Queer of Swords: Oh What a Great Rite!

When I was trying to figure out what to write for this column, a coven mate suggested that I write about gender and polarity. My first reaction was something along the lines of, “What, really? Really? Isn’t that all over with now?” He reminded me that whilst it might not be an issue in the bubble that is the San Francisco bay area, it’s still very much an issue elsewhere. He also reminded me that dealing with this very issue was one of the founding intentions of our own coven.

Symbolic Great Rite – by Shylah Erskin, License CC 2.0

In many traditions, particularly in lines descended from Gardnerian and Alexandrian British Traditional Witchcraft, it is common to assign particular roles split along gendered lines. Typically, men would initiate women, women would initiate men, the High Priestess rules all. Couples would typically work together and would be either initiated together or expected to initiate each other. Gendered polarity was also directly reflected in the ritual itself, with all that dagger-and-cup stuff. Oh what a Great Rite!

For those for whom this approach works, good on you. I’ve done my fair share of cupdaggering too. Things get a bit tricky, however, when people start suggesting that this is the only way to work. This is witchcraft, and if you’re doing something else, well, you’re not real witches. I’ve heard it said that gay people can’t possibly have magical power because all such power comes from the interplay of gendered polarity. I’ve heard plenty said about trans people that I won’t bother to repeat here, but suffice it to say that much of it is along the same lines.

From experience, no. It just isn’t so. Queer people make extremely good witches and magicians. So do straight people. But, is it really necessary to throw the polarity baby out with the inclusiveness bath water?

Meditating after a Kali invocation some years ago, the following poem came to me:

The Sword

“Teach me, Kali-Ma. What is my purpose?”

“You are a sword.
Swords can cut,
swords can cleave,
swords can divide,
swords can block,
swords can control,
swords can lead,
swords can command.
Yet, swords can never help.”

“If I were not a sword, what might I be?”

“You might be a shield.
Shields can protect,
shields can reflect,
shields can return force as like unto its source.
Yet, shields can never help.”

“You might be a cup,
for cups are the repository of power.
They hold strength and space
 for others, never for themselves.
Cups can never help.”

“You might be a flower,
for flowers carry beauty and truth,
and thus they illuminate the worlds.
Yet, they can never help.”

“Who then, teacher, can truly help?”

“Only thyself, child, only thyself.”

It took me quite a while to start to unpick the meaning, but eventually I realized that it was about polarity, but a kind of polarity that is not bound up in traditional ideas of straight gender roles. In this quadrupolar model, there are swords, shields, cups and flowers. At first sight, swords and shields might be thought of as male, with cups and flowers being female, but this actually doesn’t follow — indeed, making exactly that assumption is why traditional gendered polarity breaks down as a model. A sword is someone who is a warrior-leader. In Qabalistic terms, swords live in Geburah, with the Angel Khamael being the archetypal sword. A shield is a protector — they have the power to declare that, “None shall pass,” though they are not warriors in the usual sense of the word. A cup is someone who holds power, and who empowers others, but who asks little or nothing for themselves. A flower is a true leader, in the sense that they are someone who tends to be followed by others, whether they like it or not. In more familiar terms, a flower might be a bodhisattva — the Buddha himself, possibly.

Most people seem to primarily follow one of these archetypes, but may find themselves drawing upon one or more of the others from time to time. Particularly, someone might be a flower at heart, but they might find themselves called upon to be a sword because circumstances dictate that they must.

Swords, shields, cups and flowers are therefore the poles of this quadrupolar model. We’re more familiar with systems that have two poles — electricity, magnetism, not to mention the limited traditional idea of gender as male and female, but models with more than two poles aren’t precluded by this. Interplay between complimentary poles does hold power, as people who practice gendered magical polarity will attest. I would argue, however, that it is the interplay between poles that is key, not the association of the poles with genders, or indeed the number of poles in the system.

The second thing to take from the poem is that no sword, shield, cup or flower acting alone is likely to be very effective. Swords are powerful but vulnerable. Shields can protect, but lack the agency to effect change. Similarly, cups can empower others, but can’t do much for themselves. Flowers can lead, but what use is a leader with no followers? Put a sword and a shield together and you have a formidable force. Add a cup and this multiplies the effect. Add a flower and the whole group can act together with purpose and conviction.

There is another layer of meaning in the poem, however, and I believe this to be a warning of sorts. It is easy to be inflamed with righteousness and start to believe that because we are completely convinced that we are right and that our actions are necessary we are actually helping. Though the sword/shield/cup/flower idea is tremendously powerful, there is a danger that when the four poles come together that great change can be effected very rapidly.

An it harm none, do as ye will.


Queer of Swords is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson is a queer, trans, 3rd Degree witch and was a co-founder of the Circle of Cerridwen and of the Witches’ Order of the Golden Dawn. She is also a rocket scientist who works at NASA, a musician, filmmaker, ham radio operator and the wife of a vicar.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    We’ll keep saying it until it doesn’t need to be said anymore, anywhere. :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    Thanks for this. I’ve been looking for more inclusive interpretations of the Great Rite. This is helpful…

  • Jay

    Thank you for this. My own coven had a recent kerfluffle about this very issue, and this past Beltane we inaugurated the first (of hopefully many!) Sabbats led by a same-sex pair. I think you have an interesting model here. I never thought of a pair of inter-relating pairs, opting to expand the polarity of the gendered model into the metaphorical (where I think it belonged the entire time anyway).

    Here’s how we chose to bless the wine for the Great Rite:

    As the Athamé is to Light ~ So the Chalice is to Dark

    As the Moon is to the Sun ~ As the Earth is to Starry Heaven

    As Day is to Night ~ As Life is to Death

    As Spirit is to Matter ~ As Mother is to Daughter

    As Father is to Son ~ As Brother is to Sister

    As the Muse is to the Artist ~ As the Healer is to the Body

    As Brush on Canvas ~ As Pen on Paper

    As Man to Woman ~ As Woman to Man

    Man to Man ~ Woman to Woman

    Heart to Heart ~ Spirit to Spirit

    Lover to Beloved

    And when joined

    They truly are One

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      That is very interesting…my concern, though, is that it is still dualistic/binary (even though those aren’t the same thing), since it leaves those of us outside the binary out entirely. We cannot be truly One until we are on the number line somewhere, so to speak.

      • Jay

        It is, but it isn’t. You have to remember that this is coming from a particularly Wiccan cosmological perspective, which sees a creative force erupting from the dynamic interplay between disparate but complementary forces. This is usually conceived of as male and female, or masculine and feminine, but I choose to understand it as anything that is interacting with that which is Other. Note in particular the parts where I mention the Muse and the Artist, the Healer and the Body, the Brush and Canvas, etc. It suggests that with any meeting of forces, one active while the other receptive (though not static in those roles), there is a union, a Creation – the Great Rite. If you and I were to have a meeting of minds, a collaboration on some project, that union would create something and through that creation we would be united as One, if only for that moment. And it would have nothing to do with you or my’s gender identity, but simply to do with the fact that you are you, and I am I.

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          While I see what you’re saying, and I understand that this is particularly Wiccan, I also think that simply re-inscribing dualism by saying “passive and active,” and saying that gender doesn’t matter when two people or things collaborate, etc., still erases the reality of gender diversity and evades taking it seriously.

          • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

            It only does if the two energies in any given pairing are thought to represent everything that is. I don’t have the time to come up with a really good ritual example, but if in a ritual you had X and Y experiencing polarity together, and then X went over to the next ritualist Z and experienced polarity of a different flavor, and then Y and Z experienced polarity together, I don’t think you would have the problem you’re describing. Rather, you have a ritual that’s built around exploring two-ness. You could call that dualism, but if the pairings aren’t static, I don’t think it’s “dualism” in the way we usually mean it in Western thought.

            • http://www.sablearadia.com/ Sable Aradia

              I like to consider things in terms of a Triad; the Goddess, the God, and the Divine Child, who is both and neither of the first two. (I admit, I got that idea from Thelema, which I dabbled with at one point.) The goal is not the duality; the goal is transcendence and unification of the duality. But I am a Wiccan. It’s an area I don’t have a firm opinion about because I’m exploring and expanding. I think there’s a lot of room for spiritual growth there because transcending duality in Wicca (and everything, really,) is very new on a large scale (though of course, there are many exceptions right back into antiquity.) In a way, I think this is the work of the Witch or Magician; to enter the liminal spaces between and ask the questions for which answers may be many-layered and complex.

              • yewtree

                I thought the Divine Child was a Druid thing. Though there is the Child of Light at Yule in some traditions.

                Personally, my third is the Divine Androgyne :)

                Re the dualism thing – yes, if your categories are fluid and changeable, and not always inscribed on the same people, then it is not applying the duality to all that is.

                Person A may be yin in relation to person B, but yang in relation to Person C. And this might vary at different times.

                I prefer ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ to ‘active’ and ‘passive’, personally.

  • yewtree

    Oh very well said. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    There are many different forms of polarity. You could also use the four elements, the triplicities in astrology (mutable, fixed, cardinal), and many others.

    I use athame = lover, cup = beloved. Includes everyone of all genders.

    I also sometimes use the imagery of the lightning and the primordial sea from this article: “Alternate Currents: Revisioning Polarity Or, what’s a nice dyke like you doing in a polarity-based tradition like this?” by Lynna Landstreet
    http://www.wildideas.net/temple/library/altcurrents.html

    I have added your post to my list of resources on sexuality and Paganism at http://pagantheologies.pbworks.com/w/page/13622267/Sexuality

    Thanks again!

    • http://www.sablearadia.com/ Sable Aradia

      I like this a lot. One of the things I tried to deal with in my book was experimenting with different ways of approaching the Great Rite. I suggested a few alternative Great Rite options that transcended the God/Goddess duality. My editors tried repeatedly to simplify a lot of things into male/female gender; I tried to make it clear that these were traditional spiritual metaphoric polarities, and that you should ignore them if they were not part of your practice; hopefully that makes it into the final edit! I don’t think I did enough but space was limited, and I hope to expand on it extensively in future books. I once had the honour of conferring a third degree initiation by Drawing Down the Sun and engaging in Great Rite with a sister-priestess and friend, and I have no doubt of its effectiveness. I will admit, Ares (her god) was a little surprised at first by the “adaptive equipment,” but He made do just fine. ;) Thanks for a thought-provoking and interesting article; reposting to my personal blog!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    This is quite fascinating, Sarah–thank you!


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