Occult gender regimes: reincarnation and ‘Uranian’ souls in the Nineteenth century
It often seems to me that many occult representations of gender are rooted in nineteenth century formations, so I thought, for this post, it’d be interesting to examine some occult theories that emerged in this period – such as representations of the connection made between reincarnation, masculinity & femininity & the soul’s evolution, and the so-called “Uranian” temperament which emerged from various Theosophical sources in the late nineteenth & early twentieth century.
Reincarnation was a central tenet of Theosophical doctrine, and many Theosophists believed that experiencing male and female bodies through reincarnation and the different lessons learned thereof, was necessary for long-term spiritual development. Some teachings took for granted the naturalness of distinctions between masculine & feminine temperaments, although they tended towards the view that any such distinctions were “temporary” in that the fully spiritualised soul was “above” sex – a divine hermaphrodite or androgyne. Some Theosophists argued that there were male and female souls, and that the physical body reflected the nature of the indwelling soul, whilst others claimed that the Higher Self was neither one nor the other, but shared the characteristics of both. These representations of the relationship between masculine & feminine temperaments were also contested and modified by women who combined esoteric beliefs with a feminist outlook.
In 1890, Susan E. Gay published a Theosophical-Feminist Manifesto in the Theosophical Journal Lucifer. Gay asserted that souls reincarnated in both male and female bodies, gaining the “noble qualities” of both sexes gradually, and that the ideal was a condition of “spiritual equilibrium” – the exemplar being Jesus. Gay asserts that “manly men” or “womanly women” were the least developed of souls, and she believed that if men realised that at some point in the future, they might find themselves incarnated in female physical bodies, then this might cause them to think twice about their assumptions that women were ‘naturally’ subordinate to men. Gay argued that men had to disabuse themselves of the notion that:
“physical manhood is a sort of freehold possession to be held here and hereafter, which marks off certain souls from certain others known as women, and confers on them all sorts of superior rights and privileges, including the possession and submission of ‘wives'”. Quoted in Joy Dixon, Divine Feminine
A much more radical feminist theology of the soul was that expounded by Frances Swiney. In The Awakening of Women (1899), Swiney asserted that all souls were essentially feminine, and although they had to progress through a “masculine” state, this was but a “kindergarten” period. Drawing on a wide array of theories, from biological arguments to Kabbalah, Swiney conceived of Christ as a woman who had sacrificed herself for humanity by taking on a “lower” form – a male. Whilst calling for an improvement in women’s economic and social conditions, Swiney also believed that men would eventually become obsolete. Woman, for Swiney, was Nature, and man’s mistake was in living “apart” from all that is “natural.”
The degeneracy we deplore lies at the door of a selfish, lustful, diseased manhood.
If this view seems somewhat extreme to modern eyes, one should recall that Darwin, in The Descent of Man had stated quite plainly that men’s superiority to women was a direct consequence of evolution, and scientists such as Gustav Le Bon and Karl Vogt had both “demonstrated” that women were closer to apes, in terms of cranial capacity. Swiney founded The League of Isis which crusaded against prostitution, incest, and sexual abuse. A strong believer in eugenics, Swiney believed that “sexual restraint” would lead to “racial improvement” by limiting the numbers of children born and ensuring that those children that were born, received better care.
The idea that the soul changed sex – in order to learn lessons and evolve – also became a key theme in Charles Webster Leadbeater’s view of reincarnation. He asserted that the soul stayed incarnated as one sex for between 3-7 lives before changing to the other, although there were exceptions where more advanced souls would be reborn into the sex and race which were best suited for the soul’s development. In 1898, Leadbeater and Annie Besant collaborated in an occult investigation of the past lives of a Miss Annie Wilson, Mrs Besant’s secretary and housekeeper. The Lives of Arcor, as this work came to be known, traced Miss Wilson’s past lives from as far back as 60,000 years before the birth of Christ. A theme that emerges in The Lives of Arcor, and recurs in other reincarnatory genealogies that Leadbeater produced, is that individuals who work together as Theosophists in their present lives have had close relationships in the past, usually involving changes of sex. It was revealed for example, that in one incarnation, Miss Wilson had been Annie Besant’s son, and in another, some 60,000 years later, in China, had been her wife. A later work of Leadbeater’s The Live of Alcyone which traced the many past lives of Krishnamurti, caused shock and outrage in Theosophical circles when it revealed that Leadbeater had, in previous incarnations, been married to Krishnamurti and his brother, and that Christ, in a previous incarnation, had been married to Julius Caesar.
One Theosophist who made connections between Leadbeater’s theories of reincarnation and current developments in sexology was Charles Lazenby. Lazenby held a degree in psychology and later studied Jungian psychoanalysis, and was a close friend of both Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter. Lazenby accepted Leadbeater’s assertion that the soul ‘changes sex’ every seven incarnations, but opined that the soul has six lives which are wholly masculine or feminine, and that for the seventh life, the masculine soul “takes on the colouring of the feminine” (and presumably, vice versa) – and that the purely masculine or feminine soul is found only at the midpoint of each cycle of lives. Later in his life, Lazenby associated this transitional incarnation with the notion of the “intermediate sex” and used the term “Uranian” to denote individuals whose physical bodies belonged to one sex, yet whose thoughts and desires belonged to the other.
The term “Uranian” had been coined in the 1860s by the German Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who used “Uranian” (frequently Germanised as Urning) to signify those who experienced “a congenital reversal of sexual feeling”. “Uranian” was also a term much used in astrological and esoteric circles – usually in reference to the planet Uranus, which was associated with “awakening the soul from lethargy, and bringing it into strange conditions and hazardous enterprises”. Esoterically, at the time, the influence of Uranus was very much bound up with the idea that human culture was entering a New Age. In Theosophical writings, the term “Uranian” began to denote a new human type – unconventional, spiritually advanced, and a blend of masculine & feminine temperaments.
An underlying theme in the debates over sexuality, morality and occultism was the relationship between sexuality and religion. In the emerging sexology of the period, there was a connection between spiritual experience and sexual mania. There was also a connection being advanced between spirituality and homosexuality. Both Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter argued that there was an organic relationship between spiritual development and the “homosexual temperament”. This, according to Ellis in Sexual Inversion (1897) was reinforced by anthropological studies which confirmed the “aptitude of the invert for primitive religion, for sorcery and divination.” Carpenter went further in his 1914 book Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, arguing that there was a direct connection between the blending of masculine and feminine temperaments which gave rise to “inverts” and the development of psychic or unusual powers. Those who were of the “intermediate sex”, Carpenter asserted, overcame the purely masculine or feminine, combining the strengths of both:
“It may also point to a further degree of evolution than usually attained and a higher order of consciousness, very imperfectly realised, but indicated.This interaction, in fact, between the masculine and the feminine, this mutual illumination of of logic and intuition, this combination of action and meditation, may not only raise and increase the power of each of these faculties, but it may give the mind a new quality … It may possibly lead to the development of that third order of perception which has been called the cosmic consciousness, and which may also be termed divination.”Carpenter, quoted in Joy Dixon, Women, gender, religion: a reader
Carpenter’s view of “inversion” as a sign of spiritual evolution rather than abberation would be taken up later by Weimar-era German publications such as Die Freundschaft which promoted same-sex love and romantic friendship in both political and spiritual terms.
Whilst some Theosophists accepted the ideal of an “intermediate sex” as part of the approaching New Age or at least the idea that humanity would be hermaphroditic, it tended to be couched in terms of human beings no longer having sex-organs or having to go through the whole sordid business of reproduction – very much in keeping with the asexual coming together of souls that permeated a good deal of theosophical writings. Theosophists, whilst apparently willing to discuss the divine hermaphrodite as an ideal, could not accept same-sex activity on the “physical” plane, as the reactions to the Leadbeater scandals from 1904 demonstrate.
Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England, Joy Dixon, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001
Women, gender, religion: a reader, edited by Elizabeth Castelli & Rosamond Rodman, Palgrave, New York, 2001
The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England Alex Owen, University of Chicago Press, 2004
Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern Alex Owen, University of Chicago Press, 2004