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Alternate Currents: Revisioning Polarity

Or, what's a nice dyke like you doing
in a polarity-based tradition like this?

Copyright 1993 by Lynna Landstreet. Originally appeared in The Blade & Chalice, Spring 1993. Slightly revised in 1999.

Working on the third and final issue of The Blade & Chalice, with its theme of "Sexuality & Polarity", was interesting for me, because I've been wrestling with those questions ever since my first contact with organized paganism in 1981, when I discovered the Wiccan Church of Canada (WCC). Prior to that, it had never been a concern for me, because gender issues don't enter into solitary work much, and the few books I'd read at that time tended not to be particularly polarity-heavy. So it came as a bit of a shock to me to find out exactly how much importance was placed on these things by others in the Craft. The founders of the WCC came originally from a predominantly Gardnerian background, although they were eventually to found their own tradition, known as Odyssean.

I sometimes wonder whether, if the first books I'd read been those of, say, Janet and Stewart Farrar rather than Sybil Leek and Starhawk, I would have been as strongly drawn to the Craft as I was. Because, as central as polarity is to Wiccan theology in many people's view, the things that initially drew me to the Craft had nothing to do with it, and by the time I did run into it, it seemed like an alien concept that had little or nothing to do with Wicca as I had experienced it.

Matters were complicated further by the fact that I was at that time just beginning to deal with questions of sexuality in my own life, as I gradually began to face up to the fact that perhaps it wasn't exactly normal for an 18-year-old female to have no interest whatsoever in the opposite sex, and that maybe, just maybe, my same-sex friendships were a little more emotionally intense than average, and that possibly there was something worth exploring there. It wasn't until a year and a half later that I was able to summon up the nerve to come out as a lesbian, but even in those early, "undecided" days, I had an inkling that this new concept of polarity was something that was going to give me headaches.

There were a few gays and lesbians around the WCC even then, but they tended to be fairly quiet for the most part. There were also a handful of very vocal homophobes, one of whom happened to have a crush on me and had decided it was his sacred duty to rescue me from my sexual uncertainties and introduce me to the wonderful world of heterosexual bliss, whether I wanted to be rescued or not. In fact, the individual in question was about the worst advertisement for heterosexuality imaginable, and having to constantly fend him off probably did more to accelerate my coming out than a Dianic Great Rite in a circle full of skyclad Winona Ryder clones ever could have.

Now, most of the actual priesthood of the WCC didn't have any problem with gays and lesbians, and some were very supportive. But there were still things about the Church's practice that I found alienating, most notably the wine blessing used at the majority of public rituals, a variant of the "Great-Rite-in-token" as it's sometimes called, ending with the words "As the athame is to the male, so the chalice is to the female... For there is no greater power in all the world than that of a man and a woman, joined in the bonds of love." While WCC high priestess Tamarra James pointed out when I asked her about it that the last line "doesn't say there's no power equal," it still provided ammunition for the 'phobes. "That's an athamé they stick in the chalice, not a tongue, dear," was one comment I heard from my would-be suitor. [1]

The discontinuity I felt between my own theology and ritual practice and that which I encountered in the WCC eventually led me to drop out of the group in the mid-80s and explore other pagan paths. I had some contact with various Dianics and self-described "radical pagans". But while I found these groups' politics and worldview more in line with my own, there seemed to be something missing. The rituals often felt chaotic and unfocused, and I missed the feeling of being grounded in an existing tradition, with experienced elders one could look to for guidance and assistance. On a spiritual level, it seemed, I just didn't click with the sort of left-wing eclectic Wicca that my politics inclined me towards, or with separatist Dianism. Somehow, the WCC was starting to look a lot better to me by comparison. So, a couple of years after my departure, I returned to Sistrum, the WCC's women's group. No open circles, I promised myself, no mixed student groups, just Sistrum, where the all-women environment meant that polarity questions weren't really an issue.

At first I was very happy. I'd always loved Sistrum, and to be exposed once again to strong, focused, powerful rituals led by someone who actually knew what she was doing was sheer bliss. However, as time went on, I wanted more. Before I left, I had been studying with a teacher, with a view toward eventually becoming an initiate, and I was feeling a strong urge to pursue serious study of the Craft again. But that was going to mean having to face down the polarity question once and for all. You can't be an initiate of a polarity-heavy tradition without ever having to deal with polarity, and if this was the path I was going to pursue, I was going to have to find a way of working with it that I was comfortable with, and that was going to have to be a way that wasn't reliant on physical gender or sexuality.

I had never had a problem with polarity in a metaphysical sense. My extremely eclectic religious upbringing (I did, after all, grow up in the 60s) had included a large measure of Taoism, and I had always found the yin-yang duality very evocative. I didn't really have a problem with seeing the blade and chalice as a Western equivalent to the image of the Tao. I liked having black and white pillar candles on my altar. There was something about that particular variety of polarity that appealed to me, in fact. It spoke of balance, of integration, of wholeness, and stood out in contrast to the hostile dualism that characterizes Christian theology and much of Western thought, in which wherever there is a pair of opposites, they are seen as locked in conflict, with one perceived as good and the other as evil.

I wondered, in fact, whether the lack of any concept of polarity had been one of the things that I'd found unsatisfying in my encounters with the Dianics and the radical pagans; whether, lacking any concept of integrative dualism, they had relapsed into the hostile duality of the dominant society and the corresponding simplistic worldview demonizing men on the one hand and anyone who wasn't a radical pagan on the other. I still wasn't comfortable with the gender-based notion of polarity common to the WCC and most "British Traditional" Wicca, but I was starting to feel that there was perhaps a middle ground, and that working with the WCC was a way to push myself into discovering it.

When I attended an open circle for the first time in several years, I was delighted to find there had been changes in my absence. Most of the people I had had trouble with before were gone, and there was a new generation of gays and lesbians who were much more open. In fact, anyone coming to open circles now with a homophobic attitude tended to find themselves having to either adjust their mindset or leave. Working in a student group that included several gay men, I found that doing ritual with a male priest wasn't as arduous as I'd feared, and eventually, in June, 1990, I was initiated as a priestess.

My feeling at present is that the much-vaunted homophobia of traditional Wicca is, while not entirely a myth, certainly nowhere near as great as many people think. It's certainly out there, but I really don't think that at this point in time it's that widespread. However, most use of polarity in ritual is still of the standard boy-girl variety, and gay and lesbian Wiccans -- as well as others who prefer working in same-sex groups, and solitary practitioners -- have a unique challenge to face in trying to find alternate ways of dealing with the concept.

One work I've found quite thought-provoking on metaphysical polarity is Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point. Capra, a physicist, analyzes the Yin-Yang duality in preparation for a discussion of quantum physics and the fundamentally dual nature of matter:

The Chinese philosophers saw reality, whose ultimate essence they called Tao, as a process of continual flow and change. In their view, all phenomena we observe participate in this process and are thus intrinsically dynamic...

In the Chinese view, all manifestations of the Tao are generated by the dynamic interplay of these two archetypal poles (yin and yang), which are associated with many images of opposites taken from nature and from social life. It is important, and very difficult for us Westerners, to understand that these opposites do not belong to different categories, but are extreme poles of a single whole. Nothing is only yin or only yang. All natural phenomena are manifestations of a continuous oscillation between the two poles, all transitions taking place gradually and in unbroken progression. The natural order is one of dynamic balance between yin and yang. [2]

Capra cautions not only against imposing Western concepts of good and evil onto the yin-yang polarity, but also against linking them too closely to physiological maleness and femaleness:

From the earliest times of Chinese culture, yin was associated with the feminine and yang with the masculine. This ancient association is extremely difficult to assess today because of its reinterpretation and distortion in subsequent patriarchal eras. In human biology, masculine and feminine characteristics are not neatly separated, but occur, in varying proportions, in both sexes. Similarly, the Chinese ancients believed that all people, whether men or women, go through yin and yang phases. The personality of each man and each woman is not a static entity, but a dynamic phenomenon resulting from the interplay between masculine and feminine elements. [3]

Of course, Chinese yin-yang polarity is by no means exactly the same as Wiccan God-Goddess polarity. Yin and yang are abstract concepts, poles of power, not deities. But if we look at the gods and goddesses of mythology, we will find that they are by no means solely masculine or feminine in their attributes, either, but participate in the same interplay of opposites that creates human individuality. Goddesses like Athena, Sekhmet and the Morrigan have many qualities we would think of as masculine, while Gods like Dionysus, Ptah and Frey have some distinctly feminine traits. One of the key paradoxes of Wiccan theology is the difference between metaphysical God and Goddess as pure, archetypal masculine and feminine, and the direct, personal gods and goddesses we deal with in ritual, who have individual personalities as complex as those of any human, if not more so.

Among those individual deities we find many different dynamics, many different instances where two deities beautifully mirror balanced opposites, be it Artemis and Apollo as moon and sun, Thoth and Maat as logic and intuitive wisdom, or Hades and Persephone as death and rebirth. However, the diversity of individual deities means that not all of the balanced pairs are male-female. Surely one of the most evocative and most widely discussed mythic pairings is that of the bright, rational, solar Apollo and the dark, ecstatic, chthonic Dionysus.

Another I've found very powerful is that of the Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Sekhmet, who in the Pyramid Texts are depicted as two facets of the same Goddess, though historically they originated in completely different areas of Egypt. Hathor is the cow-headed goddess of love, joy and laughter, crowned with the moon, whom the Greeks likened to Aphrodite, and in her older aspect is the primal Mother. The lion-headed Sekhmet, on the other hand, personified the destructive aspect of the sun, and was the often harsh enforcer of divine justice. Together, they personify many polarities: light and dark, moon and sun, mercy and severity, birth and death.

In the Adonis myth, Aphrodite and Persephone form a life/death polarity as the lovers of the beautiful youth who dies and is reborn each year. In another dying-god myth, the Sumerian sister goddesses Inanna and Erishkegal form a similar symbolic pairing. And of course, Wiccan tradition itself has the Holly and Oak Kings, or the dark and bright Lords who between them spin the wheel of the year.

There are few specifically gay or lesbian pairings in mythology, and those that there are are usually between a deity and a mortal. Almost all the ones I'm aware of come from Greek mythology: Zeus and Ganymede, Apollo and Hyacinth, Artemis and Callisto, and I seem to recall both Pan and Dionysus taking male lovers from time to time, in addition to the latter's penchant for transvestism. The only non-Greek example I can think of is the Sumerian Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who are sometimes portrayed as friends and sometimes as lovers. Of course, the task is complicated by the fact that much of the mythology we have comes down to us via Christian sources, who may have written out those elements they considered morally unacceptable.

There are many other same-sex pairs that embody evocative polarities, who may be called on by those who want the dynamic of polarity without the heterosexual imagery. Most of them are not portrayed as lovers, but is that essential? I think not. While the traditional image of the God and Goddess as lovers works very well in asserting the complementarity of their duality, I don't think this is the only way. The important thing, theologically, is not the sex lives of the Gods, but the symbolic meanings of Their mythic natures.

For that matter, there many opposite-sex pairs who are not lovers, who are very suitable to those who don't mind working with deities of both genders, but dislike the implication that the polarity of male and female must always be a sexual relationship. Apollo and Artemis, whom I mentioned above, are brother and sister, and for healing work, the father-daughter pair Asculepius and Iaso are very appropriate. Isis and the child Horus are just one of the many mother-son pairs in mythology that made it comparatively easy for the early Christian church to introduce the image of the newborn Christ child in Mary's arms.

The concept of desexualized male-female polarity is one that's quite applicable in ritual as well. There's no reason that a gay man or lesbian can't work comfortably with a priest/ess of the opposite sex, provided they have similar understandings of the energy flows involved. There is a potential problem with a mixed gay and straight working couple, though, in that heterosexuals are accustomed to experiencing polarity work on a sexual level that gays and lesbians generally aren't, and unless the couple are very used to working together, the heterosexual partner may be reaching for contact on a level that isn't there in the other, thus creating an imbalance.

I'm not really sure if, apart from this, gays and lesbians really have a categorically different type of energy than heterosexuals do. Certainly some cultures have believed we do; the presence of gay and lesbian shamans among some of the Native American nations is well known. In fact, the term homosexuals are known by in some Native cultures is "two-spirited people," from the belief that we have both a male and female spirit within us.

My own experience in working with gay priests, particularly those who also work with exclusively gay male groups, has been that they seem to act almost as accumulators of male energy, storing it like batteries, and since I work a great deal with Sistrum and with solo Goddess-focused ritual, I have a corresponding intensity on the female side. A wine blessing between myself and a gay priest feels almost like a meeting of two nations; while it may lack the sexual connection of a heterosexual couple, the "lighter" contact is more than made up for by the intensity of focus on either side.Obviously, two gay priests or two lesbian priestesses can draw on the sexual dynamic in the same way that a heterosexual working couple can, even if they're not sexually involved, though how well they manifest the two poles of energy will depend on the individuals involved. For a while, I was running a lesbian coven called Sapphire, and it seemed appropriate in that context to work with another priestess, rather than one priestess leading ritual alone as is usual with Sistrum. The focus in Sapphire, after all, was not women-apart-from-men, but women-with-women. We experimented with various approaches to female-female polarity there, from Bright Goddess-Dark Goddess to actually using the standard God-Goddess pair, but with a priestess who was very good at manifesting "male" energy representing the God. Sapphire didn't last too long, but I learned a great deal working with that group -- not the least of which was getting a small taste of what standard-polarity ritual must be like for heterosexuals.

My experiences with Sapphire also got me thinking about several other things. One of them was the fact that, apart from our choosing a different style of working ritual, the group didn't really feel that different from Sistrum. This seemed to be a major contrast to everything I'd heard from my gay male friends about the differences between gay men's groups and the mixed-orientation-but-predominantly-het men's groups that have sprung up from time to time in the community (usually because of men trying to figure out something to do while their girlfriends were at Sistrum).

I've heard the theory that, on average, women tend to fall closer to the middle of the Kinsey scale while men are concentrated more at the two ends; in other words, that women tend to be inherently more bisexual, whereas with men the gulf between gay and straight is much wider. If true, this would tend to explain why the magical energy of gay vs. straight men's groups would be of such a different nature, while that of women's groups might remain more constant. It certainly would fit with the fact that even the most heterosexual women tend to be quite physically at ease with each other, lacking the inhibitions about expressing affection that are found so often among straight men.

The other thing that my experiences with Sapphire started me thinking about was the idea that perhaps all sexuality is based on polarity to some extent. Simply because two individuals have the same genital configuration doesn't mean there aren't going to be many other differences of body, mind and spirit between them. And so often, it seems to be the differences more than the similarities that make sexual encounters and relationships interesting.

In the name of fostering equality, the feminist movement has instead eroticized sameness, and made acknowledging differences between women politically suspect. Heterosexuality is looked down by many orthodox feminists upon because it is based on differences, which to them makes it inherently unequal. Lesbianism was seen as the great equalizer, particularly during the 70s. But the bland sisterhood of the 70s proved unsatisfying to many women, and during the 80s, there were many challenges to feminist sexual dogmas -- many of which, interestingly enough, involved reclaiming our differences.

The butch-femme role-playing which had been widespread in prefeminist lesbian communities reasserted itself with a vengeance, and over the last 20 years has gone from unspeakable taboo to radical chic to simply another sexual/romantic option, condemned by only the most dogmatic 70s-style feminists. [4] A more contentious sexual polarity that has arisen in the lesbian community alongside it is that of sadomasochism. And while it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea, the dominant-submissive poles of S/M are very interesting from a magical point of view, though because they mirror some of the attributes associated with the yin-yang duality: passive/active, aggressive/responsive -- even the occult maxim "as above, so below" is manifested in the terms most commonly used for S/M sex roles: "top" and "bottom." S/M practitioners also understand the essential complementarity and interchangeability of the two power poles:

It is an oversimplification to talk about the erotic exchange as though it only flowed one way. Each side has many levels of apparent and actual power. In sexual S/M the exchange is mutual, with both sides giving and receiving erotic intensity. For example, the trust and openness of the bottom is a constant turn-on to the top, even though it's the bottom who's being had. The power and erotic exchange always flows full circle. [5]

Gay men have never been afraid of differences. The prevalence of S/M, gender play, and the eroticization of class, race and age differences have led many lesbians to condemn gay men as politically benighted while secretly envying them their freedom and lack of sexual inhibitions. I think that the upsurge of interest in S/M and butch-femme role-playing has been a way for lesbians to re-own our differences, and to begin exploring sexual polarities in a way that's completely independent of physical gender. And as such, these things deserve an unbiased examination by lesbian Wiccans, and anyone else who's interested in new and different approaches to polarity.

But ultimately, for me at least, polarity transcends sexuality completely. Sex can be a manifestation of it, but it is not inherently based on sex, or even on deity in an anthropomorphic sense. If I had to choose one image that most embodied, for me, the primal act of creation I see embodied in the wine blessing, it would be the following, from the "Evolutionary Remembering" in John Seed's Thinking Like A Mountain:

The third planet from the sun, our own earth, came into being about 4.5 million years ago.

The ground then was rock and crystal, beneath which burned tremendous fires. Heavier matter like iron sank to the centre, while the lighter elements floated to the surface, forming a granite crust. Continuous volcanic activity brought up a rich supply of minerals, and lifted up chains of mountains.

Then, about 4 billion years ago, when the temperature fell below the boiling point of water, it began to rain. Hot rain slowly dissolved the rocks upon which it fell and the seas became a thin salty soup containing the basic ingredients necessary for life.

Finally, a bolt of lightning fertilized this molecular soup and an adventure into biology began. The first cell was born. You were there. I was there. For every cell in our bodies is descended in an unbroken chain from that event.

Through this cell, our common ancestor, we are related to every plant and animal on the Earth. [6]

That, to me, is the true Great Rite, of which all other enactments, sexual or not, are merely symbolic. That moment of lightning striking the primeval sea to create the first living organism is what I see when the athamé touches the wine.

All Craft sexual symbolism is at its deepest level merely that: symbolism. The athamé does not represent a penis, nor the chalice a vagina; they represent forces of nature which can also be represented by those organs -- but don't necessarily have to be. There are many polarities embodied between any two deities, between any two individals, within nature and within each one of us at every level, right down to the very cells of our bodies.

The closing words of the Charge, it seems to me, have never been more appropriate:

If that which thou seekest, thou findest not within thee, then thou shalt never find it without thee, for behold, I have been with thee from the beginning and I am that which is attained at the end of desire. [7]


  1. When I told Tamarra about that comment, she said that she'd have to have a special little tongue-shaped athamé made just for him. [Return to text]
  2. Capra, Fritjof, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster 1982, p. 35. [Return to text]
  3. Capra, Fritjof, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster 1982, p. 35. [Return to text]
  4. For more information on butch-femme dynamics in the lesbian community, see The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992). [Return to text]
  5. Juicy Lucy, "If I Ask You to Tie Me Up, Will You Still Want to Love Me?" in Samois, Coming To Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1981). For more information on S/M that includes some explicitly pagan perspectives, see Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics & Practise, edited by Mark Thompson (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991). This excellent anthology includes contributions from practitioners of all genders and orientations. [Return to text]
  6. Seed, John, with Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess. Thinking Like A Mountain: Towards A Council Of All Beings. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1988, pp. 46-47. [Return to text]
  7. "The Charge of the Goddess," Wiccan traditional, reprinted in Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches' Way: Principles, Rituals and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft, (Custer, WA: Phoenix, 1984), and in various other places. [Return to text]


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