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