Witches dispel myths of 'untraditional' religion

Nashua Telegraph (NH)/May 1, 2006
By Patrick Meighan

Nashua -- Sherrilyn Alden Bellavance saw it in the eyes of people who entered her downtown shop of "eccentricities and magick" in the days that followed Sept. 11, 2001.

Eddie Cyckowski felt it when he thrust aside the admonishments he heard inside himself, the product of decades of studying the Bible and listening to pulpit-pounding preachers, and crossed the threshold of Ancient Moon. He became a follower of Wicca, an Earth-centered religion, and a practitioner of witchcraft, the "science," as it's described, of using spells and rituals for empowerment or to influence your life.

Kim Jacobs faced it when she began her two-year study of shamanism at a New Age downtown art gallery.

"It" was the journey on a path toward enlightenment, or at least the start of a search for spirituality beyond traditional, mainstream religions. Of course, depending on one's belief system, "it" could be playing with the theological fires of damnation.

Jacobs, 27, of Hollis, used to catch that sort of grief from family, including a sister who once told her, "No question, you're going to hell." But her family's reaction has mellowed over time. Then again, Jacobs admits, "I sort of went out of my way to freak people out when I was in high school."

Spirits in the material world

While there is always an ebb and flow to spiritual searching, it seems to have been waxing since the terrorist attacks.

"A lot of people were coming in during the weeks that followed 9/11," Alden Bellavance said of her shop, Ancient Moon, at 107 W. Pearl St. "They'd look kind of lost, like they didn't know why they came in."

Some would ask, "I feel like I should do something. Is there a candle I should burn?"

Alden Bellavance added, "It was people who had not been here before, and I assume the same thing happened in churches. People didn't seem to know what to do."

Walking into Ancient Moon for Cyckowski was a case of taking a small step but making a giant leap. "I thought it was hell and doom," said Cyckowski, 51, of Merrimack. Not knowing what to expect, "It was really scary walking into the shop the first time," he said.

Among the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists who make up the tapestry of the religious faithful in Greater Nashua, add these: witches, shamans, New Age healers and people who just see fit now and then to visit a palm reader, have their tarot cards read or light a candle at a homemade altar to work a little practical magic. Nontraditional beliefs flourish here - to the extent pagan religions that sometimes predate Christianity can be called nontraditional. It's hard to tally how many such believers there are locally, but it's a safe bet they're a minority that pales to the number of atheists, agnostics and those who don't give spirituality much thought at all.

Alden Bellavance estimates several hundred people have taken a witchcraft course with her since 1995. Of course, some were people simply curious about witchcraft, not true believers. She estimates about half to three-quarters of people who take a class continue on with some level of practicing witchcraft. "There will have to be at some point certain lifestyle changes if you go into the religion, just because you will need to find people to practice with to do celebrations," she said. "It's not as empowering or interesting to always do it alone."

Rather than being tucked away into little corners, pagans are among the city's movers and shakers. Alden Bellavance has run Ancient Moon for 16 years, 12 at its current location, cramped nondescriptly within a row of businesses a block from Main Street. Besides being a practicing witch and teacher of witchcraft classes, she's secretary of the city's Great American Downtown board of directors, which includes the mayor, The Telegraph's publisher and other prominent business owners.

Amethyst Wyldfyre, a shaman who owns a gallery that bears her name on East Pearl Street, has been active in downtown affairs and with the city's burgeoning arts scene. Wyldfyre played a large part with other artists and gallery owners in organizing the monthly Art Walk Nashua.

Although active in the city, pagans usually aren't going out of their way to make a point or call attention to themselves. "You will never see me picketing on City Hall steps for Wiccan rights," Alden Bellavance said. "That ain't going to happen."

Out of the broom closet At Ancient Moon, you'll find such services as hypnosis, Reiki, channeling, dream interpretation, palmistry, tarot, guided meditation, past-life regression and I-ching divination. You also can arrange to take Witchcraft I with Alden Bellavance and follow through to Witchcraft II and III. You'll find books to read, candles to burn, pentagrams and other jewelry to wear, little crystal angels and jade Buddhas to place on altars and dresser tops. What you won't find are cashiers who look and behave differently from those at any other retail shop.

"There are no bats hanging upside-down, and we're not flying around on brooms," Alden Bellavance said. She doesn't wear a pentagram, the traditional symbol of being a witch. That's too showy, she said.

Alden Bellavance's interest in witchcraft began in the 1980s when she saw an advertisement for a witchcraft class while visiting Salem, Mass. She took the class with her sister and mother, Lynne Karram, one of the owners of Ancient Moon and a palm-reader.

"I always had an interest in astrology and magical things, but again, like my customers here, I really didn't know what I was looking for," said Alden Bellavance, who is the shop's manager as well as an owner. "I was just intrigued. I liked the crystals, I liked the potions. I liked the idea of magic."

She has carefully structured the classes she now teaches and is careful about what she won't teach. "I take this quite seriously," she said. "I truly don't want to teach what I don't know." Wicca has lots of traditions, and there's a lot of misinformation about it, Alden Bellavance said. Its basic tenet is, "Do what you will, but harm no one," since the good or bad you send forth into the world comes back to you threefold.

Cyndi Redding is a writer of erotic romance novels. One of her books, titled "Out of the Broom Closet," is based on Ancient Moon and her experiences as a witch. Redding was in a dead-end job. "I wanted to feel I had a little power to do more," she said. She read "Power of the Witch" by Laurie Cabot, the official witch of Salem, Mass. Redding began "fooling around" with spells and rituals, she said, and in the process, "I scared myself." She said she felt a "presence," a spiritual entity she had somehow managed to invite into her life.

"This is not what I wanted to do," Redding said, adding she decided then, "If I'm really going to be a Wiccan, I better get further training and learn how to do this right." That's why it's important to study with someone who knows what they're doing, Redding said. "If you're going by a book, or God forbid, the Internet, you don't have anybody to bounce things off of," she said. Although she studied "the craft" with others, Redding is a solitary practitioner rather than belonging to a coven, which is a sort of congregation of witches. There's a practical reason for wanting to go it alone when it comes to rituals, she explained. "I can't imagine getting along with 13 women during a full moon when we're all ovulating," Redding said.

Emotional rescue

Laureen Johnson's foray into witchcraft was all about self-empowerment and "the ability to be in control" of her life. It took her two teenage sons a while to come to terms with their mother's budding interest, but they eventually came around, said Johnson, 47, of Mont Vernon. "They've seen the good, positive change in me," Johnson said. A phlebotomist who plans to attend nursing school, Johnson said candle magic has helped her center herself. "It's a way of directing your energy to make your dreams come true," she said. "You really feel like you had something to do with the outcome." Johnson said she's found Wicca to be "a very accepting form of spirituality." She added, "It helped put emotional chaos into perspective. What you put out there does come back to you."

For Jacobs, the two-year journey to becoming a shaman has been challenging. "You need to face all your fears, your scars, your prejudices, your concepts of right and wrong," Jacobs said. "It's almost like you need to reconstruct yourself." The process, which involves a detailed study of the medicine wheel, she said, is learning to let go of stuff "so you can be your true self."

Jacobs is a visual artist who attended the Rhode Island School of Design. She studies shamanism at Amethyst Wyldfyre gallery, where her paintings are displayed. "Shamanism is a practice that's pretty much worldwide with most traditional tribal cultures," she said. "There's a lot of different places in history where you can find a shaman. They're called different things," such as medicine woman and witch doctor, she said. "It's really a religious consultant and healer."

Pride and prejudice

Wiccans, healers, witches and shamans share a trait beyond their belief in an Earth-based faith: People either outright condemn them or approach them with cautious curiosity. Cyckowski has lived on both sides of the condemnation fence. A man who says he's been on a lifelong spiritual quest, Cyckowski was brought up Catholic and studied off and on with Jehovah's Witnesses from when he was a teenager through his 30s. Cyckowski's wife worked with the daughter of a man who worked at Ancient Moon and who was a witch. When he heard that, Cyckowski felt an emotion that made him uncomfortable. "That bothered me so much - I hated this man without meeting him because he's a witch," Cyckowski said.

Curious, and wanting to deal with his feelings, Cyckowski called the man and asked him about witchcraft. They talked on the phone for hours. Eventually, Cyckowski found himself drawn to witchcraft because he liked the sense of community he felt among practitioners. As a business owner, Alden Bellavance has been anything but evangelical, certainly not with friends and acquaintances at Great American Downtown. "There's always kind of like that strange curiosity," she said. You know, 'Oh, maybe I should come in for a reading.' But I will never try to entice them or put them on the spot."

Then there's the issue of the boundary some people can't bring themselves to cross at Ancient Moon, a shop Alden Bellavance describes as "a multitude of different businesses" under one roof. "It's very unusual to have people come in here, get readings, buy products and take classes," she said. Each area typically has its own set of customers, she said.

Customers often come in for a reading because of a specific issue, she said. "Maybe a relationship ends, and they're devastated," she said. Readers will sometimes say, "Maybe you'd like to get a candle that will help you with your self-esteem or make you feel better. Not necessarily witchcraft, but just self help." More often than not, the customer won't travel that road.

"Which is funny to me, that they will come in and have a reading, and then be offered a tool to enhance their healing, and not necessarily do it," Alden Bellavance said. "Some people want to get the information but don't necessarily want to run with it. That's kind of disappointing, because I believe that you do have the power to procreate change," she said. "I believe you have the ability to do that to some degree, at least."

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