Mary Mackey Interviews San Francisco Witch Starhawk
Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Starhawk. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time about your work as a Witch, and am pleased to be able to help you celebrate the publication of your new novel City of Refuge.
A novel-writing Witch is not the kind of Witch you come across every day. In fact, people often have a stereotyped image of a Witch as an old woman in a pointed hat who flies around on a broomstick. What does it mean to call yourself a Witch in 2016? What does the title “Witch” mean to you and how does it differ from the stereotype?
Starhawk: For me, being a Witch means having a commitment to the ancient, earth-centered spiritual and healing traditions of Old Europe and the Middle East, and serving the well-being and development of the community that is practicing and regenerating this spiritual path. It is also a way of identifying with and reclaiming the heritage of the many, many women and men who have been persecuted down through the ages for holding to the old belief that the earth is sacred.
Mary: How did you become a Witch?
Starhawk: I first met Witches when I was researching an anthropology project in my Freshman year at UCLA back in 1968. I began studying with them—and when I became part of the second wave of the feminist movement in succeeding years, it seemed to that an ancient religious tradition with a focus on the Goddess, that offered roles of responsibility and leadership to women, was an important aspect of empowering women. When I moved to San Francisco in 1975, I began training with Victor Anderson of the Feri Tradition and was initiated—I went through a ritual of commitment and empowerment. In the early ‘80s, a group of us began what became the Reclaiming Tradition, bringing together deep magic, personal and collective healing, political action and practical earth healing.
Mary: Can you briefly tell us about the Wiccan Religion and Contemporary Paganism? For example, when did Wicca become an officially recognized religion in the United States?
Starhawk: The contemporary Pagan revival has many strands—the interest in occultism and Eastern spirituality going back to the 19th century in England and US, the writings and teaching of Gerald Gardner and his followers in England in the 50s, the interest in Eastern and indigenous spirituality in the ‘60s, and the feminist movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s where we began searching for alternatives to patriarchy.
The US doesn’t officially recognize religions—the body that does is simply the IRS, which awards the non-profit religious organization status. The Covenant of the Goddess received that status in 1975, and many other Wiccan and Pagan organizations have done so since, including various groups within Reclaming’s extended network. Many Wiccan and Pagan organizations have taken part in interfaith organizations—including the Parliament of The World’s Religions, and have also mounted successful campaigns to get Wicca recognized by the military. Ongoing campaigns include the efforts spearheaded by Patrick McCollum to get Wiccan and Pagan chaplains for prisoners in California and other states. Slowly, we are gathering more widespread recognition.
Mary: How has being a Witch influenced your life and your work?
Starhawk: My deepest spiritual experiences have always taken place in nature, and discovering that there was a spiritual tradition that honored nature as sacred, for me, was like coming home. Wicca teaches that the Goddess is immanent in the natural world and in human beings, and for me, this is the ground of my spiritual practice, my political work for social and environmental justice, and my creative work as a writer, film maker and permaculture teacher and designer.
Mary: Your new novel City of Refuge is a sequel to your earlier novel The Fifth Sacred Thing which is often assigned in courses on Woman’s Spirituality. Could you please briefly describe both novels? What is the most important thing you want your readers to take away from City of Refuge?
Starhawk: Both The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are set in the mid-twenty-first century, when, after environmental and social meltdowns, Northern California has become a matrifocal, multi-cultural, ecological balanced society, devoted to peace, art, and connection. Southern California has become the opposite—militarist, racist, with huge divides between rich and poor. When the Southlands invade the north, the people of Califia struggle with the question of how to defend themselves without becoming what they are fighting against.
For me, The Fifth Sacred Thing came directly out of the research I had been doing on the period you yourself write about in your Earthsong Series novels about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe: the shift from the early matrifical cultures of the Goddess to patriarchal, warlike cultures. I was asking myself the question: Could it have been different? Could those peaceable early cultures have resisted the takeover without changing so drastically into something resembling the invaders? Or, even more crucial, could we do that now? Is it worth trying to develop a society rooted in peace and cooperation if it is doomed to be conquered?
City of Refuge begins where The Fifth Sacred Thing leaves off. The invaders have been ousted, and much of their army has defected and joined the Califians. The book centers around a different question: How can we build a new world when people are so deeply damaged by the old?
Mary: How, if at all, has your perspective on nature, society, and spirituality changed since you wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing in 1993?
Starhawk: I have a great deal more knowledge around practical earth healing, permaculture and ecological design, and much more experience in situations of intense conflict, such as the global justice mobilizations of the early part of this century, of supporting the nonviolent resistance in Palestine to the Occupation, of aiding relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I have a wider breadth of experience, and probably seen more nuances. For me, a novel centers around a question, not around answers, and I continue to hold these great questions. I don’t expect to find clear answers in my lifetime, but in wrestling with the questions, we may find a way forward.
Mary: Both The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are post-apocalyptic novels. Do you think we are headed for a planetary apocalyptic melt-down?
Starhawk: There’s a proverb, reputed to be Native American, that says: “If we don’t change our direction, we’re going to wind up where we’re headed.” It doesn’t take a prophet to see where we’re headed toward destruction. We’re already past the tipping point on climate change. We’re experiencing a concentration of wealth and power and a militarization of everyday life on an unprecedented scale, and the two crises are really the same one—the ultimate end of a patriarchal war culture that places profit and weapons over caring and nurturing. But I also believe that we have the tools, insights, and technologies to turn it around, that we still have the potential to use the resources we still have now now to create the resources we need for a new world, one in balance with nature and where we prize interconnection over domination.
It’s a question of political will. I believe that making this transition is the biggest challenge we face in the coming years, and that all of us have come into life at this time to make our own unique contribution to the change.
Mary: What is the most important thing we can do to meet that challenge on both a personal and global level? Can we build a City of Refuge?
Starhawk: To meet that challenge, I encourage people to educate themselves, to become ecologically literate and socially adept, to learn about other cultures and explore multiple perspectives. I also encourage everyone to give yourself time to have your own connection to the natural world, to spend some time each day listening to nature and observing the plants, trees, animals, sky, water and soil. And then—take action. Ask yourself what you most deeply care about, and put yourself at its service. Organize, or join with others. Stand up against the destruction, but do it with an awareness of what we want to create. And don’t lose hope!
Mary: For many years you have taught classes in non-violence and earth-based spirituality. Could you briefly describe the classes you are currently offering and tell people how they can enroll?
Starhawk: I currently teach a lot of workshops, give many talks and discussions, and direct an organization called Earth Activist Training, where we teach permaculture—ecological design—with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism. We also give courses in social permaculture—applying ecological and systems thinking to human relationships and group dynamics. People can find out more information on my website, starhawk.org, and on the Earth Activist Training site.
Mary: Will you be doing any public readings from City of Refuge this spring?
Starhawk: I’ll be doing lots of traveling, talks, and readings throughout this spring and next year as well. My full schedule can always be found at starhawk.org, and people can also sign onto my mailing list to get advance notice of events.
Mary: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
Starhawk: It’s been a pleasure.
Starhawk is one of the most respected voices in modern earth-based spirituality. Besides being a practicing Witch, she is the author or co-author of twelve books, including The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, long considered the essential text for the Neo-Pagan movement, and the now-classic ecotopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, now in development for film and television. Her most recent novel City of Refuge is the long-awaited sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing. Starhawk’s papers are archived at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.
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