Bright lights, big cauldron
Our columnist-about-town tries the Wiccan faith on for size
Kaplan and Peter “the summoner” at a Wiccan event in Serena Grundy Park
Expecting upside-down crosses and human sacrifice, I arrive at my first Wiccan ceremony with my cellphone fully charged — if they’re going to boil me in a cauldron, I at least want to call my wife and baby and tell them I love them one last time.
I’m loitering in the parking lot of Serena Gundy Park just after 7 p.m. on a drizzly Sunday, creeping in and out of the damp woods, looking for the Wiccan Harvest Fall Festival, one of the biggest Wiccan events of the year. The Wiccan Church of Canada, founded by a Toronto-based husband and wife in 1979, is shrouded in weird. Like a Halloween-ready secret sect, the church uses a bizarre haze of vocabulary on their Web site, dropping terms like “coven,” “craft” and “ritual,” making the whole thing seem like one of those Twilight movies.
Tonight, the church is holding Harvesttide, an outdoor ceremony that pays tribute to our natural surroundings, and I’m walking around the park, looking for smoke and listening for screams. Frankly, it’s cold and I’m tired. Also, I’m scared out of my gourd. Thinking about home, I bump into a woman named Wendy with long blonde hair, a black leather jacket and a handful of rings. She’s either going to Harvesttide or else Siouxsie and the Banshees are playing a show.
“They certainly are a secretive bunch,” says Wendy, who tells me she’s celebrating her 46th birthday. “I don’t always attend their services, but I like to bless the harvest when they’re holding their meetings outside.”
Serena Gundy Park in the dark and at nighttime is so teenager-filled, cold and creepy that, when we stumble across the Wiccans by a bonfire at a clearing, I’m filled with relief. The truth is, the church was open with me and allowed me, a reporter — as they’ll allow anyone — to attend their ceremony and participate.
“Our religion’s not so much about the letter of God as much as it’s about doing unto others as you’d have done to yourself,” says a 35-year-old named Peter, who will act as the evening’s “summoner,” which is basically a witchcrafty word for security.
“My job,” says Peter, who’s wearing a long black robe and holding a staff, “is to secure the perimeter and make sure that no animals or people enter our circle.” What happens if someone does try and enter the circle? “I grab the high priestess and run,” he says.
When the ceremony begins, 13 people mill around the bonfire, and only half of them hold staffs or wear cloaks. It feels a little like a Dungeons & Dragons club.
“Let those now come forward and be cleansed,” says Daniel, kicking off the service by instructing the attendants to step away from the fire, then march back in, one by one, holding hands.
In the dark, holding the hand of a sneezy blind man, I repeat Daniel’s chant: “Hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.”
Wiccans believe in reincarnation, spells and magic, and walking around the fire, chanting. And I begin to question what I believe in. At 13, I had a bar mitzvah. At 32, I was baptized, so I could be married in my wife’s Greek Orthodox church. Both of these ceremonies I found somewhat uncomfortable. I didn’t really choose to participate in either one.
“Corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again,” chants Daniel, and we follow — the blind man, Peter, Wendy and me. Just when I think things couldn’t get any stranger, that the costumes and chanting and hidden service are as far as things could go, Daniel unsheathes a sword and Stephanie, the high priestess, kneels down before an effigy of a man made of straw.
“Come to us, this evening, Lord of the harvest. My Lord, you are Lord of fruition,” she says, kissing the wicker man’s knees. Candles are lit and incense is burned, and we raise our right hands to the four points of the compass, blessing the harvest at all points of the globe.
I can imagine that Judaism looks strange to an outsider. People speaking in a foreign language, standing and sitting and kissing a book. And I know all the chanting and incense and icons at our Greek Orthodox church in Mississauga freaked out my parents when they came for a visit. Still, as the people at my Wiccan service grab offerings from a picnic table — plums, pieces of cookie — and toss them into the fire, I’m sure I’m experiencing one of the odder moments of a particularly odd month. “By this, I summon you, old ancient ones. Manifest your essence from the blessed elements,” says Stephanie, and after she and Daniel trade a few lines, like an even trippier version of Sonny and Cher, they conclude their blessing with a kiss on the lips.
“There is no greater bond than that of a man and woman joined in love,” says Daniel before using his sword to try and cut off the head of the wicker man. It doesn’t work, though, and he just sort of bangs the thing, and Stephanie gathers up its splintered pieces and tosses the wicker man into the flames.
“It’s a sacrifice,” says Peter, and I run out of the woods as if chased by wolves.