Canada's most visible witch
DATELINE: TORONTO (AP) May 08, 1988
EDITOR'S NOTE To hear some of them tell it, there are more witches in
North America than you can shake a boom at. One of them is an American who
emigrated to Canada, a high priest of Wicca who is campaigning for witches'
rights. Among other things, he wants a license to perform weddings.
By JEFF BRADLEY Associated Press Writer
TORONTO (AP) He's a Vietnam veteran who spends quiet evenings watching
Cary Grant movies and would like to be reincarnated as Fred Astaire.
But Charles Arnold is also Canada's most visible witch, a second-degree
high priest of Wicca, the religion of witchcraft.
"I don't melt if water is poured over me," says the 40-year-old
clerical worker who is campaigning for legal acceptance of his beliefs in
both a male and female divinity, the potency of magic and absence of
Arnold began the quest last year when he asked his boss for paid
religious leave on the Wiccan holidays of "Samhain," Nov. 1, when witches
celebrate the mortality of the body and immortality of the soul, and
"Belthane," May 1, welcoming summer, life and fertility.
Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology, which employs Arnold in
its hospitality office, denied his request because Wicca is not recognized
by the Canadian Council of Churches and lacks tax-free charitable status.
Arnold protested to a labor arbitration board which upheld his
grievance and said: "Wicca is obviously a religion...the modern survival of
the ancient pagan religions of Western Europe."
But Arnold's victory was short-lived.
The native of Washington, D.C., who served a year in Vietnam, became an
anti-war activist and emigrated to Canada 15 years ago, had also applied
for a license to become the first Canadian witch authorized to perform
In a March ruling, the Ontario registrar-general's office turned him
down. It questioned the legitimacy of his ordination and the nature of the
Wiccan marriage ritual, known as a "handfasting."
Arnold blamed Ontario's Protestant establishment, although Council of
Churches official Edith Shore showed some sympathy for the Wiccans.
"Christianity was a fringe group when it started, too," she said.
Arnold complained that the Marriage Act discriminates against Canada's
5,000 witches by making it a crime, punishable by up to six months in jail,
to perform an unauthorized wedding.
"They should either license me or do away with the law altogether," he
said, noting that Wiccan weddings are permitted in 38 U.S. states. He had
to travel to Montpelier, Vt., for his own Wiccan wedding three years ago.
The practice of witchcraft is fairly widespread in the United States,
but precise numbers are hard to come by.
"It's everywhere, every big city probably has a group," says the Rev.
W. M. Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest based in Portland, Ore., who studies
cults. "I see it basically as a nature religion not associated with
Satanism, but that may be skewed because of whom I get to meet as a
Catholic priest. It's a write-your-own theology sort of a approach and it
runs a real broad spectrum."
Lady Sabrina, a high priestess in Nashua, N.H., estimates there are "a
couple of hundred thousand" members scattered across the United States,
including "a couple of thousand" high priests and priestesses.
Starhawk, a San Francisco high priestess and author of "The Spiral
Dance," a book about Wicca, largely agrees.
"I just had a conversation with someone and we decided that there were
between 250,000 and 4 million of us," she says. The 4 million, she
explains, would include all pagans.
"In any case," she says, "there are more of us than there are
Starhawk says many members are underground.
"There is a long tradition where it is not safe to be a witch," she
says. "We don't necessarily announce it. Many people's jobs would be in
Starhawk, an author and lecturer, teaches at a Catholic college in
Oakland, Calif. Her most recent book is "Truth or Dare Encounters with
Power, Authority and Mystery."
Lady Sabrina runs Our Lady of Enchantment, a Wicca mail order school
with 6,000 members representing 25 countries.
"I have performed marriages and have tax-exempt status, but I only know
12 or 15 others who have tax exempt-status," she says. "You really have to
fight to get it."
"Many of us in California perform marriages, but here if you go through
the trouble to sign the papers and take a blood test, you can get licensed
to perform marriages," Starhawk says. "A dog could get the license here."
Lady Sabrina, whose church is open to the public on Friday nights, says
she never heard of Charles Arnold, but that does not surprise her.
"For a while a woman in Salem, Mass., who was picketing the movie
'Witches of Eastwick' became very well known. Since there is no central
organization, whoever makes the most noise becomes the most prominent
Arnold, a soft-spokeman man with a beard, says he was initiated as a
priest in witchcraft traditions dating back thousands of years.
Each coven, grove or temple chooses its own rituals and vows. Some
covens meet in the nude, but Arnold's group prefers robes.
He offered this description of a Wiccan wedding:
Inside a magical circle, the male and female divinities are summoned
along with the guardians of the four elements air, water, fire and earth.
The groom's left hand is bound to the bride's right hand and some
choose to draw blood from their skin and touch like blood brothers.
Couples exchange rings, bracelets or floral crowns; step over flames
for purification and fertility, and jump over a broom to symbolize
Traditional gifts include bread (for plenty), silver (prosperity), salt
(health) and wood or coal (physical and emotional warmth).
Before the priest pronounces them husband and wife, he invokes the
couple "to pleasure one another," Arnold says. "We don't cut sex off from
the rest of life. We don't make a big thing out of it either."
At the heart of the primitive religion lies the power of the male and
female in nature, symbolized by the god usually referred to by the Celtic
name Herne, and the goddess known as Cerridwen or Athena or Isis, Arnold
Wiccans also believe in the mysteries of magic, reincarnation and in
celebrating the rites of passage, such as first menstruation and menopause.
"We go through life after life to learn and evolve and progress to the
point where we rejoin the god and goddess," Arnold says. "Behind them,
there is something we can't even identify, the unity they come from."
Witches don't go around laying curses on people, and they don't conduct
human or animal sacrifices, eat babies or worship the devil as depicted in
folklore and comics, he said.
But the craft does have a practical side.
"I mix up potions and my wife makes some of the finest liqueurs you've
ever tasted," Arnold says. "I use wormwood and calendula (a rare herb) in
vinegar to take bruises away and lavender vinegar for sunburn."
Arnold says he discovered his religion 10 years ago after intuitively
constructing a Wiccan altar in his home. A woman he was dating happened to
be a witch and was startled to see the altar.
Leader of the 50-member Temple of the Elder Faiths in Toronto, Arnold
was raised in New Jersey by a grandmother who read tea leaves.
"We believe that if you are meant to find the craft, you will," he
says. "Many traditional Wiccans think we're growing too fast and this will
water down the religion and may actually destroy it."
He said covens usually meet on eight sabbaths coinciding with the
year's solar and lunar cycles. The average age in his group is 27 and
members include a real estate agent, a schoolteacher and a naturopath.
"Covens are closer than most families. Members tend to be more
imaginative than most people and a little bit eccentric," said Arnold, a
published poet and expert on ritual body decoration.
"I want to come back in my next life as Fred Astaire. He had class."