What is the Goddess? In previous articles, we have spoken to the evocation of the ‘Mother Earth’ figures by some ecofeminists, as well as their resorting to certain ‘primitive’ or pre-modern streams of spirituality embedded in the worship of the Goddess (be it Isis, Ceridwen, Astarte, Miriam, Oshun, White Buffalo Woman, Kuan Yin, Diana, Amaterasu, Ishtar, Changing Woman, Yemaya… Starhawk, 1982, p.73) representing certain feminine aspects in nature: Maiden, Mother, Crone, moon, earth, tree, star, flame, Goddess of the cauldron, Goddess of the hearth, Healer, spider, Lady of the Wild Things (ibid). And so starts, the stats the invocation of symbols as transformative vessels by Starhawk. Though the figure of Starhawk does not account for the scope of earth-based and Goddess-based spirituality that have been developed by ecofeminists, it is captures one of the most controversial and comprehensive theorization and practice of an ecofeminist immanent spirituality. We have read Starhawk’s 1982’s Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, to better understand how the American ecofeminist witch has articulated her quite unusual witchcraft, of the ecofeminist kind, invoking magic and the Goddess, as tools for personal and collective transformation, and reshaping of consciousness.
‘Dreaming the Dark? But that’s Witchcraft?!’
No pointed hat, but a firm belief in the transformative power of Magic, Starhawk has embodied a controversial figure of ecofeminism. Although she acknowledges that not all witches share her political perspective, and that few of those whose political perspective paralleling hers are in fact Witches (they may be Quakers, Buddhists, radical Catholics, or atheists, ibid, p. xxvii), she insists that witchcraft is indeed about the Obscure. It is as much about darkness as light, but it is mostly about an exploration and a reclaiming of what is dark in ourselves, in order to overcome traditional dualisms and power-relationships. In this sense, the work of Starhawk has been simultaneously criticized, feared and admired, as much as it represents a radical, far-reaching formulation and agenda for individual and collective change.
« Dreaming the Dark is an attempt to tell a different story, to reshape culture on the model of the circle, the ever-renewing cycle. I like to believe that this book has been influential in helping people redefine power and reshape its structures toward those of a community that can sustain long-term struggle and creative vision. » (ibid, p. xiv)
Shifting Power, Invoking Power-From-Within
What is striking about the work of Starhawk is how political, and thus far reaching, it reads. Indeed, she destines her book to be about power, about the shift from power-over to power-from-within, about symbols, structures, stories and thought-forms that support, transmit and move power, and about an ethics based on power-from-within (ibid, p.xxv). But the book is also far-reaching in the sense that it is as much about a theorization, a vision, as practice and action; it reads as both a historical reconceptualization of an immanent ethics and a guidebook for a personal and collective practice of consciousness change. As such, Magic is designated as the means to this sweeping transformation of community and self in culture, and of culture itself (ibid, p.xxv). Starhawk’s proposition is especially interesting because it links clearly and practically the way political change is translated from the individual to the collective scale of society. This is especially explicit in her formulation of justice, as integrity of self and relationships, and as different from rule or authority (ibid, p.34). Change itself is traced as originating from the individual, from within, and as so Starhawk emphasizes the fact that she places herself in the context of Western individualistic society. The change that she hopes to bring about seeks to reconnect individuals with the collective and the greater whole of interconnected living things, nature and the earth. She does not however detail how non-individual societies might overcome the challenge of collective and individual change that they may face, although in different ways, as they are also today confronted to forces of destructions and by power-over. Magic is also taken as a mode of resistance against the destruction brought about by those who wield power-over. Starhawk defines power-from-within as the capacity to do something, to be able, and as something not entirely new. She argues that it has been referred to as ‘spirit’ or ‘God’, but that in the former case it implies a separation from matter (a false split) which has been instrumental and constitutive of institutions of domination, and in the latter case it has been the repository of power-over in patriarchal religions. This reflection on power is thus, to a great degree, a reflection on the structures which give rise to power-from-within or power-over. In this sense Starhawk holds quite a deterministic stance, her sensitiveness to flows of energy within and among individual and groups translating into a position that « structure, not content, determines how energy will flow, where is will be directed, what new forms and structures it will create ». What more, she argues that «hierarchical structures, no matter what principles they espouse, will breed new hierarchal structures that embody power-over not power-from-within » (ibid, p.19). Hence, as opposed to hierarchical structures which order agencies, and operates a subsequent hierarchy of values of different categories of individuals, Starhawk’s preaching of power-from-within rests on an immanent belief of the inherent value of all living beings.
The Goddess as Immanence, Changing Consciousness
« When we face the possibility of death, the simple moments of connection - looking into the eyes of a friend who understands what we say, sitting in a sunny window drinking tea, nestling into the strong arm of a lover, laughing together at a joke or tapping a foot to the rhythm of music, all the ordinary acts of life - become luminous and treasured, and we understand them to be the sacred gifts that they are. That is the true lesson of the mysteries and the real meaning of the immanence in the Goddess - that life itself has a value that is immeasurable. » (ibid, p.xiii)
And so Starhawk invokes the figure of the Goddess, as a symbol, expression and materialization of immanence. She prefers the symbol to the the abstraction in term immanence that she finds somewhat cold and intellectual. There is a also a sense that abstraction itself may reflect a similar separation from matter as it has been formulated historically by Western scientific and philosophical discourses and theories. Through the term Goddess she refers to ancient images, symbols, and myths of the Goddess « as birth-giver, weaver, earth and growing plant, wind and ocean, flame, web, moon and milk, all speak to me of the powers of connectedness, sustenance, healing, creating » (ibid, p.4). At the same time the invocation of this feminine figure also seeks to oppose to the use of the association of women and nature in Western culture to devalue both (ibid, p. 11). As such Starhawk does not in fact call into question the existence of such an association, but reframes it as a more positive, complex and plural one. What more, this symbol is one that distributes agency not just to women but to all living things as expressions and materialization of immanence. The choice of the term Goddess is discussed quite didactically by the author, she explains that she prefers the symbol over the abstraction as it suggests a sensual and emotional, not just intellectual, relationship. She also claims this term to be deliberatively controversial and unsettling, as it implies, paradoxically, both religion and secularism (or paganism). She points out that all paradigm shifts do and must make us uneasy at first as they confront existing conceptions and structures. There is however some openness in her proposition, as she concedes people may prefer the abstraction over the symbol, as all symbols may also yield the danger that people will focus on them forgetting the principles they represent. As such, if the Goddess were to be taken as an object of external worship, it could as well as patriarchal religions lead to hierarchical and oppressive structures. She makes a fundamental clarification:
« Let us be clear that when I say Goddess I am not talking about a being somewhere outside of this world, nor am I proposing a new belief system. I am talking about choosing and attitude: choosing to take this living world, the people and creatures in it, as the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, to see the world, the earth, and our lives as sacred. » (ibid, p. 11)
In the end, Starhawk designs a spirituality, not a religion, whose ultimate objective is a change in consciousness. This consciousness, embedded in ancient cultures, is what she really refers to as the Goddess and stands for immanence. It corresponds to an « awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interacting, and infused with moving energies: a living being,a weaving dance ». (ibid, p. 9)
Starhawk, Ecofeminisms, Deep Ecology & Gaia
Drawing a direct connection between all systems of domination, of women and of nature, Starhawk’s position is quite obviously an ecofeminist one. Moreover, she acknowledges the influence and connections existing between this cosmology and those developed in deep ecology (speaking of the inherent value of all living beings), or the Gaia hypotheses (understanding the earth as a living, self-regulating being). She however distances herself from any fixed group affiliation. For one, they may in certain instances lead to oppressive structures, or statements, such as certain deep ecologists arguing that famines and pandemics might be acceptable or even desirable in a context of overpopulation and as part of ‘Gaia’s Greater Plan’ (ibid, p.xvi). For two, she seeks to present her perspective in this book leaving each and everyone the freedom to contest certain aspects, or appropriate others in their own personal terms. She formulates this position, and what may in fact distinguish her from the above movements:
« Only a politics and a spirituality of compassion can possibly transform and heal the world, because without compassion we miss seeing the real interconnectedness of issues and cannot forge a vision or a strategy that can move us out of the stories of estrangement. » (ibid, p.xvi)
This position also explains that she expresses her political closeness to Quakers, Buddhists, and radical Catholics, all of which share a spirituality of compassion (ibid, p. xxvii). But what remains unclear, is what she implies by ‘healing the world’?
The Stories of Estrangement
Part of the answer lies in her identification of a historical movement from which to depart from. She refers to as estrangement, or a state of consciousness of ourselves as not part of the world, strangers to nature, to other human beings, and to parts of ourselves (ibid, p.5). This movement, which has been detailed in previous articles as the operating of several splits and dualisms, and which have resulted in a conception of the world as as made up of separate, isolated, nonliving arts that have no inherent value. (They are not even dead – because death implies life). Among things inherently separate and lifeless, the only power relationships possible are those of manipulation and domination, Starhawk argues. Estrangement is also the culmination of a long historical process. Its roots liying in the Bronze-Age shift from matrifocal, earth-centered cultures whose religions centered not he Goddess and Gods embodied in nature, to patriarchal urban cultures of conquest, whose Gods inspired and supported war. Christianity then deepening the split, by establishing a duality between spirit and matter that identified flesh, nature, woman, and sexuality with the Devil and the forces of evil (ibid, p. 5). Starhawks identifies these splits as constitutive of culture as a « set of stories we tell each other again and again ». It is in turn these stories which shape individual and collective expectations and actions. They are the stories of estrangement (ibid, p. 19-23).
– The Apocalypse (another variation may be Revolution)
– The good guys/girls against the bad guys/girls: or the operation of a series of dualisms which has led humanity to negate darkness (over light) and all which is associated to it (materiality, sensuality, sexuality, witchcraft…)
– The great man receives the truth and gives it to a chosen few (or a story of hierarchization)
– Making it/the fall (the story of how western societies relate to success and failure, as exemplified in the notion of the American dream).
Setting a Limit
To complete this position with regard to the historical movement of Western societies, it might be noteworthy to precise that this ‘healing’ practice does not rest on the idea that the world must be saved. In fact, this healing may, according to the witch, take place in by setting limits, which she distinguishes from a threat to the use of power-over. She takes the example of collective or community mobilizations opposing projects such as the Diablo canyon Nuclear Power Plant. By using the metaphor of parenting she explains how setting a limit may not have to be authoritarian, and how change may only come about if we change our relationship to all living things, and in so doing, to ourselves. As such, change is understood as relational, as change in relationships, and as resulting from interconnectedness between beings and things through flows of energy: « in (re)shaping energy, we take the shape we create, we become the power that we call forth » she argues (ibid, p. 44). What more, this also evokes the conservation of elements through transformation which explains that all elements remain but the structure must change, or perhaps the circular conception of life, as made of of cyclical mechanisms, all life implying death, all death implying life. But what is most striking is that, although she may call Magic a science, the setting of a limit must stem from a political collective choice, which may succeed where scientific knowledge still fails.
Magic as the Art of Changing Consciousness at Will, Magic as Language
Starhwak defines Magic, as the art of changing consciousness at will. She also refers to Magic as an applied science that is based on an understanding of how energy makes patterns and patterns direct energy. What more, it may also be a way to overcome the following paradox: “Consciousness shapes reality; Reality shapes consciousness” (ibid, p. 13). Magic, be it a metaphor or practice, may indeed be most powerful in its use of language as spells. Once again, we may retrieve the very political dimension Starhawk gives to Magic, as language (ibid, p. 15). This also relates to her reference and use of symbols, metaphors and stories as embodiments of thought-forms. But language, even more so explicitly, distributes power (ibid, p. 24). Magic in this sense is seen as working as a language, a language of action, images, of things rather than abstracts. These things are seen not as objects but as consciousness-manifest, and together with images, and metaphors they may be used to shape movements of energy and change possibilities.
« Magic speaks to the deep parts of ourselves that were formed before we knew abstractions. While the language of words, of abstracts, of concepts, is shaped by culture and tends to move in the thought-forms of culture, the language of things, of images, can, if we open to it, take us deeper. » (ibid, p. 26)
This is the manner in which, Starhawk argues, magic, the concrete, may reveal the ‘unseen’, what lies in darkness, what lies ‘deep’, what may reveal power-from-within. As such, magic is seen as a subversive means to « reverse the processes of mechanistic thinking », to go from a language of words to a language of things, speaking of metaphors, as if energy were a thing rather than moving relationships, in order to move towards a « nounless language that would let us speak more truly ». (ibid, p.29)
Dreaming the Dark, a Frightening Change
« The question of the dark has become a journey, as our conversation took place on a journey, How do we face the dark on the edge of annihilation? How do we find the dark within and transform it, own it as our own power? How do we dream it into a new image, dream it into actions that will change the world into a place where no more horror stories happen, where there are no more victims? Where the dark is kind and charged with a friendly power: the power of the unseen, the power that comes form within, the power of the immanent Goddess who lies coiled in the heart of every cell of every living thing, who is the spark of every nerve and the life of every breath. » (ibid, p.xxviii)
By opposing systems of dominations of women, nature, and in turn all living things, Starhawk deliberately refers and resort to controversial and unsettling words or tools, as « the words we are comfortable with, the words that sound acceptable, rational, scientific, and intellectually sound, are comfortable precisely because they are the language of estrangement » (ibid, p.29). Similar resorts can be identified in Lovelock’s choice of the term ‘Gaia’ to embody his controversial scientific hypothesis. As so, she also takes a counterposition by reclaiming the darkness, and which, through a dualistic conception, has captured all of our fears. For change itself is frightening, ‘where there is fear, there is power’, say witches (ibid, p. 47), and deep change in structure as well as content of our thinking may only come through profound unsettling. As so, this journey of change may also be one of acceptance. Indeed, one main impediment to action against global environmental change has been the refusal to acknowledge the fear of annihilation as real. But the particularity and strength of Starhawks’ Goddess-based spirituality may lie in its radical, creative and innovative use of symbols and language, both as tools for criticism and vessels of individual and collective change. Starhawk herself, flamboyant on her Facebook page’s profile picture, has exposed herself to become a figure of ecofeminism, to be contested, to be challenged.
- Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, Beacon Press Books, 1982
- Starhawk’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Starhawk/165408987031?fref=ts