It’s not only considered by many to be “essential reading” for new Pagans (especially Wiccans), but I also had many personal recommendations to read it. So I figured I should!
In a nutshell, what it is it about?
First published in 1979, this is one of the most important books that helped define and construct the ideas behind modern Witchcraft – and especially Wicca as a Goddess-based religion. Although similar in many ways to other introductory books on Wicca, in that it includes a bit of history, explanations of the deities, and introductions to rituals, festivals and techniques of Witchcraft, The Spiral Dance is special in that it was one of the first books to explicitly connect Wicca with feminism, which reflects the social and political climate in which it was written.
What did I particularly like about it?
Firstly, I was delighted to find that The Spiral Dance wasn’t what I had expected from some of its reviews. I had heard criticisms that it pushes its feminist agenda too far, and that Starhawk’s tone is even misandrist in places. I was therefore expecting something a bit preachy and hot-headed, which is what put me off reading The Spiral Dance for a long time.
Having finally read it, I think those criticisms are rather unfair. Yes, there is a feminist agenda, but Starhawk is careful always to relate feminism back to the ideas of Goddess-worship rather than focussing primarily on the political and social aspects of the movement. She sees the re-emergence of Goddess-worship as a way for women to love and value themselves as women, despite what society might say about them otherwise. To love and honour one’s self is to love and honour the Goddess, and vice versa. And I thought Starhawk was quite careful to avoid any kind of man-bashing; she talks about the more radical form of Dianic Wicca but does not advocate it and she makes sure the Great God has plenty of attention even though the main subject of the book is the Goddess. Indeed, on paths that exclude a Male force, she states, “A female-only model of the universe would prove to be as constricting and oppressive to women as well as men, as the patriarchal model has been.” Moreover, she stresses that feminism is not about creating a society that merely benefits women more, but men too – her view is that men suffer just as much under a society that overemphasises competition, dominance and other aggressive qualities that are considered good “masculine” virtues (I’ve always thought that it’s a shame feminism is called “feminism,” and not something like “equalitism” or “genderism” because its ideals apply to all genders).
Another thing that I was expecting was for the book to be very much essay-based and philosophical in tone. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a lot of practical material in here. It’s packed full of exercises in magic and meditation, chants and invocations, specific spells and herbal charms, which are all conveniently indexed at the front. This makes The Spiral Dance readily usable for the practising Witch. Some of the rituals for group work really appealed to me; I loved the idea of the “Word Association Trance” and saw how many of the other role-play type rituals would be quite therapeutic.
Finally, I liked Starhawk’s style of writing. It’s highly readable, friendly and positive, filled with sincere passion and warmth throughout. It’s poetic without being pretentious, instructive without being dense, deep without being impenetrable. It’s a pleasure to read.
Was there anything I didn’t like about it?
Several of the things I wasn’t so keen about in The Spiral Dance can be applied to lots of other books I’ve read on Paganism. Firstly, despite not been mentioned in the title, Wicca/Witchcraft (and not general Paganism) is the focus of this book. There is therefore a heavy focus on magic and coven work. If the title has lead to you expect a more general work on Goddess-worship with a broader focus than Witchcraft, you may find yourself a little disappointed (although I still found plenty here for non-Wiccan Pagans as well).
Secondly, I wasn’t keen on her presentation of her interpretation of Witchcraft history as fact – something I’ve criticised about other Pagan books previously. Much of the history of Paganism and Wicca is incredibly sketchy indeed, and I think it’s much better to present it as conjecture rather than absolute fact. Although, to Starhawk’s credit, she does mention this problem in the anniversary introduction, and what’s more, she stresses that witchcraft is a “religion of poetry, not theology,” and that all teachings (including historical) should not be considered absolute.
Finally, it’s a minor niggle, but I thought that the use of in-text asterisks together with footnotes at the end of each chapter was a little distracting and perhaps unnecessary. I’m sure there may have been a more elegant way of highlighting revisions from previous editions or including notes.
How has it helped my spiritual development?
More than anything, it’s helped me understand and appreciate the history of modern Goddess-worship and its socio-political significance. I also found it very affirming; Starhawk views Witchcraft as joyous, free and poetic, something I’ve always felt too. It also gave me plenty of ideas for future rituals.
Would I recommend this book to others?
Yes – although perhaps only to beginners, and then, only those with a specific interest in Goddess worship/Witchcraft as this is the main focus. This book is very much a primer on Witchcraft, so experienced Pagans might not find so much new material here, but for those new to the Craft, it’s a very good resource.