Are These Three Novels Prophetic? Part 3: The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk by Barbara Ardinger

Members of this community (and others) have been feeling that the world is out of balance since the 2016 election. There’s a feeling that people are becoming less kind and that some men (following the model that lives and tweets in the White House when he’s not at one of his golf resorts) are more misogynistic. I’ve heard that Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four is more popular than ever before. We seem to be living in a new dystopia. It’s very sad and very scary.

I’ve recently reread three novels written by women that I think may be both prophetic and inspiring. I’m hoping that if you read them, too, you’ll inspired by their brave heras to keep on resisting. The novels are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996) by Sheri S. Tepper, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy, and The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk.

Starhawk (Miriam Simos) was probably the most famous “out” witch in the last quarter of the 20th century. Her book The Spiral Dance (1979) introduced uncountable numbers of people to the Goddess, Paganism, and Witchcraft. Nowadays, she’s teaching “Regenerative Culture, Earth-based spirituality, and Permaculture.” She is no doubt working up to the Uprising described in The Fifth Sacred Thing that separated northern and southern California—a generally bucolic San Francisco filled with Pagans and an eclectic mix of every other religion with free healthcare for all and a City of Angels (Los Angeles) filled with Stewards, ruins, and sex slaves.

The Fifth Sacred Thing opens in 2048 with Maya, a 98-year-old Orthodox (sic.!) Pagan climbing a mountain. At the Lammas (August 1) ritual, she tells how the Uprising began. Global warming has happened, and during the drought of 2028, four old women (remember Tepper’s bag ladies?) went with pickaxes to a major thoroughfare in San Francisco, dug up the pavement, and planted seeds in the earth. The Uprising was led by people who had participated in the Summer of Love (1967) and demonstrated against the Vietnam War.

In the next chapter we begin to meet the Stewards, who in 2028 canceled the elections and took control. Now “the Corporation,” which banished women from every profession but the oldest one, owns the Southlands and apparently most of the U.S. Although Starhawk wrote this novel in 1993, the Stewards look like Trump’s cabinet and true believers exponentially multiplied. The Steward are allied with the Millennialists, who have suppressed every religion but their own and whose Creed reads in part, “…we abhor the earth, the Devil’s playground, and the flesh, Satan’s instrument. We abhor the false…gods…who tempt us to wallow in the worship of demons, whether they be called Goddesses, Saints, Lucifer, or the so-called Virgin Mary. For we know that Our Lord never lowered Himself to take on loathly flesh….” Maya’s grandson, Bird, has been their prisoner for ten years. He’s been drugged (like Connie), but  now he’s beginning to feel his magical powers returning.

Another protagonist is Madrone, a healer and midwife. As we read through a long Council meeting (they’ve got Councils for everything), we see the similarities between San Francisco is 2048 and Piercy’s free future of 2137. The values are much the same, although Starhawk’s future is determinedly Pagan and Witchy (and very PC). Madrone has lost a patient to a mysterious fever that morning. In the council meeting, one character says they’re still living in the “toxic stew” of pollution in the Bay. Is this fever becoming an epidemic? Is it biological warfare?

Bird summons the best magic he can and escapes with two other prisoners. As he travels up the California coast, sometimes along what was once the Pacific Coast Highway, sometimes along what was Interstate 5, he learns what happened to him ten years ago. When he and some other Witches destroyed an atomic reactor (probably in Santa Barbara County), his friends were killed by the Stewards and he was captured. Now he’s regaining his memory and his powers as he’s meeting other outlaws.

When Bird arrives in San Francisco, not much has changed: there’s still a lot of free love and arguing and they all still work collectively. Madrone recently went into “the ch’i worlds” to search for the virus, caught it, and almost died, but now she’s mostly recovered. They hold a meeting in which they discuss nonviolent resistance. After much argument about how best to resist, Madrone finally decides to travel south to find out if the Stewards are really planning an invasion. As she retraces Bird’s trail and meets the people who helped him, she gives them free healings and teaches them Witchy powers. The book thus turns into what is essentially a handbook of resistance and Witchy powers. When Madrone goes to Hollywood to take part in raid on a drug warehouse, we learn that in the Southlands only the rich have water, medicine, fresh vegetables, cars, access to education, healthcare, and any kind of technology (which is mostly built by prisoners).

Yes, there is a war in this novel. Just think of any superhero-action-adventure movie and add Nazis, and you’re seeing it. The Stewards’ army invades San Francisco, and nonviolent resistance seems to wither under bullets. Although she finds pockets of rebellion and resistance, Madrone nearly dies in Los Angeles. She finally gets home and learns that Bird has been captured again. But the Witches are also learning how to get soldiers to desert.

The novel has a sort of happy ending. Is it prophetic? I hope not! I live in the Southlands. But anyone who is paying attention to the daily news sees that we’re already on the path to a world run by the Stewards and the Millennialists. Starhawk has written a sequel, City of Refuge (2015), around the three major characters to tell what happens next in the North and the Southlands. I have not read the new novel.

But I know that Witches can prophesy. And so can writers, and so we have in these three novels four protagonists—Carolyn Crespin, Consuelo Ramos, and Maya and Madrona—who can teach us a great deal about resistance. The four sacred things are earth, air, fire, and water. The fifth is spirit. Blessed be.


Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: Books, Feminism, Fiction

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10 replies

  1. “we’re already on the path to a world run by the Stewards and the Millennialists” – I think we’ve been on this path a long time Barbara A. Ike warned us about it when he was President. I had hoped that with Trump’s candidacy people would realize where this path was leading and wake up. But instead, he was elected, and here we are.
    May the story-tellers be heard. Reason births anger; a Good Story births Resistance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Starhawk and Luisa Teisch came to Long Beach in 1991 for an all-day workshop. I learned a lot! As it happened, Starhawk and I found ourselves alone in the cafeteria (ahead of the crowd), so we started talking and sat down and ate together. We talked about magical names and magic in general. I told her my favorite of her books was Truth or Dare (1990), and she signed my copy.


  2. I reread 1984 before the election and wanted my book club to join me. The irony I think is not ironic at all. I know things goes much deeper that the dissection on the surface. The wars to propel the economy and the “fear” factor are real. I will embrace my voice and my ability to grow intellectually. I will not waiver in the face of hate. We are better than this. I know I would be one of the first to be “disposed” of if it all happens in my lifetime. I won’t be duped. I choose to think. Beware because I have a daughter who is prepared to fight. Great post!
    I can’t wait to read these novels with my daughter.


    • Did the book club read 1984? Have you also read Brave New World? Good for you for choosing to think! I bet you’re also teaching your daughter to think, Yes, read these three novels. I think you’ll find more in them than I had room to say in my posts. Bright blessings!


  3. Love this book and also Walking to Mercury! Thanks for reminding us all!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Three of my all-time favorites!!! I recently re-read “The Fifth Sacred Thing”.


  5. Thank you for this post, Barbara. I read “The Fifth Sacred Thing” when it was first published. It was so disturbing that I’ve never reread it. I contributed to the crowd-funding so “City of Refuge” could be published, but have been too afraid to read it. When I’m in a fragile mood, I just can’t read downers or dystopic fiction.

    Since Thing has been in the White House, I find myself swearing almost nonstop, and my blood pressure is way up. This is not the country I grew up in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I keep thinking I’m also afraid to read City of Refuge, the sequel to Fifth Sacred Thing. I did, however, read Walking to Mercury, which is the prequel. And you’re right–this is not the world we grew up in. Alas. Thanks for your comment.


  6. I also read The Fifth Sacred Thing when it came out. I think it’s time to re-read it Thanks for the reminder as I find myself to be in a constant state of anxiety and I cry a lot – could use a “sort of happy ending”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have not read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, so I just bought it. Starhawk’s novels were among my favorites ever. It’s very hard right now not to feel anger and generate more when watching our national parks get smaller and mining sludge allowed in rivers and the only reason the climate report acknowledged global warming was because they couldn’t find an alternative explanation (and you know how hard they tried!)


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