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Shamanism and gender-variance: uncovering a history

As I read through the various commentaries and observations in the wake of this year’s PantheaCon I came across people asserting that what happened was particularly reprehensible because Paganism has always been welcoming to LGBTQI people. This might well be the case in the USA, but its certainly not true for the UK. It seems to me that the awareness that there are actually non-straight people who practice magic or identify as Pagans was pretty much absent from Pagan & Occult texts up until the 1990s and the occasional reference to same-sex partnerships was far outweighed by statements which tended to equate homosexuality with spiritual degeneracy and deviance (some examples of occult homophobia). It was fairly rare to meet “out” LGBTQI people on the “occult scene” in the UK and it was not unusual to find magical orders or authorities proclaiming that their groups or teachings were not open to homosexuals. That there was both a history and a vast ethnography linking gender-variance and magical practice seemingly out there, waiting to be recovered, Pagan & occult authors seemed to be unaware of, and it wasn’t until the publication of books such as Will Roscoe’s Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology (1988), Randy Connor’s Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections Between Homoeroticism and the Sacred (1993) and Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Lore (1998) that attitudes started to shift.

On Liminal Nation last year there was a discussion regarding the perceived relationship between gender liminality and magic – particularly shamanism. This is a huge area, with no easy answers (although plenty have been supplied, admittedly) but what piqued my interest here was not so much that there is a relationship between people who have been identified as existing outside of the regulatory gender binary and a predisposition towards shamanism (or other magical practices) – but how the two became linked as ethnographical and scientfic categories.

It’s not uncommon to see in popular texts this relationship between gender-variance and a predisposition towards shamanic/magical practice being treated as a transcultural universal (much in the same way that the term Shaman itself) – sometimes to the extreme that any person who identifies as LBGTQI (and any other permutation) is said to be potentially “shamanic” – and occasionally, with the subtext that LBGTQI persons are likely to be better at being shamans/magicians than straight folks. Occasionally, I’ve seen this argument put forwards as a new and radical idea. Equally, there is the simplistic idea that the “presence” of gender-liminal or gender-variant sacred specialists is an indicated that such cultures are, (or were) generally more relaxed or affirmative towards LGBTQI persons than, say, contemporary Euro-American culture.

So I’m interested in how this (presumed) relationship between shamanism and gender-variance came about. I initially thought that the mid-nineteenth century – with the rise of both sexology (and the consequent categorisation of sexual behaviour and identities) and the growth of the tendency to label religious specialists as hysterical or neurotic would have been a key moment, but I’ve actually found that many of the tropes that we commonly emcounter in contemporary discourse on shamanism – such as initiations, gender-variance, trance states and creativity for example, can all be found in eighteenth century writings. I do find it interesting that a great deal of contemporary writing on shamanism and its relation to sexuality still draws on eighteenth and nineteenth-century scholarship, much of which was inherently hostile to either shamanism or gender-variance – which I mentioned in passing in my observations on The Golden Bough in January, 2010.

For this series of posts then, I’m going to examine the historical development of the relationship between shamanism and sexuality as western categories and how they were related to wider cultural issues and trends. I’ll start with a bit of scene-setting; examining some aspects of European attitudes to native peoples and sexual practices prior to the first wave of “shamanic discovery” in the eighteenth century.

Noble and Ignoble Savages
Historical records which explicitly make a relationship between the religious practices of “primitives”, “unnatural vices” and gender variance can be found from the sixteenth century onward, as this collection of documents – Native Americans/Gay Americans 1528-1976 indicates. Similarly, accounts which made an explicit link between “hermaphrodites”, sodomy and ceremonial specialisation amongst the native peoples of South America go back to the sixteenth century – and the sodomy trope was, as Michael Horswell (2005) argues, used by the Spanish to justify their conquest and conversion of the Incas. Horswell’s work shows that in sixteenth century Spanish texts, a link between sodomy, effeminacy, cross-dressing and hot climates (which recurs, as I will discuss in later posts, throughout eighteenth and nineteenth century writings) was already being established:

“all the rest were sodomites, especially those who lived on the coasts and in warm lands; so much so that young men paraded around dressed in women’s clothes in order to work in the diabolical and abominable role”
(quoted in Horswell, p73)

It is also from the Spanish in the sixteenth century that the first mentions of bradaje – later anglicised into berdache can be found:

“I saw a wicked behavior (diablura), and it is that I saw one man married (casado) to another, and these are effeminate, impotent men (unos hombres amarionados impotents). And they go about covered like women, and they perform the tasks of women, and they do not use a bow, and they carry very great loads. And among these we saw many of them, thus unmanly as I say, and they are more muscular than other men and taller; they suffer very large loads.”
quoted in Ramón A. Gutiérrez, Warfare, Homosexuality, and Gender Status Among American Indian Men in the Southwest in Foster, 2007

Emerging European notions of “the savage” were complex. It’s not unusual to find savage peoples compared to the idealised figures of Classical mythology, and elsewhere, indiscriminately labelled as cannibals. Savages were portrayed as lacking property, religion, laws, morality or self-restraint – any feature, in fact, which Europeans thought of as essential to civilisation.

Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Novvelle France (1609) praised the Indians of New France:

“Also we must say of them that they are truely noble [emphasis added], not having any action but is generous, whether we consider their hunting or their employment in the wars, or search out their domestical actions, wherein the women do exercise themselves, in that which is proper unto to them, and the men in that which belongeth to arms, and other things befitting them, such as we have said, or will speak of in due place.”
(quoted in Ellingson, p22)

Ter Ellingson (2001) argues that Lescarbot’s work – which establishes the idea of the “Noble Savage” is a typical example of a European attempting to understand a different culture in terns of familiar social frameworks – that Lescarbot’s assertion of savage “nobility” was not the kind of romantic idealism one might associate with Rousseau or Hobbes, but the simple conclusion that because all the native hunted, they were – legally speaking – noble, because for Europeans, hunting was a privilege which distinquished nobles from commoners.

Travel accounts were augmented by the reports of missionaries, for example the account of Louis Hennepin (1640-1701) recounting his experiences of the Mississipi Valley:

“Nothing can be imagin’d more horrible than the Cries and Yellings, and the strange Contorsions of these Rascals, when they fall to juggling or conjuring; at the same time they do it very cleverly. They never cure anyone, nor predict anything that falls outm but purely by chance: mean time they have a thousand Fetches to bubble [i.e., cheat] the poor people, when the accident does not answer their Predictions and Remedies; for as Isaid, they are both Prophets and Quacks.”
(quoted in Flaherty, 1992, p31)

Accounts of shamans trying to hinder the missionaries’ work of conversion also began to appear, as well as the disappearance of shamanic practitioners in the face of advancing conversion. Neil S Price (2001, p4) notes that the idea that Shamanism represented a collective and widespread pattern of belief first arose when Christian missionaries in Siberia began to treat shamanic practices as a “pagan religion” which could be overthrown.

Nicolas Witzen, 1692

One of the first uses of the Germanicized term schaman can be found in the 1692 book North and East Tartary by Nicolas Witzen. Witzen’s book was an account of his travels across Russia and the tribal peoples he encountered, and their “schamans” or “priests of the Devil.” It was very common during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to see accounts of native people’s religion explained in terms of devil worship or necromancy. As long as authors were careful to discuss savage peoples within the boundaries of the devil rhetoric, then they were able to discuss aspects of native practices such as trances, healing or the use of narcotic substances. Samuel Purchas’ 1613 work Purchas His Pilgrimage can be seen as an early attempt at comparative religion, in that Purchas reviews accounts of religious beliefs all over the world in his attempt to establish the supremacy of Anglian Christianity. Purchas’ work provides an early account of a shamanic trance, and also makes reference to reports of “women-men” in California and Peru:

“Every Temple or principall house of adoration kept one man or two or more, which went attired like women, even from the time of their childhod and spake like them, imitating them in everything. Under pretext of holiness and Religion, their principall men, on principall daies, had that hellish commerce.”
(quoted in Flaherty, 1992, p35)

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, accounts of native peoples’ religious practices took an increasingly skeptical turn as the popularity of explaining any religious phenomena in rational terms developed.

In the next post I’ll take a look at some Eighteenth century accounts of shamanism.

Ter J Ellingson, The myth of the Noble Savage (University of California Press, 2001)
Gloria Flaherty, Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 1992)
Thomas Foster (ed), Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York University Press, 2007)
Gyrus, War & the Noble Savage: A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilised Peoples (Dreamflesh Press, 2009)
Michael J Horswell, Decolonizing the sodomite: queer tropes of sexuality in colonial Andean culture (University of Texas Press, 2005)
Neil S Price (ed), The Archaeology of Shamanism (Routledge, 2001)