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Canberra Today 11°/13° | Wednesday, October 20, 2021 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Naked pagans with spears, those were the days!

“Yesterdays” columnist NICHOLE OVERALL looks back at some of sedate Canberra’s pagan days.

THE sensational results of the Commonwealth Census made front-page news under the headline: “154 people are pagan”.

Nichole Overall.

Identifying 22 of those with beliefs outside the mainstream to be women, so was it reported the ACT was “the only part of Australia free of them”.

No, it’s nothing to do with the 2021 Census and the exhortations from certain quarters for citizens to mark “no religion”.

It was 70 years ago when, on September 18, 1951, the Melbourne daily “The Argus” published the results of the 1947 census.

At the time, the notion the nation was to take the title of R.E.M’s 1991 hit “Losing My Religion”, had begun to gain voice.

While the national capital was generally orderly and still quaintly suburban, it wasn’t immune from the borderline hysteria of “Satanic Panic”.

A 1964 letter to the editor in “The Canberra Times” seemingly satirised the building zeitgeist. Entitled “New Madness?”, “P.G.E.” from Watson wrote: “Sir, Twentieth century? Why, with Beatlemania and fluoridation, witchcraft is flourishing again!”

Rock-‘n-roll and its “bastard son” heavy metal were deemed by various moral influencers as integral to the degeneration of the generation called “Boomers” (essentially those rocking-round-the-clock from circa 1960).

Elvis and his gyrating hips were bad enough for some, but come February in 1970 – and, of course, it was Friday the 13th – Black Sabbath made its death-hooded appearance. The descent thereafter was decried by the gatekeepers as a “Highway to Hell” – even Australia’s AC/DC was accused of making “devil music”.

Gen-Xers are perhaps the most familiar with the ’80s frenzy that swept “modern society”.

On that bandwagon, in the capital, long-running whispers of suggested associated untoward activities inside local nature reserves were amping up.

Following a press expose on the existence and growth of regional “witches covens”, it hit peak-hype in the early ’90s.

Published in the city’s primary masthead in October, 1994, was the claim “neo-pagan cults had developed a strong following in seemingly sedate Canberra”.

Expanding on that pre-noughties equivalent of clickbait, it stated this “included a group of men who meet naked in a forest on the edges of suburbia at night and carry spears”.

How this rather startling knowledge was attained wasn’t specified, nor which forest at what edge.

Next came an almost full page in “Sunday Features” – on the eve of Halloween no less. Titled “The Pagans of Canberra” and penned by five-year “Times” journo Chris Uhlmann, it was devoted to the “many different groups… practising [alternative religions] around Canberra”, touching on those 

focused on nature-based ideologies, “spiritual energies” and “pre-Christian” beliefs.

The article made a point that Canberra police did not believe any of the groups “were involved in any kind of illegal activity” nor was there anything “to suggest that individual aberrant criminal activity was linked to an organised group”.

Another analysis was the “Church of All Worlds” (CAW). Describing itself as “a modern, non-traditional belief fraternity devoted to Gaia – or Mother Earth”, its Australian headquarters was set up in Canberra in 1992.

Along with there currently being a “Canberra Pagan Gathering” Facebook page, I’ve had the chance to ask questions directly of one regional resident long-associated with such outlier organisations.

Anthorr Thomas openly confirms he is “a retired High Priest of CAW and head of the church during its Australian establishment”. 

According to Anthorr, gatherings were harmless celebrations involving practices that largely revolved around the natural world. This would include “flowers and fruit offerings to the forest and Gaia”.

“There were a few groups from around the ’70s but not as many as in the late ’80s and ’90s,” he says.

“Lots of the local groups did ceremonies in the local forests around Canberra and Queanbeyan during that period”.

Outside the square perhaps (or maybe the pentagram), but despite all the conjecture, it doesn’t appear to be something straight out of “The Exorcist” – its 1973 release engendering considerable consternation.

Still, as another local, self-declared believer and otherwise ordinary public servant noted in 1995: “Pagans have been getting bad press for 2000 years”.

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Nichole Overall

Nichole Overall

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