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27 December 2012 @ 08:20 am
Yaad Work: Book Report 5: Spiral Dance (Starhawk)  
This is one of the book reports I wrote as part of my Year and a Day (YaaD) of study with Fieldhaven Coven. Local students are expected to read and report on one book per quarter. I was initially expected to read and report on one book per month; however, this was later bargained down to a total of eight books.



Assignment submitted September 17, 2012. This assignment passed, but with considerable displeasure regarding my unwillingness to make any effort whatsoever with the book's exercises.

Miles – YaaD – Book Report Q3

Starhawk. Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Harper: New York. 1989.

This book was recommended to me as the first half of a paired reading (with a later book from the same author to be the second reading), and because the author, like me, started out Jewish. I might not have recognized that (although of course Starhawk mentions it in the text); I didn't perceive a "Jewish feel" to the work, except possibly in the willingness to engage with, examine, and argue with the belief system being presented. In general, I would recommend Spiral Dance to anyone who was intellectually interested in modern Wiccan history and practice. However, if the potential reader intended to take Spiral Dance as a introduction to or guide to religious practice, I would restrict the recommendation to someone who was either very confident in his/her ability to do trance work and magic [1] or who was supremely confident in his/her ability to learn to do them.

[1] I know you prefer the spelling "magick"; however, Starhawk uses "magic" and I'm talking about her book, so I'm going with that for this paper.

Starhawk ties myth, history, psychology, and ritual into a seamless presentation. Each chapter begins with a section called "Between the Worlds," which describes or recalls rituals that are relevant to the chapter (except Chapter Two, which begins with a creation myth). The rest of the chapter discusses the topic from different angles, and most chapters include exercises for the potential practitioner. In this Tenth Edition, she includes additional comments about how her views have changed since she first wrote the book. Primarily, it seems to me, she has come to see male / female energies as less separate, and to see politics as more important.

The Introduction is Starhawk's personal history – how she came to Goddess-based religion and how she came to write the book.

Chapter 1: Witchcraft as a Goddess Religion lays out a proposed history of Goddess-based religions going to pre-history (35,000 years), with the transitions from hunter-gatherer societies worshipping a God of the Hunt and Lady of the Wild Things to more agricultural societies worshipping the Lord of Grain and the Barley Mother. Starhawk postulates that as groups settled and larger communities formed, individuals with power learned to work together in groups and that the studies of what we now call sciences worked hand in hand with what we call magic. She traces the history through the Inquisition and into the present. She distinguishes between modern religions based on a truth revealed by a "Great Man" and Goddess-based religions that are based on personal with an immanent deity. Finally, she briefly discusses the ethics common to Goddess-based religions (responsibility rather than guilt, respect for free will as a day-to-day guide).

Chapter 2: The World View of Witchcraft opens with a creation myth involving the Goddess becoming self-aware, perceiving her reflection, and separating the reflection from herself. Starhawk calls the ability to view the universe as made up of energy in motion "starlight" perception (as opposed to "flashlight" perception of everyday sight) and says that "much work is required to develop and train" it. Part of that work is facing the darkness within oneself (a statement I also remember from one or more of the readings on totems). She describes the differences between left and right brain, attributing flashlight perception to the left brain and starlight to the right.

She describes her tradition's division of understanding into the Younger Self (correlates with the unconscious), the Talking Self (correlates with the conscious mind), and Deep Self (or God self, which she describes as divinity within). According to her teachings, the Younger Self experiences the world and the Talking Self organizes and interprets the experiences; the Deep Self is connected only to the Younger Self and must be reached through symbols and ritual, rather than speech. If I accept her assertion that the only way to reach the Deep Self is without words, by symbol, I would have to say that I haven't ever reached that Deep Self and never will.

Starhawk describes love as the underlying creative force of the universe, love in all its forms, and states that "ecstasy is at the heart of Witchcraft." Most of the rest of the chapter consists of commentary on the creation myth and the forces and aspects of love.

Chapter 3: The Coven describes the structure of a coven – close bonds between a very small group of "rabid individualists" who nevertheless manage to develop a sense of community, to the point that the coven "becomes an entity in itself." Starhawk briefly compares the formation and development of two covens of which she is has been a member and talks about what she learned from the first one and was able to apply to the second; for example, letting members decide when they were ready to take on more responsibility rather than "passing the wand" when a current leader was ready for a break.

She then discusses ways for people to find a working coven that is right for them, including things like no coercion, no money charged for initiation or coven training (although people teaching public classes may charge, and covens may ask for contributions to defray expenses), a feeling of comfort among the members and at the same time members who have healthy lives outside the coven. Individuals who cannot find a coven, or a coven that works for them, may also practice as solitaries; this is not ideal but can be made to work.

The chapter continues with five group exercises that, when performed together, form the basis of a simple group ritual: casting the circle, raising, sharing, and releasing power, feasting, and opening the circle.

Starhawk takes a moment to discuss dealing with interpersonal conflict in a coven setting and notes that a coven is a safe space but not a therapy group. Part of that safe space is letting the Younger Self "come out and play," and the next two exercises focus on that; the five following exercises are about visualization; the five after that deal with meditation and energy work. I did not attempt any of these exercises, either because they required a group setting or because they were so far beyond my abilities that I felt overwhelmed and frustrated just reading them. We discussed this, you and I, and you pointed out that exercises are meant to help one get better at something by practicing it; I said that these all read to me like, "The way to get started is to run a sub-four-minute mile," rather than "The couch-to-5k program begins with …" I've reread this chapter, and I stand by my assessment.

Chapter 4: Creating Sacred Space is much shorter and simpler; it describes ways of creating a sacred space for ritual. Starhawk writes, "Casting the circle is an enacted meditation. Each gesture we make, each tool we use, each power we invoke, resonates through layers of meaning to awaken an aspect of ourselves. The outer forms are a cloak for inner visualizations, so that the circle becomes a living mandala, in which we are centered." I recognize and understand this from my experiences with Fieldhaven, except for that part about "visualizations," since I can't visualize at all; everything I do is verbal, by way of words.

The next three exercises teach a personal purification for use before a ritual, a group purification to start a ritual, and a banishing of any unfriendly beings in the area of the circle before casting it. The chapter then briefly discusses the concept of the circle, the Guardians of the Watchtowers, and the use of tools as "tangible representatives of unseen forces." As you taught me, Starhawk says the tools help focus but the mind does the magic. She also spends a paragraph on "Ceremonial Magic" vs. "Kitchen Witches," making the same distinctions you did when we talked about them.

The chapter continues with discussions of the four cardinal points and the center, elements, and related tools, with exercises for each element and tool. I probably could do the elemental meditations, and possibly the athame and wand meditations, if I ever get around to dedicating my altar tools (there is also a ritual for doing that in this chapter), but the cup meditation ("be aware of how you are nurtured and how you nurture others"), the three pentacle meditations (The Five Stages of Life, The Iron Pentagram, and The Pentagram of Pearl), and the transformation and cauldron meditations are beyond me. The Circle Visualization (there's "visualization" again) is also considerably and probably permanently outside my capability.

Starhawk provides a few sample quarter calls, and ends the chapter with exercises for creating a protective circle (okay, that's shielding and I did eventually learn how to do that) and a permanent protective circle around a building. I think I could probably do that exercise, if I had properly dedicated tools.

Chapter 5: Goddess describes the renewed interest in Goddess symbolism and in perceiving the Goddess as immanent, something/someone that is present in all aspects of the world, not something to be believed in but something to be experienced. I'm not entirely certain that I perceive the deities this way; I'm still moderately agnostic as to whether they even exist separate from the minds of their believers, and when I do think they exist, I perceive them as separate and distant, not ever-present and embodied in everything.

Starhawk describes the triple goddess, Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and expands on that triad to the "pentad, the fivefold star of birth, initiation, love, repose, and death"; the next few pages expand on those stages of life (or of projects within a given life). The chapter continues with commentary on the Charge of the Goddess, and ends with several sample Goddess invocations. Again, I didn't even try the exercises in this chapter, because they all begin with "Visualize [something]."

Chapter 6: The God examines the Horned God as an image of masculinity and discusses how that image differs from our current cultural performance expectations for masculine energy. She writes, "He is gentle, tender, and comforting, but He is also the Hunter. He is the Dying God—but his death is always in the service of the life force. He is untamed sexuality—but sexuality as a deep, holy, connecting power. He is the power of feeling, and the image of what men could be if they were liberated from the constraints of patriarchal culture." She discusses the Christian representation of the Horned God as the Devil, and also the medieval practice of having the Priest and Priestess evoke the God and Goddess, perhaps to demonstrate that the deities did appear when called (unlike the Christian God).

Much of the rest of the chapter develops the complementary characteristics of the God and Goddess, and expands on ways in which the God of Witchcraft could be a healthier model for men than most of the existing Western European (or even Eastern) spiritual traditions. (It is in this chapter that Starhawk specifically denies "acts of sadomasochism" as valid expressions of love and pleasure; we've discussed that, and I am pleased that the Greenhaven Tradition does not hold that view.)

The text of the chapter concludes with a discussion of what men find in Witchcraft and how they must learn to interact differently with women who are empowered and whose bodies are seen as holy rather than degenerate. Finally, Starhawk concludes with more sample invocations, this time for the God.

Chapter 7: Magical Symbols is where I started running into heavy water. Starhawk describes magic as "the art of changing consciousness at will," and as a "neurological repatterning," and says that "through spells, we can attain the most important power—the power to change ourselves." As you did, she emphasizes the importance of being "scrupulously honest" and absolutely consistent in order to have the conviction that change will happen because the practitioner says it will. And, as most of the other books and articles I've read have said, she describes spells as requiring the skills of relaxation, visualization, concentration, and projection.

Given these postulates, I am further convinced that I should stick to ritual and not try to cast spells: I'm not at all certain that I want to rewire my brain (or my mind; I distinguish between the two); I don't have that scrupulous consistency (except perhaps in reverse: I consistently overestimate my abilities and underestimate the time it will take to do something; as an example, I thought this report would take two or three hours to write, it ended up being closer to nine); and I can't visualize; I do words, not images or symbols. Theurgy, yes; I've demonstrated to myself that I can do that, but thaumaturgy is clearly not for me.

The rest of the chapter is a thorough explanation of how and why magic works, how to concentrate and direct energy, how to use symbols and images, and how to adjust the recipe to suit the conditions. There is an exercise for a protective filter, and again, that's shielding and I have a reasonably good grasp of how that works. The chapter ends with a handful of sample spells.

Chapter 8: Energy: The Cone of Power was once again easier for me; it covers the theory behind something I'm already familiar with: raising, using, and grounding power in a ritual. Starhawk compares the use of energy to ecology, and emphasizes that everything is interconnected in a dynamic equilibrium. She asserts that energy always flows in waves / spirals, and that this implies balance, because nothing flows in the same direction forever. She notes that political actions (what my union calls "direct actions") would probably work better if they were perceived as energy workings, and in fact, one of the training sessions we had on meeting facilitation did touch on the idea of doing things in a particular order to take advantage of an energy curve. As an example, she includes her notes from a Take Back the Night Ritual she helped lead, including comments on what she thought went well and what didn't go as expected.

The first exercise in this chapter is The Cone of Power; I'm familiar with raising power in ritual, but again, not visualizing it as a "swirling clockwise cone." The next two exercises both require groups.

Starhawk then describes three types of "subtle" energy:
  • Elemental or raith, also called etheric substance or ectoplasm; this is the "elemental energy body", associated with the Younger Self, and "it perceives through the starlight consciousness of the right hemisphere." (I wonder if Jim Butcher named one of the vampire families in his Dresdenverse the Raiths based on this usage, or if he was playing on Wraith, or both.)
  • The astral body, "the energy of consciousness," the body of the Talking Self. A person's aura consists of his/her astral body plus his/her raith.
  • "The energy of the Deep Self, of the Gods."


The remaining exercises in this chapter deal with sensing and seeing the aura, and damping and projecting energy.

Chapter 9: Trance started out fairly straightforward, since I'm pretty sure I've experienced trance states and thought I was reasonably comfortable with them. Starhawk recommends against trying to measure or classify trance states because that tends to lead to competition around "what level" an individual can reach, but does encourage sharing descriptions and experiences to gain insight into options. Then things got a bit hairy for me. She discusses perceptions in trance, and states that they are not bound by the physical senses and that language cannot describe them. Since my experiences were, in fact, easily described in language (even if that language is, "It was A Place with No Words"), I can only assume that I wasn't in what Starhawk would consider a trance state, but perhaps something similar.

The next few pages discuss what one might do in a trance. There is astral vision, which is "always a mixture of the subjective and the objective," and entities that may be external, internal, or both. There are astral forms, which may be individual or collective, and which may be "anchored" in physical objects (e.g., statues of gods might be keyed to the astral form of that god). Astral projection involves separating the astral body from the physical (leaving a connecting cord), but individuals can also "project consciousness alone, without the construction of a body." Trance can also be used for internal work, because a person in trance is more suggestible.

Starhawk discusses some of the possible dangers of trance work – starting with confronting the Guardian, the Shadow, "the embodiment of all the impulses and qualities that we have through into the unconscious mind because the conscious mind finds them unacceptable." Again, I remember a description of something very similar in one of the readings on totems. Starhawk states that the real danger is not actually from the Guardian but rather from the strategies that people use to avoid dealing with the Guardian and that "coveners help each other best simply by not being seduced into each other's defense strategies."

The chapter wraps up with a brief connection between dreams and dream-work, and trance and trance-work, and then wraps up with several trance-based exercises that Starhawk says are best done in groups.

Chapter 10: Initiation led to a brief discussion with you. Starhawk says all initiations are symbolic death and rebirth; you said that Greenhaven Tradition and Fieldhaven Coven have used death-and-rebirth as the theme for some but not all initiations. Starhawk also says that initiation is the beginning of the process of confronting the Guardian, the Shadow; that the initiate may not have already done so, but must be fully ready to do so. The rest of the chapter consists of descriptions of two initiation rituals that Star hawk's covens have used.

Chapter 11: Moon Rituals and Chapter 12: The Wheel of the Year were both fairly straightforward for me. There is little or no theory, just sample rituals for Waxing, Full, and Dark of the moon, and for the eight sabbats.

Chapter 13: Creating a Religion: Toward the Future is essentially a political and religious essay on "the responsibility of claiming the future for life." Starhawk discusses the cultural symbols that she perceives as "regressive" and how adopting a more feminist spirituality could shift those traits toward the progressive. I accept that creating and nurturing cultural symbols and ethics is a valid and important aspect of religion, but it's not a responsibility that I want to take on. I just want to do my best in my small local corner of the world.


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