind of discipline required to study the craft. It's quite rigorous. It's something you've really got to be bloody sure you want to do."
Initiation takes up to six months. After that, training begins. This includes taking an oath of secrecy, because the knowledge is considered sacred and will not be understood outside of its context.
So what about magick? Casting spells? Ryan says there are eight methods to "raise power" in a craft circle. Wiccans say they play with energy during these spell-castings, and it's not for amateurs. Some I spoke to said that while casting spells weird things sometimes happen, like rushes of cold air, or lights flickering, or a bongo drum playing on its own.
"Power is power is power, and power raised in the circle is like electricity, it can be used to shock someone to death or used for light," Ryan says. "A lot of magick is used for healing."
Spell-casting is not about asking for endless riches or to wake up one day and look like Ryan Gosling or Scarlett Johansson. No. Wicca, as it was explained to me, is largely about introspection, about confronting yourself - the good and bad - and discovering ways to improve. Spell-casting is part of that. You could liken it to prayer or wishing over a birthday cake - you can ask for something but if you're not willing to take initiative and do something about the thing you prayed/wished for, nothing's going to happen.
Magick, according to Ryan, is something even non-Wiccans use regularly, albeit subconsciously: "The way you set up a room before people come to visit you, atmosphere, body language. Body language is a huge thing; the active use of body language puts it into the realms of magick."
When I first meet Ryan, at a coffee shop in a mall, he's wearing a pentacle symbol around his neck, as well as numerous rings. I ask him whether people look at him strangely, or think he's into devil worship (which, FYI, Wicca has zilch to do with). He says that he only wears these things on certain occasions, certainly not day-to-day, because his profession would not look kindly on it. But there's also another reason. "I don't want people to know what I do," he says. "The word 'occult' means hidden, secret. In traditional Wicca, we like our work to be somewhat hidden, not because it's dodgy but because it's sacred."
Moira Chalklen and Leanne Middleton, whom I meet a few days after the soirée, are high priestesses who practise Eclectic Wicca. This form is less ritualistic than the others and probably a little more "relaxed"; although the initiation is still rigorous, it's less old-school than what Ryan practises. Part of Eclectic Wicca's appeal is that these witches create their own practices and beliefs, rather than being beholden to the rigidity of more traditional Wicca.
Unlike Ryan, both women are quite happy to make their witchiness public. Middleton wears her pentacle to work (she's a claims manager!) and Chalklen has a small crescent moon tattoo on her forehead, just below the hairline. Chalklen is a third-degree high priestess (the highest you can be) and runs a coven with her husband, a second-degree high priest. She came to Wicca eight years ago after she had to send her 13-year-old daughter to rehab. While in rehab, her daughter met a Wiccan and, witnessing her daughter's subsequent improved frame of mind, Chalklen, who was brought up as Catholic, decided to look into it.
"Wicca is essentially a self-help religion," she says. "It forces you to face demons you didn't know you had. I have a bad temper and that's one thing Wicca did for me - help me acknowledge that a temper is not always a bad thing; it's good to have if someone's ripping you off because you need to assert that power. You learn how to use that temper in a positive way. I call it 'romancing the shadows': learning what you don't like about yourself and not getting rid of it but changing it to something positive."
Middleton says Wicca has helped her to deal with a lot of insecurities about herself and that, through the whole initiation process, she "found herself".
"I don't care what people think," she says about calling herself a witch. "People are more accepting of the term 'Wiccan' or 'pagan' and more wary of 'witch', but it's just connotations. We are witches, and I will say that."
Apparently when some people are initiated into the craft they can't wait to start casting spells, which is understandable. But, according to Middleton, this is a typical newbie pitfall.
"Spells consume a lot of energy so you try to conserve that energy until you really need it. You can't keep doing silly little spells every five minutes because the universe won't grant them. You should only really ask for what you need, and only really under dire circumstances should you use it. Because you need to learn how to deal with issues with yourself instead of relying on magick."