A Night with Starhawk and the “Goddesses of the End Times”

By way of editorial comment: I wrote this essay the day after the event happened back in November 2006. I tried getting it published in Sage Woman and Circle Magazine at the time but never received word. Well, now that I’m in the blogosphere, I can release it into the world–Namaste, Bitches--as was my intent for all Pagans who appreciate Starhawk’s work in the world to enjoy.

It came unbidden and electrifying, the chance to see in person the woman who altered the course of my spiritual unfolding in this lifetime when I was but a fifteen-year-old seeker: Starhawk. Late one November evening in 2006, news of Starhawk’s arrival for a conference on the divine feminine sponsored by Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University’s Religion Department[1] electrified the e-mail list of the Lyceums of Eleusis and Alexandria, the local Fellowship of Isis Lyceums to which I belong. Starhawk in Chicagoland! Giving a lecture that was open to the public and… free!

Like many other Pagans with an affinity for feminist spirituality (thealogy), my consciousness was shaped by the seminal writings of Starhawk, Carol Christ, and Z. Budapest, to name a few pioneers, in the glorious task of disassembling societal and familial conditioning that suppressed or distorted the concept of the divine feminine. On the night of Monday, November 27, 2006, I traipsed about the dimly lit streets of Evanston with glee. How many friends and acquaintances of mine from Chicago’s Pagan scene would be there? Can the university’s gorgeously neo-Gothic Alice Millar Chapel accommodate everyone? And just what does the title of Starhawk’s talk, “Goddesses for the End Times,” refer to anyway? I would find out.

7:40 p.m.—It flummoxed me that I initially didn’t recognize her; after all, I had a preconceived idea of what she would look like based upon blurry recollections of publicity photos commingled with my imagination. But once Northwestern University professor of religion Barbara Newman concluded her introductory remarks and Starhawk ascended the steps to the podium before the altar, I was blown away. That’s her. Her! How is it that I would not have picked her out of the crowd? A post-menopausal robust matriarch with a flowing, majestic mane of grey curls. Mountain mother. Solid, unwavering, exuding the unmistakable presence of a revered elder.

She began by explicating the title of her talk. While assisting Katrina victims in New Orleans last year, the discovery/recovery of a child’s lost Barbie doll, splattered with mud and sticking out of a bush with her arms raised in victory, triggered powerful iconic associations. The powers, Starhawk explained, which we as a human family need to get us through times of turbulent change and extreme stress are those of the Goddess.

And there’s no denying the heavy mantle of collective stress that our imbalanced lives have placed upon the planet, imperiling all living beings. As we all know, we’re at a critical juncture in the earth’s history. Many spiritual traditions of the planet’s native peoples—from the ancient Mayans to the modern Hopi and the aborigines of Australia—inform us that a big “something” is coming to an end.

There are even secular “end of the world” scenarios to consider from a purely scientific view. The first one mentioned by Starhawk is the peak-oil scenario. Given the scarcity of this natural resource, it now takes as much energy to retrieve through drilling as it does to produce energy from it once it’s refined; the two efforts cancel each other out. As a nation, we reached peak oil in the 1970s; since then, we’ve been running on Middle Eastern reserves. But how much longer can this finite resource sustain our insatiable demands?

The second scenario that Starhawk discussed has much graver consequences: global climate change. This merits our serious concern. No matter where we live, we can all discern that weather patterns are shifting, which creates tremendous global instability. It used to be that the natural world could bounce back from adverse effects incurred by human influence. Not anymore. “The resilience of the natural world, which is already compromised by what we have been doing to it, is deeply under threat,” Starhawk warned. As the ice caps in Greenland and elsewhere continue to melt at their alarming rate, sea levels will rise to an estimated 20 feet by mid-century. Not only will this threaten the lives of the millions of people who live along the world’s coastlines, but the devastation to the planet’s biodiversity in plant and animal life will be incalculable.

Post-Katrina New Orleans served as a haunting microcosm of the devastation brought about by earth changes and the ineptitude of government agencies. What stood out in particular for Starhawk was the utter and miserable failure of the patriarchal/hierarchical/official institutions that we’ve been conditioned to trust. Those institutions did not work for the people of Louisiana and elsewhere. What did work were the grass-roots organizations of ordinary people who were motivated to act out of necessity and compassion.

This brings us back to that image of the Barbie doll, and to a discussion of the Goddess. Starhawk detailed her sense of the divine feminine, which is both singular and multiple: there are “particular constellations of power and energy that we can evoke within us and around us.” It is our belief in these “constellations” that calls them into being—lets them crystallize into some form of life.

Embracing the Goddess is a direct and powerful way to revise the “cultural story” that Westerners have been telling themselves since the tale of Eve proffering that apple has been disseminated. The thread of the story that most needs correcting is the belief that we, as a technocratic society, are no longer bound by the limitations of the natural world. “We have to start to contend with the limits that nature places on us,” Starhawk emphasized. One way to do so is to reaffirm the fact that we’re embodied creatures; we need to accept and be comfortable with our mortality—indeed, with the entire cycle of birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration that we see manifested in nature in numerous ways. “We are bodies; we are earth. We do live and we do die. That’s okay.”

The Goddess tradition, according to Starhawk, is not about a belief in unseen things so much as an affirmation of the spiritual essence behind what our sensory information provides. It’s about “shifting our attitude toward what we can see, and know, and experience,” she said. The cyclical processes in nature of which we are a part “become luminous mysteries that feed us and teach us and renew our souls and renew our spirits.”

So who are the Goddesses that Starhawk encourages us to evoke and feed at this time of planetary change? The first would have to be a Goddess of Humility, one who teaches us to embrace that which was considered low or dirty—as Starhawk’s anecdotes illustrated, these humbling subjects could refer to soil biology (one of her favorite meditational aids) or women’s bodies and their functions.

The second would be a Goddess of Loss and Grief. She can wear the face of distressed Demeter, whose rage (yes, grief entails rage!) over the loss of her daughter Persephone ushered in a prolonged winter for the world. The high and mighty gods of Olympos were forced to intervene to preclude all life from being wiped out on the planet. In a more contemporary form, the Goddess of Loss and Grief can wear the face of Cindy Sheehan or a grieving Iraqi mother. The point, as Starhawk elucidated, is that “we need someone to carry us through this process of loss and grief; we get stuck in our frozen grief. It might be frightening to open up to it, but it is an indispensable tool for healing.”

The third Goddess, and many in the audience nominated Starhawk herself for this role, is the Goddess of Transformative Action. Channel your grief, channel your righteous anger over the many injustices of this world in a community of like-minded people dedicated to action. That is where true power lies. And as Starhawk noted, each Goddess is a doorway for exploring that kind of power from within.

As the second wave of feminism in this country aptly demonstrated, the personal is definitely the political—this brings us to the Domestic Goddess. “Worship the Goddess by who you are and how you walk in this world,” encouraged Starhawk. Express your spiritual truths, especially by working towards the healing of this planet in whatever way you feel called to do so. Perhaps it’s through something as simple yet as profound as learning permaculture, wherein you make a real connection with the elements. Work towards creating a world of true abundance for all; it’s high time we ditched the socially accepted, false consumerist notions of what “abundance” means.

Working to reverse societal norms easily evokes the label of “Other,” and this is why the next Goddess is unsanctified, not welcomed into the androcentric canon. The Goddess of Unwelcome Information tells us what we don’t want to hear as a society. She, as Mary Daly once pointed out, lives on the boundaries of institutions. She wears the face of Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, whose initial literary works were met with harsh resistance. The research of this Goddess is sneered at by official academic circles, as the career of the late feminist archaeologist Marija Gimbutas attested. The feminist movement may have opened the gates somewhat for contemporary avatars of this Goddess, but, as Starhawk sighed, “we have a long, long way to go.”

Hopefully we don’t have a long way to go as women towards accepting and celebrating the powerful expression of our bodies through our sexuality, for the next Goddess to see us through rough times is an Erotic one. Starhawk initially admitted that she had no idea what features this Goddess would have, but when later prodded by an audience member, she produced a vision of a deity that deconstructs gender stereotypes and is welcoming of all genitalia, of all forms of pleasure. It makes sense; aren’t we taught as Witches that “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”?

Lastly, the deity to best show us that nurturing means strength is a Goddess of Social Nurturing. Starhawk spent several minutes sharing her hopeful visions for the future since the young women and men getting involved in progressive causes have lost the separatist element that characterized feminism twenty years ago. The lessons of Starhawk and her contemporaries, lessons of a collective whole, have been learned generationally and passed on. Starhawk expressed her joyful observations of this generation’s young men in particular, who “are becoming much more nurturing and dedicated to healing the planet.”

Starhawk concluded her lecture on a positive note, for when we as a society “give up that dream of transcending what is real—the finitudes of nature” and thereby “embrace the body,” we discover that “great powers work with us for the healing of the earth.” She exhorted everyone to not sink into despair over the great tasks ahead, for we have one powerful tool at our disposal: ourselves. “Human creativity may be the only infinite resource.”

It’s an incredible time to be alive, indeed. In fact, I never felt so alive as I did during the unexpected blessing of the spiral dance that Starhawk led us all through at the reception afterwards in an adjacent hall—some 300-plus fans of this teacher united in ecstatic celebration of life: women, men, transgender; gay, straight, and the luscious shades in between; Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish. Setting the rhythm with a doumbek drum slung over her shoulder, Starhawk began to snake her way towards the center of the room where a generous hors d’ouevres table stood with a glorious potted tree in its center. The life force before us. Nourishment. Sustenance. True abundance. It was Goddess. And Starhawk was Goddess and the smiling faces of the people streaming before me with linked arms, acknowledging me with nods and blown kisses and twinkling eyes, were all Goddess. I was, I am, Goddess. We drank of the well of remembrance and the well of our sacred charge for the here and now by singing a song based upon a chant from one of Starhawk’s friends, a woman named Raven:


We are the rising sun

                                    We are the change

                                    We are the ones we are waiting for

                                    And we are dawning!

Ask me to sing it to you sometime. Blessed be!

[1] The official title was “The Feminine Divine in Cross-Cultural Perspective: An International Conference at Northwestern University, Nov. 26-28, 2006.”

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