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Pomona College Witch Studying Wicca Ways : Witchcraft Practitioner Also Teaches a Course in 'Principles and Practice of Pagan Magick'

July 09, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

Summer is icumen in

Lhude sing cuccu

--The Cuckoo Song (Anonymous)

June was different.

There is nothing preternatural about July, nothing mystical. Hit the beach, catch the rays, have the coven over for a Coke. August promises more of the same.

But June was different, right up to the last days.

James Johnson is packing for vacation.

"Mostly A's, I think," the slender Pomona College freshman says. "Maybe a couple of Bs. Pretty good year."

Into the suitcase go T-shirts, socks, pants. Books, papers, a deck of cards, a razor. The dormitory detritus of a college boy.

In a separate valise, Johnson stows the rest of his gear: candles, mojo bags, painted rocks, incense. Then the amulets, talismans, charms and potions.

Johnson gives the room a final once-over. "Oh yeah," he says. Off a wall rack and into a side pocket of the suitcase goes the wand. Can't leave the wand behind, not with the summer solstice coming up.

Johnson hefts his bags into the hallway, then returns for a stout, gnarled branch easily as tall as he is.

To most of us, it's a stick. To Johnson, it's a "staff."

It figures.

James Johnson is a witch.

There are witches and then there are witches.

Johnson doesn't look like one, Lord knows. Then again, it probably takes one to spot one.

To the tyro, a witch is a dark, pointy bag-lady sort of hant on a stripped-down mop. A cackling crone with a nose wart hunched over a vat of iguana entrails. But a long-haired kid in a messy dorm room?

He's No Satanist

Johnson dismisses the popular concept with a wave of his hand--or his wand, as the case may be.

"A lot of people--maybe most--confuse witches with Satanists," he said. "Witches get a lot of bad press. We don't harm anyone. In our--um--rituals, we try to raise psychic energies to help people."

You've heard of Glinda the Good? Meet James the Just.

"Witches, real ones, don't believe in Satan, or practice black magic, or sacrifice furry little animals or any of that stuff," Johnson continued. "At least not Wiccans."

Johnson is a Wiccan, a splendidly amorphous if widespread band of pagans, no two of whom cling to precisely the same tenets. Save one: "Basically, there's one pretty universal admonishment," Johnson said. "Don't hurt anyone, or yourself. It's called the Wiccan Rede and it goes, 'An it harm none, do what thou wilt.' " Which, he admits, leaves a lot of leeway.

Wicca means witchcraft--or, to its practitioners, simply "the Craft," much as Yale-Harvard is "the Game" or Musial "the Man." It derives, Johnson thinks, from the medieval Celtic word for "wise," which later came to mean "to bend, or twist."

"Pretty apt," Johnson said, "because the Craft, if nothing else, is flexible."

So is Johnson, about as undogmatic as a practicing witch can get.

Nevertheless, there are certain loose guidelines involved in casting a spell, exorcising a torment or whipping up a love potion, "and with practice, you can do it as well," Johnson tells his classes.

Oh yes, he teaches Wicca too. . . .

To undergrads and alums alike, Pomona College is idyllic, expensive, inventive, stimulating, fun.

Contributing to the fun factor, and to the invention and stimulation as well, is a program called Quest, sponsored by Mortar Board, an honor society for seniors.

Taught by the students themselves, Quest courses are non-credit, non-textbook and about as freewheeling as a Wiccan on the fly. Last year's lineup included "Cappuccino for the Underachiever," juggling, sushi making and "Everything You Wanted to Know About Harmonicas but Were Afraid to Ask."

Among this year's courses: windsurfing, boomerang throwing, hammock making and "Principles and Practice of Pagan Magick." "Group preparations," read the brochure for Johnson's classes, "will prepare participates for the 'Circle.' " An optimistic assessment.

Just before sundown on a velvet June evening, Johnson leads a tiny troupe of semi-believers across campus and into a secluded garden. The fragrant hideaway seems designed by the jaunty Wiccan deities themselves for Johnson's arcane ritual.

Around the rim of the lawn, geraniums, foxglove and columbine harbor a kaffeeklatsch of twittering sparrows. In one corner of the garden rises a twin-columned stone statue. Pomona College calls the statue "Sea Bird," but it looks for all the otherworld like a looming dolmen right out of Stonehenge.

Instinctively, Johnson defuses the image, draping the columns with twined trailers of bougainvillea. At the base of the statue he places a box of strawberries and a chalice of wine. ("Call it grape juice," he said. "I'm only 18.")

The "participates" sit in a circle on the lawn in front of the statue. "I'm going to be tracing a perimeter," Johnson explained. "We're gonna be real mellow and everything's gonna work out. Go with the flow."

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