This piece is a response to the recent article posted by the esteemed Scarlet Magdalene, titled “The Toxicity of Objectifying Women In the Craft and Other Occult Trads.” I read it a few times, and there are some points that resonate and I can get behind. There are other assumptions that I simply reject. When engaging in a dialogue, it’s useful to start on common ground. I concur with the assertion that the Maiden, Mother, Crone motif is ultimately limiting. I wrote about this in my book, The Priestess and the Pen (Llewellyn, 2014.)
“The main problem with the concept is that it begins by glorifying the biological functions of reproduction and aging as the key determinants that provide meaning in a woman’s life, namely youth, fecundity, and sterility….the main idea starts from an assumption of sexual dimorphism that is ageist, as there are cultural expectations of a woman’s actions assigned to each of these three states. Unsurprisingly, these ideas of acceptable behavior include stereotypes of sexual behavior and taboo that echo assumptions of the dominant narrative. This is fine if one’s experience corresponds with the pattern, but it becomes problematical when it does not. The labels no longer apply and can become misleading.” (Sadovsky, 159.)
I absolutely agree with the idea that we need a new language to describe an authentic, embodied experience of what it means to be a sacred woman. One that is reflective of our actual experience, that resonates with us. We need to define ourselves. I further agree that consent needs to be intentional and vocalized, not inferred or assumed. These are all solid statements, and fuel for a discussion that needs to happen. However, I reject the assumptions made in the rest of the article, both explicit and implied.
Explicitly, the author states that concepts of the Scarlet Woman, Babalon, “hypersexuality”, non-monogamy, and “objectification” are toxic holdovers from the dominant culture and that women who support these are just regurgitating and internalizing the sexism in our society. She asserts that women who find power and renewal from these motifs are somehow shutting other ladies out of the dialogue, and what is implied here is that this is either malicious or mindless. The implication is that women who participate in systems that utilize gender polarity are brainwashed servants of our Masters in the Temple, Coven, Camp, etc.
I emphatically reject this entire line of thought. We have agency. It is insulting to hear this, and ultimately hypocritical when posited in a piece which calls for inclusion of all female voices. Women in the Western Mystery Traditions have ultimate authority to worship as we please. These motifs and archetypes have gained such endurance and staying power because women find them liberating. If that does not work for you then so be it, but it is another thing to propose one’s personal opinion as the primary motivation for so many Sisters in the Art to do what they will. So in the spirit of discourse I will offer my opinion on these matters.
What do the Virgin and the Whore have in common? Self-determination. Each uses her body, her vessel as she chooses. Her sexuality is is hers to indulge in or abstain from as she wills. It is completely valid to own one’s “No.” It is not valid to deny or Other women who have found their “Yes.” This is what liberation means, to own one’s choices and tolerate the reality that other rational people will come to different conclusions and act accordingly. To claim that women who consent and enjoy using their bodies as Altars or in any other manner they so desire denies them the agency of choice.
If we truly believe that we are free to do as we will, then it is simply unethical to expect other folks to change their behaviors and reject the symbols that feed them to satisfy one’s own discomfort. There is power in transgression and breaking taboo. This is why these exact terms and rituals were created almost a hundred years ago, by women as well as men. To buck the paradigm that states that the only acceptable expression of female sexuality is lawful reproduction or abstention. To protest the cycle of commodification of sexuality that states that the nuclear family is the only model of sanctified (meaning productive) unit of society. The Sacred Harlot is designed to be an uncomfortable energy. It is meant to break your brain.
To state that women are oppressed by Western Mystery Tradition is the most uneducated and asinine thing I have read all week. (I know its only Tuesday. We will see where this goes.) People need to hit the books and read our history. Madame Blavatsky created the Theosophical Society. Her books were so popular that the only one that beat her in worldwide distribution was the Bible. The Golden Dawn (from it’s inception) is absolutely an egalitarian organization, and currently, three of the four Great Chiefs of the Order are women. Rose Kelly was the one who channeled the Book of the Law, Crowley was the one who transcribed it. The O.T.O. would not function without women at the helm. Traditional Wicca is also dependent on women being key organizers and Initiators.
Any group is open to manipulation and nonsense, but is this because of the “patriarchy” or is this because people are human and fall into bad patterns? Everyone is entitled to their own opinions formed from their experience, but I have seen just as many women bring their own insecurities and agendas into these organizations as much as men. We need to own our own limitations, our own darkness in order to transmute it and grow. Sometimes the cause of our discomfort is not external, but internal. Sometimes the cause is external, and that particular group or Lodge or Coven is just fucked. We have to own that too, and we are empowered to vote with our feet and take anyone who wants to come along with us. We are also empowered to call out injustice when we see it, to name it, and to claim it. This is healthy, and so necessary to weed out the charlatans. None of these are perfect systems but they are worth improving. We need to have honest boundaries and honor them. All voices are necessary and can find expression. It starts with inclusion, not exclusion.
Shocking right? Would you believe that my own Initiator is queerer than a 3-dollar bill? One of my students is too. “Strickly dickly” as the kids say. Even though our initiations are often cross-gendered, I have encountered all the flavors of the rainbow in my wanderings through the Western Mystery Traditions. Why is that? It’s not because we are all oppressed and marching in lock step to some antiquated notion of proper behavior. It’s not because we are all here with the agenda to get our collective parts wet (though that can be a bonus between consenting parties.)
The simple truth is that Mystery is not dependent on our parts, it is dependent on our energies. It is about blending different frequencies into a harmonious container, to direct that energy where we will. Gender Magick is about using the tension that arises from the interplay of different hormones to direct our consciousness into different dimensions. If you would like a really good example of this concept, I highly recommend reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. In my opinion, this is also why we have such a large and welcomed portion of Transfolk among us as well. They are living proof of the power of Gender Magick, and are here to teach us some lessons around these concerns.
To state that women who engage in Gender Magick are promoting a vision of the Goddess as ultimately passive, receptive, an empty container to be filled is not consistent with my experience. At least not the ones I hang out with. I can’t speak to the personalities that others have encountered, but I do know that none of my friends view themselves or their various Deities in this manner. This is also historically inaccurate, again, read the copious amount of essays and dissertations authored by women in the Western Mystery Tradition. Can anyone really read Dion Fortune’s Moon Magic and claim she was advocating that a women’s proper place is under a man?
I am reminded of a conversation in that book in which the male protagonist asserts that “Possession is a strong instinct with some men. It’s their notion of love.” To which the priestess replies, “It is a false notion. No one can possess another without destroying them. That is why marriages are such makeshifts. The one is only partly satisfied, the other half is destroyed. The far-voyaging soul must be free, coming and going in its own sphere. Let us learn to love as those love who are free from the Wheel of Birth and Death.” (Moon Magic 233-234).
It is also rather sexist to assume that all combinations of phallus and various orifices are inherently power-over, power-under. That is simply not factual. The disturbing part of the current conversation, again in my opinion, is the wholesale rejection of both traditional and non-traditional consensual relationships as somehow damaging or regressive. Human sexuality classified as hypersexuality. Again, women are proclaiming that the only safe expression of sexuality is non-sexuality? No looking. No flirting. No taboo. I can tell you that this sounds like a whole lot of no fun.
How is this progress? How is this any different than the dominant culture that seeks to shame us for sexual expression? It’s not. While it is completely valid to choose celibacy and there are Deities that also abstain, there are many Gods that fuck. There is no shame in making tribal connections and alliances through consensual sex and related activities. In the Celtic lore, Macha didn’t make treaties with those kings to create an army. She bound them with sex. You don’t have to like it, but you cannot ignore that sexuality is holy and ours to use as we please. We are empowered. This is the message of the Scarlet Woman, and of those of us who choose to honor her.
Break the Wheel:
We need to have more conversations around these topics, and I absolutely support everyone chiming in on these matters. However, I feel strongly that there comes a point in time when people need less talk and more do. Personally, I think it sounds ludicrous to criticize a Beltaine festival for focusing on themes of fertility and sexuality, but everyone is entitled to say whatever they please on the internet. We absolutely should have more explication of the Mystery of abstention, particularly in our consumption driven society.
So create it. Lead by example instead of tearing down your allies that walk in different ways, and trying to reinvent the wheel. Break the Wheel. Make a new one and if it has merit and feeds people, they will come. I would be very interested to see what develops and fully support more explication of the Mysteries. Every ally is welcome to take a crack at it, and we are on the same team.
In the meantime, my wild Sisters and I will use and refine the tools that our spiritual mothers have developed. We will continue to Break the Wheel in our own fashion. We will pollute our minds and do all of the things. We will dance naked and unashamed. You may avert your gaze if this offends you. Io Babalon!
The Priestess and the Pen: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Dion Fortune, and Diana Paxson’s Influence on Modern Paganism by Sonja Sadovsky (2014)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
Moon Magic: Being the Memoirs of a Mistress of that Art by Dion Fortune (1956)