Issues with Masculine/Feminine Duality in Paganism

Hermaphroditus

Hermaphroditus, the androgynous son of Aphrodite and Hermes. “Ermafrodito, affresco Romano di Ercolano (1–50 d.C., Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) – 02” by Unknown. – [1].. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 In many forms of Paganism, emphasis is placed on a masculine/feminine duality within the forces in nature. This is particularly prevalent in Wicca, where the Great God and and the Great Goddess are worshipped as the primary deities, with all other deities generally seen as aspects or incarnations as either the God or Goddess.

The nature of masculine/feminine forces in Paganism very much mimics that in traditional Chinese philosophy. Thus the masculine equates to the Sun, the Sky, Heat, Activity, Light, and Fire, while the feminine is attributed with the opposite: the Moon, the Earth, Cold, Passiveness, Darkness and Water.

I don’t disagree with this division of natural forces into masculine/feminine, and I usually make reference to the Great God and the Great Goddess in my own personal rituals. It’s certainly a very neat and graceful way to divide up the forces in life, and also a lovely way to celebrate the sexes. But sometimes I feel that this picture is a little simplistic – especially in a changing society where the clear-cut division between genders is increasingly questioned. Sexuality other than heterosexuality is becoming more widely understood and accepted – and that doesn’t just mean homosexuality, but also bisexuality, transsexualism, asexuality and the many other shades in the sexuality spectrum. More and more parents are opting to buy “gender neutral” toys for their children (i.e. ones not marketed at a particular gender, for example by a pink/blue colour scheme). And now we have same-sex marriages and same-sex parents, the division between the sexes seems less and less important.

But interestingly, when we look at the Pagan religions, there are plenty of examples of deities that don’t neatly fit the masculine/feminine pattern. There are deities that represent a concept that is usually represented by the opposite sex, deities that have both male and female qualities, and deities with seemingly no gender at all. Examples of these deities include:

  • Hermaphroditus (pictured) is one of the most commonly-cited examples of a dual-sex deity, was often depicted as having both male and female anatomy (we get the word “hermaphrodite” from this deity)
  • Agdistis, a deity similar to Cybele, is also depicted has having both male and female physical attributes
  • Apollo is not only portrayed as having gay relationships in mythology; he is also a God of Beauty, a concept normally associated with the feminine.
  • Protectors of children are usually feminine in Pagan religions, but the gods Mercury, Cupid, Picumnus and Balder are also associated with children. Ganesha and Krishna are Hindu examples of male patrons of the young.
  • The ancient Egyptians saw the Earth as a God, Geb, rather than the typical “Mother Earth.”
  • Despite being goddesses, Hecate,Vesta, Brigid, Belisama and Nantosuelta are associated with fire (and often by extension, light)
  • Although war and combat are usually considered masculine, deities of war include the goddesses Athena, Bellona, Freyja, Menhit, Neith, Satet, Sekhmet, Anann, Danu and Morrígan. Hinduism also has war-goddesses in the forms of Durga and Kali.
  • There’s a whole heap of masculine water and ocean deities – Neptune, Hydros, Proteus, Pontus, Oceanus, Triton, Njord, Nodens and Lir, to name but a few.
  • The ancient Egyptians worshipped male gods of the moon (Khonsu, Thoth)
  • Sunna, Sol, Bast, Sekhmet, Sulis, Aine and  Etain are all goddesses associated with the sun.

Shinto also has plenty of good counter-examples for the masculine/feminine duality principal. In Shinto, the genders of the sun and moon deities are flipped from the classical Western tradition; Amaterasu is the beautiful goddess of the Sun and one of the most important Shinto deities, while Tsukiyomi is a rather vague, sinister god of the moon whose role in Japanese mythology is comparatively downplayed.

And then of course there is my patron, Inari Okami. I think one of the reasons I like Inari-sama so much is that he/she is both genders and neither genders, and no one really attempts to pin down a gender on him/her (although the limitations of the English language means that Inari-sama is usually assigned a gender-specific pronoun, rather than the degrading yet gender-neutral “it”). But the principals of the masculine and feminine are clearly reflected in Inari-sama’s fox statues; they are almost always presented in pairs, one male, and one female. In this way, I feel Inari-sama encompasses all aspects of sexuality simultaneously.

Bizarrely, maybe one way to look at it is not to see the concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” in Paganism as actually assigned to the usual concept of male and female. Perhaps its better to see it like the concepts of “masculine,” “feminine” and “neuter” in languages such as French or German, where they simply mean the historical classification of the nouns and which appropriate article to use. I believe it is possible to use use the words “masculine” and “feminine” as convenient short-hands to refer to the concepts and forces classically assigned to these qualities, and the titles “Great God” and “Great Goddess” to refer to the two deities we assign to these opposing forces, and still leave the actual male/female sexuality out of the equation.

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3 Comments

Filed under Musings & Miscellaneous, Shinto / Japanese Religion

3 responses to “Issues with Masculine/Feminine Duality in Paganism

  1. Pingback: “Issues with Masculine/Feminine Duality in Paganism” by Trellia | Humanistic Paganism

  2. Pingback: Linkage: Ethics, grounding, and Viking runes || Spiral Nature

  3. Great post; just caught this via a share on Twitter. Funny how the internet works. I’ve written a few posts on my issues with the duality (and dualism) inherent in a lot of Paganism, I can post links if you’re interested. 🙂

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