Gender in Witchcraft, pt. 1

Last year I read a post (which I can’t find anymore) about devotional tips to Frigg. The writer wrote a note at the top of the post stating that they would be referring to Frigg as “They”, since the Gods don’t adhere to our human binary of “male” and “female”. It was such a simple sentence, but it was such an impactful thing for me. I’d never thought of it that way. But to me, it made perfect sense. So I accepted it, and then never looked any deeper into it. Never thought further about what that would mean for me, or my craft.

That changed earlier this year. I was feeling a call to deepen the relation I have with the deities I am devoted to. Which led to me researching and redefining my bond with whom I then still called Horned One. As I wrote in an earlier post, I still very much saw Him as an archetype of the divine masculine. The God to complement the Goddess, which was a paradigm left over from my earlier wiccan-adjacent roots. It didn’t mesh with my earlier found beliefs that Gods are outside of our human gender structures. I couldn’t wrap my hear around it. Which meant one thing: research.

Because why does everything in western witchcraft practices have to adhere to a binary gender system? Why do we have a “divine feminine” and a “divine masculine” when it comes to our inner worlds? And further than that, why does seemingly everything in western witchcraft need to be gendered? Open any book on modern witchcraft and you’ll see gender assigned to everything. To the elements, to the days of the week, to crystals, to herbs, to planets, to runes, everything has a gender or gendered “energy” attached to it. I’ve found, especially in witchcraft and paganism, that when we want to figure out “why?” we need to ask: “where does it come from?”

It seems to start with the Greek philosopher Empedocles. He is the one who gave us the four elements that make up all matter: earth, air, fire and water. The elements are a big part of modern witchcraft, especially the wiccan traditions, or the traditions which have their roots in wicca. We call upon the elements to protect us when we cast a circle. We use the elements to bless and consecrate items. Just to name a few. Empedocles not only posited that all matter was made up out of these four elements, but he also linked them to the Gods Zeus, Hera, Nestis (Persephone) and Aidoneus (Hades). So we have two elements tied to a God, and two to a Goddess. This is where the belief that the elements are either “feminine” or “masculine” probably originates. It’s not a strange thought that this could have easily been stretched: if the elements are “feminine” or “masculine”, and things like crystals or herbs are associated with the elements, then they are also “feminine” or “masculine”.

Of course the influence of monotheistic religions can not be ignored. Our western society gets a lot of its views from Christianity. In the Christian bible God created Adam and Eve, one man and one woman. A strong binary where there is no room for deviation. It is also seen as an ideal to strive towards: a husband and wife, standing in the light of God, who together can create new life. This monotheistic view has been part of our western culture for millennia, which has influenced a lot of scholars, philosophers, artist, etc. Which in turn influences the information that we have access to now. Everything we know about our ancestors is written later, often by Christian scholars or even monks, who wrote from their (gender-binary and patriarchal) worldview.

Then of course we have the beginnings of our contemporary witchcraft: wicca and Gerald Gardner. In the wiccan faith a God and a Goddess are worshipped. Some believe them to be source of all life, others believe they are facets or avatars of a bigger force (Spirit, the All, etc.). The Triple Goddess stands for the phases of a woman’s life: the maiden, the mother and the crone. She also embodies the “feminine energies” such as nurturing, giving, sensual, loving, and wise. The Horned God is the masculine aspects, such as providing, protecting, strengthening, sexual, and also wise.
Covens are led by a High Priest (HP) and a High Priestess (HPs), where in Gardner’s days they took part in a ritual called “the Hieros Gamos” or “the Great Rite”, where the HP and HPs engaged in sexual intercourse to raise power, or as part of an initiation rite. Because, as our tradition’s wiccan inspired ritual states:  “where the masculine and feminine are joined, spirit is born.” Nowadays this is mostly done symbolically with a chalice and an athame, luckily, since Gardner is known to have “asked” High Priestesses to step aside when they were no longer young and beautiful in his eyes, which… ew.
The God and Goddess also complete a life cycle in the Wheel of the Year. The God impregnates the Goddess, after which he travels to the underworld and is born again from Her womb. Because of this, life will begin anew and nature will grow once more. Heterosexual procreation and that bond between man and woman is very important in the wiccan faith. The duality of male and female; and together they create life, is very ingrained into our modern, contemporary paganism because of this.

Then, we need to talk about Jung. In the first big wiccan revival in the ‘70s many prominent witches, like Janet and Steward Farrar, stepped back a bit from the ideas that the Gods were indeed outside of us, but instead incorporated Jungian philosophy into their faith. The Gods are then archetypes living deep in our subconsciousness, which we contact through prayer, spells and ritual. In that first revival this was a pretty common view of the world, which in turn, influenced a lot of books that were written in that time.
One of Jung’s theories is about the Anima and the Animus. Jung stated that, much like the yin-yang symbol, every woman had a bit of masculinity in her unconscious, called the Animus. And that the man had a bit of femininity in his unconscious, called the Anima. If the Animus or Anima was not recognized properly, it could have negative repercussions for the person in question. That part of the subconscious would then dictate the way the person would react in certain situations. For example, a woman acting in a way we would normally “expect” (back then) from a man, so through means of violence and aggression. So an integration, a joining from both the feminine and the masculine inside us is needed to become whole and to become a complete, spiritual being (sounds familiar, no?)

Last but not least, we have feminism. Contemporary witchcraft and paganism gained a lot of popularity in those same ‘70s, as well as the ‘60s, by being more Goddess oriented. Many of us, even now, come from the monotheistic religions which heavily centre on the divine masculine, without giving a female counterpart in that. Many of those religions are also often oppressive and discriminatory when it comes to the treatment of women. For many women witchcraft and paganism gives therefore a sense of freedom and equality not experienced before.
Witchcraft is also the craft of the marginalized, protects those who aren’t in a position to protect themselves and are an enormous source of empowerment for many.
With the arrival of Dianic wicca, a branch of wicca focussed solely on the Goddess, the Goddess movement within wicca and later witchcraft grew. Many were drawn to a path that celebrated women, and all that this entailed. This meant that the “divine feminine” became more and more important. The womb being the source of all creative power in the universe. The yoni being something not to be ashamed of, but instead something to be proud of and to take pride in. (I will talk about my views on all of this in a later post) An emphasis on sisterhood and the sacred bond we all share through the ancient mothers.

I believe all of this influenced and shaped the way we see gender when it comes to witchcraft and paganism. This all contributed in gender having the heavy influence that we see now. So now we know where it comes from… now what? Well, join me next time as I try to figure that out.

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