On Gender Roles and Witchcraft
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Article ID: 14978
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: May 6th. 2012
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I want to talk about something that's been bothering me.
When we talk about neopaganism, the giant in the room is generally Wicca - it's the most well known religion under the neopagan umbrella, the one that gets the most positive press, and it dominates the bookshelves in the 'alternative religions' section. Thankfully, Wicca and Wiccans tend to be inclusive and welcoming toward other religious traditions such as Asatru, Druidism, Hellenic Polytheism, and so on, so I (loosely a Hellenic Polytheist) have never had a reason to feel marginalized within my own religious community. That's one of the things I love about being pagan, that I am included even if my beliefs don't mesh with others' in the community, that we can meet and agree that the important things - love for deity, love for each other, love for the earth, love for ourselves - are the same between us.
I do tend to sway heavily toward the Goddess side of the equation as many do, but like most Wiccans, I believe that the balance of God and Goddess is important, and that it does not do to overlook the other half of my personal coin. Thus, I worship Hecate and Hermes. Thus, I pray to Dionysus and Ariadne. Thus I revere Persephone and Hades. And if I skew toward the goddesses in my personal invocations, I trust that the gods understand my reasons.
But when we speak of duality in paganism, when we speak of The God and The Goddess as two sides of the same coin (as I just did) , we may be unconsciously participating in a social construction that actually does not suit us.
You see, there are people in the world who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. There are people who do not identify with either gender. There are people who identify with a third gender. There are people who are born with the sex organs of one sex and the chromosomes of another sex, or of both sexes. There are people who are born with the sex organs of both sexes, or with no sex organs at all. There are men who love men, women who love women, aromantic asexuals who feel that breed of love for no one. The world is a many-splendored place, and humanity is a diverse collection of individuals who are cisgender, transgender, genderqueer, intersexed, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual... and unlike the patriarchal religions which we pagans sometimes try to distance ourselves from, partially due to their insistence on cisgender male supremacy, our myths and our history acknowledge, include, and even revere these individuals.
Unlike the Bible, which says "Male and Female he created them", a phrase which has been spun into a thousand rules and regulations that dominate our society and dictate how each gender ought to perform, pagans have the legend of Inanna's descent into the Underworld, in which the god Enki, who is prevailed upon to rescue the goddess, takes the dirt from under his fingernails and creates two people: Galaturra, who is neither male nor female, and Kurgarra, who is neither female nor male. These two have the ability to descend into the Underworld and return, and with trickery and cleverness they win back Inanna's corpse and the goddess is resurrected. These two may be the mythological source of the Greco-Roman Galli, and are similar to the Native American berdache or Two-Spirit people, who played an important part in their rituals and have been documented in over 130 tribes all over North America.
Without going into an exhaustive listing and group of descriptions, I want to point out that the ideals of masculinity and femininity are not constant across cultures, centuries, and pantheons. Even things we take for granted are not necessarily true in myth - for instance, that only women can bear children, and only when impregnated by men. There are several myths that turn even these biological roles on their heads. Gender and gender-characteristics are much more fluid in ancient myth than they are in our current culture, yet we as modern pagans have chosen to focus on a strict gender binary, to create exclusion even when our history and our wealth of stories and mythos should steer us toward inclusion. We use the words 'male and female' to describe a strict duality when no such duality exists. We focus on black and white and forget about all the shades of gray in between. And it feels fairly arbitrary to me. There's no reason for this. We should know better.
Similarly, I think we should know better than to pigeonhole women and men into culturally-constructed gender roles. Just the terms 'Maiden, Mother, Crone' make me squirm, because motherhood is not a definitive quality of womanhood. There are plenty of women who choose not to have children and are happy that way. Giving birth is also not a definitive quality of motherhood - there are mothers who are infertile, mothers who were born with a penis, mothers who were born without a womb. Mothers who adopt. There are even gay men who take on the descriptor of 'mommy', whether seriously or in playful jest. When we treat the role of 'Mother' as though it is an intrinsic facet of womanhood, and womanhood as if it is defined by motherhood, we are excluding all of these people.
There are those who will say that 'Mother' is a term describing a symbolic role, but I really think that the imagery that goes along with that role is telling. "This is a woman in the fullness of her fertility." "She gives birth to the God, her consort." "She gives birth to the animals, the plants, and the trees." Motherhood is synonymous with creation, and creation is NOT an exclusively female domain. Similarly, we associate the God with masculine energies, with war and heat and light and industry. Women have historically been excluded from these domains, but that doesn't mean they are intrinsically masculine - just that we PERCEIVE them that way. And why do we perceive them that way? Because softness, nurturing, emotion, intuition, creativity, the arts, and healing are 'soft' arts, women's arts, and hardness, dominating, rationality, logic, industry, the sciences, and engineering are 'hard' arts, men's arts.
But the deities are not that clearly delineated. The deities, in their vast and diverse history and manifestation, are not so easily pigeonholed. The deities are not exclusively male and female, hard and soft, light and dark. There is interplay between all of these extremes. There are deities who change genders, deities who are transgender, deities who have no gender, deities who are genderqueer. There are homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual deities. And we do not have to look particularly hard to find them; they exist, waiting for queer, genderqueer, intersex, and trans* pagans to uncover and claim them.
In practice, pagan traditions tend to be accepting of 'alternative' gender expressions, lifestyles, and sexuality, but the language we use and the traditional roles we revere are still the property of a culture that enforces a gender binary that is neither inclusive nor necessarily healthy. Regardless of how we treat these rolls in practice, the language we use is just as important, because language is evocative of ideas, institutions, and traditions - language is part of a greater narrative. It can support that narrative or it can undermine it, but it does not exist independently from it, because nothing exists in a void. When we use the language of the gender binary, of coded misogyny, of institutionalized prejudice, we are maintaining those narratives in our lives and in our faith. And to be very honest, as paganism continues into the 21st century, I'd like to see us evolve out of that. I'd like to see a change. I'd like to see us recognize and include the totality of human diversity in our faith, in our covens, and in our traditions. I'd like to see there be room for a man to be recognized as a mother, and for a woman to be recognized as a warrior, not just on a small-scale basis, but at the forefront of our faiths.
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