Review: Starhawk, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying

I have not had new posts for a while because an uncle of mine died, and I was spending time supporting my mother and being with family. As a result, I drew heavily on this book, which I had had for a while but hadn’t read. I hope to resume something like my usual pace this week.

Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and the Reclaiming Collective. The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. HarperCollins, 1997. Paperback, 353 pages.

I turned to this book when I needed resources, and it provided. If you’re going to be in a leadership role in the Pagan community, you should at least have read this book, and I strongly suggest you should own it. If you’re a Pagan, you may not see it as important, but it is a handy thing to have around and could provide interesting resources and challenges for you around Samhain.

This book is a compilation of articles, meditations, rituals, prayers, chants, songs, poetry, and more. It manages somehow to be both wide in scope and deep in content, and although it is not assembled for front-to-back reading, I found the comprehensive table of contents easy to use.

Part one, The Pagan Tradition, has thealogical material, reflections, and meditations. Uncharacteristically, this is the part I have read the least of, because it wasn’t what I needed when I pulled this book off the shelf. What I have read looks thoughtful and articulate, and comes from a variety of writers, without trying to express a monolithic view of what Paganism is or ought to be. Part two, The Pagan View of Death, has some very useful discussion of specifically how Pagans can understand death, again, with respect for a variety of viewpoints.

Part three, The Dying Process, and part four, Death Has Many Faces, are the “meat” of the book. The section on the dying process includes many personal reflections, some of which will bring tears to your eyes and others which will make you laugh aloud. The summary material provides good advice of several kinds to those working with the dying or the grieving, and generally advises an approach that lets those closest to the situation take the lead, with others providing support and nurturing, while making sure to take care of themselves at the same time. It addresses issues relevant to people in a wide range of grief situations, including sudden or violent death, the death of a child, deaths from HIV, and abortion. Specific suggestions give concrete options while the general themes are consistently carried throughout.

Part five, Carrying On, has other advice that is invaluable, especially for Pagans who may find themselves counseling or consoling people who are still working through the grieving process weeks, months, or years later. This section may seem almost irrelevant to someone who has not experienced the death of someone close, but it is one more indication that this book was put together by people who have experienced that which they write about.

The real treasure in this book is the stock of rituals, prayers, songs, poems, meditations, and visualizations. A lot of material here comes from Starhawk, especially prayers, but plenty of it is from other people, largely from the Reclaiming Collective. Again, the breadth of material is impressive, including a prayer for cleaning the rooms of someone who has died. I found the resources easy to modify, to pick and choose and reassemble something that worked for the situation I was in.

I have not done many of the meditations, but I look forward to trying them, and I think that some of them could provide great pieces for Samhain rituals, even for a solitary who has little to grieve. There are also excellent starting points for Pagans to think about and prepare for their own deaths, including basic suggestions about legal issues to consider, as well as practical and magical ones.

I would have liked to see more material about hospice and palliative care, and how to work with the medical community to achieve the goals of the patient in the case of a long and debilitating terminal illness. I don’t know if that omission is the result of a lack of awareness and experience with hospice and palliative care; that area of care has certainly grown and developed in the last decade. Another factor may be that this book does provide the kind of “need it now” resources that I praise. But there is also plenty of material for longer-term reflection, and I think a chapter on what hospice care is, how it works, when you or a loved one might choose it, and how to define the goals of care and get them met would have been a tremendous addition.

You may not like or enjoy all the material presented in this book; almost certainly, you will not agree with all of it. But I found that it had adaptable resources when I needed them, and that even the material that I found jarring was a useful stimulus to additional thinking and meditation.

In order to be in concert with natural cycles – the whole cycle, from beginning to end to new beginnings – even Pagans who are not grieving or have never grieved should face the existence of death, including their own. This book is a good place to start that process, and a tremendous contribution to the Pagan community’s shared pool of knowledge, understanding, lore, and ritual.

Medal of Honor winner

I’d like to note that today saw the first Medal of Honor bestowed on a living recipient since the Vietnam War. SSG Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor for acts which included rescuing a comrade being carried away by the Taliban.

But this isn’t good enough for AFA’s Bryan Fischer. No, this is part of the trend of “feminizing” the Medal of Honor, because according to one reporter’s account, none of the Medals of Honor awarded in these conflicts have been for killing the enemy. Now, that’s a matter of some debate, since it’s not like a Medal of Honor citation comes with a box score, but I always thought that we awarded the Medal of Honor for, you know, honorable actions. Like, say, Sergeant York, who notably captured – not killed! – 132 Germans. Or maybe like Colonel Bud Day, who did amazing things enduring captivity as a POW. Or maybe like SFC Randy Shugart and MSG Gary Gordon, who were decorated posthumously for sacrificing themselves trying to save the crew of the downed helicopter, as told in the book Black Hawk Down.

Fischer goes on to say that dying to save others isn’t good enough because it’s not what Jesus did. According to Fischer, “Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice would ultimately have been meaningless – yes, meaningless – if he had not inflicted a mortal wound on the enemy while giving up his own life.” I grew up the daughter of a Christian theologian, and have read a bit of theology myself, and I’ve never come across this theory of grace. Heck, the guy manages to describe the Crucifixion without ever using the word grace. Fischer is trying to say that Jesus’ supreme act of self-sacrifice, submitting himself to a death decreed by someone who had no authority over him, a death as a common criminal, a death full of shame and torture, that this act was Jesus’ triumphant way of killing the Devil? Whatever Jesus was doing at the Crucifixion, I’m pretty sure that being a terrifying commanding general killing other beings wasn’t it. Notably, Shugart and Gordon were honored for going into a situation that was certain death for them where they still might not have been able to protect the air crew.

As far as the military side goes, Fischer quotes Patton about getting the other guy to die for his cause, which is all good, but Patton wasn’t running the kind of war we’re facing in Afghanistan today. Particularly in situations where one is trying to defeat an insurgency, killing the enemy just creates more of them. More people get radicalized because they’re angry that their cousin died, and those people go to work and fight for the Taliban. If you manage not to kill their cousin, they might work with the Americans, or even join the Afghan army and work on keeping the peace and suppressing the Taliban. It’s not that simple, of course, but my point here is that Fischer seems to think that saving lives isn’t good enough for the Medal of Honor. On the contrary, killing isn’t good enough for the Medal of Honor just because it’s killing – in this war, killing might be a strategic mistake.

On a side note, my husband recounted to me the time that a Medal of Honor winner from Vietnam came to speak at the Air Force Academy. He held up his medal and said, “You only get the opportunity to get one of these because somebody already really f***ed up.” That was the message he wanted to impress on these future officers: if you do your job well, nobody in your unit will have to put himself in mortal danger above and beyond the call of duty, as the citation goes. Nobody will have to die to save others, and that’s an ideal they should strive for as leaders. That makes it pretty clear that the military itself doesn’t think the goal is to get out there and kill lots of the enemy and win medals and honors for killing.

More importantly, killing isn’t honorable just because it’s killing. I think that people who struggle with trying to embody a warrior ethic, especially those who follow a path like Asatru, would argue this even more strenuously than I do. If I recall correctly, in the myths, what gets somebody entrance to Valhalla isn’t how many enemy he killed, but the way he himself died. Oh, and about feminizing – let’s just take note of Freya, the leader of the Valkyries, here, shall we? Or Scathach, for those who prefer Celtic myths. Anybody who lives up to the standards of those goddesses has my full respect as a warrior, regardless of their biological plumbing. I’d like to see Fischer try to explain to Scathach how “feminine” means “not as good a warrior.”

In fact, I would argue that if we valorize killing for its own sake, we contribute to the kind of culture that produces sick people like the accused leaders of a group of soldiers who are facing charges of murdering Afghan civilians. If those men did what they’re accused of, the leaders clearly have several things wrong with them, but just the idea that they could get other people to go along with them speaks to the lack of a warrior ethos centered on honor. The kind of honor we ought to be praising and highlighting is the kind that kills when necessary, yes, but only when necessary. And the kind that saves when possible. Like SSG Giunta. Thank you, Sergeant Giunta, and I honor you, and your comrades, because you deserve it.