By: Blake Simony
The Witches will feast on Tuesday, Oct. 31. There are more than enough table settings, some chairs curiously left vacant. They sit down to devour the fruits of their labor in complete silence. That silence is broken five minutes later by the coming of their deceased companions, who have risen from the dead to take their places at the empty table settings.
This ritual is a yearly tradition for the Treasure Valley Witches, a community of about 500 people from Ada County who practice various types of witchcraft. The epicenter of their community is Bella’s Grove, a small shop on Broadway Avenue.
The occasion for this ritual is called Samhein (pronounced “saw-ween”), the witch’s new year celebration, based on the cycle of the moon. The holiday will take place on Oct. 31 this year, as a day of remembering and honoring the past.
“Speaking to the dead is easy. We do it all the time,” said Woventear Bell, the owner of Bella’s Grove. “It’s just easier this time of year.”
Another witch, Erin Wojcik, chimed in “But after that, we have fun!”
“We usually go out to Arrowrock Dam and do a big bonfire by the river,” Bell said. “We drink and dance. All of it’s about celebration.”
“And tons of food,” Wojcik added. “We cel-e-brate. We like our food.”
This holiday doesn’t involve barbequed children as a dish, although Suzi Conover, another witch, did joke about that. While they acknowledge their stereotypes through humor, Bell and the others suggested it reveals hidden issues.
For some, the similarities between the witch’s holiday of Samhein and the more modern holiday of Halloween teeter on the edge of appropriation, which proves controversial for some of the Treasure Valley Witches, but not for others.
Bell said Halloween practices were derived from the original pagan celebration of Samhein, but she doesn’t have any disdain for the common culture surrounding the night of trick-or-treating. She even puts up some typical Halloween decorations at Bella’s Grove.
“(Samhein is) the last harvest, the time to celebrate the equinox,” Bell said. “Halloween is the celebration of kids going to get candy. That’s all.”
While the distinction is simple for Bell, Conover, a volunteer for the shop, feels more disdain for Halloween.
“I don’t celebrate Halloween,” Conover said. “I think it’s offensive to my ancestors.”
They continued to say the Treasure Valley Witches are often viewed in a negative light and do experience some backlash from the general public.
“There are a ton of people that still don’t know what (witchcraft) is and still believe that it’s bad,” Bell said. “People don’t want to learn, they just blindly associate.”
Bell believes people associate witchcraft with devil-worshipping, a false connection.
“It’s just fear. Once you don’t know what something is, you automatically assume it to be bad,” Bell said.
Some witches expect matters to become problematic and act proactively.
“There are people who are afraid to (identify as a witch) for fear of getting fired , fear of getting stoned or anything like that,” Bell said. “We have a couple of people that are in high places. One works for the state department, one for the DMV, so their anonymity is important.”
Living in a culture that often rejects them, the Treasure Valley Witches cherish their community, and Bella’s Grove is much more than just a store. Jovial witches make their way in and out of the back room to greet friends and chat. They pick at the pretzels and almonds on the table in the office, giving hugs when they enter. In the low-ceilinged shop, others enter and exchange laughs while the scent of fragrant incense hangs in the air.
Their lighthearted community is led by Bell, and there are some rules: anyone who disrespects another, commits violence, abuses substances or participates in any criminal activities is not tolerated.
“I wouldn’t say all 500 of us, but maybe 100 to 200 of us, are really close-knit. We take care of it,” Bell said. “Anybody is safe to come here. If you wish to come here and seek solace or spiritual guidance or a cup of tea, that’s what we’re here for.”
Although they are both witches, Bell and Conover practice different traditions, or witchcraft styles. As a shaman witch, Bell doesn’t work with spirits, but with energies. Conover’s tradition as a Celtic witch means she follows a goddess.
The Treasure Valley Witches community contains numerous traditions like these, with nearly every member practicing their own distinct tradition. For that reason, not every member of the community identifies as a witch, as they say it’s a term misrepresented in common Halloween culture.
As explained by Bell, paganism is an umbrella term that extends to anyone who hold beliefs unrelated to Christianity. Witches are pagans who practice some form of changing the energies around them. Wicca is a religion composed of witch’s structured practices.
Although Conover and Bell are pagans and witches, they do not practice the Wiccan religion. The diversity of their community comes from each person’s personal mix of those factors. They said the journey into paganism or witchcraft is changing.
“It sounds like Harry Potter crap, but it’s an awakening. We just had a lady come in this morning and she was putting together the pieces of her life and she was like, ‘I’m at home!’” Conover said, bumping the table with her fists.
Both Conover and Bell have practiced witchcraft since they were young adults and talked solemnly about the role it played in their lives.
“I was raised southern Baptist and I sought it out as a way to upset my mother,” Conover said. “I’m not kidding. It fit perfectly for me. I fell into it; being rambunctious, I found what I needed.”
“Some people never find it, which is the problem,” Bell said. “We’re lucky we found our path.”
Bell’s path into witchcraft started at 19, when her father’s company moved him and the family to Nepal. After that, she traveled across Asia, learning about Eastern traditions, implementing what she learned in her own life.
“I became a practicer of the craft during that time,” Bell said. “I got spices and herbs and mixtures and Chinese shit and all kinds of shit when I traveled.”
She came back to the United States in 2005, after nearly 40 years of travelling the world, but her travels didn’t end there. She lived in Arizona for some time, where her shaman mentor gave her the name “Woventear” during an empowering shamanistic journey in the desert.
“Woventear means that I weave all the tears in the universe,” Bell said.
Although people may not like what Bell does, she said she believes in herself. Whether she speaks for the entire community is uncertain, but it is certainly a goal she holds for them.
While there will be many witches around Halloween this year, real witches don’t carry broomsticks and wear pointy hats.
“(Witchcraft) is all about healing, whether it be emotional or physical, or maybe somebody wants to heal the Earth,” Bell said. “It’s all about keeping in tune with Earth and the universe and keeping the balance and harmony.”