Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Shamanism and gender variance: the eighteenth century – “torrid zones”

“On my visit this Morning to Tynah and his Wife, I found with her a person, who altho I was certain was a Man, had great marks of effeminacy about him and created in me certain notions which I wished to find out if there were any foundations for. On asking Iddeah who he was, she without any hesitation told me he was a friend of hers, and a class of people common in Otaheite called Mahoo. That the Men had frequent connections with him and that he lived, observed the same ceremonies, and eat as the Women did. The Effeminacy of this persons speech induced me to think that he had suffered castration, and that other unnatural and shocking things were done by him, and particularly as I had myself some Idea that it was common in this sea. I was however mistaken in all my conjectures except that things equally disgusting were committed.”
William Bligh, The Log of the Bounty, 1789

At the end of the opening post in this series, I said I’d be taking a look at some Eighteenth Century accounts of shamanism and gender-variance. Before doing so however, I want to examine some broader transformations in the period which will, I hope, serve to place these accounts in context – specifically, discourses relating to sex, gender, and human varieties (i.e. race). These transformations were inextricably linked to encounters with the peoples of the New World, and these encounters (recorded or “imagined”) played a formative role in the establishment of European boundaries of normative sex and gender. As Mark Johnson (2009) points out: “Central to the changing terms and shifting ground of homosexual transgression in the West has been the figure of the gender-variant other, a recurrent and repeated leitmotiv of ethnological and sexological imaginings since the Enlightenment.”

For this post, I’m going to briefly focus on the relationship between climate and temperament – both in the New World and the Mediterranean which came to the fore in the eighteenth century.

In the first post in this series, I noted the linkage made between climate and effeminacy. Roxanne Wheeler, in her book The Complexion of Race explains the dominant conception of human variety as being rooted in the biblical account of creation – a theory of shared human origins now referred to as monogenesis – which led to assumptions that all peoples were originally born with white skins, and that variations were due to climate and lifestyle – and that the scientific term used to designate different groups of people was variety rather than race. She argues that religion and clothing were significant markers of similarity and difference, and that: “Climate and humoral theory, in one form or another, provided the most important rubric for thinking about human differences in the eighteenth century, in regard to both complexion and civil society”. Climactic theories of human variations became much more influential in the eighteenth century, with treatises such as Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Samuel Smith’s Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (1787). Montesquieu asserted that peoples in hot climates were prone to lively and excitable passions, which led to a state of constant arousal and immoral behaviour. This, together with physical weakness and lassitude, entailed that the people were lazy and easily enslaved due to a lack of “strength of spirit”. Smith opines that all races came from a single creation, and that all subsequent racial difference is a result of climate. Savages – all of whom are, unless “urged by some violent passion” always indolent. Moreover, idleness is the cause of savagery, and a people can degenerate, into a darker race, if they live in a hot climate.

The inherent idleness of savage peoples was a recurrent theme throughout the period:

“They are, without doubt, both in Body and Mind, the laziest People under the Sun. A monstrous Indisposition to Thought and Action runs through all the Nations of ’em: And their whole earthly Happiness seems to lie in Indolence and Supinity.”
Peter Kolb, Present State of the Cape of Good-Hope (1731)

Sarah Jordan, in The Anxieties of Idleness points out that the British saw industriousness as a virtue – and rationalised their entitlement to empire on the basis that they possessed the industriousness to make proper use of the land. African idleness became a justification for slavery. Similar views were made in regard to India. Thomas Salmon’s New Geographical and Historical Grammar (1772) says that “the warmth of these Eastern climates has doubtless ever contributed to the indolence and effeminacy of its inhabitants; and it may be doubted whether they ever had the industry and active spirits of the inhabitants of Europe, who found the necessity of labour for their support, which the Asiatics had less occasion for, through the luxuriancy of their soil.”

Similarly, Alexander Dow’s Dissertation Concerning the Origin and Nature of Despotism in Hindostan (1770) associates Indian hygiene and avoidance of alcohol as signs of idleness. “Habit makes the warm bath a luxury of a bewitching kind.” and “The prohibition of wine is also favourable to despotism. It prevents that free communication of sentiment which awakens mankind from a torpid indifference to their natural rights.”

The idea that climate could lead to degeneration and indolence for the colonisers as well as the colonised became a source of anxiety, and there were concerns that the British in India, for example, would succumb to the effeminising influences of the country, which intensified in the nineteenth century. Climactic theories persisted well into the nineteenth century – for example, in Richard Burton’s infamous concept of the Sodatic Zone which I will examine in more depth in due course.

Italian Vices
The influence of climate was not exclusively reserved for explaining the oddities of the New World. As I noted in my last post on Pan, the British were both attracted and repulsed by the erotic possibilities of Italy.

Paula Findlen’s engaging account (2009) of An Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani, edited and published by John Cleland in 1751 provides some useful clues. This book, as Findlen explains, claimed to describe “The Adventures of a young Woman, born at Rome, who for eight years passed in the Habit of a Man, was killed for an Amour with a young Lady; and being found, on Dissection, a true Virgin, narrowly escaped being treated as a Saint. With some Curious and Anatomical Remarks on the Nature and Existence of the Hymen.” Despite the lurid possibilities of a tale of sex between women, cross-dressing and the pecularities of the Italians, the book was not apparently, a success. At the end of the volume, Cleland expresses the climatic view of Italy: “In a warm country like theirs, where Impurities of all Sorts are but too frequent, it may well happen that such strange Accidents may, from Time to Time, arise as highly to excite both their Wonder and their Attention.” The climatic values: laxity of morals, indolence, and religious transgressions were also applied to Italy (and France, to a lesser extent), and the popularity of the Grand Tour led to increased anxieties about about the effects on British moral values.

The anonymous author of Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England (1729) proferred the view that Italy was the “mother and nurse of sodomy” and linked the growth of sodomy to the growing popularity in England of Italian opera. Similar anxieties were expressed concerning the popularity of masquerade balls (for a brief discussion, see this article I wrote for The Bent Pentacle).

In the next post I’ll look at eighteenth century notions of sex and gender.

Paula Findlen, Wendy Wassyng Roworth and Catherine M. Sama Italy’s Eighteenth Century: Gender and Culture in the Age of the Grand Tour (Stanford University Press, 2009)
Mark Johnson Transgression and the Making of ‘Western’ Sexual Sciences in Donnan, Magowan (eds) Transgressive sex: subversion and control in erotic encounters (Berghahn Books, 2009)
Sarah Jordan, The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth Century British Literature and Culture (Bucknell University Press, 2004)
Thomas Laqueur Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1992)
Robert P. Maccubbin (ed) ‘Tis nature’s fault: unauthorized sexuality during the Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1987)
G.S. Rousseau Perilous enlightenment: pre- and post-modern discourses : sexual, historical (Manchester University Press, 1991)
Rousseau, Porter (eds) Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (Manchester University Press, 1987)
Lee Wallace, Sexual encounters: Pacific texts, modern sexualities (Cornell University, 2003)
Roxanne Wheeler The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000)


  1. Janet
    Posted November 3rd 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I am not quite familiar with the term Shamanism but I think up until now, people are still practicing Shamanism because there are still people who could communicate with the spiritual world. On the other hand, I would have to disagree with the idea that all born babies are white. I guess if people would hear this, people would think it is purely discrimination for the black people.

    • Phil Hine
      Posted November 3rd 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink


      I would have to disagree with the idea that all born babies are white

      I’d be very surprised if you did, but that really wasn’t an idea that I was attempting to put across

      Just to clarify this issue of eighteenth-century ideas of human common origin, I’ll quote from Roxanne Wheeler directly:

      “Most Britons, if pressed, likely would have explained the variety of human appearances and behaviours as divinely ordained, based on the biblical account of the Creation and the common descent from Eve and Adam. … Britons believed that the subsequent changes in complexion and manners, called “degeneration,” sprang from natural occurences to people as they dispersed over the earth. Variations in temperature and lifestyle, compounded by long amounts of time in the places where they settled, made the differences even more pronounced. The ethnocentric assumption that all people were born with white skin or the more startling claim that Africans, among others, had white souls stemmed from the conviction of a shared descent from Adam and Eve, whom Europeans often envisioned in their own image.”
      The complexion of race, p15