RECLAIMING WITCHCRAFT TIMELINE
1951 (June 7): Starhawk was born Miriam Simos.
1976: Starhawk was initiated into the Feri Tradition by Victor and Cora Anderson. Soon after, she began forming new covens: Compost, Raving, and Honeysuckle.
1979 (October 31): The first Annual Spiral Dance, a Samhain ritual, was held at Fort Mason, in conjunction with a book release party for Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance.
1980: Starhawk and Diane Baker led the first Reclaiming class, “The Elements of Magic.” Reclaiming Witches named their organization the Reclaiming Collective. The first Reclaiming Newsletter was printed.
1981/1982: Reclaiming Witches participated in a blockade around Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
1982: Starhawk published Dreaming the Dark, a version of her master’s thesis submitted to Antioch University.
1985: The Reclaiming Collective held a weeklong summer intensive that later blossomed into extensive Witchcamps.
1994: Reclaiming Collective incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in California.
1997: The Reclaiming Collective reorganized itself as a Wheel rather than a singular working collective.
1997: The organization wrote its first “Reclaiming Principles of Unity.” Reclaiming Newsletter was retitled Reclaiming Quarterly.
2005: After several years at Herbst Pavillion of Fort Mason, the Spiral Dance was held at Kezar Pavilion, which was the location for the following ten years.
2011: Reclaiming Quarterly transitioned to digital publication only.
2012: At the annual Dandelion Gathering, Reclaiming revised its Principles of Unity, emphasizing a non-gender-binary polytheistic theology. The event led to a public disaffiliation by priestess M. Macha NightMare.
2016: The Spiral Dance was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
2019: The fortieth Anniversary Spiral Dance was held at the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, California.
2020: The Spiral Dance was conducted online because of COVID-19.
The Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition was founded by Starhawk (b. Miriam Simos 1951) and Diane Baker, with assistance from others including Kevyn Lutton and Lauren Gale (Reclaiming Collective 1980; Craig [1998?]; Salomonsen 2002:44). [Image at right] Starhawk had received prior training from Victor and Cora Anderson in their shamanic Pagan Witchcraft tradition, “the Feri Tradition” (sometimes spelled “Faery Tradition”). From 1976 to 1979, Starhawk founded three covens: Compost, Raving, and Honeysuckle. The first, Compost, was mixed-gender, and the next two, Raving and Honeysuckle, were for women only (Salomonsen 2002:37–39). Baker had been practicing contemporary Pagan Witchcraft (aka “Craft”) in California, and she was preparing to relocate to New York, where she did not know any Witches (Salomonsen 2002:37). Baker and Starhawk’s initial vision was to develop a “school” of Witchcraft, and its curriculum would be Starhawk’s forthcoming book, The Spiral Dance (Salomonsen 2002:37). Beginning to implement this vision, in 1980, Starhawk and Baker developed the first Reclaiming class, “The Elements of Magic,” and taught it as a six-week series to a group of women in Northern California (NightMare 2000; Salomonsen 2002:39). Receiving requests for more, they ran a second “Elements” series and developed other classes, “The Iron Pentacle” and “The Rites of Passage.” These courses became the foundation for the Reclaiming Witchcraft tradition, and they have continued to be observed and taught by leaders around the world.
Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was released in late October 1979, and a Samhain ritual was planned in conjunction with the book’s release. [Image at right] This Samhain ritual, titled “The Spiral Dance,” became an annual event hosted by Bay Area Reclaiming Witches and has been observed each year since (remotely during COVID-19). The event has grown from one taking place in a Fort Mason (former military outpost now used as a venue for arts and cultural celebrations) room rental with a capacity of 400 (NightMare, personal communication) to one whose attendance exceeds a thousand (Craig [1998?]; Bay Area Reclaiming [2009?]). Starhawk’s publication is often discussed in association with Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Zsuzsanna “Z” Budapest’s Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. These three books about Paganism, written respectively by three priestesses in North America, were all published in the same year.
In the early phases of Reclaiming, Starhawk taught that Witchcraft was a form of Goddess religion that especially benefitted women (Starhawk 1999; Feraro 2017). Over the decades, Reclaiming Witchcraft has shifted to become an inclusive Witchcraft tradition. Starhawk and Diane’s initial classes were for women, but men joined the Reclaiming Collective soon after in the early 1980s (Salomonsen 2002:41). By 1990, the Reclaiming Collective counted nineteen members (Salomonsen 2002:41). From 1980 to 1997, the Reclaiming Collective counted up to fifty-two members (Salomonsen 2002:42). By the late 1990s, there were “perhaps thousands of Reclaiming Witches in the U.S. and also many abroad” (Salomonsen 2002:43).
From its beginning, the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition has centered around the integration of magic and leftist politics. In the merging of ritual practice with social action, the Reclaiming Tradition resembles Quakerism, and the influence from Quakerism is often recognized (NightMare 2000; Salomonsen 2002:108; Adler 2006:123). Social action, magic, and personal healing are the pillars of Reclaiming practice (Starhawk, NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective 1999:14).
The Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition is anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical. As for the definition of magic, Starhawk has often cited Dion Fortune’s – “the art of changing consciousness at will” (C.f. Starhawk n.d; Starhawk, NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective 1999:14). Reclaiming Witchcraft is eclectic. Reclaiming Witches’ beliefs and terms for divinity are fluid. The tradition historically celebrated Goddess as an immanent divine life force permeating all beings, the ecosystem, and the known universe. The Reclaiming Collective now incorporates greater pluralism and non-binary language, working to destabilize and disrupt gendered language and gender norms for ritual practice in new ways. The only required belief is agreement with the Principles of Unity (NightMare 2000; Reclaiming Collective n.d.):
The values of the Reclaiming tradition stem from our understanding that the earth is alive and all of life is sacred and interconnected. We see the Goddess as immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep, spiritual commitment to the earth, to healing and to the linking of magic with political action.
Each of us embodies the divine. Our ultimate spiritual authority is within, and we need no other person to interpret the sacred to us. We foster the questioning attitude, and honor intellectual, spiritual and creative freedom.
We are an evolving, dynamic tradition and proudly call ourselves Witches. Our diverse practices and experiences of the divine weave a tapestry of many different threads. We include those who honor Mysterious Ones, Goddesses, and Gods of myriad expressions, genders, and states of being, remembering that mystery goes beyond form. Our community rituals are participatory and ecstatic, celebrating the cycles of the seasons and our lives, and raising energy for personal, collective and earth healing.
We know that everyone can do the life-changing, world-renewing work of magic, the art of changing consciousness at will. We strive to teach and practice in ways that foster personal and collective empowerment, to model shared power and to open leadership roles to all. We make decisions by consensus, and balance individual autonomy with social responsibility.
Our tradition honors the wild, and calls for service to the earth and the community. We work in diverse ways, including nonviolent direct action, for all forms of justice: environmental, social, political, racial, gender and economic. We are an anti-racist tradition that strives to uplift and center BIPOC voices (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Our feminism includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of domination and control.
We welcome all genders, all gender histories, all races, all ages and sexual orientations and all those differences of life situation, background, and ability that increase our diversity. We strive to make our public rituals and events accessible and safe. We try to balance the need to be justly compensated for our labor with our commitment to make our work available to people of all economic levels.
All living beings are worthy of respect. All are supported by the sacred elements of air, fire, water and earth. We work to create and sustain communities and cultures that embody our values, that can help to heal the wounds of the earth and her peoples, and that can sustain us and nurture future generations.
Reclaiming Witches celebrate many of the same lunar and solar events associated with traditional Wicca, specifically the full moons (Esbats) and the eight Sabbats (two solstices, two equinoxes, and four cross-quarter days). Reclaiming Witches also perform initiations within covens, as do most Wiccan groups. The Elements of Magic and other classes started by Starhawk and Diane Baker have continued to be the foundation of the public Reclaiming tradition, with many more teachers around the world applying the curriculum with their own innovations. Also unique to Reclaiming-style Witchcraft are Witchcamps, some that are even family-oriented (e.g. Northern California’s Redwood Magic and Witchlets in the Woods). Witchcamps arose out of a successful summer intensive from 1985. Witchcamps are represented within Reclaiming’s main authority, “the Wheel,” through a spokescouncil.
Reclaiming Witches utilize the magic circle for rituals, a paradigmatic ritual structure found in British Traditional Witchcraft and other forms of Wicca (as well as in other Western esoteric traditions). For Reclaiming Witches, the circle represents a magical application of the principles of grassroots organizing, a unique spin on the magic circle used in other esoteric groups. Salomonsen writes: “People sit, stand, lie down or hold hands, always in a circle. There are no chairs, tables or pulpit, only an open floor with altars set up around the walls. By choosing this structure also for teaching, the women hoped to increase the changes that people would form covens when the classes ended” (Salomonsen 2002:40). The Reclaiming application of the magic circle illustrates the merging of magic, spirituality, and politics that defines the tradition.
Reclaiming leaders take pride in social action and demonstration including acts of civil disobedience. A particularly memorable event for Reclaiming’s founders was their participation in a 1982 blockade around the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which they and others believed was a devastating ecological hazard, given its proximity to major fault lines in California (Starhawk 1997:xxix; NightMare 2000; Adler 2006:124). Starhawk reports: “The blockade became a crucial experience in my understanding not only of the theory but also of the actual practice of political/spiritual work based on the principle of power-from-within” (Starhawk 1997:xxx).
Starhawk’s books often act as the spine of the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition. The Spiral Dance, as previously noted, was the original curriculum that inspired Reclaiming. Dreaming the Dark was an adaptation of Starhawk’s master’s thesis for Antioch University. The book presents the political worldview that informs Reclaiming magic, ritual, and theology. The Fifth Sacred Thing is a utopian novel that showcases Starhawk’s belief in the power of ritual for leading social and environmental change. A Pagan Book of Living and Dying was developed to fill a void of funerary and grieving rites and green burial guidance for Pagans. Twelve Wild Swans, acting as a workbook in Reclaiming magic, demonstrates how Reclaiming Witches use mythology and folklore from different world cultures.
Starhawk has described Reclaiming ritual style as ecstatic, improvisational, ensemble-based, inspired, and organic (“EIEIO”). and also experimental, eclectic, and evolving (Starhawk n.d.). Vestiges from the Feri Tradition include the rituals and classes, Iron Pentacle and Pentacle of Pearl; the concept of the Three Selves (the Younger Self (unconscious mind), the Talking Self (conscious expression) and Deep Self (the divine within)); and aspecting (the name for transpossession in some Witchcraft/Pagan groups). There is no one pantheon of deities associated with the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition. Reclaiming Witches work with goddesses and gods from many world cultures.
Bay Area Reclaiming has hosted its Annual Spiral Dance for more than forty consecutive years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spiral Dance was moved to an online platform, which enabled the planning group to encourage international participation. (There were some failures in technology and inclusion (Maxina Ventura, personal commmunication).
The Reclaiming Tradition includes any Reclaiming-identifying Witch who agrees to the Principles of Unity (NightMare 2000). The Reclaiming Collective is the more formal organization that developed from Bay Area Reclaiming practice. The Reclaiming Collective is incorporated as a 501(c)3 in California and keeps updated bylaws. Reclaiming Witches make decisions by consensus as much as possible (C.f. Reclaiming Collective 1997; Salomonsen 2002:108, 301). Responding to the tradition’s growth, the organization restructured in 1997 into a “Work-Cells-and-Wheel” structure. [Image at right] The Reclaiming Collective’s Board of Directors are called “the Wheel.” The Leadership Team, “the Triad,” consists of three Wheel members selected by the Wheel at the most recent meeting. The Wheel meets quarterly, and members who have urgent business between meetings are pointed to the Triad (Reclaiming Collective 2018:Section 15).
Local Reclaiming chapters (“communities”) are established within most major metropolitan regions in the U.S. and Canada (e.g., Bay Area Reclaiming, Philly Reclaiming, Portland Reclaiming, Tejas Web, Chicago Reclaiming, British Columbia Witchcamps/Vancouver Reclaiming, Toronto Reclaiming, and Montreal Reclaiming) and also in Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Reclaiming Witches use the term “cells” from grassroots organizing for magical, ecumenical, and political working groups. Examples include the spokescouncils of the Wheel (e.g., SF Teachers cell, Samhain (aka Spiral Dance cell), and Special Projects cell).
Reclaiming published a newsletter for many years. Initially Reclaiming Newsletter, the periodical was retitled Reclaiming Quarterly in 1997. In the mid-2000s, Reclaiming Quarterly publication tapered off, no longer living up to its name of “Quarterly.” Production of issues became spotty, and then non-existent after 2014. In an attempt to revive Reclaiming publications, one issue of Reclaiming Cauldron was published in 2020.
In comparison with some other Pagan traditions, the Reclaiming Tradition has been characterized by rapid evolution when it comes to issues of gender identity. Especially popular with Millennial Pagans and Gen Z Pagans (as compared with British Traditional Witchcraft), the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition has maneuvered cultural shifts regarding gender rather well. (Some other groups by contrast have struggled around transgender inclusion and have been the subject of controversy among Pagans (Mueller 2017).)
Reclaiming Witchcraft was founded upon principles of radical feminism. Starhawk’s first book The Spiral Dance, a bestseller that received multiple anniversary editions, emphasized Witchcraft as a feminine religion of Goddess worship. According to the organization’s very first newsletter, “We [Reclaiming Witches] use the word ‘Witch’ as an affirmation of women’s power to shape reality” (Reclaiming Collective 1980:2). The same newsletter advertised separate six-week class series for women (The Rite-of-Passage) and for men (Magic for Men), showing that men have been offered space in Reclaiming from the beginning (Reclaiming Collective 1980:3). Yet, the Reclaiming Tradition today emphasizes inclusion of all genders among its practitioners and its deities.
The organization has gone through periods of preferring feminine, gendered terms and others of using more pluralistic and/or more non-binary terms. For instance, Starhawk and others have preferred “thealogy” over “theology” (C.f. Starhawk 1999:13–18) and have used “priestess” as a gender-neutral term (Starhawk and Valentine 2000:xxiv). Witchcraft as Goddess religion has been a present theme throughout Starhawk’s writing. Yet, gendered terminology within Reclaiming’s theology was approached directly and reformed in 2012. At that year’s Dandelion Gathering, the Reclaiming Collective consensed upon new wording for its “Principles of Unity,” delivering a more non-binary creed. The group replaced its statement of belief in “Goddess and God” supported by the practice of using “female and male images of divinity” to one “affirm[ing] a plurality of goddesses and gods ‘of myriad expressions […and] genders’ without a definitive binary to separate them” (Mueller 2017:260). The events of the Dandelion Gathering led to a very public disaffiliation from long-time Reclaiming priestess M. Macha NightMare (aka Aline O’Brien) (NightMare 2012). Macha cited lacking civility and candor as her reasons for withdrawing from Reclaiming.
Furthermore, some tensions have arisen around the meshing of Reclaiming’s grassroots-organizing-based values onto traditional Wiccan systems, which are implicitly hierarchical on account of its initiatory degree system (Salomonsen 2002:42). In traditional Wicca, initiands (those undergoing an initiation rite) are ignorant of the inner workings of the ritual they are about to undergo. The secrecy (or mystery, according to practitioners) contributes to the esoteric nature of the tradition, but the secrecy also institutes an exaggerated power differential between initiating members and initiands, which is perceived by some as counter-intuitive to Reclaiming’s radical social values (Salomonsen 2002:42).
Though many rituals and esoteric practices (Esbats, Sabbats, and an initiatory degree system) are shared in common with traditional Wicca, the Reclaiming Collective formally uses the label “Witchcraft.” Though Reclaiming Witchcraft had been differentiated from Wicca well before the recent conflict (NightMare 1998), the distinction of Reclaiming as Witchcraft rather than Wicca relates with a recent controversy within the Pagan community. Around 2013, the buzzword, “Wiccanate privilege,” was newly in use among Pagans as an internal critique of Wicca’s hegemony within contemporary Paganism. Awareness of Wiccanate privilege led to more groups articulating their own locations as Wiccan or as non-Wiccanate. Wicca-derived groups might be labeled as “Wiccanate,” although the controversial nature of Wiccanate privilege led to few if any groups embracing the label “Wiccanate” for themselves. The origins of various Pagan/Witchcraft groups are often contested, as is the chain of influence between leaders like Victor and Cora Anderson and Gerald Gardner (C.f. Adler 2006:76).
The location for the Annual Spiral Dance has been embroiled with some controversy, affecting the Bay Area Reclaiming community. Complaints about the Kezar Pavillion (location for 2005–2015) included that it lacked a natural, earthy aesthetic (or, to some, any aesthetic), was not accessible for people using wheelchairs, and was not accessible via public transportation. Looking for a venue that would be wheelchair accessible and a more economically sustainable rental, organizers considered the Armory in San Francisco as a new site for the Spiral Dance. In 2013, it became known to community members that Spiral Dance organizers were considering the Armory in San Francisco as a new site for the Spiral Dance. Some members felt that Reclaiming’s consideration of the Armory as a possible venue was aligned with Reclaiming’s support for all sexual orientations. Others ranged from being vehemently opposed to the idea of Reclaiming’s implied support for BDSM to arguing that the Armory was not suitable for families with children.
Image #1: Starhawk (Miriam Simos).
Image #2: 1979 Spiral Dance Flyer. Courtesy of Diane Fenster.
Image #3: The Work-Cells-and-Wheel organization.
Adler, Margot. 2006. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America. Revised and updated with expanded Appendix III. New York: Penguin Books.
Bay Area Reclaiming. [2009?]. “The Dance’s History.” Reclaiming Spiral Dance. Accessed from https://www.reclaimingspiraldance.org/history on 1 July 2021.
Craig, Georgie. [1998?]. “The Beginning of the Spiral Dance: It Was 20 Years Ago…” Reclaiming Quarterly. Accessed from http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/web/spiraldance/spiral4.html on 1 July 2021.
Feraro, Shai. 2017. “The Politics of the Goddess: Radical/Cultural Feminist Influences of Starhawk’s Feminist Witchcraft.” Pp. 229–48 in Female Leaders in New Religious Movements, edited by Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen and Christian Giudice. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mueller, Michelle. 2017. “The Chalice and the Rainbow: Conflicts Between Women’s Spirituality and Transgender Rights in US Wicca in the 2010s.” Pp. 249–78 in Female Leaders in New Religious Movements, edited by Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen and Christian Giudice.– Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
NightMare, M. Macha. 2012. “A Co-Founder Withdraws from Reclaiming Tradition.” Broomstick Chronicles, August 6. Accessed from https://besom.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-co-founder-withdraws-from-reclaiming.html on 1 July 2021.
NightMare, M. Macha. 2000. “Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft.” Reclaiming. Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/reclaiming-tradition-witchcraft/ on 1 July 2021.
NightMare, M. Macha. 1998. “The ‘W’ Word: Why We Call Ourselves Witches.” Reclaiming Quarterly 71:16–17, 49–50.
Reclaiming Collective. 2018. “Bylaws.” Revised 2018.
Reclaiming Collective. 2014. “Archives and Back Issues.” Reclaiming Quarterly. Accessed from http://reclaimingquarterly.org/backissues.html on 1 July 2021.
Reclaiming Collective. 1997. “About – 1997 Restructuring.” Reclaiming. Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/about-1997-restructuring/ on 1 July 2021.
Reclaiming Collective. 1980. Reclaiming Newsletter 1, Winter.
Reclaiming Collective. n.d. “Principles of Unity.” Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/principles-of-unity/ on 1 July 2021.
Salomonsen, Jone. 2002. Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender and Divinity Among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. New York: Routledge.
Starhawk. 1999. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Starhawk. 1997. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics. Fifteenth anniversary edition. Boston: Beacon Press.
Starhawk. n.d. “A Working Definition of Reclaiming.” Reclaiming. Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/about-working-definition/ on 1 July 2021.
Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective. 1999. Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Starhawk, and Hilary Valentine. 2000. The Twelve Wild Swans: A Journey to the Realm of Magic, Healing, and Action. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
3 July 2021