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Jottings: On queering deity

“The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.”
Michael Foucault

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Queer as a form of resistance to identification – a refusal to be categorised or reified into some kind of essential formation. One of my objections to polarity is that, as a form of discourse, it binarises everything according to an either/or regime of signification – and can only, it seems, admit contradiction and ambiguity by having a “third space” which still relies on the the other two points, no matter how much it seems to challenge them (i.e one gets to be male, female, or a bit of both). I’ve taking this from something Eve Sedgwick says about queerness as a resistance to the very idea of fixed gender/sexual identity as if these were natural givens or transparently empirical categories, rather than being historical/cultural formations. Its about making the choice not to be limited to either this, that, or the bit in the middle – its a celebration of diversity and complexity, contingency and contradiction.

I’ve been pondering recently how pagan & occult discourses tend to frame deities. A very common approach is that deities are “biographised” – in the sense that books on magic tend to do short thumbnail biographies of deities, their appearance, likes, dislikes, maybe a myth or two in which they feature, their “functions” (what they are “for”), symbolism, and often, their place in a particular pantheon – frequently with all the brevity of a Craigslist personal ad. This strikes me as reductive, particularly the way that deities get to be limited to particular functions (“deity x is a healer, deity y is for courage, etc). I think that because we are used, in western culture, to thinking of ourselves as bounded, stable individuals possessing a fixed essence, (a particular sexuality, for example) agency and limitations, that we tend to represent deities in the same way.

And by extension, it seems to me that there’s a tendency to approach deities purely in terms of “what they can do for us”. Not long ago, I was approached just prior to doing a public ritual with the question, “What lesson will Kali teach me?” I must admit I was surprised, as I’ve never thought of Kali as “teaching particular lessons”. Sure, one can look back at life events and see a lesson learned (or not, as the case may be) in retrospect – but wanting to know a lesson in advance strikes me as peculiar – it’s another kind of demand-making – and seems an odd way to begin one’s relationship with a deity.

The kind of “hard” polytheism which is getting so popular nowadays, which tends to treat all deities as seperate individual beings is in some ways, I think, a reflection of this tendency. It’s also a response to the paganism of the 1970s-80s which tended to diffuse all deities into “archetypes” (i.e. Pan is the same as Krishna). Both approaches have their problems – the archetypal perspective tends to ignore historical and cultural influences in favour of a universalisation of deity (all deities which share features a,b,c are instances or facets of archetype X) and the hard polytheism which makes all deities seperate and individual tends to ignore situations where deities merge into one another (such as Kali becoming Krishna). Both have a tendency to privilege “the past” as more authoritative than the recent, and so find it difficult to accomodate “new” deities such as AIDS-Amma or Santoshima in India (I’ve been involved in many arguments about the appropriateness of worshipping Buffy as a deity, for example). Both approaches have difficulty with contingency, contradiction and the paradoxical – the “queerness” of deities, if you like – which resides in their protean instability – so often found in Greek narratives of desire – look at Zeus becoming a swan for Leda, a bull for Europa, an eagle for Ganymede, and a shower of gold for Danae. That last one is particularly “queer” don’t you think?

There’s a tendency, I think, to seek in our conceptions of deity an idealised reflection of our own preferred conceptual categories and in so doing, to lose sight of both their historical origins and contexts and, importantly, their instabilities and excesses.

Revisiting my earlier reflections on “queering” Baphomet – one of the points I was trying to get across was that we need not restrict Baphomet to the human-animal polygendered hybrid – that the “static” image of Baphomet (as in Levi’s depiction) can be considered but one of their many forms – a temporary “snapshot” – but we are more than our photos, yes? We might think of the iconographical image as a partial representation, that the stillness of the form hides the seething exuberance of life exceeding all limitations, refusing to be chained by expectations and definitions, escaping limitations and overflowing any attempt to categorise and capture. One might for example, imagine a completely non-human Baphomet, insectoid, amoeboid, a cybernet Baphometic, a Baphomet of systems in decay; a baphomet emerging out of mucous and sticky bodily fluids, a Baphomet formed from the dreams of dead cities. So, if we’re to think of Baphomet as queer, in the way I’ve written about queer above, what does this entail? We could say, for example, that Baphomet is a representation of Queer’s refusal to be defined, an orientation to the world given (temporary) form as a chimeric assemblage – a multiplicious many-bodied hybrid which exceeds any attempt at being defined, codified, and reduced. The “sum” of all our desires/differences known and as yet unthought – not the capacity to be a shape-shifter, but continually shifting shape, blurring boundaries, weeds pushing through pavement cracks, the inviting smile of a stranger when you least expect it. This, I think, invites us to think about deities and our relation to them, in a different way.


  1. Joseph De Lappe
    Posted February 21st 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil

    I like the way that you have engaged with this dialogue. There is a great danger that queer paganism (and it’s relationship to deity/spirit/etc.) becomes simply a different engagement with authenticity. Where purity of difference replaces purity of similarity, but essentialism stills reigns. The gods only speak to those who are their reflection – which usually means that the gods are merely the reflections of those who speak.

    I’ll write more when I have a bit more time… Joe

  2. Amy Hale
    Posted February 21st 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I think that grey areas, fluidity and fuzzy boundaries are becoming harder for people to work with, and I think pushing back on this culturally is a good and necessary thing. For many people, boundedness and essentialism are key features of the authenticity that they feel validates their practice and gives their deities reality. I also think this boundedness may occasionally serve people doing shared community ritual. But I do think this does create barriers to the deep relationships one can have with deity that can be gained through openness, contemplation, revelation and dialogue. Your Kali may well be different than mine. In fact, I would expect and hope it to be so.

  3. ultralaz3r
    Posted March 1st 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Lately I’ve been thinking about how most people treat everything as if they were trying to stuff it into the Triangle of Art. They want this one thing, especially a reliable thing, and they want it in its place and clearly separated from them. They want it bound and obedient (in that it plays its role exactly.)

    And when expectations are not met their Circle does not protect them from their tears.

    I’ve been really stoked on your critiques over the last year. Queer theory is a great tonic for all those word-viruses lurking about the steles of magick.