GREY COUNTY, Ontario – Mythwood Campground, located an hour and a half north of Toronto, was the scene for a tribute to one of Canadian Paganism’s foremost leaders. On Aug. 19, Tamarra James, high priestess of the Wiccan Church of Canada, was the latest Pagan elder to be “roasted” as part of the Great Pagan Roast series. Now in its fifth year, the series is part of the programming for HearthFire Gathering, an annual festival offered by local organization Tribal Hearth.Roast co-organizer, Khaman Mythwood, explained HearthFire Gathering to The Wild Hunt:
The tribe gathers at Mythwood Campground & Private Retreat, a Pagan and polytheistic spiritual oasis, built to create sacred space for the Pagan community. Tribal Hearth’s Hearthfire Gathering is a living myth tradition, which includes people from different belief systems working harmoniously together. Our tradition of the livening myth has a 37-year story arc that evolves and changes as the community members take on mythical story archetypes like the champion, the poet and the seeker. This year’s theme was “The Poet in Spring-Communing with the Land Spirit and the Green Man.” Together we built the Green Man Grove, played at the carnival and added stones to the Ancestors Cairn. Hearthfire is a highly spiritual event that focuses on community development and magical experiences.
Mythwood, along with roast founder, Crystal Allard, and a committee, select their “roastee” very carefully, as Mythwood explains:
The Great Pagan Roast committee has quite a list of up-and-coming great Pagans to toast. Every year we go through the list very carefully and all the factors come into play. Have they exacted change in the community? What actions have they executed? How many people’s lives have they affected? Are they an advocate for human rights? Have they been a good influence? Are they qualified to share their teachings? And so on and so on. Lady Tamarra passed all the criteria with flying colors on a broomstick. All that and good timing is what it takes to end up in the hot seat.
It has been 49 years since James’ initiation into the Craft. She began learning witchcraft in the 1960s in Vancouver, British Columbia. She read tarot cards in a local nightclub and met her husband, Richard James. They traveled to California and then New York, eventually settling in Toronto.
It was there, in 1979, that they opened the legendary Occult Shop, which operates to this day, and help found the Wiccan Church of Canada (WCC). The WCC operated out of the James’ home, eventually giving birth to a new, Canadian witchcraft tradition.After being asked by many participants and visitors, “What tradition is this?” they named their path the “Odyssean Tradition.” The name is a reference to Homer’s epic, and speaks of the individual journey of a seeker.
Witchdoctor Utu, of the drum troupe Dragon Ritual Drummers, was on hand as Roast Master, and was enthusiastic about James’ impact and influence on Canadian Paganism:
How doesn’t Lady Tamarra influence a modern Pagan in Canada? She was the first in our now-thriving movement. She has set the bar so high many who are leaders, performers, and organizers can only endeavour to dream of such innovation and trailblazing. She paved the way and laid a foundation that many are not even aware of or take for granted. Her staggering longevity, pertinence and perseverance blows me away. Her and her husband/partner Richard have shown me and many connected to me nothing but support, encouragement and hospitality over twenty plus years of knowing her. The respect I have is immense for everything she has done in her still-continuing legacy.
It was an honour to be on her dais. Best to say that what is said at the Pagan elder roasts stays there…but her good sportsmanship and humour was in full swing, because the roasters were ruthless, as is the style of comedy for them, meaning not only the guest of honour but each member on the dais as well as Canada’s Pagan community at large was fair game.
Another to roast Tamarra James was longtime friend Ross Carter, who explained how James had affected him personally, and the career path he has taken as a result:
Tamarra has influenced my entire approach to my craft. She has allowed me the freedom to explore and to develop my own approach to my craft. She has also been a great influence in my life choices such as my decision to become a Wiccan chaplain in the federal prison system, a career that I love.
I had the honour of sitting to her right and to participate as a roaster. It was hard to make light of her, but I think that I may be one of the few people who can get away with it. What the world needs to know is that she has been an influence on many, many people and has consistently fought for the rights of Pagans and Wiccans across Canada, especially inmates at all levels of incarceration. She is a beautiful human being who really does have the gods foremost in her heart.
Following the event, The Wild Hunt was able to reach James via email. She shared some of her reflections on the roast, and her perspective on how the Pagan movement in Canada has developed:
The Wild Hunt: How does it feel to be roasted by your friends and admirers? Can you share a highlight or two?
Tamarra James: Humbling, honoured, amused, confused. I had not actually thought of myself as an elder in that way, I was taught that your student should surpass you and mine have. Listening to former students, leaders and elders in their own right, who have gone on to chart new territory, speak of early days [with] us was lovely, and knowing I have gained the love and respect of those I met on other paths along the way was truly heart warming. Utu saying this wouldn’t be here had we not opened the door was startling and I suspect it would have happened anyway but perhaps in a different way. I think all the roasters were fairly kind to me and I was certainly touched by the memories they shared
TWH: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the Craft in the 49 years since you became an initiate?
James: I came into a craft that was so secret you could not enter a circle without being initiated. All rights of passage were expected to be performed in your family church because even they didn’t know you were craft. There were many “witch wars” or as I called it, “bitchcraft” in the early days with lots of personality. I’m pleased to see people accepting and celebrating different paths and feeling comfortable sharing spiritual dialogue and ritual space, access traditional lines.
The existence of children as part of the Pagan worldview is a lovely development, watching the young ones having a place in the spiritual world of their parents instead of being shut out is a very positive step, there is room for the mysteries and also for shared experience with others that was absent in the early years of total secrecy, we are now free to live our craft fully throughout or lives without fear of persecution.
TWH: Is there a Craft related issue or topic that is of particular interest to you right now?
James: I’m fascinated with the new interchange of ideas and the growth of broader ceremony though things like Mythwood, and Raven’s Knoll, Gaia Gathering, WCC, the networking and open sharing has give new life to future that is creating a variety of experiences not available before. When I came into the Craft I didn’t envision a day when there would be an open door that was easy to find until we provide one – now I see a whole range of possibilities for those seekers once the find their way to any of the current points of entry. There is much more support for each other then there was in the past and this is leading to real growth and discussion of all.
TWH: Any other comments you would like to share?
James: I don’t think Richard and I really had any idea that what we started was going to grow into what it was. Our initial idea was that various covens as well as ourselves could go to open circle and find people that would be good fits for our covens. It became so much more then that and if what did provided a stepping stone for others to reach further and breathe new life into the craft the Pagan movement I am sincerely grateful to have been given my part to play in this story. I am excited to see where it goes next.
When I first became public, I got a lot of death threats, just for being what I was. That made me think deeply about what we were doing, and I was not convinced that hiding was the best answer. Over the years we tackled issues regarding Pagan spiritual care in government institutions, education of the police, getting Paganism included in religions studies, and Pagan funerals. We devised dedications, child nurturing, betrothal, handfasting, handparting and funeral rites, as well as trimester rituals for pregnancy. As the community grows its members wanted these rites of passage to be celebrated within their own faith and it the people who drove the development of what we became. I am forever grateful to have played apart in this journey that others are now carrying forward.”
Organizers are already looking forward to next year’s roast. Said Crystal Allard, “This was our fifth anniversary. Our past Roasties include Jim Findley, Gus Croteau, Chris Benson and Carol Murphy. All have been huge contributors to our local community and continue to inspire us in their unique ways. The Great Pagan Roast series is an annual event at Hearthfire, and we are already working on our next roast. Stay tuned for the big announcement at this year’s Northern Lights Gathering.”