. . .even on this ruined and ravaged and poisoned earth, people can live well together, can care for one another, can heal and build in harmony with what is around us. We have demonstrated hope. Now it is up to us to sustain that hope, not to abandon it to the despair of violence. ~ The Fifth Sacred Thing
Reading The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, particularly with the backdrop and unfolding of the Occupy movement, was like being given an insider’s guide through our present and potential futures. The novel contained a gripping narrative with marvelous, deep insights into shamanism as well as a strong political statement in favor of non-violent resistance and protest even in the face of overwhelming and horrifying brutality. There were many parallels to the world that we find ourselves in today – from the revolutionary spirit in the air, first with the Arab Spring and now the global occupy movement, to the issue of involuntary medical interventions, our overloaded immoral prison system, and millions of people hooked on anti-depressant medications, to name a few. This novel was truly a visionary gift to those of us who long for a world of harmony, peaceful community and honoring of earth, air, fire, water and spirit – in other words, the 99%. In this essay, I will first examine the shamanism elements and then take a look at the political aspects where I felt so much of a gathering energy for where we are today.
The character of Madrone epitomized the gifted healer/shaman who uses her own body as a channel to receive information and bring forward healing energies from spirit. I only wished that she got more sleep as she seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy to walk miles over scorched, hot hills with very little water, heal people, catch babies during birth and figure out complex disease patterns even while she was bone tired. I believe that the instructive message behind Madrone’s ability to do these super-human feats is that when filled with spirit, the body is a lot more capable of extraordinary efforts than we give it credit for. We believe we need eight hours of sleep a night, however in times of crisis and when using our body as a channel for spirit to pour through us, we can go beyond the conventions we have been taught. It was also instructive that Madrone always grounded herself with the earth prior to healing and also in times of stress and overwhelm: “Let the earth hold it, Maya used to say. She won’t lose it for you, and you’ll always know where to find her. Ground (p.36)”. This clearly enhanced her physical abilities – and she had marvelous allies in the bees, the ‘sisters.’
One of the most striking shamanistic elements that unfolds in the novel is Madrone’s apprentice with ‘The Melissas’ and her initiation into the world of the bee hive. I was captivated by these images:
Within her own body flowed rivers of scent and taste, and suddenly she knew them in a way even she, a healer, never had before – knew the scents her sweat could produce and what each signified and how they could be messages and conversations and offerings . . . Bees hummed lazily around her; their sound was now like music to her, operas and symphonies and oratorios, and at the same time like a crowd of gossiping friends, telling her everything she needed to know. (p.227)
Madrone calls on ‘the sisters’ for assistance during times of extreme crisis. They rescue her from nearly drowning in the sea and they are supreme allies in her healing work:
“Her bee mind learned what was fermenting in the woman’s belly and brewing in her veins; her human mind had names for these things and slowly, slowly, she was bringing them together, matching tastes and smells and names . . .” (p.321). This is a very shamanistic practice – to gather allies of plants, crystals, elements and animals to assist one in healing work. The bees also come to the rescue of Bird in prison, “their buzzing chased the ghosts out of his head” (p. 466), giving him companionship and solace, lifting him out of the ravages of torture and despair and back into the land of the living.
I could not help but notice the striking contrast between the healing gifts that the bees provide in the world of the novel, and our contemporary crisis affecting bees worldwide. Bees are under assault from the environmental toxic overload. Featuring the bees as the strongest allies of the healers in the world of the novel was prescient and cautionary – our world should pay attention because if the bees collapse, there could be no turning back for us.
Dreaming is another element of shamanism that is strongly featured in the novel. It is used to receive visions and instructions for one’s path, as well as a form of communication between members of the community, and to receive messages and visits from the ancestors. It is through a dream of the prophet Elijah that Maya receives the vision for the community that guides their non-violent resistance to the invasion from the south. Elijah says to Maya in the dream: “Tell your enemies this: ‘There is a place set for you at our table, if you will choose to join us’” (p.218). This one sentence turns out to be the key to the entire success of the north’s resistance and reclamation of their city and land. As an aside, I also find it very telling that Starhawk chose the old biblical character of Elijah to use here. Maya chastises the prophet calling him “an old fraud.” Elijah then makes his case that the “[new] messiah I herald has become the redemption of the earth” (p.218). This is a beautiful reframing and redemption for the thousands of years of injustices wrought on the earth and women that came out of the biblical text. It is as if Elijah is apologizing and saying “I get it. We were wrong and now we want to help heal the earth.”
Prior to going south, Madrone has dreams of being thirsty and walking long distances in the heat. These dreams foreshadow her journey and she goes to a strong dreamer, Lily, to receive instruction on lucid dreaming. This becomes a way of checking in with the north while she is on her journey in the south: “Her dreams were cloudy and full of gunshots and sudden endings. Lily’s face appeared preoccupied, when she appeared at all, and she wouldn’t speak” (p.354). Dreaming is a vital method of divination and soul communication in the novel and it inspires me to get serious about working with my own dreams in a more diligent and constructive manner, rather than let them confuse and scare me.
Madrone uses trance to access the healing that she is able to channel through her body. She gives the people of the Web in the south a great lesson in trance that gave me a deeper understanding of commonly used features of shamanic journeying:
“Anchoring is a way to get quickly in and out of particular levels of trance,” she went on, “by keying each level to its own image and phrase and to a physical touch on a part of the body . . . Now find an anchor for this state, a place you can touch, as you breathe, to bring you back, a word you can say, an image to hold in your mind. Concentrate, make it strong.” (p.357)
I understood ‘anchoring’ to be the different places and items that are used to lead people in a trance journey. In a shamanism class in my graduate program, we were led on a journey that began with being on a path or a road, then finding a doorway or an opening and going through it, then looking for water and finding it, then having a garment, finding a plant, an animal, etc. All of these steps are the anchors that take the journeyer deeper and deeper into trance. At the end of the journey, the journeyer is led back up to the various anchoring stages so that they are led out of trance safely. It is a highly effective method that is easy to learn and use and an empowering tool.
The Fifth Sacred Thing is an excellent novel that encapsulates the world of shamanism and I immediately appreciated the reason that it was assigned for my class on female shamanism. However, I had no idea just how poignant its themes and narrative would be on a political level. The people in the south who are thrown into the pens are our overcrowded prisons: “Most of them are just poor sticks that get picked up off the street, get to choose between the army and jail” (p.442). That statement could be said about our African-American male population. The people who are hooked on the boosters are our over-medicated children on Ritalin and other drugs, and our over-medicated senior citizens and people who are thrown on anti-depressants, antibiotics, pain pills and other drugs for the slightest reason. The Millenlialists and Stewards are our present day rigid Christian right fundamentalists and Tea Partiers who would like to take us back several hundred years (see daily headlines including the current war on women’s health, the contraception controversy, the state of Virginia’s deplorable attempt to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds against a woman and her doctors will – in other words, state-mandated rape, the misogynist attacks by Rush Limbaugh and on and on…..). And the drought that ravaged the south in the novel is ravaging the state of Texas and other parts of the world due to climate change.
The community organized, non-violent resistance that the north embarks on when they are invaded from the south, mirrors the Occupy movement that has now spread from Wall Street, across the United States and to every continent on the planet. From Anchorage to Australia, people are waking up to the injustice, greed, rampant corruption and criminality that has sabotaged democracy in the United States and across the world. I see this as an issue that is deeply embedded with female shamanism as feminists involved in the women’s spirituality movement have been pioneers in activist actions for justice for decades. The old adage “the personal is political” stands. Starhawk’s vision of a sustainable community living in harmony, as seen in The Fifth Sacred Thing is very similar to what many people in the occupy movement are now embodying:
All day long, people had been converging in the Central Plaza. Some had gathered early in the morning; others arrived in contingents that formed spontaneously in the outlying neighborhoods and made their way changing and singing through the streets, picking up others along the way. Now it seemed that the whole of the city had grouped together in this one spot . . . When a speaker stood on the raised platform in the center of the square, her or his voice was carried easily to the outer boundaries, clear and audible. Now it was the soldiers who took advantage of it, massing on the platform in the center, warning the people to disperse and go home. The crowd responded with chants and pounding drums and howls like ghost cries on the wind. (p.467)
This scene is being enacted out today in many cities across the world – people working together without a hierarchical structure, people protesting peacefully even in the face of police crackdowns and unwarranted brutality as in the incidents at Occupy Oakland, at UC Davis and others. The Occupy movement has caught fire and it cannot come too soon for the sake of the planet and humanity. Within the space of one and half months (this paper was written Nov 1/11) it has already changed the conversation and the political and elite classes are paying attention. We can only hope that the movement will stand strong in the face of those who feel threatened by it. This book should be required reading for them.
This novel was deeply inspiring and I am gratified to know that a movie is in the works. In these perilous times of change and turmoil, visionary texts such as this are necessary to show us a light in the distance that harbors hope. That there are so many acute parallels to real-life conditions speaks to the magical qualities that brought this novel forward. I could only imagine that Starhawk received this vision, back some twenty years ago, using all of the shaman’s tools and methods so expertly described and contained in the text: trance, rituals, dreaming, healing, divination, grounding, and with great reverence to the ancestors and spirit guides with whom she communes. To her and to them I say: Blessed Be! Copyright©Kathy Stanley