Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Books, books, books

You may have noticed, friends, that I have (finally) posted another book review. It is not the promised "ABC of Witchcraft" review (pending). It is scathing - though I tried very hard to highlight parts of the book I found interesting (even if I didn't agree with them), pleasing, or informative. I know that a lot of people got their start in Paganism with Starhawk's Spiral Dance so a book review that awards it only one out of ten is going to smart a few people.

I understand. I've been there. I started off with Theresa Moorey's Beginner's Guide to Witchcraft and followed it up with Silver Ravenwolf's Teen Witch. It smarted to come back to them years later and think "Why the fuck did I enjoy these?", but there we go. At any rate.... if you hold memories of Spiral Dance I would suggest perhaps not reading the review. 

It's also far, far too long, and perhaps one day I'll go through and cut out half the paragraphs where I bitch about a particularly awful segment or offensive quote, but for now, it remains as is. Those who aren't interested in reading through the entire review may be happy to just read the beginning and the summary at the end as a tl;dr. 

I still have the Valiente to finish off - also long, but not quite as long. I have a few pages of notes I've made and I've yet to sit down and decide which parts I want to include as examples of good things (and bad). I very much enjoy Valiente and her writing style. I'm also looking forward to digging into a book or two on Hearthcraft; it suits the season. As always, taking requests and ideas for future reviews. As you can see from past reviews, they tend to be in-depth.

May the season, be it winter on your end of the internet or summer, treat you well. I'm off to get a little exercise, watch the news and then perhaps curl up with a book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: The Spiral Dance

Book: The Spiral Dance (20th Anniversary Edition)
Author: Starhawk
Subject: "Feminist" (possibly proto-Reclaiming) theistic(?) witchcraft
Publisher: Harper One
ISBN: 9780 032516329
Score:  1 out of 10  (You heard me right.)


This book is a classic in the Neo-Pagan world, and it's one of the places a lot of people start. I can understand why it might inspire a person new to Paganism or the concept of goddess-worship. What I don't understand is why it is still recommended by Pagans who have been practising for decades.

I tend to be critical anyway, but honestly - there's very little good that one can say about the Spiral Dance. It would be a much better book overall if Starhawk had spent more time explaining what she means instead of expecting her imagery to do her explaining for her. It really doesn't, and it leaves one unsure of what she intends to say.

This is a really really awful book. The reason Doreen Valiente can get away with the history fail in her books is that her writing is coherent, intelligent, and interesting. Starhawk's work can lay claim to none of these qualities. Her writing is ridiculously disjointed, often jumping from subject to subject within the same chapter and going off on random tangents that have little to nothing to do with the topic at hand. She says nothing of particular interest; much of each chapter is what one might describe as "waffle", that is, essentially meaningless filler material. She may have intended this to be inspiring, but it's not. And it's not intelligent, at all.... I can't comment on Starhawk's intelligence but the book itself does not read as if it was written by a 28 year old familiar with the field, which is what she apparently was, or claimed to be, at the time of writing. If nothing else, it clearly doesn't respect the intelligence of the reader; she seems to value colourful descriptive language more than information, and while reading one can't help but wish she'd a) get to the damn point or b) actually tell us something. One cries out for content.

There are exercises, and some of them aren't bad. Some of them are actually good. The problem is that they're peppered throughout the book at really random intervals. I don't know why. They are certainly not enough to make the book worth buying; if nothing else, you can find the equivalent of most of these exercises on the internet. Some of them include the names of deities with no explanation as to who they are or why they are being called upon at this juncture - really bad form, particularly since some of these deities are not the sort you just call upon out of the blue. I suppose I would recommend reading the whole book through before doing any of the exercises, but there's not a lot of point in making that recommendation, as you won't feel any more informed by the end of the book than you are at the beginning.

It was published in the late 70s, but has been republished several times. At the 10 and 20th anniversary publishings, the author wrote notes to accompany the text, found in appendices at the back. One expected these to be full of corrections for some of the outrageous things proposed in the main text. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen much.

She provides citations, but they tend to be misleading - they are there essentially for referencing bits and pieces referred to in the main text, and not to actually support the points she makes.

And the worst part - the very worst - is that she is never clear about whether she is referring to witchcraft as a whole, or her witchcraft specifically. She makes claims such as  "The values and attitudes expressed are common to all of the Craft." (p35). Is she lying, is she claiming "all of the Craft" is her particular sect, or is she genuinely unfamiliar with all other forms of witchcraft? What makes her at all fit to talk about witchcraft as a whole if she's only familiar with the specific tradition that she has been taught? - and worse, why did she not do any research in the process of writing this book? Obviously at the time there were fewer resources available, but even so. A person who swallows whatever she is told, never questions it, and never researches the subject herself is a very, very poor teacher and author. What's worse is that she could have simply talked about her tradition of religious witchcraft and that would have been fine. She doesn't. She makes claims about witchcraft as a whole (and even were she just talking about religious witchcraft, these claims would not be true) and doesn't make it clear when she's talking about wider witchcraft or just her tradition (and she does change between the two). This contributes highly to her work being difficult to read and understand.


These are strange. They are a real difficulty to read, and one can be forgiven for skipping over them. They are essentially a tale of her youth, and not very interesting. One thing did jump out, and that's this statement:

"...I had spent years immersed in my on and others' internal imagery. I loved nature: I worshipped her and had often gone to jail defending her, but in many ways I knew nothing about her... I... took long walks in the hills, but often the garden, the forest and the ocean were simply scenic backdrops to my thoughts."
 I expected her to go on from this and say how silly she had felt, how awful she had felt for spreading on her romanticised ignorance in books and classes for so long. She didn't. She just took some classes in biology. Now, this is a sensible action to take. I would not dispute that. I simply couldn't help feeling quite taken aback that such a realisation - that what she had worshipped and loved was really just in her head the whole time - didn't really affect her.

Chapter One - Witchcraft as Goddess Religion

Ugh. What can I say about this chapter. It was the late 70s, and I would hope better information was available at this time. Apparently, it was not - or Starhawk didn't find it. This chapter is utterly shocking, and unfortunately there are a few people who believe it. I strongly suspect one Silver Ravenwolf of being such a person.

One could overlook this had she corrected this misinformation in her notes. For the horrific "history" provided in the first chapter, she did not apologize for the poor information available at the time and provide corrections. Instead she admitted that she had essentially pulled the whole thing out of her arse, and that that was okay, because it was "mythic history". To quote:

Note that this entire section begins  "According to our legends..." This is a mythic history, not a PhD Thesis in archaeology. ... I think it still works well as a mythic history, and I happen to believe it is basically true in outline if not in every detail.

She excused an entire chapter of outrageous revisionist history, apparently, by saying that a sentence fragment at the very beginning* (which appeared to apply to that sentence - if most that paragraph - and nothing else) applied to over six pages of... what? Lies? Invention? Poor research?

It was the 70s. We let Valiente get away with her Murray silliness, and we might let Starhawk get away with it too... had she not outright admitted she had lied and tried to excuse it by saying it was "mythic history" and "essentially true". It's not even a little bit true. Frankly the way she reinterprets the cultures, histories and religions of other groups in order to support her "mythic history" is just a little bit horrifying. I might even call it "Eurocentric" had she not done the same to several European cultures as well. Imperialistic, possibly. She erases their histories and imposes her own over the top. This extends to members of other species, as she claims the bear skulls suspected of being evidence of Neanderthal worship were apparently artefacts of our ancestors instead. Perhaps Neanderthal was considered a Homo sapiens ancestor in the late 70s? Quite possible. This might be something we can overlook.

Her personal sexism - and it's really unfair to make this accusation, as I don't know her personally, but based on this particular book I don't know what else to call it - first rears its head at this point. There's much in the way of evil warmongering gods pressing towards the British Isles, where the fairy witches live and worship their goddess. (Apparently the Morrigan is totally unfamiliar to her.) The amusing thing is that the title she gives to her witch-queen, the "Queen of Elphame", is derived from "Alfheim". You know. A word from one of those warmongering cultures invading the British Isles with all those male gods, that pushed all the "fairies" out into the stony hills to live in hobbit-holes.

Her strange bigotry against those of other religions starts to appear here too. On page 34 she makes a claim that believing in a goddess (her goddess, or any goddess? it's unclear) is all but essential to be a well-adjusted woman who loves her body. This is both baffling and offensive - I'm sure atheist women cope very well, as do many women who believe in only a god. Perhaps she had trouble. Is she projecting her own troubles onto other people?

Chapter Two - The World View of Witchcraft

A "world view of witchcraft" this ain't. It would all be much better if she had said "my view of witchcraft". But she didn't. It reads a lot better if you pretend she had.

Her notes for this chapter demonstrate an apathy towards science unless it is directly applicable to her daily life. Strange.

She demonstrates her cultural imperialism again; her religious traditions apparently trump the cultural and religious traditions of everyone else, as well as objective history. "The Picts stained themselves blue with woad, according to our traditions, in order to identify with Deep Self,"  she says. Oh, of course! because the history and cultures of other people are irrelevant in the face of her traditions. (I realise some of this is from her history in Feri. I'm not sure that makes it any better.)

In this chapter, we become aware of her over-dependence on the interesting but largely non-scholarly The White Goddess. Graves's work was an inspiration for some religious witchcrafts, but it is musings and not much else - it's not anthropology, history or comparative mythology, and it wasn't considered such by Graves's peers and contemporaries. Starhawk puts altogether too much weight on it.

Chapter Three - The Coven

This chapter is ostensibly about the coven. Occasionally she even discusses covens. She also includes a few exercises that have little if anything to do with covens (they're group exercises, and that's about it), a section on training neophytes (???), and more exercises for a beginning witch. This chapter in particular jumps from subject to subject in a very muddled and confused sort of way. I might even have liked this chapter, had it been actually about covens. It reads as if it had never seen an editor. 

She includes a coven ritual or two throughout this chapter, usually quite abruptly and randomly. They are interesting, but they don't include any real structure, so they're difficult for someone unfamiliar with her coven or ritual form to truly envision - she says what was done, but not how or why. It could have been much better had she gone into more detail about the way her coven operates.... but she doesn't. The ritual is just there, without any real connection to the page that came before, or the page that follows.

To read Starhawk's book, it would appear that starting a coven would be easy. It doesn't seem like she takes into account the vastly different beliefs that a selection of witches can have. For me, and indeed for most witches I know, covens are very difficult to form because of how beliefs vary. Of course, to be fair, the witchcraft community may have been rather more homogeneous at the time of writing.

Her thoughts regarding solitary witchcraft are, in the main text, quite naive. She rather corrects this position in her appendices, as solitary practice becomes more common over the decades since the 1970s.

Chapter Four - Creating Sacred Space

At this point in the book, one feels like one should be getting more of an idea of what Starhawk's witchcraft is like. One doesn't. Even at the 10 year notes point, there's no consistency. And again, this would be fine if she was talking about witchcraft as a whole.... but given some of her previous comments, that can't possibly be the case. But a positive in this chapter: the 10 year notes provide an interesting alternative circle-casting, and an interesting ocean ritual purification.

Her banishment on page 86 is distressing in two ways. The first is that she only provides words, and doesn't explain how to actually do the banishing - as if words by themselves would do anything. The second is the words she chose, which are quite horrifying and brutal. Wishing horrible torture upon a spirit because it happens to be hovering around and isn't a happy friendly entity is totally unwarranted. It is cruel.

I don't believe at all her comment on page 86 or the corresponding 10-year note that the four-quartered circle and the system of classical elements is basic "to many cultures and religions", and I wish she had included some examples and citations.

An amusing aside: in this chapter, she mentions that a member of her coven "found her athame lying on the white line in the middle of the freeway when she was driving home late one night". Did the woman in question hand it in to the police first before using it as a ritual blade? I really don't know whether to laugh at this or to be horrified. Another amusing and puzzling moment on page 89, as she says "The sun never reaches the Northern Hemisphere..." I'm still not sure what she was trying to say. Is it a typo? Is she unfamiliar with what the northern hemisphere is? Who knows.

It is pleasing, though, that she highlights the Iron Pentacle as an exercise specific to Feri. For those interested in the Pentacle exercises, it's good that she included them.... although why she included them here, in this chapter, is anyone's guess.

This chapter really highlights how ill-equipped Starhawk was, at this time in her life, to teach. The chapter is meant to be about "sacred space", but it ended up only briefly touching on that subject here and there. I am reading this chapter about creating a sacred space, and I still have no clue why one would do this or do that. She's talking again about "Guardians" on page 96 but I don't have a single clue who or what these "Guardians" might be. Are they concepts? Entities? Gods? This hasn't been explained, just chucked out there as if the reader should know what she is talking about implicitly. 

She spent a lot of this chapter giving vague overviews of the elements and the tools, both of which could have done with a chapter to themselves, and as a result really failed to explain the concept of sacred space in any real way - her page of waffle (p83) was, to me, just that: waffle. Essentially meaningless and filled with buzz-words. I'm sure she felt totally fulfilled when she wrote it, and that's great, but the book is aimed at teaching a newbie, not preaching to the converted and not merely trying to inspire. It doesn't do that. On top of everything, she didn't explain the process of casting a circle in proper detail (too much about 'visualisation' and not enough about energy) or why this or that thing would be done. I know entire books have been written on that subject, but frankly, when she devotes half the chapter to related concepts and not on creating sacred space itself, I feel as a reader that I'm missing out. If a previous chapter had been devoted to the elements and how the witch works with them, then this chapter could have involved how the elements fit into the circle, why they are used, why they're not used, what the Guardians are, and so forth. These things got a cursory sentence here and there but not enough attention. 

That she then devotes three full pages to poorly-written invocations is just another nail in the coffin.

Chapter Five - The Goddess

I was very disappointed in this chapter. I thought this would be where Starhawk really started to shine and I got a proper idea of who her goddess was. Instead I'm left confused, and wondering whether Starhawk knows who her goddess is, or whether she's just shit at explaining herself. After reading the chapter and both the sets of notes, I'm not only unsure who her goddess is but even whether she believes in her goddess at all.

Thankfully, she refrains from stealing other deities in this chapter, which I had been afraid she would do. She does refer to "the Celtic Goddess" and "the Greek Goddess" as if each religion had but one, which is odd and confusing. She then (in the 20 year notes) refers to Athena as Demeter's sister, which is just plain incorrect.

What does she believe? I have no idea. She suggests all the various goddesses are individual entities, but then demonstrates a non-belief - or at least contempt for - those goddesses by using their various names to refer to her goddess. She then goes on to explain that she doesn't really believe in the goddess, but uses her as a metaphor for nature or similar, and says she is just using the word "goddess" and the "she" pronoun to extend her political beliefs. I'm not sure how horrified I should be by this. If your deity is gender-neutral there is no reason particularly why you should pick this or that pronoun, but using your deity as a political device seems disrespectful.

It's also a bit creepy that she says "the goddess has no genitalia" and then goes on to conflate sex with gender. Whether or not someone has genitalia does not determine what gender they are. 
Is this an issue people were not familiar with when the notes were written? Again, possible. I think we take the knowledge of the difference between sex and gender rather for granted now.

To read the 10 year notes on this chapter is to be absolutely horrified. You see, Starhawk admits here that when she originally wrote the Spiral Dance, she had no idea who had written the Charge of the Goddess. This is utterly and completely disgraceful. How on earth does someone write a book on witchcraft without knowing who wrote the Charge of the Goddess? How on earth does someone quote the Charge of the Goddess in their book, and not know who wrote it? Honestly, if you are going to write a book on witchcraft, a passing knowledge of traditions outside your own would be nice.

To read this chapter is to wish Starhawk was more honest with herself, and with her reader. It becomes clear (as much as anything in this book could be said to be "clear") as one reads through the vague waffle, and her notes on said waffle, that Starhawk's goddess isn't a real entity. That is, Starhawk appears to be much more a pantheist than a monotheist, ditheist or soft polytheist. Which is fine, but what is there to say? - her goddess has no personality, no personal separate existence. That would be fine in and of itself, but Starhawk appears somehow unsatisfied with that. There's no way to describe this goddess or any real way to relate to her. No wonder Starhawk plunders other pantheons. No wonder I get absolutely nothing from her writing. There's nothing to get, nothing to be inspired by. There's no image of her goddess to glean from her writing as her goddess has no image.  If only she would just say that, and teach pantheism. But she appears unable to do this... and so tries to explain every deity concept she can in order to illustrate her own deity. It begs the question of why she has a god figure, if her goddess figure contains everything anyway. Is this an attempt to align herself more with Feri, or even with Wicca? Is she confused? I certainly am.

Some of the deity concepts themselves are interesting, but she doesn't go into detail on any of these concepts. This chapter is far too brief - a fact made even more deplorable as she takes up three pages on her awful invocations. Why? Let the reader write their own, if the really want to - give one or two as examples. All this space lost on invocations would have been much better spent on actually explaining the Maiden-Mother-Crone concept she touches on so very briefly. A small snatch of a paragraph on it isn't doing it justice. And this is the problem. There are WAY too many deity concepts she's latched onto here, and she's totally over-burdened herself. She can't go into any of them in any depth, because there are too many of them, and so no particular understanding of her deity can be reached. It's too vague, too shallow, and none of the detail you'd want has been given. Which is a real shame, because I think the exercises in this chapter would have been really great had she put them at the end of a few detailed pages on the MMC and moon-goddess concepts.  

Although the exercises themselves aren't perfect.
More random deity names thrown in without care or explanation. "Eternally unpenetrated, belonging to no one but herself" she says of the maiden figure - because we all know that women belong to whoever is fucking them. I thought you were meant to be a feminist, Starhawk. What happened?  
She mentions in her 20 year notes that she gets her "pentad" from Graves. I'm glad she mentioned it. I only wish she'd mentioned that in text. It gives a hell of a lot more of a sense of maturity and intelligence to start off your paragraph with "Robert Graves discusses the concept of blahblah in his book suchandsuch. In witchcraft, we have a similar concept...." rather than taking his idea and reworking it for yourself without giving him any credit. 

Chapter Six - The God

The Starhawk drinking game! Drink whenever she uses the word "Patriarchy"! (Don't actually. You might end up with alcohol poisoning by the end of the chapter.)

This chapter is a disgrace. The vast bulk of it is used to complain about "the Patriarchy", Christianity, or both. A depressingly small amount of it actually talks about her god. By the amount she goes on about women being powerless and men being violent angry oppressors, the 70s must have been a horrible time to be alive. People buy this book to learn about witchcraft, not so Starhawk has a soapbox to whine from about being a powerless womyn in the face of the Ebil Patriarchy, or about how Christianity has ruined all our cultures.

Not just gods, but mythological and fictional heroes like Arthur and Robin Hood are fodder for her god-figure in this chapter. It doesn't do much for her credibility.

Reading this chapter I began to get truly sick of Starhawk. Her 10 year notes for the beginning of the chapter are bizarre. If a god concept is different from hers, it's "severely distorted by patriarchal culture"? I don't even understand HOW it's been distorted. She doesn't explain, beyond going on about violent father figures. I get that she doesn't understand Abrahamic religions, but does she have to be such a bitch about it? This is all totally unnecessary. Talk about YOUR religion and YOUR god without being a 13 year old fluffy bigot and bitching on about religions that have nothing to do with you. 

At the bottom of page 121 she says something that makes me wonder whether she is being vaguely snarky about various gods that are violent or coercive. If she goes on to equate, say, Odin or Zeus with her god (which she did in the snippet of ritual at the beginning of the chapter), is she just ignoring massive aspects of their personalities and ripping off strips of them to fit them to her personal ideal of what her god is like? "I know you are a coercive and violent deity when you want to be, but I don't care, I am chopping off those parts of your personality because I can't be bothered to learn anything about you/because I think those are inventions of TEH PATRIARCHY/because I am an ignorant cow, and then I am using your name in my rituals. LOL BECAUSE I CAN. And I will teach others to do so also! LOOK MY BOOKS ARE SO POPULAR!"  

I apologise. Some things just make me very angry.

She finally gets onto the actual subject around page 125, but chances are the reader is fed up enough by now that they don't really care.

I find it quite irritating that Starhawk sees fit to place judgement on the sex lives of other people. She does it both in the 10 year notes and in the main text (pg 126), along with a sentence that seems a bit ironic given the beauty and pride of place of the Legend of the Descent of the Goddess even in witchcraft religions besides Wicca. Apparently, bondage, dominance play or S&M are bad bad evil things that no witch would ever do. She also gets a bit bizarrely sexist here, saying men have to surrender emotionally, but women aren't meant to.... or something. Men bow at the altar of the pudenda, but women can't enjoy a little whipping if that's what they like because it's counter to the laws of love.... or something. I appreciate that being tied up or playing at being O aren't everyone's idea of a good time, but frankly, if everyone is a willing, consenting participant, what business is it of Starhawk's what they do in their bedroom?

As for the actual content on the god, it's a little less vague than that on her goddess, chiefly because her goddess is meant to be everything and her god isn't quite. She goes into the Wheel of the Year myth she uses, and stresses her god is wild (but not wild enough to be in any way threatening). It's a bit strange, but nothing out of the ordinary - you find the same basic thing in any "Wicca 101" book. 

She also makes a very strange comment about Patriarchal cultures worshipping an erect phallus. Now, in most of this chapter, Christianity and Teh Patriarchy are referred to as essentially the same thing, so I remain confused as to whether Christians worshipped the phallus or what. 

Chapter Seven - Magical Symbols

This chapter would be improved immensely had Starhawk called it something else. "Spell-working", perhaps. "Magic and Spells", even. As it is, the content of the chapter is only very vaguely related to the title; those coming to it with an interest in actual magical symbols will be greatly disappointed. Despite this, it's a better chapter than most of the previous ones, because it contains a much higher information to waffle ratio.

Her notes to page 249 underline for me why I don't consider Starhawk a particularly ethical teacher. Apparently in earlier editions of the book, she had changed the name of St John the Conqueror and St John's Wort to "St Joan the Conqueress" and "St Joan's Wort". Her reasons for doing so? St John the Conqueror sounded too militaristic and "masculinist" to her. Apparently "Joan the Conqueress" is a-OK, despite Joan of Arc literally being a war leader. But that's not militaristic, because Joan was a woman, or something. According to these notes, the main reason she changed it back to "St John" was because people were asking her what herb she was talking about, and wondering why she couldn't find "St Joan's Wort" - and not because she had massively offended the Black Civil Rights movement (St John the Conqueror being an important figure in African-American culture and history) or because her reason for changing it in the first place was ridiculously sexist and ignorant. Perhaps she was trying to be amusing and flippant. Frankly I wish she's spend less time trying to dismiss her past wrongs as silly and more time apologising for and correcting them.

The first page of the chapter is more of her repetitive, meaningless waffle, but on page 137 she gets into the actual meat of things - possibly for the first time in the entire book. This is a much better chapter than all the chapters previous... but it's undermined by the totally unrelated title and the fact that many of the exercises related to the chapter and what is discussed were placed, for reasons unclear to the reader, way back in chapter three. A massive opportunity missed here; those exercises were bizarre and out of place in chapter three, but with a little re-arranging of this chapter they could have worked very well here. Another instance of this book being in dire need of a good editor. 

It's interesting that she goes into such detail about being scrupulously honest on page 138, considering the number of deliberate untruths in this book. Does this mean that none of her magic works, as she claims it does, or does this statement simply undermine itself? It's rot, anyway - there are plenty of complete and utter liars within witchcraft who manage to cast working spells. Many of them are authors, but many too are witches and Pagans in the wider community who spend a lot of time pretending to be who they are not. Nevertheless, so long as they are strong in will and know what they desire, there's no reason their spells wouldn't work. It would be nice if only ethical, wise people were capable of magic, but unfortunately the world doesn't work that way.

It could be just me, but I think her "binding a spell" on page 141 is a bit ridiculous. (It's also something I seem to remember reading years ago in a Silver Ravenwolf book, which supports my vague suspicions that Starhawk is Ravenwolf, Mk I.) I've always felt like that sort of thing is a footnote to absolve yourself of any guilt regarding what the spell actually does. Some sort of out-clause or loophole. The spell is done already. You're not going to undo what harm it may cause with a few words at the end, particularly if, as Starhawk encourages in this chapter, you are concerned with the end result and not how the spell actually works. Why she included it at all I'm a bit unclear on... the beginning of the chapter implied more that what you use and what you say are essentially up to you, so why include a spell that tells you exactly what to say? 

Page 141 concerns me in general, as it really hammers home that the author is not a particularly ethical person, and not someone I feel should be teaching. She discusses curses, or offensive spells, and says that witches don't do them - but all this is less to do with whether it is right to take an action and more to do with whether or not it will cause the caster any damage, via whatever "what you cast comes back at you" belief she holds. That is, she decides what to do in a situation by whether or not it causes her any harm  rather than whether or not it is ethical - a binding spell is therefore OK, because although it is horrifically unethical it will project protective energy back on you rather than damaging energy. The underlying ethics of a situation are less important to her than how the outcome affects her. Possibly the worst part is that this doesn't seem to have changed in 20 years.

A book review should be about the book and not the author but really. If someone is teaching about ethics and honesty, these things are relevant.

Despite the good information in this chapter (admittedly only limited to a page or two, but still, better than in previous chapters), much of the space is taken up with spells. I appreciate that some spells are included here to give the beginner witch some ideas. However, is it really necessary to include this many spells? There are six pages of them, and that's not even including the herbal pouches! Loki's balls, woman, give us two or three spells and then direct the interested party to further reading! She's complained several times of not having enough space in this book, and then includes this sort of thing? 

What really irritates is that none of the things she has chosen to include in these spells are explained. In a chapter ostensibly about symbolism (one gets the idea that that's what she was going for, rather than 'magical symbols' as the chapter title suggests) she doesn't bother explaining the symbolism of anything, or why this was chosen over that, and what it means in the spell. She would have had plenty of space to explain these things had she taken out half the spells and used the space saved to explain the spells she had included. Instead, the reader is apparently meant to glean from the spell examples what all of these things symbolise and why they are used. No wonder she had letters from people asking where to find "St Joan's Wort"; had this chapter been better written, her students would be writing their own spells, and not casting around for herbs that do not exist.

Chapter Eight - Energy: The Cone Of Power

I'm sort of at a loss as to why this chapter exists. Most of the information herein that isn't direct repetition or waffle would be better suited integrated into another chapter. Many of the exercises are quite reminiscent of those bafflingly included in the "Covens" chapter. Pages 155-6 in particular scream out to be relocated to somewhere at the beginning of chapter 7; putting basic concepts of magic after you've already discussed spellwork is ridiculous.

I strongly question her claim that "all energy moves in spirals", one for which she has presented no evidence (but she did present a handful of examples, as if that proved it). It's also a bit disconcerting to see her unaware of what a spiral is. She confuses it several times with a helix, as if these were the same thing. There's no excuse for ignorance of this nature.

Halfway down page 156 she changes subject (again) and once more uses her book (ostensibly one of spirituality) to plug her political views. I'm sure this would be less irritating were her political views not so hypocritical. In the ritual she wastes two pages describing, a political rally apparently to raise feminine power or similar, she begins by desecrating and shaming other women by tearing up pornography. Now if you don't like porn, fine. You don't have to buy or look at porn. That's your prerogative. You can even campaign against porn if that's what makes you happy (although why you should impose your sexual values on others I question). But if you're basing your political rally slash ritual on feminine rights and power, you have to respect the rights of all women to do what they want with their bodies and their lives. It is not only hypocritical in the extreme but also quite disgusting to tear up pornography and then state "We have been taught that our bodies are unclean, that our sexuality degrades us, that we must be either virgins or whores! But we accept neither image!" (p158). So what was the tearing of porn in aid of, then? Calling other women whores? Don't be ashamed of your own bodies and sexuality, but shame that of other women, because they choose to do something you disagree with? Shame men and their sexuality because they like to look at pictures of naked women? I mean, the entire thing beggars belief, and what is worse is that the ritual is completely out of place. I can see no reason for including it save to push her politics yet again.

A little disconcerting to read her 10 year notes on the cone of power. Apparently she actually changed the text for this one because no one in her coven had ever managed to get it right the way she had originally described it. I'm glad she changed it, I just wish she'd done a proper overhaul of the text and changed the whole damn thing. There is so much of this book that she could have - and should have - changed. Just rearranging it so that it reads in a less haphazard fashion would have been nice. 

On page 161 she brings up the concept of "raith" energy, which is not something I have come across before and must assume has its roots in Feri. She perpetuates the "familiars are special pets" myth here, and further suggests witches keep them to syphon off their energy, which I hope I am misinterpreting. The rest of the page appears to be a total restatement of mentions way back in the first couple of chapters regarding her different "Selfs" (that I admittedly largely skimmed through because my psych background means I regard psychoanalysis as bollocks). Why she felt the need to restate it I have no idea.

Why pendulum exercises, in a chapter on the cone of power? I have no idea. Why all this talk of "Younger Self" and so on in a chapter on the cone of power? I have no idea. Why does she have chapters at all? The titles only vaguely relate to the content of the chapter and that's if you're lucky. Why is half of this chapter about auras? I can only assume she wants me to shoot myself in a fit of frustration. If I am found slouched over my keyboard with my brains splattered against the wall, you will know who to blame.

Exercise 46 on page 160 is particularly nauseating. Apparently, men have a place "where [their] womb would be" called a "womb centre". Why she feels the need to change the bodies and spiritual forms of (cisgendered) men to suit herself I shall never know, but it disturbs me. I am perturbed to discover in reading this exercise that ideas and visions are created not in the brain or the mind but in the "inner womb". Christ. It's like someone turned Freud inside out and gave him a womb fixation instead of a penis fixation and he ventured forth to tell everyone they had womb envy. Now, maybe it's me, but I don't think it's right to tell everyone their spiritual centre is where their womb is (or would be). Why would men have a spiritual centre analogous to that of women? Physically, they're built differently. For that matter, why would all women have the womb as a spiritual centre? I certainly don't think my spiritual centre is my womb. I don't really think of my womb at all. It's just this thing that leaks blood once a month. In fact, I don't even use the word "womb". I don't have a womb, I have a fucking uterus. And it is not the spiritual centre of my being. 

Chapter Nine - Trance

Back in chapter two, the italics bit at the beginning of the chapter pleased me and reminded me of "Essential Asatru", a book I much enjoyed. At this stage, however, it just seems put on, forced and fake. I don't feel like I'm getting a glimpse into her world of magic, I feel like she's trying to gloat about how super speshul magickal she is. I'm sorry, Starhawk, you've lost what respect I had for you way back at the beginning of the book, so it doesn't hold the air of mystery and magic you seem to think it conveys.
However! Holy of holies, it's some sort of miracle: a chapter actually about what it says it is about. Yes! this chapter is actually about trance! Well. Trance-related work, mostly. But still. It's nice to read a chapter, too, where it appears that she knows what she's talking about. It's so clear that she has actual knowledge about this subject, and that only really underlines her total lack of knowledge regarding everything else, because she manages to stay on topic for nearly the whole chapter! It's a long chapter, too, which is a good thing. If only the rest of the book was up to this standard!

She does delve into psychoanalytical concepts more than I'd like. As a Hedgewitch, I'm more interested in going out and about, seeing and doing, experiencing, gnosis and ecstasy, all that good stuff. She's more interested in the subconscious, going in rather than out, and things being projections of herself rather than separate entities.

I don't like that, at the top of page 171, she says people can't be exploited via suggestion during hypnosis because we won't do anything against our moral beliefs. That doesn't mean at all that people can't be exploited. Memories of sexual abuse have been created from whole cloth during "memory retrieval" hypnosis, and this has ruined not only the lives of the people now suffering from a fake history but the lives of those people arrested and convicted of child molestation that they never perpetrated. I'm sure that this is the sort of thing people didn't know in the 1970s but it's incredibly important to acknowledge and I would have thought it would have been added in, as people were aware of it in the late 90s.

I'm concerned too that she doesn't address the dangers of leaving one's body and going Elsewhere, of meeting gods and entities that aren't a part of one's subconscious but are separate.

"No fear is stronger than our fear of our own shadow" she says at the top of page 172. I disagree. Personally, I'm far more terrified of being buried alive than I am of myself. I've come to terms with myself. I enjoy getting to know myself. Her notes in the 10 year appendix address her concept of "shadow" and the parts she divides it into (apparently, dividing stuff into parts is fine when she does it, but counter-productive when other people do it). To my mind, separating out the parts of oneself one doesn't like is exacerbating the problem, and continuing to reject those parts of oneself rather than embracing them as an aspect of who one is, working on them, coming to terms with them, moving past them. To separate them out is to continue to say "I am not good enough", to continue to be afraid of oneself. Disassociation may help one view oneself from the outside, but it's a temporary fix. You can't simply destroy or lock away what is a part of you; better to view this part of you as objectively as you can, then come to terms with it as a part of who you are.

Victor Andersen's interaction with "evil entities" at the bottom of page 172 is both hilarious and a little sad. I wonder what interesting things he would have learned had he followed the guides that appeared to him, rather than dismissing them as "evil" out of hand because they told him something he didn't want to hear or gave him a choice he wanted no part of. Sometimes we have to make choices in life, and sometimes something must be given up in order to obtain something else. Oðinn gave His eye for wisdom; why is Victor Andersen above that sort of thing? Some things cost. An entity telling you that a choice is needed is not "evil" just because you don't like the concept, regardless of how natural and beautiful the thing is that you must forsake. I find it very irritating when things a person disagrees with are labelled "evil". It shows a real lack of empathy and understanding.   

Midway through page 174 the topic arises that I knew would arise at some point: drugs and trance. Now, drugs are a time-tested way to change the mind, and used traditionally by a variety of paths and traditions including witchcraft. It's not for everyone, but it should definitely be discussed, and imposing personal values on traditions different from one's own on a matter of personal choice such as drug use is culturally imperialistic. Her comment on page 174 is typically naive: "Mind-altering drugs are not used in magic (at least, not by the wise), because they destroy that control." Ten years later, she is not only more naive but more imperialistic, suggesting personal traditions should be rejected because there are people out there who have trouble with drugs. Because all drug use is addictive behaviour, right Starhawk? Every group of witches should be a happy cuddly love-in that never does anything associated with evil bad things like drugs or alcohol! In her 20 year notes, she has finally done some research outside her own very limited experience and discovered, hey, turns out, some cultures and traditions do use drugs! In fact, traditionally? most witches used drugs and poisons! She has finally recognised her own goddamn hypocrisy and acknowledged that hey, not only does she use drugs on a daily basis, but back in The Day her experiments with illicit drugs introduced her to witchcraft in the first place. Nice. It took her 20 years to admit that, but at least she did it in the end.
I am concerned by a comment at the top of page 175, that laughing at something you find when you're "Oot and Aboot" will defeat it, that it can never "possess" you. I don't know if she's naive here or what, but I'd never ever tell someone that so long as you can laugh nothing can hurt you. Starhawk has not discovered everything that is Out There and neither have I, and something as simple as laughter is not going to "defeat" everything. 

There are a couple of pages on dreams and dreaming, but it's not out of place as some things have been in past chapters. I do wish she had spent less time on psychoanalysis and the subconscious; I feel like she got lost in there and bogged down. 

Her meditation examples are fine enough, but it bothers me that she doesn't explain whether these are journeys out of the body or guided meditations inside of the body. They are different things, involving different steps, different preparations, and different cautions. To me there is a clear distinction, one she hasn't touched on in this chapter. 

It bothers me also that she continues to use "Deep self" and "Younger self" concepts so frequently throughout the book, when she has said they are only metaphors and one should substitute others they prefer. She hasn't given alternatives, or explained in full detail what they are metaphors of, only the metaphor itself. They are used so frequently one would imagine they are important to her basic tradition, so why are they apparently interchangeable with other concepts? If they are optional metaphors, why does she use them so often? I wish she would be more clear. 

Still, I suppose we have to give her props for writing a chapter that isn't a total and complete waste of the reader's time.

It couldn't last, though: at the end of the chapter she deviates from her topic by an absurd amount and inserts ritual plans for feasting, farewell to her deities and opening the circle. Why here? Surely the one about the circle would have fit in perfectly to the chapter (ostensibly) about "sacred space"? Did she forget she had that chapter? She even brings up something called "the pentacle position" which I don't recall reading previously. 

Apparently the small section entitled "Feasting" was once entitled "Cakes and Wine", and she changed it because she felt it would be either offensive to those with a history of alcoholism or else it would tip them over the edge into a week-long binge if she mentioned the word "wine". I really wish she would have more respect for people struggling with addiction. It's nice that she wants to make a circle "a safe place for them" but honestly, she treats them like children. A person with an addiction has the ability to say "no wine for me thanks, I would like to substitute juice" without even needing to say they are an alcoholic. A person with an addiction has the option of speaking to the HPS before hand and alerting her to possible issues with alcohol in case problems arise. A person with an addiction still has a spine and some semblance of willpower and the ability to be in the same room as a glass of scotch without turning into Father Jack. And if they don't they probably should be somewhere other than a witchcraft ritual, regardless of whether or not there is alcohol present. A little respect for others, Starhawk, wouldn't go amiss; you don't need to treat people in such a patronising way. 

Again, overall it's a better chapter than all those previously, but not without its issues and niggles. She actually talks about trances in a knowledgeable way, rather than filling in space with waffle, and fewer things are out of place. It would have been better still had she been more clear about some things, such as a distinction between guided meditation and otherworld journeying, but we take what we can get. On the other hand, I don't feel like there was enough information given for those who might want to try trancework based on what she has said; had I been a newbie reading that chapter, I don't think I would have felt secure giving it a try. There was almost an assumption on her part, I think, that the reader would find a group with an experienced group leader to guide them, which is a ridiculous assumption given that the book is aimed at people without a group or who might be interested in forming their own groups. I might be wrong there, I just don't think enough guidance or detail was given by the text for people to try trancework on their own.

Chapter Ten - Initiation

Starhawk begins this chapter in the worst possible way. On first inspection it seems like a good idea to begin it with "The Legend of the Descent of the Goddess", an absolutely beautiful Wiccan myth written by Gardner and relevant to the topic at hand. Actually read through it, though, and the well-read witch will be rightly horrified.

Gardner is not cited. She calls it a "Traditional Craft Myth" - whether this is simple ignorance or whether she is deliberately seeking to insult the original author is unclear.  The "retelling" is pretty close to the original, nearly word for word in some cases, yet Starhawk totally cuts out some of the most important parts of the myth (and thus the entire meaning and symbolism) because they conflict with her own very restricted and bigoted views on sexuality. Nowhere in her desecrated version does the goddess say "I love thee not". Nowhere is she scourged. Nowhere is she taught to love. Starhawk utterly destroys one of the most beautiful of the Neo-Pagan texts, and doesn't even cite the original author. Classy, Starhawk.

This is part and parcel of one of THE greatest sins in modern Paganism: homogenising, Disney-fying and repackaging religions and spiritual crafts to be less "scary" and more family friendly. (As if children weren't totally into blood and gore when left to their own devices.) Don't worry folks! Witchcraft isn't all darque! There's no scourging or dangerous stuff or alcohol or curses! Everyone has sex in the missionary position - none of that scary deviant sex stuff! All the gods are happy and cheerful - it's only those mean Christians who say they are bad - and no one is ever mean to anyone else! And when you join you get a free teddy bear and a box of glitter!
Sorry, Starhawk, I'm not buying the bullshit you are selling. Unfortunately your bullshit has seeped in through generations of books on witchcraft and now we have to sift through the crap to find books that are halfway decent, realistic manuals of the craft. Well done, Starhawk, you ruined witchcraft.

(For those interested, the original myth can be read here. I think it's pretty clear the extent to which the beauty and meaning of the myth are altered by her retelling.)

It has become increasingly difficult to read her comments on "the goddess" with a straight face, I must admit, since reading her chapter and notes on this (non?) entity. I have become pretty convinced at this stage that Starhawk doesn't actually believe in her as a being, or at least that she has no interest in a personal relationship with her.

The ritual itself that she describes is pretty standard, and will no doubt be interesting for those unfamiliar with initiation rituals. I believe I have read its like before on websites such as Sacred Texts and the Pagan Library, but there are also elements pretty obviously from non-oathbound Wicca, such as detailed by the Farrars. I'm curious as to whether she took their ritual as a base, or whether her own education in Feri involved rituals the Andersons based on those of the Farrars. "What Witches Do" was published in 1971 so either is possible. The ritual also seems a little low on content, but that is explained by Starhawk's comment that she had omitted oathbound Feri content of the initiation. She could have gone into further detail about aspects other covens might want to add to their own initiation rituals, or whether or not that sort of thing would be appropriate.

I am also, reading this chapter, left a bit suspicious as to her understanding of what a Mystery is. But her writing style is such that perhaps she knows, and simply did not communicate it effectively.

Chapter Eleven - Moon Rituals

I read this chapter with a special interest, as I am looking to integrate more moon rituals into my personal religious practice. While Starhawk's religion is (obviously) very different to mine, I am still quite interested in how others practice and celebrate the moon's phases. Unfortunately she doesn't go into the whats, hows and whys, just gives three example rituals and that's it. A total waste of a chapter. She doesn't even go into detail on the symbolism, or why this was done or that, or the purpose of such rituals. The first of her moon rituals seem to be not about the moon at all, but about her life and the lives of others in the coven. Very disappointing for a person looking to create rituals for worship or for celebration rather than as a catch-up with coven friends and a chance to ask the universe for another boon. The full moon ritual in particular is simply loaded with hubris from my standpoint; rather than be about worshipping their goddess, it appears to be about giving each coven member a magical pat on the back. The "dark moon" ritual is the only one that actually seems to be a ritual, about worship and celebration, but even then the apparent aim of the ritual seems to be centred around raising energy for a personal purpose - in this case scrying.

Like all her ritual and spell examples so far, she focuses totally on what the coven and priestess say and nothing about the actual content of the ritual. Bizarre, as she she mentions on page 193 "Or better yet - let your rituals be wordless." A bit difficult for many trying to follow this book, I'd say, as she gives no input as to how this would be done or what a ritual actually entails, besides memorised words.

It's sort of a wonder why gods are involved at all, to be honest. Everything comes back not to the gods, but to the coven members. You can have a spiritual group without needing to involve deities, so why does she really bother with them, when all her coven seems to come back to is a self help group? This perhaps is the perspective of the polytheist; I have deep and personal relationships with my gods, and honouring and seeking to know them is a large part of my religious practice. The idea of paying them only passing attention and then spending the rest of the ritual telling myself how wonderful I am is anathema to me.

Chapter Twelve - The Wheel Of The Year

I don't know why she wrote these all as rituals. I expected, as I began to read her ritual on Yule, that it would be a snapshot of the time, the coven, and what the ritual might entail rather than the entire ritual itself. Despite that it is interesting to read, and thankfully more about the time and the gods than her lunar rituals might suggest, though it still has the tang of a self-help group. All losing fear and things we don't like to the night, no "Oh great Lord", etc etc. The gods get some more mentions towards the end of the ritual, though, so it's not all self-help.

Her first spring ritual is dedicated to Brigid, a goddess she doesn't believe in. You can imagine my distaste. She says it is dedicated to Brigid, that is, but Brigid doesn't get a look in when it comes to the ritual itself. Starhawk's deities are invoked; Brigid is not. The Spiral Dance is included in this ritual, but neither the main text nor either of her anniversary notes explain why it would be performed at this time of year in particular.

She calls her vernal equinox "Eostar" rather than Eostre. I am not sure why. Her 20 year notes say she also likes "to work with the myth of Demeter and Persephone". This is an odd statement, as Kore, a goddess mentioned in the main text's ritual, is Persephone. Kore is matched up in ritual with some unnamed character referred to as "Prince of the Sun". (Just as an aside: this pairing of random deities in romantic or even sexual rituals is completely offensive and disrespectful to the deities involved. Very disappointed to see it here.) Another self-help session follows. 

Quite a few cultural concepts are included in her May ritual. Unfortunately their cultural meanings seem to have been discarded: couples jump the fire not to pledge their troth but "to cleanse their relationship of petty disharmonies". Her ten year notes suggest taking out all mention of the deities involved as their heterosexual relationship (and the symbols related to it) "has sparked controversy". This, she says, will make it "less exclusive" - because apparently a ritual to your gods should have nothing to do with your gods and everything to do with making sure everyone feels included.

The midsummer ritual is much more pleasing in that it includes a great deal more in the way of their deities. It does, however, rather unfortunately include a run-on sentence (at the bottom of page 205) to make a Vogon poet cringe. I suspect she did not have an editor at all - anyone could have caught that and suggested a rewrite. The rest of the ritual seems very confused from my perspective, but perhaps someone else would read it differently.

More stealing from other religions and cultures for the Lughnasadh ritual, although I suppose I should be happy they bothered including Lugh at all, seeing as the holiday is named after him. (Brigid didn't get a mention in her holiday, after all.) However, this mention does take place before the invocation; he may be discussed, but he's not invited to attend the actual ritual. He might not mind, though as the ritual quickly descends into more self-help. This coven appears to be so beside themselves with fear that every ritual needs to involve getting rid of it in some new way.

The ritual for the autumnal equinox is largely more self-help, although late in the ritual they do thank their goddess for her gifts and their own personal "harvest". They even pour a libation, which is a pleasant surprise, and offerings are burnt.

The first line of chant in the Samhain ritual was quite pleasing and somehow familiar. Upon following the footnote, I discovered that it was not of Starhawk's creation. The ritual itself is not bad, but so filled with conflicting metaphors and different mythological ideas that it ends up confused. By the end of it I have very little idea what a person is meant to take from the ritual; had I been unfamiliar with Samhain as a concept I might even be confused as to what the ritual is meant to be about. Things would have flowed much better had she kept to one or two main metaphors for the holiday.

This chapter was interesting, as we get a look in to what Starhawk and co do throughout the year. However, it wasn't informative as you might want coming to a religion and curious to practice it yourself and celebrate the holidays, nor do I think her methods of celebration are particularly ethically sound or, to be honest, all that celebratory. If nothing else, though, it gives one a real idea about how religion is viewed with Reclaiming, what they consider an important part of ritual, and whether joining one of their groups is something one would want to do.

In addition, the Northern Hemisphere bias she shows in this chapter is noted with a disapproving frown. Not a single date is mentioned for the Southern Hemisphere, and instead of "widdershins" she says "counter-clockwise". Note, in the Southern Hemisphere, anticlockwise is "deosil".

Chapter Thirteen - Creating Religion: Toward The Future

You know beginning this chapter that it is going to be more soapbox political hypocrisy, and Starhawk doesn't disappoint, with more of her distasteful anti-porn ritual to start the chapter off. The entire thing is a rant she has been building up to over the past 12 chapters.

She starts in on "the state of the world today", or at least in 1978, when apparently everyone was committing suicide and poisoning their children and - get this - "species abandon the earth" (p215). Because apparently they're not being wiped out from hunting, pollution and loss of habitat, they are abandoning the earth. In little miniature spaceships that you can operate with a paw, one assumes.

No accepted etymology links "witch" to a verb meaning "to bend". Suggested origins include "divination", "idol", "one who wakes the dead" and "to be strong/lively". cite* This is one of those things that really annoys me; was the etymology fixed in 1978, or did she not bother to check? Of course, this (along with the State of the World comment above) is part of her notes from her book of shadows, and she might not have thought it important to check the accuracy of the statement before transferring it over to her book. It's a strange, disjointed little essay with the overall theme that witches have to save the world.

I am disgusted twice over by her statement at the bottom of page 215, "We have collectively created the death cults." First because she appears to be naming all religions preceding her own as "death cults" and secondly because she appears to have no real knowledge of what a "death cult" might actually be. Religions dedicated to understanding and honouring death and its Mysteries through ritual aren't awful by default, as she seems to think they are.

She makes a shocking admission of her own sexism in her notes on page 279. "Twenty years ago I was more likely to believe that if you had the right genitalia - whether you were a human or a Goddess - I could trust you." Rather than revoke such a statement for its disgusting implications against men and women (for she has shoved women too into a little cookie-cutter where we can never tell a lie; apparently she hadn't met any women twenty years ago) she simply states "Alas, life is not really that simple." Yes, Starhawk, it turns out when you generalise and stereotype a huge group of people based on their genitalia, you're making them a lot more simple than they are. Do you stereotype on race, too? Abhorrent. The worst part is that she appears to be sad that her atrocious stereotype is not true; her tone laments her naivety rather than her sexism and condemns society's failure to produce women who don't conform to her sexist ideals rather than the ideals themselves.

A quote on page 217 hammers home for me my suspicions regarding her non-theism: "Otherwise, the new incarnation of the goddess will be subtly moulded on the very forms we are working to transcend." Her goddess doesn't exist; at least, not in her own right. Rather than an entity being rediscovered she is created, "moulded" by her followers into what they want her to be - and what they want her to be, according to this chapter, is a flag-carrier for their political views.

On page 280 she has a go at critics of feminist goddess-worship by saying that they "don't bother to read the sources that might contradict their prejudices" and "practise a kind of pseudo-scholarship that ignores the evidence". Anyone who has read this far through this review will appreciate the irony there.

She makes a fascinating statement on page 261 that she does and did "see as false - the analysis that men are inherently violent and prone to domination, while women are inherently nurturing and cooperative". It's very interesting to see her expressing her disagreement with this idea explicitly, yet imply the very opposite in so many areas of her book.

More sexism against women on the bottom of page 218; apparently you only "belong to yourself alone" as a woman if you "live Virgin". If you're having sex with someone, you belong partly to them. It's unclear whether this applies to men also. Additionally women have "a very special power" if they don't have sex with men. I'm not sure what that is meant to imply, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

On page 221 she rubs her boot in the face of misanthropes, hermits and asocial individuals, saying "When expanded consciousness does not deepen our bonds with people and with life, it's worse than useless; It is spiritual self-destruction". She doesn't go into any detail as to why that should be, or what sort of destruction she means, or why other people are worth deepening bonds with; it follows on from a statement about using visions as a form of escapism. Apparently we're to all get the same input from our spiritual quests as she does, and if we don't, it's a form of escapism, and escapism, according to Starhawk, is bad. The hermit in his cave (or on the tarot card) should take note. Apparently, if you're not loving the whole world you are damned. Or something. A couple of pages back she went on about how "Our way is right, and you are damned" was something other religions did, so perhaps I shouldn't say that. "Our way is right, and you are on the path to spiritual destruction" is so much better.

She has a bizarre, and frankly a little embarrassing, definition of magic as "change of consciousness". That's not what magic is, of course, as any witch reading this will know, but if she wants to define it that way, that's her business. However, she then goes on to define psychology as "magic", because "it purports to describe and change consciousness" (p221). No. Psychology is the study of brain and behaviour, not a method for changing consciousness. Psychology is not "magic". It is a science. A soft science, some branches, but nevertheless. She continues on with her lack of understanding regarding psychologist on page 223. Apparently, a psychologist will observe a rat learning via classical conditioning and then leap to the conclusion that all learning is via classical conditioning, and that if he doesn't say it that way no one will believe him. And that if he doesn't say it that way, no one will pay him lots of money to go on lecture tours, because all lab psychologists are in it for the cash. They just rake it in in those lecture tours. One does not believe this woman has ever read a scientific journal, or even a textbook on psychology that wasn't written by a Jungian.

I am getting weary of pointing out the bigotry in this chapter. She has a go at Eastern religions on page 222, claiming that women in Western cultures who practise them are "in bondage". A slight to Eastern religions on the one hand and a criticism of women who choose to practise them on the other. Lovely.

In her notes on pages 280-1 she defends New Age schools in communities from criticism, and in doing so, completely disregards what they are being criticised for. Within Paganism, the New Age world is indeed heavily criticised, and for some of the reasons she names - being trivial, shallow, flaky - but primarily for the ethos of want - take - have. Ooo look! That Eastern religion has something called "karma"! Let us take it from its religious and cultural contexts, completely strip it of all meaning, misinterpret it and repackage it for our own spiritualities! (And thus the Western misunderstanding of karma as a "what you give out comes back to you" form of spiritual fairness is born.) Why does Starhawk not answer these criticisms? because she is guilty of the same want - take - have ethos.

This chapter is tiring to read, as she repeats the same concepts over again in different ways. Feminism, spirituality, spirituality, feminism, vague goddess concept. Women are good and special and should practise a religion in which they are good and special. Other religions are too focused on being BEST. Her religion is BEST, because it views things in this way rather than that way. Metaphors are good, but are not "truths".... which bothers me a little as I've read through this book entirely as well as the appendices and I still have no real idea what she believes or what her religion is about. Everything is metaphor, and metaphors are interchangeable - but what is the thing itself? She hasn't said, just given some metaphors. I appreciate that some things are ineffable but if one is writing a book on something, one should be able to verbalise what it is the book is about. Right now, to me, in this moment, the book is about abusing spirituality to further sexism. And that shouldn't be the message I take away from this.

And after all that - all that hate, all that bigotry, all that "holier than thou" nonsense and double-edged sexism, she ends the chapter (and the book) with something that is genuinely lovely. They are snippets, or drabbles, of some fantasy world that she dreams of, perhaps would like to be so. They are nice drabbles. Unlike the rest of the book, they are well written. Unlike the rest of the book, they do not waffle; they say what they have to say rather than filling space with meaningless buzz-words. They do, of course, reflect the non-goddess of the rest of this chapter, and the vague righteousness of it all, but nevertheless, they are quite nice. It is a great shame she didn't read over them, take to hearts how they were written, and rewrite the rest of the book. It does get a bit creepy, near the end; no one in this fantasy world fears violence. One wonders what they do to violent people in this fantasy world. Are their minds chained, or are they killed, or what? I must admit that while they are nice drabbles, I would not on any account want to live in Starhawk's fantasy world.

And So....

Would I recommend it? FUCK. NO. This is one of the single worst books I have ever read on witchcraft or Paganism in my ENTIRE LIFE. And I think it's done more damage to Paganism as a whole than Silver Ravenwolf. In fact, you can pick out bits and pieces that Ravenwolf obviously read in the Spiral Dance and repeated in her own work, up to and including the dreaded "nine million dead in teh burning tiems". Time and again I found myself wondering whether she wrote it solely as a platform for her sexism and hypocritical feminist views. It's not even well-written enough to be entertaining. Awful, awful book. Why it remains so popular, and so highly recommended, I shall never know. It gets a 1 out of 10 instead of a 0 because there is the odd bit or piece here or there that isn't completely awful. Frankly, the chapters leading up to the end were getting better, and I might even have awarded it a 2 if not for the absolutely unnecessary final chapter.

This would usually be the point where I supplied you with a link to go and look at (and possibly purchase) the book, but I am not going to do that because under no circumstances should you ever buy this book. If you're inspired (or forced at gunpoint) to go out and find a copy, for the love of all that is holy get it out from your local library.

*"According to our legends, Witchcraft (sic) began more than thirty-five thousand years ago...." p27

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Prayer

I pray daily, at my altar, before bed. Well, I try to - sometimes I'm too tired, sometimes the altar seems so far away and I'm already snuggled down so pray in bed instead. Sometimes I forget. But I try to pray every day at my altar.

Sometimes I pray in words, but often it is an exchange of emotion, a touching of energies. These are the gods of my Hedgecraft and They have less time for words than the gods of the North. Sometimes when I am lucky They share with me in image, experience and sensation another lesson about Themselves, another snippet of what comprises Them. Tonight was such a night, and this is why I try to pray every day.

It can be difficult, and there are times it is unrewarding, it's true. Sometimes Their touch feels far off. It can be discouraging. Other times I feel Their presence strongly, and I feel blessed. These times - times like tonight - are the best, and these snippets of Mystery, or whatever they are, are what make such an un-signposted path worth the effort. They are what make it worth persevering with such a thing as a daily prayer time when it seems tiresome, or boring, or unrewarding. Harder times are followed by easier ones.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Day Four: Birth, Death and Rebirth

30 Days of Paganism continues.

I don't associate these three things strongly with my path, but my beliefs are undeniably circular: all things, planet included, universe included, will go through their own "winter" or "death" and then their own "spring" or "rebirth". All things need this period of rest in order to grow again, and after fierce growth all things are ready for rest. "All that falls shall rise again, all that dies shall be reborn." I do believe in reincarnation, and that Death is its own mystery, and an important part of things in itself rather than simply being a period of being non-living, or a period of rest. Winter is as important as the rest of the wheel of the year. But on the other hand, whether all people or all trees and birds and whatever are reborn I don't know, as in the Netherworld there are certainly trees and birds and bugs and I imagine those are the dead souls - or perhaps oversouls, of particular subspecies, as dear gods there are a lot of bugs - of those trees and birds and bugs that were alive here once. Do they come back here? When... and why? Who knows. The world continues on, but when things are reborn in the spring of it all, they may well be new things. Perhaps reincarnation is uncommon after all.

Birth... Honestly I find birth rather disgusting, and I don't know why anyone would give birth voluntarily. I feel the same way about pregnancy and babies, so giving birth is something I want nothing to do with. Birth as a concept, as a mystery experienced by myself... what can one say about birth. One can't remember it, after all. I imagine it was unpleasant. As a general mystery, in the world around me? I don't think I know enough about it yet to make comment, or it's so standard I don't acknowledge it much. Birth in the sense of fertility.... it's important, obviously. It's important so that we can eat, but death is important in that too as I don't eat stuff that's still alive. Not to my knowledge anyway. There's not a whole lot one can say that doesn't also apply to rebirth. They're both birth... one is just birth again.

Death... I've always been interested in death. I've always liked ghosts and skulls and so on. Out of the three it's the most fascinating, the most mysterious, as we can see in front of us what happens in the aftermath of birth but in the aftermath of death, all is surrounded by a veil of mist and incense smoke. My grandad just died. And the world doesn't feel particularly different. I miss him, but his presence isn't gone. I think he's sticking around for a while. Maybe he's waiting for his wife. Or maybe he's just looking at us from afar... I think he's drinking whiskey in the next world with old friends. One can hope. At any rate... I know the dead, and death is connected with wisdom in my personal mythology. So are shadows - wisdom is found in the shadows, not in what is presented to one and illuminated. There are Death-Mysteries in hunting and killing and eating that prey, and Death-Mysteries in burying the dead, and Death-Mysteries in dying oneself, and Death-Mysteries in Walking the Hedge, and Death-Mysteries in surviving death. Death and life are so connected for me, as a Hedgewitch, and the next world is a breath away.

Rebirth... In the sense of being born again, I think this has happened to me quite a few times now. In another sense, though, of metaphorical deaths and rebirths throughout one's life through initiations and rites and so on... I'm quite interested in that. I have been ceremonially devoured and regurgitated in a Walk once in order to fix something that was wrong with me, and it was a successful thing. It may count or it may not. It's its own mystery and its own wonderful thing. But rebirth is important in its own right. The spring of all things. By the time winter has been with us for three moons we are ready and due a spring, and early spring is one of my favourite times of year.

My God and my Goddess are connected very much to fierce passion in all things. Sex is a part of that, protecting the young or beloved is part of that, hunting is part of that. They're so very connected to the desperate need for survival and life, but in the same breath and same token They are very much connected with death, with both killing and dying. We live and we die, and They are there when we are living and when we are dead. They are that line, the knife's edge. The moment of orgasm, and the moment of death. La petite mort....

Heathenry as a rule isn't big on the concept of reincarnation. The dead are the dead, and a part of me is much attached to that idea as well. The world may continue, and new things are here, but the dead are the dead. They live within the Underworld, the barrows and hills and mountains (which I've already discussed as places both Here and There). I find the concept of an afterlife very reassuring, and the presence of the dead reassuring too. So I like this idea, that the dead are hiding out in their Barrow-hills toasting one another and recounting tales of their youth. I like that, very much.

See, for the most part, I look at a grave and it's a memorial and a stone and a beautiful thing, but there's nothing in it. As for actual things that are dead... that is, skulls and bones and so on... they're just there. Present as stones, and just as lifeless.... if they have a soul to them it's the soul of the bone itself as an object, in an animistic sense, connected in a way to the soul that once inhabited it of the human but practically, it is a thing in itself and a different thing. I don't find them spooky, just oddly friendly. Skulls have a rather welcoming grin to them. So the barrow, or the mountain, where a soul still in a sense resides, I like that. That one can go to that place and the dead are still there. It makes me smile.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Housekeeping Post

Hello folks.

I have set up an email address for this blog, the link for which I will post over on the right somewhere. So if you should have a question, or a comment to make that you don't wish to make publicly, you can feel free to email me. I encourage any questions or comments regarding the FAQs and so on be directed to this email address instead of made in comments on individual posts.

Note: emails consisting primarily of flames, will be ignored as a matter of course and deleted without being read through.

If you have an issue with something I have posted here on Hagstone I do recommend you make your comment public; if you feel you have to email me, wait a day before sending it, because aggressive emails will not receive a response.

Thanks all.