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Dealing with Dualism

Copyright 1990 by Lynna Landstreet.
Originally appeared in The Wiccan Candle, Midsummer, 1990.

Midsummer seems like a good time to be thinking about the dualism that is a central part of most Wiccan traditions, including this one. Many Wiccans, especially those whose first contact with the Craft was with the Wiccan Church of Canada (WCC), tend to simply take the emphasis on dualism in our tradition for granted, but in fact there is a wide range of opinion and practise surrounding dualism among different Craft traditions.

The extreme opposite point of view from ours is that of some Dianic traditions who feel that any form of dualism is wrong, and inevitably leads to oppression. Many other Craft traditions fall somewhere in the middle, either worshipping both the Goddess and the God but focussing more on the Goddess, or dedicating a ritual to whatever deity(s) they find appropriate, without paying much attention to whether it's a God, a Goddess, or both.

On the other hand, there are a few traditions which place much more stress on dualism than we do, such as some hardcore Gardnerians who claim that "the curse of the Goddess" will fall on anyone who teaches a student of the same sex, and would never tolerate a men's or women's mysteries group in their midst, let alone a gay or lesbian group.

In order to make some kind of sense of all this, we have to take a look at what dualism really is: a philosophy that sees the world in terms of polarities, or opposites. There are two major ways that this can function.

The one we see the most of in our culture is the dualism inherent in Christianity and other monotheistic religions, which could best be described as a hostile or combative dualism, in which the world is divided into two opposing principles, which are eternally locked in combat for dominance. Mythologically, these are represented by God and the Devil.

The other form of dualism, the one basic to Wicca as well as some Eastern religions, is a holistic, or complementary, dualism, in which the two principles complement rather than oppose each other, both being necessary for balance. Mythologically, these are generally represented (in Wicca, at least) by the God and the Goddess.

I think that the rejection of dualism by Dianics is based on a (well-founded) fear of the destruction caused by the prevalence of hostile dualism in Western culture. The origins of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred, religious persecution and holy wars, the exploitation and destruction of nature, and many other things can be traced to that mentality.

However, they fail to make a distinction between hostile and holistic dualism, assuming that the latter is only a milder version of, or would inevitably lead to, the former. And in doing so, they cut themselves off from a very rich source of energy and imagery. This isn't to imply that I think dualism is absolutely necessary for effective magic or worship, as some do -- just that rejecting it is limiting your ritual options unnecessarily.

Working in single-sex groups doesn't have to preclude working with polarity. Even aside from the option of using God and Goddess imagery in a single-sex group, there are other mythic images of balanced dualism. In Goddess mythology, there are pairs such as Isis and Nephthys, Sekhmet and Hathor, Inanna and Erishkegal, or Demeter and Persephone, which represent other forms of polarity. On the male side, there are pairs such as Osiris and Set, Apollo and Dionysus, the Oak King and Holly King, or the Young Lord and the Dark Lord. Polarity can also be acknowledged metaphysically, without reference to deity images.

As for those traditions which embrace dualism to the point of rejecting single-sex groups entirely, forbidding teaching students of the same sex, and excluding gays and lesbians from the Craft, they are (in my view, anyway) guilty of exactly what the antidualists are afraid of: mixing holistic dualism with hostile dualism. Holistic dualism, by its emphasis on the two principles being necessary for the creation of life, implies that life, by definition, partakes of both principles.

While paired God and Goddess imagery may be one excellent symbol for complementary dualism, and having a priest and priestess represent the two principles is one effective way of using this symbol in ritual, rigidly limiting people's roles and activities according to their physical sex, laying down strict "Thou-Shalt-Nots" about people's personal sex lives, and calling down divine curses on anyone who deviates from one's own idea of the One-True-Right-And-Only-Way are not the methods of holistic dualism. They are symptoms of the same mentality responsible the Crusades and the Inquisition. Essentially, what these traditions are doing is using the methods of hostile dualism with the motive of holistic dualism -- a combination which I personally find unappealing in the extreme.

I like to think that the Odyssian tradition (that's us) has, for the most part, found a pretty good balance when it comes to dealing with dualism. We use it effectively in ritual without letting it limit our lives. Our open rituals and most of our student groups' rituals are based around God-Goddess polarity, but a women's group and a men's group are available to those who want them, and there have at various points been specifically gay and lesbian groups as well.

However, we're not perfect. (Is anybody?) During the nine years [sixteen now] that I've been involved with the WCC, I've noticed a few things about the way dualism is practised here that alienate some people, and, in a tradition that's trying to improve the accessibility of the Craft by holding open circles and doing public education, anything that alienates some people from our community needs attention. Now, obviously, no one group can be all things to all people, and inevitably there will be some who decide our way isn't for them, but I think that when relatively minor points of ritual have a major impact on people's perception of our tradition and whether they can fit into it, we should at least attempt to examine the problem areas to see if they can be changed.

The two things that seem to put off the largest number of people, as far as I've noticed, are having people line up in male-female order, and the standard wine blessing.

As far as the first, I've heard it said that energy flows best between men and women, but since there's currently no objective way of measuring the flow of magical energy (except by the success of the working), this is a pretty subjective statement. I've seen excellent results from magic performed by all-women groups and by individuals working solitary. In my experience, energy flows best between people who like and feel comfortable with each other, and to this end it would more sense to let people line up in whatever order comes naturally to them.

As for the wine blessing, I think it's important to remember that no piece of Wiccan ritual is carved in stone. It's our very flexibility and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances that makes Wicca a more vibrant and living religion that most of the traditional churches, and if a particular piece of ritual is causing problems for some people, it should be reevaluated.

The "hot spots" can be pretty well narrowed down to the beginning and end of the blessing. "The male holds the power..." section has the disadvantage of being vague as to whether it refers to the male and female principles in the abstract, or physical maleness and femaleness. Obviously, any advanced student of the Craft knows the intent of the piece, but it can be off-putting in the extreme to newcomers, particularly to women coming out of male-dominated churches who may be particularly sensitive to anything that seems to smack of patriarchy.

The ending, "there is no greater power in all the world than that of a man and a woman joined in the bonds of love," is another trouble spot. Although, as it was pointed out to me by a member of the priesthood a long time ago, it doesn't say that there's no power equal, it's still a line that alienates a lot of people for whom heterosexual love is not a part of their lives. As I've said before, the image of the God and Goddess pair is an perfectly fine symbol for holistic dualism, but persistently linking that imagery to physical heterosexual love in ritual, while it may be effective and moving for heterosexuals, poses the risk of alienating gay and lesbian Wiccans. We need to ask ourselves whether that line is integral enough to the blessing to be worth the risk of alienating many people who might otherwise have ended up being active members of the community, or even priesthood.

There are alternatives. At last year's [1989] Wic-Can Fest, when Jamie and Lori did the wine blessing, they ended it simply with "there is no greater power in all the world," and that seemed to work fine. In the Blue Star tradition, the wine blessing ends with "no greater power... than that of love." At the gay and lesbian ritual Jamie and I did at this year's [1990] Fest, we used an alternative blessing which I had written for the occasion, based on the standard Odyssian blessing but altering the beginning and end. After the ritual, I had people from several different cities asking for copies of it, so it seems to have gone over pretty well.

By pointing out what I perceive to be problems in the Odyssian tradition's use of dualism, I'm not trying to trash the tradition or offend anybody. As I've said, I think overall we've struck a pretty good balance, and I still think this tradition is the best one around, despite its flaws. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here. But I think that even the best can get better, and I've seen too many good people scared off who might have stayed in the community if a few minor things had been handled differently. As I see it, my commitment to this tradition and this church requires me to try and help better it in any way possible, and this article is part of that effort.

For more of my views on polarity, see Alternate Currents.


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