By Aurelon (Cauldrons and broomsticks; Beltain 2, 1997)
Of all the holidays in the Wheel of the Year, Beltane is perhaps the most widely associated with fertility. Ancient European pagans celebrated this time of flowing sap and budding stem by dancing around the phallic May Pole planted in the receptive Earth, symbolizing the union of God and Goddess, Earth and Sky. We are told that one by one, these celebrants then escaped to the fields to make love with each other under the stars, personally experiencing the sacred pleasure of the Great Rite as Priestess and Priest were joined.
Yet this prevailing image is incomplete. Historically, same-sex love has also played a significant role in magickal traditions, and they continue to do so today. For example, Medieval religious groups such as the Bogomils, Cathars, Free Spirits, and the Knights Templar were frequently charged with heresy for the inclusion of Pagan deities and homosexuality in their ceremonies. Joan of Arc was famous for her transvestitism and ecstatic visions of divinity; her personal bodyguard, Gilles de Rais, was widely reputed to be gay. Arthur Evans writes of this time, "Homosexuality and Witchcraft became so closely associated that the two were often linked together in popular tracts on the subject."
The Shamanic traditions of Native Americans frequently included a role for the berdache, a male shaman who took on the role of a priestess in the tribe. Today, examples of homosexual magickal traditions include certain Dianic covens, and the Radical Faerie movement. Therefore, before automatically assuming a heterosexual model for one's spirituality, it is important for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Pagans to consider other options and to choose a personal mythology that does not conflict with their own nature and life experience.
The heart of this issue lies in one's definition of polarity and gender roles. Many traditions in the Craft teach that polarity is like a battery, whose energy is generated by the interplay between a woman and a man in ritual. It is a manifestation of the old adage that opposites attract, and is considered an essential part of raising magickal power. Gerald Gardner wrote, "To form this battery of wills, male and female intelligences are needed in couples." The Farrars more recently wrote, "We have even had one or two homosexual members during our coven's history, when they have been prepared and able to assume the role of their actual gender while in a Wiccan context.".
But there is evidence that achieving effective polarity can be attributed less to the physical anatomy of the two people involved than it is to the tug and pull between what are called "male" and "female" energies. These energies have commonly been labeled with genders based on the archetypal behaviors, traits, and roles of women and men in our society. The works of Carl Jung go far in exploring these archetypes. They can also be found reflected in the Tarot as the Empress and Emperor, and astrologically in the symbols for Venus and Mars.
Some covens require that during an initiation, the postulant must always be initiated by a member of the opposite sex. Some also require that people in Circle are situated in an alternating male-female pattern. While there are many who find value in these traditional practices, one of the dynamic aspects of the Craft is in challenging the assumptions of patriarchal gender roles, to define for ourselves what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. Cannot a woman be strong or analytical? Cannot a man be gentle or creative?
When the gender polarity theory is compared to empirical experience with real men and women, one finds that individual people (regardless of their gender or sexual orientation) have a complex array of traits that give their energies both "male" and "female" aspects. We all have both God and Goddess within us.
Consider the Taoist symbols of Yin and Yang, each containing the essence of its opposite. This concept is also reflected in the Tarot, in both the Chariot and the Lovers. It is represented astrologically in the symbol of Mercury, a combination of the female symbol of Venus with the horns of the God aspect. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that one of the god Mercury's other forms is Hermes Trismegestis, patron of magick.
The key, therefore, to achieving effective magickal polarity between two people is to find someone whose energies are a complement to one's own, a person who balances both one's "male" and "female" energies together. For many Pagans who live according to well-established heterosexual gender roles, this usually can be achieved easily by pairing a woman and a man together. And this solution is also a possibility for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered pagans as well. However there is a danger in assuming that this is the only possibility: the danger of perhaps limiting the effectiveness of one's magickal work. There is no guarantee that a partner will work well with you, simply because they happen to be of the opposite gender. Granted, an expanded model of polarity is more complicated than one which just pairs up men and women, but the sacred world is rich with complexity. Indeed, it is the exploration of that complexity that many Pagans find so intriguing about their religion. It is important to note that this same expanded model of polarity can be applied to solitary Pagans as well. Solitaries can discover polar energies within themselves; the balance between one's intellect and emotion, for example.
But what role can symbols of same-sex love play in a holiday celebrating fertility? Should modern Pagans continue the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote in 1252 CE that God created genitalia for no purpose other than reproduction? This statement was later used to support the Inquisition's slaughter of hundreds of homosexual women and men charged with Witchcraft in the Burning Times. It is thought that the derogatory term "faggot" (applied to both men and women in the Middle Ages) was derived from the habit of burning homosexuals at the stake using bundles of wood, or fagots. This term itself was derived from the Greek word for tree, phagos, particularly the sacred oak or beech. Thus, a symbol of fertility and the Old Religion itself, the raw material of the May Pole, was turned into a word of derision. This outlook, in turn, laid the groundwork for centuries of hidden and secretive lives, not only for the sake of religion, but for the sake of love. In fact, it was because of this era that love between members of the same sex later became known as the love that dared not speak its name.
As an alternative to the example above, let us heed the Charge of the Goddess, in which She says, "All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals." Reproduction is not the only expression of love or pleasure, nor the only form of fertility. Certainly not all Pagans celebrate Beltane with the goal of conceiving a child. The magickal energy that is raised during ritual more often gives life to the seeds of thought and intent which are brought into existence through force of will. Beltane is a time to breathe new passion into one's life, to thrill again at the growth of the natural world, mirroring the growth of the world within.
For those Pagans who experience same-sex love, or for those who go into ritual with them, it is important to carefully choose the symbols, myths, and deities involved so that they may truly reflect the diversity naturally inherent in us all. For example, if the Chalice and the Athame can be used to represent the union of the archetypal "female" and "male" energies, what can be inferred from the Priestess tasting the sweet wine of the Chalice, or the Priest kissing the Athame in salute? Consciously recognizing the energies in such actions is one way Pagans, regardless of sexual orientation, can honor and work with the archetypal energies of their own gender. What would happen if the Goddess were drawn down into the Priest, or the God into the Priestess? Or both God and Goddess into the same person? People who have experienced this, heterosexual and otherwise, claim to have found a new perspective on their own personal balance.
And so this Beltane, like countless May Days that have gone before, Priestesses and Priests will find Perfect Love and Perfect Trust in each other's arms. And next to them, as they lie in fields under the stars, the God and the Goddess will also manifest in those who share a love that once again dares to speak its name.
- Evans, Arthur,
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture
Fag Rag Books; Boston, 1978
- Gardner, Gerald B.,
Magickal Childe Publishing; New York, 1954
- Farrar, Janet & Stewart,
The Witches' Way,
Magickal Childe Publishing; New York, 1991
- Nat'l Museum & Archive of Lesbian & Gay History,
The Gay Almanac, Philip Lief Group, 1996
- Evans, Arthur,
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture,Fag Rag Books; Boston, 1978