Medical anthropologist Dr Susan Wardell reviews Moon Circle: Rediscover Wildness, Intuition and Sisterhood by Lucy AitkenRead.
A moon circle is, by basic definition, a night-time gathering of women. Its roots as a cultural practice are very old, as old “as the ages”. Often outdoors, and comprising a mixture of symbolic activity and verbal sharing, the moon circle is making a resurgence in the contemporary West. AitkenRead’s book, unapologetically feminist in its goals, sets out to “rediscover wildness, intuition and sisterhood”:
We are purposely stepping into the river of womanhood that has twisted and turned throughout herstory.” – Lucy AitkenRead
For this kind of voyage, it seems ritual is the best vessel.
AitkenRead’s blog, Lulastic and the HippyShake, chronicles her transition with her young family from a big-city job in the UK to an off-grid, unschooling, yurt-dwelling lifestyle in New Zealand. She has a following of nearly 16,000 on Facebook alone. Moon Circle is the third of AitkenRead’s shortish, self-published e-books. Her first, Happy Hair, was about quitting shampoo; her second, Freedom Face, about non-toxic beauty. Moon Circle is somewhat of a (successful) divergence.
I could say a lot about why this book is the perfect offspring of contemporary zeitgeist, born of (3rd, 4th, 67th wave?) feminism, married to a carefully inclusive, de-institutionalised spirituality. However I’d rather focus on what sets this book apart from many of its contemporaries. Specifically, it maintains the good humour, down-to-earth tone, and practical emphasis that is the strength of AitkenRead’s first books, thus achieving an honest, enthusiastic and thoughtful entry into the moon circle’s potential for nurturing wellbeing and community. It sets out the process of starting a moon circle in a totally straightforward demystifying manner than nonetheless manages to be completely convincing in communicating the beauty, value and meaning of moon circles in her own life, and for those she has shared circles with.
The book’s message definitely sits within the contemporary genre of cross-pollinating meta-narratives about ‘return’ to nature, to community, and to ritual. Moon Circle, however, isn’t presented as a prescription, but rather as a first-person journey of both learning and practice, a style of narration that neutralises its obnoxious potential (and is no doubt responsible in part for AitkenRead’s enormous popularity as a blogger/vlogger).
Furthermore, in a book I expected would toss romanticism and cultural essentialism around like (eco-friendly) confetti, I was surprised to find my favourite chapter was actually the ‘do it yourself’ ritual section. With disarming honestly and rare context-awareness, AitkenRead directly addresses the risk of cultural appropriation in the spontaneous ‘bricolage’ approach to ritual that she is advocating. This chapter reveals an underlying flicker of critical awareness, absent in many of the book’s New Age counterparts.
Moon circles utilise (wo)man’s oldest tools: ritual, the spoken word, and basic human empathy. AitkenRead discusses both their ritual form and purpose. The overarching goal is to ensure the circle is a safe container: “a way for emotion and vulnerability to bubble up and provide nourishment without spilling out”. This is in keeping with many anthropological studies of ritual and its relationship to emotion. As AitkenRead acknowledges, the container can sometimes feel more like a “cauldron”. Indeed, she emphasises that the “dark side” of the person has a place in the circle too.
There is power in trust and vulnerability, in speaking and being heard. The ‘sacred’ is in these things as much as the burning or herbs, or the singing of songs. Transformative effects may include learning to trust the self, speak from intuition and reconnect with the ‘sisterhood’. Ultimately, the point is not to contain these experiences within the circle, but to let them “bleed out of the Moon Circle, flooding our everyday lives”.
Toward the end of the book, AitkenRead discusses menstruation. I would have loved to hear more, as she is clearly passionate about this subject. But she keeps the length snappy, as always, although including quotes and references to current research and teaching on this topic. This section is well-balanced and inclusive. It examines (without overclaiming) the physiological and symbolic link of menstruation with the moon.
Lucy’s self-proclaimed “fly-by-the-sacred-seat-of-our-intuitive-pants” guide to moon circles, or specifically her moon circle and how it has unfolded, is disarmingly personal, practical, and yet still emotionally evocative. It will certainly speak to those already on the (again, self-proclaimed) ‘hippie’ train, but it has a wider accessibility too.
It might just take a book exactly like this to convince a nonbeliever that ritual can have a positive, non-scary, non-cultish, and just-possibly-quite-powerful place in healing and resilience for women in the modern world.
Susan Wardell is a social anthropologist. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, and teaches at the University of Otago.