Everyone should read this book. Especially Canadians. Especially Pagans. Whether or not you care about Indigenous people in Canada. If you do care, you need the information in this book. If you don’t care, you need the myth-busting provided in this book. (If you don’t care, what’s wrong with you?)
Thista Minai (2017), Casting a Queer Circle: Non-Binary Witchcraft. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press.
Aimed at everyone who finds that binary and heterocentric approaches to witchcraft do not fit actual lived reality, this book is an outstanding guide to crafting an inclusive, non-binary approach to ritual. It contains a complete system of magic, ritual, symbolism, festivals, and ritual roles, all designed to be inclusive, safe, creative, and genuinely transformative.
I went to see Wonder Woman at the weekend. I had been warned that there were issues around diversity and representation, but not enough to necessitate a boycott. (I did boycott Suffragette for airbrushing out Sophia Duleep Singh and other Black, Asian, and minority ethnic suffragettes.) However, Wonder Woman is fictional, so perhaps less problematic than attempts to airbrush PoC out of actual history. I generally prefer Marvel superhero films to DC ones, but I had been told that Wonder Woman was going to be great, so I went with an open mind. I also refrained from reading anything involving spoilers beforehand. I enjoyed the film, but agree with the critique by Valerie Complex and Robert Jones Jr that it could do better in terms of representation of queer characters and people of colour.
Spoilers (for Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy 2) below the cut – you have been warned.
February is LGBT History Month in the UK, and there are events exploring queer history up and down the country. Oxford Brookes University has an excellent programme of events, and the other day I went to the first event of LGBTHM 2017, the launch of an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s photographs, which included a film about Claude Cahun by Lizzie Thynne.
I found myself nodding and smiling in agreement throughout most of this book. The author’s sensible and down-to-earth approach to magic and Paganism was very much in tune with my way of thinking. They  also have an exceptionally clear style of writing, which makes the book a pleasure to read.
The book’s subtitle is “A spirituality that embraces all identities” and the author has done their best to include everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community and heterosexuals too. This book would definitely be of interest to queer Pagans and open-minded heterosexuals. It is not only about queer Paganism, but is about inclusive practice. It is very Wicca-flavoured though, so if Wicca isn’t your thing, you might not like it.
Exploring Queer Paganism
The first chapter explores the meanings of Queer and Paganism. It explains that Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft are distinct but overlapping. The second chapter looks at how the standard binary thinking of many Pagans (male/female, light/dark, etc) doesn’t include those of us who don’t fit neatly into a cisgender and heterosexual view of the world. Each section of the discussion unfolds clearly and neatly from the previous section of the discussion. This could be very helpful for those people who still haven’t understood why many (perhaps most) queer people have an issue with the deification of the “masculine and feminine principles”. The next chapter goes on to explore concepts of deity and energy, and how these fit together in a worldview that is not based on the idea of a “masculine principle” interacting with a “feminine principle”.
The second part of the book deals with Magic, and includes an excellent chapter on how magic works (again, very similar to my own ideas on the topic). It also looks at how magic and science interact. The section on the Hermetic principles as described in The Kybalion, which explains how they relate to a queer worldview, is outstanding. This is followed by a chapter on ethics, which was excellent on the topic of magical ethics, but would have been better if it explored the Pagan ethics of life in general.
Living as a Pagan
The third section of the book deals with Pagan life, including living as a Pagan, the importance of balance, how to choose a magical name, and relationships with deities. The chapter on the festivals was disappointing, as it was mainly about the view of the Sabbats as the unfolding story of “the Goddess and the God” which I personally find unhelpful from a queer point of view. It does cover the folk customs associated with the festivals though, so you could build out from these to develop something more inclusive. It explains how to adapt the festivals for use in the Southern Hemisphere, which is good. It also mentions that you can choose to celebrate them on the day when the appropriate seasonal vegetation comes into flower, which I liked. I would have liked to see more information on how to adapt the festivals to be more inclusive of other sexualities (but I have covered this in my book, if you’re interested). The chapter on the esbats and the phases of the Moon was helpful, though.
Meditation and Visualisation
The fourth part of the book covers meditation and visualisation. This includes a technique which the author says is helpful for easing body dysphoria. I have seen this meditation before (and it’s the only technique that I find actually helps me to relax) but I didn’t know it was good for dysphoria, so that’s really useful to know. The section on building an astral temple is also excellent, as it points out that an astral temple doesn’t have to be a building, and can be a grove of trees. I had always assumed that it was supposed to be a building of some kind, and had terrible difficulty building one. I do however, have a grove of trees on the astral, and a rather nice stone circle, either of which could be my astral temple. So that section cleared up a longstanding difficulty for me! The chapter on the chakras is very good (and uses the proper Sanskrit names) but draws on the Western idea of the chakras, which is somewhat different from the Buddhist view of them.
The next section explores magical correspondences, including deities, non-binary deities, queer deities, moon phases and the menstrual cycle (but described in an inclusive  way), orgasm mysteries, the four elements, days of the week, colours, and magical tools. This provides the basis of a system of magic that is properly queer-inclusive. I particularly liked the section on colour symbolism. This section also explains the difference between widdershins and deosil, and why they are different in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.
The section on ritual was very helpful, as it goes through how to set up the circle, cleansing the space, calling the quarters, and consecrating the tools and the participants. One caveat on this section though: the author mentions that the high priestess and high priest have absolute authority in the circle (p. 128). I wouldn’t go that far, as they do not have the right to ask you to do something that the vast majority of people would be uncomfortable with, such as French kissing, sex with other people in the circle, or anything massively humiliating. Some of the things that ritual involves may be slightly outside your comfort zone, but that’s why it is a really good idea to have a quick chat beforehand about what is going to happen in the ritual. Other than that, this section is really great and has lots of excellent ideas like having three ritual leaders, one for the God, one for the Goddess, and one for non-binary deity (the Universal, as the author refers to it).
The final section of the book deals with divination, including gematria (finding the magical number of your name), Tarot, runes, scrying, and palmistry. This section was also very good, especially the section on the magical meaning of numbers.
An excellent addition to your Queer Pagan bookshelf
All in all, a very enjoyable read. The book is well-thought-out, and it is very easy to find things again when you want to use it as a how-to guide for magical practice. There were a few typographical errors here and there, but they didn’t detract from my enjoyment or understanding of the book, and they were more than made up for by the exceptionally clear writing style. The author’s lovely drawings also grace the text, and help to explain the magical concepts being discussed.
The book is an excellent contribution to the literature on inclusive and queer Paganism and witchcraft, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in making their practice more inclusive and welcoming to LGBTQIA+ Pagans.
Where to get the book:
- Amazon.co.uk – Kindle edition, full-colour paperback, or black-and-white paperback.
- Amazon.com – Kindle edition, full-colour paperback, black-and-white paperback.
- Thrift Books – full-colour paperback, black-and white paperback.
- The author’s preferred pronoun is they [Back]
- The male brain also has cycles governed by the hypothalamus [Back]
I was not sent this book for review. I bought it myself and reviewed it of my own free will and accord. Please do not send me books for review, as I generally dislike writing book reviews, and only reviewed this book because I thought it was important and worth drawing attention to.
The title of the newest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London comes from the Beatles song, Revolution. The exhibition tells the story of social change in the sixties through music, fashion, posters, propaganda, a very grainy video of the Moon landings, a piece of Moon rock, and much more. It includes album covers, clothes, furniture, a Wiccan sword, a goat head mask made by Arnold Crowther, The Lord of the Rings memorabilia, music, design, and architecture. They even have Woody Guthrie’s diary, open at the page where he wrote that he had painted ‘This machine kills fascists’ on his guitar.
The exhibition is on until 26 February 2017. As you enter, you are given a headset with sixties music on it, which adds a musical accompaniment to the different areas of the exhibition.
What struck me about the exhibition, and about the decade as a whole, was just how contemporary it all is, and what a radical transformation it represented. The sixties was a time of resisting authority, protest against the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, gay and lesbian rights, the Black Panthers, and an end to deference. One of the exhibits was the ten-point list of demands from the Black Panthers, which were entirely reasonable, as they included the right of Black communities to police themselves, to get the reparations they were promised after slavery ended, to have decent housing, and to get jobs.
The exhibition also showed the attempts of authoritarianism to push back against all this revolutionary change: the imprisonment of Angela Davis, the murder of Che Guevara, the suppression of the May 1968 uprising in Paris by the CRS (a special unit of the police with a reputation for brutality).
Perhaps we no longer appreciate just how radical a shift the sixties represented. I remember Doreen Valiente’s speech at the Pagan Federation conference in 1997, when she recalled how repressive the 1950s were:
People today have no conception of how uptight and repressive society was back in the 1950s when Old Gerald first opened up the subject of witchcraft as a surviving old religion. You could not go into a shop then and buy a pack of Tarot cards or a book on the occult without getting curious looks and usually a denial that they stocked any such things. There were no paperback books on the occult, except such things as Old Moore’s Almanac and very popular stuff such as how to read tea leaves. Serious books on the subject were only obtainable second hand at very high prices. The mentality of the period was perfectly illustrated by the by the famous enquiry made by a distinguished lawyer in the course of the trial about the publication of DH Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when he quite seriously asked the jury, “Would you allow your servants to read this book?” There was a built in assumption that ordinary people were not entitled to read what they liked, or to think what they liked, and still less to do what they liked.
Before the 1960s, universities had rules in place where students were not allowed to have a member of the other sex in their rooms, and there was a curfew in place. In 1966, a woman could be refused a bank account if she didn’t have her husband’s permission to open one. Younger people were expected to defer to their ‘elders and betters’.
The sixties changed all that. We thought they had changed it forever, but perhaps each generation has to claim its rights anew. This exhibition is a timely reminder of the freedoms that the sixties revolution won for us, and how they were won through struggle and resistance, not through ‘natural progression’ from the old order. The young were the future, and the revolution had taken place in the minds of the young. Everything was in flux, and subject to change. You can see the excitement and optimism about the future in sixties design and writings.
The sixties was the decade that the Pagan revival really took off. This was reflected in the exhibition in a variety of ways – the Wiccan sword and goat mask, and the general atmosphere of a return to Nature, festival culture, the beginnings of rave culture, and a new-found reverence for the Goddess and for women.
There was a widespread fascination with the occult in the sixties too, and this was emphasised by the displays being interspersed with Tarot cards from the Hexen 2.0 Tarot by Suzanne Treister, which explores ideas ranging from computers, surveillance, the Whole Earth Catalog, Thoreau’s Walden, cybersecurity, ArpaNet, and cryptography:
HEXEN 2.0 looks into histories of scientific research behind government programmes of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. HEXEN 2.0 charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of diverse scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0 and increased intelligence gathering, and the implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society. … The project simultaneously looks at diverse philosophical, literary and political responses to advances in technology including the claims of Anarcho-Primitivism and Post Leftism, Theodore Kaczynski/The Unabomber, Technogaianism and Transhumanism, and traces precursory ideas such as those of Thoreau, Warren, Heidegger and Adorno in relation to visions of utopic and dystopic futures from science-fiction literature and film. … HEXEN 2.0 offers a space where one may use the works as a tool to envision possible alternative futures.
Somewhere along the way, the general optimism of the sixties turned into the ‘business as usual’ of the seventies. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry still stalked the streets. Much of sixties utopianism was blown away in a puff of marijuana smoke, or so it seemed. We realised that the dark side of the sexual revolution was the notion that women must be sexually available at all times. The counterculture still existed, but it hadn’t completely transformed the over-culture. The seventies were a decade of nostalgia, labour unrest, terrible fashion, and a realisation of the dark side of sixties counterculture. The eighties came in with Thatcherism, and the grim battles between striking miners and the repressive police state. In the USA there was Reagan and Reaganomics, Star Wars, and more neoliberal austerity. The UK Labour Party lost its way and succumbed to free-market economics and the doctrine that public spending is bad.
The You say you want a revolution? exhibition offers an immersive trip into the sixties, both counterculture and mainstream, and asks what we gained and what we lost. It’s like a happening, a sixties event where people would be immersed in mind-blowing imagery and music and ideas. Given the current pushing back of the civil rights of minorities under the paltry excuse of anti-terrorism, this is a very timely retrospective.
The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to the violent deaths of three unarmed Black men: teenager Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Suddenly, it seemed, the media silence around such deaths at the hands of police or other authorities had broken. The names of unarmed Black adults, teens, and children assaulted or killed by police came blazing across our news feeds, seemingly a new name every week.
For many of us in the Pagan movement who do justice work, it felt like scales had fallen from our eyes. We may have been aware that our society is racist, that Black people are still suffering from the aftermath of American slavery. But we were living under the illusion that since the gains of the Civil Rights era, we were still slowly moving toward true equality.
The well-publicized deaths in 2013 and 2014 showed how wrong we were. In the US, unarmed Black children and adults can be killed by police (or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman) with no repercussions—and such assaults happen frequently. This is not a society moving toward equality for Black people. Rather, it’s a society whose systemic racism has simply become more subtle and well-disguised. “Black Lives Matter” is a powerful slogan because in so many arenas, our society still treats Black lives as though they do NOT matter.
The anthology Why Black Lives Matter (Too) emerged from Voices for Equality, a Facebook group established by Mary Canty Merrill in August 2015. Merrill describes the group as “a dialogue-into-action community against social injustice and inequality.” After Voices for Equality agreed that the proceeds of the book should support challenging the effects of racism in the justice system, they chose The Sentencing Project as the beneficiary. To quote from its website:
Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
Our work includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform. As a result of The Sentencing Project’s research, publications, and advocacy, many people know that this country is the world’s leader in incarceration; that racial disparities pervade the criminal justice system; that nearly six million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions; and that thousands of women and children have lost food stamps and cash assistance as the result of convictions for drug offenses.
The opportunity to support The Sentencing Project is, by itself, a good reason to pick up a copy of the anthology. However, the anthology has a broader mission than either The Sentencing Project or the Black Lives Matter movement as it was originally conceived. Black Lives Matter (Too) critiques racial injustice in the United States in a huge variety of contexts, and it does so with equal servings of research and personal narrative.
As a writer and editor, I can tell you that anthologies are never of completely consistent quality. Some pieces will always be stronger than others, and this is true of Black Lives Matter (Too). A good anthology, however, should have “something for everyone”—a variety of pieces so that almost any reader should be able to find something to connect with—and the anthology does fulfill that mission.
For example, there are a number of strong pieces from white activists who tell personal stories of discovering and confronting both their own racism and our society’s. Patheos Pagan’s own Cat Chapin-Bishop, for example, has an engaging essay that does this admirably. I also particularly recommend the piece by Rebecca Wiggins, which lays out the issue of systemic racism briefly and clearly and then provides a list of concrete strategies for response. Either would make an excellent introductory essay for a person or group just beginning to learn about racial injustice. Frustratingly, however, the anthology is organized alphabetically by author’s last name, not topically or by placing complementary essays in groups. This arrangement results in the middle of the book being dominated by essays by white activists, most of whom seem to be responding to the same writing prompt, “Why Black Lives Matter to Me.”
If the reader presses on through the repetition, however, some of the strongest essays are buried near the back. I was particularly struck by Rhonda Lee Richoux’s piece, which addresses how one can be a person of color (in her case, Filipino) and still be thoroughly indoctrinated in racism. This essay is immediately followed by my favorite in the collection, a piece from Native activist Bee Schrull that celebrates the accomplishments of Black scientists, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs while mourning the creative Black lives that have been lost to injustice. Some of the strongest Black writers are also included near the back of the volume: a piece by Muthu (Jordan) Weerasinghe protesting the inattention that Black Lives Matter has given to Black women and gender-nonconforming Black people, and an essay by Anthony M. Wiley about being Black and in a position of authority in the military.
These and many of the other pieces in the book would make excellent reading for a discussion group that wants to educate itself about systemic racism. I am disappointed, however, to say that I cannot recommend assigning the book as a whole to a “newbie” group. Sadly, Black Lives Matter (Too) suffers from poor editing. In addition to the ineffective system of organizing the essays, the anthology is riddled with grammatical errors that can interfere with comprehension. In some essays, sentences were so vague, unclear, or just plain muddled that they left me scratching my head. (Take, for example, this uncited statistic from p. 11 of the introduction: “A 2015 Huffington Post survey shows that three out of four white Americans believe that racism is a ‘somewhat serious’ national problem, compared to nine out of ten Blacks—that’s 68 percent of Black respondents, compared to 31 percent of whites.”) Other problems were content-based; one essay, in apparent innocence of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda, uses the stereotypical image of the “crafty” Jew to criticize a former business partner.
The weak editing is particularly problematic in the first twenty-five pages of the book, which are the key parts for connecting with and drawing in an audience. Unfortunately, it is not clear who the intended audience is. Mary Canty Merrill, who drew the material together and wrote the introduction and conclusion, seems to address a sympathetic white audience on the back of the book, where she asks readers to “confront your own white privilege and fragility as you examine racial justice and equality in a revolutionary way.” The book’s prologue by Mirthell Bazemore, however, is written for a Black audience, whom Bazemore chastises for language and dress that she doesn’t see as liberatory (xx).
This prologue is followed by Merrill’s long framing introduction, which gives historical and sociological background for systemic racism. Some parts of this introduction are excellent, giving talking points and facts about topics such as internalized racism, discrimination in health care and employment, and inequality in the justice system. Merrill, whose PhD is in a psychological field and who works as an organizational psychologist, is particularly strong on the topic of mental health, and she provides careful, clear definitions of jargon such as “privilege” and “microaggressions.” Her conclusion for the book is also effective, outlining concrete strategies for readers to address racial injustice. Yet other sections of the introduction—particularly the opening pages—are much less focused, with abrupt changes in tone, facts stated without citation, and ad hominem attacks on other researchers.
These problems are especially frustrating because they distract from what is essentially a strong argument. Why Black Lives Matter (Too) could have easily been crafted into an effective introductory text for white readers who are curious about but perhaps still skeptical of the racial justice movement, and based on the back cover blurb, this seems to have been Merrill’s intent. Because the writing is not properly organized and edited for this audience, however, it preaches best to the already-converted.
Despite these issues, I can still recommend this book for educators and activists who are working with people who know little about or do not yet support the movement. Merrill’s introduction provides all the material an educator needs to give an effective introductory lecture. Educators can then pick and choose readings from the collection of essays for a combination that will draw in and then effectively challenge their chosen audience. Merrill’s conclusion, which outlines concrete strategies for activism, can be assigned whole cloth to guide future action. With this strategy, Why Black Lives Matter (Too) should be a powerful resource for anti-racism educators.
So, you want to share your Pagan world-view and values with your kids, without indoctrinating them into it? What better way than to give them the kind of books you loved as a kid, which may have influenced your own path to recognising that you are a Pagan?
Most Pagans believe that you cannot be converted to Paganism, in any case: it wells up from within as a response to the beauty of Nature: “the green Earth and the white Moon among the stars”.
Here are some books that I love and would recommend.
Illustrated books for younger children
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I love this book so much that I bought the French edition as well (it was originally written in French). It’s a poignant story of how an aviator who has crashed in the desert meets a traveller from another planet – the little prince who lives on the asteroid B612. The little prince tells of his travels from one asteroid to another. The story is quirky and charming, but also sad and wistful. It tells of how being a grown-up drains the enchantment from the world, whereas a child knows about seeing the magic and mystery in the world.
The Whales’ Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe
This is a lovely book with beautiful illustrations and the evocative story of Lily, a small girl who lives with her grandmother. Her grandmother tells her stories about the whales, and how beautiful they are.
It is presumably meant to be read aloud to small children, but it is enjoyable for all ages.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
An absolute classic ever since it was published, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the story of a gull who is not like other gulls. He lives to fly rather than to eat. Eventually he is shunned by the other gulls, until some come to learn from him. This is a story of individuality and courage, beautifully illustrated with pictures of gulls in flight.
People who make their own rules when they know they’re right…people who get a special pleasure out of doing something well (even if only for themselves)…people who know there’s more to this whole living thing than meets the eye: they’ll be with Jonathan Seagull all the way. Others may simply escape into a delightful adventure about freedom and flight.
Longer books for older children
The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin
This is a wonderful series of books on how to use magic responsibly, with unforgettable characters, beautiful seascapes, and an excellent style of writing. The author is a Taoist, and the philosophy of Taoism is evident in the unfolding of the story (but never in a heavy-handed way).
Ged, a mage from a remote island, goes to wizard school on Roke, but one day when he is showing off his powers to the other students, he brings a terrible thing into the world: a gebbeth. He must go on a quest to track it down. On his journey, he has wonderful adventures and meets a dragon and an unhappy priestess.
This is the book that I always credit with making me realise that I am a Pagan. Puck, an ancient earth spirit who lives under Pook’s Hill, is accidentally summoned by Dan and Una when they perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer Eve. He introduces the children to a stream of historical characters and incidents. One of my favourites is the story of Parnesius and Pertniax, two Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall who makes friends with a Pict. The adventures of Sir Richard Dalyngridge with the Vikings are very exciting, too.
This is the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and has even more Pagan stuff in it. The story of the Marklake witches, and The Knife and the Naked Chalk, are outstanding. There is also a wonderful poem, The Way through the Woods, which is very evocative of lost things, and wistful. The book doesn’t have quite such a coherent theme as its prequel, but that may actually be a good thing.
Witch Child by Celia Rees
“compelling and convincing.Rees has become a major writer for teenage readers.” Independent
“every now and then one reads a book which stirs up the deepest of feelings and continues to cause ripples and this book is just such a one” School Librarian Journal
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
This novel has also been made into a film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
This is a story of an orphaned girl who discovers the beauty of the Yorkshire Moors, the value of friendship, and the magic of gardening. The main characters – Mary, the protagonist, Dickon the child of Nature, and Colin the intellectual are unforgettable; and the minor characters such as Ben the gruff gardener and Dickon’s mother, are beautifully drawn too. This has also been made into a film.
The Moomin series by Tove Jansson
Moominvalley is located on the edge of the Gulf of Finland, and the creatures that live there include Moomins, Hemulens, Fillyjonks and their friends. They have a series of adventures; the stories mostly focus on Moomintroll and his friendship with Snufkin, who is a wanderer who doesn’t like to have too many possessions, and is almost Zen Buddhist in his thinking. The whole series has a wistful and charming tone, a keen observation of Nature, and the books are beautifully illustrated.
This is a collection of folktales from all around the world, rewritten for children. One of my favourites is an Italian story about how the birds got their colours, but all the stories are well-written and enjoyable.
‘Authors need folk-tales,’ Richard Adams says, ‘in the same way as composers need folk-song. They’re the headspring of the narrator’s art, where the story stands forth at its simple, irreducible best. They don’t date, any more than dreams, for they are the collective dreams of humanity.’
The gripping story of the journey of five rabbits who escape the destruction of their home warren after Fiver (a shaman-rabbit) has a vision of its impending doom. The friendship of the rabbits, the visionary experiences of Fiver, and the legends of El-Ahrairah, the trickster rabbit hero (who bears more than a passing resemblance to human trickster gods), make this a magical and unforgettable story.
The story opens with a group of people holding a curiously pagan folk ritual in a church. One of them, William Buckley, has learnt to read, which is regarded as a subversive crime; and he is transported to Australia for blasphemy, where he escapes from the penal colony and goes to live with Aborigines. This is a very evocative look at the similarities and differences between English folk mythology and Australian Aborigine mythology, and the differences between folk religion and revealed religion. The English section of the story is based fairly closely on the facts.
[Please note: spoilers ahead, especially for the prequel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.]
When I bought my copy of City of Refuge, I was trying to have low expectations. I can only imagine that writing a sequel to a well-received, bestselling book like The Fifth Sacred Thing more than twenty years after its initial publication must have been an intimidating task. Would the sequel remain true to the characters we loved the first time around? Would the story still resonate despite changes in our political climate? Would the book simply come off as too idealistic for me—now twenty years older myself—to take it seriously?
Well, I lost a lot of sleep the week I read it. I didn’t stay up all night, because I am the parent of a toddler and I value my sanity; but I stayed up till the wee hours four nights in a row because I was desperate to learn what happened next. Dare I say it? I could barely put it down.
Now, I’ll admit that neither City of Refuge nor The Fifth Sacred Thing is going to win prizes as literary fiction. The Fifth Sacred Thing suffers from the didactic, “teachy/preachy” quality that’s typical of utopian/dystopia sci-fi. The book’s setting is drawn in broad strokes: the United States government has collapsed and its remnants are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist, militaristic Christian sect. The land once known as California is in severe drought, and water is a scarce resource. But within the border of the former San Francisco, witches and other community-oriented, earth-loving people have formed a lovely but fragile consensus-based society that is harmoniously integrated into the local ecosystem.
Starhawk uses the metaphor of homeopathy to suggest that a tiny, representative fragment of a just society, when inserted into an unhealthy society at the right place and time, can have a healing effect that ripples out from the point of contact. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, this principle describes how the peaceful people of former San Francisco survive an army invasion and, after terrible and bloody loss of life through nonviolence resistance, convert the ill-treated soldiers to their side. In City of Refuge, this metaphor continues as main characters Bird and Madrone travel to the crumbling metropolis of former Los Angeles. There, while the converted army turns and marches on its former masters, they attempt to set up a safe place for refugees from the city who would otherwise be executed or slain.
City of Refuge is still a utopian/dystopian novel. It has parts where characters lecture each other in order to get across important background information about economics, permaculture, pedagogy, and other issues. Yet it does its teaching more smoothly and with more self-awareness than The Fifth Sacred Thing. The Fifth Sacred Thing was written by an activist in her forties whose daily work included regular direct action—no doubt an intense and polarizing place from which to write. City of Refuge was written by that same activist in her sixties, and seemingly from a place of greater reflection and humility.
At an American Academy of Religion conference I attended about five years ago, Starhawk spoke about her work with the Occupy movement. She remarked on the potentially insurmountable challenges that Occupy faced in its attempt to exclusively use a consensus-based decision-making process. As she wrote in her blog around the same time:
Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together. When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, it’s hard to see that other people might also have needs. When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak. When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. […Consensus] requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D. When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration. When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.
The idealism of City of Refuge is noticeably tempered with real-world experience. Consensus works pretty well in a well-fed group of people who have been trained their whole lives to use it; but what about on the streets with a group of starving strangers, some of whom are in poor mental and physical health and all of whom are scared and angry? There are moments when Bird and Madrone’s project simply goes off the rails, and there is no magical solution, no deus ex machina to make things right.
People die a lot in City of Refuge: adults and teenagers and children. The book presents problems to which there are no solutions, at least not in this storyline. And although there are moments of hope—perhaps even a “happy” ending—some threads are simply left unraveled.
The book also has moments of black humor that warn the audience against reading it or its prequels as strictly ideological. The Fifth Sacred Thing used nonviolent resistance as a central plot point, and many readers have assumed that Starhawk is rigidly committed to nonviolent protest. In City of Refuge, however, Maya—the character whose life story most resembles Starhawk’s—states firmly that she was never a pacifist. When challenged on her past advocacy for nonviolence as a response to invasion, she snaps, “That was a vision. I never claimed it was dogma for all occasions.”
Later, when a group of enslaved farmers is being liberated, we have what initially looks like a stereotypical utopian/dystopian teaching moment: a farmer asks how they will run the farm without hierarchy, and a member of the liberating army launches into an explanation of collective ownership. Rather than listening avidly, however—as one would expect if this were a typical scene in the genre—the starving, exhausted farmers talk amongst themselves, cry, or stare off into space in total shock. The lecture falls on deaf ears—a lesson, perhaps, in the need to give ideology second place behind compassionate response to human need.
This is what I mean when I say that City of Refuge is humble. It is not a book that present itself as knowing the answers to climate change, racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, or economic exploitation. Its beautiful witch heroes are compelling, but they are also sometimes naïve, wrong, or just plain foolish. Its villains, in turn, are not wholly evil, though some are quite bad; in fact, some apparent villains turn out to be needed allies for the liberating army. City of Refuge does not present situations or people in black and white terms. It acknowledges brokenness and does not always insist that that brokenness be fixed. Instead, it allows for love, and for uncertainty.
City of Refuge portrays earth-based spirituality, permaculture, sacred sexuality, nonhierarchical decision-making, collective ownership, and other politically-charged concepts. As an engaging novel, it is an enjoyable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to these ideas—and in that way, it serves an ideological purpose. However—and this is what makes City of Refuge so much better than many utopian/dystopian novels—it refuses to present these ideas rigidly or dogmatically. City of Refuge is deeper than a simple dramatization of Starhawk’s politics. For that reason, this book belongs not just in the hands of Pagans or activists, but in the hands of any reader who is struggling with the realities of this frightening historical moment. Humbly, City of Refuge offers us not simple answers, but instead a variety of ways forward to explore and perhaps make our own.
She looked down as she poured her tea. “It was…”
“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “Really good. Really good. Just…different. Than what I expected. What I know.”
“Okay girlfriend, you’re gonna have to explain,” I said, laughing and burning my tongue again.
She went on to tell me that when she had arrived at her date’s place, she was feeling really low. “Just down. Not feeling it. At all.” At first, her new honey had tried to suss out what was going on, asking her why she was upset, what she was feeling. “I couldn’t even find words,” she said. “I was just…down. You know? But then…he stopped asking. And he just…held me. There. On the couch. So I could curl up in the dark of him, in the silence, and move into the feeling.” She looked at me, eyes wide with the wonder of it. “And he just stayed there, with me, not saying anything, letting me feel however I needed to feel.”
She leaned back and sighed. “Oh my god it was incredible.”
Experience exists before we put it into words. Language is translation. Sometimes we jump to expression quickly, reflexively, as a way to navigate through life. As my friend experienced it the other night, silence can be a gift we give each other that allows us to more fully feel. A loving silence can nurture tentative growth which might freeze or fizzle under a barrage of questions and suggestions.
Mostly we move in the opposite direction. We do our best to push silence away with noise. We exist in a time, in a culture (in an election season) of blare and scare, of too many words. Incessant speech flattens and cheapens language. Without silence, we have no choice but to turn up the volume on what we say, in order to be heard.
Daring to hold silent and listen to experiences not our own, beliefs not our own, anger and pain not our own…this is scary stuff, agreed. Eat a good breakfast before you set out. But imagine, just for a moment, if we waited an extra day or three before posting that meme or responding to that blog. Imagine if we could dare a few minutes of silent meditation before entering the fray.
As a place to start to consider for yourself the power of silence, may I suggest finding the nearest copy of Karina BlackHeart’s A Witch’s Book of Silence. (*note for my non-witchy readers: you don’t have to be a witch to read this book and distill some awesome peace and power from it. I promise.)
BlackHeart approaches silence from many perspectives—she explores her theme through many lenses but this passage speaks directly to our moment:
In silence, we study words. We develop the capacity to choose our words with care, sifting and sorting them, measuring them for truth, honor and effectiveness. We learn to withhold negative, irresponsible speech, conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors.
“Conserving the power of the word for more worthy endeavors…” Doesn’t that sound…good?
Integrity involves knowing not only when to speak, but when to remain silent.
It’s important to note here that there are many flavors and versions of silence. I am specifically NOT talking about silence that is coerced, forced or threatened. Keeping secrets against one’s will, or to the harm of ourselves or another, cannot increase our power nor our integrity. There are times to break silence. There are times to support and act as witness to the breaking of silence.
Most of the time, though, we merely talk and talk to push silence and the scarier gifts it brings away. BlackHeart understands all too well why we fear silence and fill up the void with 24/7 news cycles, noise, chatter, with tell alls and listicles and grumpy cats and bullet points. Silence, she writes, has to do with
the powers of the north, the deep earth, the dark moon and death itself. We must be willing to name and openly confront our fear of these dark powers.
We recoil because what lies within and beyond them exists in the Mystery. Maps are useless. Check lists disintegrate. When we step off the well worn path without flashlight or trail guide, we are left to our own devices: Instinct, intuition, and the Wild Soul’s starlit vision.
There is no avoiding this truth: Silence is the path to the self. As Howard Thurman said,
There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
It takes courage to listen for that true guide. BlackHeart acknowledges this.
In silence we seek knowledge of our true will. In silence, we gather courage so we might dare utter that truth into being. In silence we await our words return to us made fully manifest.
To listen for the genuine in yourself is to learn to discern, there in the dark, the gleam of your own unique gifts and power. And this is to dare a radically creative life. Creative endarkenment exists in the cauldron of that silence that turns truth into being. Brainstorming, workshopping, sharing and publishing are all good and necessary parts of the creative life. But at heart, at root, at some point the creative soul closes the door and returns again to her own deep well.
And, in silence, the work begins once more.
(Looks like I could be on to something here.)