Pagan sabbat in the suburbs

2012-05-05 00:00

AS the sun set on Workers’ Day this week, many families in the Pietermaritzburg suburb of Lincoln Meade were relaxing over a braai or in front of the TV. In an empty field just off one of the main roads through the suburb, however, a coven of witches was holding a “sabbat” to mark their pagan sacred day.

As darkness fell, a tall figure in a black robe stood with arms raised at the north-facing point of a large pentagram painted on the ground, while a small group chanted: “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna.” Then the high priest walked around the perimeter of the five-pointed star while pointing an ornate dagger at the ground and announced: “I cast this circle.”

In the centre of the circle stood an altar with a gold candle and a silver candle, a chalice filled with a dark liquid and the coven’s Book of Shadows. The small group gathered around this altar and with low voices began murmuring. Some words drifted out of the circle on the night air — “I call on the goddess who … shows herself as maiden, mother and crone … I call on the god, the ruler of seasons …”

The ceremony went on for half-an-hour, and then the group hugged each other and dispersed.

The high priest, Raven Silvermist, aka Paul Hartmann, walked over with a grin on his face and explained: “Tonight is a sacred night, Halloween or the witches’ New Year.”

He explained how in the pagan tradition May 1 is celebrated in the northern hemisphere as Beltane, the coming of summer and the flowering of life; while in the south it is Samhain, the end of summer and a time for marking the natural transition between one stage of life and the next, a time when family spirits return. Many people of European descent associate May Day with maypoles and bonfires, as these have been a part of many European pagan cultures since pre-Christian times.

Paganism describes a range of beliefs from Wicca (old English for witch), to shamanism, druidism and even African witchcraft. Hartmann’s group, the Spiral Henge coven, count themselves as “eclectic pagans” who incorporate beliefs from many different pagan traditions. He insists, however, that they are not Satanists.

“Many people think we make sacrifices of virgins or animals, or worship Satan,” he said, “but what we do is white magic; we don’t believe in the Christian concept of Satan. There have been no blood rites for hundreds of years.

“We believe that whatever you do comes back to you threefold. We do cast spells, but for good and for self-protection. We only have one commandment — ‘If it harm none, do thy will’.”

In fact, aside from unusual coven names like Starflower and Onyx Wolf, the members of the coven are all quite normal. One is motor spares counter salesman, another makes and sells home industry products, while one young woman has just left school and has dreams of becoming a forensics detective with the SA Police Service. The high priestess of the coven has asked to remain anonymous because her family is conservative and she doesn’t want to cause her parents any embarrassment in the community.

“We are normal people, although we like to remain private and don’t evangelise,” Hartmann said.

For this reason, putting a figure on how many people practise paganism in its various forms is difficult to do.

“Many pagans are solitary,” said Roland Fivaz, a druid based in Durban.

Not all pagans belong to official groups like the South African Pagan Council (SAPC), the largest body representing South African paganism, but Damon Leff says there has been an increase in the number of pagans since 2004, mostly eclectic pagans who are inspired by New Age philosophies. He is the “magus” or leader of his own clan based in the southern Cape, the owner and publisher of Penton online magazine (, and a co-founder of the eclectic pagan mystery school, The Grove.

He said the SAPC has more than 200 members, including member groups and their members. But as many are solitary practitioners, there are likely many more in the country. Various estimates have previously been suggested, ranging from as few as 5 000 to 15 000 self-identified pagans, Leff said.

“Over the next millennium pagans will increase in number and in influence,” he said.

Back in Pietermaritzburg many local residents got in on the celebration of Workers’ Day at a pub near the field where the witches had earlier held their ritual. Part of the fun at Cliffy’s pub were a maypole, pumpkin carving and fire displays that included fire breathing, a flaming bicycle and flaming rope skipping by performer Tony Hickman.

“We want to share the joy we feel and to educate people,” said Hartmann. “Blessed be.”

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