Interview with Starhawk

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 28, 2009 — 8 Comments

Few living modern Pagans have had as much influence on our interconnected movements as Starhawk. Author, outspoken activist, and co-founder of the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, she, along with several others, helped shape threads of modern Paganism that were more explicitly feminist and eco-activist in nature. She is perhaps most famous for her 1979 book “The Spiral Dance”, a work that synthesized elements of spiritual feminism, Wicca, environmentalism, and the teachings of Victor Anderson into something entirely new. This year we not only approach the 30th anniversary of that book, but of the yearly Reclaiming-sponsored Spiral Dance Samhain ritual, which has evolved from a small Bay Area community-based ritual into an international event that draws nearly 2000 people. I was lucky enough to recently conduct a short e-mail interview with Starhawk about both of these anniversaries, and her vision for the future.

This interview will be part of a larger piece about the 30th anniversary of the Spiral Dance to be published by the Pagan Newswire Collective in late October/early November.


What started out as a release party for your book “The Spiral Dance” has evolved into a massive multi-day ritual pageant, complete with original art, music, and dance, that draws people from far outside the San Francisco area. To what do you attribute this success, and what do you think the Spiral Dance represents to the hundreds who attend?

Let me just start by saying that the Spiral Dance has always been, first and foremost, a ritual. Although the first one was also a book release party, uppermost in our minds was the desire to create a powerful, public ritual on a scale that we had never tried before. And I wanted to involve friends of mine who were artists, musicians, poets—to honor the arts as sacred activities. In retrospect, we did crazy things. We had Goddess dancers in porcelain headdresses sculpted by Medea Maquis, and wearing macramé costumes all hand-made by my dear friend Kevyn Lutton. Another sculptor, Eleanor Myers, made sixteen porcelain headpieces for the chorus. They were all beautiful—and you can see them in the video that’s on our new website. But they were incredibly hot, heavy, and breakable!

But that was the spirit in which we approached the ritual—let’s go all out, over the top, and see what we can create. And I think that’s why it has become a tradition.

Now, the Spiral Dance is many things. It’s a performance, that we hope moves people both esthetically and spiritually, and that serves as a vehicle for many, many people to express their creativity in different ways: building altars, creating dances and invocations, singing in the chorus. It’s a place where we can come together to mourn our dead and reconnect with their spirits in deep meditation. And again, beyond everything else, it’s an amazing, participatory ritual where over a thousand people dance together and raise focused power for our vision of healing and renewal.

Your book is also seeing its 30th year in print. In those intervening years you’ve become one of the most visible modern Pagans, acting as a panelist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” project, and making international news with your activism. Has your notoriety changed how you view The Spiral Dance – the book, and the event?

I don’t know if ‘notoriety’ is actually the word that fits—that, such as it is, and a quarter might get me on a bus. Actually, these days it would probably take a couple of dollars.

Thirty years ago, books had more impact than they do today. Merlin Stone’s book When God Was a Woman came out in 1976. In 1979, three important books came out: mine, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, and the anthology edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising. Together they helped to take what was really a tiny movement of a few of us in our living rooms doing circles, and boost it up into a major movement—really several intercepting movements—the womanspirit movement, the earth-based spirituality movement, the Pagan movement.

Throughout the eighties, Harper SanFrancisco was looking for books on feminist spirituality to publish. They saw it as a niche, but a large enough one that they could do well by serving it. In the nineties, sometime perhaps around the time Harper Collins was bought by Rupert Murdoch, they shifted focus. They dropped a huge number of contracts—not mine, but many other quality books, and like publishing as a whole, moved away from serving specific communities and toward a general mass-market focus. Harper SanFrancisco now publishes mostly Christian books. And publishing overall is in turmoil, losing readers to the Internet.

So, while its easier than ever to publish—all you have to do is set up a blog and you can publish yourself—it’s harder than ever to find publishers for deeper, more thoughtful works or for them to find an audience. HarperSanFrancisco did a tenth anniversary edition and a twentieth anniversary edition of The Spiral Dance, but they didn’t want to do a thirtieth unless I significantly rewrote the book, which I decided I didn’t want to do. I think the book still stands on its own, especially with the commentary I’ve added in the later editions. Perhaps because I wrote it when I was young, fervent and in the first throes of my love affair with the Goddess, it has an energy of its own that I didn’t want to mess with. If I were going to rewrite it, I’d rather write something new, which I did a few years ago, The Earth Path.

As for the ritual—I still love it! I work on it every year in some capacity, as part of the ‘cell’ or collective that puts it on. People join the cell by taking on a coordinating role, whether that’s directing the chorus or directing the cleanup—a truly vital role! We have a visioning meeting early on, and invite a large group of people who have a connecting to the ritual. From that, we draw our theme and intention and imagery for the year.

Reclaiming works collectively, and we try to pass around roles of leadership and responsibility. So—I’ve done many things for the Spiral Dance, from writing or rewriting parts of it, to unloading the storage space and hoisting the platforms for the altars. Some years I lead the trance—other years I’ll take a smaller role in the ritual itself and let someone else take the central roles.

One change—for many years we did not allow photography at any of our rituals. We felt there was a power in the ritual happening at the moment, and that photographs were intrusive and made people feel paranoid. However, in recent years we’ve changed that policy for the Spiral Dance. The world has changed—and communication now is visual, on the web. We found we couldn’t get calendar listing without good photos. So we experimented with asking a couple of the photographers and videographers in our community to shoots some photos in a limited and respectful way. They did an amazing job—and we learned that photography, too, can be a sacred art when it is practiced in the right spirit. I’ve put together two short videos that have let over 20,000 people catch a glimpse of our ritual. They can be viewed on our website.

This year our theme is ‘the next generation’, and we’re bringing many of our teens and youth into ritual roles, together with some of our elders. I’ll be co-leading the trance with my dear friend Rose May Dance, one of our early Reclaiming members, and with a young teen, Julian Litauer-Chen, who has also sung in the chorus for many years.

Reclaiming, the Witchcraft tradition that sponsors the annual Spiral Dance, has become a vibrant international presence within the modern Pagan movement. How do you think this growth and evolution have changed the event?

Bay Area Reclaiming used to be Reclaiming—now we are just one community among many. The Spiral Dance used to be the Big Event for all of Reclaiming—now it is one ritual among many, including other rituals in the Bay Area and all the rituals people are doing in their home communities. I’m thrilled that Reclaiming has grown, and our vision has always been one of many linked, decentralized communities with their own identities and characters.

But people still love The Spiral Dance—and many people come from far away to participate. This year, our house is full with visitors from Vermont, Boston, Montreal, L.A. and San Diego. We’ve had guests from England, Australia, New Zealand—all over the world.

What are your personal feelings on this 30th anniversary?

I’m thrilled at what we’ve accomplished, excited for this year’s ritual, and a bit shocked to think that I wrote the book thirty years ago!

How have your visions for the future shifted during the first 30 years? What do you envision the 60th annual Spiral Dance will be like?

I see two roads for the future—and that’s part of the theme and imagery of this year’s and previous Spiral Dances. On one road, we continue to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere and pump the poisons of fear, racism, hate, and war-mongering into the psychic atmosphere. By 2039, we’ll face a world of drought, famine, endemic war, potentially a loss of our civil liberties, hundreds of millions of deaths, oceans rising…

Then there’s the other road, the good road, the road of life…where we make the tremendous shifts we need to make, where we recognize the sacred in every human being and in the interconnected web of all life, where—as our litany says—“we draw our power from the wind and sun.” “May the old ones and the young be loved, and all the forms of love be blessed, and all the colors of our skin be praised, and all the cycles of life be saved.”

That’s the vision we raise power for at The Spiral Dance, that’s what we dance for and sing for, and what we work for all the other days of the year. It is my deepest hope that, thirty years from now, we are walking firmly on the good road, and that a new generation is still dancing the Spiral.

Previous Wild Hunt interviews: Gus diZerega, Jeff Sharlet, Brendan Cathbad Myers, Rita Moran, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, Phyllis Curott, Tim Ward, Lupa, J.C. Hallman, Margot Adler.

Jason Pitzl-Waters