Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon


Starhawk was born Miriam Simos in 1951 in St. Paul, Minnesota. She moved with her mother to Los Angeles following her father’s death when she was five and ultimately settled in San Francisco and western Sonoma County. An early hippie and then feminist, she was initiated into the neopagan Wicca path and took her spiritual name based on a dream inspiration. In 1979 she wrote the seminal Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, which became a main inspiration behind the Goddess movement. One of the most respected elders in modern earth based spirituality and ecofeminism, Starhawk gives wise advice to young women and is an ardent activist who teaches the regenerative principles of permaculture. She routinely leads large-scale spiral dances throughout the Bay Area and will be a keynote speaker at the Bioneers Conference.

Common Ground: What was the trajectory of your upbringing?

Starhawk: I was born in Minnesota and raised in a Jewish family. My grandparents were orthodox and my parents were of the generation that rebelled. My mother was a psychotherapist; my father was a social worker, a group worker, a theater person who died when I was five. We moved quite a bit when I was young, and then when I was nine we moved to Southern California.

How did your father’s death inform your life?

Obviously, when you lose a parent it has a huge impact; it made me a more serious person. I had a strong sense that life is short and precious. It gave me a desire to understand on a deeper level the meaning of it all.

What was the effect of Judaism on your life?

I was taught by my teachers that Judaism is a way of life and a practice, not a dogma or a belief system. That it was a set of things that you did to be in harmony with the community and with God.

You came of age during the hippie generation. How was the LA hippie culture different from the one you came to know in San Francisco?

Similar, but we always felt like we weren’t getting it from the source—that we were in the provinces. We made every attempt to get to the Bay Area often to drink from the fountain of hippie-ness.

How did you get involved in the early days of the feminist movement?

I was living in Venice, California, and my first meeting was at the Venice Women’s Center when I was 19 or 20 years old. In that era, people were strongly egalitarian, believing there are no leaders, that everyone can be a leader. That night they were picking the new directors of the center by having everyone throw their names in a hat. So I walked out of my very first meeting as one of the directors of the women’s center. We organized consciousness-raising groups. It was a very colorful way of organizing because when we sat and talked about what we were experiencing, suddenly we realized that our experiences were common to other women’s experiences—that there were social patterns. Wife beating, rape, violence against women—everyone felt like this was so personal, but when you sat 15 women in a circle and found out 10 had shared the same experience, we had to look at it as a social practice. We used to say that “the personal is political.” It was out of those groups that a whole range of the feminist agenda emerged.

Wasn’t there a strong dichotomy in that hippie era between the angry political activist crowd and the spiritual navel-gazer crowd?

There were definitely two very different approaches to the challenge of changing the world. I felt connected to both. I remember when I was 16, my girlfriend Hilda and I escaped from LA to Haight-Ashbury on Easter week of 1967. We had this incredibly wonderful week in the Haight and then went over to Berkeley. We could feel the physical divide between San Francisco, where everybody was talking about love and peace and meditating and smoking dope and then across the bay in Berkeley, where it was political with organizing and demonstrations. We asked ourselves, “On which side of the bay do we belong?”

In the feminist movement there was also a sense that religion was not only the opiate of the people but that it was patriarchal and a precept to women. During my first year in college I had done an anthropology project on witches, and I met people who were practicing Wicca who explained that it was a continuation of the pre-Christian pagan earth-based traditions that came from Western Europe and ultimately from the Middle East—the religion of the Goddess. It was an amazing revelation to see the Divine as female in a spiritual tradition that empowered women as leaders.

How did the name Starhawk come about?

It came from an early dream about a hawk that turned into a wise old woman. When you’re initiated in the tradition and make a commitment to the Goddess, you take on a new name. As I began writing and began to become more public, it sort of became my name.

You were young when your famous first book, The Spiral Dance: The Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, was published. What is the back story and legacy of this book?

I started writing it in my 20s. When you’re writing as an unknown in your little apartment, you never know if anyone’s ever actually going to read this. Over the years it has had quite a big impact, being one of the early books that made the connections between feminism, activism, and environmentalism.

Is Wicca a religion?

It’s more of a belief system and spiritual path. But it’s also a religion in the sense of rituals, ceremonies, and involved community. Some of us have groups with 501(c)3’s, since the IRS is the ultimate authority on what’s a religion in this country. [Chuckles]

Wicca is associated with the word witch—such a loaded term.

The word comes from both Wicca and the Anglo-Saxon word wic, which means to bend, shape, or twist. It referred to those who could bend or twist your faith for you—the healers, the shamans, the herbalists. They were helpers to the common people, but the 16th- and 17th-century church waged a huge war against witches and anything that was left of the ancient ways of relating to knowledge, the land, and healing. The persecutions that erupted left women (and men of gender-fluid orientations) with a fear of standing out and claiming spiritual authority and choice.

Today, more than half the Bay Area would be labeled witches. I allegedly had an ancestor in Salem who was persecuted for being a witch.

In Salem no one was burned; they were hanged. Women were also targeted because they had property of their own. If you were accused of being a witch, your property was confiscated. Imagine a community where anyone with a grudge could denounce you, and you would be taken and tortured until you confessed and named other people. It’s created a horrific collective trauma that we’re still dealing with today even though most people have forgotten it.

What is your take on the contemporary patriarchy?

Power has been unfairly structured around privilege, and privilege can be based on many things such as skin color, wealth, physical ability, looks, sexual preferences, or who your father was. Then there’s the power that men have in relation to women. There are two crises. On one hand, our society has been concentrating wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands, and at the same time we live in a world where the system is destroying the environment that actually supports it. The powerful are willing to inflict violence on anyone who challenges the system. I think we need a sophisticated shift in the basic values we hold as a society and how we think of power itself. In North Dakota at the Sacred Stone Camp, indigenous tribes have come together in a historic way to stand up against the pipeline that is dirty power. They’ve stood up with the message that “water is life” but confront pepper spray and attack dogs every day.

What is the Spiral Dance?

The spiral represents rebirth and regeneration. We do the spiral dance in different rituals and around the Bay Area such as to celebrate the Samhain—or Halloween—which for us is the turning of the new year and the opening up of the new phase of life. You’ve got hundreds of people dancing together in a walking meditation where you pass every person in the spiral and look at them face to face and eye to eye. When we complete the spiral we turn our chanting and dancing and singing into the Cone of Power, which is like a fountain of energy we can send out with the intention of strengthening the healing forces of the earth. Spiral dances are inherently pagan, as spirals represent one of the core growth patterns of nature and are one of the core symbols that are traceable to the priests and caves for tens of thousands of years. The veins of trees grow in spirals. It’s the pattern of the hurricane and the galaxy that’s linked into sacred geometry.

You teach permaculture. What is permaculture, and did your interest in it stem from your interests in feminism and Wicca?

Permaculture is a whole system of ecological design that observes the way nature does things, to work in the same way so that we can meet our human needs while regenerating the landscape around us. We look at certain core patterns that nature uses over and over again, like the spiral, or the branching pattern, or the meander, the wave pattern, and understand how to use them in creating a design, whether it’s for your garden or whether it’s for your organization. For me it has served the practical end of the earth healing. If you look at the symbols inscribed in Neolithic pottery and prehistoric cave drawings, we see how ancient people understood the core patterns of the natural energy flows and honored them as sacred paths.

Permaculture is crucial, given the two huge crises of climate change and of the concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands—which are actually the same crisis. The powers of wealth are fighting to maintain a system of destructive and polluting fossil fuel power that benefits only a few. I can meditate and chant and sing and pray about healing the earth, but I can also go take a piece of damaged ground and restore it to actual life and fertility. That provides a tremendous sense of empowerment, so I’m very devoted in teaching permaculture skills because those are the tools we need to regenerate our world.

Might you share a specific message to women, particularly younger women?

We have come a long way since the seventies, yet there are many ways in which we haven’t. I think it’s still often hard for young women to stand and claim their power and confidence. These are the same questions women always struggle with: “How much do I keep for myself and how much do I give away? How much do I live for myself and my vision, and how much do I serve other people’s vision and support my partner’s vision? How much am I subtly adjusting myself around somebody else’s needs and expectations?” To younger women I say there’s no one right answer to those questions, no clear path out of that struggle. That struggle itself is how we grow and develop and become more fully who we are.

I encourage younger women to think and ask themselves, “What do I care most deeply about? What’s sacred to me?” Then put your best energies toward that. Find a way to put that at the center of your life.

Rob Sidon is editor in chief and publisher of Common Ground.

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