Occult gender regimes: Polarity and Tradition
When women want to escape from exploitation, they do not merely destroy a few “prejudices,” they disrupt the entire order of dominant values, economic, social, moral and sexual. They call into question all existing theory, all thought, all language, insamuch as these are monopolized by men and men alone. They challenge the very foundation of our social and cultural order….Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One
I’ve been thinking a lot about gender polarity in occult schemas recently – and have been reading a lot of accounts of same (from Aristotle to Dion Fortune and new age representations, for example). I’m coming to the conclusion that the very act of questioning the inevitability of gender polarity is a radical step – and one which potentially shatters the foundations of the occult implicit-order – itself a reification of the wider gender-order of Western Culture. Gender polarity is often reified in occult texts as an earthly reflection of cosmic or otherwise essential principles – which are held to be inevitable and juridicial (“Laws”). Frequently it is asserted that gender polarity is inevitable because it occurrs on the “higher planes” or is a reflection of essential qualities of deities, archetypes, etc – it is universal and timeless – part of an unchanging/unbroken tradition which has only been challenged very recently with the rise of Feminism and Gay Liberation from the 1960s onwards (I’ll be looking at how polarity was both confirmed and contested in the Nineteenth century in a future post).
There are variations within polarity discourse – which can be thought of a tendencies to stress polarity (opposition between men and women, one sex – usually men – superior to the other) complementarity (men and women are different but equal) and unity (men and women are not fundamentally different and hence are equal).
For the purposes of discussion I’m going to look at polarity discourse in terms of the inter-related themes – the arguments – which serve to normalise polarity representations – such as appeals to Metaphysical principles or laws, appeals to science (where, for example, polarity is normalised by likening it to magnetism, electricity, etc), appeals to the necessity of “balance” or appeals to tradition and history. For this post I’m going to focus on the relationship between gender polarity and tradition.
It’s sometimes stated that in “ancient times” men and women were equal – and any disparity between the genders is basically due to the influence of Christianity. This kind of statement serves a dual purpose – it not only assumes a direct link between contemporary pagan beliefs concerning gender and those of the all-purpose “ancient times” – effectively normalising the present with the past – and sidesteps the possibility that that polarity was contested in either “ancient times” or in Christianity – with the added bonus of driving a demarcation between “ancient beliefs” and those of the Christian period. The weakness of this kind of presentation is immediately obvious because the philosophy of gender polarity which gained ascendancy during the medieval period in Europe was that of Aristotle.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was the first philosopher to develop a comprehensive theory of sexual polarity. He did this by arguing against the assertions of his predecessors – Plato in particular. Aristotle rejected Plato’s body-soul dualism and the principle of reincarnation and asserted that the differences between women and men were absolutes – because they were different in body. Aristotle proposed that men and women were contraries (mutually hostile) within the same species. He also asserted that in a pair of contraries, one must always be the privation of the other and that the female was the privation of the male. Aristotle’s conclusion was that the female (identified with the properties of matter and passivity) is inferior to the male (form and activity). This differentiation was both metaphysical and biological: The female always provides the material, the male that which fashions the material into shape; this, in our view, is the specific characteristic of each sex. For Aristotle, form was superior to matter.
In terms of generation, women and men were, for Aristotle, characterised by their relationship to the opposites cold and hot. Heat was more present in the male, and its privative opposite, coldness, was more present in women. Women provided the material upon which the heat of male seed acted. Aristotle argued that the greater coldness in woman meant that she was an inferior kind of human being in comparison to man. Furthermore, Aristotle asserted that since men and women were contraries – and that contraries act destructively upon one another, the biological interaction between male and female contributions to the creation of children was a kind of battle between the male seed and the female material – the conflict between heat and cold. As for rational capacity, Aristotle argued that although women have the same reason as men, in women the higher power of reason has no authority over the lower (irrational) faculties – so women cannot be wise in the way that men are. Women were capable of forming opinions, but not capable of rational, scientific knowledge.
So here, we have the rather inconvenient fact of an “ancient Greek” being a major influence on the majoritorian view of women as being subordinate to men which gathered momentum throughout the medieval period in Europe (which is not to suggest that this view was not contested and challenged – it was, and frequently by women – notably Christine de Pizan and Hildegaard of Bingen). But this is not the “tradition” – at least its not how the tradition is represented within much of pagan/occult discourse on polarity.
The concept of a single, unbroken (although at times, “hidden”) esoteric tradition which provides an alternative (superior) revelation to orthodox religion (and science) – often referred to as the philosophia perennis – and attributed to figures such as Plato, Orpheus or Hermes Trismegistus, has been a key claim of esoteric practitioners. According to Kocku von Stuckrad, this claim began to emerge between the 10th and 15th century – the period which saw the emergence of Kabbalah, and the revival of Neoplatonic philosophy. This concept became a central theme in Madame Blavatsky’s 1875 work, Isis Unveiled which was concerned with the recognition of the “universal Wisdom-Religion”. Theosophists following in the wake of Blavatsky attempted to demonstrate how all great religious traditions sprang from this single, esoteric source. Underwriting this project was the idea that occultists (be it due to training, the tutelage of masters, etc.) were able to interpret the “hidden meaning” behind world events and concepts, in a way that “ordinary people” (of course) could not. This gradually gave rise to the idea of an “initiated” view of history – a privileged truth-perspective reinforced by access to secret and experiential forms of knowledge such as hidden texts, inner-plane masters, the astral plane(s) and the Akashic records.
An example of this kind of strategy can be seen in Lobsang Rampa’s 1976 book I believe where, in the midst of a protracted rant about “liberated” women, he states the inevitability of Polarity:
In the esoteric world there is the male principle and the female principle, two opposite poles, and for the continuance of the world as an inhabited place it is necessary that men and women be unlike each other, otherwise women will become sterile and no matter how many times they try, no matter how hard they try, there still will be no offspring.
and goes on to legitimise his point by giving an example from the Akashic Records of the consequences of such behaviour:
It is made clear in the Akashic Record of Probabilities that such a thing can happen. It happened millions of years ago. Far, far beyond even a racial memory there was a civilization which reached quite a high standard. The people were purple and they were not necessarily human, not quite human, in fact, because the women had six breasts, not two as they do now, and there were other subtle differences. There was a very high standard of civilization, and a very warm family life, but then women decided that they should not stay at home and raise the family, they should not bother about a husband or children, they were being persecuted — they never said how, nor did they ever say what they really wanted, but obviously something had gone wrong in their minds. And so they broke away from marrage, and as soon as the baby was born it was shoved off to any home that would take an unwanted child. Soon the quality of the race deteriorated, degenerated, and became moronic. In time women became completely sterile – and the race died out. I Believe, p151
Such is Rampa’s “initiated” view of the perils of woman’s liberation – underwritten by his ability (as an occultist) to secret sources of knowledge – a “secret history” of which exoteric historians and ordinary “experts” have no recourse to.
Appeals for the retention of Polarity do not of course, rest entirely on appeals to Tradition and initiated sources of knowledge – I’ll look at some of the other elements in later posts. But appeals to “tradition” – be it esoteric tradition or the making of links to ancestors or pre-Christian beliefs can be seen as a kind of authority-claim. It was Max Weber who first highlighted the relationship between tradition and authority – the assertion that a particular practice/belief connects persons in the present to persons in the past invokes authority for that practice/belief – and is more important than whether or not persons in the past actually engaged in a particular practice or shared a belief. As Michael Despland says Tradition is received as a voice of the past generations, but it is always the living who declare what the dead say.
Moreover, contemporary paganisms & occultistisms often have an uneasy relationship with the very concept of tradition – as can be seen in the tension often expressed between “traditional” ways of practice and that which is taken to be innovative or creative – or at least modifications of “original” practices or perspectives. Not infrequently one finds a tendency to draw up hard distinctions between individuals who are “traditional” in their approach and those who are seeking to make innovations, often with the implicit idea that to be traditional is to be static and unchanging. I’d that the relationship between tradition and innovation can be very much a shifting horizon, depending on where one orients oneself in relation to a “sense of tradition” at any one time – whether or not one views a tradition in terms of it being implicit and naturalised (hegemonic), or the degree to which it is articulated and contested. Tradition does not of course, come into being and is then left to its own momentum – it is constantly being actively produced, negotiated, reproduced and reshaped. One can see this occurring within pagan/occult polarity discourse as practitioners explore the edges of gender dualism and produce alternative models – such as “holistic polarity” or “synergistic polarity” – or, increasingly, move away from the entire concept.