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Modern Pagans Excerpt: Starhawk

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Starhawk RE/SEARCH: What do you think drives people to investigate alternative spiritualities?

STARHAWK: Many of the religions in which we were raised did not actually provide what we needed spiritually. They had become focused on form, money, and their own internal bureaucracies. There is a great hunger for a spirituality that values the earth. Certainly, valuing women was important–that’s probably the core reason I became a Pagan.

A lot of established religions have, over the past thirty years, made some changes and “opened up” in a lot of ways. But when I became a Pagan, in 1968, those changes had yet to occur. Probably many of them wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a lot of challenges posed by alternative religions.

A lot of people in their teens and twenties are well aware that, unless we make some radical changes in our society and in our way of living, we’re heading down an unsustainable road. The necessary social changes need to be accompanied by changes in consciousness, as well as in political and economic structures. Changes in consciousness come about through changes in myth, ritual, and what we celebrate. Besides, Paganism is fun!

R/S: Describe your spirituality–

S: The core of my spirituality is the understanding that the earth is alive–we’re part of a living, interconnected system, a web of life that is sacred. By “sacred,” I mean in the sense of what’s most important to us, what we stand for, what we want to protect. Deity/spirit/sacred is not something outside of the world, it’s immanent and embodied in the living world.

We focus on the earth being alive, but really, if you extend it out, so is the whole cosmos. The whole galaxy is a life form and a being. But we also have many different aspects of those energies and powers that sustain the universe. For the sake of convenience, we call them “Goddesses” and “Gods.” They have their own personalities and their own constellations of particular energies. They work with particular issues, in particular realms, awakening resonating forces within us.

When we say “the Goddess,” often what we’re talking about is that whole interwoven fabric of life. So we use “the Goddess” both as an overall term, and to refer to specific aspects.

In Reclaiming, we often talk about “the Goddess” as being the Triple Goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. If you look at Goddesses and Gods closely, they usually represent aspects of the cycle of birth, growth, death and regeneration that repeat over and over again throughout nature and human life. So the Maiden/Mother/Crone is one way of looking at that cycle. The God, the Green Man, who grows up and is cut down and dies and is reborn again, is another aspect of that cycle. The moon is another aspect. Plant-life is another.

R/S: How do you apply the metaphor of the Triple Goddess in your own life?

S: I’m somewhere between the Mother and the crotchety old Crone, depending on which day you see me. In human life, we go through cycles in terms of age and experience, but we also continually go back to different cycles and aspects. When I was blockading on the streets of Washington, D.C., I was the Maiden crusading for justice. But at the same time, I was also training and teaching people–trying to pass on my experience in activism, which was more like being the Crone.

When I found myself confronting an entire squad of mounted policemen and trying to get a whole crowd to sit down so they wouldn’t be trampled, I looked up at this guy on the horse and channeled the voice of Mom: “You people have created an incredibly dangerous situation here! What were you thinking?” So, an aspect of the Goddess can come through at any moment.

I had been training people for twenty years to sit or lie down if attacked by horses; the horses won’t–or at least don’t want to–trample you. They can slip and make a mistake, but by and large they don’t. It wasn’t until I was sitting under a horse that I reflected on the fact that I’d never actually tried out this theory before, but rather hoped that it was actually true! [laughs]

R/S: In your life, do the sacred and the mundane overlap?

S: They overlap a lot. I’m very lucky, in that most of the time I live out in the country and can spend a fair amount of time being in the garden or in the woods, just being present and communicating with the things that are around me. I also spend a fair amount of time teaching, leading rituals and speaking to groups, so I am able to be in more “sacred” states. But there are those other times when I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway, or trying to finish eighteen million things so I can do the next thing–when I have more jobs to do than time to do them. States of ecstasy are much harder to reach in these situations!

R/S: Your most influential book is The Spiral Dance. How many copies have sold in the past 20-odd years?

S: 310,000 copies, or maybe it was 350,000.

R/S: That’s amazing. Tell us how you came to write The Spiral Dance–

S: By that point, I had been a feminist for many years and felt it was important for women to have other models of spirituality besides the patriarchal ones. Also, it seemed important to have models of spirituality that were earth-based and earth-centered. There’s nothing in the book that’s revealing secrets that shouldn’t be revealed–I’ve never been a great one to shout, “Oh, this is so secret! This is so secret!” That really tends to support a kind of self-inflation. The real secrets of the Craft are the secrets that can’t be told . . . because you have to experience them!

R/S: Some of our intelligent, open-minded yet skeptical friends ask, “What can I possibly get out of attending a Pagan gathering?”

S: Well, first of all, I think that when you do ritual together with a group of people, or even when you do it alone, it’s a way of feeling a deep connection to your deepest values, and to those forces in the universe that most truly sustain and support our lives. In our tradition we work with things that are really pretty concrete, like the air and the earth and water and fire. It helps you to really, truly value those things that sustain our lives. And especially when you work with a community, it gives you support for your own personal growth and development, and for doing things that are sometimes quite difficult to do.

For me, I’ve also been a political activist for thirty years. And a lot of the reason I’ve been able to sustain that is we have a community of people who do that kind of thing together and who can support each other through the hard times, and who can encourage each other through the good times. And that helps you keep going, because a lot of what we do when we’re really trying to change the world can get hard, and can get discouraging. Plus, it’s fun! And fun–that’s important! When you go to something like the big Spiral Dance where you’ve got people hanging off the rafters doing their invocation and dancing ecstatically–it’s a helluva lot of fun!

R/S: Right. What was despicable about the New Age movement was its excessive amount of marketing hype, and excessive profits–a weekend expo could cost $500, and a $5 crystal would be priced at $50 at a New Age booth. How does Reclaiming meet its operating expenses? Unlike most churches, you don’t have paid clergy, right?

S: Well, we try to balance things. We believe that people should, ideally, get paid for their work and get paid fairly and well. But we also believe that events and spiritual things should be accessible to everybody who wants to come, whether they have money or not. And so it’s always a juggling act, because we live in a world in which if we do something, it often costs us money to put it on.

We have some rituals like the Spiral Dance which are a benefit for our collective for the year, that we charge money for and encourage people to pay well for. It costs no more–in fact, less than going to a rock concert. And if somebody shows up and says, “Hey, I just don’t have fifteen bucks,” we say, “Okay!”

R/S: Or you say, “Volunteer and do some work; help us clean up afterward!”

S: And when our rituals are out in a park and we’re not renting a hall, then most of them are free in public. If we teach classes, we charge for the classes but we have sliding scales. When we do a week-long Witch Camp or an intensive, you just can’t go somewhere for a week and get fed, housed and taught and everything else without it costing money. But we try to also offer scholarships and work exchange, and to keep the price within a reasonable range, and encourage people who don’t have a lot of money to come.

We’ve thought a lot about this. We haven’t always answered all the questions, and the answers we have come up with don’t always please everybody. We still get a lot of criticism sometimes for charging money at all. But we’ve definitely thought about it.

R/S: You began pioneering large-scale public rituals–

S: I felt this wasn’t just for a small, secret, private group to be doing–it should be offered to people. I was a political activist in the Sixties, and my natural inclination was, “If something is good, it should be shared. It belongs to the world.” I feel honored that I’ve been able to serve people in that way.

Now there are many public rituals going on all over the Bay Area, the country, and the world. People are taking charge of their own spiritual lives, and that’s very positive and important.

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