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Relationships • Sex

Rethinking Gender

Despite a good deal of public celebration of open-mindedness and tolerance, it remains for many of us essential to try to identify with a single gender only and to lay decisive claim to one and solely one kind of sexual orientation. 

As a result, there can be great discomfort around thoughts that seem to stray across the so-called normal boundaries we have imposed on ourselves. We may spend considerable amounts of energy pushing away impulses that don’t, as we see it, belong within our understanding of the words male or female. We may worry a lot that, though we are ostensibly one sort of person, we seem to detect in ourselves occasional interest in something quite different – and, as we deem it, worryingly atypical. A mind that might have explored itself freely and without terror starts to get blocked; creativity declines; rigidity sets in.

At such moments, it may be helpful to remember that throughout history, numerous deities around the world have been publicly associated with, and venerated for, their combination of male and female elements. In Hinduism, Ardhanarishvara fuses both the fierce, powerful traits of the god Shiva and the nurturing, compassionate nature of the goddess Parvati. Traditionally represented with female characteristics on the left hand side of their body and male ones on the left, Ardhanarishvara urges believers to identify divinity with a co-existence of genders. Similarly, for the Ancient Greeks, the deity Hermaphroditus was said to have been born from the union of the messenger god Hermes and the goddess of love Aphrodite, and was venerated for – and repeatedly beautifully rendered in sculpture with – a combination of male and female sexual organs. In Ancient Egypt, Hapi, the god of the Nile, who was deemed to control the annual flooding that brought fertility and prosperity to the whole country, had female breasts and a male torso, synthesising masculine and feminine energies that were believed to be at play in the the sacred river’s nurturing as well as formidable power. In the West African Vodun tradition followed by the Fon people of Benin, Togo, and parts of Nigeria and Ghana, the deity Mawu-Lisa transcends conventional gender roles, and weaves together contrasting energies of the male (Lisa) and female (Mawu) principles. Mawu, the nurturing moon goddess, associated with fertility and motherhood is fused with Lisa, the dynamic sun god, representing strength and authority. Together, Mawu-Lisa forms a divine partnership, symbolising the necessary harmony and balance of masculine and feminine energies in the cosmos.

Photograph of a 2nd century Greek statue of Hermaphroditus, with both male and female characteristics.
                 Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Roman copy of Greek Original, 2nd century A.D.
Statue of Indian deity, shown with both male and female characteristics
Ardhanarishvara relief, Elephanta Caves near Mumbai, 5th-8th centuries A.D.

At one level, these deities belong within their specific cultures’ intricate belief systems. At another, they are – as it were – parts of all of us. They are whispering, across time and space, about human nature more generally. And what they might in essence be saying is: it’s acceptable, very acceptable, to combine complexity, to be both one thing and another, to hold opposites in balance and to embrace things that might ordinarily be held to be incompatible. 

Outward life, in many places and eras, continues to demand forbidding levels of conformity. The life of the spirit revealed in the less trammeled imaginings of religions and mythologies, points us in more diverse directions.

We may have frightened ourselves too early – and at too great a cost. There are elements of us that don’t neatly follow certain of the still dominant rules and that we should bear to explore more calmly and kindly. We are all, in our own ways, with no sacrilegious or supernatural intent, as multifaceted and as divine as Ardhanarishvara and Hermaphroditus, Hapi and Mawu-Lisa.

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