Sex, Gender, and Magic 1/n+1

Preface

I was already drafting this in my head as a response to a reddit thread—particularly this comment—when one of the bloggers I follow decided to wade into the subject.  It’s something I’ve talked about before from time to time, but usually only in reference to Wicca.  There is a great deal of gender essentialism and heterosexism in the occult community, and the privileged apologia that tends to accumulate when someone calls bullshit makes me fucking furious.

Now, let’s look at the two OPs, first: a woman asking for people to share their experiences of gender difference in different forms of occultism, and gay man exploring the possibility of a huge oversight in the (human understanding of) Hermetic Law.  The first got a few genuinely thoughtful answers, but the response to both (overwhelming in the one case, so far singular in the other) amounts to “how dare you ask that fucking question?”

That response infuriates me.  It drives home the fact that, just as the neo-Pagan community is rife with mainline American anti-intellectualism (a rant for another time, but just look at popular responses to Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon), the occult community as a whole is permeated by outdated and debunked ideologies of sex, gender, and sexuality.

1 – Sex, Gender, Culture

Next, let’s get one thing laid out right from the start: sex and gender are not the same thing.  Sex is biological, a manifestation of genetic code and possibly some environmental factors.  Gender is socially constructed.

Graham and Megan attempt to reinforce their ge...

Graham and Megan attempt to reinforce their gender roles through performing traditional female tasks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a whole, the human species is sexually dimorphic—that is to say, there are male and female bodies with complimentary reproductive roles.  But let’s not let that apparently clear reality seduce us into reductionist thinking.  There are also intersexed people of countless varieties—some of whom are fertile, some of whom aren’t—and all the legit science points out that the differences among women and men are far greater than the “average” difference between women and men.

Gender roles do not come naturally to people of a particular sex: we are trained in their performance from birth.  Anthropologists and historians (when they’re not buying into anachronisms that support their personal bigotries) have clearly established that gender roles differ radically across times and spaces.  Hell, just look within America (or wherever you’re from; I know I have an international readership, but I haven’t lived enough places to speak of anywhere else) and across the last hundred years: the gender roles of our generation are different from those of our grandparents or our great-grandparents; further clear differences can be observed regionally—cf. the South versus the Paciffic Northwest.  Further: if gender roles were biologically determined, then no one would ever be uncomfortable with them and we would not have a social crisis in America revolving on the redefinition of masculinity and femininity and their relationship to eachother.  It would be physically impossible to vary from those roles, and they would be homogenous across time and geography.

Saying “social gender roles” have no part in spirituality/magic—like the commenters linked above—is essentially the same as saying that psychology has no part in spirituality/magic.  It is literally an argument that cultural context plays no part in magic.  It’s also an argument I most frequently encounter when it’s being deployed by (male) magicians when someone (usually a woman, though  often a queer) suggests that occult communities might not be immune from the sexism of society at large.  If you really believe that the context of your daily life has no bearing on your magic, then you’re probably what’s colloquially referred to as an armchair magician.

If you believe that psychology and cultural context play no part in magic, answer me this: why has nearly every generation needed to “reinvent the wheel”?  Why are we not all—every goddman one of us—working from the Greek Magical Papyri?  Wanna say that got lost (a fair argument), how about Agrippa?  Or, more to the point, why were contemporaneous magicians in Hellas, Persia, and China all doing radically different things?

Finally, in case the above thought-exercises failed to convince you, take a look at Phil Hine’s recent post, where he delves into the origin of the very idea of two sexes.  For further reading, check out his series of posts unpacking the 19th Century ideologies and “science” which lie at the heart of many “modern” occult ideas: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven.  I point to Phil Hine rather than, say, Kate Bornstein, because his research is more targeted to the occult community, and because of his credibility within that community.

2 – As Above, So Below

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people—as Polyphanes’ commenter—like to deploy a what appears to be a reductionist version of the Law of Correspondences.  The argument, to the best of my ability to follow it, seems to go like this: 1) Humanity is made in the image of God; 2) God (Kether) is divided into Male and Female (Chokma, Binah); therefore, 3) humanity is divided into Male and Female, whose roles and nature suspiciously conform to 19th Century pseudo-science (see above) and/or their own personal sexist constructions.

I find this argument infuriating.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the full text of the Law of Correspondences go: “Whatever is above is like that which is below, and whatever is below is like that which is above”?  As Above, So Below; As Below, So Above.

Now, I realize that as someone who utterly rejects a hermetic top-down construction of reality in favor of a fractal construction, my understanding of the meaning of that Law is radically different from many.  But bear with me for a moment.  We can observe the material world much more closely and accurately than we can observe the immaterial.  Given how often we’re wrong about the material world, don’t you think we should be a little more careful about the assertions we make regarding the immaterial?  Particularly in terms of projecting our own (or worse yet, our great-grandparents’) social constructions onto the larger world of spirit?

Intermission – Conclusion of Rant 1/n+1

Of course, I realize that no amount of ranting on my part—or even reasoned arguments—will dissuade people from using religion and spirituality as a bludgeon with which to enforce their heterosexism and gender essentialism.  I even recognize that, from a particular point of view, I’m using my spiritual experience to bludgeon them with my radical queer feminism.  But my magic –which is every bit as queer as I am—works, and that pretty much proves that the hardline arguments are false.

Remember, folks: “Magic works in practice but not in theory.”

Further posts in this series—probably to be posted over the summer—will, hopefully, be penned in a less “frothy” frame of mind, and thicker with citations to both respected academic works and some of the primary GD/hermetic/ceremonial sources. They will not, however, be a whit less critical of the unexamined privilege which permeates so much of the discourse.

To conclude this first part of what will ultimately be a career-spanning screaming rant monograph, let’s come full circle and answer the posters whose commenters drove me to write this now instead of slowly over the course of months.

To femagician of reddit: as a (ostensibly) male-identified practitioner, it has been my observation that the world of the GD/ceremonial magic is largely, as one commenter puts it, “a sausage fest”.  I have known one or two lady ceremonialists in person, and follow the blogs of a few, but the majority of female-identified practitioners I’ve known do tend toward witchcraft of one kind or another.  I think that the reason for this, rather than being rooted in Wicca/witchcraft’s identification with the divine feminine (which also draws a good number of “manly” individuals), can be seen clearly in the hostile, hateful, cock-waving territorialism displayed by the majority of the men who answered your question.  It’s sure as fuck a lot of what kept me away for so long, and the largest obstacle to my keeping with it.

To Polyphanes: I’ve never read the Kybalion, so I can’t speak to it beyond what you reprinted and paraphrased in your post.  If the construction it employs is useful to you, roll with it.  But keep in mind that it is a construction: an out dated one and one which is inherently hostile to your existence as a gay man.  You know as well as I do what the Victorians thought of us “inverts”.  It is also a construction which absolutely cannot process transfolks or genderqueers.  Where in the Law of Gender (even with the Law of Rhythm) is there a place for me?  A “cross-dressing”, bisexual, male-bodied shamanic witch and magician who takes “female” form (involuntarily) about 30% of the time I descend to the Underworld?  Again, I haven’t read the Kybalion, but I suspect that the answer is “nowhere”, which means that not only is the Law of Gender NOT universal, but it flatly contradicts with the Law of Correspondences.  Because if I exist here in the material, Powers as genderfucked as I am must also exist both Above and Below.

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10 Comments

Filed under scholarship, witchcraft

10 responses to “Sex, Gender, and Magic 1/n+1

  1. zenith

    Satyr Mage, I don’t understand why physical gender is important in spirituality. In my eyes the value given to it is for social, political, sexist non-spiritual reasons. Female and feminine are two different things. Male and masculine are two different things.

    The last paragraph of the Kybalion’s introduction states: “If you are a true student, you will be able to work out and apply these Principles–if not, then you must develop yourself into one, for otherwise the Hermetic Teachings will be as “words, words, words” to you. ”

    Hermetic aphorism: “The lips of Wisdom are closed, except to the ears of Understanding.”

    From the Kybalion’s Gender Chapter Intro: “The word “Gender” is derived from the Latin root meaning “to beget; to procreate; to generate; to create; to produce.”
    A moment’s consideration will show you that the word has a much broader and more general meaning than the term “Sex,” the latter referring to the physical distinctions between male and female living things. Sex is merely a manifestation of Gender on a certain plane of the Great Physical Plane–the plane of organic life. We wish to impress this distinction upon your minds, for the reason that certain writers, who have acquired a smattering of the Hermetic Philosophy, have sought to identify this Seventh Hermetic Principle with wild and fanciful, and often reprehensible, theories and teachings regarding Sex.”

    Peace.

    • First: re-read the post. Then go read the Phil Hine posts I linked to. And maybe google some Feminism 101 for good measure: I recommend the Shakesville collection … though, to be fair, it’s really more 201.

      With that out of the way, I’ll agree that “the value given to it is for social, political, sexist non-spiritual reasons.” At that point we have to part, though, because you seem to miss the broader implications of your own statement. Push that thought all the way to its natural conclusion.

      There is no such thing as physical gender. Gender is socially constructed. That means the meaning of “feminine” and “masculine” are similarly socially constructed, and are differently constructed by every single generation in every single society. Thus, using “masculine” and “feminine” and their attendant tropes to describe spiritual word–not just individual spirits (some of whom seem to be distinctly gendered,others not so much), but the macrocosmic architecture itself–becomes dangerously anachronistic, heterosexist, and ethnocentric.

      Thus, failing to recognize the ways in which our individual experiences of sex, gender, orientation, and related oppressions–which inevitably impact our ability to relate to the spiritual world, and the way in which we perceive it–in favor of a single, normalized experience only serves to further sanctify the interaction which is already perceived as most “normal”. Put more plainly: published in 1908, the Kybalion represents the a certain perspective–in this case, as so many others, that of the cisgendered heterosexual white middle-to-upper-class male from the dawn of the 20th Century; treating that as a universal perspective is actively hurtful to everyone two whom it does not apply. Pretending that the sexual and gendered terms in which it was written “didn’t really mean that” and that it’s only postmodern critics who are giving REAL sex and gender spiritual value … well, that’s just pouring salt into an open wound.

      TL;DR: it’s the sexual and gendered language of the primary sources which is sexist, not those of us calling bullshit.

      [Edited for typo.]

    • “When you come across a river, build a raft to cross it. Once you cross it, leave the raft behind.”

      At some point in a spiritual path, one will eventually surpass any notions of Self entirely and join in infinite harmony with the Divine. This is, often enough, the entire point of such a path. However, up until that point where you can detach consciousness from notions of Self, you’re going to have to deal with the Self in whatever trappings it brings. Part of that is gender and sex.

      If gender and sex didn’t matter in spirituality, we wouldn’t have had huge religious movements starting new traditions based on these very things to accommodate better the spiritual needs of their practitioners. People wouldn’t feel alientated, and people would all fall in line doing the same thing. Satyr Magos points this out and counterpoints saying that, because cultural context matters in defining the self and working in the world, it also matters in defining the Self and working in the cosmos.

  2. Not gonna lie, I read the Kybalion only because it was something to read and I wanted to see what else was influenced by it. It’s a lot of bull, but it’s bull that’s inspired a lot of modern occult viewpoints, and the Corpus Hermeticum is still a primary source for my work and studies. I know it’s an unusual and obsolete view of things, and I know quite well what old society (and modern!) think of queer people.

    The thing about the Principle of Gender isn’t that a given something is either-or, but that it’s both (Principle of Polarity) and constantly becoming the other (Principle of Rhythm). It’s an interesting viewpoint, at least, and if it can be bent to the right interpretation and context in tandem with the other Principles, I think it might actually explain queerness in its own esoteric and not insulting way. Each of the Principles has to work, and is intimately bound up with, each of the other Principles; I think taking only one aside isn’t the proper way to analyze this, in retrospect.

    • Again, I’m not familiar with the Kybalion in particular, and if I came off as attacking it or you that was very much not my intent, and I apologize. You read a book (which I may read some day) and asked a very important question: “How is this relevant to my life? Is it really universal?” And (regardless of what the authors thought and intended) you can find a way to transmute that book into personal spiritual growth … more power to you. That’s what we’re all here for.

      This isn’t even about the primary sources, themselves–although later posts will be, thick with quotes and citations–but rather about the rage which a lot of modern advocates of those theories inspire in me when they engage in transparently privilege-defending apologia. Seriously, check out that reddit comment thread: it’s horrible, especially the particular comment I linked. And I’ve faced a lot of that in my day, and zenith’s response to your post was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

      But, I can’t emphasize this enough, I really did not mean this as an attack against you or your research.

      • No offense taken, please stop apologizing! I understand the ire, because it’s really a lot of nonsense.

        Thinking about Zenith’s answers, I think he’s trying to separate the physical from the spiritual, in that things that are physical don’t really matter in the spiritual world. But then, in that case, the opposite applies as well: the spiritual doesn’t matter in the physical. This goes against “as above, so below, and v.v.”. Granted that he could spend a little more thought the distinction between gender and sex, the possibility of other genders than male or female, etc., but I think he’s just trying to separate out the inseparable.

        At some point, gender won’t matter, this is true, because there won’t be a discernible gender at that point on the path. Just like how when we work in the astral we don’t work with physical forms anymore, when we reach divinity we stop working with things that are distinct and rather work with the All. However, it’s a long, long road to get there, no matter which path you take. Until then, these differences, these “real illusions” of gender, duality, distinctness, and so on matter quite a bit.

      • Word. It’s just that I know this post will offend some folks, and I want to make sure it’s only the people I’m aiming at.

  3. I really, really like this post. Thank you for writing it

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