A researcher from New Zealand studying modern day witches and pagans in Malta claims she has had to conceal the identities of those she interviewed to protect them.

Social anthropologist Kathryn Rountree believes the people she interviewed for a book could risk losing their jobs if they became known as practising pagans in the strongly Catholic country.

Contacted by The Times, Dr Rountree said it was premature to talk about the subject for the time being because she was still in the early stages of analysing her research data.

"It is very important for me that I do justice to this material and to the people among whom I have been conducting research in Malta.

"I very much want my book to explain modern paganism from the insider's perspective, and to dispel misunderstanding and prejudice about this spiritual movement. I will be able to do this better when I have had more time to work on the material."

In an interview posted on the Massey University website, Dr Rountree, a senior lecturer in the School of Social and Cultural Studies in Auckland, New Zealand, says Catholic disapproval of alternative religions in Malta meant extreme caution and attention to ethical research practices were vital in her approach to interviewing pagans and witches, as well as Catholic priests.

She stumbled upon contemporary pagan culture in Malta after a series of field trips to study ancient megalithic temples.

With a working title Between The Worlds: Witches And Pagans In Malta Today, it will be the first book to explore neo-paganism in an overwhelmingly Catholic society, she says.

Although contemporary paganism is anathema to the average God-fearing Maltese citizen, there are, in fact, some surprising links between it and traditional Catholicism, the author argues. Contrary to common Catholic perceptions, paganism is not synonymous with devil worship, Satan and the Occult, Dr Rountree says in her interview.

She was aware that 23 unique monuments in Malta - the oldest free-standing stone buildings in the world - were frequently visited by modern goddess followers on pilgrimages from the US and the UK. But she had never come across a Maltese version of goddess worshippers.

About a year after returning to New Zealand from a trip to Malta in 2003, she received an "intriguing" e-mail from someone in Malta, asking her if she knew about a secret order claiming to have revived the worship of a pre-Christian Maltese goddess.

The correspondent introduced her by e-mail to a modern Maltese "witch", whom she named as Isabella. Isabella was one of three people whom Dr Rountree interviewed extensively in her research on the hidden pagan culture.

In a paper recounting her fieldwork, she says: "I met my first Maltese witch outside Burger King, Valletta. Isabella wasn't old and ugly with warts on her nose; she was young and pretty with a stud in her nose, white curtain-hooks in her ears, and a glossy purple Mohawk".

Isabella was not part of any "secret order", but she was in touch with many Maltese pagans. By accepting an invitation to attend a summer solstice celebration, Dr Rountree met other pagans and witches in Malta who got together to participate in pagan rituals.

What fascinated Dr Rountree was the observation that although Maltese pagans and witches shared a kind of global pagan culture with feminist and New Age spiritual movements elsewhere through books and the internet, they did not share the same opposition towards orthodox Christianity.

Despite not having the freedom to declare their pagan beliefs openly in a society suspicious of alternative religions, Maltese pagans maintain an affinity with Catholicism simply because they are so deeply imbued with it, she discovered.

One of the pagans interviewed tells Dr Rountree: "For me, trying not to be Catholic would be like trying not to be Maltese".

In a country where religious and social issues are ardently debated in the media, Dr Rountree suspects a book exposing the existence of a contemporary pagan culture may not be warmly welcomed. Yet, she hopes it will educate people about the true nature of neo-paganism.

"What I want to do is to show it (paganism) for what it is," and by doing so, dispel fears and prejudices.

Contacted for his views, historical anthropologist Charles Cassar said that despite the passage of time, the mentalities and practices of many have not changed.

Maltese Catholicism had evolved to include remnants of old beliefs, superstitions, such as warding off the "evil eye", folklore, magical practices and healing which persist today.

If one had to delve back to the 16th and 17th centuries, witchcraft was practised by many, especially for healing purposes. At the time, magic was not viewed negatively and was often blended into religion, Dr Cassar said.

Even nowadays, many Maltese still resort to fortune tellers but the majority would not perceive it as some form of paganism even if, like Dr Rountree, Dr Cassar believes Christianity is ingrained in society.

"I believe we don't have a cosmopolitan society as we have a 'peripheral' mentality. Ultimately, I'm not conscious that paganism is so widespread in Malta."

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