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Campus Wiccans spell out their beliefs

Faith on Campus: Third in a series on religious life at the University.

When other freshmen plastered their walls with posters of movie stars and filled their shelves with pictures from home, Ashley Tuccero '11 took a different approach to decorating the bookshelves in her Keeney Quadrangle dorm room. She placed gourds, 13 nails, a decorative rune, part of an asteroid rock, a cornhusk doll and an assortment of books about the practice of Wicca on her shelves. The books on Wicca are carefully concealed with brown paper, and next to them is a copy of the Bible.

Tuccero, while hesitant to describe herself as Wiccan, does practice some elements of what she calls "solitary eclectic" Wicca - that is, she does not adhere to traditions of secrecy and hierarchy that are part of the formal religion but instead incorporates elements into her own brand of spirituality.

The more formalized Gardnerian Wicca, popularized by Gerald Gardner in 1954, is supposedly a revival of an old religion of witchcraft, originating in paganism. Wicca is only one form of pagan witchcraft and varies in beliefs and practices across individuals and traditions.

Tuccero said her own practice of Wicca has helped her transition to college and her daily life.

"It is definitely a practice that coincides well with being a young adult, being a freshman in college, being a woman, trying to figure out how the world works, and who I am, and my place in it," Tuccero said.

Tuccero was baptized three times. Describing her religious background, Tuccero said her religious roots are in Christianity. "My mom was Catholic, my dad was Episcopalian, and I think when I was born they had an idea, 'We'll raise her ... in a Christian household,' but that kind of petered out," she said.

With her Baptist grandmother, Tuccero attended baptismal classes and Bible camp, finding a spiritual community in the church. This experience has stayed with her - the copy of the Bible placed side-by-side with Wicca books on Tuccero's bookshelf was given to her at her baptism.

Rhys Hackford '10 was drawn to Wicca, where she found a spiritual home, because of her family's Celtic cultural traditions.

"I was raised Christian, but again sort of when I hit the age of 13, I wanted to learn more about myself, my family heritage," Hackford said. That's when she became interested in pagan traditions.

Though elements of other religious ideas and myths are easily incorporated into Wicca, it is a religion of its own, said Abrihette Yawa '10.

Growing up, Yawa read the Old Testament, Norse mythology and a sprinkling of Hindu and Egyptian stories.

Yawa was fascinated by these different beliefs but couldn't find one spiritual path that fit her. In her freshman year of high school, she met another girl who was Wiccan and began researching the religion.

"Wiccans have a lot of different guidelines, but really the only rule that you can get most Wiccans to agree on is a two-page poem which basically boils down to 'and it harms none, do as you will,' " she said. "I like that, in that it gives you a general idea of just being a good person.."

"It's very much about recognizing that there is no such thing as a right path or a right god. It's just the one that's right for you," Yawa said.

These general principles of acceptance and flexibility are conducive to working with other religions, and Tuccero doesn't believe Wicca contradicts any other religion.

"I don't take ideas about God or gods particularly literally, and I'm more open to their existence rather than asserting their existence," Tuccero said. "For me I don't see a reason to go out to convert or debate or convince. I'm always happy to hear other perspectives, to understand how other people think and see if it's applicable."

Yawa, like Tuccero, identifies as a solitary practitioner of eclectic Wicca. When she became Wiccan in high school, Yawa practiced alone because there were few other Wiccans in her small Colorado hometown. Wiccans who prefer not to practice alone join covens, typically groups of 13 Wiccans who read, practice, perform rituals and spells and celebrate holidays together, Tuccero said.

While she still keeps a personal altar, the ritual aspect of Tuccero's practice has diminished some since she came to Brown. "Formalized ritual is something that I haven't been quite so involved in, especially since I've been at Brown," Tuccero said. "To practice rituals, you need a certain degree of privacy, and in college you're living with a roommate and you're on a campus. There's not much in the way of something like a secluded field."

Like Tuccero, Yawa keeps a personal altar but has become less strict about practicing specific rituals since coming to Brown. Yawa has a goddess statue and other items to represent the four directions: water for the west, Earth for the north, air for the east and fire for the south - which she admitted is difficult while respecting residence hall rules prohibiting candles and incense.

The process of an actual ritual is different from what people may think about when considering the stereotypes surrounding witches. "Spells are not like, 'Go into the woods and sacrifice a baby' type of thing," Yawa said.

The first step in the process is to draw a circle to push out negative energy and place yourself in the right mindset, Yawa explained.

Candles, incense, herbs, wands, athames - ceremonial knives - and even fingers are all used to direct energy, Yawa said. Certain tools are aligned with the different elements, which are in turn associated with other concepts: fire is aligned with love and passion, air is intellect, earth is home and fertility.

When celebrating events or asking for guidance, Yawa performs abstract spells. She has performedspells "to make people hear me, or to make myself more understood."

Yawa's Wiccan practices have easily fit into her life at Brown, more than at her high school in Colorado, where she never quite fit with the "ideal high school girl" image.

Tuccero, who participates in Interfaith House and attends Thursday night suppers at University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson's house, agreed. "I think Brown attracts a certain type of person who is open to anything, who is willing to accept the practices of others," Tuccero said.

Cooper Nelson said it is precisely this understanding that creates a community of acceptance for students.

"People who come here may come from very different spiritual and religious practices, but oddly enough, in each other's company, they have found their human communal base of appreciation of engagement, (and) intellectual life," she said. "There are some theologians who say prayers are not words, it's what you do with your feet."

Cooper Nelson herself presided over a Wicca ceremony for a friend's newborn child.

After the 2003 Station Nightclub fire, which killed 100 people including several members of the pagan and Wiccan communities, Brown hosted an interfaith memorial service in Manning Chapel that included these communities, who had been largely excluded from other memorial events as an unintentional oversight.

Cooper Nelson and another associate chaplain presided over the packed ceremony. "These people had no other place to go, in a moment of such public tragedy, there's a need for this kind of acknowledgement by the larger world," Cooper Nelson said. "I felt really proud of Brown that we could open our arms like that and say, 'of course you are welcome here.' "

Now, Tuccero is looking for a similar community at Brown and in Providence. Tuccero attended the Rhode Island Pagan Pride Day and is trying to connect with the Rhode Island School of Design's Pagan Society. A group might help increase Wicca's visibility on campus, Tuccero said.

"In terms of P.R., Wiccans tend to be their own worst enemy," Tuccero said. Many people get the wrong idea about the religion, she added, referencing television shows like "Charmed" that glamorize the religion.

Hackford thinks most reactions to paganism or Wicca are out of ignorance. Most Brown students react out of embarrassment because they don't know more about Wicca and are uncomfortable with their ignorance, she said.

So is Wicca really about magic and witchcraft? Not exactly, Yawa says.

"Look at things. Look at a sunset. Just sit down; be in silence or darkness: that's magic. Magic is the world, it's life, its all around you, it's in everything you breathe and do, you just need to look for it."


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