You want to learn about witches, you ask a bona fide witch. Just in time for Halloween, Victoria witch John Threlfall will teach a course about witchcraft in popular culture as seen from an insider’s perspective.
Threlfall is the real witchy deal. He’s even got a tattoo of a scarab beetle on his arm — more on that later.
His course, Bell, Book and Camera, is offered through the University of Victoria’s continuing studies program. It starts next Wednesday and continues weekly through Nov. 23. To register, go to continuingstudies.uvic.ca.
Threlfall, a UVic communications officer, will discuss pop-culture depictions of witchery in film, TV, theatre, literature and art. The course list includes everything from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail to television’s Bewitched to songs by Frank Sinatra (Witchcraft) and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (I Put a Spell on You).
Although he prefers “witch,” Threlfall is technically a wiccan, that is, a member of the pagan religion known as wicca. He’s a high-ranking black-cord witch, which is sort of like having a black belt in kung fu.
His resumé includes teaching wicca courses offered by the 13th House Mystery School at Triple Spiral in Fan Tan Alley. Threlfall’s wife is a witch. His children, although not witches, are no strangers to their parents’ beliefs.
“That’s up to them to decide [whether to be witches] when they get older. They’ve been raised in an atmosphere of witchcraft, for sure. And our house is filled with witchy stuff,” he said.
When it comes to witchery, Threlfall is no weekend warrior. Witching, he said, truly informs his world view. For instance, he might change plans based on the phases on the moon.
One of the main reasons he moved from Vancouver to Victoria was to join our thriving witchy scene. This city has a reputation as the Witch Capital of Canada.
“Coming here, it was like in the 1970s and if you were a queer and you wanted to go to San Francisco or New York,” Threlfall said.
He tells a funny story about his early witchy days. Living in Vancouver’s East End 30 years ago, he joined a coven of “scrappy young witches.” They visited the endowment lands at the University of British Columbia to carry out rituals. In the middle of their pagan hijinx, a gaggle of boy scouts hiked past the robed witches gathered in a circle.
“You could just see them being like — let’s go! They just beetled off through the woods,” Threlfall said.
Speaking of beetles, this witch has a colourful tattoo of one on his right forearm. It’s in remembrance of the time he visited Wisconsin’s Circle Sanctuary, a wiccan church, in the late 1980s. About 800 witches attended a pagan gathering on top of a mountain in the woods.
In mid-ritual, something tiny flew into Threlfall’s ear and started gnawing away.
“It was like taking a pen and stabbing your ear drum,” he said. Threlfall started screaming and fell to the ground. He was taken to a farm-town hospital an hour away, his ear bleeding. It turned out a scarab beetle had bitten his ear-drum, leaving him with a crescent-shaped scar to this day.
Here is the difference between a witch and a regular person. Such an experience might leave the average Joe with a fear of beetles. Threlfall, however, believes it was a sign delivered to him during a “transformative ritual.”
Years later, as part of his witch practice, he had to choose a deity. Threlfall selected the goddess Kali. To his surprise, he found out that Kali’s disciples traditionally endured pain-based rituals “often involving biting insects.”
So what does a witch do at Halloween? Well, this weekend, Threlfall and his witch pals will celebrate Samhain, an ancient Gaelic festival that falls on Oct. 31. But they’ll do it Sunday because Monday is a work night. Threlfall notes his coven is now middle-aged, with children and jobs.
They’ll carry out rituals honouring the ancestors and so forth. Maybe someone will sing a song. But unlike the old days, these witchy activities will take place in someone’s living room rather than outdoors.
“Because it’s fall,” said Threlfall. “It might be raining. We’re not going to go outside.”