Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Satan’s messenger or man of magic?


In 1994 John Ellison opened the annual Winter Magic Festival with the words “let the magic begin”. As he spoke, the skies opened and snowflakes began to fall, transforming Katoomba into a fairy-tale playground with one of the heaviest snowfalls the town has seen in years. A coincidence, perhaps, or is there something more sinister afoot in the mountains?

The answer to that question depends on what is meant by words like Shazam! and Abracadabra! When a child practices a magic trick, like say, turning a toad into a prince, it is accepted by grownups as a quaint game. When an adult practices a magic trick, it becomes a potential act of voodoo. Yet spell-casting regardless of age, may just be an innocent way of reminding all-too-serious adults that life is short, and big folks need to lighten up sometimes.

Whichever is the case, the words John Ellison chose top open the festival certainly attracted a mixed response. Eyebrows were raised over his recitation of Aleister Crowley’s poem “Prologue of the Unborn”, which concludes with an invocation of Zeus’s transformable mistress ‘Io”, and the Greek god ‘Pan’. Pan, for the uninitiated, was a nymph-chasing satyr, half man, half goat, whose symbol was the phallus.

Aleister Crowley was the son of a Plymouth Brethren preacher. His mother referred to him as the Antichrist, because he rejected the ‘faith’ in favour of his own forays into the mystical realm. He published “The Diary of a Drug Fiend,” based on his experiments with heroin, and was possessed of a fetish for being degraded by scarlet women.

Opponents of the Winter Magic Festival believe John Ellison recites Crowley’s works because he too, is the embodiment of evil. They fear he is a spooky character, a satanist capable of indicting debauchery, whose mission in life is to bring the mountains undone by casting spells and practicing unholy acts of sorcery.

To others, Ellison is simply the well know upper mountains artist who created the Winter Magic Festival – a celebration of art and magic that culminates in an annual street fair attended by as many as 30,000 people. They take his recitations of bizarre poetry as a bit of fun – if indeed they even listen to them.

Ellison recited Crawley’s contentious poem to a handful of spectators on the lawn of the Carrington Hotel at one year’s festival. He was accompanied by a Bhuddist monk playing a Shakuhachi flute. The Shakuhachi has a floating sound not unlike a pan flute – a popular and tranquil instrument, said to have been invented by our nymph-chasing deity, Pan. By the time the poem was read, most of the crowd had already dispersed into Katoomba Street, to savour other highlights of the festival.

Despite being amplified, the recital was difficult to hear because of the sounds intruding from nearby stages. “The Buddhist monk was forced to perform in Katoomba Street,” Ellison says. “He wanted to perform in a church, but they said ‘We’re not having any Buddhists performing in our church!’. This sort of thing really surprises me because Christians claim to be a group of people who want peace, who are supposed to love everybody”.

They are saying now that Aleister Crowley was the baddest, wickedest man in the world. Yet he lived at a time when other men lived – like Stalin and Hitlor – who were truly wicked. The worst thing Crowley ever did was hang his girlfriend upside down in a cupboard. Now, I don’t know if you ever tried that, but it’s practically impossible to do anyway,” Ellison explains.

The wizard of Winter Magic says Crowley’s poetry doesn’t hold any special significance for him. “I am personally very interested in magic. But am I a sorcerer? Well just exactly what is a sorcerer? I mean, if you look at what I wear at Winter Magic, I’m basically just dressing up like a character our of a children’s story book. It’s a wizard’s costume, just like Micky Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s a caricature – that’s all.”

Mickey Mouse can ┬áhardly be held responsible for inciting acts of debauchery. Yet Winter Magic is said to be the inspiration for a group of teenagers who held a ritual sacrifice of a dog one year, after the street-fair closed down for the day. “People say all kinds of things about Winter Magic. When we started, we put a picture of a cauldron on the poster. Then the Christian churches started howling that Satan appeared in the street during the festival. That’s what Winter Magic does- it brings out the polarity in people. Other people said that we’d been slaying donkeys up on the highway,” Ellison said.

“People use magic all the time to exert personal influence in their everyday lives. The only difference in what we’re doing is that we’rd doing it deliberately,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is lift the cloud of gloom that has settled over this town and use a little social alchemy to turn it into gold.”

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