Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
Ordinations to the Episcopal priesthood are pretty impressive ceremonies. Clergy, acolytes, and choristers from across the diocese and beyond begin the service in solemn procession complete with torchbearers, heraldic banners, and clouds of incense. Yet when the procession formed at the Cathedral of All Souls last May for the ordination of a new priest, two ladies in robes of solemn black stood out in contrast to the billowing sea of white, gold, and scarlet. One was a Unitarian Universalist minister. The other was a Wiccan priestess.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here was nary an eyebrow raised. This, after all, was the modern Episcopal Church, believed by many to be among the most ecumenically liberal of Protestant denominations, and it was also Asheville, mountain tourist town turned “new age” Mecca.
A couple of months later, the further emergence of Wiccan into the mainstream of Asheville culture was heralded by the appearance, on a busy corner of Merrimon Avenue, of Raven and Crone, a specialty shop devoted entirely to earth religion-related gifts, supplies, and literature. And far from being a hopeful, let’s-play-store startup by some dewy-eyed groupies, it is the carefully researched brainchild of two ladies with considerable retail experience, one of whom was raised Methodist, the other Catholic. Lisa Svencicki (the Methodist) had been a social worker and later a stay-at-home mom; Kim Strobel (the Catholic) had worked as an administrator in a law firm and also had a background in retail. Their backgrounds have made them what they are today: self-confirmed witches and partners in Asheville’s only exclusively Wiccan store.
An aside: “Wiccan” and “Wicca” are used throughout this piece as shorthand for a clutch of religions, belief systems, and cultures including, but not limited to, Wicca itself, Paganism, and witchcraft, which share common associations but are separate and distinct entities. “Pagan” and “paganism” usually refer simply to any non-“mainstream” religion. “Wicca” and “Wiccan” refer specifically to the set of beliefs and practices once better known as “witchcraft,” but the terms, over centuries, became laden with a lot of negative baggage. (Can you say “Inquisition,” boys and girls? “Joan of Arc”? “Salem”?) Now, since all Wiccans—or witches—are Pagans but not all Pagans are witches, it would probably be more semantically accurate to describe Raven and Crone as a Pagan establishment, but, as we shall see, “Wiccan” more accurately describes its target demographic.
In recent decades a saying has arisen that there are probably more Wiccans in the woods of Southern Appalachia than there are rabbits. The sentiment may be fairly new, but the fact it addresses is as old as human habitation of these mountains. The pantheism of the Cherokee testifies to that. So does the fact that the “old religion” lived cheek by jowl with, and was often the unseen partner of, the fundamentalist brand of Protestantism that Scots-Irish pioneers brought with them to these hills. (They, in turn, had brought this duality with them from their Celtic homelands, as opposed to the New England Puritans, who brought with them only their Bibles, their blunderbusses, and a singular lack of humor.) Writing for the website Witches&Pagans.com, Hank Eder elaborated:
There is deep magick in these woods. A confluence of cultures mixed and mingled, merging their knowledge of Earth and Her ways into a mélange unique to this enigmatic land. Native shamans once roamed these woods; Africans brought here as slaves brought their tears—and their traditions. The Faerie folk followed the Scots and Irish to these lush mountains and valleys and their paths of power remain to this day all across the South, hidden in plain sight among the steeples of the ubiquitous churches.
Another name for this part of America is the “Bible Belt.” Its people are rooted in the traditions of their ancestors. Life moves more slowly here than Up North, and religious belief systems are firmly entrenched. The wise women and crones, the healers, the old Southern Witches and Hoodoo Men all share the towns, woods, swamps, hills, and valleys with their Christian neighbors. Some are not shy to share their gifts with their neighbors. Others hide in the “broom closet” for fear of losing their jobs or being victims of deep prejudice. Luckily that is changing, even here where things like to stay the same. Pagans are stepping out into the larger community, showing their neighbors that they are not to be feared, that they are more alike than different. The words “Southern” and “Pagan” are no longer oxymorons.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Western North Carolina, with Asheville as its hub, began to attract, along with swarms of other people, a significant number of “new agers” searching for new and different takes on spirituality, value systems, and lifestyles. It was about that time that an open interest in Wicca, Paganism, and other “alternative” belief systems began openly to gain traction. Now, scholars are quick to point out that there is nothing new or futuristic about these persuasions. On the contrary, as Father Brendan Pelfrey, a priest in an Orthodox Church in America commented in 2010:
Wicca is not really New Age. “New Age” (which today is becoming known as post-modernism) looks forward to the creation of new spiritualities, chiefly by combining elements of many other traditions. Wicca, on the other hand, along with various forms of Paganism, looks backward to certain religious practices—or at least supposed practices and mythologies—from the past. That being said, Wicca and Neo-Paganism mingle with New Age especially when we think of such things as crystal therapy, developing “positive energies,” or worshiping Celtic divinities.
In other words, many among Asheville’s influx of New Agers cared less about the pedigree of Wicca or Paganism than about the opportunity it seemed to afford for a new means of spiritual self-expression. The enthusiasm and outspokenness of the “new wave” also served to encourage older, traditional practitioners, who might have inherited their craft across many generations, to come out of the broom closet. Locally at least two covens emerged from the shadows, began inviting the public to attend and even join in some of their larger celebrations, and even became involved in city politics—as when one coven literally blocked access to an ancient magnolia tree near City Hall which was in danger of succumbing to a developer’s plans to build a hotel on the site. (The tree is still there; the hotel plans are not.)
Between the national trend and the emerging local recognition, Lisa and Kim saw the runic writing on the wall and decided the time was right to create a retail source that could serve the whole spectrum of Asheville’s growing alternative religion communities and also to cross-market to the general public.
“Kim had been monitoring this whole trend,” Lisa says, “and we came up with this idea: Although we were looking primarily at witches as a target audience, why not do a spin on the usual “witch store” theme and do a sort of one-stop-shop outlet for all the different belief systems? In addition to carrying the various staples that Wiccans and Pagans need for their various rituals, we could throw in some gifts and jewelry that would appeal across the board to folks who were not—or not yet—members of an alternative religion but were interested in the idea.”
[quote float=”right”]Lisa and Kim saw the runic writing on the wall and decided the time was right to create a retail source that could serve the whole spectrum of Asheville’s growing alternative religion communities and also to cross-market to the general public.[/quote]So that was what they did. Raven and Crone opened on July 14, 2014, thus joining some two dozen other Wiccan-Pagan—“Occult” retailers operating across North Carolina, from Murphy to Southport.
“We originally considered opening in West Asheville,” Lisa says, “but we thought we’d be lost in the gentrification shuffle over there and parking was almost non-existent. We were lucky enough to find this place; there’s a lot of Wiccan interest in North Asheville, and besides we’re right on Merrimon, which makes us easy to get to from anywhere—and we’ve got great parking.” (“Here” is the lower floor of a two-story brick house on the corner of Merrimon and Farrwood Avenues that was most recently home to a wine dealer.)
Why “Raven and Crone”?
“Ravens have a special place in Wicca, in fact in most of the old religions,” Kim explains. “They’re messengers and also keepers of wisdom. Edgar Allen Poe knew that. And in Norse mythology the god Odin has a pair of ravens—one on each shoulder—who every morning fly off in opposite directions, see everything that’s going on in the world, and come back and light on his shoulders in the evening and tell him the news. That’s also why they’ve kept ravens at the Tower of London ever since it was built nearly a thousand years ago, and there’s a legend that if the ravens ever leave, the tower will fall.”
Raven and Crone’s logo depicts a raven holding in its beak a key. “That just sort of came to us,” says Lisa. “We saw the key as the access to mysteries and knowledge, and since the raven, as the custodian of such things, we thought it would be appropriate to depict them both together.” The key also appears by itself on Raven & Crone’s store bags.
As for “crone,” the word has a specific meaning in Wicca. The old religion is matriarchal—one reason why it appeals in particular to feminists—and its stages of life and personal development are maiden (girlhood), mother (maturity and nurturing), and crone (wisdom and mentoring). “It’s the original trinity,” Kim says.
So “crone” is a designation and has nothing to do with a general term for a haglike creature?
“No,” says Kim, “That would be… a hag.”
So what’s on offer at Raven & Crone?
Well, first, Wiccan and Pagan necessities such as altar tables and tiles, chalices, cast iron cauldrons, tumbled stones, crystal balls, wands, ceremonial daggers, and blank Books of Shadows. (A Book of Shadows, or witch’s journal, is an ornately bound volume usually holding blank pages for entering recipes, spells, divinations, family secrets, “and anything else a witch can think of.”) There are also books on divination and dreams, spellcraft, healing, herbs, and Wicca and Paganism in general. There’s an extensive line of jewelry, from pendants to earrings, featuring symbols from pentacles (the five-pointed star associated with witchcraft) to Celtic Christian crosses. Dried herbs—each with its own magical property—are present as well as a mind boggling assortment of scented candles. There are figurines and totems from cultures worldwide, from Africa to South America. There are even Viking-style drinking horns with their own stands. And there’s a wide array of fragrances used in both aromatherapy and in the casting of spells.
(Kim dabs a drop or two from a tiny vial onto a cotton ball. “Smell this,” she says. The scent is evasive but pleasant, somewhat musky, sort of lemony, and something else. “Please,” she says, handing over the vial, “keep it.” The tiny bottle’s label reads, “Maiden’s Ruin.” It goes into a handy pocket.)
“Since we opened, we’ve managed to establish a pretty good core customer base,” says Kim, “and it keeps expanding. We did a really brisk business around Yuletide—Christmas—and we seem to be picking up new regulars all the time. And not just established Wiccans and Pagans. Almost every day at least one customer will come in and look around and say, ‘I’m a Christian, but I love this or that.’ They see we aren’t the scary things of fairy tales, and they’re fascinated.
“We considered putting up a discreet little sign that said, ‘Unruly children will be eaten,’” she grins, “but we decided not to press our luck.”
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