Today is July Fourth, which in the United States of America is celebrated as Independence Day. It is the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776.
Today is also the culmination of “A Spell for Justice”, a two week spellworking written by Starhawk that began on the Summer Solstice. Many of my beloveds are sharing this spell on Facebook today, and I share their hopes for “justice, justice now for all!”
This spell involves working with symbols of liberty and justice. Starhawk suggests the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and encourages the singing of patriotic songs like God Bless America. The spells timing takes advantage of the energy of the July 4th holiday to seal and release the spell. When Starhawk first shared this spell, she reminded everyone that “you are your own spiritual authority” (the closest thing Reclaiming has to a rule) and encouraged people to change what doesn’t work for them. I want to thank Starhawk for setting this example. I appreciate the spaciousness and flexibility that Reclaiming brings to the expression of political magic. In this post, I want to dig into why, for me, spells involving patriotic symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the Flag feel so tricky, and why I don’t do them. I am not suggesting that others do not do them: they may work really well for you. Your mileage may vary. This post simply represents my own process around why this type of magic repels me so strongly.
Here’s a question: Is our current political system broken, or working exactly as designed? Some people would say that the United States (which I am going to refer to as “America” in the rest of this post) really does stand for equality, justice, fairness, and liberty, and our system’s failure to deliver those things is because it is broken (and we need to fix it by taking the House and Senate in the midterms and voting in a progressive Democrat in 2020!). Others might say, the American system was never designed to promote or provide those things, but was specifically designed to advantage specific classes of people over others and relies on inequality to function. So, when the American system is failing to provide things like equality, justice, liberty for all, etc, it is actually PERFECTLY - just as designed. In this case, it can’t be fixed, because it isn’t broken. It can only be destroyed.
Whether or not you feel comfortable using patriotic images and songs in your political magic probably has a lot to do with which scenario you think is true. Like many others, including many who I love and respect, I used to think that the American system stood for the ideals of truth, justice, liberty, equality, and when it didn’t deliver it was because something was wrong. I was a classic liberal, pretty progressive. Then, I experienced the Baltimore Uprising. I saw my city rise up around me and I began to listen to a wider array of people and really hearing what they were saying. I got an education in radical politics. After what I experienced, I saw the system very differently. I saw the ways in which it was designed to exploit, to divide, to prioritize corporate interests over collective, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, to keep people from developing class consciousness, to protect and prolong institutional racism and sexism, and to always, always keep cops from being held responsible. Crucially, I came to understand that these things were a feature of the system, not a bug. And the story about what America is - well that’s just a smokescreen, a collective opiate that helps us feel ownership in something that is really robbing us blind.
Empire and its Symbols
These symbols that some people talk of reclaiming - the flag and the Statue of Liberty for example - are powerful cultural egregores. They are like spells, that have been cast over many years by powerful people, movements, institutions, corporations, and of course the government. They assist in the creation of a monolithic “American culture” that aids the State in the process of everything from quelling criticism to discouraging class consciousness to suppressing domestic uprisings to invading foreign countries. They have been a powerful part of the invention and codification of ‘whiteness’ in the United States, a critical tool for racial oppression. As the monoculture becomes more powerful and pervasive, it stamps out individuality and divergence. Compliance is assured. These symbols belong to the myth and story of America, and I cannot work with them without working within this mythos and lending energy to this two hundred year old spell.
To me, the idea that these symbols are something that “belong to me” or that they can be “reclaimed” is something that doesn’t add up- they are abstract agents of the state working culturally to ensnare me into not giving up my commitment to the idea that the system can be reformed. As long as I remain committed to the idea of reforming the system, I will prolong its survival. If you are a person who thinks the system is basically good and needs to be fixed, it makes sense to work with these symbols. If you think the system is bad and must be destroyed, working with these symbols magically makes no sense (unless you are binding or hexing them). They will work at cross purposes to your intention and degrade your magic.
My friend once told me about a conversation he had with a European. The European commented on the manner my friend had of always saying “we” when he meant the U.S. “Why do you do that?” the European asked. “You say ‘We invaded that country’ or ‘We probably assassinated that South American leader.’ Did you do those things? No. So why do you say ‘We?' ” His European friend was curious about the way Americans seem to take collective ownership of everything the American government does, no matter how much they loathed the action. For me, hearing about this exchange was really freeing. It helped me understand that the way Americans personally identify with the actions of their government is a cultural phenomena, and that I could make a choice to disidentify. It didn’t mean I was freed from doing everything I could to fight against actions I found reprehensible, but it freed me from feeling personally morally tainted by it. Maybe you will find this exchange freeing as well.
Similarly, as I release the idea that “America” is a system worth saving, that is where I feel real liberty and freedom blooming. Out there beyond the symbols of the settler state is something that wants to lead us forth to respond to the future we are facing. I feel this power emerging. I feel the breeze coming through the uncertainty and fear of the present moment; I hear it calling. The future is going to look very different. It’s almost certain that we cannot avoid climate collapse. Even if I thought reform was the best option to avoid the pain and suffering that destruction brings, it seems like the system is bent on destroying itself. What will come next? What do we want to turn our attention, magical and otherwise, to building for our descendants? As we ask this question, I remember the archetype of the witch, the one who walks the edge, who is not afraid of the Other because she is the Other. Peter Gray said “You will find the witch at the end of a pointed finger.” He also writes, “As populations are displaced by war, flood, fire and famine, we will see many more strangers in a strange land. To the witch, they are Kindred.”
I know there is no one as zealous (or annoying) as the newly converted. I hardly think my elders like Starhawk haven’t considered these thoughts, and they still find value in working with these symbols. I honor their wisdom and experience and will continue to learn from it. I am glad to have a chance to share when I am at my point in this process. I am grateful for the privilege of being in community with with so many who are finding ways to respond creatively and meaningfully to the times we are in. May we continue to do so.
In preparing to be on the teaching team at Winter Witchcamp, I've been working with the myth of the Descent of Inanna. A persistent voice in my head has been her husband Dumuzi, who ultimately gets sent to the Underworld half the year in Inanna's place. Dumuzi often gets a bad rap as the uncaring husband who spends Inanna’s time on the Underworld perhaps enjoying his Kingship too much. He told me a different story.
(he did not move)
(he did not move)
(he did not move)
That is what it says, of me.
(he did not move)
“In Uruk, by the big apple Tree,
Dumuzi, the husband of Inanna, was wearing his shining me-garments.
He sat on his magnificent throne; (he did not move).”
That is how is was written.
I want to ask you this:
Have you ever been left?
Did you know, she abandoned her Temples?
She left them in Uruk!
She left them in Badtikbira!
She left them in Zabalam!
In Adab she abandoned her temple to descend to the Underworld.
When her great and holy presence departed, her Priestesses came to me.
“Where has she gone," they cried.
"And when will she be back?”
I held my empty hands out to them and showed them that I had no answers.
Their questions were mine.
We had made the Sacred Marriage.
As her mother had promised, I was Inanna’s father.
I was her mother.
I treated her like a father.
I cared for her like a mother.
She opened her house to me.
I boarded the Boat of Heaven.
I heard her promises-
That she would guard her sheepfold for me.
That she would watch over my house of life.
There was promise that under my Kingship there would be fertile fields.
That the sheepfold would multiply.
That the vegetation would grow.
That the grain would be rich.
The the fish and birds would chatter in the marsh.
That the young and old reed would grow high in the canebrake
That the mashgur-tree would grow high in the steppe
That the deer and wild goats would multiply in the forest
That there would be honey and wine in the orchards
That the lettuce and cress would grow high in the gardens
That there would be long life in the palace
That there would be floodwaters in the Tigis and Euphrates
That the plants would grow high on their banks and flood the meadows
That the grain would be piled in heaps and mounds.
And yet she left.
She was Queen, of Heaven and Earth.
She was the Queen of the temple in Uruk.
She was the Queen of the Temple in Badtikbira!
She was the Queen of the Temple in Zabalam!
What did we not give her?
Her priests said to me
“Wild Bull, did we not make enough offerings?
Did she want for incense? Did we not bring enough butter, cheese, dates, fruits of all kinds? Should we have brought more sheep?”
Did we not pour out enough beer?
We poured dark beer for her
We poured light beer for her
We poured emmer beer for her.
Was it not enough?”
They moaned, “Did we prepare the gug-bread in date syrup incorrectly?
Did we pour the wine and honey in ways that displeased her?”
I had nothing to say. No words to offer for their pain.
It was three dark days. I tried to rise to the moment. To be her equal.
I put on my shining me-garments. I held her throne. I ruled. I tried to be as strong as she was. So that when she came back, she would see that she didn’t need to leave to find what would satisfy her.
(Do you know what it is to love someone who is never satisfied?)
And then she returned.
I saw the demons of Hell at her back.
It was clear.
Whatever it took to gain Power
Inanna would do.
Even if it imperiled her people.
Even if it imperiled me.
Under the weight of this realization, I could not move. (he did not move).
Do not forget
Do not forget
Do not forget.
When she proclaimed my guilt, and told them to take me.
Utu changed my hands into snake hands.
Utu changed my feet into snake feet.
Utu judged my claim to be just.
Do not forget
Do not forget
Do not forget.
That in the end
Even Inanna wept to watch me go.
Over this past weekend, I had the pleasure of teaching what has come to be called the “Community Class” in my spiritual tradition of Reclaiming. This class, which the Reclaiming community created by consensus during the BIRCH (Broad Intra-Reclaiming Council of Hubs) meeting in 2012, is an exploration of various aspects of what it means to be in community and how to build community. Over the past five years, various teachers have created and offered versions of this class but it remains early in its development. During the a section of the class I co-created this weekend with fellow teachers Copper Persephone and Sylvan Redbird, participants had a chance to explore five common roles that, according to Starhawk, every group needs and that together “weave an effective group” 1
Every group needs those people who will greet the newcomer at the door and help them to feel welcome. Starhawk calls these Graces. These are people who are thinking about who feels included, who doesn’t, and why. They are often extroverts (but not always), often empathic, and usually pretty popular. Sometimes “gracing” can feel a little like “hostessing”- making sure that everyone at the party has someone to talk to, knows where the drinks and bathroom are. Graces have to be careful to remember to give themselves time to eat, drink, and make merry, and not just spend the entire party/ritual making sure everyone else gets what they need. More than just being good party planners, though, Graces perform the crucial role of helping the group be a place that people want to be. Their enthusiasm and excitement for a group is contagious.
A second group that Starhawk identifies are the Snakes. While the Graces generate social capital from doing their natural thing, the Snakes can sometimes run into trouble. Snakes are our friends who “bring up the dirt”2 and from their vantage point beneath the surface are onto what is really going on in the group - who is sleeping together, who isn't talking, and who is secretly in charge. If you were the one in your family that was always bringing up what no one else wanted to talk about (Mom’s increasing forgetfulness or how little brother always seems to get drunk at family dinner), you might be a Snake! Others may grumble, but when Snakes bravely bring these things into the light, it allows the rest of the group to get honest and begin to strategize about how to respond.
In a tradition that eschews power-over and hierarchical leadership, we still need those who are skilled at long-term visioning. They are the ones who “suggest new directions, make plans and develop strategies, and look ahead to anticipate problems and needs.”3 Starhawk names these people Crows, for their ability to “fly high and see far, from above.” I am very grateful to those who bring a crow-like vision to our group process. As a member of the Ritual Planning Cell, I often struggle to “get started” until one of our more vision-oriented members brings a spark of inspiration to the group. Crows can develop a lot of influence in a group just by being themselves, which is why Starhawk recommends that the entire group purposefully engage in crow-oriented brainstorming.
If you have ever had a ritual in a public space that has been interrupted by curious strangers, you know the value of those people who are willing to take on the role of protecting the group. Our Dragons, as Starhawk names them, are the ones who protect the boundaries of our sacred circles at rituals. But they can do so much more! Dragons are the ones who look out for the practical considerations of the group and keep track of resources. They are the ones who will ask the hard questions about whether or not the group really has enough time, money, energy, and attention for a new project. They can keep the enthusiasm of the Crows and Graces in check, and help the group steer a course of sustainability.
Starhawk orients Crows in the East with Air, Graces in the South with Fire, Snakes in the West with Water, and Dragons in the North with Earth. In the Center, spinning a web of connection between all of these is the Spider. The Spider can be a person, a rotating role, or a group that takes on the function of being a point of connection for others. Starhawk writes, “ The Spider will hear everyone’s suggestions, complaints, fears, and questions, and needs support from the group and a way to bring problems and suggestions back to a body that can make decisions.”4 Starhawk warns that those fulfilling the role of the Spider can sometimes, like the Crows, run into trouble in a tradition that seeks to do away with hierarchy, as “The person with information is often perceived as the person in charge.”5 For this reason, it’s important that those with spidery tendencies find ways to create systems to support communication and connection rather than allowing themselves to become the point of connection.
During the class, community members had a chance to embody these roles by slithering, cawing, and roaring. Some members discovered for the first time they had a talent for breathing fire, or uncovered an unknown passion for perching high up and visioning. Eventually, they chose a group and with others, designed a service project for Reclaiming that was in keeping contributions that are native to that group. At this point, I was fascinated when people chose groups for themselves that were very different than the groups I would have expected them to choose. It was a good lesson that in a small community, we don’t always get to play the roles we want. Instead, we play the roles community needs us to play. Maybe we learn to be the ones who always say the hard truth, because we’ve learned no one else will do it, but we really long to be freed to soar high and see far.
Starhawk reminds us that "Groups may benefit by considering who tends to play which role, and by making conscious effort to trade and exchange roles, especially as some tend to make people more popular than others...To be complete, we each need to move around the magic circle, not to remain stuck in any quarter, no matter how comfortable."6
Later, friends who took the class asked me where I would have sorted myself. I struggled to answer this question. Over the past six years as a member of this small but growing Reclaiming community, out of necessity I’ve been regularly rotating between all of these roles - with the exception of the Snake. I found this ironic because the Snake is often the role I’ve found myself taking in my family and in other communities, but in my eagerness to grow this community haven’t felt like there was room to embrace it. Our community is at a point now where there isn’t a need any longer for any one person to be able to rotate between a Grace, Dragon, Crow and Spider all during one night. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to find out what it is that I really excel at in community.
Which role do you find yourself usually filling in community? Is there a role you’d rather play? To learn more about these roles, I recommend reading Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery by Starhawk.
1 Starhawk, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, page 129
2 Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, page 280
3 Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, page 278
4 Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, page 282
5 Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, page 283
6 Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, page 278
As I prepare to teach Elements of Magic again in December with two amazing co-teachers (the magical Amanda and Ayla) I’ve been thinking lately about the revolutionary potential of Elements of Magic.
On one level this course can function as a beginner’s Witchcraft class.
But it is more than that.
This class is a community rite of passage that has been continuously and generously offered for almost 40 years. It is an initiatory experience - not just into the way Reclaiming works magic but into the way Reclaiming builds community. It is an invitation to become a shaper of this tradition - a welcoming into service and leadership in a community. When people leave Elements, their relationship to the community has changed. They have walked through a powerful gateway, been through a significant collective experience. They are empowered to act in service of and in leadership for the community. That might look like participating in public ritual, or helping on the activist or media cells, or taking advanced classes, or simply helping build the web of community by welcoming first timers or greeting returning guests at events. It might look like taking the initiative to organize a new cell or interest group, or bringing a proposal to the community during one of our meetings. It might look like just doing what needs to be done instead of asking “How can I help?” Taking Elements isn’t what gives people permission to do these things; they have the ability to engage in these activities before they take Elements. But Elements offers a powerful container through which people are woven into the fabric of the community and thereby they feel empowered to act on behalf of the community in this way. Elements is a process through which belonging occurs, and it is the method through which the magic that is Reclaiming reaches new hands.
It’s powerful. And this power is why people take this class over and over again, even experienced Reclaiming witches who have taught this class dozens of times. Even people who have sophisticated and integrated magical practices informed by other traditions. They might yet be missing community - a chance to be with others in offering this world the medicine it needs - to be together as we seek healing, justice and liberation. This class is for them, too.
This class is for all of us.