A Brief History of Reclaiming

by Vibra Willow © (This article is slightly different from the original which appeared in the Reclaiming Quarterly, No. 76, Fall 1999.)

Just yesterday, it seems, a typical Reclaiming ritual meant a circle of perhaps 25 or 30 folks on a San Francisco beach holding hands in the fog and the wind as often as in the sun. We’d run shrieking into the surf and back to the fire before the park rangers had time to notice, keeping an eye on the kids running in a small pack, silhouetted on the cliffs above. A really big ritual like the Spiral Dance meant a crowd of 350 in the Women’s Building, where the same people set up the room, greeted the participants, led the ritual, swept the floor and turned out the lights.

We knew each other’s names, attended each other’s birthday parties, visited in each other’s backyards. Some of us were housemates, some were lovers, many were family, most were friends, none were strangers. We were Reclaiming in the 1980s and early 90s.

Now, in the fall of 1999, we are on the cusp of a new era, and thousands of people throughout the United States, Canada, and Western Europe identify themselves as Reclaiming Witches. There are dozens of Reclaiming teachers who have never met each other, and independent Witch Camps all over North America. Our little newsletter, which used to be typed up and painstakingly laid out in our dining rooms using a homemade light table, has grown into a computer-produced, shiny, respectable magazine. 1,500 people attend The Spiral Dance, and 150 gather on the beach.

How on Earth did it happen?

It is impossible for any one person to tell the entire complex and fluid story of Reclaiming – which after all is still unfolding – but I offer here highlights and basic information which I hope will help to orient those who may be newcomers, and perhaps fill in some gaps even for those who have been around for a while.

The Reclaiming Tradition is a form of modern, feminist Witchcraft which was initially developed in the classes, workshops, summer programs and public rituals of the Reclaiming Collective (1978-1997). A living religion which continues to evolve, it is a belief system and a style of ritual and Magic, not a church or organization with any kind of formal membership that one can “join.”

It is a hallmark of the Reclaiming Tradition that initiation does not lead to any sort of entitlement and there is no formal hierarchy of priests and priestesses. People who share the core values described in the Principles of Unity and who practice Magic in the Reclaiming style can, and do, legitimately identify themselves as Reclaiming Witches.

The Reclaiming Collective was a group of women and men in the San Francisco Bay Area which formed in 1978-80, originally an outgrowth of classes in magic taught by Starhawk and Diane Baker. The Collective was a working group which published a quarterly newsletter; organized and led public rituals for the Sabbats, the eight seasonal holidays of the year; and taught classes from a feminist perspective in Magic and Witchcraft, including week-long summer programs which came to be known as Witch Camp.

Membership in the Collective was an organic process, with invitations to join based on commitment to and experience in the ongoing work of the “Cells,” and there were many social friendships and close personal relationships among Collective members. Women were always the large majority in the Collective, which usually numbered from 10 to 15 people. Many of the early members of the Collective were active in the anti-nuclear movement, some had worked for civil rights and peace in the 1960s, some were active in the Anarchist community in the 1970s and 80s, and some were active in the environmental movement in the 1980s and 90s. Many lived in collective households and few had children. All were (and are) feminists and advocates of non-violence.

The Collective made all its decisions by consensus process. There was no Chairperson, no Board of Directors, no formal structure at all in the formative years. Money brought in by any Cell was allocated to the work of the Collective. In principle everyone in the Collective was entitled to payment for their work, if there was money, but most donated most of their time. In 1994, after a few years of discussion and reflection, Reclaiming became an incorporated religious organization under state and federal law. At that time the policies and practices of the Collective were described in written By-Laws.

By 1996, it was clear that there were hundreds or perhaps thousands of Reclaiming Witches in many other places, including Canada, Great Britain, and Germany, largely due to the influence of Witch Camps in those places, as well as the influential writings of Starhawk. In the Bay Area the community had expanded exponentially and the work of Reclaiming – putting on rituals, publishing the newsletter, and teaching – was now being done by dozens of people, and classes and workshops were attended by hundreds. 1,500 people could be expected to come to a Spiral Dance. The Collective went on a retreat but could not reach a decision about what its role should be in this new context, or what kind of structure should replace it.

The Collective invited input from the entire community, widespread discussions ensued, and another retreat was held in November 1997. The Principles of Unity is a statement of core values in the Reclaiming Tradition written by the Reclaiming Collective at that retreat. Fundamental value is placed on reverence for the Earth, the natural cycles of life and death, individual autonomy, non-violence, feminism, and responsible activism.

At the 1997 retreat the Reclaiming Collective dissolved itself, creating basic suggestions and guidelines for the structure of Reclaiming in the Bay Area which exists today, consisting of the Wheel, various working Cells, and the Advisory Council. Reclaiming Witches in other places organize themselves (or not) as they will. There is no central authority and all Witch Camps are autonomous.

The Wheel of Reclaiming today holds the legal identity of Reclaiming as a tax-exempt religious organization. Its members are chosen by the working groups, known as “Cells,” who do various projects in the name of Reclaiming. For example, the Cell that publishes the Reclaiming Quarterly, the Cell that teaches core classes, and the Cell that works on special, one-time projects each have a representative on the Wheel.

The Wheel makes decisions by consensus and is empowered to act in the name of Reclaiming in a legal context, to make policy decisions, and to recognize new Cells. It is located in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has spent its first two years keeping things running and beginning to address many basic questions of policy, structure, and finances.

Reclaiming Cells now include: Administrative, Community Building, E-Cell (website), Inside (prison ministry), Quarterly Magazine, Spiral Dance, Special Projects, East Bay, North Bay, and San Francisco Ritual Planning, North Bay Teachers, San Francisco/East Bay Teachers, and Youth. Some Cells are sometimes inactive.

The Work of Reclaiming includes:

  • organizing public rituals for the eight Sabbats, the major seasonal holidays of Samhain (Halloween), Winter Solstice, Imbolc (Brigid), Oestara (Spring Equinox), Beltane (May Day), Summer Solstice, Lammas (Lhughnasad), and Mabon (Fall Equinox)
  • publishing a quarterly magazine, The Reclaiming Quarterly
  • offering classes and workshops focusing on various aspects of modern feminist spirituality and traditional teachings. Our core classes are: Elements of Magic, The Iron Pentacle, The Pearl Pentacle, and Rites of Passage. In the summer months week-long intensives (“Witchcamps”) are offered in northern California and several other places around the country as well as in Vancouver, B.C., England and Germany.
  • maintaining a Web page online with information about our various projects, and discussion lists for people with ties to Reclaiming.
  • special projects, such as producing three cassette tapes (one also a CD) of ritual music and a book, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (HarperSanFrancisco 1997), edited by M. Macha NightMare and Starhawk. Information about Reclaiming music and books is available through Serpentine Music.

The Reclaiming Community includes people, primarily in North America and Western Europe, who identify with the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft. Generally, these are people who have attended Reclaiming classes, workshops, or intensives and agree with the Principles of Unity. Many have become involved in working with the Cells in the San Francisco Bay Area and others have developed programs and projects in their own areas based on Reclaiming teachings.

There is no way to become a “member” of Reclaiming in the way we usually think of “joining” an organization. There is no membership application, or dues to pay, or anything like that. People become involved in the organization known as Reclaiming by becoming involved in the work and activities of the various Cells. And the community also includes those who just attend rituals or other events, or who practice the Reclaiming tradition in their own covens, circles, or as solitaries. Community members often participate in political actions directed toward non-violence, social justice and a healthy planet.

Footnote: Vibra Willow was a member of the Reclaiming Collective from 1985 until its dissolution and in Fall 1999 was a member of the Advisory Council, the E-Cell, the Inside Cell, the Spiral Dance Cell, and the San Francisco/East Bay Teachers Cells. 

© Copyright 1999, 2000 by Vibra Willow