Androgyny: The Pagan Sexual Ideal

Clearly God is interested in sex, or Satan would not be so passionately committed to its deconstruction.

The media has shaped the sexual fantasy-world of America’s youth. The “gay” and mainstream presses are now documenting a disturbing trend. Young people are declaring themselves “homosexual” at earlier and earlier ages. Others are embracing bi-sexuality, as an expression of personal freedom and autonomy. Observers note “a growing trend [in contemporary youth culture]…to refuse to define their sexuality…Youth today want more representations of a fluid sexuality that rejects definitions of ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’” The popular press documents the success of what it calls the “gender blur.”



Like the ancient pagan Sodomites pounding on the door of Lot’s house millennia ago, the modern gay movement is gathering at the doors of our churches, our academies and our once traditionally “Christian” culture, demanding entrance and full recognition. Notable scholar, David A. J. Clines, professor of Old Testament at Sheffield University, for one, appears ready to lay down the welcome mat. He wrote in 1998:

…[though] queer theory has yet to show its face at the SBL [Society of Biblical Literature], gayness is challenging…all that we hold dear. When we begin to redraw the alterity map, the boundaries between same and different…we find ourselves having to think through everything, and not just sexuality, from scratch.

Clines, who not long ago was known for his conservative theological position, illustrates how far acceptance of the gay movement has come in recent years, even among those from strongly biblical backgrounds.

This movement has come a long way fast. It will not go away soon, I believe, because it is so intimately tied to deep changes in modern society, in particular, those associated with philosophical Postmodernism. Because in the Postmodern hermeneutic all meaning is socially generated, queer commentary has little methodological difficulty finding a place in the contemporary religious and theological debate. In cooperation with feminist biblical interpretation, which has “destabilized normative heterosexuality” by alleging “sexist” bias, queer readings merely seek to take one more step in the hermeneutics of suspicion and expose the “heterosexist bias” of the Bible and Bible interpreters. Identifying exegesis as an exercise in social power, queer theorists reject the oppressive narrowness of the Bible’s male/female binary vision, and boldly generate textual meaning on the basis of the “inner erotic power” of the gay interpreter. What could be more Postmodern? Employing such a widely accepted methodology, and with “straight” Bible scholars now ready “to redraw the alterity map,” gay theology appears to have a bright future everywhere.

The theoretical progress is mirrored in popular society where resistance to the gay life-style is more and more impugned as anti-democratic and un-American. But the urgency of the situation for Bible-believing scholars is not merely the pressing need for a scholarly ethical response to an unfortunate moral aberration. The contemporary appearance of a homosexual movement says something about the particular times in which we live, granted both that pagan spirituality is enjoying a popular revival, and that throughout the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah have always served as the symbol for endtime pagan idolatry, ultimate moral disintegration and eschatological divine judgment. The subject, in its spiritual, religious and even eschatological dimensions, needs to be treated and debated among us, not simply as an unfortunate social deviation or ephemeral social fad, but as a cutting-edge component of a rising, all-encompassing, religious world view that is diametrically opposed to the world view of Christian theism.

One fruitful way to approach this pressing issue is to consider the religious roots of homosexuality. The recent radical changes in our society, include, simultaneously, both the liberation of sex and the rediscovery of pagan mystical spirituality. Is such a pairing pure coincidence or is it the result of a necessary organic relationship? Has there always existed an ineluctable connection between pagan religion and pagan sex? For instance, while radical pagan feminists speak of the need of a “change of [religious] consciousness,” such spiritual transformation is always proposed by way of a radical recalibration of our perceptions of sexuality. In other words, sexuality appears central not peripheral to the spiritual quest. This, I believe, will become more and more evident in the homosexual movement, namely, that this particular sexual life style will be the promoter of a particular kind of religion. Thus, while sexual liberation in its popular, successful, government-financed versions, strategically associates itself with “civil rights,” with pro-choice civic values and with politically-correct tolerance, often studiously avoiding any obvious religious dimension, its ultimate legitimization [since all human beings are religious] proceeds from the age-old dogmas of paganism, which, unlike their modern equivalent, never tried to hide behind a thin veil of temple/state separation. If everything is indeed political, as the radicals often proclaim, everything is also spiritual, and thus the spiritual is also sexual. Charles Pickstone, a pagan believer in Anglican orders, affirms this in his recent book The Divinity of Sex: “…sex is the spirituality that reveals the sacramental richness of matter.”

The thesis of this paper is that to understand the contemporary sexual revolution, we need to see the “new sexuality,” [particularly in this paper in its homosexual expression], as an integral expression of age-old religious paganism. In our response, we cannot follow Lot, who would have sacrificed his daughters to placate the aggressors. Nor can we claim personal moral superiority. We must always hear, in the clamor for acceptance and recognition, the cry of divine image-bearers, however marred and broken. However, we must not shrink back from seeking to do justice to the whole Christian, biblical dimension of the problem. In a time of moral confusion and politically correct intimidating “tolerance,” we owe such clarity to our culture, to our sons and daughters, and to God, Creator and Redeemer, for whom all things exist.

The Modern Revival of Paganism

In order to make this connection, some attempt must be made to define paganism. The Lutheran theologian, Carl Braaten defines the contemporary revival of paganism–what he calls “neopaganism”–as:

[the belief in] “a divine spark or seed [which] is innate in the individual human soul. Salvation consists in liberating the divine essence from all that prevents true self-expression. The way of salvation is to turn inward and ‘get in touch with oneself.’ “

In a different but complimentary way I would suggest that the essence of paganism can be usefully described as monism, the belief that one principle defines and unites all of reality. Thus all is one, humanity is one divine reality, and all religions are ultimately many expressions of the one monistic truth. At the heart of this theoretical religious paganism lies a particular and powerful mystical experience of oneness. Indeed it is often claimed in today’s syncretistic age that at the core of all religions, beyond and behind their distinctive doctrines, is the same mystical encounter.

Louis Dupré, T. L. Riggs Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Yale University, does indeed make such a claim. After noting the universality of the “mystical drive” to union with the divine, Dupré wonders whether “all religions, which meet in this drive, are, at least in their mystical expression, identical.” He seems to have little doubt about the answer: “If different traditions share a state in which distinctions disappear [emphasis mine], should we not conclude that in its highest form all mysticism is identical.” This conclusion is affirmed in spite of major outward “doctrinal differences,” since beyond the level of doctrine is the spiritual unio mystica. Dupré determines that “…to the extent that the state of union is held to consist of an ecstatic, intrinsically transient experience, [then] the conclusion that mysticism is identical in all religions is indeed inescapable.”

A leading history of religions “Christian” scholar, Huston Smith, believes that the present work of the Spirit is producing an “invisible geometry to shape the religions of the world into a single truth.” In a similar vein, the late Joseph Campbell combined Jungian psychology and New Age spirituality in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces to express the notion that all human civilizations have the same monomyth with only minor differences in details.

According to pagan esoterism, spiritual understanding through intuition and meditation is the only way to salvation. This comes through a non-rational, mystical experience of seeing oneself as the center of a circle that has no boundaries, where all distinctions are eliminated. As the great modern Gnostic, C. G. Jung said: “The self is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” From the center of one’s own limitless universe the self is sovereign. The unitive experience, essential to this worldview, is engendered through drugs, through time-honored (Hindu) meditation or otherwise induced trance. Meditation, rightly practiced, enables the mind/soul to be disconnected from the limitations of the body and to be in direct contact with cosmic spiritual unity. In the words of a leading neo-pagan mystic:

The ultimate metaphysical secret, if we dare to state it so simply, is that there are no boundaries in the universe. Boundaries are illusions, products not of reality but of the way we map and edit reality. And while it is fine to map out the territory, it is fatal to confuse the two [illusion and reality].

This Eastern monism with a Western spin is in direct and total contradiction with Christian theism and the civilization it has engendered. There is here no neutral ground. This is true, as well, of sexuality. Both monism and theism have their particular views of sexuality, and here too there is no neutral ground. As one homosexual activist recently said: “Traditional family values suck.”

The vehemence of the above statement indicates how closely theology and sexuality are held, as well as the determination on the part of some to deconstruct heterosexuality as the norm of human society. Not surprisingly, this element of deconstruction, indeed, destruction of “traditional” sexuality, has accompanied the recent appearance of paganism and deconstructive Postmodernism in the West. That can be illustrated in the vertiginous increase in divorce, the phenomenal growth of pornography, the “liberation” of sex from monogamy, and the rising practice and public acceptance of homosexuality. This is all known and well documented. However, within the specific limits of this paper, I wish to describe the religious pagan sexual ideal as androgyny–which seems to be more and more proposed as the reconstructive model for our deconstructed world.

In what follows I will first provide a certain documentation and description of a phenomenon that consistently marks pagan spiritual practice–the association of the androgynous priest with the pagan cultus throughout time and space. I will present this evidence without any claim to complete or exhaustive systemization. In the second place, I will attempt a theological explanation.

The Androgynous Priest/Shaman as the Embodiment of Pagan Spirituality

Throughout time and across space, the pagan cultus consistently, though not exclusively, holds out as its sexual representative the emasculated, androgynous priest. Mircea Eliade, a respected expert in comparative religions, argues that androgyny as a religious universal or archetype appears virtually everywhere and at all times in the world’s religions. Much evidence exists to support this judgment.

The clearest textual testimony in ancient times comes from nineteenth century BC Mesopotamia. Androgynous priests were associated with the worship of the goddess Istar from the Sumerian age (1800 BC). Their condition was due to their “devotion to Istar who herself had ‘transformed their masculinity into femininity.’” They functioned as occult shamans, who released the sick from the power of the demons just as, according to the cult myth, they had saved Istar from the devil’s lair. “…as human beings,” says a contemporary scholar, “…they seem to have engendered demonic abhorrence in others; …the fearful respect they provoked is to be sought in their otherness, their position between myth and reality, and their divine-demonic ability to transgress boundaries.”

The pagan religions of ancient Canaan appear to maintain a similar view of spirituality and sexuality. The goddess Anat preserves many of the characteristics of Istar. Like the Syrian goddess Cybele, Anat is headstrong and submits to no one. She is both young and nubile but also a bearded soldier, so that many commentators conclude that she is either androgynous or bi-sexual. She thus symbolizes the mystical union, which was celebrated by her worshipers as a ritual enactment of the hieros gamos [sacred spiritual marriage]. The Old Testament gives some indication that Canaanite religion included homosexual androgyny, against which Israel was constantly put on guard.

Livy describes initiation into the Bacchanalia of 186 BC as involving homosexual rape, simillimi feminis mares. Walter Burkhart, professor of Classical Philology at the University of Zurich, comments upon this testimony: “Scholars at one time gave advice not to believe in slander of this sort, but we can hardly be sure. Parallels from initiations elsewhere are not difficult to find.” In other words, Burkhardt recognizes that there was something going on related to the cultic nature of the event, not simply a frenzied lack of control.

Examples of “religious” androgyny can be found in various forms in Syria and Asia Minor in the third century B.C., but its clearest and closest expression in that area comes from the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian era. It is well documented that the Great Mother under the names of Atargatis or Cybele had androgynous priests, called Galli, who cas-trated themselves as a permanent act of devotion to the goddess. A particular version of the goddess is worshipped under the name of Artemis at Ephesus where Paul established a church (Acts 19). In Syria, Cybele is called Rhea, whose effeminized itinerant priests imitated the deeds of the mythological Attis, in trance-like ecstasies. The rites of initiation into the Cybele or Rhea cults included baptism in the blood of a slaughtered bull or ram. This took place in a pit or taurobolium. At the end of the ceremony sometimes certain “powers” of the sacrificial bull, no doubt the animal’s genitals, were offered to the Mother of the gods, again a powerful symbol of male emasculation before the female divinity. The obvious intentions and results of such cultic mythology and practice were the feminization and emasculation of men under the occultic power of the goddess. Doubtless, the Cybele myth is reproducing the cult myth of Isis, where Osiris, the brother/lover of Isis, is killed by his brother who cuts his body in many pieces. Isis reassembles the pieces, except the phallus which was eaten by a crab, and magically restores him to life. In other words, even in death the ideal male is emasculated, like the Galli in life. Though there is no evidence of a specifically emasculated Isaic priesthood, the yearly festival to Isis included men dressing in women’s clothing. In this period, another example can be found in the worshipers of Aphrodite in Scythia. The ennares were hermaphrodite shamans who wore women’s clothes and received the gift of divination from the Goddess.

At the beginning of the fifth century AD the cult of the goddess Cybele continued to have success. Augustine in his City of God vividly describes the “games” offered in honor of Tanit, the celestial “virgin” and mother of the gods, where obscene actors role-played disgusting acts “in the presence of an immense throng of spectators and listeners of both sexes.” He also describes the public display of homosexual priests (galloi).

I have taken the time to include some of the more unsavory details of pagan worship in order to show the similarity of the sexual practices common to them. Even though separated by many centuries, a historical and “theological” connection between the Mesopotamian assinnus, the Canaanite qedeshim, the Scythian ennares, and the Syrian galli is not difficult to imagine. They took on the same androgynous appearance, engaged in the same ecstatic behavior, including self-mutilation, were associated with occultic spirituality, and so in many ways occupied a similar liminal relationship to “normal” society. Such parallels suggest a profound and necessary connection growing out of the same ideological pagan root.

Later in the second and third centuries of the Christian church, the Gnostics were credited by their adversaries with mystery celebrations involving carnal knowledge. The charge is credible because “Christian” Gnosticism was the attempt to Christianize pagan spirituality, even to the point of adopting some form of androgyny. Hippolytus (AD 170-236) reports that one particular Gnostic sect, the Naasenes, who worshipped the Serpent (Naas in Hebrew) of Genesis, attended the secret ceremonies of the mysteries of the Great Mother in order “to understand the ‘universal mystery.” Like modern syncretists who are encouraged to cross over into other religions, the Gnostics believed religious truth was one, to be found everywhere, and so they crossed over into pagan spirituality as a matter of religious principle. The most explicit testimony is from Irenaeus who says: “They prepare a bridal chamber and celebrate mysteries.” A homosexual encounter is perhaps insinuated in the Secret Gospel of Mark. At the very least, the final logion 114 of the Gospel of Thomas appears to be an invitation to spiritual androgyny. All this would justify the judgment of Burkhart that “certain Gnostic sects seem to have practiced mystery initiations, imitating or rather outdoing the pagans…”

There is good reason to believe that a form of ancient Gnosticism, namely Hermeticism, survived and influenced the Medieval West through the mystical spirituality of Alchemy. This variant Egyptian version of Gnosis saw in Hermes the divine interpreter whose secrets enable Man to pass through various levels of reality, thus making esoteric transmutations possible. The spiritual alchemist became an initiate, one “who knows,” as the ancient Gnostics “knew.” Like Hermes, the alchemical Mercurius was understood as a kind of divine “other” who would intervene by affecting the resolution of opposites. While no explicit sexual perversion is promoted, joining of the opposites or union was frequently imaged as a hieros gamos, a holy marriage, the fruit of which is called “the Philosopher’s Stone.” This “fruit” is sometimes called “the child of the work” which is presented as the Hermetic Androgyne, under the rubric “Two-in-One.” At the very least we have to reckon here with a spiritualized form of what Eliade calls “ritual androgynisation.”

In the same “illuminist” tradition, Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) a great mystic and proto-theosophist, believed Adam was androgynous and that the sexes appeared as a result of the fall. For this monistic mystic, the ideal human state was androgyny. According to Eliade, Böhme derived these notions not from the Qaballah but from Alchemy, for he makes use of alchemical terms. One of spiritual successors, Franz von Baader (1765-1841) postulated that the androgyne had existed at the beginning (Adam) and would appear again at the end of time.

One notable inheritor of the esoteric movements of alchemy and hermeticism in the modern world is Theosophy. It is not without interest that Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society towards the end of the nineteenth century, may well have had a dominatrix lesbian relationship with her successor Annie Besant. Besant began public life as the wife of an Anglican minister, became first a birth-control propagandist, and then an occultist. Her possible lesbianism is suggested by the great authority on modern esotericism, James Webb who cites Besant’s “irreplaceable and fully authoritative biographer Arthur Nethercot.” Later theosophists such as Aleister Crowley, promoter of the occultist pagan Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as Charles Leadbeater, whom Blavatsky called her “bishop,” were noted homosexual pederasts. There is good reason to think that such activity was not the expression of personal weakness, but the consistent expression of pagan spirituality.

In 1923 Feder Mühle, a businessman who became involved in Spiritualism, founded the Gottesbund Tanatra in Görlitz, Silesia-home of Jacob Böhme. Members wore the God’s Eye badge and believed that homosexuals “were vocationally mediums.” They also, with a certain logical consistency, held that heterosexual intercourse impaired the mediumistic talent. This small detail of Germanic occultic history is significant, in this sense. Since leading contemporary homosexuals make the same claims, without any apparent dependence on the theories of Mühle, such parallel thinking would suggest an organic connection between homosexuality and shamanistic religious activity.

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