Divine Androgyne (Part 3): Monstrous Alchemy

The impact of Queer experience on the ideal of androgyny is a truly disruptive one. Gone are our neat Kabbalistic flow charts and clear cut Neoplatonic stages of descent. In contrast to these linear sequences, this Queered Androgyny is an ever oscillating, multi-directional chaos-star whose many rays can be simultaneously moving both outward in expression and engagement, and inward in reflection and self-nurture.

This principle of Androgyny is fed as much by the lived experience of unique, individual Androgynous people as it is by the realm of aspirational metaphysics. It as much as about the creativity of the Radical Faery and Butch Lesbian as it about Adam Kadmon or Ardhanarisvara. For me, to work with this form of Androgyny means to acknowledge both a dialectical process that seeks to capture the world of ideal forms, while at the same time experiencing a dialogical reality in which a multitude of positions need to be held together without a necessary resolution.

Ardhanarishvara

‘Can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl’

To seek deep benefit in engaging with these ideas and images seems to require that we tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. So often this form of doubt, confusion and psychological tension is seen as a negative or a hindrance to spiritual development and yet I believe this does not need to be case. For those of us seeking to walk an occult path, we are often called upon to make use of emotions and methods which our exoteric cousins view as dangerous or retrograde. If however we are able to engage consciously with the sense of resistance experienced in grappling with the complexity of such dialogues, then this very tension can bring about alchemical change.

If the stated aim of magical work is to create change, it would seem somewhat odd to then resist the transformation when it comes; and yet in my own life this has so often been the case. Change can happen at many levels and impact both how we experience ourselves and how we engage in relationships with others. Often the routes to change are manifested in dilemmas, loss and conflict, and the keys we need are to be found in attending to the strangeness of our dreams and the currents of the unconscious made manifest in our Art.

This is the unconscious territory that the Surrealists were so adept in exploring in their work, with the strange often jarring images revealing aspects of self that were bizarre, blurred and often monstrous. In alchemical terms this connection to the unconscious and the shadow represent the stage of nigredo or “blackening”. For the surrealists such territory was vital to their artistic inspiration and similarly for our magical work to have any really depth or sustained power, we must tap into this libidinal black flame of inspiration.

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Leonora Carrington Inn of the Dawn Horse

We have already explored something of the fertile intersect that exists between Surrealism and the artistic deployment of occult ideas and images. Themes as diverse the etheric double, the daemonic and the Witches’ sabbat were explored to varying degrees and there seems to be a significant connection between this use of magical themes and the often weird animalistic characters with which they populated their artistic landscapes.

The link between the magical, the animal and the potentially Queer is present in much Surrealist work and for me the most engaging aspects of such exploration, lies in the way in which it seems to capture that zone of liminal strangeness and mystery. The Surrealist imagination was alive to potency to be found in understanding the animal (whether actual or in more mythic forms) as a way of recontacting the sensual and instinctual realms that weave through the body. For me this wilder magic seems to connect to an almost pre-verbal stage of development that resonates with Spare’s idea of “atavistic resurgence”.

The folklore of the Lycan and Vampyre point us towards a magical worldview in which we can explore the vitality gained through a deeper connection to the visceral. Similarly the Witches’ animal familiar the “Fetch”, or the animal-dimension of Norse soul-lore breach our polite attempts to conceive of a humanity devoid of wildness.

In contrast to the clean, vertical fusing of Ardhanrisvara, the truly Queer genius of Levi’s depiction of Baphomet is partly located in the way in which the animal sits alongside the male and female. In trying to work with our own processes of dissolving and coming back together, Baphomet’s animal dimensions remind us of the power, joy and danger that can be accessed when we risk tuning into the whole of ourselves.

My own attempts to access these states has come via bodywork, dance/shaking states and prolonged trance drumming. I have also had a great deal of pleasure revisiting Gordon MacLellan’s excellent book Sacred Animals which provides some excellent practical guidance for exploring these themes. The ability to inhabit these places feels vital for those of us seeking to embody both freethinking and the magic of the Queer. These places beyond binaries and old certainties rarely allow prolonged rest, but they are undoubtedly transformational!

SD

 

 

 

 

 

Divine Androgyne (Part 2) : Androgyny as Spiritual Ideal

For me (unsurprisingly) combining both Queerness and a gnostic approach to religious exploration reveals considerable overlaps. It is my belief that our experience of being an Outsider can be encountered in a number of different parts of our lives at any given moment, and that insights gained or progress made can benefit the wider story of how we live and experience our lives.

The concept of Androgyny as a religious aspiration can be found in a multitude of cultural settings and across a vast period of time. Authors such as June Singer and Mircea Eliade have produced highly valuable work documenting the wide range of spiritual contexts that have sought to explore Androgyny as both an expression of cosmological wholeness and as a goal of personal integration.

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We like dancing and we look divine…

Geographically it spans pretty much the entire globe (Australasia, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas) and encompasses traditions as diverse as Tantra, Judaic Kabbalah, Hermetic Alchemy and a variety of Native animistic traditions. Eliade highlights that the employment of the Androgyny as an organizing idea has an enduring resonance due to the way it simultaneously points toward the primal unity of opposites (often in a numinous pre-historical realm), while at the same time trying to map the process of human development.  Part of its ongoing appeal seems to be the way in which it seeks to hold in parallel our Gnostic longings concerning divinity, and our own experience of psychological transformation. The wholeness of all binaries held in tension within a single being  offering us the hope that our own ennui will be soothed via our own internal marriage of opposites.

In her seminal Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty goes some way in identifying the possible range of androgynous forms as represented in religious and mythical iconography. In this highly valuable work she examines the Androgyny as a manifestation of aspirational unity (“fusing”) e.g. Ardhanarisvara, and of chaos (“splitting”) e.g. the necessary differentiation enacted via puberty rituals. The ideal of fusing can be seen as having many resonances with Jung’s goal of integrating the contra-sexual self (Anima/Animus) while the desire for reverting to an undifferentiated pre-creation has some parallels to Freud’s primal wish for death.

In trying to garner such an overview we will always struggle to contain the complexity of such a topic as it seeks to engage with both the mythic archetype and the lived reality of how gender non-conformity is manifested in day-to day human existence. While the highly balanced “vertical” androgyny of Arhanarisvara may represent an iconographic and aspirational success as an embodiment of fusing, for me the messier, potentially Queerer movement in, out and back through multiple identities, may hold as much value as manifestations how we actually live with the tensions of binaries. Those trickster stories of amputated penises and ecstatic cross-dressing may come closer to embodying the type of embraced imperfection or “Queer failure” (see Judith Halberstam’s work) that makes our lives more possible.

For me Androgyny has a vital role in pointing us towards the occult, the enigmatic and the hidden. The Androgyne’s weird complexity offers the possibility of both transcendence of the erotic (via the nullified eunuch) and at the other extreme a vast realm of erotic possibility when unchecked by the natural limitation of childbirth. In the projected fantasies of its viewer the hermaphrodite’s complex sexual possibility is both potentially alluring and terrifying. To engage with them may result in a cornucopia of new sensual experiences and/or our ultimate destruction via their alien genitalia. They become avatars of Baphomet in being both sex and death, our dissolving and coming back together.

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Rebel, rebel…

The Eunuch as an androgyne also presents us with a type of dialogical tension in which story and fantasy intersect. Via their various degrees of genital nullification they may represent both a state of idealised asexuality or a perfect servant who while safely sterile is also the potential recipient of other people’s penetrative activity. The chaste harem attendant and Hijra sex worker represent both ends of this dichotomy, but in both cases they hold a magic in that their very presence is potentially unsettling and disruptive.

In the gospel of Matthew chapter, Jesus made the observation:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it. (Matthew 19:12)

Androgynes of either nature or via human creation disturb our perception of what we think of as natural. If we also account for the broad range of folks who would embrace some form of Transgender identity we also see a vast number of possible responses (changes pursued in external presentation, surgery, hormones and psychology). The magical potential of the Androgyne for me lies in the sense of uncertainty that they induce. This sense of liminality may attract or repel depending on our own level of comfort around self exploration and our ability to sit with not knowing. Often this feels connected to the distance between Androgyny as an idealised spiritual icon and the messier reality of Androgyne as a Queer embodiment. This lived experience for me feels richer, more complex and a more creative expression of individual creativity.

For me the ongoing value of Androgyny as a spiritual goal or organizing principle lies in its ability to be challenged and informed by the reality of Queer lives. This dialogue between the distant ideal and the flux-state of day-to-day creativity is one that we need to keep working with. Let’s keep talking!

SD

Divine Androgynes (Part 1): Personal Reflections

Many people realise that they are Queer from quite an early age. In my case it was less something I knew innately and more something that my world told me I was.

I was probably 6 when my Dad returned from a trip to Scotland where he had been working as a bricklayer. He had returned with gifts: a big yellow digger for me and a Scottish dancing doll for my younger sister. I remember clearly the moment when, after receiving our presents, my sister and I looked across at each other and simply swapped!

As I recollect my early years and adolescence, there were a number of such occasions when it became all too apparent that I was out of step. Maleness in my world came with some fairly fixed markers of success and I as far as I could tell I wasn’t doing so well. I didn’t even know what a “poof” was, but I could guess from the mockery with which it was spat that it was probably something to hide.

It can be easy to get shut down by shame. While I am certainly aware of situations and groups of people that I avoided due to their perception that my gender expression and sexuality didn’t fit with their norms, thankfully this was not the whole of the story. While the question of whether magicians are born or made is open to debate, I personally managed to find conduits for letting my Queer magic flow.

I have already spoken of the impact that Hatha yoga practice had on not only shaping my metaphysical outlook but also my relationship to my body. I liked Billy Elliott’s answer to the question that he was asked at his Ballet school audition “what do you feel when you are dancing?” Billy answers that he forgets himself and feels like electricity. This made sense to me as the opening extension of the asanas allowed me to more fully inhabit my physical self and contact the possibility of the sensual. The discipline and demands of the postures often blurred the boundary between pleasure and pain and provided my adolescent bodymind with new tools for making connection.

If yoga touched my body, then it was music that allowed me to access my creative, emotional self. I remember flicking through a friend’s record collection and seeing Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” and some of the early Devo albums. Yes the music moved me, but much more than that, these strange New Wave icons seemed to inhabit a sexless space in which gender seemed endlessly plastic and subject to mutation. Bowie’s make-up and hair unsettled and inspired me in equal measure as the alien persona of Major Tom strutted through my increasingly rich internal world.

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Boys keep swinging…

Back then I didn’t possess a word to capture that strange blurring of male and female, all I knew was that I liked what I saw and that it acted as a mirror in which to see something that I knew was deeply real about myself. The concepts of androgyny and Queerness were to come much later, but in having my imagination captured by the gender ambiguity of the New Wave and the New Romantic, it felt as though internal radar had been activated than sensitised me to those presentations that challenged the binary norm. I offer these reflections with a deep bow of gratitude to early Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and orange buzz-cut of Annie Lennox!

My adolescent exposure to androgynous imagery was not only limited to my musical world, it was spiritual as well. Having spent most of my teenage years wandering around the Gold Coast area in Australia I had been exposed to all sorts of religious weirdness. I remember the hours spent moving between music shops and the Hare Krishna restaurant at which I was able to acquire free books and magazines that fuelled my yogic imagination. In addition to discovering the joys of mantra meditation, these magazines contained some beautiful depictions of the 16th century Vaishnava saint Lord Caitanya.

Caitanya was a bhakti yoga mystic whose intensity of love for Krishna took him into some decidedly Queer territory. In seeking to express the degree of his love for his Lord, he often dressed as Krishna’s divine partner Radha.  This act of sacred cross-dressing typified the ecstatic longing that Caitanya was able to direct in helping reform Vaishnava spirituality. Some view him as an incarnation of Krishna and if we at least entertain that notion, we are presented with a deeply tantric manifestation whereby the power of devotion allows for both partners of a divine coupling to be held within one being.

If it was the beautifully ambiguous portraits of Caitanya that drew me to him, my relationship with Jesus came more through words and story. Having not grown up in a religious home, apart from the Lord’s prayer I was largely unaware of the Gospel stories. This was to change dramatically during my mid-teens, as the certainties of Evangelical Christianity were to provide a ready conduit through which to pour my adolescent longing for identity.

The depiction of Jesus in the Gospels provided me with a model of masculinity that accommodated both a sense of gentleness and emotional openness that I found liberating. The Christ to which I became devoted both cleared the Temple in righteous indignation and went compassionately seeking for the one lost sheep. For me it was his ability to hold both these dimensions together that proved so attractive and inspiring.

As I look back now 30 years later, I am struck by the homoerotic edge that seemed to pervade so much of my spiritual devotion at that time. The Church at which I worshipped was decidedly conservative in terms of it theology and views on homosexuality, but seemed quite comfortable with hours being spent in writhing ecstasy before the throne of a Messiah who in my mind’s eye was a beautiful, bearded 33 year old male who was deeply in love with me! One might be forgiven for getting confused.

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Ama et quod vis fac

Such paradoxes permeated the Charismatic/Pentecostal form of worship that I engaged in. On the one hand they adopted an attitude towards sexual pleasure that was quite severe and repressive (sex outside of marriage being wrong and masturbation being viewed as morally dubious), and yet theirs’ was an embodied ecstasy where God as Holy Spirit induced dance, fainting, glossolalia and all manner of strange “signs and wonders”.

While I can now see this radical sublimation as being harmful to many, I remain uncertain whether it was entirely so for me.  As a person who finds comfort in the blurry self-descriptors of gender fluidity and grey asexuality, this location of spiritual experience within the physical body allowed me to access a more polymorphous type of sensuality that seemed far less located in genital sexuality and inherited scripts and expectations regarding the erotic activity I should be engaged in to prove my normality.

Although my current spiritual path is evidence that this form of belief failed to meet my needs, I can see direct parallels between that past and my current use of dance, music and other body transforming practices. Even if the certainties of adolescent belief no longer feel authentic, the day-to-day practice that informs my on-going spiritual explorations, I still feel the powerful pull of devotion and a desire to experience an ecstasy in the body that blurs the lines between Agape and Eros. Even with my conscious embrace of theological uncertainty, I dance, shake, drum and burst forth with strange tongues as I walk the tight-rope liminal zone that my life asks me to inhabit.

SD

 

 

 

 

The Queerness of Gnosis

It’s probably not very surprising that I find myself trying to write a reflection on how Queerness and Gnosis intersect given the importance they both play in my life. My blog posts, and the book A Gnostic’s Progress, bear witness to my attempt to explore the complexity of human life and how we utilize experiences of direct knowing in our attempts to manage the dilemma of existence.

While others may view the conflating of Queer experience and Gnosticism as being a personal eccentricity or indulgence on my part, I would ask for your patience as I try to unpack some of the resonances that I experience. For me the starting point for both the Queer-identified and the Gnostic is a sense of discomfort and dislocation in response to binary attempts at classification.

While the Gnostics are often typified as dualists, for me a large part of what lies at the heart of gnostic exploration is dissatisfaction with attempts to divide our experience of the world along binary lines. An orthodoxy that seeks to classify things in terms of the works of God or those of Satan made little sense to those religious free-thinkers who wanted to embrace complexity more fully. Rather than being satisfied with the simple answers of faith, the Gnostic sets out into deep space in order to explore  the tension, complexity and contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of life’s mystery.

The Gnostic is the sacred scientist in the truest sense in their attempts to openly explore; question and pressure test their findings. Their metaphysical insights may fail to meet the rigour of the strict reductionist, but their attempt to map the weird cosmologies experienced through inner perception still provide us with much of value. These strange inner landscapes had a clear resonance with depth psychologists such as Carl Jung as he felt that they provided insight into the nature of human experience and how we might work with the process of personal transformation.

Somewhere over the Bifrost

Early Gnostic cosmologies such as those mapped out by early groups, for instance the Sethians and Valentinians, contain a wide variety of spiritual couplings (or syzygies) that seek to convey the dynamic dance at work in the process of creation. For the Gnostic, the numinous realm is full of a wide array of beings such as Aeons, Archons, Powers and Principalities, all vying for expression and manifestation into both matter and the realm of human consciousness. While diagrammatic attempts to depict such systems usually come off looking quite linear, in reading the oft-confusing description of them in primary Gnostic texts, the heavenly host often feels far more fluid, over-lapping and multi-directional.

For me the Gnostics embody a type of heretical free-thinking that seeks to challenge a form of certainty that relies on blinkered tunnel-vision.  Neat delineations that require us to ignore the messy complexity of our deepest longings are challenged by the heretics’ brave act of choosing. While the pedlars of certainty proclaim loudly that their polarised, black and white world is either the result of natural order or God’s will, the heretic is listening to a quieter inner voice.

The awakening to Queerness can of course happen in a whole host of ways. It might be an internal awareness of the complexity of desire or (as was in my case) communication from the straight world of the demi-urge that my way of presenting was not working for them! These realisations may happen suddenly or in a more slow-burn fashion in which you become increasingly aware of dissonance. Whichever speed it happens at this is a profound unfolding of who we sense we are and for me it definitely had a Gnostic dimension. If the admonition to “Know Thyself” was to have an authenticity then it needed to account from the outsider experience that I experienced as a Queer person.

Gnostic explorers of most stripes are usually willing to question what we mean by the natural. In trying to grapple with the discomfort associated with our experience of living, they sought to question the narratives about this transmitted by both Church and State. These organs of authority have been keen to get us to believe all sorts of ideas, in the name of their being natural. Whether it’s the inevitability of reproduction, the subjugation of Women or the exclusion of Black people, both Church and State have the potential to become archonic in their restriction of personal expression and liberty. In their attempt to control and contain they seek to minimise the complexity of our life experience and to present a dominant narrative that limits the possibility of a deeper connection based on a truly rich diversity.

The syzygies so loved by the Gnostics often sought to embody a richer story in which the binaries experienced were held together as they moved through a process of reconciliation. Manifestations of this unification often pop-up in androgynous figures such as Adam Kadmon or Abraxas, but I think that we risk losing something crucial if we see them as fixed icons and fail to appreciate the Queer dynamism that they embody. Queerness often presents a disruptive challenge to our attempts at neatness. At best it moves beyond mere hip theorising and compels us to enact, perform and intensify the often blurry reality of who we are.

In this fluid dance, Queerness can be experienced as identity, mood and the dynamic that exists in the interactions between people, objects and organisation. For me it provides a way of knowing that provides not only a space for inhabiting the present, but also a lens for viewing the past.  In asking us to stay awake to sensitivity to context and process, Queerness provides a necessary challenge to the type of brittleness that can come when we get overly invested in fixed identities.  In my view, such a dynamic creates a type of optimism as I see glimpses of the type of human creativity that Jose Esteban Munoz refers to as “Futurity”.

I have already spoke of the inspiration that I have gained via Nema’s description of N’Aton as an embodiment of our future magical selves, and part of my attraction to this figure is in the way it manifests a type of magical optimism and Futurity. Depictions of N’Aton often hold together the individual and collective perspectives and for me such images embody a type of spiritual awakening that allows for a multiplicity of perspective. When we step away from the tunnel-vision of either Christian or Orthodox Thelemic eschatology, we can begin to explore the Queer possibility of our aeonic utopias overlapping, blurring with and potentially strengthening each other as they balance and inform each other’s insights.

This is a tightrope walk in which we try to balance the reality of both our individual and collective struggles with the need to explore the possibility of what hope might mean. When the Archons shout their “truth” so loudly, we must dare to keep the richness of our stories alive! I’ll end with this great quote from Sara Ahmed in which they discuss the possibility of what we might create when we radically reappraise the type of future we might have:

To learn about possibility involves a certain estrangement from the present. Other things can happen when the familiar recedes. This is why affect aliens can be creative: not only do we want the wrong things, not only do we embrace possibilities that we have been asked to give up, but we create life worlds around these wants. When we are estranged from happiness, things happen. Happiness happens.
The Promise of Happiness p.218

SD

Surreal Christology (part 4): The Androgyny

Part of what appeals to me about Surrealism both as an artistic school and also as a way of engaging with human experience, is the way in which it seeks to embrace experiences of fluidity and uncertainty. Surrealist art often dives deep into rich realms of the unconscious where attempts at neat categorisation quickly start coming apart at the seams. This is a twilight realm in which polarities such as animal versus human, safety versus threat and male versus female are both challenged and played with.

I have previously written about the way in which Queer theory and experience has provided for me a language for understanding the blurry liminality that I experienced in relation to my sexuality and in my spiritual explorations. Queer theory often provides an irreverent take on the complex interplay between biological sex and the way in which we perform our genders. This playfulness is as likely to be found in visual art as it is in text and for me depictions of Androgyny (both religious and secular) can help us gain insight into this strange territory.

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Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped hair

 In the work of both Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington we see the way in which both of these female artists engage with depictions of the gendered body in ways which seek to disrupt many of the cultural expectations of their time. Kahlo powerfully utilised the juxtaposition of Mexican traditional dress with glorious facial hair to present a more authentic version of themselves. In both her art and life Kahlo bravely explored the fluidity of both her gender presentation and bisexuality, despite her physical disabilities and the personal turmoil she experienced. She even refused to be pigeon-holed as a Surrealist stating; “I never painted dreams. I painted my reality”. In my view artists such as Carrington and Kahlo worked with androgyny in a manner that embraced the dynamic and shifting nature of what this concept might mean. As Erin Hinz has observed in assessing themes of androgyny within Carrington’s work:

“Carrington experienced the social limits of her female body and choose to create bodies that fused these restrictive codes with animals, ancient ideologies in an alchemical way that transmuted these base constructions into precious, mystical and complex expressions of identity.”

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Self-portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-38 Leonora Carrington

While the interplay of both male and female aspects of the self was lauded in the works of Jung and first wave feminists (cf. Virginia Woolf’s iconic Orlando) others have been less than keen. While the call of these early writers was taken up by later luminaries such as June Singer and Carolyn Heilbrun, some second wave Feminist theologians such as Mary Daly saw it as an escapist trap that “sucks spellbound victims into itself”. From the perspective of her radical separatism, Daly viewed it as an attack on both the essential potency of womanhood (“Why do I need to be half-male?”) and an attempt to falsely reify certain qualities of humanity as being polarised “male” or “female”. From such a perspective, the aspiration towards androgyny amounts to a form of sexual sublimation and fantasy that distances women from the visceral experience of female embodiment and passion.

While such voices need to be part of dialogue concerning androgyny, it could be argued that while they are seeking to challenge ideas of stereotyping and gendered fixity, via their biological essentialism they may be in danger of another existential cul de sac.  While concepts of androgyny may well be in danger of minimising difference and a true valuing of women’s experience, the desire for such an essential separateness also risks missing experiences of playfulness and exploration that seem vital to shared human experience.

For me the challenging deconstruction offered by third wave feminisms and Queer theory, is less about the removal of category and difference and more about a willingness to dance and blur at the edges of where we think such borders lie. There seems to be a psychological complexity to such approaches that allows for the power of dreams and the unconscious in allowing the primacy of the experimental and experiential. Perhaps we are back with the Trickster in prophetically destabilising neat categorisation and asking for the space to be uncertain and to explore.

This queered vision of androgyny provides a sigil for challenging and shifting our sense of what we think we think we know. This androgynous mystery acts a mirror via which deeper aspects of self might be gleaned. Whether when gazing at our own reflection or in viewing the other, the presence of such oscillating fluidity can provide the possibility of change, and with change, hope.

In relation to my own journey I have already sought to describe how my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my own sexuality and gender identity. Despite the damaging efforts of my self-suppression, I experienced at least a part of my liberation via my encounter with the Queer androgyny of Christ.

While owning my own needs and bias, I eventually encountered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that that provided for me an alternative mode of being. This was the Jesus who cleared Temples and overturned tables, but also who blessed the gentle and sought out the one lost sheep. At a more cosmic level he was also the mythic Christ of the Gnostics, who as the “first Adam” existed in some spacey realm in which they at once contained many genders while being also beyond them. This metaphysical fluidity – while looking decidedly freaky to my fellow seminarians – provided me with a doorway via which I could begin a new chapter of greater self-understanding. Such explorations are definitely ongoing, and continue to this day.

SD

 

Reading List:

Ellen Goldberg: The Lord Who is Half Woman: Adhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective 2012

Carolyn Heilbrun: Towards a Recognition of Androgyny 1993

Erin Hinz: The Work of Leonora Carrington: An Alchemical Transmutation of Gender through Magic, Animals, and Narrative

http://genderstudies.nd.edu/assets/64258/e_hinz_the_work_of_leonora_carrington.pdf

June Singer: Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality 1976

 

Surreal Christology (Part 3): The Trickster

Now I’ll be honest, part of problem with Tricksters is that the process of trying to define them can, in and of itself, be a bit tricky! The very nature of these liminal figures that push irreverently against what is polite, acceptable and knowable means that they tend to slip out of attempts at neat archetypal categorisation. As with my previous explorations of Queer theory and the way in which its blurry fluidity can be both liberating and infuriating, so attempts to corral figures as diverse as Hermes, Loki, Coyote and Eshu will meet with frustration.

Tricksters tend to be those figures who dwell on the outer-edges of ordered society and speak often difficult truths regarding that culture’s need to change and evolve. By inhabiting this prophetic, questioning role they are often seen as subversive agents of chaos seeking to destabilise the rule of law. While this may well be part of their role, like the heretic’s relationship with more orthodox beliefs, the relationship between the Trickster and those in authority is often far more symbiotic.

In many senses the depiction of Christ in both the canonical and Gnostic gospels can be seen as having a trickster-like role. Jesus spends time with sex workers and the drug dependent; he questions religious authority and seeks to challenge the servant/master paradigm of how we engage with the divine:

“The kingdom of God is within you” Gospel of Thomas saying 3

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” John 15:15

Here we have Jesus as a prophet and reformer within the context of 1st century CE Palestine, challenging and questioning received orthodoxies. He asks his listeners to dig deeper, not as a rejection of historic teachings, but as a means of encountering a richer experience of truth:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” Matt. 5:17

The disruptive anarchy of the Trickster can become a powerful catalysing agent that shifts perception and allows social evolution. This is rarely as smooth or as bloodless as it sounds, especially when acting prophetically challenges the excesses of hierarchy and control. Arguably the tipping point for Jesus in the gospel narratives was less about declaring the incoming of God’s Kingdom and more about his denunciation of the misuse of religious power (Matt. 23). For the Trickster to speak truth to power is far from risk free and while Jesus’ death was at least partially triggered by his own messianic self-perception, we may want to  reduce such risks by being “as cunning as serpents” in determining how we deploy our insights.

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The Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955, Salvador Dali

Part of the Trickster’s role within myth and culture more generally, seems to be about challenging our certainty about perception and what we think we know as real. For me this willingness to slip sideways into a blurrier, half-glimpsed reality is central to the work of both the magician and artist. To take the mantle of either of these roles is to imbibe the spirit of the Trickster and to work with the challenge that this can provide to both your sense of self and your relationships with those around you. To walk these paths skilfully usually entails profound degrees of work on the self at both a conscious and unconscious level.

For the Surrealists, the Trickster was often present in portraiture, with the artist’s depiction of self or others often reflecting the incoming of new insight. The weird process of alchemy at work in surreal art makes vivid the way in which we try to make sense of mystery both at a macrocosmic level and in relation to the differing aspects of ourselves. Our encounters with aspects of reality that are strange, bizarre or “dark” often shake us from automaton sleep-states. For the Gnostic explorer this is the still small voice of the Trickster that at once draws us in and disturbs us, causing us to question what we think we know so as to trigger new states of awakening. Unsurprisingly, Trickster gods like Eshu are the guardians of the crossroads and it is often at these junctures of choice and liminality that we benefit most from their less-lateral approach.

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Portrait of Max Ernst, 1939, Leonora Carrington

Whether via art, ritual theatre or an active engagement with our dreamscapes, those less-tidy, potentially disruptive aspects will demand that we give them space. To endlessly supress or ignore them is to invite an eventual tsunami of shadow material that inevitably leads to widespread persecution of others onto whom our fears get projected. For me, an acknowledgement of the Trickster and the creative power of misrule can be vital in fuelling and inspiring the changes we wish to see. While we must remain wary of the excesses of self-indulgence, embracing the Trickster can help us avoid the type of grim activism that loses sight of the happiness and peace that should hopefully accompany the freedom which we are pursuing.

SD

Surreal Christology (Part 2): The Mirror

It’s hardly surprising that mirrors get used a lot in magic; frankly they’re a bit weird. When we look at them they extend space, they reverse and they potentially distort. Whatever we think we look like in our heads, when we look into a mirror we are pushed into a dialogue between that internalised self-perception and the version of self represented in front of us. We may be delighted by what we see or we may become flooded by dysmorphia. Our dis-ease may be skin-deep or it may reveal deeper truths about who we want to be and how we wish to interact with the world around us. Whatever we think is driving us, if we see ourselves more fully we may be confronted by aspects of our daemon that are as likely to shock as they are to empower.

The magical use of mirrors can be manifold, ranging from aids for spirit evocation to scrying tools that allow the diviner greater access to their own unconscious processes. To explore a mirror nocturnally, via candle-light, is to journey to occult edges, and the practice of covering mirrors following a recent death alludes to a need to stabilise our environment in the midst of grief. Given the way they seem to play with the nature of time and space, it’s of little surprise that the Surrealists found them so fascinating.

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Self-portrait in Spherical Mirror, 1935. MC Escher.

The Surrealists on occasion had mirrors explicitly within their art (often as puddles of quicksilver or mirrored melting clock faces) but more often their presence seems far more implicit. Via their use of depth of field and inversion, when we engage with surrealist art we can often feel that we are gazing at a reflection, with all the subtle strangeness innate to that process. Like the melting clock we are required to relinquish our hold on our sense of time and solidity; i.e. things get a bit wobbly and dream-like.

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Self-portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937-38. Leonora Carrington.

In many ways myth and mythic heroes can act as powerful mirrors for viewing ourselves. When we consider those stories or figures that we are drawn to, they can often reveal some significant aspects of who we are at both a conscious and unconscious level. While our initial attraction to a myth may reflect a need or a connection that seems quite obvious e.g. a promise of liberation or an exemplar of individuation, when we renew and revisit this process over time, arguably something subtler takes place. When we truly engage with and internalise these spirits, their strangeness starts to haunt and shape our dreams and outlook.

In terms of my own experience, while my initial flight into Christianity was largely related to my adolescent confusion about the fluidity of my sexuality and gender identity, the Queerness of mystery still managed to break through via my interactions with the myth of Christ. While recognising my personal projections onto the gospel narrative, I eventually uncovered in my reading of Jesus a blurry ambiguity that remains inspiring. Yes this was still the radical who threw over tables in the temple, but he was also the mother hen who wanted to gather the lost underneath his wings.

In a personal world where the versions of maleness, certainty and force made little sense to me, my own gnostic encounter allowed access to a gentler, more mysterious experience. This Christ became a mirror through which I could view myself more closely. Such looking can be far from comfortable, but over time it allowed me to engage with deeper truths about who I needed to become. For me this magical process of engaging with the Christ myth allowed me (somewhat ironically) to become accepting enough of myself that I no longer wished to call myself a Christian.

This Gnostic Christ seems to be asking me to both take more responsibility for my path, while at the same time doing less violence to the core of who I am.  This reflective process is most definitely a work-in-progress and has been far from tidy or pain-free. To walk a magical path requires that we “dare”, even when it means the willed deconstruction of those stories and heroes we hold as precious. This is a narrow road, but it holds the potential of liberty from the claustrophobia of childlike sentimentality.

Whichever mythic mirror feels most attractive to you, I would recommend revisiting it with a Zen-like state of beginner’s mind. Find some great art concerning these myths, or better yet create some art of your own. In my own recent explorations of the Queerer dimensions of Christ I have been inspired by some of the art on sites such as Kittredge Cherry’s  “Jesus in Love” blog. Often these creative explorations into the surreal and less-lateral aspects of ourselves provide us with gateways to discovery and the possibility of further evolution.

Find art that feeds your soul and allows greater insight into who you are and who you can become. Seek the Mysteries!

SD