As a professor at OCAD, the founder of Toronto’s first pagan festival, and a witch, Monica Bodirsky is anything but the average Torontonian.
By Shahroze Rauf | Featured photo courtesy of Shahroze Rauf | April 22, 2019
Crystal pendants of black quartz and a clear white gem hang around Monica Bodirsky’s neck, framed by brightly coloured locks of red hair. A 57-year-old professor at OCAD University, she teaches sustainability, design, and drawing. And she’s just what you’d expect of an art teacher. Her quintessential dyed, edgy hair and a laid back and surprisingly cheerful attitude contrast her dark wardrobe. She is also a witch.
Her Toronto house is adorned in almost every corner with symbols and objects emblematic of her pagan beliefs. One of the most distinctive, and seemingly typical objects in her house, is a collection of short broomsticks. One in particular hangs to the left of the entrance: a simple wooden handle not longer than two feet, with another two feet of yellow straw bristles held together by two thin black strings.
“A broom is used to literally cleanse with sweeping,” Bodirsky says. “You’re focusing your intent on getting rid of the negativity and sweeping it out the door. There’s a great deal of integration between physical movement and activity with your spirits.”
From sweeping magic with brooms to tarot readings and herbal poultices, Bodirsky is one of the many real witches of Toronto who practice magic every day. She attends rituals and even has her own coven. But, most importantly, she is the founder of Toronto’s first pagan month-long convention, WITCHfest North, and one of the few forces in Toronto leading the pagan community out of the shadows.
Many witches and warlocks follow a tradition dating back to the early 1900s – the revolution of modern witchcraft known as Wicca. According to American religious history professor, J. Gordon Melton, who teaches at Baylor University, the history of Wicca leads back to a man named Gerald Brosseau Gardner.
Born in 1884 in the small town of Great Cosby in Blundellsands, Lancashire, Gardner would come to be dubbed internationally as the “Father of Wicca.”
“Gardner spent most of his career in Asia, where he became familiar with a variety of occult beliefs and magical practices,” says Melton. “He also read widely in Western esoteric literature, including the writings of the British occultist Aleister Crowley.”
After World War II, Gardner is said to have been involved with an occult community somewhere in England, which led him to become the founder of Wicca. The practice is nature-based, surrounding the phenomena of magic and the worship of the goddess, alongside other deities. A decade later in the 1960s, Wicca flourished throughout the U.S., Melton says.
Another decade later, Bodirsky and her family moved from the Scandinavian region of Northern Europe, into Canada in the 1970s. At the time, she remembers how her parents simply wanted her to fit in. This was around the time Bodirsky began to realize they weren’t necessarily like other families.
“I come from a line of seers. They are clairvoyant, clairaudient, clairsentient — go through all the ‘clairs,” she says. “They would have a precognition and they would see certain things coming and tell people about that.”
Her family’s ‘magical’ practice was abstract. From relying on the phases of the moon to herbal mixtures and poultices and seasonal timing, Bodirsky defines the practice in general as beyond physical and rather spiritual.
But during the lives of her ancient ancestors, Christianity flourished throughout Europe. And, as a result, her family’s teachings and traditions were persecuted and driven away. But these traditions – what the mainstream would perceive as magic or witchcraft – were simply a way of life for Bodirsky’s predecessors.
“They didn’t define themselves as witches because that was just not a term anyone used. Folk magic, practical magic, yes. There’s still this stigma about using certain terms because my family has had to move from place to place to avoid persecution. So, they weren’t very upfront about it,” she says. “It was so inextricable from my family’s life that it’s strange in a way for me to have it seen as such a separate thing.”
Growing up as a child in Scarborough in the 70s, and feeling she had these sensitive abilities, Bodirsky was encouraged not to attract attention to herself. Her parents told her to simply fit in to the best of her ability.
“My parents were hypersensitized to having to leave after post-war Europe and be bounced around as refugees and displaced persons. They told us to do what you can to fit in. And if those people are eating horrific white bread, just eat it. We’ll eat our own food at home.”
However, things are now different for witches. Especially now that it’s been almost three years since Canada repealed an outdated witchcraft ban in Section 365 of Canada’s Criminal Code. Trying to tone down and fit in is no longer a concern for Bodirsky and many other witches who gathered on Halloween night this past October for WITCHfest North.
It was a gathering of around 80 witches and warlocks on the night of a Gaelic pagan festival called Samhain, which comes right after Halloween. They all stood in a circle in the Trinity Square labyrinth on Elm St. in the heart of downtown Toronto and participated in a sort of ritual: three women in the middle brewed a concoction while speaking incantations that hailed the elements and various deities, after which the circle sang a song, welcoming the night of Samhain.
“We have come to the labyrinth tonight,” they sang, walking in a line tracing the circle that frames the Trinity Square Labyrinth. “Walking one by one, in the dark of Samhain, a riddle burning bright, and the candles waving down.” They repeated these verses over and over, as each member of the moving circle crossed in front of Bodirsky, who held a jar of mixed dried herbs to be taken and dropped in the cauldron at the centre of the circle.
“We’re here to build a community,” Bodirsky told the circle. “Put aside our egos and all our differences in practices and just share the common spirit and one common time and be here – with one another. If not for all of you participating, we wouldn’t have had the month of successes that we’ve had. This is only the second year and so many beautiful people have come out and introduced themselves, so thank you very much for that!”
Bodirsky tells the story about how the Canadian Criminal code is what led her to be inspired and start WITCHfest North.
“I heard about all of the sections from a Bill C 51 being rigid and one of them, 365, was about witchcraft. It was being reworked and it has been stricken. I thought since it’s being stricken from the record, I’m going to put an event on Facebook.”
Bodirsky decided to take the month of October and have witches who were already holding events of their own join WITCHfest North. According to her, it was simply an easy and informal way for individual workshops and witches to be a part of a larger organization.
“It’ll just give us more of a presence and visibility if we become a consolidated community and certainly one that reflects the diversity of Toronto, which I don’t find some organizations do,” says Bodirsky.
She adds that she expected no more than 20 people to join in. But when her Facebook event page hit 1,200, she was shocked. Bodirsky banded together several organizers to facilitate events all throughout October. And it worked.
Within the month, there were a variety of events, such as an art display at the Beaver Hall Gallery, a panel discussion at U of T on decolonizing witchcraft, and guest speaker, Aysen Farag, a witch from Egypt, who talked about her brand of indigenous African witchcraft.
“It’s been a success. People are coming together and they’re sharing,” Bodirsky says.
But aside from uniting people of diverse backgrounds to practice witchcraft together, she had another goal – to show the people of Toronto, and those witches who practice in private, who witches really are as a community.
“I would just like [WITCHfest North] to be large enough and diverse enough that people can see beyond stereotypes. It’s an arts and cultural festival. These are artisans who happen to be witches because when you look at it that way, you’re understanding diversity,” Bodirsky says.
As the WITCHfest North closing walk and Samhain ritual on Halloween night came to an end, the circle of witches and warlocks erupted in howls and cheers. Practitioners of all kinds, alongside non-pagan participants, broke off into conversation. The intimacy of the night seemed to have demystified what magic happens between a circle of witches in the dead of night.
“The more familiar people are, the less afraid they’ll be because they’ll just see a such a diversity. They’ll take you as an individual instead of just as that word, witch, which can be said for anybody in any community. You have to have community support,” Bodirsky says.
She is dedicated to making her vision of establishing her community as a visible and integral part of Toronto a reality, according to her WITCHfest North manifesto. Her plans going forward are to attract more people to the event, and hold it on a larger scale.
But if people do come with prejudice, they won’t need to worry about attracting hexes or curses. The only thing anyone is in danger of is losing an opportunity to learn about a world where magic and witches are not a fairy tale, but rather a vital part of faith and life.
Shahroze Rauf is a freelance writer and Creative Director for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.