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.


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.


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!


On Having a Girl’s Aura

Sometimes I get mistaken for a female, and for years have explained jokingly that this is because ‘I have a girl’s aura’.

When I was a teenager this happened fairly often. I remember once being at a David Bowie concert in London (part of his Glass Spider tour). With my hair spiked (in a homage to Aladdin Sane) and eye-liner I guess it wasn’t that surprising that the blokes sitting behind myself and my (female) partner remarked; ‘Cor look! lesbians!’ However only a few years later I found myself walking with another girl friend in Cumbria and something similar happened.  Striding up the hillside towards Grisedale Tarn (which I always imagine as the kind of body of water beneath which a Cthuloid God may well lie dreaming) we were met by a gentleman walking the other way. Despite the fact that I had short hair, no make-up, probably stubble, a men’s waxed Barbour jacket, combat trousers and boots (as did my companion) he still greeted us with a hearty ‘Good morning ladies!’

Engendering confusion

Engendering confusion

And it’s not a phenomenon limited to a western English speaking cultural context. Once when passing through airport security in India, having gone through the metal detector, I stood in front of the male security guard and lifted my arms for a pat down search. Despite being taller than the guard (I’m 5 foot 8 inches tall) and us being face-to-face (me wearing jeans, t-shirt and no make-up or other insignia usually thought of as feminine) he directed me elsewhere.  ‘Ladies to go here please!’ he remarked, indicating that I needed to be searched by the female guard (as would be appropriate were I a woman). I’ve also found these misreadings are also not age dependent; there have been numerous occasions in which I’ve overheard a child taking about ‘that lady’, meaning me.

While clearly not a banner-headline masculine type (I’m rather far from the Pipe Bear phenotype) the majority of the time these situations have arisen while I’ve been dressed in ‘traditional’ male clothing and had short hair. It’s interesting to consider these misapprehensions  in the light of the fact that I do identify as a bisexual male, who likes a spot of crossdressing, and the somewhat fay Goth style (in my defense, I did do most of my growing up in Britain during the early 1980s).  It’s also interesting to note that the misinterpreting person often ends up profusely apologising – as though mistaking me for a female is something I’d find offensive – itself a fascinating observation.

Of course there’s much one could explore about these misapprehensions. Firstly are they actually mistakes? Are those folks who ‘misunderstand’ me as a girl actually detecting some of these ‘feminine’ aspects of who I am, even when they are not being overly signaled by context, dress etc? More broadly these ‘mistakes’ make me aware of, and call into question, the relationship between genetic sex, genital identity, cultural norms and so on. The issues that this misinterpretation raises are subtle, fluid and multiple.

I guess for me I take these misinterpretations of my gender as a compliment. Generally I find women more attractive (at least visually) than men and so I’m always a little flattered by these ‘mistakes’. More generally there may well be some kind of cultural feed-back loop from my apparent ‘female side’ or social role (I often get to be ‘honorary girl/woman’ etc at various female-only events, for example Hen Parties).

As a magician I’m interested in these experiences because of the significance of the androgyny in pretty much every esoteric tradition. Whether it’s the dual form of Ardhanarishvarathe appearance of dual-sexed imagery in alchemy, or its modern re-visioning in the chimeric sexuality of Baphomet – the notion of both genders being present in one body is a central motif in many occultures.

Alchemical gender mashup

Alchemical gender mashup

I like to imagine that these misapprehensions of my apparent gender spring from what one might (in a positive sense) describe as my being ‘a bit ergi‘.  This was a term of abuse in Viking age culture and was applied to men who engaged in seiðr; practices of which we know little but many conjecture to have included magics of a dark-feminine, spiritist, sorcerous (perhaps manipulative) sort.  In some respects ergi seems to be much like the complex modern word ‘queer’. Today we might say we’re talking about ‘receptive’ qualities; the ability to listen to others/the unconscious/the spirits, and indeed to take the gods inside ourselves (with the obvious sexual imagery) in trance work and invocation. These seem like essential skills for the well-rounded magician, whatever their gender. (If you want to explore a more nuanced analysis of ergi I recommend reading Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic.)

So perhaps it is indeed my ‘girl’s aura’ that foxes people about the set of chromosomes I carry; maybe they unconsciously register the currents of my magical work (consisting as it does in large part of a chaos-Baphometic-witchcraft which, franky, is pretty ‘queer’), or maybe it’s just that I’m a lot more camp than I generally notice. And then there is the complex issue of whether camp behaviour is in any way intrinsically linked to the behaviour of women, or something else entirely…