“Gender” might be described as “one’s perception of oneself” as being either female or male, and “sex” as “the physical appearance of one’s body” as either female or male1. The “sex” of a body is commonly understood necessarily to be able to fall into one or the other designation, and if it does not then life, within many cultures, is almost certain to be traumatic for the being involved.
Within Western culture of more recent centuries at least, and within many other global social/religious contexts, no shades of “grey” have been allowed in this matter, no kaleidoscope - as is allowed in almost all other dualities. This rigid polarization of sex has not been so for many indigenous traditions - even still today: there is often much more fluidity about the significance of sexual physical appearance. Within my own Western culture, “gender” is commonly understood to “ideally” be in alignment with the “sex” of one’s body, and that’s where categories such as “feminine” and “masculine” are entered into.
“Feminine” and “Masculine”
I often hear in conversations and read in publications that these two must be integrated within, as if they are distinct known qualities. But what is “masculine”? What differentiates it from “feminine”? … power? vigor? efficiency? order? left brain capacities? … these are qualities attributable to Goddesses of all cultures, so why masculinise them? It seems to me that “masculine” and “feminine” are both inventions from a time in the human story when the male came to be perceived – to perceive himself? - as separate from the Mother Goddess of us all. She embodies all qualities. We are all born of Her. His separation is referred to in stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh where he refuses the Goddess and prefers the heroics of battle, or in the Enuma Elish where Marduk murders Tiamat, or in the Greek Oresteian Trilogy where matricide is no longer a crime.
What is “feminine”? Is it “femality”, a word which I feel might refer to the female form more clearly? Perhaps “feminine” was meant to pertain to the female form, but what does the female form mean? The female form has both experience and cultural stories that vary. The female body has the capacity to bear and birth new beings; the resultant engagement may give rise to “maternal thought”2 or a “Mother-mind”, focussed on regeneration: that is, a cultural focus on the nurturance of an “other” who is not actually separate from one’s self (hmmm … sounds to me like a very deep spiritual discipline). Any male (or another female) may participate in that Mother-mind – and many do, and apparently have, throughout the eons – by supporting regeneration: living lives that support this cultural focus. There is evidence in story and images from around the globe that this occurs - whole communities of women and men, as well as gallant individuals, who support the focus on regeneration. Thus imagery and stories of the male may be within that life-enhancing metaphor (for example, the Green Man of Old Europe).
Surely the term “masculine” was meant to pertain to the male form, and/or perhaps to the nature of some tasks that men may carry out within a culture. The male form has both experience and cultural stories that vary. Adding to the complexity of such categorization is the fact that for the last few millennia at least, female physical processes have been particularly de-valued – their potency forgotten, whilst male physical processes have been associated with a false kind of potency – locked off from subjective participation in a relational cosmos.
“Masculinity” and “femininity” are largely cultural developments – developed over time by story, belief systems, even the foods each sex have been allowed to eat in some cultures, the activities they each have been allowed, so that certain styles, physical and psychic, have been bred into and out of maleness and femaleness to suit the mindframe. “Maleness” and “femaleness” on the other hand may be something quite different and more like a physical kaleidoscope: and it was a very creative move at a relatively recent point in the evolutionary story …”3
Long before sex arose in the story of the Universe, Creativity proceeded: sexually differentiated bodies were not required for most of the story of Creativity, albeit a splendiferous complexifying move for Cosmogenesis4. There would seem to be deeper dynamics of potency and desire that each being participates in, and that may be brought to the forefront in discussions of sex/gender. How might we make our way through the stereotypes to an ease with powerful sexed being of various kinds? I don’t think it is achieved by an erasure of the body differences – a kind of homogenisation.
In the realm of dualities, there is dark and light, and many shades in between. There is joy and sorrow, and many complex cocktails of both. There is height and depth, and a range of placements and values ascribed to both. Birth and death have lots of apparent varieties in between, and are integral to the continuity of Life. There is female and male, and much more variety than our generally clothed context allows knowledge of … yet imaginations in regard to sex and gender are often so rigid. Perhaps it is because it is a relatively recent evolutionary development? In ritual where the sacred space is described as beyond the bounds of time and space, and where “light and dark”, “birth and death”, “joy and sorrow” meet as one …” female and male” somehow escapes the dissolution.
Flowers don’t present rigidly – some are decidedly phallic, others decidedly vulval, with a great variation of appearance and combination in between. This blurring also occurs in some species of creatures. Perhaps more holistic contemplation of our Natur-al/Maternal context – as opposed to our cultural context - could offer a model for how we might regard human sex and gender.
Beneath the form and chemistry and stories of sex and gender, there are more primordial powers at work. Perhaps the most basic is Desire/Allurement5 which courses through the Universe, and is not bound to the particularities of female-male relationship or any notions of “femininity” or “masculinity”. All being knows this power - within the self and in relationship. Long before the advent of meiotic sex in the story of the Universe, each singular cellular entity - from which our bodies arose, had a primordial sense of agency that I describe as an Urge to Be. It may be defined as “the capacity, condition or state of acting or exerting power.”6 This is an organic power, that each being must have. It is a creative potency that is felt and desires expression. I consider it an ultimate category: thus written as “Creative Potency”. It is a direct participation in the Creative Cosmos: there are no gurus or cultures or legislations here in between ... it is innate to coming into being.
The main problem in issues of sex and gender, it seems to me, is that some bodies or body parts are not imbued culturally with this Potency … either in the minds of the bodies themselves or within the cultural context, or both (usually). An example of this is how bare female breasts may be perceived: ancient Goddess images commonly bared them boldly, even holding them for emphasis as if to assert their power: it seems that this was in a cultural context where the power to give life and sustain it was valued. Thus the bearers of this form were bold, whether or not they “used” them for nourishing new life: the bare-breasted priestesses of Crete present holding snakes and with en-tranced expressions, not breastfeeding. Other images do present holding a child – but this too is within a cultural context that imagines this as a Good and Divine Power – even Ultimate, (and within such contexts it is notable that the Mother’s gaze is direct, not upon the Child, as in later christianised images in the West). In more recent times of our human story, bare breasts or even covered breasts, may actually (though not always) suggest a vulnerability, or a disempowerment of some kind.
Male body processes of the phallic waxing, peaking and waning, and producing seed, have often been over-valued: that is, have been attributed all and often exclusivepotency, and actually cut off from a priority on real life-enhancement, locked into a narrow priority on acquisition and domination. The myth of Inanna and Dumuzi, and images of the sacred female-male pair reveal a time when male sexual capacity and magic had a relational potency.7
Potency - an Essential Organic Power
The quality of Potency is essential to the desire to Be – to Desire itself, which draws a being into action, into relationship, into communion. Communion – relatedness - is another dynamic at the core of being, for which each entity hungers. It is expressed in many classic religious traditions as a Beloved and Lover in embrace – most often a Goddess and a God, but the embrace is meant to signify a dissolution: in the case of Radha and Krisna, they used to cross-dress to emphasize this. Communion/Relatedness is also suggested in the ubiquitous Mother and Child, and also in Double Goddess images, all of which have many other valences of meaning as well.
Relatedness begins with the mirror – it is an essential shamanic tool: for seeing the truth of who the self really is, the essential cosmic beauty of the self. Some religious traditions, particularly indigenous ones, have creation stories that begin this way: with the Deity - usually a Goddess - looking in a mirror and falling in Love with Herself. In some languages, desire and creation are inseparable (for example, “duil” in Irish). Religions of more recent times in the human story – generally patriarchal - that emphasize a Deity “out there”, have not enabled the sight of essential ultimate cosmic beauty in the self … the Sacred innate to each being. Yet many ancient creation stories tell us that all comes forth from such perception – the desire for the cosmos within, represented in the physical form. It is an understanding that the physical form (no matter where on the kaleidoscope of sex) is identical with ultimate cosmic unfolding – is the Beloved present. Form itself is the Lover.
Each being will do what it needs to do to ensure a sense of Potency, to find the Beloved. And in an impoverished and complex cultural context, much re-storying needs to be done: we need images and stories of real power, the organic power of the anthropomorphic form, how it expresses the essential cosmic story of creation itself, how each body holds all the stories of life. The true depth of each small self is the whole story of the Universe, and each continues to be a Place of Cosmological Unfolding.
So often, in these post-modern times, the presentation and celebration of Goddesses emphasizing the power of breasts or vulva has been disparaged as “essentialism”; it is not thought to be suggestive of potency, whereas the phallus is. Essentialism may actually be a good thing if it is understood at its deepest cosmic impulse: if such images are regarded as expressing Ultimate Creativity, and these body bits are not regarded as “merely” female or “other”, but as the norm of ultimate power of being. This would be a whole cosmology in which such bodies, and all bodies, may express ultimate creativity … and in which ultimate creativity is associated with the nurturance and sustaining of life, and with the perception of each other’s needs - caretaking. This caretaking has been developed in the female particularly by the task of birthing and nurturing of new life: it is a model for all relationship. In older and indigenous cultures, the phallus may have that kind of association: that is, with the nurturance and sustaining of life, of receptivity to life force, as much as breasts and vulvas. It is really a question of story.
Each Being an Integral Place of Cosmological Unfolding
The Creative Dynamic of the Cosmos – the Ultimate Potency – may be understood as an innate triplicity, not a duality: a triplicity of creative potency “that runs through every part of the cosmos” and is available to all8. She may be expressed anthropomorphically as the Triple Goddess, representative of the deep essence of Creativity perceived within all. She holds within Her all polarities. “Femaleness” and “maleness” are embraced and immersed in the same Creative Principle/Dynamic of Being, which preceded their evolution. Both may be storied and described as exhibiting the three characteristics of the Creative Dynamic of Being9. She is an integral dynamic and can be identified within any being … female, male, flower, bear, insect, Sun, whatever. Her triple-faceted Creative Potency may be characterized in this way:
- every self has a need for agency, and a will to be “true” to the uniqueness of the small self
- every self has a need for, and is actually in, communion with other … deep relationship – could not be here without it: the web of life
- every self participates directly in the cosmos-creating endeavour: we live in a seamless universe.
This is an essential Creativity – the requirements of Essence of being.10 It moves out of binary stereotypes into a kaleidoscope multivalency, upon which mythologies of sex and gender may be situated. What empowerment and en-joyment might unfold then? Some may well be confused for a while, but I suggest that this is healthier than certainty.
©Glenys Livingstone 2008
Livingstone, Glenys, PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion, Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.
Matthews, Caitlin. The Celtic Spirit. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.
Moss, Jesslyn. Star Crossed: Situating gender performance in a contemporary cultural context. A Master of Fine Arts thesis. RMIT, Melbourne 2005.
Ruddick, Sara. “Maternal Thinking”, Feminist Studies 6, no. 2, Summer 1980.
Starhawk. Truth or Dare . SF: Harper and Row, 1990.
Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story . NY: HarperCollins, 1992.
Swimme, Brian. The Universe is a Green Dragon . Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1984.