Book Review: Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing”

A local friend suggested I read “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” so that some of us could form a book discussion group about the ideas and vision of this novel. Although it took me awhile to get into the characters, I quickly saw why my friend has read this book three times and counting. It’s filled with permaculture principles, magick, natural healing, and the tension between totalitarian dystopia and a power-from-within ecotopia based upon respect, not control.

I found Starhawk’s text incredibly prophetic, even when I thought it was written in 2005. My admiration tripled when I noticed a publication date of 1993! In 2013, as we face nuclear and toxic poisoning of the Pacific Ocean, a no longer hidden Police State, genetic manipulation, a transhumanist agenda, biological warfare, and increasingly intense weather events –both natural and human-aggravated — the setting of this novel in 2048 feels rather optimistic.

Once I managed to get a handle on the characters, I found the book difficult to put down. As the narrative continued, I realized that the initial ambiguities and confusion about gender, age and physical markers, actually contribute to and underscore the tale. As readers, we quickly find ourselves overwhelmed in and by a post-collapse world, unsure exactly which collapse triggered which events, but gradually recognizing the effects of long-term trauma and difficult life. Things the 20th and early 21st centuries took for granted have not been available for at least a generation, and the ripple effects of such deprivations reach much further than minor or anticipated inconvenience.

At the same time, we find that some things in this future society function much more harmoniously than in our current one. In the absence of cars, trucks and planes, this culture has compensated for its isolation by cultivating the individual gifts of each member of the community — art, music, healing, science, cooking, dreaming and psychic defense. Everyone gardens and participates in seasonal rituals, and the society bases itself around the premise that the Four Sacred Things (fire, water, air, earth) are so sacred that they cannot be privately owned. “May you never hunger; may you never thirst” is a phrase used in real-life pagan gatherings, but in “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” this concept forms the basis of an entire political system! No one goes hungry, and no one goes without water.

As the plot rolls on, we see just how innovative and special this city’s solutions are. Contrast via epic journeys to the Southlands shows us that — despite the obvious challenges up North in 2048 — things could be (and are) much worse elsewhere. The characters face horrific trials that force them to question not only their own morals and philosophies, but also the very essence of what it means to be human. Readers with rigid ideas about sexuality, self-defense, magick, religion, medicine, technology, and the occult will likely find themselves extremely challenged as they journey with the characters. Author Starhawk practices the Reclaiming Tradition, which combines one’s spirituality with non-violent political activism. Throughout her novel, we witness the effectiveness of non-violent resistance, as well as its limitations. The characters’ reactions and struggles force us to evaluate our own fixed ideals, hypocrisy, privilege and irresponsibility. We see on every level how each small action affects the whole of Creation, often in dramatic and unforeseen ways.

I particularly enjoyed all the manifested visualizations, herbal and energetic healing, as well as the key roles played by bees and crystals. Since I have personally made a decision to use magickal self-defense rather than violence should the SHTF, I enjoyed reading about various techniques — many of which I recognized as real, not fiction. In the acknowledgments, Starhawk confirms how thoroughly she researched this book, including Native teachings, along with actual songs, chants, techniques and rituals.

If you’ve ever wondered, “What would I do if society collapsed on multiple levels at once? Does it need to be ‘every man for himself,’ or can (must) we find ways to work together in community? Would we really be stronger together than apart? What does magick have to do with a fully functioning human, and how do I access multi-generational healing?” then “The Fifth Sacred Thing” deserves a place on your bookshelf. You will want to read it again and again, tracking your own growth as you face its challenges. If, on the other hand, you prefer to rest in the hazy halls of denial and wish to cling to the patriarchal status quo, then drop this book like a hot potato! You cannot engage “The Fifth Sacred Thing” and remain unchanged.

13 responses to this post.

  1. This posting is synchronistic with something that hasn’t left my thought since this past weekend. Particularly in regards to coming together as a community. I live in Utah, which is a predominant Mormon landscape and perspective of doing things. I respect many of their community and service to community attitudes although I can find no kinship whatsoever with many of the patriarchal beliefs.

    What stuck with me this past weekend was a comment one of my co-workers who is Mormon said to me. A bunch of my male co-workers came to help me move from the current home I was in to another home. There were five men on the pack up end and 10 men on the unpack end. All Mormons. It took them maybe 30 minutes to pack me up and 20 mins max to unpack me. I was in awe and amazed at how they just swooped in and were so coordinated and synchronized, like worker bees. I said to my boss, who was the gentleman that made the statement that stayed with me….oh my goodness I’ve never seen anything like this. This is what he said…”Many hands make light work”. Such a simple yet profound statement that has reverberated within me since then.

    This is the way things were at one time in our society, and this is the way they can be again if we allow it, encourage it and take the lead in being it..

    After thanking them and offering some sort of recompense, they just looked at me and said…just show and be the love whenever you have an opportunity to do so.

    That was quite a lesson. They walk their talk. This post of yours reminds me of that encounter, but in a more expanded view and in ways I can embrace. Thank you Laura!



  2. Thanks for sharing, Dawn! Yes, I have seen such community in action with the Amish. If someone’s barn burns down, they all gather together to rebuild it. They don’t have insurance, because they do not need it. I’ve seen many of our local churches — mostly Mennonite and Brethren — come together to offer incredible support for the poor and hungry. I just can’t insert myself into that particular religious belief system, but the idea of working together is powerful. I’m gathering a group of people to offer them Reiki training so that we have more than just a few people who can offer energy healing. When we can get beyond our differences, we are so very powerful and also working within the true human nature of community and love. Blessings!


  3. […] « Book Review: Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing” […]


  4. Well now this is a perfect little synchronicity 🙂
    I’ve been talking about the “Fifth Sacred Thing” with many people these past few months…suggesting they read it.
    Yesterday I put it on my kindle because my copy is lost in a sea of people passing it around over the years.
    One of my friends and I had lunch on Tuesday, making a future 2014 date to begin a “book club-journey group” around this book!


  5. I love it! Perfect synchronicity, indeed. 🙂


  6. Posted by Suzanna Marlow on December 21, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Just bought a copy and Better World Books and am looking forward to reading it!


  7. Yay! It will be fun to discuss this with you. 🙂


  8. […] on so many levels! It reminds me of some of the strategies used in Starhawk’s novel, “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” and it is a completely literal version of a method I’ve long used to deflect any projected […]


  9. Posted by Sara on July 7, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Laura, I enjoyed your review immensely. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I really enjoyed this review, thank you very much.


  11. You’re most welcome! Thanks for commenting. It’s a powerful book. 🙂 She also has a sequel out now, City of Refuge, which I have not yet read.


  12. […] has released a sequel to her highly prophetic novel, “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” which I’ve referenced many times on this blog, especially that novel’s exploration of […]

    Liked by 1 person

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