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A Review of Starhawk痴 Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess

-by Michael J Dangler

Simos, Miriam. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, 10th Anniversary Edition. HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, CA. 1989.

Critique on chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, notes, conclusions

First, let痴 get something out of the way: yes, I知 male, and yes, I知 Pagan. Oh, and I知 politically and economically conservative. Some people would automatically accuse me of being biased in a review of what is considered one of the great works of modern Pagan literature. Either I知 going to praise the book as the greatest thing since sliced bread because I知 pagan, or I知 going to rip it apart because I知 still under the conservative, patriarchal illusion that men are better than women, and thus life should not change for any of us.

Perhaps each rant is correct in some way or another. Hopefully my points can be made from a scholarly standpoint, not an I知-attacking or an I知-supporting position. I知 looking to tell it like it is, from my view. I have formed these conclusions on my own, from my reading of the text, without any outside commentary. I did not read the book for any reason other than my own interest, and I admit that I had heard nothing but good things about the book before hand. This is why the first chapter shocked me.

Chapter 1:

Chapter one begins to present us with some of the more broad problems with the book. Starhawk begins the book talking about the religion of Witchcraft. This religion, she states, is 菟erhaps the oldest religion extant in the West. (p. 16) She describes the origins of Witchcraft (in somewhat its present form) beginning 35 thousand years ago. Her 21 paragraphs about the history of Witchcraft include extremely sparse citations, and one citation calls this history 殿 mixture of oral tradition, interpretations of physical evidence, and standard scholarship. (p. 213) Starhawk makes no attempt give us any citations, since she says that it would require volumes upon volumes to cite all the sources. Citing random oral tradition and 妬nterpretations of physical evidence could mean that she took this information from anywhere. Every American schoolchild knows that the Boston Massacre was a bloody attempt by the British to stop a riot. What we aren稚 taught is that the colonists were fighting back, and may have even started it (the jury is still out). Just because the Boston Massacre is portrayed as a terrible loss of life and as a massacre of innocent civilians does not make is so. In fact, this should make us more inclined than ever to look into what really happened. Starhawk asks us to take her version of history without question.

For four paragraphs, citations of obscure sources abound, with nothing written as recently as 1970 being cited (this means that very little research supporting her history came out for 10 years before she wrote Spiral Dance). Soon we come to her citations of Margaret Murry, an author much maligned in scholarship today. Numerous scholars have found her work to be not only shoddy, but rarely accurate. On page 19, her sudden exuberance for citations, with 10 in the previous 7 paragraphs, dies out, with a citation every few paragraphs even though her information is becoming more and more fantastic.

Starhawk seems to date the word Wicca to before the 12th Century, which isn稚 problematic, unless (as I get the feeling is occurring) she is dating the word even earlier, such as to the 5th century or so. She mentions the word in correspondence with the coming of Christianity to Wales and Ireland. If indeed this is what she means, then she is dating the word Wicca to before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, so I hope I知 safe in assuming that I misread the passage. (p. 19)

Starhawk痴 mention of covens dating back to 1324 (I could find no references anywhere to Kyteler, and I looked hard) seems spurious at best, and I have to wonder where she took this information from (there is no citation in the entire paragraph). Her claim that the troubadours were writing love poems to the Goddess instead of to their ladies is even more far-fetched, in my opinion. Again, there is no citation for her information. (p. 19)

Starhawk tells us that 妬t has been suggested that. . . [Joan of Arc]. . . was a leader of the Old Religion. (p. 19) Her citation for this is Margaret Murry again. Because I have not read this book, I cannot comment on the sources Ms. Murry used to make this particular point, but from what I know of French military history, Joan was a favourite among her troops and the French people because she won, not because of a spiritual connection with the Old Religion.

On page 20, Starhawk tells us that nine million witches are estimated to have been executed during the witchtrials. Starhawk qualifies this with a mention that it could have been anywhere between one hundred thousand and nine million in her notes at the back of the book. The use of such a figure, well at the high end of the spectrum (according to her own words, at the highest end) causes me to pause and wonder what else has been thrown in without a note for the reader to believe. Should everything in the book be reduced because of this high-end figure? Should we be careful of each fact put forward? The sensational figure only leads us to question Starhawk痴 integrity.

Starhawk also tells us that witches were considered 堵uilty until proven innocent. She fails to mention that anyone arrested for any crime would have been tried in exactly the same manner, guilty until proven innocent. Being innocent until you are proven guilty is an American concept, not even accepted everywhere in the world yet. It is ethnocentric to call a culture痴 legal practices into question using modern, Americanized morals to judge them. Again, Starhawk seems to be sensationalizing the details.

Starhawk痴 descriptions of the horrors of torture are accurate of what every schoolchild is told about the witch trials, but she neglects to cite her sources or the geographical area she is talking about. In Spain, for instance, it was heresy to accuse anyone of witchcraft, but if the person claimed to be a witch verbally, or was accused of claiming to be a witch, she was sentenced for superstition. The Inquisition did not believe that Magic existed, and thus a person could not use Magic. If one was found guilty of superstition, then they were usually fined and 途eeducated.[2] Interestingly, however, the Spanish Inquisition allows us the main evidence that there were people who called themselves witches in Mideval Spain. According to Karen Dollinger:

的n 1611, a Year of Grace was declared, which meant that people could confess their crimes without fear of punishment. In one region in Spain, about 1,800 people confessed to being witches. Since Spain had never had a major outbreak of the witchcraze, the Inquisition was quite concerned and sent special inquisitor Alonso de Salazar y Frias there to find out what was going on. In his report to the Supreme Tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition, he wrote, "Indeed, these claims go beyond all reason and many even pass the limits permitted to the Devil...I have come to believe, and shall continue to do so, that none of the acts which have been attested in this case, really or physically occurred at all." Of those who claimed to be witches in this case, almost 1,500 were absolved, 290 were reconciled, and 81 took back their confessions.

(Information from Anderson and Zinsser's "A History of Their Own," P. 172)

On page 21, Starhawk speaks of a coven possibly meeting in the woods around Salem before the witch trials there, and of Samuel and John Quincy Adams being part of a 電ragon cult. There is no evidence that either of these assertions is true, and the Adams would have been Freemasons, which was a predominantly Christian organization at the time.

Oral tradition is a common recourse that Pagans use when they seek some historical basis for their religion. Starhawk is no exception to this rule, and she speaks of the witches oral tradition teaching of indentured servant pagans who were brought over as slave labour, and further about the unbroken fam-trad (family tradition) of witches since the colonization of America. No evidence exists that either of these possibilities could be true, either of an oral tradition or of it being passed from mother to daughter (apparently men are left out of the loop entirely).

Also, it is important to note that the use of the word 展itch is used to reclaim a woman痴 right to be powerful, or a man痴 ability to know the feminine in the divine. The masculine is apparently alienated entirely. (p. 22) On p. 23, if a Father God is used to prove that men should control social institutions, as Starhawk states, then the obvious answer is a female Goddess, because a Goddess would not legitimize rule of one sex over another. My questions are: is this the only thing a male father God is good for? How does a Goddess keep one sex from ruling another, and how can She not be used in that capacity, particularly by mortal humans?

Finally, we come to some passages where I can agree with Starhawk, and agree whole-heartedly. Possibly the best paragraph in the book is as follows:

典he importance of the Goddess symbol for women cannot be overstressed. The image of the Goddess inspires women to see ourselves as divine, our bodies as sacred, the changing phases of our lives as holy, our aggression as healthy, our anger as purifying, and our power to nurture and create, but also to limit and destroy when necessary, as the very force that sustains all life. Through the Goddess, we can discover our strength, enlighten our minds, own our bodies, and celebrate our emotions. We can move beyond narrow, constricting roles and become whole. (p. 25)

It is in this passage that I can find absolutely no note of discord or lack of insight. Starhawk makes use of the Goddess as metaphor to bring to light the struggles women face today, and she finally starts to make sense (at least to me). Suddenly, however, the very next paragraph tells us that the Goddess religion is no longer only a religion for women, but a religion for men and ecologists as well. Everyone who believes in the Goddess must be some sort of Eco-warrior, or must not use the environment to their advantage, or must fight against large corporations. Meditation is not as important as picking up litter, or protesting 砥nsafe nuclear power. (p. 26) It seems to me that Starhawk is looking for people to be environmentally conscious, not to follow the Goddess and use her as a religion, but to use her as a symbol of an Eco-revolution. This fits with the time the book was written originally, and it fits with her current stance as an eco-pagan,[3] but it does not fit with the attempt to build a religion around the Goddess.

On p. 27, Starhawk mentions ethics, and seems to make the point that fear of return harm is the driving force of pagan ethics, not desire to do good. Perhaps she would find it insulting, but it sounds very much like Christianity痴 fear of not getting into Heaven if they sin. She delves into what Magic is, calling it an art, while several of the sources cited in her bibliography, most notably P. E. I. Bonewits Real Magic, consider it a science. (p. 28)

One final plea I have about the first chapter is: where does this number 13 come from for the number in a coven? Starhawk calls it traditional, but she doesn稚 give any other source that would state that it was traditional, nor does she tell us which tradition it comes from. Is it Alexandrian or Dianic? How did this number come about?

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Chapter 2:

The opening of ch. 2 describes a creation myth. Being male and heterosexual, I noticed something slightly out of the ordinary immediately: not only is the male completely unimportant to creation, to the point of having no reason whatsoever for existence, but creation takes place without the need of a second entity or force. This second oddity was not a huge problem, since there are several plants and thousands of bacteria, protozoans, and worms that can reproduce alone, as well as fish that biologically change gender and other fun things. Nature is full of surprises like that, and there is no reason why that should be too odd.

The complete unimportance of the male is a serious problem, however. While other myths ignore the female, any feminist scholar will point out that this allows avenues of control for patriarchal culture. This particular myth is dangerous because it allows avenues of control for any matriarchal or matrifocal group. Men can be assigned a secondary role in a society or group (such as a coven) on the basis of this particular myth. It strikes me as hypocritical to complain about patriarchal myths that deny the female power, only to use a myth that subjects male power to the same denial. Gendering forces in creation is dangerous to start with, but to make one unimportant is simply egotistical, biased, and an obvious attempt to assert control over the other gender.

On page 38, Starhawk says that her myth could just as easily replace Goddess with God, that gender has not come into being. According to many Christians, the same could be true of the Christian God. He is not a he, nor is He a she. He has no gender, but is referred to as 滴e because we, as humans, need some way to refer to God. It would be just as correct to replace that He with She. The Bible makes no attempt to do this, however, which causes one to assume that God might be male. Because of this, despite the fact that God has no gender, He is perceived as male. That is where the danger begins. By the same token, the Goddess is always referred to as Goddess, She, and Her, with only the occasional reference to the fact that She has no gender. Obviously, by calling Her by a gender-specific pronoun, we have created a gender for her.

That said, the myth itself could be seen as a reaction to Christianity, where the 敵od the Father archetype has grated so on the nerves of the author that the person re-wrote creation in a way that would have the maximum shock value to the church. I don稚 believe that it was written in such a way, but it is a possible interpretation. Other things to note are the fact that the male cannot exist without the female, yet the female can exist without the male. The male is created away from the female, which allows a possible suggestion of imperfection of the male. Each element in the story might be misused by someone with a separate agenda.

Starhawk makes use of Castaneda, whose work has been debunked recently, on several pages. Everything related to his work or to Don Juan should be taken cum grano salis. Another point that should be made is her constant attacks on the left-hemisphere of the brain. Apparently, Starhawk believes that it is useless for Magic and for working in a Goddess religion, which might be true if there was no science involved in Magic. I found myself occasionally wondering if she was left-handed, discriminating against those of us who are right-handed (not related, but a fun thought I had while reading the book).

In this chapter, Starhawk constantly compares her religion to Christianity, to the point where she seems to be justifying her religion to the reader. She notes that Goddess religion does not live in dogma, but in metaphor, not to be taken any more literally than poetry. Her assumption here is that Christianity and other Western religions do live in dogma. The Bible, as an instance, can be taken as dogma or as metaphor. Some readers use it one way, and some use it the other. The point is that the metaphor in the Bible is not obvious, nor is it obvious to the reader of Starhawk痴 myth. To her, the metaphor is obvious, but someone might decide to take it as dogma, which she cannot stop. Such is the problem with the written word.

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Chapter 3:

I had few problems with this chapter, aside from Starhawk痴 incessant use of the word 鍍radition in lieu of any historical citation. Starhawk also seems to be saying that there is only one tradition of witchcraft, and that if you do things different than she sates in her book, you are not a true witch. Some of the things she states are particular to craft traditions, and some things are idealized. One cannot run a coven in the way she describes her coven. It simply wouldn稚 work, for it is too idealized.

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Chapter 4:

This particular chapter is focused on creating sacred space, and my critique should be prefaced by a note that I personally do not cast a circle or call quarters before ritual. Due to this, some of my critiques might be due to a misunderstanding of the intention behind the aspect of the ritual.

The idea that you cannot raise power unless it is contained is complete bunk to me. Power can be raised anywhere and through anything. Foci help, as does containment, particularly if you are directing the power at something. For spells and Magic that would affect the balance of large, amorphous problems, there is no reason to contain the power, particularly if you want to direct it at multiple places.

I also found the assertion that it was okay if cats or small children cross the circle amusing, and somewhat convenient. (p. 72) Why not dogs? What about teenagers? If a child can cross it, what痴 to stop an entity? These questions are not answered in the text, and seem unimportant to the author.

Now, we have differences of opinion on what tools go with each direction. First, the Athame and the Sword each appear to be Fire to me, and very obviously so. Not only have edged weapons been used primarily for war throughout human history, but it makes intuitive sense to me. I place the Wand with Air, since it relies on mental imagery and the movement of power. It is associated with the Magician, which is a mental profession.

Since I am not Wiccan, I would never put a pentacle on my altar to represent earth. Not only does it not make any sense intuitively, but a staff, horseshoe, or even a cauldron would be better for me. Any further comment on the quarters or directions would be silly of me, since I have no strong background in them.

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Chapter 5:

Starhawk impresses me again with her few paragraphs on pages 91-92, where she describes the symbolism of the Goddess and her 澱elief in the Goddess. This section is well worth the read, in my opinion. Later on, however, she speaks of the labrys (double axe) as the 努eapon of Goddess cultures. (p. 95) While the labrys is found on Minos in paintings, there is no evidence that it was more than a ceremonial symbol. There is also the fact that these Goddess cultures are supposed to be peaceful, and indeed the walls of Konossos show no depictions of battle or soldiers until after the invasion by the Mycenaean people. Even all this information does not allow us to be sure what the labrys was used for.

Starhawk also makes the Celts out to have one Goddess, by name of Cerridwen. (p. 97) Cerridwen was indeed a Goddess of the Celts, but she was not the Goddess, in much the same way as Zeus was not the Greek God. The Celts were no more matrifocal or matriarchal than the Romans were.

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Chapter 6:

While certain Gods were perverted by the Christian Church into being the image of the Devil, there is no evidence that it was the God who was turned into the Devil. Pan, Bacchus, and others are obvious, but for the God to have been corrupted is a tall order. According to Starhawk, the God may have become more prominent over the Goddess in the Middle Ages due to some movement or another that she does not describe. (p. 109) With the number of confessions recorded, Starhawk sees that there was little mention of the Goddess, and attributes this to the prominence of the God over the Goddess. A simpler solution is that there was not a Goddess tradition in the middle ages. While it appears that some people did think themselves guilty of witchcraft, the evidence for an unbroken tradition of Goddess worshipers is almost non-existent.

On p. 110, Starhawk seeks an answer to the anger men have, and how it has become twisted and perverted. Apparently, due to patriarchal culture, men are all angry and violent. This later dissolves into a Marxist view of Christianity, dealing with the power relationships between Father God and 田hildren. Personally, as a man, I don稚 feel this anger. I don稚 feel it being twisted or perverted, nor do I seek to take it out on others. I grew up in this patriarchy. Does this make me more able to see the patriarchy for what it is and avoid the problem? Why am I not affected by this? Or is it all just my self-denial? Starhawk does not answer these questions, and assumes all men are angry and violent. Also, it is important to look back at something earlier: on p. 42, the God is given two particular attributes, which give insight into Starhawk痴 view of the male: limitation and dissolution.

In this chapter we start to see something interesting come out of Starhawk痴 writing. A surface reading of the text would show that Starhawk believes that sexual activity is sacred and she believes that almost anything one does sexually is good. Backing up a bit, on p. 40, we learn that all sex and ecstasy is religious, 努hether in. . . a coven circle, in bed with one痴 beloved, or in the midst of a forest. In this chapter, however, we see that there is are two forms of sexuality that is always 澱ad: Sadomasochism and celibacy/virginity.

On p. 61, Starhawk states that 砺ulnerability cannot be forced on anyone, except destructively. On p. 111, she states that 妬t is a violation of the male body to use it as a weapon, just as it is a violation of the female body to use it as an object. On 114, 典he God does not perpetuate acts of sadomasochism on the goddess or preach to Her the 叢ower of sexual surrender.樗 On p. 208, we see that 菟ornography, rape, prostitution, sadomasochism simply bring out into the open the theme that underlies ascetism, celibacy, and Christian chastity葉hat sex is dirty and evil, and by extension, so are women. Starhawk is telling us that celibacy and chastity, as well as S&M, are all horrible things to have around. On p. 233, in her note on page 111, she says we have confused 鍍he erotic with domination and violence, and that we must not become 都idetracked by the dramas of power-over. . . or the thrill of control. Light bondage, S&M, and other fetishes genuinely turn on some people. There is nothing wrong with such practices; they are not deviant or wrong. Forcing someone to participate in such things would be wrong, but I don稚 think that force is the rule, but rather the exception for people who practice it.

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Chapters 7 & 8:

These chapters are very good. I have only a few things to add. First, Magic is not just a psychological phenomenon. It occurs in the physical realm as well. Secondly, P. E. I. Bonewits is the best source for Magical laws, either at his website,, or his book, Real Magic. Chapter 8 adds the possibility of indirectly affecting changes in the physical world. An interesting note in that chapter is also that, while physical exertion reduces the ability of a person to do Magic, sexual exertion increases it, according to her. I believe that this is dependant on the person, but I can say that it has been proven that sexual activity before a sporting event reduces the ability of the athlete in question.

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Chapter 9:

In chapter 9 we see a devolution from 鍍his happens to 鍍his symbolizes. The Goddess becomes a metaphor, a construct. In fact, all beings become constructs. We are worshiping figments of our imagination. (p. 155) Even mental illness becomes a sort of 叢retend sickness to her. (p. 159)

A very important note, and one I take very strong issue with is her calling Buddhism a cult on page 158. She doesn稚 say it directly, but she certainly means it, and in the derogatory way that most people now speak of cults, not in the definitive way Webster痴 would define a cult. More on this will come up when I discuss her final chapter.

Aside from these problems, the chapter is decent in terms of good information.

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Chapters 10, 11, &12:

I can稚 have any trouble with these chapters, since I知 not of her tradition. The work seems sound and useful. I would recommend reading them and basing rituals off of them.

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Chapter 13:

The final chapter. Here Starhawk tells us that witchcraft is more being recreated rather than revived, and though my real question is, 妬s there anything to revive? I will refrain from delving into that argument. Since she cites no sources for most of the work, it would be pointless to carry it further than I have.

I find her attacking of dualistic cultures amusing, particularly when she writes about how much she dislikes paths that fall into the 徹ne Right, True, and Only Way涌urs! syndrome. Starhawk begins to tell us why all the other paths out there are wrong, and that they don稚 fit with the world. She makes the point over and over again that Witchcraft is the way to go, especially for women. She groups all Eastern religions into one group, mashing all their practices and beliefs into one huge pot of stew. (p. 205) On the same page, she again calls all Eastern religions cults, using the derogatory form. She tells us that we need to have a future religion, and she supports her region as that one. (p. 209) She speaks of Witchcraft providing a model of structure for new religions, which is a circle of friends with no hierarchy. She forgets that many brands of witchcraft, such as Alexandrian and Gardnerarian do have hierarchies, and they are very rigid. (p. 210)

Finally, this chapter ends with Starhawk痴 vision of the future. Her vision is very happy and admirable, if you池e a female witch. If you池e male, agnostic, or anything else, you have no part in this future. (A note in my margins asks if the Christians were burned at the stake.)

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Notes, 10 and 20 years later:

If you致e read the book, keep going. You値l find a wealth of information and corrections. I read these last and they cleared up some problems, but not the huge ones that I mentioned in the last 14 or so pages. She doesn稚 include any further citations, but she does explain her position on some issues, and corrects some problems.

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Be careful. This is another example of a person with really, really good ideas and skills having piss poor history and a strong bias against certain things. Read about all the rituals and some of the theory, but stop there. Starhawk痴 history and her vision of the future are ugly. The book was good, but it had strong failings. Maybe it痴 just the historian in me, and maybe if I could get by that, I壇 be better off. But I would not recommend this to anyone who was just starting out.

[2] Karen Dollinger

[3] Starhawk is no longer into Faery Wicca, as she was when she wrote the book, but is an eco-pagan and Women痴 Spirtualist.

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