It is clear that I must find my other half. But is it a he or a she? What does this person look like? Identical to me? Or somehow complimentary? Does my other half have what I don’t? Did he get the looks? The luck? The love? Were we really separated forcibly or did he just run off with the good stuff? Or did I? Will this person embarrass me? What about sex? Is that how we put ourselves back together again? Or can two people actually become one again?
– Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell), Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It’s no accident that this archetype exploded into popular view within living memory. The last century has seen transformations unmatched by any other point in history. What better avatar could there be for an age when boundaries of beauty, sex, technology and culture fall? The Androgyne is more than simply a contradiction of genders; as J. Gordon Melton points out in The Vampire Book: “androgyny (is) an ideal of wholeness in which one part of a duality encompasses its opposite. Androgyny can be said to exist when light accepts darkness or pleasure recognizes the role of pain, but is most commonly presented as individuals blur the social distinctions between what is masculine and feminine.” Duality folds when confronted with androgyny, forcing people to see unity in difference. Like my friend at the dinner table, androgyny forces people to accept a larger world.
In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when social conventions were scrapped by the truckload, androgyny became fashionable… and all too often, violent. Hippies, Punks, Goths, Glams and gays all lay siege to gender propriety. In response, they were elevated and excoriated in patterns that continue even to this day. While rock deities like Bowie and The Beatles became superstars, cops beat long-haired men and short-haired women who “forgot their place.” Bands like Twisted Sister and The Damned brawled with members of their own audiences for the right to dress “queer,” and Heavy Metal icon Rob Halford (whose band, Judas Priest, popularized gay fetish gear among grimly hetero metalheads) infuriated fans by ditching his closet in the early 1990s. A heady brew of fashions and fantasies boiled throughout popular culture, popping out phantasms like Klaus Nomi and Alice Cooper, Female Troublesand Liquid Sky, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Shows. Countering the stern heteronormalcy of Buck Rogers or Professor Tolkien, artists like Kenneth Anger, Clive Barker and Genesis P-Orridge bent magical intentions through their fantasy creations. And as the Sexual Revolution and AIDS panic rushed through popular culture in the 1980s and ‘90s, the undergrounds of sci-fi/ fantasy and sexual fetishism – entwined, since their beginnings, in covert ways – embraced one another openly. This revolt enshrined the Androgyne in postmodern fantasy and science fiction. To quote the title of an award-winning series of queer phantasia, it’s been “Bending the Landscape” into a literal fairy-land of androgynous transgression.
Yet despite this recent popularity, the Androgyne boasts an ancient pedigree. Long before KISS strapped on their “seven inch… leather heels,” androgynous beings swept through the shadows of mythology. Angels, though given masculine identities, are usually portrayed as uncanny androgynes. Demons often display characteristics of both sexes, especially in medieval demonologies like Johann Weyer’sPseudomonarchia Daemonum (itself an elaborate satire on obsessive social hierarchies). Shinto kami nature-spirits frequently appear with similar ambiguity, occupying a midpoint between human genders that transcends the limitations of both.
According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, humanity itself began as “children of the sun, moon and earth… man, woman and the union of the two… and the man was the child of the sun, and the woman of the moon, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of the sun and earth… Terrible was their strength, and the thoughts in their hearts were great.” Four-armed and four-legged people born back-to-back, these creatures were sundered “like sorb apples” when they defied the gods. Similar rabbinical myths portray Adam and Lilith (or Eve) as being formed back-to-back and then cut apart as the Lord passed his hand between them. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad describes its Primal Androgyne to be “the same size and kind as a man and woman closely embracing,” while certain Greek myths declare that Prometheus created men and women as joined entities who were then ripped in half by jealous Zeus. Regardless of the gods in question, these tales explain why we poor mortals spend so much of our lives looking for a fabled “other half” of our broken souls, and why the differences between male and female are never as clear as they might seem.
Gods, too, could be androgynous. Orphic creation myth described the double-sexed Phanes as the original deity. Composed of two aspects – male Eros and female Psyche – Phanes split apart in order to better understand existence. (Later myths cast Eros as a minor god and Psyche as his mortal lover; they endured many trials before being finally united.) The idea of primal divinity splitting into male and female aspects found its way into Qabbalistic mysticism, Gnostic theologies, Hindu scriptures and Egyptian lore. Twin deities – Isis-Osiris, Fauna-Faunus, Artemis-Apollo and Amaterasu-Tsukiyomi, among others – were united in conception and split apart at birth. Meanwhile, gods like Nana-Buluku (“Moon-Sun”) and certain interpretations of Ra retained both gender aspects, with the male sun featured as the divine right eye and the female moon being the divine left one. Shiva and Shakti-Parvati appeared in their androgynous aspect of Ardhanarisvara, sometimes represented as the Yab-Yum (“Father-Mother”) of Tantric symbology or the Adibuddha (“Primordial Buddha”), supreme creator of all else. Gnostic Christ found his counterpoint in Sophia, sometimes represented as Mary Magdalene. Kuan Yin, patron of mercy, is known also by a fey male aspect, Guanyin. It’s fitting, really, that Harris Glenn Milstead, pop-culture’s first superstar drag queen, also went by the name Divine.
Gods could cross gender lines as well. Dionysus shifted between male and female forms, although cross-dressing couldn’t save King Pentheus from being ripped limb-from-limb by the god’s maenad followers. Diana favored masculine garb and pursuits, exacting terrible revenge upon anyone who treated her like a girl. All-Father Odin supposedly dressed as a woman to learn the female secrets of seidhr, turned himself into one in order gain access to his mistress Rind, and manifested as a transgendered aspect named Jalkr (“Eunuch”). Thor, perhaps the butchest god of all, appeared as a bridal Freyja in order to win back his thunderbolt hammer Mjollnir. Loki – who had mocked Odin for cross-dressing – suggested this ironic jest, yet assumed various feminine forms himself, most notoriously as the mare that gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir and as Thokk, the giantess who refused to weep for Balder and thus consigned him to Hel’s realm. Personally, I’d love to see our waiter’s reaction to Thor in drag. Somehow, I suspect he’d be more polite.
As such tales suggest, the Androgyne is often a trickster figure, destroying boundaries and eluding barriers between desire and the established order. Spider-man Iktome masqueraded as women in order to seduce pretty but unwise virgins; Coyote assumed female form in order to pull off special pranks, while Raven beat his own phallus into pulp and then tricked his enemies into drinking it. Their antics echo back to us each time their descendant Bugs Bunny dons a dress to seduce Elmer Fudd. Laughter, too, is a tension-breaking force. It’s not surprising that so many comedians – from Monty Python to Tyler Perry – cross genders while kicking propriety in the nuts.
We cannot be selfish with one another.
– Pell, from Storm Constantine’s The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit
The Androgyne’s male and female elements suggest a being composed of several souls within a single skin. The fox-spirit known as Inari Okami supposedly contains five essences, one of whom is an eerily beautiful androgyne. Mythology’s most obvious transgendered figure, Hermaphroditos, was originally born male; conceived by inconstant Aphrodite (another transgressive deity) and the psychopomp Hermes (who also manifested in feminine form), Hermaphroditos was so beautiful that a young nymph, Salmacis, prayed for eternal unity with him. When the god-boy bathed in a spring, the water-girl merged with him and they became a single person, both male and female. Revered in Asia Minor and parts of Greece, Hermaphroditos inspired sects that may well have featured transgendered clergy and attracted physical transsexuals.
A gruesome form of androgyny characterized the Galli, ancient priests of Attis and Cybele. Intoxicated by spiritual devotion (and probably a few other things as well), these men would dance through the streets, whip themselves into wild trances, slash off their genitals, fling the fleshy bits through open windows, grab female clothing from inside, and hopefully collapse into the arms of fellow devotees. Those who managed to survive these self-service castrations lived the rest of their lives as transgendered acolytes. Similar devotions inspired self-castration among the Christian Valesians andSkoptsi (“Castrated Ones”); taking the Christ at his word (Matthew 19:12: “There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”) these men usually retained their masculine gender, if not their masculine parts. Even so, the element of “crossing over” a magical threshold is clear; in folklore and literature, eunuchs like Masrur from “The Tale of Three Apples” and the spymaster “Spider” Varys from George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire possess visionary, initiatory or transitory powers. Centuries later, male members of the Heaven’s Gate cult had themselves castrated and then assumed genderless roles in order to be “pure enough” for their intergalactic journey.
(Morbid fantasies about castration probably account for the revulsion men often feel toward androgyny. And although castration in myth and folklore could be an essay in itself, it’s not difficult to see why the idea of “cutting away male privilege” and offering it as a strap-on for supernatural femininity might set certain teeth on edge.)
Then and now, such devotees may feel two souls under their skin. Reconstructionists of Native American traditions refer to these folks as “two-spirit people,” a recent term that encompasses a variety of gender-crossing social roles. Drawn from the Ojibwe word niizh manidoowag (“two-spirited”), the concept secures a respectful place for the Androgyne within indigenous society. (Anthropology popularized the termberdache for such people, but that term is actually an insult; its root, bardache, is a French term referring to boy prostitutes.) Assuming social and often magical roles usually granted to the opposite sex, these winkties, nadleehis,mexogas and so forth occupy a sacred – if unorthodox – place in society. Like South Asian hijra (“transgenders”), Thai phet this am (“third-genders”), Japanese onnagata (“woman-roles”), Italian castrati and other gender-bending figures, these people become luminal characters – prophets, performers and prostitutes moving through subcultural twilight.
For obvious reasons, that psychic borderland hums with mystic potential. Classical alchemists symbolized perfection as the rebis, a hermaphroditic fusion of masculine and feminine elements. The principle was personified within the Yab-Yum and, in more abstract form, as the Taoist Ying-Yang circle. The Greek prophet Tiresias was turned into a woman after striking two mating snakes with his staff; years later, he regained his masculinity after witnessing the same sight, and those experiences – combined with the prophet’s ties to Dionysus, Pentheus, Oedipus and other notables – made Tiresias a key figure in sexual magic. Gustav Klimt and Gustave Moreau painted androgynous apparitions, drifting eternally through luminous symbolic underworlds. Along similar lines, occultist Eliphas Levi pictured his Goat of Mendes (the initiator often called Baphomet) as a shaggy-headed androgyne whose caduceus cock was balanced by a pair of ripe female breasts. Familiar now as the mascot of Satanic portraiture, Baphomet reflects a symbolic convergence of magical energies. To those who understand the riddle s/he presents, all things become possible.
It is any wonder, then, that we might spy the Androgyne decked out like Drag-ula ? In the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, Christopher Lee follows an authentic ritual transvestite tradition; taking cues from Aleister Crowley (who also worked in drag) Lee’s imposing Lord Summerisle leads a sacrificial procession while attired as a woman… a capering inversion that’s unnervingly absurd. Summerisle may be fictional, but magical cross-dressing is not; the tradition reaches, at the very least, to ancient Egypt, where female pharaohs wore fake beards and male priests wore thick make-up. Common portrayals of the Wizard archetype wear voluminous and often hooded robes which may conceal and even alter gender. Even today, real-life shamans, magicians, priests and witches often ditch the typical clothing of their sex in order to “move between worlds” to where the usual rules don’t apply. Often, like Joan of Arc, they suffer for it, condemned by authorities who refuse to be undone. Even those authorities, however, must bend occasionally to transgression. During medieval Feasts of Fools, mobs – often led by cross-dressing men and women – staged mock rebellions wherein clerics and sometimes princes stepped down for a day to let a Lord or Lady of Misrule (again, cross-dressed or freakishly androgynous) assume symbolic command. Echoes of this practice can be heard each Halloween, or at every midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where postmodern Lords and Ladies of Misrule dance across the dark.
(A dress does not flatter you, Chris – but thanks for trying!)
(To be continued…)
This entry, along with its related parts, was the first of a three-article series originally published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine between 2009 and 2010. All rights are reserved by the author. Permission granted for linking or re-posting with attribution, but explicitly denied for publication without prior arrangements with the author.