Binding HarmGenerations of Witches Intertwine Rituals and Activism

a group of witches dance together in a black and white photo

Dance of the Witches in Front of Chicago Federal Building, October 31, 1969 (Photo credit: Beth Scupham/Flickr/Creative Commons)

In the introduction to the 20th-anniversary edition of The Spiral Dance, author and activist Starhawk describes a gathering where more than 200 naked witches rushed into the Pacific Ocean on a below-freezing day in California for a Winter Solstice cleansing. The power of ritual drove these celebrants into the frigid waters, but was this bracing dip the revival of a folk custom from Northern Europe’s pagan past or the last vestige of a goddess-worshipping cult in the Near East? It was neither. The custom began a couple of decades before, when the annual gathering was interrupted by a member of Starhawk’s coven shouting, “Let’s take our clothes off and jump in. Come on, I dare you!” The same group took the same swim again the next year, and the year after that. And, thus, a tradition was born.

Starhawk wrote The Spiral Dance at a time when a number of scholars were reexamining sacred texts, doctrine, and liturgy. By the early 1970s, philosopher and theologian Mary Daly—who had a complicated relationship with intersectional feminists and controversial views about transgender rights—had given up fighting for equality between women and men within Catholicism and began asserting that the Catholic Church is irrevocably patriarchal. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible’s 1978 book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, introduced feminist hermeneutics to Bible scholarship through her close readings of Old Testament texts. Theologian Carol P. Christ and Religious Studies Professor Judith Plaskow’s 1979 anthology Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion is almost certainly the most comprehensive introduction to the milieu in which The Spiral Dance was first published. (Starhawk herself contributed an essay on witchcraft to this hugely influential anthology.)

It included essays written by Daly and Trible as well as chapters with titles like “What Became of God the Mother?” and “A Jewish Woman’s Haggadah.” Plaskow even wrote a piece that presents Lilith—Adam’s first wife and also a demon, according to Rabbinic legend—as the first emancipated woman. While many of the authors who appear in Womanspirit Rising were interested in reimagining and rehabilitating existing traditions, others—such as Christ—were looking to create new forms of worship informed by ancient belief systems and practices and attuned to feminist sensibilities. First published in 1979, The Spiral Dance is a founding document of what would come to be known as the Goddess movement, and Starhawk was instrumental in establishing witchcraft as a Goddess religion—a collection of beliefs and practices in which female deities are central—in a contemporary context.

The original text of The Spiral Dance is, in some ways, a product of its time, but it continues to be a rich resource for beginners interested in exploring a Goddess-centric spiritual practice rooted in the seasons of nature and the human life cycle. Starhawk has kept the work relevant by writing new introductions and endnotes. The additions to the 10th- and 20th-anniversary editions offer glimpses of how Starhawk’s own beliefs and practices—not to mention feminism, environmentalism, and other movements—have evolved over the decades. For example, Starhawk reexamines some of her earlier statements about various world religions with nuance gained from postcolonial theory and fresh thinking about cultural appropriation. Similarly, she describes how she has moved beyond essentialist, strictly binary concepts of gender that shaped some of the rituals and beliefs discussed in the first edition.

While Starhawk and members of her community have always included advocacy for the environment in their activism—“I stopped counting my arrests in direct action when they numbered something like two dozen,” she writes—Earth stewardship has become a central focus of both her work and her worship as we have begun to grasp the existential threat posed by climate change. Starhawk has felt free to be open about how her own spirituality has evolved over the years because she never imagined witchcraft as a Goddess religion being static or one dictated by a ruling hierarchy. Change has always been part of her vision. Even as Starhawk wrote The Spiral Dance, she was looking forward to a future in which children raised within witchcraft would adapt traditions to better reflect their own circumstances. In the book’s final chapter, she describes children watching the moon rise; marking the moon’s movement in words and images; studying the science of our solar system; and maybe, one day, making “a pilgrimage to the moon.”

Extraterrestrial travel might remain out of reach for most humans, but, in the 40 years since the original publication of The Spiral Dance, a generation of children have grown up in goddess-worshipping families. Amanda Yates Garcia is one of them. Garcia grew up in a household where “activism” and “witchcraft” were two parts of a whole—both sprang from devotion to the mother goddess who is also the Earth. “One of my first memories is of my mother standing above a cauldron of bubbling water in our tiny apartment, singing blessings over our Kraft macaroni and cheese,” Garcia writes in the opening chapter of her recently released memoir, Initiated. She recalls being a 5-year-old child accompanying her mother to a protest at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Starhawk was there, too, and Garcia’s mother would eventually become a part of the same community of worshipers that Starhawk belongs to.

Initiated takes us through Garcia’s journey from a childhood of unquestioning belief to an adolescence marked by disillusionment and a descent into an underworld of abusive relationships and self-destructive behaviors—and, eventually, an adulthood in which she found her way back to witchcraft. Today, Garcia works as the Oracle of Los Angeles, combining magic with social justice in a way that echoes her mother’s practice and the movement Starhawk helped create. At a time when pop culture iterations of the witch abound and witch kitsch is for sale in the form of clothing, housewares, and cosmetics, Starhawk and Garcia can help us understand what witchcraft means to people who practice it. These two women don’t represent the full spectrum of contemporary practitioners of magic, but they do offer a useful introduction to a religion that’s young enough to be new and unfamiliar to many, but established enough to have birthed a few generations of believers and a vibrant set of traditions.

“We’ve learned a lot about ritual and magic, which we were just beginning to explore 40 years ago,” Starhawk said during a recent phone conversation. Some older elements of ritual have fallen away while new prayers and songs and ceremonies have been created, “but there’s also been a real consistency in what we stand for, and I feel very proud of that.” For Starhawk, witchcraft is not just a collection of rites; it’s also a set of principles. For example, her community confirms its commitment to a feminism that “includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of dominance and control.” In practice, this means that rather than a set of rules enforced from the top down, witchcraft invites each person to develop what Starhawk characterizes as “their own relationship with the great forces of creativity, regeneration, and compassion that move the universe.”

It’s easy to reduce witchcraft to its distinctive rituals, or popular ideas of what those rituals might be. However, activism is an essential element of witchcraft for both Starhawk and Garcia. In conversation, Garcia notes that it’s more common to envision witches lighting candles or casting a magic circle than to picture a witch, say, volunteering at a women’s shelter. That’s one reason Starhawk doesn’t just perform ceremonies within a closed group of fellow believers: She’s also designed rituals for Take Back the Night Marches and, these days, spends much of her time teaching workshops on permaculture. In September, she took part in the week of climate-change action sparked by Greta Thunberg. Garcia, meanwhile, once led a solidarity spell for adjunct faculty confronted with job insecurity and wage inequality. She had a viral moment when she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to talk about collective efforts to bind Donald Trump using magic.

Ritual and practical action are intertwined. When we talked, Garcia offered the Neopagan Wheel of the Year—a calendar of holidays based on the turning of the seasons that’s a system for both organizing time and, paradoxically, creating time outside of time as we are conditioned to experience it—as an example of this relationship. “When we honor the cycles of nature, we’re reclaiming time from patriarchy,” she explained. “Witch time is Earth time—Earth and its relationship to other planets in our solar system, its relationship to the universe… It’s not this urgent schedule based completely on your productivity and your ability to reproduce capital.” Decorating an altar or reciting a prayer—or running naked into the ocean—to mark the transition from one season to the next is both an act of resistance against oppression and a declaration of what one truly values.

Witches might share liturgies and texts and might worship together, but each witch is responsible for fostering their own connection with the divine and, ideally, making that connection a conduit for good. To be a witch is to have and to exercise agency on behalf of all. While there are figures who identify as priestesses and priests, people who lead rituals and people who act as intermediaries between worlds, these figures are facilitators, not authorities. Garcia might be unique in invoking French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan when she talks about “self-fashioning” among witches—it took me a beat or two to catch up when she mentioned “law of the father” in our conversation—but what she’s expressing is not fundamentally different from Starhawk’s assertion that each witch must find—or design—a set of beliefs and style of worship that reflects and reinforces their truest, highest selves.

For Starhawk, witchcraft is not just a collection of rites; it’s also a set of principles.

Tweet this

Some holidays, observances, and practices are widespread, but there are also endless opportunities for personal expression. There is no orthodoxy. Witches might be united in taking inspiration from ancient earth-centered, goddess-worshipping religions, but authenticity is a matter of intention, not antiquity. This is not to say that contemporary witchcraft hasn’t struggled in its efforts to produce a resonant origin story. In the 1980s and into the early ’90s, it was common for contemporary witches to refer to the Burning Times, a period in which millions of people—mostly women—were murdered on suspicion of witchcraft. Garcia’s mother taught her this history, but Garcia’s own studies as a young adult revealed that surviving records from the 10th through the 18th century suggest that the real number of victims was probably less than 200,000, and possibly as low as 40,000.

But rather than struggling to reconcile what her mother taught her and what experts assert, Garcia came to view her mother’s stories less as historical documents and more as myths that tell us something about how witches perceive themselves. “It’s almost a literary or poetic legacy,” she says. “Maybe millions of women weren’t burned at the stake, but certainly millions of women were oppressed, killed, [and] prevented from living the lives that they wanted to live because of patriarchy.” Starhawk, too, has grappled with these issues. The concept of a matriarchal prehistory was popularly accepted among witches when she was writing The Spiral Dance; over time, though, she looked more critically at the existing evidence and found that recent advances in DNA analysis have compelled archaeologists to revisit theories about ancient societies ruled by women that were discredited in the ’90s. But as witchcraft evolves, it is perhaps less important to rely on archaeological records than it is to unpack what such narratives mean today.

Starhawk offers a playful paradox when she says with a laugh, “We’ve always said that we belong to the oldest tradition there is: the tradition of making stuff up.” Garcia offers her own metaphor: She looks at stories about societies in which women ruled, peace reigned, and the land was sacred as narratives that are really about a possible future. “It’s kind of like science fiction, the idea of creating a world that’s different from the one we see in front of us.” These stories aren’t important because they offer an unassailable set of historical facts; they’re important because they offer a vision of what is possible now. The witch is a figure with a long history. She persists as the green-faced hag we see on Halloween decorations.

She takes a star turn every time we pull up Hocus Pocus on Disney+ or binge The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. She’s emerged as an Instagram hashtag associated with crystals, smudge sticks, and black lipstick. The witch is big enough to contain all of these symbolic associations; but she is also a real individual who practices a living faith. She might burn incense and honor the Sabbaths with her coven, but she might also be a clinic escort or a lawyer serving asylum seekers, and see those as equally intrinsic to her faith. Witchcraft does not have a documented, unbroken lineage that stretches back to antiquity, but it does have a vibrant set of traditions that have been embraced by multiple generations of believers, and a commitment to engaging with the world that helps it to adapt to changing times.


by Jessica Jernigan
View profile »

Jessica Jernigan is a writer, editor, and tarot reader. She’s been contributing to Bitch since 2004.