By: Frances Molina
Book and Candle
When I was a little girl, I put a couple of candles and a few of my favorite semi-precious stones into a small wooden box and decided I would be a witch. I received a book of spells one Christmas so I figured I had almost everything I needed to get started. It was a ridiculous little book, better suited for a coffee table center piece than actual ritual, but back then I couldn’t tell the difference and I simply didn’t care. I liked the spells inside. My favorites involved emotional manipulation; love and attraction spells, or spells that promised to scatter and quiet my “enemies.” I spent a lot of time locked in the bathroom with my favorite box and my book, when I wasn’t stealing matches from the kitchen and furtively asking my mother about moon phases.
I was raised Catholic and I knew that the rules pretty explicitly stated that practicing or believing in witchcraft in any form was a no-no. I knew I should probably feel bad about what I was doing. But I didn’t. I almost loved it more because I wasn’t supposed to be doing it. What little of the craft I understood, the chants and rhymes I muttered to myself over my candles and my stones, the little slips of paper I burned and the ashes I buried in the backyard, empowered me in some small way. I was a little girl on the edge of what would be a miserable bout of puberty. I wasn’t pretty or popular but I had something secret that made me feel strong. It made me feel connected and close to something larger than myself, something more powerful and more meaningful than the every day.
Inspired by my most recent article about witches and by my own interest in the craft, I decided I would try to visit one of the more popular shops in Austin that caters to individuals interested in the metaphysical. I found out about Ancient Mysteries from a friend of mine, who frequented the store for quartz crystals and essential oils. Located just south of downtown and wedged at the center of an unremarkable strip mall, I didn’t expect to find what I did.
The atmosphere of the store instantly put me at ease; the same sort of mellow, harmonious feeling I get at the base of my spine whenever I meditate or visit a palm reader or a sacred place. There was incense in the air and a soundtrack of bell and chime noises on the overhead stereo.
I started with a quick inventory of the shop. The shelves along the walls were loosely packed with books, their spines just as colorful as the ritual candles and altar statues on display. There were stand-alone racks of clothing, jewelry,and bins of different kinds of quartz crystals, each with their own descriptive label and suggested use. The back wall of the store was by far the busiest, stacked with jars and tins of herbs, essential oils, incense and sage of every kind of fragrance imaginable. Satisfied but still curious, I approached the counter and introduced myself. I hadn’t really come into the store with any sort of plan or fixed set of questions, but the saleswoman at the counter, Kory, was both kind and receptive.
The shelves along the walls were loosely packed with books, their spines just as colorful as the ritual candles and altar statues on display.
Kory told me that Ancient Mysteries is first and foremost a metaphysical store. They cater to all different kinds of practices: Wicca, Paganism, Shamanism, etc. She herself was a Pagan of nature-based practices. She, like myself, had been raised in the Church but had always been “consciously interested” in something else. Before she moved to Austin, she hadn’t really had a place where she could find the supplies she liked and needed for her own rituals or even where she could meet or talk to other practicing Pagans. Working at Ancient Mysteries provides her – and many other customers like her in Austin – with both.
This clientele, according to Kory, is as large and diverse as their inventory which includes everything from candles to amulets to talismans. Their vendors are similarly diverse, hailing from all over the country. When I expressed concern over the legitimacy of some of the seemingly more sacred items – such as the amulets and talismans – Kory assured me that they are made with both “good intent and good practice”. She then showed me the temple space, a dimly lit room in the back of the shop. It was silent and empty save for a small scattering of floor pillows and an altar decorated with statues, candles, and burning incense. The space, she explained, is open to everyone who wants to participate in ritual or group workshops so long as they respect the space and the practice with their intention.
Once I’d seen the space, I asked Kory about the Wiccan/Pagan communities in Austin. I had been anxious to learn about these invisible communities, which obviously existed if a store like Ancient Mysteries was alive and well. My own research online hadn’t turned up much of anything other than a few internet forums. No names of any organizations or any real contact information. Kory explained that there are communities out there, for those who know how to find them. Tejas Web, for example, is a group of eco-feminist witches with a fairly large and organized web presence. Here are also similar Pagan organizations that conduct regular group meet-ups and workshops. But a lot of contact information, dates, and locations are only exchanged by members in the know.
I wouldn’t understand this kind of secrecy until I managed to get an interview with Sharon Russell, owner of Ancient Mysteries. When I spoke with her for the first time in the store, she almost turned me down. She seemed skeptical and apprehensive of my motives and I had to explain the purpose of my interview two or three times just so we were clear. She ultimately accepted and we set a date. One week later, I had Sharon on the phone for an interview.
Sharon Russell is originally from Indiana but has lived in Texas for nearly 35 years. She clarified for me that she is an eclectic practicing Pagan, not a Wiccan, although she does identify with the word and title “witch”. In her tradition, she does not follow any specific deity. She is, however, dedicated to the Goddess Isis in her personal work. Isis, a polytheistic pantheon goddess of Egypt, is still popularly worshipped by many pagans around the world today and is the patroness of nature and magic.
Her introduction to Paganism and goddess worship began in 1993 when she attended a women’s conference at Austin’s famous Laguna Gloria. She left the Christian faith when she was 15 and, like Kory, had been searching for something else. It wasn’t until she was an adult and moved to Texas that she found what she was looking for at a conference hosted by Neo-pagan, eco-feminist writer and activist Starhawk.
Starhawk started the Reclaiming movement in the 1980s, a movement that has transformed the lives of Wiccans and Pagans across the country and into which Russell had been initiated. Russell described the Reclaiming movement as not only a reclaiming of the word “witch” and its history but also a reclaiming of the feminine and of the power that has been taken from women. “But it’s evolved,” she explains, “It’s about the reclaiming of all genders and all sexual orientations and representations now. We’ve rewritten some of our principles of unity, gotten rid of male/female oriented words, to include non-gender specific entities and people”.
Having found her place, both spiritually and geographically, Russell opened Ancient Mysteries in the summer of 2002. “As I got more involved in Paganism, I wanted to live life more in conjugation with my spiritual practices,” she explained, “I wanted to be of service to the community by providing tools, ritual tools, and the temple space”.
Curious, I asked Sharon what she thought of all the recent movies and television shows about witches. I told her about the bit of research I had done on witches and pop culture and how I believed witches were still being falsely and often comically portrayed. For example, many film portrayals of witches show them as Satanists, baby killers, and husband snatchers. From the 1940s to the present day, accurate depictions of witches and pagans remain few and far between. Sharon agreed.
“They still don’t portray it as a truth or as a reality. There’s too much of a misconception of what magic truly is,” she insists, “Magic is a consciousness, it’s changing yourself. Even though it’s gotten a more positive light, it’s still not accurate. I know the fantasy and the exaggerated magical aspect is what sells but at least, the focus has moved away from the devil and devil worship”.
From the 1940s to the present day, accurate depictions of witches and pagans remain few and far between.
Sharon’s frustration was expected, but I had to ask her about the initial apprehension she had shown at our first meeting. Sharon explained that after all this time, after all her work with Starhawk and with the Pagan community in Austin, she was still wary of people who might judge and condemn her for her practice. “Nothing has ever happened to me personally, but I’ve heard of things. I know of another shop that had to close down because they were receiving bomb threats.” She paused for a moment in our conversation and again I could hear the hesitation in her voice. “I have nothing against Christians or the Christian faith, but that’s where a lot of the judgement comes from. I think if they understood who we are and what we do, they might respond differently to our presence in the community”.
At the conclusion of our interview, wanting to end on a positive note, I asked Sharon if she could tell me her own definition of magic. She gave me a great one:
“It’s a way of living your life in harmony with the earth and everything on the earth. I believe – many of us believe – that we’re all a part of that One, with no separation from each other. That also means no separation between us and the divine. I believe that the divine also resides within you. You are divinely human.”