Starhawk, Henry Vaughan, and the Environmental Imagination

Camille Flammarion. L’Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire. Paris: Hachette, 1888. Recoloured by Hugo Heikenwaelder, 1998, CC BY-SA 2.5.

By Zane Johnson

Times of widespread crisis often challenge conventional ways of being in and seeing the world. Sometimes these challenges take on a millenarian character, heralding the end of an epoch or the dawning of a new age. A case in point is the global ascendancy of the far-right conspiracy group, QAnon, which paints Donald Trump as a world savior against an elite cabal of Satanic pedophiles. As ridiculous and abhorrent as its charges may be, they point to a definite increase in magical thinking in our political discourse. A more benign example of this can be seen among progressive millennials who identify as witches or who practice an array of new age techniques, such as reading tarot cards, horoscopes, or certain forms of meditation. It has been speculated that this is largely a response to diminishing economic opportunities among millennials, to whom the appeal to an interior power is becoming increasingly attractive as the lifestyle and opportunities available to previous generations gradually slip away: a good job, home ownership, and secure retirement. Ironically, a multibillion-dollar industry has even developed to satisfy this revival of interest in the occult.

What is interesting here, in contrast to the millenarianism of the far-right (from which the left is far from immune—queue “Age of Aquarius”), is that contemporary occultism has a markedly more backward-looking character. Indeed, on the eve of the Reagan and Thatcher era, neo-pagan author and teacher, Starhawk, all but initiated the goddess movement with her spiritual classic The Spiral Dance. In the opening chapters she conjures a vision of “an egalitarian, decentralized, inventive, and peaceful society” on the eve of a settled, agricultural civilization, which may or may not stand up to scholarly scrutiny. Starhawk marshals the powers of the imagination to reconstruct forgotten, ecocentric lifeways. “Witchcraft,” she writes, “takes its teachings from nature, and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars.” [1] What is interesting from an environmental humanities perspective is the way this kind of earth-based spirituality has continued to mobilize generations of young people disaffected by conservative religious institutions.

While this is nothing new in times of crisis, which have often initiated underground streams of alternative spiritualities, metaphysics, or lifestyles, the trend can be traced back through the English literary tradition to the beginning of the modern era. I am impressed by the resonance between Starhawk’s longing for a bygone matriarchal, biocentric era and the poet Henry Vaughan’s rejection of the metaphysics of the Enlightenment in favor of a Hermetic worldview that derived its authority from an imagined, antique past. [2] This was a model of reality characterized by astral influences on earthly affairs, correspondences between natural and celestial objects (“as above, so below”), and divine immanence that verges on animism. In both cases, the modern and the early modern, we can read a reevaluation of the concept of a mechanical universe populated by dead matter, with the two authors bookending the lifespan of this particular view of the cosmos: Henry Vaughan at its birth and Starhawk (perhaps) in its old age.

Henry Vaughan released his first volume of poetry, Silex Scintillans, a year before the end of the English Civil War in 1650. Having fought on the side of the Royalists, he wasn’t afforded the social and political capital enjoyed by the opposing side of Parliamentarians during the ascendency of Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth. We can perhaps read his sense of estrangement dressed in the language of religious poverty in the opening stanza of “The Seed Growing Secretly”:

 If this world’s friends might see but once
 What some poor man may often feel,
 Glory, and gold, and Crowns and Thrones
 They would soon quit and learn to kneel. [3] 

Vaughan therefore found himself in a similar position to many of today’s increasingly disadvantaged, horoscope-checking millennials, with the important difference being the latter’s personal empowerment messaging. Yet Vaughan, too, had a penchant for the occult, being the brother of the Hermetic philosopher and alchemist, Thomas Vaughan. As the ecocritic Robert Watson writes, this trend of crisis occultism occurred among many of the Metaphysical writers with Royalist leanings:

The language of a hidden truth and a hidden power is the rightful property of the culturally, politically, and/or economically marginalized; that is presumably why it passes to the Royalist side [from the Parliamentarian side] around mid-century, with the mysticism and Hermeticism of poets such as Traherne and Vaughan. [4]

That is, when out of the Civil War Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth emerged, these Royalist poets turned towards a source of truth that was covered by the dawning religiopolitical order. For the Anglican Vaughan, this led him to question the emerging mechanical worldview, often connected with developments in Protestant religious thought, and to espouse the near-animistic cosmos of Renaissance Hermeticism. The continuity with the present becomes clear, as Watson notes, arguing that “The pre-Enlightenment model re-emerges as the structure on which modern environmentalist consciousness would be built.” [5]

In his poem (“And do they so? have they a Sense”), Vaughan challenges the assumption of a largely insensate material reality, arguing that the entire creation will take part in the bodily resurrection at the end of time:

 And do they so? have they a Sense
             Of ought but Influence? 
 Can they their heads lift, and expect,
             And groan too? why th’ Elect
 Can do no more: my volumes said 
             They were all dull, and dead, 
 They judged them senseless, and their state
             Wholly Inanimate.
             Go, go; Seal up thy looks,
                         And burn thy books. [6] 

Vaughan is reacting here to both the Scholasticism of his immediate ancestors and the emerging Enlightenment worldview, both of which denied the ensoulment of the cosmos. We can hear Vaughan’s identification with an increasingly marginalized creation (“why, th’ Elect / Can do no more”), which is, incidentally, one of Starhawk’s qualifications for the budding witch: “To be a Witch is to identify with victims of bigotry and hatred and to take responsibility for shaping a world in which prejudice claims no more victims.” [7]

Vaughan’s alternative universe is one infused by divine life, which is often figured as a fiery substance akin to the Sulphur of the alchemists. Indeed, early modern alchemist and medical pioneer, Paracelsus, identified alchemical Sulphur with the binding agent, the soul of all things, similar to the Platonic concept of the anima mundi: “For seeing Sulphur is that soule, and doth like Fire ripen and digest all things; it can also bind the soule with the body, incorporating and binding them together, so that from thence may be produced a most excellent body.” [8] This enlivening principle that joins the material and the spiritual is one of the most prominent images in Vaughan’s poetry. He seems particularly insistent upon this “light” pulsing through the animal kingdom. He begins his poem “Cock-crowing” with an outpouring of adulation to the “Father of lights”:

 Father of lights! what Sunny seed,
 What glance of day hast thou confined 
 Into this bird? To all the breed 
 This busy Ray thou hast assigned;
             Their magnetism works all night
             And dreams of Paradise and light.  

There are six references to light in this short stanza, all of which are figured to be indwelling or “confined” within animality. Though birds are frequently used as images in alchemical artworks to illustrate Hermetic principles, Vaughan surely has a more creaturely understanding of the emblematic beast when he continues his adulation thus in the fourth stanza:

 O thou immortal light and heat!
 Whose hand so shines through all this frame,
 That by the beauty of the seat, 
 We plainly see, who made the same. 
        Seeing thy seed abides in me,
        Dwell thou in it, and I in thee. [9]  

Vaughan emphasizes the created nature of the bird, lifting it from the Renaissance emblem book and rendering it three-dimensional. We can “plainly see” it. This multi-dimensional reality also extends beyond individual creatures. As a faithful disciple of the devotional George Herbert, Vaughan here supplicates himself before God and begs for his providential dwelling within the whole of creation (the editor glosses “frame” as “the universe”). The vital Sulphur of the alchemists is the medium by which God, the human, and the animal interpenetrate.

Vaughan and the Metaphysical poets’ interest in their contemporary occult concepts are instructive for our times. This sense of marginalization from the reigning socio-political order also calls into question other orthodoxies. Then and now, the status of the earth as a dead object or as a living entity worthy of reverence is front and center. Vaughan was writing at the birth of the Enlightenment, and we are perhaps experiencing its latter days. Our world is profoundly shaped by the legacy of the Enlightenment, yet more and more people (for better or worse) appear to be questioning its foundations of mechanism and materialism. Situating the contemporary occult revival within a larger tradition demonstrates that occultism has a long history, which is intertwined with philosophical tensions that continue into the present day, underpinning our current environmental crises and how we imagine a better world for all creatures.

Far from rejecting their Judeo-Christian heritage, progressive millennials in the United States are taking part in their own inherited prophetic—if also politically leftist—tradition of identifying with the groaning creation against an oppressive social and religious order, imagining both a different earth and a different way of being in it. Young people immersing themselves in the occult in response to an increasing sense of disenfranchisement are therefore more traditional than they or their perceived opponents on the Evangelical right would suspect. In the shifting imaginal space of Vaughan’s Hermetic High Churchmanship and Starhawk’s feminist witchcraft shimmers a similar shade of green. In that wavelength a powerful but rarely tapped ecopolitical force may be found.

[1] Starhawk, “The Religion of the Great Goddess,” The Trumpeter: Voices from the Canadian Ecophilosophy Network 4, no. 3 (1987): 18. Republished excerpt from The Spiral Dance.

[2] Cf. Assmann, Jan, foreword to The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus, by Florian Ebeling (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2007) vii–xiii, for the backward-looking character of Renaissance Hermeticism and alchemy in general.

[3] Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Poets, ed. Mario A. Di Cesare (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), 173.

[4] Watson, Robert, Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) 151.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Henry Vaughan, 152–153.

[7] Starhawk, 19.

[8] Paracelsus, “From Of the Nature of Things and Paracelsus His Aurora,” in The Alchemy Reader, ed. Stanton J. Linden (New York: Cambridge University Press, [1650] 2003), 154.

[9] Henry Vaughan, 167–169.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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