“Issues with Masculine/Feminine Duality in Paganism” by Trellia

This essay was originally published at The Mirror Book.

In many forms of Paganism, emphasis is placed on a masculine/feminine duality within the forces in nature. This is particularly prevalent in Wicca, where the Great God and and the Great Goddess are worshipped as the primary deities, with all other deities generally seen as aspects or incarnations as either the God or Goddess.The nature of masculine/feminine forces in Paganism very much mimics that in traditional Chinese philosophy. Thus the masculine equates to the Sun, the Sky, Heat, Activity, Light, and Fire, while the feminine is attributed with the opposite: the Moon, the Earth, Cold, Passiveness, Darkness and Water.

I don’t disagree with this division of natural forces into masculine/feminine, and I usually make reference to the Great God and the Great Goddess in my own personal rituals. It’s certainly a very neat and graceful way to divide up the forces in life, and also a lovely way to celebrate the sexes. But sometimes I feel that this picture is a little simplistic – especially in a changing society where the clear-cut division between genders is increasingly questioned. Sexuality other than heterosexuality is becoming more widely understood and accepted – and that doesn’t just mean homosexuality, but also bisexuality, transsexualism, asexuality and the many other shades in the sexuality spectrum. More and more parents are opting to buy “gender neutral” toys for their children (i.e. ones not marketed at a particular gender, for example by a pink/blue colour scheme). And now we have same-sex marriages and same-sex parents, the division between the sexes seems less and less important.

But interestingly, when we look at the Pagan religions, there are plenty of examples of deities that don’t neatly fit the masculine/feminine pattern. There are deities that represent a concept that is usually represented by the opposite sex, deities that have both male and female qualities, and deities with seemingly no gender at all. Examples of these deities include:

  • tumblr_mnwxudFBGo1r83cgjo1_500Hermaphroditus (pictured) is one of the most commonly-cited examples of a dual-sex deity, was often depicted as having both male and female anatomy (we get the word “hermaphrodite” from this deity)
  • Agdistis, a deity similar to Cybele, is also depicted has having both male and female physical attributes
  • Apollo is not only portrayed as having gay relationships in mythology; he is also a God of Beauty, a concept normally associated with the feminine.
  • Protectors of children are usually feminine in Pagan religions, but the gods Mercury, Cupid, Picumnus and Balder are also associated with children. Ganesha and Krishna are Hindu examples of male patrons of the young.
  • The ancient Egyptians saw the Earth as a God, Geb, rather than the typical “Mother Earth.”
  • Despite being goddesses, Hecate,Vesta, Brigid, Belisama and Nantosuelta are associated with fire (and often by extension, light)
  • Although war and combat are usually considered masculine, deities of war include the goddesses Athena, Bellona, Freyja, Menhit, Neith, Satet, Sekhmet, Anann, Danu and Morrígan. Hinduism also has war-goddesses in the forms of Durga and Kali.
  • There’s a whole heap of masculine water and ocean deities – Neptune, Hydros, Proteus, Pontus, Oceanus, Triton, Njord, Nodens and Lir, to name but a few.
  • The ancient Egyptians worshipped male gods of the moon (Khonsu, Thoth)
  • Sunna, Sol, Bast, Sekhmet, Sulis, Aine and  Etain are all goddesses associated with the sun.

Shinto also has plenty of good counter-examples for the masculine/feminine duality principal. In Shinto, the genders of the sun and moon deities are flipped from the classical Western tradition; Amaterasu is the beautiful goddess of the Sun and one of the most important Shinto deities, while Tsukiyomi is a rather vague, sinister god of the moon whose role in Japanese mythology is comparatively downplayed.

And then of course there is my patron, Inari Okami. I think one of the reasons I like Inari-sama so much is that he/she is both genders and neither genders, and no one really attempts to pin down a gender on him/her (although the limitations of the English language means that Inari-sama is usually assigned a gender-specific pronoun, rather than the degrading yet gender-neutral “it”). But the principals of the masculine and feminine are clearly reflected in Inari-sama’s fox statues; they are almost always presented in pairs, one male, and one female. In this way, I feel Inari-sama encompasses all aspects of sexuality simultaneously.

Bizarrely, maybe one way to look at it is not to see the concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” in Paganism as actually assigned to the usual concept of male and female. Perhaps its better to see it like the concepts of “masculine,” “feminine” and “neuter” in languages such as French or German, where they simply mean the historical classification of the nouns and which appropriate article to use. I believe it is possible to use use the words “masculine” and “feminine” as convenient short-hands to refer to the concepts and forces classically assigned to these qualities, and the titles “Great God” and “Great Goddess” to refer to the two deities we assign to these opposing forces, and still leave the actual male/female sexuality out of the equation.

The Author: Trellia

kodomonihiAlthough I’ve been interested in Paganism for many, many years, I have only recently started practising Paganism on a regular basis. As suggested in Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, I’ve decided to start a “Mirror Book;” a journal of my progress and thoughts in discovering my own spiritual path. You can read this progress online at The Mirror Book.

I would definitely describe myself as an Eclectic Pagan, borrowing from many different traditions, but I have a particular fascination with Shinto, the “indigenous” Japanese religion. This is partly because of my own background – I studied Japanese at university, lived in Japan for several years and currently work for a Japanese non-profit. It’s also partly because, as there is a thriving family of foxes living very near my house, I venerate Inari, a Japanese deity closely associated with foxes, as a patron deity; I have a shrine to Inari in my courtyard.

I’m also more than a little interested in the Gothic subculture; you can view my “Gothic Stereotypes” art here.

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9 Comments on ““Issues with Masculine/Feminine Duality in Paganism” by Trellia

  1. I feel as though most distinctions of “masculine” and “feminine”, especially in things such as herbs and elements, are 100% arbitrary and almost always come from western societal views on gender (see: “male” being strong, vibrant, rough and “female” being gentle, soft, etc). When I still practiced, I just used “hard” and “soft” or “strong” and “gentle” instead of “masculine” and “feminine”.
    Also, just a note, transsexualism has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with gender (and ‘transsexual’ as it is is technically an outdated term; ‘transgender’ is far more accepted nowadays).

  2. I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with attributing the terms “feminine” and “masculine” to various forces of nature. The feminine is a nurturing, delicate, etc force and masculine a rough, strong one.” The problem, imo, is forcing the concepts of feminine and masculine to map up perfectly with biological sexes. A Female doesn’t have to be feminine, nor does a male have to be masculine (despite that the words derived from each other). Acknowledging feminine and masculine as distinct forces doesn’t mean that a human, or deity can’t be composed of a combination of the two.

  3. I suppose many (all?) gender associations are highly culturally conditioned. The pink-blue girl-boy thing is a relatively recent Western phenomenon. The idea of beauty being “normally associated with the feminine” is less recent but still hardly universal. I suppose that’s one of the main points of your essay. Thank you.

  4. Alternatively, a lot of us don’t see feminine and masculine as much more than arbitrary social constructions, are not comfortable identifying ourselves within that duality, and don’t see them as forces acting in the larger non-human universe.

  5. Thanks for writing about this. One of the things I most appreciate in Reclaiming approaches to ritual is the shift away from stereotypically gendered fertility stories to a focus on ecstasy. In my Elements of Magic course, for example, we learned to cast the circle in a more inclusive way by saying, “By the Earth that is Her body, and the grove that is His home, by the Air that is Her breath, and the music that is his song…” instead of an older version by Victor Anderson that invoked the Goddess alone. I’ve been wondering for a while now what myths besides the sacred marriage of the Goddess and a dying-and-rising God might be more reflective and inclusive of gender fluidity.

  6. I agree that concepts of masculine and feminine are strongly socially conditioned. However, I believe a person’s gender at birth whatever their sexual orientation) will probably bias one’s thinking to ascribe certain attributes to being either masculine or feminine. Perhaps it is more helpful to see masculine/feminine as a fluid state and, in our spiritual practice, we can learn to invoke and embody one more strongly than the other, or both equally, according to need and particular circumstance. Nature is full of examples which confound understanding of two separate sexes with prescribed gender roles. There are also animals which can change their sex (under certain conditions) and, of course hermaphroditism is a well-documented phenomenon. My personal path is leading me to a fuller integration of masculine and feminine – a psychic hermaphroditsm, perhaps?

  7. First, Trellia wrote “Thus the masculine equates to the Sun, the Sky, Heat, Activity, Light, and Fire, while the feminine is attributed with the opposite: the Moon, the Earth, Cold, Passiveness, Darkness and Water.” I do not see my Earth a a cold, passive and dark place and neither do my Wiccan friends. The Earth is all about fertility, abundance and an extremely active place! The sun only changes the angle we see it at, while our planet is changing every second I look out the window.The smell of the earth changes and certainly the way the Earth changes every season. To have the words “passive” and “water” in the same sentence are ridiculous. All of us know the water is most of our planet and it also changing every second. Rather than being “passive” the water is our most active thing on the planet.
    Second, I do not call in God and Goddess. If I want to call in duality I call in “mother and father”. We all know what the stereotypes of what our parents represent to us.
    Third, as for the moon being the goddess, the cycle of the moon is 28 days and coincidentally that is how long the cycle of a woman’s fertility cycle is.

  8. There are lots of sun goddesses and in Norse mythology the sun is female and the moon is male. Possibly because, in Scandinavia where winters are bitterly cold, dark and a test of endurance, the sun was regarded as the nurturing life force which brought the return of Spring.

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