Starhawk (Miriam Simos; born 1951) was a leading theoretician and practitioner of feminist Wicca (witchcraft) in the United States.
On June 17, 1951, Miriam Simos (who later took the name Starhawk) was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Educated in public schools, she regularly attended Hebrew study sessions after school and later frequently credited her Jewish upbringing as a major influence on evolving religious and political sensibilities. In 1982 she received a Master's degree in the feminist therapy program at Antioch University West. She worked as a psychotherapist in San Francisco from 1983 to 1986, then taught at Antioch West and other colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. She traveled widely, lecturing and teaching the art of ritual-making to various members of the clergy, therapists, and personal-growth seekers.
Starhawk was a major voice in the feminist spirituality movement. Her view of witchcraft as "Goddess Religion" and the model of nurturing strength she saw in the figure of the historical witch caused a resurgence of interest in "neo-pagan" traditions. Her first book, The Spiral Dance: A Re-birth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (1979, and Tenth Anniversary Edition, 1989), was a panoramic introduction to the movement adherents called "Wicca." It was also heralded as a manifesto for a truly feminist religion that welcomed men. Starhawk explored the roots of the Wiccan revival in earliest prehistory, comparing witchcraft more to tribal, shamanic practices than the world religions of the patriarchal era. She traced the persecution of native European, nature-based religions into the mass witch-hunts of medieval times. She contended that the Roman Catholic Inquisition drove paganism underground, passed on secretly until its re-discovery in the 20th century.
The Spiral Dance presented an eclectic mix of theology, feminist theory, mind-expanding exercises, poetry, and rituals for celebrating the ancient seasonal festivals of the year. In it Starhawk espoused three principles central to her theology. Goddess was seen as immanent in the world. All things were interconnected; therefore, "magic" ("the art of changing consciousness at will") must be ethical and include a focus on social justice. Goddess Religion fostered community to re-define maleness/femaleness and to transform a deteriorating planet into a place for life-affirming culture.
In her next work, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (1982), Starhawk elaborated the role of ritual as an agent of societal change. Advocating the fusion of spirituality and politics, she developed her theories of the "culture of estrangement," the patriarchal mainstream based on "power-over," and the emerging Goddess-centered communities which emphasize "power-from-within." Her experience in the 1981 blockade of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in coastal California formed the backdrop of the work. Confronting "the dark"—her own fear of nuclear annihilation—she wove historical material from 16th-and 17th-century Europe with personal reflections from the women's jail near the power plant.
Positing magic as directed energy, an art, and as will, she argued that it necessitates an "ethics of integrity," which demands consistency between images and actions. Yet these "are not based on absolutes imposed upon chaotic nature, but upon the ordering principles inherent in nature." She pondered that if such political events as the blockade are acts of magic (aimed at changing consciousness), then applying the principles of magic to political actions can make the latter more effective. The results of this cross-pollination were several exercises for consensus group process and an analysis of political groups from a magical world view.
In Dreaming the Dark Starhawk contended that when we recoil from words like "Witch" and "Goddess," our discomfort is a sign of potential liberation into new thought forms. She added that the God, consort or son of the Goddess, can become an image to guide men back into the "mother-ground," healing their separation from woman and from nature. The Goddess and God, she asserted, "can become doorways leading out of patriarchal cultures, channels for the powers we need to transform ourselves, our visions, and our stories."
In a later edition, Starhawk remarked that she no longer accepted the psychological theories she learned in graduate school. Instead, she came to hold more accountable the cultural systems of control and domination that bear down on the individual and on groups. Her third work, Truth Or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (1987), synthesized her views on personal development, political action, and witchcraft into a "psychology of liberation." Again, autobiographical accounts of the antinuclear movement were abound. This time she identified a third form of power in political communities, "power-with," described as "the art of gaining influence and using it creatively to empower." Power-from-within and power-with, she argued, can overthrow the internal Judge, Conqueror, and Censor, thus changing their manifestations in patriarchal culture.
True to form, scholarship had its place in this multifaceted work as well. An important chapter focused on the transition from matrifocal to patriarchal times in the Middle East. Through Starhawk's poetry throughout the work, the Sumerian Goddess Inanna points the way for feminist women and changing men who would confront authority and encounter mystery.
In 1988 Starhawk was teaching at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California, headed by the renegade Roman Catholic priest Matthew Fox. When Fox was investigated and silenced by the Vatican late that year, he showed the press a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It urged him to "disassociate himself" from "wicca, the ideology of Starhawk." In response, Starhawk remarked that she was puzzled by the cardinal's apprehension, for it was the Church who had burned witches, not the other way around.
During the 1990s, Starhawk continued her Wicca evangelicalism through teaching week-long "Witch Camps" and working in the Covenant of the Goddess, a legally recognized Church since 1975. She was also active in demonstrations against the clear cutting of old growth redwoods. Keeping up with the electronic age Starhawk established a home page on the Internet providing information on her appearances and witch camps. She published Walking to Mercury (1997), a prequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing. Mercury, the story of Maya Greenwood's wild experiences with magic, sex, and politics in the sixties, has been portrayed as an autobiographical work. Starhawk denied that the work was autobiographical, but that Maya "often does things I thought about doing."
There was no biography of Starhawk. She was profiled in Michele Jamal's Shape Shifters: Shaman Women in Contemporary Society (1987). Starhawk's works were woven with autobiographical content: see especially the introduction to The Spiral Dance (1989) and preface to Dreaming the Dark (1988). She published other accounts of her experiences in small pagan-feminist journals; see especially Woman of Power (Summer 1988) and Reclaiming, the newsletter of Starhawk's own collective. An entertaining account of Starhawk's involvement in the first International Pagan Spirit Gathering can be found in "Pagan Spirit Journal No. 1." □
Starhawk is the public name of Wiccan priestess Miriam Simos. She is an international spokesperson for neo-paganism, feminist concerns, and social activism. Through the 1970s she studied magic and witchcraft with a succession of prominent teachers, including Sara Cunningham of the Temple of Tiperath, Victor H. Anderson (founder of the Faery tradition), and Zsuzsanna E. Budapest.
In the mid-1970s she founded the Compost Coven and was one of the original signers of the Covenant of the Goddess (COG), serving as COG's first officer in 1976-77. She cofounded Reclaiming: A Center for Feminist Spirituality and Counseling in Berkeley, California, for which she served as a director, teacher, and counselor.
In 1979 Starhawk wrote the first of her three books, The Spiral Dance, a textbook on witchcraft that became one of the most popular introductions to Wicca in the 1980s. In the wake of the book's success, Starhawk lectured extensively in both America and Europe. She followed it with Dreaming in the Dark (1982) and Truth or Dare (1987). During the late 1980s Starhawk figured in the conflict between Catholic priest Matthew Fox and the Roman Catholic Church. Among many complaints, church officials objected to Fox using Starhawk as a faculty member at his Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. Most recently Fox has left the Roman Catholic Church.
Starhawk. Dreaming in the Dark. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.
——. The Spiral Dance. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
——. Truth or Dare: Encounters of Power, Authority, Mystery. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.