Like any ordinary 12-year-old girl, Tamarra James had to deal with all of the confusions that go with puberty and early adolescence—including the perceived need to conform. “I just couldn’t stand being different from the other kids anymore.” And in her case the difference had a difference: she was a practising witch, carrying on a way of life taught her by her grandmother. So one day she stood on a bridge in her home town of Victoria, B.C.,and unceremoniously dropped her robes, incense burner and book of rites into the river below.
Then, for four years, she sought answers in the more orthodox religions, dabbling in Christianity and Judaism as well as the Eastern philosophies before returning to her roots, to Wicca, and taking up its practice once more in earnest. And now, at 29, Tamarra James is the high priestess of the newly formed and legally sanctioned Wiccan Church of Canada, whose “vatican” is the back room of an occult book, potion and paraphernalia store in downtown Toronto. Its adherents are witches of the “white” variety; there are about 60 regulars who are, in turn, part of a Canadian movement of perhaps 1,000 in a North American movement with a conservatively estimated membership of more than 40,000. While such numbers hardly indicate a wholesale return to the “Old Religion” of our Celtic, Saxon or Teutonic ancestors, they do tend to confirm that paganism, cruelly and murderously suppressed for a thousand years by Christianity, then scornfully debunked by the scientific revolution, is alive and healing. The Wiccan Church, in fact, recently won the right to enter Ontario jails and reformatories to minister to its flock.
Wicca (“wise one” in Old English), or Paganism, or Neo-Paganism as it is sometimes called, is a religion of many gods and goddesses, with Mother Earth, the protector of fertility, and the Horned One, protector of the hunt, the two most dominant figures. Until the 10th century it coexisted fairly well
with Christianity in northern Europe and the British Isles. Then it became a heresy and by 1750 or so at least 900,000 of its practitioners had died at the hands of the Inquisition and its equally brutal Protestant counterparts.
Which accounts, at least in some degree, for the fact that even today most Wiccans lean toward anonymity, and some have even changed their names to protect their families. Last fall in Vancouver, the townsfolk became upset when a young man accused a local group, on television, of practising “black magic”; this led Fred Lichota, a 25-year-old Vancouver engineer and Wicca adherent, to try to make things right, because “they were saying that you couldn’t let your children walk the streets and that witches were sacrificing chickens in Gastown.” He later regretted his decision: “I’ve been threatened with losing my job as a result of the publicity. Some sort of educational process is needed, but sometimes the hassles aren’t worth it.” On a more basic level, the day after Tamarra James and her husband, Richard, a TV lighting technician and high priest, opened their occult store in Toronto last May, somebody tossed a brick through the window.
In a society that’s still afraid of the dark, it’s hard for Wiccans to explain that their rites and practices, their white magic, is totally removed from black magic and Satanism. Not even The Wizard of Oz, juxtaposing the Good Witch of the North with the Wicked Witches of the East and West, did much to dispell the notions. Nor does it seem to matter that many of the trappings of Christmas are pagan-inspired, or that the annual Maypole dancing is no more than an ancient phallusworship and fertility rite.
But if Wicca isn’t fornicating with the Devil and that sort of thing, what is it? Another term for white magic in the Dark Ages was “curative sorcery,” and that, along with an enhanced empathy with all nature (which has attracted ecology activists to the fold), seems to be the basis for it. Recourse to the “supernatural,” at least according to Margot Adler’s just-published study of the phenomenon in the United i * States, Drawing Down \\ ; the Moon, is more or less
In fact, it appears that one of Wicca’s attractions is that so much is optional. Unlike the majority of the post-1960s cults and sects, Wicca is nonauthoritarian, religiously tolerant, even down-
right casual in its approach. It also has the virtue of being non-sexist, although a number of the 30-odd newsletters floating around the U.S. right now are debating whether the Goddess is or is not the superior personage. Whatever the case, Wicca is certainly not maledominated. “In nature,” says Tamarra James (who trained her husband after they were married), “there’s a balance between the male and female. I looked for that in other religions, but I always had the feeling something was missing. Then I realized it was the Goddess who gave balance to my beliefs.”
While much of its “theology” may be suspect (“Those who seek here for a mystical profundity hidden from common men will seek in vain,” wrote British critic Elliot Rose of the Wicca revival) and its “cures” and treatments medically questionable, modern paganism seems to have developed an easinessemdash;despite the knife-wielding, circledrawing and arcane-language aspects of the rituals. When, each Sunday, Tamarra James traces out the “place between the worlds” with her copper dagger, the followers who join her within may be robed, as she is, or in jeans, or in three-piece suits. In the midst of the ceremonies, they can and do break off to tell jokes, discuss problems, sip wine and eat a little “sabat cake,” a traditional concoction of wine, flour and honey.
If witchcraft hasn’t yet taken itself off the blasted heath and put itself into the mainstream of North American life as a full-fledged religionemdash;Tamarra and Richard James are still seeking the right to perform weddings, or “handfastings,” that are legally recognizedemdash; it is gaining some legitimacy. This June, in Helen, Georgia, there’s going to be a conference, attendance by engraved invitation. All priests and priestesses are expected to be there. lt;£gt;
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.