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A Pagan Perspective on Gender

Robin Herne's picture

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Perceptions of how men and women should behave have fluctuated over time and between countries, emphasising the largely constructed nature of gender. There is no singular approach to gender, common between all the different expressions of Pagan religion. However, there are certain issues worth bringing forward for consideration.

Whilst some ancient cultures, such as the Romans, had quite defined notions of gender, modern pagans tend to be far more relaxed and fluid. One of the most commonly remarked aspects of the modern movement is the equality of women in religious offices. Pagan religions have had priestesses and other female dignitaries since the earliest days and today, as in the past, they can attain to the same levels of status as men.

The spiritual offices held by women in ancient and modern pagan religions have held equal status to men, an important appeal during the resurgence of paganism in the 1970s when many women found the tendency of some mainstream religions to relegate women to subsidiary roles frustrating.

Menstruation and the female fertility cycle in general, often held to a source of uncleanness in some cultures, is seen in a more positive light within paganism, and a lot of modern pagan ritual is geared to the needs of women at various points of their cycle. Such rituals tend to emphasise empowerment rather than purification.

Polytheist religions incorporate goddesses and the veneration of female ancestry alongside potent masculine presences. This does not automatically guarantee that such religions are adhered to by societies that grant legal emancipation to women (or men), as the examples of ancient Greece and Rome demonstrate. However, most modern pagans are keen on legal equality ~ and many, such as the American author and political activist Starhawk, get involved in various campaigns for women’s rights.

Some Pagan traditions place more emphasis on gender than others. For example many Wiccans see their Goddess as having three aspects (Maid, Mother and Crone) which reflect the pre-pubertal, fertile, and post-menopausal aspects of a woman’s life cycle.

Having mentioned goddesses and gods, it is worth reflecting on the gender of deity. Some Pagans would describe themselves as pantheists, seeing deities as symbols of the power that flows throughout the universe. Polytheists regard their deities as real, but whilst they usually speak of them as male or female there is little real suggestion that they have physical bodies with genitals. Rather, attributing human gender to them is an attempt to describe the ineffable in terms that the human mind can comprehend. So some divine beings and perceived as female, others male, and there are some (such as Loki) who change gender.

Some cultures have incorporated the concepts of a third or fourth gender beyond male and female, what we would tend to class as transgender in our culture. Now that surgical gender change is possible, attitudes to transsexual people vary in paganism. The widest spread attitude is one of acceptance; however there are some modern traditions that are gender-exclusive (having all-female or all-male groups) and attitudes to people born with a different biological gender can be mixed when it comes to admittance to such a group. For example, some Dianic Wiccan groups will accept male-to-female transsexuals whilst others will not.

Much of modern paganism is heavily influenced by the writings of the psychologist Carl Jung, one of whose concepts was the anima/animus ~ the Inner Female (or Male) which exists in everyone. Many pagans embrace the idea that, regardless of actual physical gender, people contain psychological traits of both sexes and can attain an inner balance.