Do you believe in magic?
“Do you feel it?”
I have a flexible copper band between my fingers, a bracelet removed from the wrist of Rick Duhr, an instructor at the Ottawa Pagan Schola. Duhr is a no-nonsense kind of guy and he’s staring at me expectantly, waiting for my response.
It’s a busy Sunday morning, and I’m sitting in a corner of a crowded Starbucks in the St. Laurent shopping centre, trying intently to feel an electric current Duhr says is running counter clockwise through my body.
He removes the bracelet from my fingers and asks what I feel now. Is a current building up in my right hand? I feel a slight tingle, I tell him, somewhat hopefully. He nods approvingly.
As we part ways following our interview, Duhr leaves me with one last comment.
“It’s inherent in everybody,” he says. “It’s whether or not we learn to use it.”
He’s talking, of course, about magic.
But magic is only one element of the loosely defined pagan community – albeit one that tends to evoke those Hollywood images of black cloaks and chanting around a fire.
In Ottawa, the community follows a diverse range of traditions, meeting socially throughout the month.
It has been a distinct community since 1980s, when the Ottawa pagan brunches began. They’re still held a couple times a month at Uncle Louis’ restaurant near St. Laurent. 2002 saw the first Ottawa Pagan Conference, the beginnings of the Ottawa Pagan Schola (a school for pagans), and the monthly Ottawa Pagan Meet and Greet. Since then, the community has quickly grown.
“Back when we started [the Ottawa Pagan Schola], there were about 200 people that talked to each other intermittently,” Duhr says. “Now there’s about 600 that talk to each other on a regular basis.”
The Pagan Federation Canada (PFPC), defines paganism as an umbrella term for people who practice “earth religions” not based around the afterlife.
Chantelle Russell, a teaching assistant at the Schola and a history student at Carleton, wouldn’t even define it that closely.
“Some but not all of us believe in reincarnation,” she says. “A lot of us, but not all of us believe in magic.”
Earlier that week at the Pagan Meet and Greet held at Malone’s on Dow’s Lake, Dale Dalessio gave an equally vague description.
“Unless you are a specific tradition, anything goes,” she says.
The best known traditions include: Wicca, where practitioners are known as witches, Druidry is a tradition inspired by ancient Celtic tribes and Asatru, or Old Norse, which has roots in Northern Germany. But the divisions don’t stop there. There are ceremonial magicians, reconstructionists and eclectics — people who pick and choose a little bit of everything.
The pagan community is not limited to a specific group of people, either. At Malone’s, the crowded back table of merry pagans could just as well be a book club or a cycling group. The only hint is the occasional glimpse of a pentacle necklace — an encircled star representing the elements — air, fire, earth, water and the spirit.
Delassio, a witch, insists that practicing Wiccans are normal people.
“Witches live in a house, they have a full-time job, they send their kids to school, they get their groceries at the same place you do, and some of them even have white picket fences,” she says.
Lee Ann Farruga and Patrick Gilliland are a married couple and both Carleton alumni. Farruga is a Strega witch; a kind of “kitchen witchery” passed down through families and still practiced in rural Italy.
Gilliland is a Druid, and a former reservist. He says that Druidry attracts everyone – including a surprising number of former members of the armed forces. Aside from him, he points out two other members sitting at the table.
Christianity didn’t make sense to him, he says, and because Druidry doesn’t have sin, he says he felt it didn’t stigmatize his choice to be in the military.
As a Druid, “It’s okay to be a warrior, it’s okay to be a fighter, it’s not wrong,” Gilliland says.
Duhr points out that members of the armed forces are just one highly visible group within the pagan community. Many members turn to paganism because they were looking for something they didn’t get from their previous religions, and now they have the flexibility to pick and choose what makes sense to them.
But Gilliland says, in true pagan style, even “umbrella term” may be a bit too specific a term for the diversity of the group.
“It’s a whole bunch of umbrellas,” he says with a laugh. “And some of them are parasols, and some of them are paper, and some of them are plastic, and some of them are raincoats, and some of them are naked people running through the rain because they don’t really want an umbrella.”
Under the umbrella of paganism
Wicca is a tradition based around Mother Nature, and stemming from pre-Christian European traditions. The festivals revolve around the harvest, with eight big festivals a year called Sabbats and monthly full moon rituals.
For their rituals, witches draw a circle on the ground to create a temporary temple. There are different sects within Wicca, for example Gardnerian and Alexandrian.
In Ottawa, Delassio says a group will use a working circle to direct their energies where they’re needed — to help someone find a job, to heal a sick child, or even to help another member find love.
Druidry is a revivalist tradition inspired by the ancient Celt priests and priestesses, and is usually very nature focused.
In Ottawa, Patrick Gilliland says Druids use a sacred grove reserved for worship. They chant or recite Celtic poetry to call on a god or goddess, and sip from an ancient chalice or horn. The rituals are open to the public several times a year — the next event is Yule, around Dec. 21.
Asatru is a tradition of the Old Norse, emerging from the Northern European countries. They worship several gods and goddesses — traces of which can be found in the days of the week (for example, Tyr’s Day for Tuesday, Thorr’s Day for Thursday). Asatrus also celebrate eight major holidays, the next of which is Yule.
From the PFPC – Pagan Federation Canada