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Reclaiming-Tradition Witchcraft

by M. Macha NightMare

Editor's Note - As we move toward Samhain 2004 (the New Year of the Witches), Reclaiming can look back at 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.

The growth has found many channels:

  • Witchcamps provide the nucleus of regional communities

  • Locally-based teachers offer classes in a couple of dozen locales, and some teachers travel to teach in new areas, helping seed new circles

  • The Pagan Cluster draws together Reclaiming and other Pagan-friendly folks from around North America and Europe to protest corporate globalization

  • Reclaiming Quarterly has grown from a local newsletter to a key strand in the international web that binds together Reclaiming.

In the following article, two of Reclaiming's founders retrace the group's history.

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 published the previous 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.

Labyrinth meditation - click here for more on labyrinths. Photo by Mer.

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.

Many Reclaiming people took part in direct action protests at Nevada Test Site in the late 1980s and 1990s. Photo by Steve Nadel, GroundWork.

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 1984 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-hierarchial 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.

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 - see the Regional Pages beginning on page 38 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 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.

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