Magic is a many gendered thing
by Lou Hart
This paper was written to be presented at the Pagan Federation Conference Scotland in May 2005. As such it is a personal and basic overview of the relations between gender and Western neo-paganism and its, sometimes, failure to embody the concepts concerning gender and, indeed, sexuality in its practice of traditional forms of magic and paganism.
The history of Western paganism is inextricably linked with a history of cross-dressing, same sex relations, trans-gendered priesthoods and free sexuality. From early centuries onwards bulls and decrees, issued by the Christian Church, against heresy, nearly always contained admonitory warnings against lesbianism, homosexuality, gender-bending, heterosexual group sex or bisexuality. Indeed, Jeanne d'Arc, originally sentenced to life-imprisonment, was finally burned alive at the age of nineteen after being discovered yet again wearing men's clothing in her cell. Additionally, folk customs of these islands are littered with boys in girls' clothing and girls in boys' clothes; with bearded ladies and female princes.
Until 1957 the 'King' at Castleton Oak-Apple processions was accompanied not by a 'Beauty Queen' but by a man dressed as a woman and at Brideog ceremonies in Scotland, Hunt-the-Wren and Samhain festivities and at Mari Clywd ceremonies in Wales, cross-dressing was again the choice of the day. Lord of Misrule and Hallowe'en ceremonies, notorious for their gender-bending, shape shifting play were once such a popular feature of winter festivals, that church priests were admonished for taking part in them.
Further back in history there are records of the pagan Celts with both male and female lovers; trans-gendered priests of Inanna; and some juicy gossip about Bride herself in Ireland (a Triple- Goddess, but in this case about her as a Saint) and her female lover Darlughdacha (Daughter of Lugh and herself also a Goddess, from Leinster) and, more recently, in over 150 Native American Societies, there are descriptions of a seemingly cross-dressing man or woman who sometimes partakes in traditionally opposite gendered work and is often seen as a both bridge between men and women and a shamanic figure. Women are also recorded by anthropologists as warriors or chiefs or hunters and as taking other women as wives, and the anthropologist Alfred Metraux, in his 1958 study of Voodoo in Haiti, casually mentions many of the priests or hungan as homosexual. What on earth is going on?
For the purposes of this paper I am going to relate to three topics. One is gender and what is meant by it, two is gendered magical practices and three is drawn from my own experience as one of the founder members of Queer Pagan Camp.
Gender and Sex
To commence, what do we mean by gender? In a Western context gender has long been related to an ideology which runs something like this; there are two genders drawn from being biologically male and female, and that each has characteristic methods of expression (sort of analogous to magical correspondances, if you will) that include dress, body language, speech patterns and, to some extent, work orientation etc, and, above all, sexual orientation. To discuss gender in this context, is sometimes confusing because there has been a traditional tendency to conflate gender with biological sex and with sexual orientation and to assume that these gender characteristics and expressions are, therefore, somehow more natural without taking into account social or cultural construction.
Conrad P. Kottak from the University of Michigan writes:
While sex and gender are related, they are not the same thing. Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females. Gender refers to the activities, behavior, values, and ideas that a culture assigns to these differences. These activities, behavior, values, and ideas do not have any intrinsic basis in the biological differences.
Whilst this is an important point to remember - they are related but not the same thing, even biological sex is more varied and interesting than what is usually seen as the two 'forms' of gender.
A proportion of humanity is born as 'intersex' i.e. having variations in biological sexual characteristics at birth. These may include having both male and female genitalia; having dominant male or dominant female genitalia, or being anatomically female but with male chromosomes and so on. There are a remarkable number of variants and so even the term biological sex itself becomes something relative. In many cultures this variance in both sex and gender, has long been recognised and accomodated.
Studies from the Intersex Society of America indicate that approximately 1 in 2,000 people in the USA are born intersex and in Costa Rica it rises to as many as 1 in 5. The traditional Western way of dealing with this has been to try and fix a sexual identity which includes the concept of gender stated above, usually by surgery or drugs. This has changed over the years. Sex assignment in the 1950's was largely carried out by surgeons without parental involvement or even knowledge, - then in the 80s/90s with parents and doctors assigning sex (and gender together and usually utilising surgery again) and more recently with some parental figures and members of the medical profession assigning a sort of temporary sex, where the child is brought up within a gender usually associated with that sex, in the knowledge that this may change.
More recently still there have been enlightened individuals who regard such children as 'normal unto themselves' or 'special' in terms of their biological sex, and have refused to assign a fixed sex or gender to the individual until they themselves are able to decide whether they want one at all or what it is to be (which may include the ability to cross gender lines.)
So to recap; - Western notions of gender have been be largely related to a preconceived notion of biological sex and a perceived role in society. And although the binary or 'two sexes and, therefore, genders' role is prominent in western cultures, the insistence on there only being two biological sexes with two methods of gender expression is not one that is found universally.
Otherly gendered roles
When we examine gender roles in other cultures both as ethnically and historically diverse as ancient Sumer, Japan, Hungary, modern day Native American tribal societal, Siberia, India, etc we come across some interesting variations in the ideas and status attributed to different genders.
Although Western anthropology reflects the dominant obsession with classification and does, therefore, set itself up as the 'objective observer' writings by some of the newer generations of 'gender anthropologists' are challenging the western notions of gender.
Anne Bolin in her essay Traversing gender: cultural context and gender practices posits 5 recognisable forms of global gender variance drawn from cultural anthropology. . Sabine Lang also refers to multiple genders when she writes:
"Within the majority of North American Indian Tribes there existed - and, in a number of instances, still exists - a cultural construction of more than just two genders, allowing individuals to either take up the gender role of the "other" sex completely or to mix the culturally defined mens and womens roles to varying degrees. Such individuals are not seen as "men" or "women" but belong to genders different from both "man" and "women"..........
Since more than two genders are culturally recognised and defined, the adoption of manners and work activities of the other sex can not properly be termed a gender reversal......
and she goes on to say:
Moreover, in many cases individuals grow up as members of a gender that is neither "man" nor "woman" from a very early age, which means that they never really shift from one gender to another. Due to the cultural construction of more than two genders, Western concepts such as 'transexual' or 'homosexual' can also not be applied to Native American Women-Men' or 'Men-Women'; a sexual relationship, for example, between two individuals of the same sex, yet not of the same gender is not necessarily considered homosexual, and within a gender system that provides four or more genders,........... the concept of transexualism, which was developed in a culture that only recognises and values two genders and two sexes is not applicable."
More recently, anthropologists have acknowledged that these gender identities are something to do with individual spirit -which makes it more complicated if we try the old western trick of classification.
At this point I should perhaps, refer to the terms Berdache or Two-Spirit being the most commonly known gender variant descriptions in the West. Berdache appears to be a term first used by French Canadian trappers to describe native 'Women-Men'. The term has derogatory overtones and implies a male who is sodomised (with roots in the Arabic bardaj) or 'passive sodomitee (if there is such a term) therefore some kind of 'unmanly man'- bit of a Nancy- I think you get the basic idea. But besides being derogatory in terms of an individual's preferred sexual expression, this does not work in a system where that individual is not of the male gender but may have one of a number of genders. Two Spirit is also inaccurate although not so offensive, referring to a basic starting position of two genders and coined by urban native gays and lesbians in the 80's.
Anyway, bearing in mind the caveat on classification (which quite honestly sometimes does not make any sense at all ) the five given by Anne Bolin are;
- hermaphrodite, (by which she may mean intersex but which in itself has many different forms)
- man-woman and woman-man,(those born with fixed and externally defined (FED) biological sex characteristics who choose to live as the opposite sex often referred to as, see above, 'Twin Spirit'
- cross-gendered - that is someone who retains their (FED) biological sex and gender but operates with some other gender attributes (sometimes referred to as a 'manly-hearted woman' or as Holly Devor terms it a ' gender-blender')
- those who retain their FED biological sex but choose same sex marriage and
- short-term variation (which tends to occur in a ritualised context (such as the cross-dressing in Lord of Misrule celebrations)
To these I would add, if you have to use classification, - 6) mutables; (who are those who may live as a particular gender such as woman-man but then choose to change to a different one) Oh, and, of course, 7) FED sexed males identified as gendered males and FED sexed females identified as gendered females. Including these two usually posited by Western culture, this makes a total of 7 types of globally observed genders
It is important to note that there is huge variation in the names, functions and types of gender and attitudes towards them amongst different cultures and ethnicities e.g the Navajo apparently recognise three genders ; men, women and nadle (although there are three types of nadle) whilst the North Eastern Chukchee of Siberia recognize four genders: 1) gendered male who is sexed male; 2) gendered female who is sexed female; 3) gendered female who is sexed male; and 4) gendered male who is sexed female. Waldemar Bogoras, the turn of the century Russian ethnographer wrote:
"A man who has changed his sex is called 'soft man' or 'similiar to a woman' (ne'uchica) and a woman who has changed her sex is called; (qa'chikicheca)."
The guevedoce from Santo Domingo are a FED group apparently female at birth but are expected to change to male later in life, as are the Sambia from Papua, who are regarded as a third gender and usually assigned a masculine identity at the age of 12. And in the Marquesan Islands there exists a FED sexed (often referred to as biological) female who is also gendered female but with what are regarded as male characteristics towards sexual initiation. Vehine mako are Mako Shark women.
Magical gender practices
Additionally, many of these 'otherly' gendered people were/are regarded as having special magical or spiritual roles. 'Men-women' and 'women-men' in Native American cultures, are often regarded as being the bridge between biological men and women. They are also often mentioned as special healers. Amongst the Navajo and the Lakota peoples, nadle and winkte were often seen as the guardians of special ritual or magical holders of unique ritual instruction such as ritual magical chants or the ability to make childbirth easier. According to Walter L. Williams: the Mohave believed that female shamans were spiritually stronger than male but that 'other' gendered ones were stronger still. Among the Yokuts and the Klamath they oversaw the burials and rites for the dead.
Also prominent is the idea that biological males or females may be ordered to change by a Spirit and this sometimes occurs to non-Shamans such as is related among the Amur River peoples of the Gilyaks in Alaska where a man with a wife and family was ordered to live as a woman as the price of his return to health.(Shternberg) It is also not uknown for Shamans to give birth; Sakha male shamans in Siberia sometimes underwent three births within the forest- firstly birds, then fish then wolf or bear and this apparently gave them powers of true mediation in the spirit world and of threefold reincarnation. Amongst some Inuit peoples - shamans would take on different genders -on the basis that an individual who was socialised in such a way as to straddle the gender boundary ought to be able to span all boundaries (D'anglure) Those that have historically been recognised as a third gender such as the baklas in the Phillipines, the Serrers amongst the Pokot people of Kenya, the Aravanis and the Hijra in India are often attributed with the ability to confer blessings (in the case of the Hijra given them by Rama) and there are also examples of 'Men-Women' who were thought to bring luck.and who have historically been recognised as a third gender:
Influence of Western binary gender on magic and paganism
So, we have a situation where there are a variety of FED biological forms of sex and gender but still the dominant Western ideology is that there are only two and that this is Natural for humanity. These concepts have been exported into other ethnic cultures, particularly those subjected to imperialism and colonialism, and sometimes with drastic impacts, causing the death or repression of a long cultural, spiritual or magical tradition or the oppression of a particular gender such as the Hijra in India .1
Additionally, in the Western view of gender, constructs of gender identity with these two supposed gender roles attribute distinct emotional and mental modes of expression to them - males supposedly being active, positive, unemotional, logical, aggressive and females as passive, negative, emotional, irrational, intuitive, nurturing etc and this places both the FED sexes in opposition to each other and has severe impacts on any who do not fit the role. I know you've heard this before.
Who is not familiar with the Neo-Pagan representation of the Goddess as a Wasp-waisted, large bosomed (I hesitate to use the word but I overheard someone use it about the High Priestess card in a talk about the tarot, whom he saw as divided into 'masculine' or 'feminine ' 'energies') bimbo?
However, this notion of fixed sex and gender roles also enters into Neo-pagan magical practice in a variety of other ways. Non -human mysteries become endowed with human sex and gender. The elementals of Air and Fire become viewed as masculine whilst Water and Earth are supposedly feminine. Crystals are masculine if clear and feminine if milky. A zoologist friend of mine told me that the vast majority of procreation on this planet is asexual. And it must be admitted that there are a hell of a lot more life forms than just us humans. But in the mirror of Western gender, the rituals and rites themselves become procreation based and up pops, largely to the exclusion of other things, a fertility religion.2
One of the increasingly popular forms of neo-paganism in the West is Shamanism which seems a bit ironic when we look at the notions of gender amongst traditional Shamanic societies. There is also a plethora of Gods and Goddesses, Spirits and mysteries that we work with, many of whom exhibit gender or sexuality which differs from the Western two sexed gender norm with its associated behaviours.
Some examples: Loki was a woman for 12 years and also gave birth to Sleipnir, Fenris, Hel and the Midgard serpent. Odin was referred to by Loki as 'ergi' or 'pansy' (according to Snorri Sturlsson) for taking on the women's magic- Seidr. Dionysus - known to wear womens clothing and have male lovers- think of Appollo and Hyacinthus - Zeus himself with Ganymede as a lover and successfully seducing the maiden Kallisto by appearing in the guise of Artemis (who herself was a bit of an Amazon); Krishna assuming the form of the beautiful Mohini; the Barons Lundy and Limba commonly known in Voudun as lovers; Baron Samedi cross dressing; Baron Oua Oua associated with homosexuality; Ghede Oussou - an androgynous figure with his female lover Ghede L'Oraille and male lover Ghede Masaka and of course the aspect of Erzulie that has La Balane as a female companion. It is, of course, also common for the loa in Voudou or the caboco in Candomble to cross-possess. e.g. Erzulie possessing a 6'4 inch male trucker in her aspect of Erzulie La Coquette!!
In ancient Rome the Galli were 'third-gendered' priests of Cybele and in ancient Sumer Innanna's priests were the gala and the kurgura (the latter originally said to be born female but changed to male by the Goddess herself). Indeed in the recitation of Innanna's descent into the Underworld she is returned to life by the two non-gendered beings the Galatur and the Kugaru (names according to Samuel Kramer) the bearers of the water of life and the food of life who enter the underworld as flies. A balag - lamentation- or charge from Sumer has Innanna say:
" I go at the front I am lofty
I go at the rear I am wise
I make right into left
I make left into right
I turn a man into a woman
I turn a woman into a man
I am the one who causes a man to adorn himself as a woman
I am the one who causes a woman to adorn herself as a man..................... "
There are also notions of behaviour that do not accord with traditional two gendered roles. We find Innanna as a Goddess who incorporates action and passivity, war and peace. Queen Mebdh in the Tain (about whom, amongst some modern pagans, there are endless arguments as to whether she is a deity or not) would probably be a Mako Shark woman (if born in the Marquesan Islands); Scathach and Aoife in the Tain - the Chieftain women who lived as consummate warriors and taught male warriors their skills (Such as Cuchulainn); would probably be 'manly hearted women' especially as Aoife gives birth to Cuchulainn's son. Gwydion, the master magician of the Mabinogion, is subject to a penance by Math ap Mathonwy of not only changing human shape but also alternating as male or female. Babh, Fotla and the Morrigan all transcend the modern Western view of gender roles and Baphomet is positively 'queer' in heris manifestation as human male, female, goat, fish, bird etc
And returning to folk traditions which may enact the ritual dramas of seasonal cycles of the year- we have our bearded ladies, men- women, pantomime 'boys' and Fools.
And, an unfortunate corollary of these rigid binary gender notions is the one that says any sexuality other than binary is somehow unnatural.
What is 'Queer paganism'?
So, what is Queer paganism? Queer' is a word with many contextual meanings. If I ask a member of the BNP what they mean by queer I will probably get a very derogatory answer (if not a threat of physical violence with a tyre iron!), or if I ask some members of the lesbian and gay community they may include trans-gendered and bisexual people but probably not heterosexual.
If we look at the recent upsurge in interest of a definition of 'queer' amongst academics (queer studies is now pretty normal on many university curricula) there is yet another version:
".......it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is, by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. It is, therefore, open to anyone who feels their position (sexual, intellectual or cultural) to be marginalised..........
Furthermore it is defined by one's practice in relation to an accepted norm."
And David Halperin writes:
"Queer theory is not solely about sexuality or gender relations....... it begins by disrupting all forms of normativity, thereby not only re-ordering the relations among sexual behaviours, erotic identities, constructions of gender but at the same time forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community.......
However, what makes 'queer' so treacherous as a label is that its lack of definitional content renders it all too readily available for appropriation by those who do not experience the unique political disabilities and forms of social disqualification from which lesbians and gay men routinely suffer in virtue of our sexuality."
Amongst alternative movements like 'Queer nation' or 'Act Up' there is something quite different occurring and this is the kind of 'queerness' that interests me.
In 1998, friends of mine attended a festival camp purporting to be one which allows the exploration of spirituality in its many forms. I subsequently received a phone call from one of them who was very distressed and angry that a workshop at the camp on genders had apparently refused to discuss any forms of alternative gender or sexuality. On challenging this, she and a male friend of hers had been informed by participants that they were ' not spiritual beings' as they did not practise procreative sex i.e. because she identified as lesbian (and he as gay)
This was not unusual as I had already come across gay men who had been told that they could not be Wiccan High Priests because they could not or would not perform the Great Trite with a woman and the implication was that their' sexually flawed' make-up had banished them from being able to work successfully in a religious magical setting. Statements like these were pretty common at that time, both from Neo-Pagans and New Agers and, unfortunately still are. Here are some of them (with thanks to Phil Hine and Paul MacAndrew)
"Thus the blasphemy of the homosexual formula, for it denies Babalon and breeds devils in chaos." (evidently, some are couched in more dramatic terms than others)
Kenneth Grant, Nightside of Eden.(1979)
"...you can't work magic with a homosexual. Homosexuals just can't create a current."
Nicholas Tereshencko, in a letter to the Lamp of Thoth magazine
"Homosexuals cannot be true witches...we want no kinks in our circle."
quoted from a wiccan magazine, exact source unknown.
"Homosexuals are simply fighting against their Karma - the homosexual man simply has more 'feminine' energy in his 'lower self'. The Lesbian simply has more 'masculinity' in her lower self."
The Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.
AND MY FAVOURITE:
"Women are by nature Yin (passive, soft, centrifugal). When they become too Yang by taking too much Yang food - they become miserable...they devote themselves to animal pets, or they turn homosexual. ...
(BUT HOPE IS AT HAND!!)
" ..sexual abnormality can be cured in time by strict adherence to the macrobiotic regime."
Sakurazawa Ngoiti, Macrobiotics
So what is all this rubbish? Despite my rather frivolous remarks about Mebdh and the Mako Shark women I am not trying to claim that the experience of people from other cultures is the same as ours. Neither would I claim that Western lesbians are the same as manly hearted women or that the Siberian soft man is the same as a gay man in the West. Peoples of other genders in other cultures are also not always seen as special and celebrated. Sometimes they experience a lot of phobia and prejudice from within their communities ( and especially where western influence has been brought to bear) . 3
But what I am saying is many of the magical traditions that we as western neo-pagans draw from, are themselves not limited to a FED binary sex and gender system. And that many of the indigenous peoples who still have direct transmission of a magical way of working, which we in the West appropriate, have a tradition of other genders and sexualities. And so there is something ironic, if not hypocritical when people working with those deities or spirits refuse to see their otherly gendered or poly sexual faces, or those working within those types of traditions refuse to accept gender and sexuality difference.
With this in mind, I and two others established Queer Pagan Camp or QPC in 1998. The camp is open to all; lesbians, gay men, heterosexuals, bi sexuals, transexuals, transgendered people, and as many sexuals or genders as you care to mention, on the understanding that we respect each other i.e. that there is no 'norm' This is what enables it to be 'inclusive' rather than 'exclusive'. It is also a principle that we respect the land, its Spirits, the animals and creatures and ourselves (which often means taking responsibility) and that sex and gender are self-defined.
As many of the people do not fit the main Western binary gender, they often do not join pagan groups or are sometimes driven out. QPC then also serves as an introduction to paganism for many - a place where they can meet other people investigating Spirit or already on a pagan path or where they can refresh a jaded palate of pagan delights (You can see I am getting tired here).
One of the interesting outcomes of all this has been changes in people's magical experiences. At camp some people (having previously worked within binary magical traditions) have been contacted by deities that are queer. One of the people from camp was recently contacted by a 'queer deity' when working on artwork for a magazine . He writes :
A sexual being of no fixed gender, In constant flux: growing and changing shape like plants do. more like a habitat in bodily form; the embodiment of vegetal sensuality. In my representation, appears almost female but the features are ephemeral and transforming: the breasts are becoming phallic; the cleavage vulval and who knows what's going on down below or behind? The humanesque appearance is for our benefit; a form we can identify with. being immortal, procreation (an intrinsically mortal function) is totally irrelevant to .. whose senso-sexuality is absolute................ but is far from infertile, quite the opposite; however, this fertility is that of lush and mouldering, exuberant bounty. 4
Additionally, there has been a remarkable level of contact (over the years) with the 'Folk' of the land, including sightings, physical manifestation, dialogues etc Is this a coincidence when the 'Folk' are often historically reported as 'not so precisely gendered'?
People have also 'aspected' deities in witchcraft rituals that unexpectedly also came in a queer form i.e. multi-gendered, or opposite to what was expected or called, or, sometimes, even pre-dominantly non human.
Performing rituals or ceremonies that involve non-gendered beings or working with animal spirits in a shamanic way and finding that they too are not necessarily specifically gendered in the binary model is, I think, one of the most interesting and liberating aspects of working within a queer context. It begs the question of whether these other-wordly beings are themselves queer - appearing to us as context provides. It also opens us to experience contact in ways that are new and exciting and to challenge existing notions of deity or spirits. Rituals involving Baphomet from a non-Satanic context 5, but rather from a queer context enabled people to interact with a multi-formed entity or (what some people saw as) group of entities.
Were you to ask any one else from QPC about what they think is going on, or what they think of this argument you would probably get a different answer from each person. And, of course, allowing ourselves and others to be different - accepting that we do not have to agree, that we do not always travel the same road is enormously freeing and empowering.
To be equally queer in our approaches to magic and spirituality. and allow magical practice to reflect that diversity of form, thought or expression leads to some interesting and surprising results.
- For example the introduction by the British of the Indian Penal Code during the Raj in 1860 and especially section 377 of that, have been used to criminalise the Hijra. Additionally,the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 and the amendment The Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs in 1897 (which is often the British term used for third gender people and is found in many Kama Sutra translations) had a drastic effect on Hijra rights to enjoy life, liberty and freedom. Their civil liberties and right to live without Police interference have been severely curtailed.
- It is important to note that these sex role identities for deity change as the dominant paradigm changes. For example, it has been posited that as men in Western cultures came to control the means of production of what was traditionally a female preserve such as growing food, so the old Godesses of the Grain become replaced with Gods of the Corn and Harvest.
Conversely, as more and more males and females undertake undifferentiated work , for example in urban environments, there has been an upsurge in the notion that 'the (FED) male and female is within all of us' and people talk about 'balancing their inner male and female' or 'nurturing their inner female' (Shades of Carl Jung here),. However, there is still no acknowledgement that there may be a lot more than a male and female within and 'without' us all. Roles that are the signifiers for gender within Western societies are, therefore, more reliant on outward displays such as make-up, clothing etc.
- Z*qhyoegm: The Magenta Mangel-wurzel 2003
- Baphomet has been much appropriated by the Church of Satan
Queering India: ed Ruth Vanita - Routledge 2002
Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: ed Sabrina Petra Ramet - Routledge 1996
The Spirit and the Flesh: Walter L. Williams- Beacon Press 1992
Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit: Randy P.Connor, David Hatfield Sparks, Mariya Sparks - Cassell 1997
The God of Ecstasy: Arthur Evans - St Martins press 1988
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: Arthur Evans - Fag Rag Books 1978
Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer - Harper and Row 1983
About Time: Martin Duberman - Meridian 1991
Shamans/Neo-shamans: Robert J.Wallis - Routledge 2003
Kuilix Pend d'Oreille- Warrior Woman: Will Roscoe - (unknown date - internet)