Paganism and Feminism: long time coming

Jun 2, 2007
One of the many things that continue to saw away at the back of my mind as I attempt to work modern Paganism as I understand it into a religion for me is this niggling conflict I've always felt between Wiccan and ceremonial symbolism and feminism. I used to be able to ignore it, but as feminism has become more important to me, the issue has been increasingly shoved forward.

It's this gender association thing, you see. Look up any table of magickal correspondences, page through any Wiccan ritual, and nearly everything there will be assigned to either male or female. Fire and Air are masculine; Earth and Water are feminine. Swords and Staves are masculine; Cups and Coins are feminine. The Sun, nine times out of ten, is masculine and the Moon feminine. And why?

The feminist part of my brain recoils at all this gender-labeling, saying, so why are femininte things always passive/reflective/yielding/receptive and masculine things are always dominant/assertive/aggresive/powerful? Is that really such a good idea that things always get divided up that way? (Not to mention -- isn't it redundant? If what you want to say is that a thing is aggressive, say it's aggressive. It reminds me of an archaeological survey of a graveyard once. This is a female's grave, it was labeled; we know this because it has female things in it, like pots and spinning tools. We know these are female things because they are always found in female graves. Well, lovely. Did you look at the bones? No, they didn't.)

Now to be fair, Wicca and modern Paganism do avoid associating women exclusively with feminine things and men exclusively with masculine things, both with the gods and with practitioners. But, well, it's still an association, and it's still there. Maybe if that same set of associations weren't so destructively pervasive in the wider society it wouldn't bother me so much, but they are, and for all practical purposes they always have been, and I'm wary of letting yet another religion perpetuate them unquestioning.

(Well if you don't like Wicca, don't practice Wicca, you might say. All right. How? Short of going the strict reconstructionist route -- and that won't get rid of the gender roles problem, just move it around a bit -- you won't find a modern incarnation of Paganism that isn't influenced by Wicca at least a little bit. Gender roles are pretty basic, and thus pretty widespread.)

Truth told, I feel very freed by my realization, upon reading Hutton, that there's nothing fundamentally feminist about Wicca at all. (And like Deborah Lipp posted ages ago, worshipping a Goddess doesn't necessarily make you feminist. It doesn't even necessarily make you not misogynistic.) I feel like I can stop trying to justify things I don't like about it so much because no, there was no chain of logic I would have agreed with behind it, so I can stop trying to look for what isn't there and just work on what works for me. One of the benefits of a young religion, I suppose; it's possible to do enough research to know when to stop.

None of this is news to people interested in feminism, I know. There's a second half to this post that I'm working on; it's a little more productive, I think, in looking at alternatives but as such it's taking me more time to work out...


Anonymous said...

Here, Here... Excellent.. You give me hope

Jenavira said...

Thanks -- I'm doing what I can.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Ehhh... It's not that your point about gender associations and Wicca doesn't make sense--it's that it makes enough sense that I think most intelligent Wiccans have long since snorted in amusement at the lock-step, rigid patterns of association and tossed them out the window. At least, the ones I work with have. *grin* (Not that I'd be working with them otherwise, I admit!)

Take the whole notion of "polarity"--that the universe and the gods are all related to one another in terms of a (gender-based) polarity: male/female, dark/light, sky/earth, etc. And I will acknowledge that there are certainly plently of Pagan lightweights out there telling their students that "everything in nature is either male or female." Up or down, in or out--two polarities, holy and eternal, yada yada yada.

Two polarities, huh?

Why not three, or none, or fifteen?

Not every living thing--let alone everything in nature- does _not_ have gender. Sponges, amoebae, earthworms, bacteria... you don't have to be a biologist to figure that out.

Nor do you need to be a Witch Queen of the Universe to figure out that polarities between magickal humans do not break down to just two. Never mind the fact that humans come in more flavors than heterosexual male and female when it comes to reproduction, we have so many, many more individual differences, that the ones owing to gender, to any Priestess worth her salt and athame, are pretty clearly footnotes. Is polarity an important consideration in a coven or magickal working group? You betcha! But the gender-based polarity is, despite years of Hollywood brainwashing, less important than polarities around age, stage of life, parenting experience/inexperience, relationship to the body, to the animal kingdom, to plants, the stars... All of these differences between the members of a coven count, and all of them are useful ways to generate magickal energy. Human sexuality is just one available option.

Gender-based associations, then, are really just an oversimplified symbolic rendering of an important truth: that it's our ecological diversity as individuals in a community that helps us generate magick. Those who believe otherwise are awfully simplistic and literal-minded!

Not to say it isn't worthwhile to make that clear in ritual. For about twenty years now, for example, the Pagan group I've known best has had it's own variation on the wine blessing/symbolic Great Rite (the touchstone of Wiccan polarity work). It goes like this:

Practitioner 1 (P1):The Sun brings forth light!
Practitioner 2 (P2): The Moon holds it in darkness.
P1: As above... below.
P1: As the athame is to the lover--
P2:--so the chalice is to the beloved.
(Both): And together joined
We are one in Truth.
For there is no greater power in all the world
Than that of people
Joined in the bonds of love.

Wicca may or may not be your path, Jenavira. But don't be afraid to hack away at the deadwood as you see fit.

My generation has, after all.

Bright blessings!

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Grrrr. I know it's obvious. I hope it is, anyway. I meant to write, "Not every living thing... has gender," not "Not every living thing does not have gender."

Though I guess they are both true. But the way I put it is a testimony to the power of proofreading left undone...


Anonymous said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. For a long time, I had problems with these correspondences and ideas of polarity, not only as a feminist, but I also believe that the focus on male-female sex in this "fertility religion" doesn't speak to the GLBT experience.

It might be refreshing for you to know that there are a lot of Wiccans out there who have redefined the associations and expanded upon ideas of polarity, as Cat above describes. Although one wouldn't know it by attending any community Beltaine ritual.

cathy said...

Polarity has never been as much of a problem for me as rigid duality. I find that more limiting that polarity.
As for correspodences, they are such a personal thing. Getting symbols out of a book isn't as useful or personal as discovering them on your own.

Jenavira said...

cat --
I agree with you that most people have probably abandoned this model and in most groups and for probably most solitaries as well the gender roles thing is probably no longer really relevant. It's the fact that it *is* the model that annoys me -- that it's so prevalent that it still manages to look like the baseline from which people diverge, even if the majority of people don't agree with it.

cosette --
Oh, I have a whole new realm of irritation once we get into the "fertility religion" bit. :) It's another one of those concepts that seems built into Paganism in a really fundamental way, but people ignore it completely in practice. Which is all to the good, of course, I just wish we could build it *out* in a fundamental way rather than pretending it isn't there.

cathy --
I agree, duality can be just as stifling as polarity, and it's always struck me as weird that it's so prevalent in what I always saw as a polytheistic religion. (Thanks to Hutton, again, I am a tremendous dork but I love history books, for explaining to me the difference between duotheistic and polytheistic.)