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. It is part of a series by Routledge called "Religion and Gender."
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To See Ourselves As Others See Us
A review by Anne Hill of Jone Solomonsen's Enchanted Feminism
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.
East altar from the Spiral Dance c. 2001. Photo by Ewa.
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 meaningfullyÉhow 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.
Circle at Vermont Witchcamp.
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 Frew,
"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."
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 Pomegranate, 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 religionsÉ 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.
Maypole at People's Park, Berkeley, organized by Reclaiming. Photo by Steve Nadel, GroundWork.
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.
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.
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