The Twelve Wild Swans: Rituals, Exercises & Magical Training in the Reclaiming Tradition

By Starhawk and Hilary Valentine.
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. 326 pages, $24 cloth.

Reviewed by Chas S. Clifton, Colorado State University-Pueblo
The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies
Issue 18 (Winter2002:) 36–7

Twenty years after the success of The Spiral Dance, the Wiccan teacher Starhawk, with the collaboration of Hilary Valentine, has returned to the self-help genre with The Twelve Wild Swans, which brings together in book form what the authors and others have taught in numerous training sessions, or "Witch Camps." As Robert Bly did with Iron John, this book is organized around a folktale, one in which a princess endures many hardships in order to free her twelve brothers from an enchantment which has turned them into swans. Rather than seeing the story as encoding patriarchal domination, in which the princess, Rose, serves her brothers, the authors reinterpret its symbolism to gain both a feminist message and a template for magical self-realization.

Thus, "leaving the castle" introduces discussion and exercises about moving from mundane in sacred space: self-purification through visualization exercises, invoking the four element powers, and casting a circle. "Wandering in the wilderness" includes self-blessing and self-initiation, and developing what anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann called the "interpretive drift" toward the magical world view and into viewing one's life as a spiritual quest. Likewise, the chapter entitled "The Wicked Vow" involves overcoming "shadow beliefs" about gender roles, self-importance, and the like-in Jungian terms, confronting the Shadow. "Carried Away," based on the tale's telling of how the swan-brothers carried their sister over the sea in a basket, is interpreted shamanically and deals with trance work and creating ritual. Next comes "The Challenge," which reinterprets the princess's weaving of twelve shirts from nettles in total silence, and further chapters dealing with her marriage, a false accusation of infanticide, and her eventual rescue of her brothers.

Compared to The Spiral Dance, this work is denser, more nuanced, contains far more experiential material, and has more of a sense of humor. It also departs from the traditional Witchcraft teachings on the neutrality of magic as spiritual technology, summarized in the saying, "A Witch who cannot curse, cannot bless." Starhawk and Valentine optimistically assume that their course of study will inevitably produce not just a more centered, self-realized person, but one who shares their political views on oppression by race, class, or gender; on nuclear power, or on the World Trade Organization. In addition, its foundation myth is cheerfully a-historical, still retailing Margaret Murray's claim that victims of the Renaissance and early modern witch trials were persecuted Pagans and Goddess worshippers, and Marija Gimbutas' claims about a universal, peaceful Goddess-worshipping culture in the distance past. (However, the claim that "The red, the white and the black are the colors of the Goddess," should be attributed to Robert Graves rather than Gimbutas.)