Our community is divided over issues of sex and gender, often to the point of truly poisonous communications directed towards those with other points of view. In a way this division seems strange. Sex is a biological category. Gender is shaped psychologically and socially. Neither is an issue of traditional emphasis in NeoPaganism as most of us encountered it. On the other hand, two related values, absolutely central to our practice, have all but disappeared in this argument. Writing from the perspective of a liberal Gardnerian, what sets most NeoPaganism apart from more mainstream religions is our emphasis on the sacred feminine and sacred masculine.
Masculine and Feminine
When I use these terms, I do so in an all-encompassing manner well beyond biological and psychological categories. As dimensions of the sacred, the feminine and masculine cannot be reduced to either sex or gender as currently understood. Nor are the symbols associated with either intrinsically one or the other. But depending on which they symbolize, different meanings are emphasized when they are associated with the feminine or the masculine.
For example, in many Pagan cultures, particularly contemporary NeoPaganism, the sun is weighted towards the masculine and the moon towards the feminine. The brightness of day illuminates and makes clear what the moon-at-night blurs and hides. The sun is constant, the moon has phases. This emphasis reflects symbolism common to our culture.
Other cultures have adopted opposite emphases. In northern cultures, so far as I know, the sun is often depicted as feminine, the moon masculine, as in German’s die Sonne and der Mond. For the Inuit as well, the moon is masculine, and distant, while the sun, with its all-important boundary-penetrating warmth, and bringer of life, is feminine. Before the rise of strongly patriarchal societies, the oldest accounts of solar deities often depicted them as feminine, apparently for reasons such as, if there is no sun, there will be nothing on earth, and without mothers, there will be no children. Both are life bringers.
I do healing work with energy, as I have for 35 years. A Chinese American friend, now considered a Tai-Chi/Qi Gong master, often reminds me to concentrate more on the subtle Yin energy, as I tend to emphasize the Yang. (What do you expect? I’m a Western, male, academic, living in his head much of the time.) And when I do, the difference is significant. Both are important, but it is a harmony of both that seems most effective.
To give another example, the Navajos distinguish between the hard “male” rains of thunderstorms and gentle slow moving “female” rain sometimes accompanied by mist. A similar distinction is made in the Chinese Yin/Yang symbol, wherein the feminine is Yin and the masculine is Yang. From this perspective Western culture has traditionally been considered “Yang.”
Equating two genders with the feminine and masculine, Greek Hermeticism teaches, “. . . everything contains masculine and feminine elements, gender manifests on all levels.” In my view, the qualities that united these different ways of symbolizing the masculine and feminine have to do with boundaries. The masculine defines, defends, strengthens, and expands boundaries. The feminine blurs, hides, weakens, and dissolves boundaries. Together they generate, produce, and create our world, of which sex is but one of these manifestations, and perhaps the most easily grasped one. To give a related example, consider the terms “love” and “devotion.” In an ideal relationship they go together, but whereas love seeks to blur and blend boundaries, devotion respects and defends them. Separately they pull us in different ways: a soldier can be devoted to his duty, but not love it. I can love a sunset, but it makes no sense to say I am devoted to it.
In our dominant culture, the feminine tends to be regarded as second best. Without turning this essay into a treatise on this error, (for its target is different) as we destroy our own home through industrial ‘progress’ without limits, undermine our most humane traditions in the pursuit of empire, degrade our land to enrich corporate agriculture, and impoverish our own lives through a rigid individualism, there is no reasonable doubt that focusing on the masculine and its values to the exclusion of the feminine is toxic to life.
For both biological and cultural reasons, masculine and feminine qualities are linked disproportionately with stereotypical men and women. One reason contemporary NeoPagans link the feminine with the moon is that their cycles are linked, such that “she is on her moon” is obvious to us. The ideal male hero stands alone, impregnable, defending the boundaries of his community as well as himself. This attitude would be a catastrophe on the part of a woman giving birth to new life, which is obviously a relationship. All life is rooted in relationships, and so in permeable boundaries. Preserving life comes later. Only women can give birth and, in general, men traditionally defended the community in part because we are usually physically stronger and in part because we were more expendable.
Real as they are, feminine and masculine qualities were often distinguished from gender in non-monotheistic societies. Many traditional Native Americans recognize multiple genders. Despite their distinguishing between female and male rains, the Navajo recognized five genders. The Yin/Yang symbol makes a similar point in that there is always a little Yin even at its most minimal expression, and the same holds with Yang. In all cases they coexist, either in or out of balance, depending on the context. There is no hierarchy here.
NeoPagans honor and recognize the sacred as it manifests in the world. As symbolized by our Wheel of the Year, we do not honor a hierarchy or seek connection with some transcendence superior to ‘mere embodiment.’ Rather we seek harmony with, as a Lakota phrase puts it, “All Our Relations.” The feminine emphasis on relationships has pride of place over individual autonomy as a corrective to our great cultural imbalance. Even if we often also recognize an all encompassing spiritual context from which everything emanates, such as the Gardnerian Dryghten, our focus is the sacred in this world and this life.
A darker dimension
In my book, Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine, I explore this distinction between the feminine and the masculine in some depth, and in doing so describe the pathological sides of both the feminine and masculine. The pathological masculine is characterized by domination, that is, denying the legitimacy of others’ boundaries, refusing to respect other points of view, and seeking to subject others to its control. It denies the feminine and where it cannot deny it, seeks to subjugate it. While I will not explore the issue here (read my book!) the pathological feminine also seeks power, but by manipulation of relationships, not simple domination. For example, “You would not do X if you loved me.” Its power comes from its sometimes being true. But pathological masculinity is my target here.
I argue in Faultlines that the cultural chaos we see around us has a number of causes, the deepest being a transition from a civilization that long privileged masculine values and belittled the feminine to one that elevates the feminine to at least equality with the masculine. Since I wrote Faultlines one dimension has become increasingly visible: the erosion of traditional boundaries surrounding gender. This began with the gradual acceptance by many of us straights of gay and lesbian sexuality that, while always present, had long been hidden, denied, or suppressed. It was not that long ago that gay marriage was virtually unthinkable. Now a married gay man is a major contender for the presidency. Today the boundaries equating gender with biological sexuality are also dissolving, enabling people who long felt they were born in the wrong body to publicly identify with the other sex.
As a matter of easily verified fact, among religious communities NeoPagans have been the most accepting of these transformations. Anyone visiting Pantheacon at any point in its existence could easily verify this, compared to any large public gathering anywhere else. My own Gardnerian tradition is explicitly based on the distinction between God and Goddess, with the Goddess having pride of place. When gay witches sought membership as gays, some Gardnerians preserved the traditional dichotomy, and refused them membership, especially since, as they emphasized, we never claimed to be the tradition for everyone. Others, including my own, decided gays could be members in good standing, and in ritual identify with the Gardnerian deity with whom they most felt connected, which may or may not have their biological sex. Other gay witches told me they respected ours as it traditionally existed, and so joined another that fit them better. I understand in many Pagan cultures, this kind of many-sided adaptation is common.
It is here where our historical openness has collided with what I describe as the increasingly pathological masculinity of the long dominant culture we are challenging. In the mainstream masculine culture of Republican America we now see a caricature of traditional masculine virtues. Loyalty to family, bravery, and personal integrity have become jokes as their leading spokespeople violate these values with impunity. This degeneration has taken a strange form in our own community, and a very toxic one. I refer to the most aggressive so-called ‘woke’ ‘Pagans’ who seem to put attacking traditional Pagans and their practices above nearly every other interest.
To be sure, some traditional Pagans have refused to accept the legitimacy of trans people’s identification with a gender different from that with which they were born. I think they are wrong, and have written in defense of trans-people, as well as considering some to be good friends. But the errors of their critics are small compared to those of people who claim to be their allies.
I shall be blunt.
I am 72, and never in my life have I encountered any other group of people who more completely refuse to engage in respectful discussion, and attack and seek to suppress all who disagree with them, even to the point of attacking anyone who dares publish views with which they disagree. All the while they reject offers to have their own views published as rebuttals. I speak in particular of my experience with the new online journal, Pagan Currents. You can read the comments below my essay published there to verify my point. Nor has any of them submitted a rebuttal of the arguments, reasoned or not.
Their style is akin to the worst I have experienced from Trump’s Christian and fascist supporters, and, decades ago, my experiences with the worst Maoists and other Marxist Leninists when the student movement was alive. Of course, the specific views among these groups differ radically, but their underlying energies and attitudes are remarkably similar. And this is what is illuminating. All look upon those unlike themselves as either potential allies, or enemies, or at best, irrelevant.
‘Woke’ Pagans generally embody the pathological masculine. Their style and energy epitomizes the energy of domination. They deny the legitimacy of others’ boundaries, refuse to respect other points of view, and seek to subject others to their ideological control. Revealingly, they attack honoring, or even tolerating, Pagan women who seek to honor the feminine as it manifests in their lives.
They do so in the name of trans-women, and their style when doing so is aggressively masculine. By claiming trans-women are identical to natal women in all relevant respects, so that any argument otherwise is ‘transphobic,’ they deny the relevance of the feminine as I have described it as a manifestation of the sacred. They also deny the legitimacy of rituals focused on the sacred feminine in ways unique to natal women’s lives and experiences. It is significant that trans-male Pagans I know report having no such problems with Pagan natal men.
This is apparently a pathological masculine response to natal women conducting traditional rituals and practices honoring the sacred feminine as it manifests in their lives. They deny the legitimacy of this basic focus in our practice. Worse, they seek to suppress it rather than minding their own business.
When someone denies the importance of seeing the sacred side of the feminine and masculine, whatever they may be, they are not NeoPagans as many of us use the term. They share more in common with monotheisms emphasizing the importance of correct dogma and higher authority over all else. They see their views as the top of a hierarchy of authority as to who is or is not a legitimate Pagan and who is or is not worthy of being heard. Or, perhaps, they have no real spiritual focus at all, but seek to reduce everything to their political agendas. In most cases I think this latter is the case.
Whatever may be the case, they practice a different religion from our own. And as such have no more standing than an Evangelical to tell us what we do is acceptable. To pick Pantheacon as an example, for years different NeoPagan traditions from NROOGD to Gardnerians to Reclaiming to Heathens gathered in general harmony and respect. Other traditions with old roots not usually identified as NeoPagan, such as OTO, also participated, as did many reconstructionist traditions. Participants from other religious communities also often attended, participated in workshops, and sometimes even gave some. Some rituals were for women only, and some for men only. No one denied the legitimacy of traditions different from their own. There was nothing like it in American religious history.
Only with the arrival of the ‘woke’ zealots, who spent more time attacking Pagans than offering events of their own, did this stimulating diversity begin to divide into warring camps. And despite their complaints of exclusion, they were often even part of Pantheacon’s staff! The only exclusions from Pantheacon I know of are people the ‘woke’ crowd attacked.
I often wonder whether they are Pagans in our sense at all, but rather people with political agendas using the religious community most open to them to seek control and domination. Certainly during the crises of the 2018 Pantheacon those on the staff, or associated with them, sometimes spoke of themselves as being on the “front lines.” This was the language of war, and of confronting enemies, not that of a peaceful and respectful gathering of different religious communities on terms of mutual respect.
And war, of course, is the ultimate subjection of everything to the power of Domination.
Going deeper still
I think I can say most NeoPagans accept the reality of spiritual (meaning non-physical in the usual meaning of the term) powers permeating our world. Further, we can enter into relationships with some of them. At the same time, many believe that, with discipline and intent, our minds can generate energies we use in healing and other magickal practices, and if in harmony with these other energies, can be strengthened by them.
It is this context that I consider Domination as a power. A person in its thrall feels good in dominating others. Within a hierarchy where he or she is dominated, this subordination is tolerable so long as there are those below, who can be dominated in turn. This pathological expression of the masculine is often called “Patriarchy,’ but I think most accurately called Domination.
The more I think about this ‘woke’ movement, the more convinced I am that, at a spiritual level, it is energized by Domination to challenge second wave feminism and its feminine values, especially in their spiritual form. As I emphasized in Faultlines, we are influential in religious circles far more than our small numbers would suggest. As such we directly challenge a long dominant culture in its spiritual center. In turn, this culture increasingly elevates domination for its own sake to high status.
This counter attack on the core of NeoPagan practice is pathologically masculine: expanding their boundaries at the expense of others, relying on threats, and refusing to respect others as equals. In this way they weaken developing a new society honoring the feminine, sacred and otherwise, at a time when others opposing such a society from without seek to subjugate us, women particularly, from the other direction. At a spiritual level, whatever their individual intentions, they are a “fifth column.”
Consider the attacks on women-only rituals. As one Pagan woman described them, “Many women-only rituals are . . . designed to celebrate menstruation, radically and lovingly reclaiming the one thing that has historically been most used to oppress us by declaring it, and therefore us, unclean. And now I see & hear people, in the name of opposition to the same patriarchy that begat menstrual rituals, declaring such rituals ‘exclusionary’ and forbidding them because transwomen don’t menstruate and would feel out of place. . . . This level of thought policing will take us right back where we came from.”
The same reasoning holds for rituals celebrating puberty in girls, healing rituals after sexual abuse, and honoring menopause. Including people who have not or will never have such experiences should be the choice of those who are organizing the ritual. Outsiders have no legitimate status other than as invited guests.
From my perspective, the NeoPagan woman I quote above is describing the power of Domination residing within the pathological masculine, and seeking to destroy what threatens it. There is no respect for others’ boundaries. Representatives of NeoPaganism as we know it are banned from traditional gatherings. The language employed is aggressive, sometimes violent, and always disrespectful. The effort is not to reason with us, nor to find places of mutual respect and agreement, but pure imposition of their beliefs on us all.
Very significantly, this ‘woke’ crowd spends their time attacking NeoPagans, and not right wing authoritarians. Yet, for transpeople, their real enemies are on the right. Historically, their allies have disproportionately been NeoPagans.
This display of their priorities should make their true intent at a spiritual level clear, even if they are so psychologically entranced in such a sense of self-righteousness as not to see it themselves. The self-righteous rarely question their beliefs because they feel too good adhering to them, while denigrating others. This is so regardless of the belief, and that makes them good servants of Domination, which grows and flourishes on conflicts seeking mastery of others.
Ironically, those most saying they are ‘woke’ are most deeply entranced and asleep.
I am grateful to those Pagans who provided valuable feedback and suggestions to earlier versions of this piece.