Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Paganism - His and Hers

I think I've outdone myself in laziness by not posting anything for months. I'm a fitful sort of blogger.

Something occurred to me the other day, though. I was sitting around with my boyfriend and some good buddies of ours, and for some reason, talk centered around domestic matters. Who does the laundry in your house? Who sweeps the floors and trims the hedges? Those kinds of things. I gently poked fun of my boyfriend, saying that I'm the one who does all that in our household, and that the house was a Grim Gap of, well, maybe not Death, but at least bacheloresque mess before I moved in. Our friends nodded knowingly. One of them commented that his mother thankfully still appears every Wednesday to do his laundry. My smugness factor went through the roof, I have to admit, as I pontificated on the importance of bleach and broom.

Afterwards, it struck me how unfair I'd been. Somehow, I've developed these highly prejudiced notions that not only are women far better at running a household; we also care more about domestic matters. It's a form of chauvinism, so deeply entrenched that I hadn’t even noticed it.
How bizarre, I thought. My mother's generation had battled for equal rights and women's liberation, I consider myself liberated, and yet here I am, ironing my man's shirts, because I don't trust him to do it without accidentally burning the house down. Also, perhaps more significantly, I take pride in ruling supreme over domestic matters, in turning a house into a home. To me, it’s a way of showing that I care about our life together, and it’s a hospitality thing.

Thinking about these things, I could name more than a handful of women who would have me committed if they heard this. We’re liberated now. We can be both genders at the same time – simply put, we can celebrate our femininity and fix our own damn cars at the same time. And that’s a good thing. However, taking it to extremes is not. I know women who will actually take offence if a guy holds open the door for them, or if he innocently offers to put up a shelf for them with his mighty power tool. There is such a thing as being too Freudian.
Women of my generation and in my part of the world are perhaps expected to take pride in our academic achievements, our careers, our parenting skills or our ability to network and socialize. If we take pride in having a well-scrubbed kitchen floor, that’s alright, but we shouldn’t really say as much. Even the realm of female sexual fantasy is now highly regulated and subject to a mild form of peer pressure.

What does that mean in a Pagan perspective? Personally, I think that the idea that there are two and only two genders, and that they are clearly defined, is a part of our Christian heritage. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Our ancestors in pre-Christian times didn’t see the world in dualist terms – good and evil, light and dark, man and woman. It seems that in that world, there were more ways of being male or female – it was perhaps a matter of degrees. Women in that world could be housekeepers, businesswomen, agitators, priestesses, shamans, pioneers, leaders of the community, professional mistresses, even shield maidens, in very rare cases. They did not have equal rights in the sense that we understand it today, but they seem to have had far more options that their later counterparts.
The same appears to have been true for men. A good while back, archaeologists discovered a single burial from the Bronze Age in Denmark. The body was dressed in a short blouse and a short skirt made of strings, with the long hair carefully coiffed, and was found buried in coffin made from a hollowed oak lined with soft fur. Everybody immediately agreed that this was the body of a young woman. Oh yes! She would have been a ritual dancer, and performed her dance at major religious festivals! A Danish belly dancer even interpreted this, and she toured the land dressed in a copy of the costume. Then one day, somebody felt inspired to take a closer look and then informed the astonished world that it was in fact the body of a young man, not a woman.
There are a number of other examples of men being buried with perplexing, ‘female’-type grave goods, which, along with other sources, indicate that both men and women had more than one gender identity to choose from. Most seem to have stuck to the roles of either mother/wife/housekeeper or breadwinner/warrior, but significantly, the options were there.

Many branches of Neo-Paganism incorporate a strong streak of women’s empowerment. After all, we now get to venerate actual goddesses who are powerful and important in their own right, not just a de-sexualized virgin sitting quietly at the foot of the steps leading up to the throne of the Almighty God. I like that. But I don’t want to take it to extremes. I don’t think the goddesses are worth more than the gods, and I don’t think women are better than men – despite my prejudices about housework (I’ll be working on that, I swear). I don’t want to do to the gods something similar to what Christians have done to the goddesses in the past – strip them of their own innate importance and view them as mere armpets of the Almighty One, whether God or Goddess.

Feminism, in its most extreme form, devalues men and traps women in very rigid roles. It’s just the same old slavery, but reverted and wearing a new mask. If we’re going to be inspired by past Pagans, then one of the ways I want to go about doing that is to allow myself the freedom to decide my own gender identity, so to speak. Even if it flies in the face of modern expectations. I will not be pressured into a role that does not fit me, neither in a mundane sense nor a religious, neo-Pagan sense.

Because of the women’s liberation movement, their bravery and their battles, I now get to appreciate the full spectrum of all that is female. I can be a metaphorical shield maiden and a housekeeper at the same time. I can venerate goddesses of home and hearth with the same respect and devotion as I do goddesses of war and kingship. And I can worship the gods as their honored equals, beloved counterparts, not just sons and servants. To me, this is true liberation. Every day, I feel thankful for that. And I believe that men should have the exact same rights. Equal rites, as Terry Pratchett puts it.


  1. An excellent post, Selkie. Thank you for writing it. This has been a subject of both interest and importance to me since my days at the university, when I was surrounded by militant feminists who resented the fact that they could get pregnant and I could get not. The whole militant movement really seemed to be more about raising up women at the expense of men rather than elevating women to equality (the idea, for example, that women who have sex with men are "collaborators"). Madness.

    As you say, gender is not so easily defined. We can pretend it's man and woman but if gender is defined by role and function as opposed to who has what plumbing, things get a bit murkier. As you say, men buried with feminine grave goods and women buried with weapons. Or look at Native American "men" who didn't want to live as men and functioned more as women, living at the edge of camp. Or the workings of seidh in Heathenism - a very feminizing process and not for "real men."

    Or take "witches." In the ancient world there was no equation of witch=female. In tribal Africa witches are more often men until Christianity comes along with its misogynistic tendencies and demonizes women as witches. It really behooves us today, Pagans especially since we hearken to our ancient traditions, to at least understand how our ancestors thought, even if we choose not to emulate them.

    Again, thank you for the wonderful and thoughtful post!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Hrafnkell!

    Collaborators?! I wonder what splendid brainbox came up with that one.. I suppose these were people who thought they were out to fix the wrongs that nasty male chauvinists had inflicted upon women - it's just that there's a difference between trying to create balance and trying to get revenge. By acting like that, those militant feminists had turned into the kinds of people they were out to thwart - bigoted, crazy chauvinists. I guess there was only 'one sign post in that desert', eh?

    I agree that as Pagans, we at least have the option to define ourselves not just by our anatomy. Given the scope of deities revered in the ancient world - where they had goddesses not only of housekeeping and child-birth, but also of war, prophecy, poetry and kingship - and given the way our society has evolved, it's only natural that neo-Pagan women today have more options than the old 'demure virgin' or 'bare-foot and pregnant in the kitchen' models. And the exact same goes for men, who have more options than 'breadwinner.' And at the end of the day, isn't it a bit demeaning to the human spirit if we were to be defined only by our private parts? :-)