Ancient European religions, and subsequently the modern revivals, modern Paganism in general and modern forms of Witchcraft, are largely based on lore that comes from the northern hemisphere. This stands to reason given that these things all began in the north. But it does mean that a lot of things within Paganism are kind of irrelevant if you don’t happen to live in the specific places the lore focuses on.
So a lot of us, especially those of us in the southern hemisphere, spend a bit of time trying to adapt to the northern traditions, lore and beliefs. We try to make our Paganism local, bring it to our land and try to make sense of it within our regions. I think that many of us (myself included) tend to go about this the wrong way.
Forcing Yourself to Adapt
Those of us who live in the southern hemisphere learn, often after a few years, that we must change certain things about Paganism to make it fit with where we live. We change the dates of the 8 Sabbats, we switch around the correspondences for the cardinal directions, and we cast counter clockwise. These changes, adaptations, make a lot of sense. Because celebrating winter when it’s actually summer just feels very wrong, so why should we follow the tradition of lands so very different from ours.
But we continue to search, often in futility, for hard to get herbs* like black cohosh and mullein (what the hell is that anyway?). We put these and many more non-native plants into our Books of Shadows, we add all sorts of animals that only live in zoos in our country and we pretend it means something – or we don’t even realise the redundancy of these additions. We even try to memorise what these things mean, what are their correspondences? We might even try to connect to an animal spiritually, an animal that we have never and never will see in our lives. Unless it’s trapped in a cage that is.
We spend so much time learning about, recording, memorising and trying to hoard things that are difficult to get, difficult to see, difficult to understand. We try to connect with things that exist half a world away – and really, that may as well be a universe away for all the good it really does us.
And it’s not just us in Australia who do this either – don’t go thinking you’re immune just because you live up north. Tell me you never tried to claim a lion or tiger or elephant or monkey as your spirit animal.
Ignoring The Land
When I began my deeper exploration into more traditional forms of Hellenism last year I kept looking through things like the Attic calendars. I was looking for things like festivals to observe in some way, even though I would be doing it alone and a world away. I already knew the futility of trying to celebrate something against the seasons, so I figured I could probably just take some ancient festival and change the date to something more suitable for my country and specific region.
Thankfully it didn’t take me too long to realise how stupid I was being – and then I realised why it was always so difficult to actually do anything as a Pagan and a Witch. I kept ignoring the things around me, my land, my country, my native animals and plants and weather patterns. As much as I was trying to adapt my religion and traditions to my land, still I was going about it in a way that put the northern hemisphere before Australia.
It’s the same as when we take the winter solstice, put it in June where it belongs, but change nothing about it otherwise. Holly? Ivy? Snow? These things are not in my town, my region. They don’t belong. Not only have I been trying to learn about and connect to things that aren’t part of my land – I, and many others, have been forcing our native lands to adapt and accept the incursion of other lands. Ivy and holly aren’t needed here for our celebrations.
Accept No Substitutes!
Today I randomly saw a question posted to some Aussie Pagan group on Facebook pop up in my newsfeed. The person asked whether other members ever substitute with our own native plants. And I couldn’t understand it at all, which really shows how much my perspective has shifted. Substitute what? What does that mean?
What they meant was, do we ever use our native plants as substitutes over more traditional herbs and plants. And again I couldn’t understand it. I mean I can, but I can’t as well. Why would you use a native plant as a substitute for anything but another native plant? Our native plants are part of our land, they belong here far more than some herb from Europe or America. So why should we be choosing them second?
The very idea is almost abhorrent to me now, even if two years ago it would have been completely normal to me. That for some reason it is better to buy some stale and dry imported plant, and if you can’t, well maybe there is some native thing that could take its place. Sure, the native probably won’t be as good – but hey, it’s better than nothing right?
I know this is not what people mean, it’s not what people feel – but I can’t help but hear it that way now. And it makes me feel quite sad, because in my experience, our flora is immensely powerful and is no substitute for anything.
Begin at Home!!!!
Last year, when I realised looking at ancient festivals to adapt to Australia was stupid, I decided to try a different approach. Now I begin at home and then spread outwards. Instead of finding something from the north, or from Greece, that I can adapt to here. I look here and see it for itself. So I looked in my area and noticed this massive thing that should’ve stood out to me years ago. That hulking mountain/volcano that I live beneath.
That thing has its own history, its own life and surely its own spirit. So must the lake nearby. So must the trees, bushes, flowers, animals, insects. So must the rivers and streams and creeks and hills and other mountains and valleys. So must those interminable mosquito enticing swamps. These are their own things with their own voices, their own stories. Why should I be forcing them to be substitutes for something else? They are the beginning and end of my practice and tradition, they are the lore.
There is no escaping that my, and most of our, practices and traditions come from Europe, America and even Asia and Africa in parts. But while the traditions and practices come from there, the meaning, the spirit, the life and heart and soul should not come from there.
So now, when I go to practice a bit of witchcraft I do not check my books or use Google to find a list of plants and whatever that can help me. Instead, I look in my own backyard. What is there in my yard, my street, my town, that is waiting to help me in my magic? What does the wattle want to do today? The Banksia, the bottlebrush, the eucalypt, the paperbark? What are they willing to do, what are they are asking for? If I am looking to make some divination tools out of wood, I don’t check to see what is traditional to use – I look in the back yard to see what wants to be used. FYI, it’s eucalypt, they are totally divinatory.
It’s only after I seek out the things at home for answers that I look to the northern traditions for ways in which to use and/or honour the things I have found. The volcano for instance, I can adapt Hellenism to the volcano. The trees, I can adapt Hellenism and Witchcraft to them. Same for the animals and everything else. But no more will I ignore them in favour of something imported.
Ask the Right Questions
Just to remind you, it’s not just us in Australia that make this mistake of ignoring the local land and its bounty. Wherever you are, there is going to be something that you are trying to use that might be better abandoned. And even if there isn’t, you still have to ask yourself just how local you are being.
If you are about to do some magic or a ritual for protection, don’t ask yourself what the books say about this – don’t go and google what plants and symbols could be used. Ask yourself, what in your back yard, your street, your area, fits the bill. Even if they aren’t actually native, they are still part of the land around you and so they are the ones that will give the most to your work. A local plant will be infinitely more powerful than an import, precisely because it is part of the land you are working on.
Or do you think the tree in your yard doesn’t want to be protected as well?
* Okay so it’s not so hard to get certain herbs now with the rise of the internet, but still, they aren’t always easy to get either.