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.