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Duality and Beyond

OK. This one's going to be a bit notional. Here goes:

I've been challenged by A. Venefica of Symbolic Meanings and Mahud of Between Old and New Moons to participate in their mythology synchroblog on duality. You might think that would be an easy task, for a Pagan trained in two traditions of Wicca. After all, Wicca is known (sometimes a bit sneeringly) among other Pagans for its duotheism. The Mysteries of Wicca are expressed in terms of duality, and especially that of gender. Male/female. Goddess/God.

In Christianity, the world is understood through relationship: the relationship between a Father and his children (and especially, his Son).

In Wicca, the world is also understood through relationship: a sexual relationship between the Goddess and the God, and a parental one with the world that is the product of their union. The world is not made, not created, but born out of that love.

(I am aware there are variations on this theme. Please do not write me and notify me that in your tradition, it's not like this. Not my point--please keep reading.)

This focus on duality leads to a series of metaphorical associations around gender that usually are listed in stereotypical ways: female is to dark is to intuitive is to receptive as male is to bright is to logical is to active. Sometimes the gender polarities are swapped (It's often said that on the "Inner Planes" or in the spiritual world, the feminine is active) but the overall gist is the same. In Wicca, the gods--and, in fact, all of nature--are seen as representing two poles of gender, and all the variation of life, both as a natural phenomenon and as a set of experiences and virtues, is seen as sorted into two baskets: male and female. All living things, the teaching asserts, have gender. And many Wiccans will quote Dion Fortune, and further assert that "All gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess, and there is one Initiator."

Sometimes the point of spiritual training is to strive for the union or knowledge of both polarities--for the man to embrace his anima, and the woman to embrace her animus. Sometimes it is simply the celebration of the complementary nature of all aspects of the world in recognition of the complementarity of the God and the Goddess.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasonable objections to this approach to worship.

First, it's biologically false to assert, as many do, that all life is gendered, male and female. This is nonsense. (Counter examples include hermaphrodism, sequential hermaphrodism, bacterial conjugation, and, of course, asexual reproduction. It just ain't that simple, folks--even before we consider our own species.)

Secondly, it's essentialist horse-crap to equate feminine with dark, receptive, nurturing, etc; reversing polarities on the Inner Planes, however nifty it sounds in theory, is just repackaging the essentialism in a new color scheme. It's still crap, even when it's crap in a mirror.

Thirdly, the "All gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess" quote flies in the face of a great deal (though not all) of what we know about how ancient pagan peoples viewed their gods. In a sense, the duotheism of Wicca can be viewed as as strong a denial of polytheism as the monotheism of Christianity... and hence the dislike many Reconstructionist Pagans feel for Wicca, or at least for the ways all too many Wiccans assume that their philosophies and practices are universal in the Pagan movement.

Fourth, this is a heterosexist lens with which to view a universe, and it's no coincidence that a number of respected early Wiccan teachers and a small number of less-respected recent teachers did espouse homophobic views. Since I won't be returning to this point, let me just say it here: it's the coming together in love that matters, ladies and gentlemen... not the plumbing possessed by the celebrants. However, it's all too easy, if your paradigm for sacred union is a heterosexual one, to conclude that other forms of union are not sacred. Not nice.

With all that in mind, it might surprise you to learn that I still cherish one of the first pieces of Wiccan liturgy I ever learned, the wine blessing that the Church of the Sacred Earth adapted from words traditional to the Odyssean Tradition of Wicca:
HP:The Sun brings forth light!
HPs: The Moon holds it in darkness.
HP: As above--
HPs: So below.
HP: As the athame is to the lover--
HPs: --So the chalice is to the beloved.
Both: (blessing chalice with athame as they speak)...And together joined,
We are One in truth.
For there is no greater power in all the world
Than that of people
Joined in the bonds of love.
Interestingly, most of the online versions of this liturgy have, like ours, been adapted from the original, dropping (as we did) stereotyped references to gender. I suspect that most groups who have adopted this ritual found, as we did, that there is nothing wrong with a little duality in your religion...

...provided you don't take it too literally.

The core concept, that we are attracted across differences, is sound. Where we go wrong is in defining the most basic representation of difference--duality--as the limit of difference.

In a traditional Wiccan circle, many of us were taught to sit boy/girl, boy/girl, in a strict alternation around the circle. Some groups found it difficult to have odd numbers of coveners, because it would disrupt the gender (and thus polarity) alternation that, it was thought, acted as a kind of spiritual battery, charging up the circle for its work.

And that concept is both wrong... and right.

My husband and I learned early on in our lives as working partners in a Wiccan circle, that it was better not to sit either side by side or directly across the circle from one another. If we did, the powerful attraction we felt for one another in those, the heady early days of of lives together, would eclipse the softer, more subtle attractions of relationship with other members of a group. It did, in fact, act as a short in an electrical system might--and as the boy/girl polarity enthusiasts would predict.

But we have never found that alternating gender is neccesary in a working group that has been together for any length of time. If the dualism of Wicca is about recreating the creative potential of polarity, the key insight turns out to be this: there are not two poles of spirit, but thousands--or more accurately, billions. It is difference, not opposition, that creates complements. And so, the fact that Ravenwing loves heavy metal music but Oakleaf loves Bach, that Shadowhaven loves red meat but Dawnchild is a vegan, that Rowan is expecting her third child but Pixiedust is childless, creates all the polarity any active circle could ever ask for.

The problem, in other words, isn't with dualism, but with literalism--with being unable to see the fullness of what dualism is the simplest form to represent: diversity coming together to shape wholeness.

It is the coming together of an ecosystem, not of day/night, dry/wet, or male/female dualities, that really gives life its richness and fullness. Duality is merely a symbol, in other words, for many-ness, variation, and diversity. For life. The coming together of male and female, Goddess and God, or, indeed, of any one human (regardless of gender) with another is, liturgically speaking, symbolic only of how life shapes harmony from difference. The underlying truth which literalism can sometimes obscure is this: that all of creation is an ongoing act of love.

I can live with that.

And though I might not describe myself any longer as Wiccan, and though a monotheistic tinge may be changing me into something some of my Pagan sisters and brothers might not recognize as kin, still, there is a place in me for the old, duotheistically-rooted insights that shaped my spiritual journey. It is still true:

There is no greater power in all the world than that of people--of all of us beings, of all of us spirits, of all of the myriad individualities of all of nature and mankind alike--joined in the bonds of Love. The Spirit that joins us makes us whole.

Photo courtesy Caroline Tully's Necropolis Now.
More duality (or non-duality) Synchroblogging Goodness available by May 1st (at least in theory) from:

Between Old and New Moons
Goddess in a Teapot
Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism
Full Circle
Stone Circle
Women and Spirituality
Frontiers of Wonder
Religion Think
Quaker Pagan
Heart of Flame
Pitch 313
Executive Pagan
Druid's Apprentice
Druid Journal
Manzanita, Redwoods and Laurel
Dream Builders
When Isis Rises


cubbie said…
i like this. duality scares the crap out of me, but i think it touches some truths and can be a good teaching tool. but yeah... the literalness gets overdone and can be really really problemating.
Anonymous said…
The whole dichotomy thing is just so false - as though anything in the world is one thing or another unmixed.
As for gender - as far as I can tell there are 3 separate dimensions of gender - genetics, morphology and self-image. A surprising number of people are not consistent on three out of three - and thats not even taking into account shades of gray within each dimension.
I am going to disagree with you concerning your statement "Duality is merely a symbol, in other words, for many-ness, variation, and diversity." I'm not going to disagree with your personal view which I think is at least as pure as a Norwegian bachelor farmer. But, the pagan world view is not about right and wrong and black and white and neither is your Quaker world view. The wiccan world view is that the God and the Goddess complete the world together and that is a powerful positive duality. Jehovah and Satan do not complete the world together - in the end one of them will extirpate the other and that is a hugely destructive duality since it begs for categorizing everything in terms of that conflict. (kabbala aside)
It comes down to intention. Heal the world by acknowledging, honoring and respecting our differences or support the right side of a multi-millenia conflict. Marshall's two Powers on one hand, and your inclusiveness (and Marshall's emulation of the Lamb) on the other.
You can handle the monotheistic snake and it does not harm you - perhaps you can see the snake has its own destiny and beauty and its place in the world and maybe Eve saw that too. But for most people, the monotheistic engine is a way of separating the world into Good and Evil and Right and Wrong and the snake and Eve take it on the chin every time. Frankly, I think (with no factual basis whatsoever) that the Tree of Knowledge was not about knowing the difference between Good and Evil, but knowing that there was no Good and Evil -that we can know the beauty of this world and all of its inhabitants - respecting their destinies even when we can't fully understand them.
Hi, cubbie! It's great to have your feedback on my blog; I'm a constant reader of yours, and I don't know if there's a blog out there that so consistently speaks to my heart, so I'm really happy to find your words here. :)

It's as a teaching tool--a symbol, a metaphor, that captures some truths and (unfortunately) obscures others--that I've always seen duality.

David--"Pure as a Norwegian bachelor farmer," eh? That's a comparison that hasn't been made before. (I tend to think of myself more as a Nanny Ogg, personally... though she, too, is fairly incorruptible; albeit more from being already pretty corrupt to begin with. Hmmm...)

I agree that the essence of Pagan dualism is in the coming together. And I further agree that in the minds of most of the world's fundamentalist Christians, Satan and their God do no such thing, but, yes, are locked in an eternal combat. I would see that as an example of the pitfalls of taking duality too literally.

The payoff can be incidents like the one I experienced at my twenty-fifth high school reunion, when two formerly close friends, having learned I was Wiccan, played musical chairs to avoid sitting near me during the evening. I was initially disappointed somehow not to have had their company, and then, when someone told me the backstory, even sadder. Not only did they (and I) miss out on reuniting with an old friend, but what does this say about how dull their lives must be, that they need to invent all-powerful figures of evil from old friends?

Dualism, taken literally, and particularly cast in terms of good and evil, can make you stupid. I'm afraid I agree with you on that.

So why didn't I address that in my initial essay? Hmmm. I think probably because the only place I have for dualism in my theology is the Pagan view. I really don't know how Quakers see the whole God vs. Satan knockdown thing. Or rather, I know that the Friends I am closest to, the Liberal Friends who accept me as one of them, seem to see that in metaphoric ways, as internal to each person, or do not consider it at all.

It is probably taken far more seriously by some and in some quarters. But it's so alien to me--far more alien than monotheism--or, more accurately, a kind of Neo-Platonist monism, which is as close to that concept as I can find myself standing. It's alien enough that I do not really see it at all.

So, to be honest, I didn't write about the battle to the death between personified Good and personified Evil because I didn't even think about it. It's a blind spot I'm happy to cultivate, because I agree with you that it does not lead to fortunate ways of seeing the universe; in fact, I think it makes us blind far more than it allows us to see.

I say this, aware that one criticism made of Liberal Friends, as of Pagans, is the lack of acknowledgment of evil in the world. I say it, also, as a woman who worked for many years among survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and among the surviving friends and family of homicide victims. I do not say it lightly, in other words: I see no place in religious thought for a principle of ultimate evil, and I see nothing positive to be gained in looking for one.
Anonymous said…
Hi Cat,
"pure as a Norwegian bachelor farmer" comes from A Prairie Home Companion:-)

Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,

This is beautiful. Here's what I value most:

"Where we go wrong is in defining the most basic representation of difference--duality--as the limit of difference....

"It is difference, not opposition, that creates complements....

"The problem, in other words, isn't with dualism, but with literalism--with being unable to see the fullness of what dualism is the simplest form to represent: diversity coming together to shape wholeness."

This leads me, in turn, to want to address David's concern about "G-d versus Satan" and his references to "the Serpent and Eve."

These are both fossils of pre-Old Testament Middle Eastern mythic complexes. Both were grotesquely distorted by the patriarchal writers of the the OT, and then distorted even more during the early centuries of ideological Christianity.

In the earlier forms, the figure who became known as Satan was "the Adversary." Not an enemy of YHWH but a member YHWH's court, with a specific role as a tester of YHWH's efforts in Creation.

In other words, our modern expression "playing Devil's advocate" is actually a weird twist on the original lore.

Satan's assignment from YHWH was precisely to play "Devil's advocate." For the sake of assessing the integrity of the working out if YHWH's Creation, Satan argued the opposite position.

What else is the Book of Job except a drama of such a trial?

The notion of "G-d versus Satan" slipped into Israelite tradition later--most likely borrowed from the notion of a cosmic battle between good and evil in Zoroastrianism.

That Persian religion was carried throughout the Middle East during the conquests by Darius, the same conquests which, among other things, freed the Israelites from Babylonian captivity and returned them to Jerusalem.

The same good vs. evil dualism later slipped into ideological Christianity--but I do not believe it was part of Jesus' own belief and teaching.

Even in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of the four in the New Testament), Satan is still more "the Adversary" than the Enemy of G-d.

He tests and tempts Jesus in the wilderness, just has he had the fictional Job. In both cases, the one he tests rejects him and stays faithful to G-d...even knowing how much suffering that entails.

As to the Garden/Serpent/Eve bit.... My take is similar to David's, where he writes: "the Tree of Knowledge was not about knowing the difference between Good and Evil, but knowing that there was no Good and Evil...."

In other lore, the tree and the gift of the apple stand for the ambivalent blessing of human consciousness, the ability to measure and to judge and to choose and to act freely.

Needless to say, the Serpent is often Wisdom, or at least the messenger of wisdom, accompanying the female embodiment of wisdom (see the caduceus, the Wand of Hermes with its two snake, or the oracle at Delphi).

The catch is that this consciousness is obviously a mixed blessing...precisely because human beings are finite, fallible and mortal.

In other words, the first tree is the Tree of Knowledge--but it is dangerous because it can give human beings the illusion of the knowledge of good and evil.

We tend to label anything evil which involves suffering or death--or even just not getting our way.


We need to remember that there were two trees in the Garden. The second one was the Tree of (Immortal) Life.

My take on the expulsion from the Garden hinges on what G-d says as that expulsion is commanded:

"Let's keep them away from the Tree of Life, while they are suffering under this illusion. We don't want them to become immortal in such a screwed up condition. Keep them out until I can figure out how to fix the mess they've made."

Or something like that....

Bless├Ęd Be,
Michael Bright Crow
Yewtree said…
I love this post - some fascinating comments too.

I don't think you are handling a monotheist snake, but rather a monist one. Different ball-game entirely.

I totally agree that polarity is much more than just male-female interaction.
Yewtree said…
PS - you might also enjoy some of the articles linked from here.
Yewtree said…
"Let's keep them away from the Tree of Life, while they are suffering under this illusion. We don't want them to become immortal in such a screwed up condition. Keep them out until I can figure out how to fix the mess they've made."

yes, that is the position of the Orthodox Church - which was not taken in by St Augustine's doctrine of original sin, influenced as he was by Manichaeism.
Anonymous said…
Great post, Cat. Duality is one thing I've been examining (in fits and starts) in my spiritual practices. Part of me wants to ditch it completely but I hear your message that it does have some things to teach us. As you said, just don't take it so literally. I might substitute "seriously" in there. I've been way too serious lately, and I think it's time to awaken my lighter side again.
Donna L. Faber said…
Hi ... I am dropping by to leave a link to my article on duality, too. It was a fun exercise. I really enjoyed your post. I liked the one about 9/11, too. Very thought provoking. What a day that was, hm? I was in San Francisco at the time and at first thought I was seeing a moving on television. It was so surreal, the split screen and everything.


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