The landscape of gender

My preferred metaphor for gender is a scatterplot (not a spectrum). If one’s assigned gender is at point (a,b) but one’s actual gender is at point (q,r) then one needs to change to match one’s actual gender. If one’s actual gender is at point (c,d) it’s quite near one’s assigned gender, so the person is cisgender.

If we model gender as a spectrum, it suggests that male and female are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and supports the gender binary, hence positioning genderqueer, nonbinary, and gender fluid people somewhere on that spectrum, whereas they might be outside it. A line is a one-dimensional model. We have more dimensions available to us than that.

Perhaps we could reimagine gender as a landscape. The mountains of the Fierce Femmes. Little Cisgender on the Wold. The village of Enby. The river of Genderfluid. Much Genderqueer in the Marsh. The valley of the Otters, near Bear Forest.

Continue reading


Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.


The Brewery of the Gods!

It is well known from the lore that the gods actually have a brewery, not a bakery.

It’s true that Iðunn’s golden apples keep the Aesir ever-young… but on Mount Olympos, the tipple of choice is nectar and ambrosia. The devas of Hindu mythology drink Amrita, a related substance.

There is no shortage of alcohol in mythology:

Norse mythology tells of Aegir, the ale brewer of the gods, who held a big party for honored guests every winter. The party was held inside a great hall whose floor was littered with glittering gold, providing enough light that no fires were necessary for illumination.  The special beer for the event was brewed in a giant cauldron given to him by Thor and served in magical cups that refilled as soon as they were empty. He even had a couple of loyal servants who distributed food and otherwise cared for the guests’ needs. The shindig was the highlight of the social season and all the gods attended. However, like so many off-campus college parties, alcohol and animosity could sometimes spoil a perfectly good evening.

In Greek mythology, Bacchus was the god of wine; in Roman mythology, Dionysos had that role.


Hellenistic mosaics discovered in 1962 close to the city of Paphos depicting Dionysos, god of wine. – Photo by Georgeg, Public Domain.

There was also the time when Oðinn stole the mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir from under the mountain where it had been hidden by Suttung.

Alcohol was clearly important and sacred to our ancestors. It’s a shame that we merely abuse it, instead of using it in a sacred manner (like other drugs that ought to be used as a sacrament).

By unforth -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Taplow drinking horns. Photo by, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The brewing of alcohol seems rather magical – taking some ingredients that are not intoxicating, mixing them together, leaving them to ferment, and thereby producing a drink that can transform your perceptions – if used carefully and sparingly.

It’s quite exciting to put fruit, sugar, water, and yeast in a demijohn and watch it blooping and bubbling away as it ferments. There’s nothing quite like the taste of home-made wine, especially if you gathered the ingredients yourself from the hedgerows. It’s like alchemy!

And interestingly, both alcohol and alchemy are derived from Arabic words

Alcohol in ritual

Many people maintain that alcohol is sacred because it has yeast in it and has been fermented, which makes it alive somehow.

If you have some form of alcoholic sacrament at the end of your ritual (cakes and wine if you’re Wiccan, or a sharing of mead if you’re a Heathen), there may be some people who are recovering alcoholics who cannot partake. Maybe you could share some other fermented drink, like drinkable yoghurt? (Personally I don’t think this is cultural appropriation unless you steal the ritual that goes with it. YMMV.) Other solutions to this that have been suggested are having a non-alcoholic alternative (but some people prefer the symbolism of everyone drinking from the same cup / horn / chalice).


Wine (Pixabay, CC0, Public Domain)

Alcohol as metaphor

(everything up to this point has been blessedly free of any metaphorical subtext – but if you’re fed up with metaphors, you can skip this section)

Alcohol is sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of alcohol available. Some people prefer mead; others prefer wine, or cider, or beer, or lager. Some people say “I don’t like beer”, but do not realise the huge variety of beers that are available. Some people call alcoholic drinks by different names – cider in the UK, hard cider in the US; ale, beer, lager, porter, stout… If you ask me what my favourite drink is, I’d have to say, all of the above, depending on the day and my mood.

Religion is also sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of religion available. Some people prefer Heathenry; others prefer Wicca, or Druidry, or eclectic Paganism, or Asatru. Some people say “I don’t like religion” but don’t realise the huge variety of religious experiences that are available. And some people call religious experiences by different names – polytheism, hard polytheism, relational polytheism, devotional polytheism, pantheism, mysticism, and so on. Some people, when presented with a list of theological perspectives, will say, “all of the above, depending on the context, the day, and my mood”.

Always read the ingredients list

As this excellent post by Bekah Evie Bel, Polytheism Isn’t Yours, points out, you could just ask people what they mean by the label they are using, instead of assuming that they mean the same by it as you do, and then being disappointed when it turns out that they don’t.

So if someone shares their surface with you and they say, “I am a polytheist” try not to make any assumptions.  Ask for clarification if you are interested by this surface, move on if you aren’t interested.  Clarification (usually expanded labels) will tell you how much deeper you want to go.  But if you don’t ask for clarification, if you don’t seek to go even a bit below the surface then it’s not that persons fault if you make a stupid assumption.

Just like you read the list of ingredients on food and drink to make sure there’s nothing that you’re allergic to.

Thing is, it’s in the nature of language that people will use words to mean something slightly different, or even wildly different – so labels should be used as a way to start a conversation, not as a substitute for a conversation.

This post was inspired by a comment by Bekah Evie Bel on my previous post which mentioned (hard) cider. The metaphorical aspect of it is entirely my fault.

Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine

Metaphors for religion are tricky things, especially when we try to stretch them and make them work too hard by trying to turn them into analogies. One very popular metaphor for explaining religious diversity is the idea that we are all walking different paths up the same mountain. However, many people are coming to believe (myself included) that we are in fact all walking up different mountains.

I had noted down the title of this post, and not got into writing it yet, when I saw that John Halstead has written an excellent post entitled which also suggests that we are in fact all walking up different mountains.

Moraine Lake, Rocky Mountains

Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada.
Mountains from left to right: Tonsa (3057 m), Mount Perren (3051 m), Mount Allen (3310 m), Mount Tuzo (3246 m), Deltaform Mountain (3424 m), Neptuak Mountain (3233 m). Photo by Gorgo.

The title of my post is inspired by the saying in the kink community, “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK” – in other words, diversity is acknowledged and celebrated.

I wonder if we actually each have our very own mountain – not just a different mountain for each tradition and religion and denomination, but personal mountains. Maybe our mountains are on the same mountain range, or on the same continent; maybe they are on different continents. And of course continents move around as the tectonic plates shift; new mountain ranges are created, new continents formed. The Pagan continent (like the mythical Atlantis) was submerged for a while, but now it has re-emerged, and we can explore it again, with its polytheist mountain range, its monist mountain range, its pantheist mountain range, and other geological formations. The Pagan continent also has magic portals or bridges to the Quaker realm, the Unitarian Universalist realm, the Taoist realm, the Buddhist realm, the Hindu realm, etc, or maybe whole regions of CUUPs people and Quaker Pagans, and Jewitches. Of course, being a Pagan sacred landscape, there are no centres, or centres everywhere, and no periphery (unless you want a bit of liminality). And there’s nothing to stop you exploring the other continents, or even settling for a while on one of them, as long as the inhabitants are friendly.

Indeed, who’s to say we are all climbing up mountains? Maybe some of us are exploring lush valleys, hanging out in the forest, taking a dip in the ocean, building a beautiful eco-village, or whatever takes your fancy. You can define your own journey, you can walk (or run or hop whilst whistling Dixie) on a predefined path, or discover your own bit of the lush Pagan continent. There is room for all. If I choose to decorate my sacred landcape with shrines to Oðinn, Ishtar, Shiva, and Shakti, and P Sufenas Virius Lupus chooses to decorate eir bit of landscape with shrines to Antinous, and someone else decorates theirs with shrines to the NeoPlatonic Divine Source, that’s all good.

And if you don’t like this metaphor for Pagan religions, it’s only a metaphor, so pick another one, or invent your own.

A while back, I wrote a meditation on religions as trees in a forest, which also emphasises the diversity of religious responses to the world:

The trees and the forest, by Yvonne Aburrow

As we sit in the quiet of the evening, breathing softly, each with our own particular concerns, let us be aware of our common humanity. Each of us has our own hidden wellspring of joy, our own experience of sorrow, our unique perspective on deities and their relationship with the world.

Let us celebrate the diversity of dreams and visions.

Think of the trees in the woods: each grows into its individual shape to fit its particular place and the events that have shaped its growth, but each is recognisable as one of a species: oak, birch, holly, maple, yew, beech, hawthorn.

Religions are like that too: each has its own unique characteristics, shaped by place, culture and history; but all of them have their roots in the fertile soil of human experience, and all seek the living waters of divinity.

Let us honour the beauty and diversity of religions in the world, whilst loving and cherishing our own particular visions and traditions, recognising that we too are rooted in our common humanity, all seeking the nourishment of the endless outpouring of love and wisdom that we call by many names, all of them holy.

Metaphors can kill

In a ground-breaking book called Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson pointed out the underlying metaphors used in many figures of speech. For example, the underlying metaphor “Argument is War” has us talking about winning an argument, wiping the floor with our opponents, and so on. Imagine how different arguments might be if the underlying metaphor was “Argument is Dance”. Another example they give is “A Relationship is a Ship”, where we talk about marriages foundering, being on the rocks, and breaking up.

Similarly, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Myth as Metaphor and as Religion, Joseph Campbell explored some of the bodily metaphors underlying religious symbolism and mythology.

Metaphors are a very powerful thing. They can dictate how we we see the world, and therefore how we behave. They can constrain our expectations of what will happen, and how it will happen. The metaphorical connotations of an idea shape and limit what can be said about it.

In a comment on an earlier post, C Brachyrhynchos wrote:

Many of those metaphors involve a fair bit of projection of human cultural ideas onto things that are distinctly non-human and incomprehensible, or even human diversity. Take for example the idea of masculine and feminine as broadly applicable metaphors. That metaphor breaks as applied to many human beings who don’t experience gender that way, much less fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species.

And that’s not even touching the equally complex realms of the non-biological, formal, or philosophical. To say that being is Being is one thing. To say that it’s *a person* with likes and dislikes, prophetic speech, children (mortal or immortal), and a relationship is another thing altogether.

None of this is beyond the pale for religion. If it’s reasonable to consider deus a metaphor then it’s reasonable to doubt (which is the essence of atheism, not denial) the relationship between signifier and signified in that metaphor. Negative theology, the stripping away of those metaphors until you’re left with questions and uncertainty is an ancient practice.

I have written before (and so has Christine) about the limitations and negative effects of the gender binary in much of Pagan mythology. I have also argued for a more nuanced view of gender. I see that in my previous attempts to write about this, I didn’t actually move that far from the binary model, but I think I have moved further away from it now.

I also agree that the practice of stripping away metaphors until you are left with questions and uncertainty is ancient, and is a very good thing. It is known as apophatic theology or the via negativa, and it is a very important part of my spirituality. I think we need more apophatic theology in Paganism. However, according to Matthew Fox, there are four ways to engage with spirituality, of which the via negativa is only one. The others are via positiva, via creativa and via transformativa.

However, saying something is “only a metaphor” is a bit disingenuous, because we live by metaphors and they shape our thoughts.

There is hope, though, because the power of metaphors is such that if you create a new metaphor to live by, you can create a new reality. For instance, many Pagans have adopted the eightfold wheel of the year (eight seasonal festivals), and this metaphor, which expresses sacred time, has shaped our relationship with the cosmos and with Nature. So if we want to change the binary model of gender, we could create a more powerful metaphor to replace the gender binary. We can use the examples of “fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species” as a metaphor for the diversity we wish to celebrate in human sexuality.

Stories are very powerful. Many years ago, I saw a made-for-TV film which had the resounding slogan “Folklore can kill” (which inspired the title of this post). In the film, weird things start happening to a folklorist who is investigating urban legends – the legends are happening right in front of him, but he is in denial, insisting that folklore can’t come true… but it does.

If you attend a Pagan camp, or a UU or Unitarian church service, there will very likely be stories. What will be the bit you remember? The talks and workshops you attended, the sermon you heard, or the stories? I can guarantee that the thing you will remember will be the stories. Stories speak directly to both hemispheres of the brain,  and that’s probably why they are remembered. Jack Cohen has suggested that Homo sapiens should be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. People like stories.

So if you take all the metaphors away, then you’ll have to take away all the stories. That doesn’t just mean an absence of fairy tales and folk tales and mythology; it also means an absence of inspiring stories about science, or stories from history or literature. And even in this story-free vacuum, people would instinctively create more stories.

So, given that you can’t have a metaphor-free vacuum; and given that stories and metaphors are so powerful that they can actually kill (and make no mistake, the gender binary claims a victim every time a transgender person is murdered or commits suicide) — given this, we had better make sure to choose liberating and inclusive metaphors to express our religion. And if a metaphor (such as the gender binary) is broken, then we need to fix it.

Further reading on metaphor

Further reading on sexuality and gender