Sketches for a People's History
Origins of Reclaiming - by M. Macha NightMare and Vibra Willow
Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco - by Jone Salomonsen
To See Ourselves As Others See Us - Anne Hill reviews Jone Salomonsen's book
Enchanted Feminism and Courageous Scholarship - 3D Circle reviews Jone Salomonsen's book
How Does Reclaiming Work? - a roundtable discussion
Editor’s Note 2017 — this multi-article feature originally ran in 2002. We'll start working on an update one of these days! Email us if you'd like to help.
2002 Editor's Note — As we move toward Samhain 2002 (the New Year of the Witches), Reclaiming can look back at almost 25 years of development. From its earliest days as small affinity groups organizing rituals and anti-nuclear direct actions, Reclaiming now spans the U.S. and Canada, with growing communities in Germany and England.
In the following article, two of Reclaiming’s founders retrace the group’s history.
Origins of Reclaiming
by M. Macha NightMare and Vibra Willow
The Reclaiming tradition of contemporary American Witchcraft arose from a working collective in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.
In the Summer of 1980, Diane Baker and Starhawk, who prior to that time had been working with individual guests to their coven, Raving, decided to plan and co-teach a basic class in Witchcraft. Starhawk’s book, The Spiral Dance, was due to be published later that year. For this book, Starhawk drew upon her own personal training and experiences, her early exposure to the work of Z Budapest, and her later training in Faery Witchcraft with Victor and Cora Anderson.
Diane and Starhawk called their first class “Elements of Magic.” It was a six-week series. It was offered as a class in Goddess spirituality and directed towards women. Classes were done within sacred space and the emphasis was on the experiential rather than the didactic. Each class focused on one of the Elements, beginning with Air in the East, proceeding around the circle weekly to Fire in the South, Water in the West, Earth in the North, and Spirit in the Center. In addition, each class demonstrated a different aspect of magic (the intellectual, energy sensing and projecting, trance work, spell-working, etc.) and built upon the preceding class.
This class was so enthusiastically received by the women who took it that they pleaded for more. Starhawk and Diane enlisted the help of two other members of Coven Raving to teach a second series of Elements to more women who had expressed interest, and to create a more advanced class called “The Iron Pentacle.” The Iron Pentacle is based upon a Faery Witchcraft concept, focusing on trance work and healing through meditations on the five pentacle-points: sex, self, passion, pride and power. This construct is one of the distinguishing features of Reclaiming Craft because it is considered part of the basic approach to magic, although other lines of Faery also work with it. The same is true for its obverse, the Pentacle of Pearl, the points of which are love, law, wisdom, knowledge and power. Both pentacles have correspondences with the head, hands and feet, going round and transversing the human body, touching the points of a five-pointed star.
Again, success spawned a further class called “The Rites of Passage.” The first time this class was taught, it ended with the students initiating themselves and starting their own coven, the Holy Terrors, followed soon thereafter by the Wind Hags. All classes were conducted within a ritual, in sacred space.
From there, more classes were formed, more people began teaching, more covens arose. By this time, the original teachers had joined with some of the “graduates” and others to continue the teaching and also to offer public rituals at the sabbats. They also put out a small newsletter containing mainly class and public ritual announcements. This core group became the Reclaiming Collective, so naming itself in 1980.
Direct Action and Consensus
During this period, many Collective members and people from the larger Reclaiming community were prominently active in anti-nuclear civil disobedience in such places as Lawrence Livermore Lab and Diablo Canyon. Some people provided support for others who risked arrest doing direct action. In addition, some people in the Collective and the larger community lived in communal households. Some were anarchists. All of the Collective’s activities, from designing classes to dealing with domestic concerns to public political protests were done using consensus process.
Because of the political experiences of most of the early organizers, Reclaiming, has always used consensus process, learned mainly from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This takes longer than traditional group decision-making and can be fraught with frustrations, especially for the more hierarchical and parliamentary-minded. Yet within Reclaiming it fostered close bonds among participants. Almost all of the early planning and activity took place “in sacred space, “ ritualized, in the presence of the god/dess(es).
The Collective, after weeks and months of discussion and work, created a statement which has appeared in each issue of Reclaiming Newsletter and its successor, Reclaiming Quarterly:
“Reclaiming is a community of San Francisco Bay Area women and men working to unify spirit and politics. Our vision is rooted in the religion and magic of the Goddess—the Immanent Life Force. We see our work as teaching and making magic—the art of empowering ourselves and each other. In our classes, workshops, and public rituals, we train our voices, bodies, energy, intuition, and minds. We use the skills we learn to deepen our strength, both as individuals and as community, to voice our concerns about the world in which we live, and bring to birth a vision of a new culture.”
Thus, unlike most other Craft traditions, including one of its foundations, Faery Tradition, Reclaiming has always espoused a connection between spirituality and political action.
Witchcamps Take Root
In 1985 the Collective offered its first Summer Intensive Apprenticeship, held over the course of a week in homes of members in San Francisco and in parks and other outdoor spaces. Students traveled from other states to train; they stayed on futons, beds, couches and floors in the homes of collective members. The first Summer Intensive was so successful that the following year the collective rented a retreat camping facility at Jughandle Farm on the Mendocino Coast for a series of training sessions away from everyday life for both teachers and students. At this point, teachers were drawn from the pool of collective teachers.
The “intensives” soon came to be known as “Witchcamps” and expanded with SF Bay Area teachers being invited to other states, Canada, England, Germany and Norway. The people trained in those camps in turn trained others in their communities. Today, Reclaiming tradition Witchcamps throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe are run autonomously. They are now connected to Reclaiming’s representative body called the Wheel through their Witchcamp spokescouncil called the Web.
Crows and Anchors
In the meantime, back in California, the “core classes”(Elements of Magic, Pentacle of Iron, Pentacle of Pearl, Rites of Passage) were expanded upon and modified, and new ones such as herbal magic, incense making, chants and enchantment, abortion healing, “Bringing the Steps into the Circle” (working with Twelve Steps) and others were added. Leading public rituals taught us new ways of doing magic in large groups with participants of all degrees of magical expertise. We devised methods and roles to meet these changing circumstances.
Among the roles we created were “Crows,” those who oversee the big picture of an individual ritual, of teaching plans, or of overall Collective activities. “Snakes” view things from the ground, the little, down-to-Earth things. “Dragons” guard the perimeters of circles in public outdoor spaces such as beaches so that participants can work undistracted by curious passersby; they do not directly participate in the work of a ritual because they are providing a buffer between the public and the inner circle. “Graces” act as assistant priest/esses; they welcome people, guide them, keep aisles clear, get people standing, sitting, chanting, dancing, and assembled for a spiral dance.
In recent years Reclaiming has begun employing “Anchors” in large public rituals, to help focus and contain the energy of the circle in settings where it might be prone to fragmentation and dissolution. They act something like tent pegs to keep the energy contained until such time as it may be appropriate to release and direct it.
Currently, some Reclaiming Witches are being trained in aspecting, a technique which closely corresponds to what in traditional British Craft traditions more commonly known as Drawing Down the Moon.
Not all Reclaiming Witches practice all these techniques. Many full-fledged and respected Reclaiming Witches were trained and proceeded in their personal and coven practices before some of these techniques were commonly used, and Reclaiming continues to be an evolving, living tradition.
In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, Starhawk describes Reclaiming’s style of ritual as EIEIO—Ecstatic, Improvisational, Ensemble, Inspired, and Organic. Our practices are constantly growing, being “extended, refined, renewed and changed as the spirit moves us and need arises, rather than . . . learned and repeated in a formulaic manner.”
The spread of teachings from the Bay Area combined with the growth of teaching groups in the vicinities where Witchcamps were held (Vancouver, B.C., Missouri, Michigan, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania). Lessons learned from collective work have informed teaching at the Witchcamps and lessons learned from putting on Witchcamps have found their way into local Bay Area practices.
Distinguishing features of Reclaiming -tradition Witchcraft are:
• non-hierarchical covens and group priest/esshoods
• no specific pantheon
• no requirement of initiation, and when initiations are undertaken, they are customized
• strong emphasis on political involvement and social and ecological responsibility/consciousness
• no set liturgy (except in certain large, rehearsed or semi-rehearsed public sabbat rituals) but rather training in principles of magic and the structure of ritual, and how to “speak as the spirit moves you” within that structure
• cultivation of ecstatic states (customarily without the use of entheogens or psychotropics) and divine colloquy—more shamanic than ceremonial
• cultivation of self-empowerment, self-discovery, and creativity
• extensive use of chanting and breathwork in magical rites
• intense “energy-raising,” often using our trademark spiral dance (or even double helix/DNA molecule dance)
• magical use of the Pentacle of Iron construct and its obverse, the Pentacle of Pearl
• concept of Three Souls
• encouragement of the creation of new ritual forms by anyone.
I have heard us described as “the pentecostal Witches, “ which I take to be an allusion to the loose structure, high energy and ecstatic nature of most Reclaiming rituals, particularly the large public ones.
A feature of Reclaiming that has emerged in the ’90s is working with the concept of the Three Souls, which is shared with Faery Tradition Witchcraft and also appears in Hawaiian, Jewish and Celtic cultures. Starhawk’s adaptation, called the Three Selves, appears in The Spiral Dance, as Younger Self (the unconscious mind), Talking Self (which gives verbal and conscious expression), and Deep Self or God Self (the Divine within).
From the beginning, Reclaiming has had no specific pantheon. We always invoked Goddess into our circles and often, but not always, God as well. Collective classes, covens, and community have had significantly more women than men. Eventually, two particular deities seemed to have adopted the Bay Area Reclaiming community—Brigit and Lugh.
Dreaming the Dark
In 1982, Starhawk published Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics. Her 1987 book Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery expanded on what we were learning to do and on what she and others were doing in political direct action.
There is no doubt that Starhawk is the primary thealogian of Reclaiming tradition Witchcraft, as well as being its most prolific liturgist. Other prominent liturgists include Rose May Dance, Pandora Minerva O’Mallory, Anne Hill, T. Thorn Coyle, and the many collaborative chants and songs that arise from classes and in the various Witchcamps.
Starhawk has always acknowledged that much of her own thinking grows out of the community and is informed by others. Reclaiming is a far more collaborative and egalitarian community than it may appear to outsiders because of the fame of one member, i.e., Starhawk. People assume she is “the leader” and that has never been true, although she has always been, and remains, a powerful and influential voice.
Initiation — which is not required in order to perform any ritual role — has come to be performed by “committees” of teachers selected by the candidate for initiation who must ask for initiation; it is not offered, or even suggested. She may or may not have her request granted; one or more teachers may refuse. It may take some years before all on the “committee” agree that she’s ready. If the candidate works in a coven, she usually is also initiated into that coven, and any initiates within the coven are invited to be part of the initiation whether they were the candidate’s teachers or not.
Reclaiming initiations are customized to the individual seeker. The candidate must be willing to accept challenges from each of her initiators, and must fulfill them to everyone’s satisfaction before the actual ceremony can take place. These challenges are created by each individual initiator in accordance with what that priest/ess feels the candidate needs to be challenged on, and the rule of thumb is that an initiator only gives a challenge which she has already done, or would and could do. No one is challenged to be a trapeze artist, for instance. She may, however, be challenged to such an undertaking as undergoing a white-water rafting experience if that is something the initiator determines would foster the candidate’s growth—and that the person is ultimately capable of. For instance, a diabetic wouldn’t be given a challenge involving prolonged fasting, nor would a physically frail person be expected to stay out all night unclothed.
Reclaiming Collective incorporated as a non-profit religious corporation in the State of California in 1990, wrote Bylaws based on a consensus process model of decision-making, and eventually gained 501(c)(3) tax status with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
Over the years, Reclaiming Collective expanded from teaching the Craft and providing public sabbat rituals to providing a recorded Events Line listing classes, rituals and other activities, recording chants, publishing a book, and maintaining an internet presence with a website and listserves. The Reclaiming Newsletter grew into a magazine called Reclaiming Quarterly.
After years of discussion and seeking input from those who were not members of the Collective itself, the Collective (which varied in size from about ten to twenty or more at its largest) dissolved itself and turned over authority to the Wheel, a representative body comprised of spokespersons from all the many cells. At that point, about 52 people had, over the years, been members of Reclaiming Collective, for greater or lesser periods of time. In order to open up the perceived central authority of Reclaiming to the many Witches who, by the ’90s, identified with Reclaiming and who practiced in the somewhat anarchic style of Reclaiming Witchcraft, the Collective created a statement called our Principles of Unity (visit Reclaiming.org for the Principles and more about Reclaiming).
In addition to the Principles of Unity, the collective revised the former Mission Statement by deleting only four words: “San Francisco Bay Area.” Today there are Reclaiming-tradition groups spread over a widespread geographic area — visit Reclaiming.org for the full scope.
Realizing that we have no way, need or desire to dictate to others how they should perform their rituals, and abhorring dogma and stagnation, we believe that any Witch may honestly and sincerely claim to be a Reclaiming tradition Witch if he or she practices Reclaiming-style magic and agrees to our Principles of Unity.
The Principles of Unity and more about Reclaiming are posted at www.reclaiming.org.
M. Macha NightMare, P&W, is author of “Witchcraft and the Web,” co-author of “The Pagan Book of Living and Dying,” and all-round Pagan webweaver. She teaches on the broomstick circuit and at Cherry Hill (Pagan) Seminary, www.machanightmare.com
Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco
by Jone Salomonsen
Starhawk, one of Reclaiming’s founders, says of this book, “Jone Salomonsen has negotiated the difficult role of the participant observer with grace and integrity... While I’m sure I could find something on every page to debate with her, overall she has created a clear and illuminating portrait of one era in Reclaiming’s growth and development: our efforts to embody a new spiritual/political paradigm in our rituals, teaching, and organizing.”
The author, from the University of Oslo, lived in the Bay Area for a couple of years, and has visited other times.
The book focuses on Reclaiming as a feminist community, with chapters on the Wiccan Revival, Utopian Witches, Priestessing in Reclaiming, Women’s Mysteries, and the Spiral Dance ritual.
The book is part of a series by Routledge called “Religion and Gender.”
Following are two reviews of Enchanted Feminism by Anne Hill and 3D Circle.
To See Ourselves As Others See Us
Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco
by Jone Salomonsen (London: Routledge, 2002)
Essay & review by Anne Hill
Witches are generally disparaging of academia. Academics are often perceived as being too intellectual, too “stuck in their heads,” to understand why we believe and practice as we do. Their motives are called into question, particularly when they reach conclusions that are at odds with some of Paganism’s most cherished beliefs. It is true that Paganism has been misrepresented, attacked, or dismissed by many anthropologists, theologians, archaeologists, and others. Yet the careful observations of academic researchers have also led to rich sources of ethnographic data and historic information, which has been to our benefit.
There are now several recent academic books which are respectful of or actually written by Pagans. The tone of these books is generally accepting of Witchcraft as a New Religious Movement, and more than one author grapples with her position as both an insider and an observer to the movement. It is time for Witches and Pagans to start taking a closer look at these representations of the Craft, and what they can tell us about ourselves.
The most recent, and closest to home, is Jone Salomonsen’s book on Reclaiming, called Enchanted Feminism. Jone, now a Senior Research Fellow in Theology and Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, Norway, studied Reclaiming from 1984–1994, using her fieldwork with us for both her Masters and Doctoral degrees. She interviewed many people (including me), attended rituals and classes in San Francisco, joined a coven, went to anarchist coffeehouses and BC Witchcamp, and even went through Reclaiming initiation, all of which she writes about in her book.
Jone is not a Pagan. She looks at Reclaiming from the vantage point of a feminist Protestant theologian and anthropologist, and this vantage determines her areas of inquiry. She studies both textual representations of belief, mostly Starhawk’s writing, as well as the lived expression of those beliefs, through ritual and daily life dynamics within the community. She explores the insider/outsider dynamics in Reclaiming, and the tensions between anarchist politics and an initiatory, apparently hierarchical, tradition. She also takes a particularly critical look at the degree to which our rituals conform with, are in conflict with, or actually broaden, certain precepts of feminist analysis.
Jone seems to have brought to her research two basic questions: Is the Goddess as a primary deity, and a matrifocal spiritual pursuit, “ethically more advanced and liberating than Jewish and Christian,” God-centered, male-oriented religion; and “If an ideal in feminist theology is to include voices and perspectives from all genders and queer spirits, and represent the realities of the world in which we live more meaningfully…how may the discipline of theology be revised?” The first seems to be more of a personal query for her. The second frames the work she has set before herself professionally, and explains (for me, anyway) why she made some of her more questionable moves in the book, and why she reached the conclusions she did.
The biggest service to Reclaiming that Jone has done here is recording our history from 1979–1997. The first chapter of her book covers the creation of the Collective; the formation of the first classes and covens; the controversies within the community in those early years; the structure of the wider Reclaiming community in San Francisco; and the process by which the Collective eventually dissolved and the Wheel was formed. (In telling stories about specific people, Jone usually changes the names. )
Jone’s history is very accurate in its portrayal of Reclaiming through the 80s and early 90s, when she was actively researching here. She is less informed about events and trends from the mid-90s on, which makes her analysis of Reclaiming dynamics a bit dated.
Though she names the other Reclaiming communities that have sprung up, Jone’s focus of research was San Francisco, and so her history is also limited in geographic scope. Another caveat to Enchanted Feminism is that it is riddled with errors, both large and small. Jone misspells important names like Zsuzsanna Budapest, Raven Moonshadow, Cybele, Corythalia; she has frequent syntax errors; and she gets her facts wrong on several occasions as well. I can’t speak for other inteviewees, but I was completely misquoted in my comments during a ritual, making me wonder how much her own personal feelings of the subject at hand had colored her memory of actual events. Still, this is a tremendously helpful archive for anyone interested in early Reclaiming history.
The other great service Jone has done is to place Starhawk’s writings within the context of Reclaiming as a whole. She calls to task Ronald Hutton and many other respected authors for treating Starhawk as “a single feminist interpreter, not as the most important founder of a new social and spiritual community.” Jone also points out places where other Reclaiming Witches diverge from Starhawk’s stated theories, creating an accurate picture of the range of belief and practice within Reclaiming.
All that being said, there are a couple major flaws in the book. Her chapter on initiation begins with a completely muddled view of Reclaiming and Faery initiations. It is so confused and erroneous, I almost want to correct it point by point, but on second thought, maybe it’s best that this work is not a reliable source of information on initiation. She has also earned the ire of some of her informants by paraphrasing the initiation script from the Spiral Dance, and adding to it a detailed account of one Reclaiming initiate’s initiation experience, as well as some parts of her own.
Her justification for doing this is that all the information is available in print through other sources. This strikes me as a rather disingenuous logic, and I read through the chapter looking for ways that these disclosures might actually add to her analysis in a way that a less detailed account would not. I could not find any thread in her discussion that is dependent on such a telling, and so am forced to conclude that she wrote in such detail about initiation for all the typical academic reasons: because she could, because she had informants willing to let her, and because it represented a type of academic coup for her fieldwork. Though she genuinely seems to understand the transformation that happens through initiation, this chapter in the end strikes me as more pillaging than respectful of a community that took her in to the extent that we did.
The other major flaw in Jone’s book is historical. In her view, supported by limited research, Witchcraft was created whole cloth by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. She arrives at this conclusion by debunking Margaret Murray’s theories that Witchcraft is the remnant of an older, pre-Christian religion, citing historian Ronald Hutton and Aidan Kelly’s writings as proof that Gardner made it all up. “Thus, from an academic point of view, Gardner (with Crowley and Valiente) must be regarded as the sole inventor of modern Witchcraft, including its practices.”
This is, again, a very disingenuous approach to a complex, contested history. In the first place, neither Hutton nor Kelly are particularly reliable sources of early Craft history. Hutton has been called to task for misrepresenting the sources of his arguments against Murray, relying on secondary sources, and for making misleading or inaccurate statements based on those misrepresentations. According to Pagan scholar Don Frew1,
“In fact, the Paganism of today has quite a lot in common with the Paganism of the past, just not with the Paganism with which Hutton is apparently familiar. This reflects on Hutton’s scholarship rather than on the still-debated antiquity of contemporary Paganism.”1
Jone’s choice of Kelly as a reliable source is a much worse gaffe. Aidan Kelly, an early, influential figure in the Bay Area Craft community, came out with a book in 1991 claiming that his access to Gardner’s private papers proved that Gardner had made everything up. There was a huge uproar at the time the book came out, not only because of Kelly’s unethical conduct in many regards, but because he had doctored Gardner’s writing to support his own conclusions and made up details out of whole cloth, among other offenses.
I cannot believe that Jone would not have been aware of the controversy, as she was in the Bay Area during that time, and makes a point of noting that she had spoken to local Witches of different traditions as well: “in more traditional Wiccan groups there is often a lively debate regarding the contemporary roots of Witchcraft, and people take pride in being well read and arguing consistently.” Jone was also, in May 1999, published in The Pomegranate2, a scholarly Pagan journal which has had an ongoing debate before and since that time about Craft origins. One would expect a broader discussion in a scholarly book by an author with such close ties to her subject. I can only assume that by citing Kelly non-ironically and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, Jone has developed a myth of Craft origins that serves her overall thesis. The question is, how?
Jone’s chosen historical outlook leads to some highly conjectural, almost amusing statements throughout her book. For example, “Ritual nudity is of Gardnerian heritage.” She takes her viewpoint into realms where she has done no research at all, and states “It is, therefore, unlikely that the sources of the Faery initiation ritual were different from those available to Gardner.” She also considers herself an expert on not only Reclaiming Witchcraft, but all Craft traditions: “This is the Faery/Starhawk version of a myth that is used by all traditions of Witchcraft.”
Jone goes farther than to credit Gardner with the creation of Witchcraft, however. After eliminating the possibility of earlier Pagan origins, she makes the claim that Witchcraft is descended almost in totality from Christianity and Judaism.
“Furthermore, because of the obvious connection between Witchcraft and western esoteric traditions, correlations must also be assumed with the religious heritage Gardner insisted to have rejected: Jewish and Christian religions… the most important context in which to understand Pagan Witchcraft is a Christian context: Witchcraft is not a new religion, but a reformation.”
This theme is constantly repeated in Enchanted Feminism, and is increasingly unwieldy the more Jone tries to fit every Reclaiming practice into a Christian or Jewish religious context.
For instance, in a chapter on how we teach and practice magic, she discusses the practice of grounding at the beginning of rituals. After establishing that “It is commonly held that the contents of the Tree of Life meditation, with its imagery, breathing, chakra points and power-chant, are taken from Hatha Yoga,” she then goes on to propose that “the concept of a cosmic tree representing axis mundi is probably appropriated from the Jewish Kabbalah.” Jone then gives a description of the Kabbalistic tree of life, concluding that the “Witches turn this mystical figure upside down and insist on a first and primary association between Goddess and Earth, not between God and Heaven.”
Since she acknowledges that to appropriate the Kabbalistic model in a tree of life meditation would mean standing it on its head, why does she insist on this far-fetched explanation while discounting the obvious? I can’t think of any Reclaiming priestesses of that era who were big students of Kabbalah, but I know several, including myself, that had experience in yogic spiritual practices. Yet to accept the Eastern roots of this practice would be to cast a shadow over her conviction that Witchcraft was created from Judeo-Christian practice, and Jone cannot allow any other possible hypotheses of Pagan origins. Again, the question is, why?
After struggling with this question through much of the book, I finally came to see this attribution from her perspective as a type of compliment. Because she paints us as a reform branch of Christianity, she is able to take our feminist, Earth-centered practice and use it to influence the evolution of Protestant theology. If she had arrived at any different historical conclusion, she would not have given herself the legitimacy she needed to carry out her own reformation work. It is even possible that she had to make this kind of claim in order to have her work validated at all through the University of Oslo, though that is conjecture on my part. This does not excuse Jone’s sloppy scholarship, but it does provide a way of reconciling to the fact that there is yet another book on the market that misrepresents Pagan origins and in a broader sense doesn’t “get it” about who we are, or why we do what we do.
There are other problems with the book. For instance, the index not worth much. When wanting to refer to an earlier mention of the Principles of Unity, the index pointed me only to their full text in the Appendix, ignoring the references (which I then had to leaf through the whole book to find) on pages 61 and 297. The names of covens, people, and Reclaiming concepts are not indexed, nor are Christian theological concepts such as “deeds” and “grace.” This is disappointing, and detracts from the book’s usefulness.
The sections of the book that flowed the best strictly from a writing standpoint were the history of Reclaiming, her chapter on women’s mysteries, and on initiation. Her feminist analysis I found interesting, and easier to read than some of her theological constructs, which generally suffered from her distorted historical analysis.
Most people involved with Reclaiming don’t have much use for theology (or thealogy, for that matter), because theory is distracting and beside the point when dealing with mystical experiences of the Divine. The Reclaiming Principles of Unity specifically stay away from theology, instead focusing on the values that we have in common with each other. It seems inevitable that at some point Reclaiming will have to define its thealogy a bit more clearly, or more likely, that some Reclaiming Witches will feel moved to articulate their understanding of our thealogy. When that happens, this book will come in handy. Certainly it will be the text to which academics will compare any arguments put forward by Reclaiming Witches in the future.
Enchanted Feminism is the first attempt to place Starhawk’s work in the context of Reclaiming practice as a whole, and view it all with the tools of theology and anthropology. Jone’s hope in the end is that it will spur more research into men’s experiences in Reclaiming (as she focused more on women’s). My hope is that it will intrigue members of many Reclaiming communities to cultivate the observer role—one of the useful skills that academia has to offer—and document our history from the inside, rather than from without.
1 Frew, Donald H. “Methodological Flaws in Recent Studies of Historical and Modern Witchcraft,” Ethnologies 20:1, 1998. Pg.42-44, 54-59.
Published by Routledge. Reviewed by Anne Hill. Anne Hill is a longtime Reclaiming priestess and a doctoral candidate at the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California.
Enchanted Feminism and Courageous Scholarship
a book review by 3-D Circle
“Witches” were still devil-worshippers in the public mind, and “Pagans” merely ignorant and superstitious primitives, when Jone Salomonsen, then a Norwegian graduate student in theology, first arrived in San Francisco in 1984 and chose from among dozens of young communities, traditions, and organizations, to study Reclaiming.
This was when a gathering of 50 hardy people on the beach counted as a large public ritual, and attendance at the Spiral Dance was around 350.
Mainstream academics in this country and in Norway told Salomonsen that Goddess worship was an insignificant New Age phenomenon, that Witchcraft was not a religion, and that her work would not be taken seriously. With a mixture of chutzpah and stubbornness, Salomonsen eventually faced down the skeptics, obtained a series of grants, made many trips to California over the course of the next decade, ultimately was awarded a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Oslo, and in 2002 published Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender and Divinity Among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco.
Since the book’s first appearance we, some of the subjects of the book, have had time to reflect on Salomonsen’s work and its value, and on our own experience of being studied at close hand by someone from another culture.
Salomonsen places her study of Reclaiming in the early 1980s in the context of a dominant discourse in her academic field, i.e. the analysis of Judaeo-Christian culture and belief systems, and raises such intriguing issues as the possible connections between the theology of feminist Witchcraft, to the extent it was discernible in the 1980s, and the Kabbalah. She also covers questions which may be of more interest to Pagan-centric minds, such as the familiar one of whether there is convincing evidence of a continuous historical lineage between Witches in Old Europe and modern American feminist Witches, and reaches agreement with the prevailing international consensus among scholars that there is not.
Our focus, however, is not on such theoretical questions but rather on Salomonsen’s methodology of living among us and practicing our religion with us, while observing and analyzing us at the same time.
After all, who better to evaluate Salomonsen’s innovative approach than us, a few of her actual subjects? How different our understanding of other cultures would be if the subjects of all ethnographic studies of people around the world had this kind of opportunity.
Method of Compassion
First we have to say, knowing this book is on the reading list in various university courses in anthropology, women’s studies, and theology, it feels amazing to think that we could all appear in some perspiring student’s blue book exam next June! More important, though, the innovative methods Salomonsen developed in the field make her book a lot more significant to her field, and to future Witches, scholars, or others curious about early Reclaiming, than our vanity is.
Some academics may continue to categorize Salomonsen’s approach to studying our community as the “participant observer” method often used in ethnographic studies. But the author herself has coined the phrase “method of compassion” for her approach. The difference is that the traditional participant observer joins in some aspects of the life of the studied community with an open mind, in order to have as little effect as possible on the subjects and to be able to describe their activities accurately. The “compassionate” scholar on the other hand, participates in the subjects’ rituals, daily activities, and personal lives with an open mind, heart, and soul. This method, which not everyone can honestly achieve, results in an ability to understand the subtleties, complexities, and contradictions in the subject which cannot be achieved by a more intellectually detached method. Harder, but better.
In the field of theology, believers’ analyses and explications of their own religious practices and beliefs are par for the course; indeed, they are considered essential to informed discourse. But Salomonsen’s choice to blend analytical approaches from theology with the use of ethnology, normally a tool of anthropologists, in order to understand Reclaiming in San Francisco in the 1980s, was original, daring, and yet refreshingly appropriate for her goal: to study this emerging religion as it was being practiced and developed in a shifting and vibrant community of living people.
Still, it’s hard to hit a moving target. So Salomonsen made extensive and ongoing use of her informants as critics of her work, both while it progressed and in the months before publication of Enchanted Feminism, repeatedly inviting feedback and input from her subjects. Thus, at several junctures during and after her various trips into “the field,” i.e., our community, she offered drafts of her descriptions, analyses, and conclusions to her primary informants as her written work evolved. So drafts of individual chapters or of the whole book were reviewed and criticized not only by academics (theologians and anthropologists) at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Oslo, and San Francisco State Unversity, but also by Reclaiming community members.
That is not to say that Salomonsen yielded her own perspective to her subjects. For example, when informants were invited to preview some of the chapters of Enchanted Feminism, one person voiced objection to the description of what she considered to be “secret” aspects of Reclaiming-style initiation. Salomonsen respected the tradition of secrecy around the subject of initiation by not using her own or any other informant’s actual initiation as a source for any of the “secret” material in the book. But she kept this material in, on the grounds that she had taken it only from information already previously published by others, primarily Starhawk, and that omitting these aspects from the section on initiation would be a serious weakness in the text.
This dilemma illustrates the tension created by the method of compassion, the kind of challenge that arises for the conscientious scholar who chooses it, and the fact that resolutions can be found that satisfy both ethical and scholarly standards.
It is very rare for ethnographers to engage in so much consultation with the community they write about, and at least three benefits are discernible. First, the ongoing consultation and feedback process resulted in more valid data.
Also, since Salomonsen could be, and sometimes was, challenged at any point by her informants who had access to her work, the dialogue served to hone her own thoughts and opinions and strengthen her perspective. Perhaps most importantly, the transparency of her approach meant that we in the Reclaiming community, as well as academics outside our community whom the author also consulted, were able to observe Salomonsen’s ethical standards throughout her research. This fostered trust and, again, more and better data.
An old joke says that any 12 witches will express at least 13 different opinions on a given subject, and we are sure that others of Salomonsen’s subjects would report differently on their experiences of being studied, and on the written product of that study. We do not speak for anyone but ourselves.
Besides, different people will always choose different points to focus on and analyze, and there will always be differences of interpretation as well as points of convergence among an ethnographer and the people she studies. There will also always be omissions, and representations that some will feel miss the point. We have heard one Reclaiming Witch say that she thinks Salomonsen over-emphasized the connections between early Reclaiming and the Anarchist community. Anne Hill, who reviewed the book in RQ#88 (Autumn 2002), believes that she was misquoted in the book. Some of us had a similar feeling seeing our own remarks in print, but actually, all direct quotations in the book were taken verbatim from taped interviews. Still, it is possible that in summarizing or referring to something that a subject said, the author may have unintentionally misrepresented the person’s meaning.
But what makes any ethnography useful is not that it provides an exact presentation of the Objective and Real relations that are studied. Rather, it should be an engaged account of the interaction among people that sheds some insight on the topic at hand — in Salomonsen’s case, the early years of the Reclaiming community and the fast-changing, living religion which was its heart — and this, the book accomplishes.
Enchanted Feminism is a courageous work that provides our community with one of many possible mirrors. Our continuing discussions about this reflection will enrich our own and others’ understanding of our religion, our dynamic community, and ourselves. Blessed be the scholars!
3-D Circle members, since 1984, are: Janie, Joy, Kim, Laurie, Moher, Vibra, and Jone Salomonsen. Jone did not participate in the writing of this review. As it happens, our Circle includes two people (Moher and Kim) with advanced degrees (M.S. & Ph.D.) in anthropology who are especially aware of the challenges of ethnography, as well as someone (Vibra) who has been a Reclaiming priestess and teacher for over 15 years, holds a CoG clergy credential as an Elder in the Reclaiming Tradition, and was a member of the Reclaiming Collective during the period covered by Enchanted Feminism and until its dissolution in the mid 1990s. All of us are longtime participants and volunteers in Reclaiming public rituals.
How Does Reclaiming Work?!
...and how do I get things done?
Part of what spurred this 2002 theme section is a sense that as Reclaiming grows and evolves, the functioning of the community is becoming a mystery. Diverse structures are developing in different regions, and what works in one place might be found lacking in another.
Our plan was to send a short list of questions to eight or ten Reclaiming teachers and organizers around North America and Europe and ask them to share their thoughts on how Reclaiming works.
As responses came in, it was clear we’d have enough material for more than one article. So our next thought was — let’s kick off this issue with some of the basic questions about who Reclaiming is. In future installments, we’ll tackle some of the thornier organizing issues. Answering this issue:
Liz Rudwick, UK
Maggie nicAllis, NJ
Rose May Dance, CA
Irish Flambeau, TN
What does Reclaiming “community” mean? Reclaiming “tradition”?
Community means shared history and meeting places for groups of people. Community does not necessarily mean living together. Community in Reclaiming means shared values and beliefs. — Liz
The Reclaiming community has grown very large since the early days. But the meaning is pretty much the same — Reclaiming community is composed of those who teach and attend classes, create and attend rituals, read the Quarterly and websites, and choose to affiliate themselves with the community. I also include in community the spouses, partners, children, housemates of community members. — Rose
For me, Reclaiming community is when people come together with the intention of being their Authentic Selves in relation to other people being their Authentic Selves. Reclaiming community is a place that at the very minimum has a focus on power-with and power-within. I think that is an anarchist idea. Reclaiming community is about being with other human beings in real Terra space. — Irish
This phrase “Reclaiming community” reflects the macrocosm of Reclaiming. That is the whole group of folks around the globe. However, this phrase also is used to speak to the microcosms that make up the macrocosm. For me personally when I am speaking about a local Reclaiming community I try to be clear by stating which one I mean — Bay Area, MidAtlantic, BC, etc. “Tradition” in this case reflects on the spiritual. I often explain to my friends that just as Christianity has various traditions so does Witchcraft. Hence Reclaiming tradition. — Urania
Once upon a time, Reclaiming Community meant those in the Bay Area. Once Witchcamps were established, Reclaiming communities popped up around each of the camps. However, there are still those out in the diaspora who have (or want) a connection to Reclaiming, but do not attend or live near a Witchcamp geographical location. — BrightFlame
Reclaiming is an eclectic tradition, calling on a very large pantheon. Its circles are participatory, usually without a high priestess or priest. The wand passes around the circle quite a bit. In many rituals, spontaneous invocations and prayers are the norm. Some liturgy has been developed for high holidays but is not always used, and more is forever being created. Empowerment is a byword of Reclaiming tradition. Some folks call us the evangelicals of the Goddess Religion, because there is much room for ecstatic and cathartic experience in our circles. We try to bring movement and emotions into our rituals. — Rose
For me, the Reclaiming tradition is based on the idea of immanence, and the thing that makes Reclaiming different from other Pagan traditions is the focus on activism. If you believe that the Goddess and God are immanent, that the Earth is alive, it follows that you want to take action... politically, in social justice areas, ecology and the like. Reclaiming community and tradition are Witchcraft-based... based on magic and ritual. But it goes further, into the activism arena. I like the analogy of Reclaiming being a cauldron with three legs — magical work, inner work, and outer work. The task of getting the three legs working together makes it interesting for me. I think that the idea of Reclaiming hinges on the commitment to challenge systems of oppression. — Irish
How do people get involved in Reclaiming?
One can get involved by coming to any of the gatherings, meetings, workshops, classes, Witchcamps, direct action and magical activist gatherings, joining the discussion lists, or subscribing to local newsletters or Reclaiming Quarterly. In the UK we advertise in the British Pagan press and Pagan federation events. — Liz
As far as the work cells, a “new” person joins, usually, by stepping up to an “old” person and saying, “How can I help?” In SpiralHeart, a good way for a new person to join is to make a suggestion that “the organizers” or “the teachers” do something specific. If the group sees that idea as a good one, the new person may be invited to implement the suggestion. Next thing you know, we have an active and valuable new organizer or resource teacher on the team. — Maggie
I think the main way people find out about it is through Starhawk’s books. I found out about it when someone handed me a copy of The Fifth Sacred Thing. Other points of access are attending a class, attending a ritual, attending a rally or demonstration with Reclaiming folks. And going to Witchcamp. — Irish
Public rituals are often the first taste one may get of Reclaiming live and in person. After that, classes seem to me to be the entry way into the community. Although it may also work in the reverse. Classes give you a chance to meet teachers, and after Elements you have the opportunity to meet others who may already be involved with various Reclaiming projects and activities. — Urania
How do I get classes and rituals in my area? Can anyone start a Reclaiming group?
Anyone who subscribes to the Principles of Unity (visit the website, ) may start a Reclaiming group and do rituals, as Reclaiming is not a lineage tradition and does not require initiation. Some very active groups have been started by people who had read books by Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and others. A good way to start weaving the web of a Reclaiming community is to [invite a Reclaiming teacher to] teach the Elements of Magic class and invite students to consider how they would like to continue to grow and work together thereafter. — Maggie
Yes! At the British Reclaiming Meeting and our Yahoo group we have available the Principles so people can align themselves with Reclaiming if they so wish. As far as organizing rituals, just do it! In UK we have a Yahoo group (British Reclaiming Discussion List) and the British Reclaiming Newsletter to share information and network. There is also word of mouth! — Liz
I am interested in supporting those who are out in the wider Reclaiming diaspora. I am also interested in exploring ways of giving folks in the wider diaspora more of a voice/presence in Reclaiming. That’s why I helped to form the Reclaiming Community Resource Collaborative (RCRC, pronounced “Resource”), so that more communities might have access to Reclaiming, and communities might form outside of the general geographic areas of Witchcamps. You can look on the RCRC website ( and find someone who can come to your area to offer a Reclaiming class. Having like-minded folks do some work together within the Reclaiming trad is a wonderful way to spark a community. — BrightFlame