With a church, weekly public meetings, and some 2,000 practicing members, Wicca in Toronto is steadily taking off.
Whatever power it is that unleashes the rain was kind to the 20 Wiccans who gathered at dusk in Serena Gundy Park on a recent summer Sunday. Clouds threatened but showed mercy as the group sat cross-legged in a circle around a small fire pit, engaged in their weekly ritual of magic.
Lynna Landstreet, one of the Wiccan Church of Canada’s many priestesses, led a ceremony that would have been unique even to someone familiar with witchcraft. Wearing a simple black button-down shirt, she paced the centre of the circle and explained that she’d purposefully left her ceremonial tunic and ritual tools at home; in their absence, she’d be able to reflect on the meaning behind them.
Instead of symbolically cleansing the circle of bad energy with a besom—the broom made of branches that witches are famous for—Landstreet asked the group to sweep from their minds all the daily frustrations of life and work that they’d carried with them. During the evocation of the four elements (meant to bring the group into balance), when she typically would have lit a candle, Landstreet spoke of the spark of life that exists in each cell of our bodies. Wiccans are encouraged to form relationships with their favourite deities from a variety of traditions, including Celtic, Egyptian, and Roman. On this night, however, members were directed to look for the divine in each other’s eyes.
“It’s easy to get too caught up in surface symbols and images, and lose sight of the principles behind them,” Landstreet later explained. She noted that it’s important to remind those present why tools like the besom and candle are used, especially in an open Wiccan ceremony, where some in the circle might not be entirely familiar with the neopagan faith.
As a public organization, The Wiccan Church of Canada (groups are more commonly referred to as covens) is a radical idea for a religion that’s been historically secretive and invite-only. In fact, the faith’s opaque nature has made its origin story the subject of much debate. Most practitioners today agree Wicca was invented in the mid-1950s by Englishman Gerald Gardner. He claimed to be carrying forward an ancient tradition, but it’s now generally believed that he created a good chunk of Wiccan practices himself, basing them on his own and others’ imaginings of obsolete or fictional earth-based rituals. “The narratives about it being an ancient tradition are best seen in a metaphorical sense,” said Landstreet, who discovered the faith as a 16-year-old cynical of the more established religions. “It was an attempt to connect with the natural world.”
Tamarra and Richard James, the founding high priestess and priest of the Wiccan Church of Canada, became involved in the faith in the mid-’70s in Los Angeles. Introduced to paganism by his wife, Richard says it appealed to him as a feminist—goddesses have equal rights among Wiccans—and as an environmentalist. He also professed a fair dose of cynicism himself. “Patriarchal monotheism only leads to competition among men who think they know all about the ‘one god,’” he explained.
When they moved to Toronto in 1979, the couple opened The Occult Shop, now located on Bathurst just south of St. Clair. According to Richard, there were a number of Toronto covens active at the time, but the one they started was the first to be public. He’s seen the faith steadily grow since then and estimates there are now at least 2,000 practicing Wiccans in the city.
Exactly what Wiccan magic entails is mostly misunderstood, due to pop culture from The Wizard of Oz to Charmed to Harry Potter. “If people want to be able to levitate stuff and throw lightning bolts, they will be disappointed,” said Landstreet. The common definition of magic, she offered, is “causing change in accordance with will,” but she personally prefers to call it an “active form of prayer.” Like other faiths, the praying person appeals to a deity, but also views her own intention as having power. Landstreet believes magic does alter probabilities, but allows for the possibility that it’s also just a particularly colourful form of positive thinking. “When it comes to subjective things like the experience of pain, the mind has a fair bit of control over the body,” she said.
During the city’s flooding in July, Richard recounted how members of the group prayed to Tlaloc—an Aztec God of rain—and lit candles to counteract the deluge. Of course, this was done only after more practical matters were taken care of. “The first magical step you can do after a flood,” he said, “is get a pump and try to redirect water.”
The next public Wiccan circle will take place at Serena Gundy Park on Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. Admission is free. See wcc.on.ca for details.