Monthly Archives: March 2012

New Deck: Morgan’s Tarot

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I realize I haven’t posted a single reading with the Ancient Italian Tarot on this blog (I only read for others and lack their permission to post here), even though I extended my time with it to two weeks. But it’s still time for a new deck. The random number generatot suggests these:

Another very easy choice: Morgan’s Tarot it is. The other two seem study-intensive, with a focus on something I don’t feel like studying right now. Besides, I’ve wanted to use this deck forever, but never got around to it before. By the way, it’s not a tarot, despite its name, but an 88-card oracle without any apparent structure.

Before I got a copy of the re-issued (and, sadly, partly re-drawn deck), I often ended my day with a single-card draw from the virtual Morgan’s Tarot. I won’t pretend that I always understood the message but I always loved the artwork. For a long time it seemed the deck would be way too hard to get anyway, seeing that it was out of print and all. But in 2009, U.S. Games decided to reprint it. At first, I was disappointed with the new version because it seemed too clean for me. All the writing had been redone, and I wasn’t sure I liked it.

I’m still not sure, but I nevertheless got the deck eventually.

I’m thinking that using it may be a little like using the Discordian Deck, but with more drug references and less of a system behind it. The back design already makes me remember the art I admired (and partly created) during my first years of smoking cannabis products myself. I don’t do that anymore, but I still fondly remember those times. And I sorely miss the creativity that came with them. But that’s another story for another day.

F is for Finding entrances (and avoiding fairies)

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter F, and it’s pretty late. Compared to earlier ones, it’s also rather light-hearted and a bit random.

Judging from my cell phone photography over the last few years (all photos in this blog have been taken by me), it seems I’m a little bit obsessed with entrances into smaller worlds than the one I usually inhabit.

 

Partly that goes back to my childhood (at least as late as ten or twelve years old) where I could get lost in looking at landscapes of moss and roots and twigs and leaves. I remember imagining that tiny people lived there, but I never saw anyone. I also remember imagining that I could shrink down and walk through these worlds. I clearly remember a feeling of being in a kind of “alternate reality,” of not being quite in this world (but also not being quite gone). At the same time, I don’t want to make this sound bigger than it was, in a wrong-headed effort to “prove” my lifetime connection to these things. Looking back, I can’t say how I got there, but I can say it felt like losing myself in the world of a really good book, but without the filter of letters on paper inbetween. I can’t say how often I went onto those mental “trips” but I clearly remember doing it one day in the rough of a golf course of all places (it was a very small golf club, whose fairways were still in the making, so there were plenty of opportunities to just go off into the not-quite-woods).

 

To this day, I keep finding places that look like doors, or like landscapes, for beings smaller than I am (but somewhat human in appearance, in my imagination). To this day, I often imagine I could become small enough to go in there and explore the world from that perspective.

I never really thought about who exactly lives there, though. In my mind, I don’t see images of little child-like figure with transparent wings, or little men with beards, or any other knows species of “little folk” I’ve read about. In fact, I usually roll my eyes at all the glittery fairies that populate so many altars (and websites) of so many other Pagan(ish) people because I tend to find them terribly kitschy and overly cute. And yet, at least a part of me seems pretty sure that some kind of “little people” exists, even if I don’t know how they look like.

Unlike many other people, though, I’m very glad these “little folk” haven’t yet visually appeared for me. For quite some time, one example of “things that would freak me out if they actually happened” was seeing fairies dance in our little garden. And still, I left a little corner in the garden where I let everything grow however it wants to, “for the fairies.” I figure they can play there as long as I’m not looking.

I’m still not sure if this is all just an extended childhood fantasy of a little girl with a big imagination, or if there is more to it. After all, I’m not exactly the only one to feel drawn to openings at tree roots. The idea clearly is around in other people’s minds as well. There are even some tarot and oracle cards that feature doors in trees, for example the World Tree and Hermit from my beloved Greenwood Tarot, the redrawn version of the former from the Wildwood Tarot, or the card titled “Home” from the Enchanted Map Oracle.

And indeed, when I started doing shamanic journeys, I first entered the Lower World through the base of a tree (not the one pictured). During a later journey, I even came across a tree with an actual door, and for once I had the right size to go inside (which turned out to be a very interesting experience). There were also other encounters with doors in tree trunks on other journeys.

So there must be something to this. (As I was titling the images for this post, I also started wondering about the possibility of a linguistic connection between “entrance” and “in trance” or “into trance”…)

And even if it’s nothing but a fascinating idea, I’m still not cured of my desire to walk through a forest of moss or live in a cave beneath a tree’s roots…

New Deck: Ancient Italian Tarot

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After the huge post from earlier today, I’ll make this one very short. Suggestions for next week:

While I’m tempted to play with the Plastic Junk Oracle again, I’ll go with the Ancient Italian Tarot for next week because I have a tarot reading exchange due, and it’s the one deck/oracle I haven’t used before from this list.

OMG, your ethnicity is so cute!

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As I promised earlier, I’ll say a few words about the depiction of race/ethnicity in the Oracle of Shadows and Light. (I promise, there are images further down but I couldn’t find anything suitable for the first part of the post – sorry!)

You see, amongst all the fantastic creatures with names like Nautilus Princess, Angel of Time, Winged Seer or Mildew Fairy the deck also contains the following cards (card name – subtitle):

  • I am Kali – From death comes rebirth
  • Angel de los Muertos – Transitions to the spirit realm
  • Amara the Menehune – Aloha healing
  • Faceless Ghosts and the Haunted Girl – Ghost people
  • Voodoo in Blue – Back off!
  • Pink Lotus Fairy – A time for spirit
  • Fairy of the Highlands – It’s time to be brave

I could have added more cards to the list because there were more that seem to hint at specific cultures (e.g. Strangely Lonely and the Celtic Cross she embraces so tightly, Marie Masquerade and her Marie Antoinette get-up from the time of the French Revolution, or the Dutch Renaissance references in the Lady with a Bosch Egg), but I had to draw the line somewhere. So I picked the most glaring and problematic ones.

Why are they problematic, you ask? We’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s look at who this oracle is aimed at, so we get a better perspective on it. This is from the companion book by Lucy Cavendish.

Bittersweet…Unheard…Unconventional…Rebellious…Cheeky…Whimsical…Invisible…
They’re not words you often hear associated with the spiritual world, are they? Nevertheless, some of the most spiritual beings who have ever lived are those who have been most at odds with what we call the “mainstream.” They do not fit in. […]
So, with this deck, they ask you to step out from the shadows, to no longer hide your light away, and consult with an Oracle that acknowledges your individuality and strange genius! […]
For this oracle is like no other: It is for the lost and lonely, the broken-hearted and the orphans and misfits […].
The messages, images, and realms of this unique oracle overflow with all that is beautiful, quirky, haunting, and shadowy-sweet.
For this oracle embraces those who have long felt they have no home […].

This should appeal to me a lot. After all, I experience daily that I don’t fit in with what is considered normal in the world around me. I’d also love to have my “strange genius” acknowledged and to find a place that feels like home, the kind of home that isn’t available to me in the “mainstream.” But instead of feeling welcome, I feel repelled. No matter how much this booklet claims this deck is all about embracing our shadows, I still feel as if someone poured a barrel of sickly-sweet sirup over me.

But never mind my urge to immediately eat a chunk of strong cheese and a few pickled cucumbers. I shall endure the stickiness of the gooey sugar and proceed to do exactly what the companion book assures me I will be supported in by the beings in this deck: I won’t “be ever so nice,” and I won’t “smile for the sake of it,” and I won’t “pretend [I] feel one way when [I] feel another.”

So, after we have established that the deck is aimed at people who feel they don’t fit in and maybe romanticize being “unusual” a little bit, and after also establishing that I find it odd to tell someone to stop being oh-so-nice all the time and to embrace their shadows in a tone that is nothing but nice (I mean, come on, cheeky is the strongest word you can come up with to describe the delivery of the messages gained from this deck?), we can now move on to my actual point of this post.

To ease us into that part, let’s once again consult the companion book because it offers two entire paragraphs (which I will quote in whole) to tell us about the origins of the card characters.

WHERE ARE THESE BEINGS FROM?

We know of many magickal realms. There is the realm of Faery, of the Dragonfae, of the angels and ascended masters. The partnership we humans have had with the spirits of place and land, with ancestral spectres and wise little witches is ages old. We have always helped each other, until we humans turned away, told too often we ought not to trust these friends. Be assured: we need only ask these beautiful beings from the realms of shadows and light for help and they will give it. Even if it is cheekily delivered, it will always be for the Highest Good of all, and their presence will always support you in your quest for a wonderful life.
To better understand these wise, delightful beings, it is helpful to know where they came from. They have been with us for much longer than many of us think: and they tend to have come through at important, pivotal points in our personal or cultural history.
Some of them are from actual physical Earth locations, like Amara the Menehune, whose energy originates in Hawaii. The being in the card known as I am Kali is Hindu in philosophy, and from the vast empires of the Indian sub-continent. The beings in Faceless Ghosts are Japanese in origin. Others are from worlds between the worlds, and are like the energies and forces of nature herself: The Eclipse Mermaid is cosmic in nature, the Snow Angel is heavenly in origin (but not in attitude!) and others come from the Deep South of the United States of America, and have the most beautiful, courteous old-fashioned manners! The Winged Seer is from in between the worlds, and dwells in a realm where past, present and future have yet to be woven. They are all unusual and unconventional, and highly helpful and loving – even if they do seem a wee bit cheeky at times!

Okay, let me see if I got this right: Hawaii, India, Japan, and the Deep South of the U.S.A. are “realms” that are somehow like the cosmos, heaven, or “between the worlds.” There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between a goddess (Kali), a mythological people (Menehune), a mermaid, or an angel because the one and only thing that matters is that none of them is human. Am I the only one who finds this a little bit random and potentially insulting? (Besides the fact that it all sounds like Doreen Virtue for the emo crowd…)

But let’s take a better look at some of the cards I mentioned (by the way, most of the images  – many of which are self-portraits – apparently have not been painted specifically for this deck – which might explain the awkward patchwork feel of the deck and the not-so-smooth interaction of the cards and the companion book).

Let’s start with I am Kali, because I have the biggest issue with her. If you have looked at the previous posts about this deck, you will have noticed that every single card character is massively cute. While this is perfectly fine with sweet and easy cards like the Candy Cane Angel, it seems really out of place to me with a card that is supposed to depict Kali. In case you don’t know, Kali (“the black one”) is a terrible Hindu goddess associated with death, annihilation, destruction, time and change (I believe we may safely assume this isn’t the gentle change of water that smoothes down stones), although some people also worship her as a mother figure. In images and statues, she generally wears a garland of heads around her neck, and is often depicted in a skirt of arms, too. She often holds up a severed head and a bowl to catch its blood in addition to various weapons and other symbols. Finally, most images of her show her with her tongue sticking out (there are various explanantions for why that is so, with shame over having stepped on her husband Shiva in a furious frenzy being one of them).

Conveniently, nearly all of the more gory aspects of Kali iconography have been left out in this card (the artist calls this “a more subtle approach,” as if the traditional iconography of deities was something we could take or leave as it suited us). The one thing that is left is her skull garland, which is as removed from creepy as it can possibly be (all of the skulls are smiling). Otherwise, she looks exactly like every other girl in any other card of the deck.  But it gets worse. The companion book for the deck has a brief introduction into what is shown on each card, then a passage where the card character speaks herself, and finally a paragraph with divinatory meanings. The pages for Kali say this:

I am clearing all that is leeching off your energy, draining your strength, and abrading those relationships that cannot do anything but keep you stuck. Whether you realise it or not, you called on me, and I have come to clear the path, to destroy that you have longed to let go of.
[…]
Working with Kali is extremely powerful, but it is work we all do, and all must do.

Srsly? Kali has come to take all the bad things away even though I may not even realize I called her? And I don’t have to do any of the ugly work of setting boundaries or changing unhelpful habits myself? While I’m in no way a Kali expert, I’m still pretty sure that’s not quite how “working with Kali” looks. And we must all work with Kali, even if we have nothing to do with the Hindu pantheon in any way, shape, or form? Bwahaha, I’m sure that will go over great with your average Celtic reconstructionist, Kemetic neopagan, or Asatrú!

But let’s look at another quote: “Her necklace of severed heads represents the end of slavery of the over-thinking, over-analytical self who gets stuck when all that is needed is action.” Uh, no, that’s not what it represents. I had a hard time finding a halfway reliable source online, but there were several accounts saying the severed heads or skulls represented the 52 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and thereby the repository of human knowledge and wisdom. Others said it was about the death of the ego and freeing the spirit from the body as a part of spiritual enlightenment. Others yet claimed it was about the inseparableness of life and death. It seems I’ll have to take myself to a good library to settle this issue, but I think we can safely say that the Hindu goddess Kali has very little to do with what is assigned to her here in this oracle. To put it very, very gently.

But let’s move on to the next card, shall we? The Angel de los Muertos, which, according to the artist, was originally painted “in celebration of the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead,” shows “a beautiful angel with a lot of the traditional Dia de los Muertos imagery. Decorated sugar skulls, bright carnations, harvest corn, tropical banana offerings, the flag of Mexico, blankets, all sorts of colours.” The companion book goes on to claim that the jobs of this angel are “to take the fear out of death” and to “gently collect and gather souls to take home, where they will rest a while, before incarnating again.” While I’m certainly no expert in Mexican beliefs surrounding the Día de los Muertos, I’m pretty sure that reincarnation in that sense is not a regular part of them.* I have also never heard about an “angel” like this in this context (and a quick Google search doesn’t bring up anything that would suggest otherwise, not even in Spanish). Which strongly suggests that at least the author of the deck, Lucy Cavendish, really doesn’t have much of a clue about the cultures she has chosen to integrate into her deck. Which then immediately leads to the problem in taking just one aspect of a culture that seems interesting without any regard for its context, aka cultural appropriation (you didn’t think I could do without that term, did you?).

[Not to mention the fact that my hackles raise at the attempts to completely de-scarify death with this image and the accompanying text. While death often does seem to become the less scary the closer you get to it (if reports from my fellow hospice volunteers are any indication), I find it highly irresponsible to tell someone who has lost a loved one that death isn’t scary, or tragic, or even that it doesn’t really exist. This attitude basically negates the reason for feeling grief, rendering grief itself something to do away with as soon as possible. But that’s a topic for another post sometime.]

It’s basically the same with all the other cards, only worse. The text for Amara the Menehune quotes every imaginable stereotype about Hawaii you can imagine. Paradisic warmth, sensuality, relaxation, and holistic medicine (“Aloha healing,” which is a Western construct in itself) abound, as if no one on Hawaii ever felt unsexy, stressed, or sick. The artist calls the Menehune “a Polynesian / Hawaiian type of fairy creature” but, like the author, fails to mention their reputation as exceptionally good builders and craftspeople. Again, as a sole representation of an entire culture, this seems at best superficial and willfully ignorant at worst. Especially since there is at least one folklorist who attributes the appearance of the term Menehune to contact with Europeans, and there are also theories that suggest the Menehune mythology may be based on actual human beings of low status (read the beginning of the Wikipedia article for a bit more on this).

I’ve briefly mentioned the Japanese noppera-bō ghosts from Faceless Ghosts and the Haunted Girl already (you can see an image of the card here). Once again, the actual myth and the meanings assigned to this card seem to be only very distantly related. From what little Wikipedia tells me about these ghosts, they are human-looking (except for their blank faces) and mostly just scare people without doing any actual harm. The companion book, however, speaks at length about people who have no personalities of their own and therefore have to steal away the energy, power, joy, and warmth (and sometimes the ideas and work) from others. This is at best a very clumsy attempt to fit a meaning to an existing image, with the not-so-harmless complete disregard for the culture that is referenced therein.

I’ll just say a very little bit about Voodoo in Blue. The only thing “voodoo” about this card seems to be the doll held by the bat-winged scowling girl. The artist’s website as well as the book mention sticking pins into the doll as a way to cause harm – which shows that neither of them have researched voodoo, vodou, or hoodoo even to the point of glossing over some Wikipedia articles. I just did that, and found out that not only does the Haitian Voodoo religion (aka vodou or vodun) not even have “voodoo dolls,” but New Orleans Voodoo, which is related to the folk magic practices called hoodoo, uses such dolls (or effigies) representing a spirit (not a person) to bring blessings (not harm). Oh, and let’s just hammer home the association of voodoo with something scary and strange again, shall we? (On a side note, I wonder if this is one of the cards where the “beautiful, courteous old-fashioned manners” of the Deep South are depicted…)

Onward to Pink Lotus Fairy, who apparently was inspired by a visit from a person who is into yoga. Of course she is “ethereal” and “very mystically enlightened and at peace.” You know, like these yoga people are (and if they aren’t, they’re probably doin’ it wrong). The companion book once again manages to mash together a crazy mess of references: “It would be very helpful for you to take up yoga, pilates or a physical exercise that has a spiritual practise attached to it […].” Excuse me? Pilates is nothing but a physical fitness system named after its creator of Greek ancestry, Joseph Pilates. While it may indeed be beneficial, there is no trace of spirituality anywhere near it. But it gets even better worse. The part with the “divination message” starts like this.

Spiritual quest, travel, calm, relaxed yoga pose, self-love and self-acceptance. Third eye and crown chakra activation, chakra awakening, connection to all, crown chakra connected to the universe, receiving Universal Love messages, self connected peacefully to the earth, peaceful flowing energy in the body, tranquil, sublime spiritual moments of connection, blessings showering upon you due to correct relationships with body and soul.

Huh? What’s that?! A list of search engine optimization terms for a yoga school? The author’s freewriting about the card image that was accidentally left in the final manuscript? Or is this really meant to be here, and if so, what does it mean? Otherwise, I’m not sure why we are suddenly shown a blond, white fairy when yoga originates in India. I just know that I really can’t bring myself to believe this is an attempt at breaking up the stereotypical depictions of non-Western cultures and ethnicities.

But wait! Western people have ethnicities, too! Enter the Fairy of the Highlands in her red hair and tartan coat. (Admittedly, this is a somewhat different case, since the real-world power relations are a wee bit different than with the other cultures, but it’s a stereotype nonetheless.) The poor thing originally was a commission, and this is supposed to be an actual MacMillan tartan pattern – which the artist has gotten wrong!!! Note that the red lines in the original pattern run over the green background, not the blue one as in the card – and no, this isn’t just artistic freedom (google “MacMillan hunting tartan” if you don’t believe me). And what’s with the association of bravery and the Highlands? Am I the only one thinking of Connor “There can only be one!” MacLeod here? Why else would this frightened girl (she wins the “Hugest Eyes” title) even be associated with being brave?

And just in case my point hasn’t been made clearly enough already: My problem with all of these images is that they take exactly one stereotype from a (usually) non-Western culture and use it completely without context – and embarrassingly often without even having read the damn Wikipedia article, let alone having done any actual research. Longer-time readers of this blog might remember how little tolerance I have for such shoddy practices. So let’s repeat it for everyone: cultures you weren’t born into and apparently know practically nothing about are not part of a huge pool of costumes and accessories to pick from. What isn’t okay when it comes to Halloween (or carnival) costumes, also isn’t okay in your spiritual practice. And don’t tell me you’re “eclectic” because that’s still no excuse for perpetuating the colonialist traditions of (most of) our ancestors in appropriating whatever seems interesting, exotic, or “unusual.” (And be grateful I haven’t added an analysis of all the problematic messages about being female this deck and book contain!)

“But, Cat, isn’t this all a bit too much to expect from a cute little oracle deck that is apparently aimed at misunderstood teenagers of every age? Aren’t we allowed to have some harmless fun?”, I hear you ask. No, it’s not too much to expect. No, it’s not harmless fun. Popular culture is one of the biggest influences on what we think and believe, which is why we should examine it especially closely for all the undercurrents and subtexts and hidden messages it carries while being oh-so-entertaining and thus slipping under our conscious defenses a lot of the time. Cute packaging does not make cultural appropriation and lack of research about the appropriated cultures any less harmful.

And if avoiding racist stereotypes because you think they’re wrong (or at least incomplete) isn’t reason enough to keep you from protesting such imagery and writing, just remember for a minute that the actual, real-life users of this oracle may not all be white/of European descent… How do you think people of Japanese, Indian, Hawaiian/Polynesian, Mexican, or Haitian descent (not to mention people living in Japan, India, Hawaii/Polynesia, Mexico, or Haiti, fully immersed in the respective cultures there) feel when they see yet another tired old stereotypical and (yes, I’ll say it again) racist reference to their culture? And what about that claim that the Oracle of Shadows and Light was for “the lost and lonely, the broken-hearted and the orphans and misfits”? That this oracle “embraces those who have long felt they have no home”? Or doesn’t any of that apply to people of color? And isn’t that a bit ironic when they most likely have a lot more experience not feeling at home and being misfits in mainstream Western culture(s) than all of us white girls?

——–

* = To translate the somewhat biased wording of the article linked above: the survey quoted has found that 78% of the people in Mexiko believe in a higher being. 40% believe in an afterlife, and less than 13% believe in reincarnation. In other words, reincarnation hardly is a mainstream belief in Mexico that would be suitable for the sole representation of anything Mexican in the entire deck. Wikipedia’s article on reincarnation also doesn’t mention Mexico even once. However, a source linked there offers the number of 24% of Americans who believe in reincarnation.

19 March 2012, noon-ish: Minor edits for grammar and spelling mistakes I didn’t notice yesterday.

F is for Female. Feminine. Feminism. Femme. … Fertility?

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the first one for the letter F.

For a long time, I couldn’t even think of a blog-worthy F topic, but today yesterday I suddenly knew what I wanted to talk about. In a way, this is a first part of a future blog post on gender, but since that one is going to be quite substantial anyway, I thought it couldn’t hurt to split it up a bit.

I also need to add a disclaimer before we begin. My very broad generalizations about different pantheons and deities and about all kinds of subcultures here are not meant as accurate, objective reports but as highly subjective descriptions of what I saw and felt and otherwise perceived to exist. So if you experienced something different, that’s probably just as true as what I talk about here. Furthermore, my claims that I didn’t find a deity with certain attributes does not mean that I claim there actually is none. Just that I didn’t come across it.

When I was a kid, I lived in a world where gender wasn’t anything that placed any boundaries on what any of us could do. Sure, we (my sister and two neighbor kids who were also sisters) were girls, but that wasn’t an issue because for the most part there weren’t any boys around, so it became a meaningless category in our daily interactions. I never heard I couldn’t do this or I should do that because I was a girl. I was a person, and I was interested in some things and not so interested in others, and that was that.

This changed when I grew into a very awkward and terribly shy teenager who never seemed to be as much a girl as the rest of them – but without a solid tomboy identity to make up for that. I just landed in “gender-neutral land” somehow, and I wasn’t very happy there – for one, it was a damn lonely place to be! It also was hard to feel good about being different when all I wanted was to be normal like the other girls. But no matter how hard I tried, I mostly remained a “girl failure.” Much of my ideas about being a girl at that age were tied in with being attractive to boys and managing to find someone to “date.” That never happened. The only “Do you want to go out with me? Check [_] yes [_] no [_] maybe” letter I ever got was a joke. I truly didn’t understand the rules of all the little “girls vs. boys” games, and I didn’t even like any boy in particular. No one ever expressed an interest in holding hands with me, let alone kiss me, and so I completely skipped that phase of early romance and “relationship” experimentation that everybody else seemed to go through.

Nina Hagen, early years

When I was 14, I decided I had enough of that. Over a period of a few months, I consciously remade myself from that shy, uncool wannabe-popular girl into a punk(ish) one – one who was outspoken and rebellious, one who didn’t have to be “pretty” anymore (which is not to say that the local punk scene came with its own beauty norms – but they were less emphasized), and one who was valuable as herself and not just by way of being some boy’s girlfriend. What a relief! I finally started liking myself again. I was still somewhat of an outsider, even in the punk/leftist circles I hung out in, but at least I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb anymore. (Eventually I got my first “real” kiss from someone I barely liked at 15, motivated by sheer fed-up-ness with my state of “un-kissed-ness.” After that, I often made out with boys at parties, which was usually nice, and had two major and mostly unrequited crushes, but I never even called someone my boyfriend until I was about 18 or 19 – and even that lasted only a few weeks.) This was also a time of strong emotional bondings with a series of best friends (all of them girls), many of whom seemed to be much more important than any crush or fling I had. My strongest emotional relationships were always with other girls.

Around the same time as my initial make-over, I started reading about anarchism, antifascism, feminism and other radical leftist politics, and I read pretty much everything about these topics I could find (remember, there wasn’t any Internet for us back in the 1980s). Feminism led to some first encounters with witchcraft/paganism as a current form of spirituality/belief/practice as I read feminist perspectives on witch persecutions and folk healers, moon rituals and modern witchcraft. My best friends and I naively romanticized “witches” as strong female rebellious role models. To me, paganism/witchcraft seemed to be a female-ruled world, despite the fact that my best friend’s boyfriend also read tarot (by the way, he was the one who tried to tell me that true happiness was only possible for male/female couples due to the need for gender opposites to come together yin and yang-like). That female-centered world appealed to me, but I didn’t translate that interest into a spiritual practice (beyond drawing pentagrams onto my spiral notepads at school as a graphic shorthand for “rebellious, cool, misunderstood WOMAN who will kick your ass if you disrespect her”).

For a while, I still flirted with some aspects of feminism that now seem at least vaguely spiritual to me. However, soon after the newness of menstruation had worn off (I started bleeding rather late, at around 15), I stopped believing this was something “magical” and “mystical” that connected me to all the women on the planet, and all the women of history and our fabulous ability to bear children. I just didn’t feel particularly powerful during that time of the month, and I also didn’t I suffer horribly, so my actual menstruation was mildly annoying at worst and a complete non-issue at best. And I certainly didn’t feel delighted about my potential fertility when I started having sex with boys! On the contrary: by then I didn’t even think I wanted children at some later point in life anymore.

Fast forward a few years to my early twenties when I came out as a lesbian (my first but not my last coming-out). As a consequence of that, I encountered feminist spirituality again (again, mostly in theory), if only as something that was “around” in the lesbian-feminist subculture I was in touch with. In this world, spiritual or not, women were better than men on principle, inherently peaceful and more connected to nature, etc. (and lesbians were also better than straight women because we didn’t “sleep with the enemy”). For a while, that was a great thing to believe in, because it made being female and lesbian into something cool and even superior, especially as a counterpoint to the countless occurences of sexism and homophobia in my life. It was great to have a space where women could do everything they wanted (unless “men” and “the patriarchy” violently kept us from doing so) and where women’s strengths and capabilities were not only acknowledged but even celebrated. Or, rather, some of our capabilities were.

I quickly realized that a quick mind and a sharp tongue didn’t win me many friends among my fellow feminists if I used it to criticize them. More than once I was accused of “being dominating” in conversations, which always carried a subtext of “you behave like a man!” (which of course was a very harsh insult for the kind of feminists we were back then). I even left a feminist magazine collective due to my unwillingness to stop believing (and pointing out) that sometimes(!) there is a whole lot of power in claiming to be a poor victim in need of being saved and protected. And don’t even mention my re-awakened desire to spend time with some select men who really, honestly didn’t seem like sexist assholes and potential rapists to me. Given all of that, it seemed pretty clear pretty soon that I wasn’t quite getting with the program of female superiority and ever-peaceful sisterhood.

My sex life was mostly non-existent during that time. I kept having unrequited crushes on the least feminine women I could find, but somehow the sisterlyness of it all (not to mention the seemingly inevitable connection of sex and abuse) didn’t spark my desire much. Needless to say, the issue of fertility or motherhood was now even further from my mind than it was when I still occasionally slept with men. Even though I thought for a while that pregnancy and giving birth seemed like a fascinating thing to experience physically (if only you didn’t end up with a baby to deal with), it was pretty clear I’d never use that potential ability of my female body to bring a new human being into this world.

Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in "Bound" (1996)

Fast forward again, to my mid-20s when another coming-out of mine took place: I started identifying as a (lesbian) femme, at first somewhat embarrassedly, but quickly with a lot of defiant pride. I had finally seen the error of my ways: I didn’t want to be one of those tough, sporty women with short-cropped hair and men’s clothes – I just wanted them! And I wanted to wear skirts and/or make-up and/or nail-polish with my big boots and big mouth while I did so. I wanted to be the “girl” to their “boy.” So I embarked on a dedicated mission to rediscover, reclaim, reconstruct, and celebrate many aspects of femininity for myself – this time as a conscious choice instead of the default-by-way-of-genitalia. As every glance at the butch objects of my desire affirmed, our gender expressions were in no way an automatic result of anatomy. Gender became something flexible, something we were able to change in subtle or drastic ways, depending on our needs and wants. I was finally free to explore femininity as something detached from heterosexuality and sexism. Femininity stopped being something I couldn’t achieve no matter how hard I tried, and it stopped being something that made me into a (potential) victim. Instead, it became something that made me strong on many levels. I could finally prove that I, too, could be pretty – even beautiful – if I wanted to. I could feel and be desirable to the ones I desired in return, not in spite of being who I was but because of it. Suddenly, it was easy and pleasurable, and that included sex. Doing my femininity for someone who didn’t take it for granted just because I was female made a world of difference. Finally, gender polarities made sense to me and became something that felt good to me because I had a choice about them (the polarities never again became binaries, though, because I saw so much gender variance around me that any idea of stuffing all of that back into only two boxes seemed both ridiculous and cruel). It was a glorious adventure for many years.

Eventually, in my early 30s, I slowly became interested in spirituality again. I read lots of stuff, mostly from the neo-pagan corners of the Western world. And, inevitably, I came across gender duality again. Goddess and God. Or even, goddesses and gods. Sometimes a singular Goddess. But there were no “femme” deities or any kind of queer, femme role model of pagan spirituality that I could find. I looked for suitable female deities first. But the ones I found (I looked mostly at the Greek and Roman pantheons, but also at the little bits I knew about the Hindu, Norse, or Egyptian ones) all seemed to be about being some god’s wife and the mother of several children – unless they were some kind of monstrous, scary killer or something. Anything else they did seemed secondary to their relationships in the way they were described in the mythology I read.

That made it hard for me to identify with any of them. I didn’t see my gender and relationships and way of life mirrored in the relationships within the various pantheons I read about. I couldn’t relate to all the family business – not because my experience in my family of origin had been so terrible, but because my life was simply structured around completely different ideas of living together and taking care of each other (the theoretically interested amongst my readers may find Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam’s article What’s that Smell? Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives an interesting source for a few more thoughts on this, especially the first page of the online version). Reproduction and physical fertility just weren’t defining issues in my life. Not having a child isn’t a one-time choice that then changes your life irrevocably (as opposed to having one). It’s not even an issue I think about anymore, unless someone asks me if I want to have children sometime, or assures me that my “biological clock” will start ticking soon (yeah, right…), or otherwise let me know that being a woman at a fertile age who doesn’t even want a baby is somehow monstrous in its own right.

Which also made it difficult to impossible to identify with the Maiden/Mother/Crone idea that seems to ubiquituos in much of Paganism, especially anything Wicca-influenced. At 30+ and after , I really was no maiden anymore, no matter how drawn out my youth had been in some ways (again, see Halberstam’s article linked above). I was no mother and had no intentions of becoming one – my physical fertility seemed basically wasted in me. I also didn’t identify with the Mother archetype on a less literal level: I’d been creating things and taking care of them all my life, and it seemed absurd to me to restrict this aspect to a certain age/phase. And I wasn’t old or experienced enough to be a Crone, although I liked the idea of finally becoming free of all that fertility-associated stuff after menopause. That seemed a time where women could become people in their own right again (because, interestingly, the Crone never read as “grandmother” to me).

And the monsters? The Harpies, the bad witches and evil fairy stepmothers, Medusa, the sirens, banshees, or female vampires? Well, I flirted with the idea of monstrous femininity quite a bit because it seemed a good way to get away from cultural ideas that “women are the peaceful gender” and “women can’t be dangerous.” It also worked well as something that tied me back to punk, where femaleness also sometimes found “monstrous” expressions. Feminine monsters broke the rules. They were destructive, dangerous, and usually pretty strong. But they also often got killed off at some point or another. And despite my tendency to embrace my own monstrosity and destructiveness, I didn’t really feel drawn to all the death and doom these mythological creatures seemed to embody. I was a terribly optimist, after all.

So, next in my search, I turned to Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities, to see if a queer author had anything useful to offer to me. But I only ended up pissed off beyond belief because it seemed that the only role available to someone like me was that of Babalon, the sacred whore and consort to intersex/transgender Baphomet. If that’s what floats your boat as a femme, fine (really!), but it didn’t float mine. By then, I was sick and tired of being reduced to being “sexy” and “supportive” to my butch and transgender partners and friends – often sadly by them as well. And on top of that, Kaldera went and even claimed Aphrodite as intersex/transgender because there is a story where she has a beard. Great. Now every single way of being non-conventionally female (not to mention crossing gender boundaries) suddenly got ripped out of my femme hands and taken over to “trans*/intersex land.” I was furious. Wasn’t there a single goddamn female goddess who existed outside of a heteronormative paradigm that was left for me?! As a consequence, I stopped even looking at deity-related stuff for a long time. (Note: I realize that Kaldera didn’t even intend to address female femmes unless they were also transwomen. It still hurt to be excluded from his world, because he seemed to be able to include just about anyone else on the queer spectrum. And even if all this is just selective reading/memory which would be proven as incomplete by a rereading of the book, my emotions back then were still as real as they get.)

For a while, I did fine with the shamanic/animistic idea of Animal and Plant Spirits, for and with whom gender didn’t seem to be so much of an issue. But even in the shamanic worldviews I encountered, there were Mother Earth and Father Sky, and a female Moon and a male Sun (which still don’t sit right with me, even if that’s only due to the fact that in my native language German the moon is grammatically male and the sun is female). The Universe was still pretty heterosexually organized, even if some Native American cultures I heard about didn’t seem to assign gender based on anatomy but based on the social role that was taken up.

But even those concepts didn’t seem to include me. I don’t see myself as taking up “the” male role socially, nor am I taking up “the” female one. Both of the roles, in whatever society, always seem limiting to me, and my own interests, behavior, and feelings never fit into any of the given options. Not even if a change of social gender is one of them. Because I don’t feel “male” one day and “female” the next. I don’t perceive myself to be changing my gender that much. I look female for all intents and purposes, but I don’t quite feel that way. I mostly do my femmeness as extremely low-femininity these days, at least in terms of looks. My behavior, however, often seems to be relatively “masculine” if the reactions of people at work are any indication. Still, I am worlds away from being butch or even androgynous. I may put on nail polish one day, sew myself a new skirt, and maybe even cook dinner, but that doesn’t make me feel more “female” than I do on a day where I put on a pair of old jeans, paint a wall, and eat the dinner my partner has cooked. To me, this is all still “femme,” even if only for lack of a better term. (Nope, “human” won’t do because gender isn’t irrelevant to me.) Sometimes it seems I have come full circle to gender-neutrality, especially since my femme gender is massively tied to my desire, and there hasn’t been much desire for anything lately. Oh, and did I mention my queer and third-gender-identified transgender butch partner who has been shapeshifting himself for about 1.5 years now? Which doesn’t make finding a Pagan tradition – or non-tradition – that has room for both of us in all our incarnations any easier.

Also, my desire to find even a single goddess with whom I felt a connection that didn’t immediately bring up a string of reservations never quite went away. The only deity that somehow stuck with me a bit was Kali. While she seemed to be heterosexual as well, that didn’t seem to define her so much. I felt drawn to her destructive aspect, the literal blood and bones. She didn’t seem to care about being pretty for anyone but was fierce and strong instead. And she was still unarguably female. After a while, I could even start to accept her mother aspect. Not that I even dared to try getting in touch with her, mind you. There were too many issues of cultural appropriation, my ignorance about and lack of connection with Hinduism, and plain old caution involved for me to feel ready to go any deeper than looking up some basic information on the Internet and print out one or two pictures of her. She may or may not have been the being I encountered on one of my early shamanic journeys, but that was a one-time occurrence (I haven’t tried meeting that being again, though). So I sort of admire her from afar, trying to make up my mind about how to proceed from here. And, of course, she’s also firmly located in “monster” territory…

As a consequence of all of this mess, I still have a hard time seeing myself practice any deity-centered spirituality. I can’t quite relate to any pantheon, because the pantheons I’ve glimpsed at look too much like a world that holds little similarity to the one I inhabit (and I seem to believe that humans and the deities they believe in are and should be much alike in many respects). Sure, “official” lore may not hold all the realities of what deities did and do, but it is a powerful narrative and it’s hard to come across anything else at all.

I’m having much of the same problems even with non-deity-centered Pagan worldviews. Doing a fertility ritual for the Earth by way of simulating or having heterosexual intercourse seems utterly alien and absurd to me (ask Anne Fausto-Sterling or any other biologist worth their salt about the ridiculousness of thinking about natural gender in male/female terms only).There has to be another way to acknowledge and celebrate cycles of growth and death, and the return of spring. Alas, I haven’t found it yet…

Well, I could go on, but I think I made my points for today. (Besides, I have to leave some aspects of the topic for my post on gender in one of the G weeks, right?)

So, does anyone have any suggestions for a Pagan(ish) spiritual worldview that has room for non-reproduction-centered concepts of femaleness and femininity? For understandings of gender that aren’t limited to men, women, and the ones that change from one into the other socially? I’d be extremely interested to hear about all that I may have missed in my own explorations so far!