Book Review:

THE SPIRAL DANCE by Starhawk (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1979)

by Harold W.Wood, Jr.

Starhawk attempts in her book, The Spiral Dance, to make a case for Witchcraft as an ecological religion. She traces the history of Witchcraft as Goddess religion, distinguishing the concept of Witchcraft as the "old religion" from the popularized notions of occult witchcraft which is often incorrectly believed to be a satanic cult responding to medieval Christianity. In reality, Starhawk points out that what is today known as Witchcraft was the widespread religion in Europe prior to the coming of Christianity, and it was not truly demonic as later centuries surmise. Although Starhawk advocates a "magic" of sorts, it is a magic to influence human minds in a conscious manner, not necessarily a calling of supernatural forces out of hiding to make magical changes in the non-supernatural world.

According to Starhawk,

Our relationship to the earth and the other species that share it has been conditioned by our religious models. The image of God as outside of nature has given us a rationale for our own destruction of the natural order, and justified our plunder of the earth's resources. We have attempted to "conquer" nature as we have tried to conquer sin. Only as the results of pollution and ecological destruction become severe enough to threaten even urban humanity's adaptability have we come to recognize the importance of ecological balance and the interdependence of all life. The model of the Goddess, who is immanent in nature, fosters respect for the sacredness of all living things. Witchcraft can be seen as a religion of ecology. Its goal is harmony with nature, so that life may not just survive but thrive.

Although Starhawk's obvious commitment to finding a genuinely intelligent alternative to patriarchal religion is laudable, she falls short in identifying a religious framework with truly vital relevance to the problems of the modern world.

First, her reliance on ancient symbols is of historical interest, but not truly stimulating to a modern religious renaissance. Proposing symbols such as a Goddess, the Horned God, and the Four Elements of the Ancient world as the foci for religion seems to me to border on the same sort of barbarism and supernaturalism that is rife within the judeo-Christian tradition. While there may be an improvement in such an approach over the Europeanized concept of God as a Patriarch mighty with vengeance, the symbols remain weak because they remain anthropomorphic. Such an approach only aids the cause of anthropocentrism. If we need symbols at all, let us choose ones that emphasize planetary unity and harmony, not merely yet another human personality.

Using the Four Elements is not much better, because it presents a scientifically inaccurate picture of the natural world every bit as silly as the anti-evolutionary dogma of the Christian fundamentalists. "Earth, Air, Water, and Fire" do indeed have relevance to modern man in his ecological predicament, but they are better understood as cycles in ecological systems, not as static "elements." Thus, Earth is better represented as the living ecosystem we call soil, (with all the changes in structure over time as in any ecological succession) upon which most living things depend; Air is better depicted as the Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen Cycles; Water should be celebrated as the hydrological cycle and not just in its directly consumptive form; and Fire, or Energy, is likewise better celebrated as something exercised by the laws we understand as chemistry and physics, rather than the primitive idea of "fire" as an "element."

Second, Starhawk's proposed rituals again rely on ancient symbols - such things as "casting the circle" of the coven, casting spells, arranging physical objects in so-called "spiritual" ways or positions. While a circle is indeed an excellent symbol, and as a framework for group worship superior to the traditional notion of a congregation facing a minister, I see a real danger in "casting a circle" where the "relevant few" are included inside and everyone else is excluded. I would cast my circle to encompass the whole planet at the least; our world has had too much of dividing lines between and among races, species, nationalities and ecosystems. Perhaps the idea of a ripple in a pool would serve us well, but casting a "holy circle", even where the celebrants sit just outside it, is simply too divisive.

Finally, Starhawk's idea of casting "spells" as magic to "bind in energy", "attract love", etc. seem to me dangerously close to such superstitions as what we fear might happen when a black cat crosses in front of you, or the number 13 turns up. Starhawk, to be honest, makes some attempts to distinguish such superstitions from her form of magic-making, but I still prefer a celebration of the wonders of nature - enhanced, not reduced by, scientific discovery - miraculous enough in all its "naturalness" to negate any need for re-establishing supernaturalisms such as horoscopes, making spells, or black magic.

Despite these criticisms, there is much in Starhawk's cosmology which merits approval. The celebration of "earth's holidays" - the solstices and equinoxes - are to be encouraged, as is a return to keeping a closer awareness of the phases of the moon. But let us not stop there - - we need an increased awareness of many of the cycles of nature that flow through our lives other than those measured simply by time - such things as the cycles within our own bodies, of nutrients passing through ecosystems, of oceanic currents, and so on.

In contrast to Starhawk's proposal of Witchcraft as an ecological religion, a modern Pantheism is an ecological religion of greater relevance to both the needs of our biosphere and the spiritual needs of most people today. While an understanding of ancient Goddess religion is a helpful way to overcome the constricting notions of the Judeo-Christian heritage, the study of comparative religion including cultures other than European paganism is equally important. For example, Shinto provides a model for an ecological religion with a great deal of substance, although it too suffers from many of the superstitious defects of other world religions. Likewise for Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and African, Australian, and Amerindian tribal religions.

Yet to attempt a "religion" maintaining a close connection with all such religions while accepting none, such as Unitarian-Universalism, is too eclectic and diffuse to truly satisfy the yearnings of the human spirit. I would have the winds of all cultures blowing through my house, but I cannot survive on eclecticism alone. Is there then a solution to the need to find new spiritual expressions while avoiding both over-reliance on a historical path like Witchcraft or an unacceptable eclecticism?

By contrast with ancient Witchcraft, modern Pantheism presents a solution to the ecological crisis in accord with the best of human nature and the special needs of modern global society. In Pantheism, "God" is seen neither as male or female - neither god nor goddess - but is conceived of as the sum total of the Universe. The nature of the Universe can be understood best not by myth and superstition, but by the insights of modern science - by which I include not only the rational, analytical, linear thinking which most of us were taught constituted science, but also the irrational, non-analytical, non-linear comprehension of the universe required by modern physics.

Just because a scientific understanding of, say, weather, makes propitiating a Rain God or Cloud Goddess irrelevant, surely that same scientific understanding of the Hydrologic Cycle presents a concept no less worthy of reverence and awe than the most imaginative of winged, haloed, animist, or ghostly beings which primitive man cooked up to explain the vagaries of the weather. Let us worship Nature, not as a Being separate and apart from us, but as Ultimate Being itself, of which we humans are a part. The rightful worship and respect which we can devote to the hydrological system (as a manifestation of the Deity of the Universe) will be properly seen in the way our part within that cycle is played. If we pollute streams, poison the rain, and ingest impure water, we are acting disrespectfully to a bio-geochemical system which is best understood as sacred - ie., "worthy of reverence or respect."

Starhawk apparently believes that small covens of women and men carrying out ancient Goddess religions will help us regain that sense of reverence, apparently for no better reason than because a bowl of water is included as a sacred object within her rituals, rather than being sprinkled or doused on us as is the practice in the Christian tradition. I fail to see how such an approach really provides much improvement, or a true opportunity to really improve our relationship with that magical substance, water.

On the other hand, a Pantheist approach proposes a focus for ecological understanding through a combination of the three traditional ways of worship found in every religion - the way of knowledge, the way of devotion, and the way of works. Using the hydrological cycle as an example, we pursue knowledge through scientific discovery, ever fresh and new, not through a sterile study of dusty manuscripts purportedly containing wisdom (whether from ancient Wiccan texts or otherwise); we pursue Devotion through artistic endeavor or even ritual, helping to bind us through beauty and appreciation; and we pursue the way of works through careful application of conservation principles, including eliminating pollution, conserving the quantity of water we use, and taking care in our use of it. Our worship thus would be one which celebrates truth and beauty, health and wholeness, not superstition and myth.

Rather than having a return to ancient Goddess religion, let us resurrect Pantheism as a way of life, and seek the proper participation of all mankind in all the cycles of life!


Reprinted from The Trumpeter , Vol. 4, No. 3, (Summer, 1987)



Harold W. Wood, Jr., is a member of the Board of Directors of the Universal Pantheist Society, P.O. Box 265, Big Pine, CA 93513. He is the author of "Modern Pantheism as An Approach to Environmental Ethics", Environmental Ethics, Summer, 1985, Vol. 7, No. 2.


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