The Spiral Dance is not an easy book for me to evaluate. Or to live with either. Add the pluses and minuses together, and the two extremes of what's good and what I find troubling pretty much cancel each other out.
First the pluses. Nobody nowhere can *ever* measure just how influential this book has been on the modern neopagan movement. I would guess that just about every pagan I know, myself included, has a copy on the shelf. I'd also venture to guess that it's also been responsible for more women starting up their own covens than any other single book in the United States. (Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner may be the most popular beginner's book these days, but Spiral Dance is still likely to be the #1 coven source book around.) The hugely important thing that Starhawk did was to take some of the basic ideas of modern Witchcraft as it was being exported from Britain to the United States and to marry those concepts with the developing feminist/earth-first/spiritual sensibilities that were active out on the West Coast in the early to mid 70's. Put the two together and in a blaze of white light you've given birth to the Goddess Movement. The Goddess movement, its core ideas and sensiblities, expanded the vocabulary of American Witches and allowed those Witches to continue to develop their own spiritual forms independently from the traditional Garnderian structures. Much of this was going on anyway, (check out the 13 Principles of Wiccan Beliefs, as promulgated by the Council of American Witches in 1974) but the Spiral Dance gave it an immediately accessible shape.
However, in that innovation itself lies some of the problems I have with Starhawk's work. Simply put, the Goddess Movement is not the same thing as Witchcraft or Wicca. The Goddess Movement is feminism turned into a religion, and its purpose is essentially political. This is not to say that this makes Goddess spirituality somehow illegitimate. It just means that it doesn't have the same purposes, meaning or heritage as Witchcraft, and it shouldn't pretend to be the same thing. For example, I for one find it disturbing that Starhawk herself admits that she and her associates were *teaching* witchcraft courses at the local university long before they'd ever even met a coven-trained witch.
Let me say something here before I go on, because for a lot of people reading this I'm sure I'm opening up a topic that's already caused hundreds upon hundreds of flame wars and arguements. I am emphatically *not* saying that the only legitimate witch is a traditional coven-trained witch. The Wicca that I practice myself is very much in the eclectic, find-what-works-and-make-up-what-you-don't-borrow mode. The thing that bothers me is that in the Spiral Dance, Starhawk is presenting her Goddess-centered, eco-feminist brand of Witchcraft (a perfectly fine thing in itself) as if it were Witchcraft itself, a revival of some millenia-old universal matriarchal belief system. Frankly, she puts a lot of claims forth in the Spiral Dance as if they were Facts and Truth, when they're really just Opinions and Stories. I have no problem with making things up. I absolutely agree with the value of Myth. I just ask that folks admit it when they invent their stories, instead of asserting that they're revealing ancient human wisdom.
The other problem I have with The Spiral Dance is that despite all her claims to the contrary, Starhawk is definitely a female chauvanist. For all her talk of valuing men and women equally, I firmly believe that in her heart of hearts, coming through between the lines in almost every chapter, Starhawk really does believe that men are inferior. I don't believe that she either understands or trusts men, and all throughout the Spiral Dance I could feel her unspoken premise that Goddess-worship and Witchcraft are the province of women. She does not see men and women as equal partners, or does so only when men essentially begin acting like women. Starhawk may not be as openly seperatist as some writers (check out Z. Budapest's assertion that Witchcraft is "wombyn's religion") but I got a very clear sense that she's really only speaking for folks who were born with a uterus.
So there you have it. An absolute cornerstone of the modern neopagan movement, an immeasurably liberating source-book for thousands upon thousands of women, beloved by mulitudes. And also very weak in scholarship, over-reaching in its claims, and quite off-putting in parts for this male witch. You buys your ticket, you takes your chance.
This was one of the first books I read when starting my path of the Craft and the Goddess. A recommended read for anyone interested in learning more about Goddess religion, the Craft, Paganism, Witchcraft, and Wicca.
-- One of the most-beloved (and for some, controversial) classics of Pagan and Wiccan spirituality, exploring everything from Divinities to Rituals to Sabbats to trancework -- by an acknowledged Mother of the modern Craft.