Guest Piece: The Third Voice by R. Kaldera
My friend Raven shared this piece with me over this past weekend. We were discussing many things and the subject of boundaries and traditions arose. This was, I believe, written in the wake of the Pantheacon debacle several years ago. I found it powerfully moving and asked permission to share it with you here.
The Third Voice
I lift my arms to the vaulted darkness of the Underworld, and call on my spirit-ancestors. “Kurgarra, galatur, those who walked the Third Path and rescued Goddess from Goddess, guide me on this journey.” For I will most certainly need every ounce of your aid.
I am a shaman in the Northern Tradition. Within the praxis of Northern Tradition Shamanism, I’m a particular type of shaman. There’s a word for me in Old Norse: ergi, argr. There’s some debate about exactly how that should be defined historically, but anthropologically it’s part of the same package as the male-bodied Siberian shamans a little further east who wore skirts, took husbands, and channeled female spirits as part of their spiritual path. When scholars throughout the ages have interviewed gender-crossing spirit-workers around the world, they ask them why they did it … and the answer is never “I was uncomfortable in my body.” When they actually get an answer, it tends to be “The spirits told me that I had to do it or I would die.”
I’m also a transgendered intersexual. I was born with an intersex condition – congenital adrenal hyperplasia – and raised female until the age of 30 when I chose to take testosterone and transition to a male presentation. I did it for a variety of reasons. One of them was straight-up nasty old body dysphoria. One of them was the fact that estrogen made me physically worse and testosterone made me significantly better. But the biggest reason was that the Gods and spirits told me that I had to do it.
When the many grad students who have interviewed me hear me say that, they get a funny look in their eyes. It’s the same look that they get when I talk about how Gods and spirits talk to me, work with me, help me to do the work that I do with the clients who come to me. And yet, for me, my gender situation is entirely wound up with my religious beliefs and practices. I couldn’t have one without the other. I am a Neo-Pagan, not because I once thought that it was a cool religion that wouldn’t tell me that I was sinful for being what I am, but because the Gods came for me and I had no choice … in getting sex reassignment or in becoming a shaman. The two processes are remarkably similar, although not the same.
Eighteen years ago when I was working towards transitioning from female to male, there was hardly anything about transgender in Pagan spirituality. When one transwoman wrote hesitantly into Green Egg magazine (this was before the age of the Huge Internet, and magazines were a big deal back then, children) about whether there was a spiritual place for her in Neo-Paganism, she received a raft of flak from people of both end-spectrum genders, telling her that there were men and there were women, like the God and Goddess, and she was clearly delusional. My anger at that mail exchange pushed me to write the book Hermaphrodeities: The Transgender Spirituality Workbook, the first book ever written on our spiritual paths, which has now gone into its second edition and is still selling steadily. The main message was simple, and is one that I still believe in: we are sacred, just as we are.
I didn’t know that this road I was traveling would lead to my becoming a third gender shaman. I didn’t know that I would face clinical near-death and meet my Goddess; that I would come back with Her orders ringing in my ears. You are the shaman for the tribe of those like yourself, those in the middle. There are enough of them now that they merit a shaman, and so I have given them … you. Whether you like them, whether you agree with them, whether they like or agree with you, they are still your people. Serve them as you can, in the way I have shown you.
I asked the Gods Of Gender Transgression to come to me and teach me their mysteries, and they did – Baphomet, Lilith, Shiva, Dionysos, Aphrodite Urania, Athena, Obatala, Ellegua, Loki, Coyote, Jormundgand, and many others. As I write this article in the wake of a controversy stemming from a ritual to Lilith, some of them stand forth and speak, and I write down their words as fast as I can.
In the northeast, Lilith comes, in her transgendered form of the hairy goddess. That’s what they called her in ancient times – the hairy goddess, covered in hair like the ass and goat and other animal forms she takes. Bringer of lust, bringer of infertility. Baby-killer. In this form, no one is quite sure what is between her legs. People try to deny this side of her, the side that so resembles the hairy, lustful, infertile intersex condition that I was born with. She whirls like a dervish, her curved sword slicing the air like the desert scirocco that is her symbol, and her owl-golden eyes meet mine. Her voice is like the lash of a sandstorm.
Woman’s power? Yes, I am woman’s power … and one of women’s powers is to step halfway away from being a woman, just as the opposite is true for men. I am also the power of truth, and of speaking that truth. There are truths here that women need to speak. The first one is this: We do not want you in our space, No-Longer-Man, not because we fear your chromosomes or your resculpted bodies. It is because we fear your upbringing, and that you will not have fully shed it … and as we do not wish to fully shed ours, why should we not assume that for you?
This is the first gate, the gate that no one speaks of, the gate that is not biology but culture. Women’s culture, the messy, slurry mix of women still only halfway out of all they have been taught that they should be, and only halfway to what they could be, and still unsure of where the lines should be drawn. You fear the woman who does not understand what it is to be raised female in this culture, who may say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, assume an entitlement that they were raised to expect, and that you have not yet convinced yourselves that you can demand. And yes, they will do this sometimes, because that is the way of things.
This is the first gate, O Women-Raised-Women, not the second one which is the mysteries of the body, of the womb that gives forth blood and babies. You point to the second gate and bar it, while pretending the first gate is not there … and then cry out when No-Longer-Man walks through the first gate unknowing. And to teach them how to pass that first gate? You would have to face how divided you are, how far each of you has left to go. You would have to go back to arguing amongst yourselves about what parts of how a woman acts should be – or can be – discarded. And this is the first mystery of Those In Between: They force Those Who Are Not to look at their own flaws, whether they will or no. Honor that Mystery, if you would have them honor yours.
And there is one more truth that must be spoken: the second gate, the gate of the womb mysteries, is not open to all who were raised women. Some have no wombs. Some have no connection to their wombs, nor is it their path to do so. To speak that this mystery is open to everyone with a vagina is to hurt those sisters of yours for whom it is not. Better, instead, to speak the truth: that no mystery is open to everyone who claims a certain word, but instead that Spirit cries out to like Spirit, and it is Spirit who should choose.
In any religious argument, there are three voices. The first two are the ones that everyone thinks when they imagine a theological argument: “But this is the way we’re used to doing it, and we believe the religious information spoken and written by others in the past which tells us this is the right way to do things!” and “But this practice upsets/disempowers/damages some people, and it would be more fair to them to change it in this way over here…” The traditionalist and the reformer are usually the two who go toe to toe with each other, and can deadlock for hours or years or centuries over their points … which may be equally valid in their own ways.
The third voice is that of the mystic, and it is universally hated by the other two. It’s the voice that says, “Well, I talked to God/the Gods/the spirits/the ghost of the dead guy last night, and I was told this…” Neither of them wants to hear the mystic’s voice, because it is elitist. It suggests that the Gods/spirits are talking to the mystic and not to them. (Which, historically and unfortunately, is sometimes true.) The mystic’s voice rarely says things that are comforting, and rarely says things that seem fair. There’s also that Neo-Pagans, in a religion largely of converts, are extremely distrustful of anyone who claims to be a mystic, or more of a mystic than every Pagan is promised that they can be if they only try. That voice is disliked equally as much as the Third Voice of Gender, the one who stands between male and female. Both force people to confront what they believe, and what possibilities the Universe may hold that they cannot yet see.
I am that Third Voice in both those contexts, no matter where I go. As the ergi shaman, it’s my job, and I do it because I cannot do otherwise … no matter how uncomfortable it makes everyone feel.
Instead of moving around the circle, I pass through the center, where Baphomet sits enthroned. There are some who say that he is the brother (or brother/sister) of Lilith. Goat-horned, goat-footed, hairy breasts and enormous erection with a toothed cunt beneath it, his yellow eyes are slitted dangerously at me. His voice is gravelly, like a she-male whore who has smoked for a thousand years, and he crooks a scarlet-nailed finger at me.
It is the same for the men’s side, you know. Those No-Longer-Women might come in with assumptions about how things are to be done. They might not understand how important the physical urges are, how much priority is laid on the cock and its desires. Having struggled so much with culture when they loved as women, they might remonstrate with men for not doing the same, at least not where they can see it. The truth that is spoken here is: You have no cock, not like ours. The truth that is unspoken is: You who say you want to be a man, how dare you come into this place and tell us that our male way of doing things is not right? How dare you tell us what our cocks should and should not want? Those are women’s words. It is not your place to say these things. But this is not spoken aloud. And how is change to be made if truth is hidden?
Sex is in it too, you see. Man or woman, it does not matter – Those In Between confuse the cock, the cunt, and because they are not fully listening with their whole bodies and their whole minds, they do not see how much of the discomfort comes from their fetish becoming confused, half-fulfilled and half-denied. Is desiring a male body, a female body, a fetish? I say it is. I say that all desire is fetish. I say also that until everyone faces the mumbling voice of the genitals, faces how much secret power it has over their response to the Third, we will never have true honesty or real change.
The story of Neo-Paganism may not start embryonically with British Traditional Wicca, exactly, but it marks its birth with that denomination. The whole theology of traditional Wicca is based on the sacredness of gender polarity, a duotheism of Lady and Lord. When it appeared, it was hailed as a huge improvement over a single male-only divine monotheism, sometimes with an ambivalent underclass-polytheism of male and female saint-figures who submitted to the male Godhead, and sometimes alone except for a son/avatar/gentler second self. The whole idea that God could be conceived of both male and female equally – and of equal importance – in a loving and erotic embrace was a stunningly heretical idea … and still is in many other subcultures.
Eventually, Neo-Paganism would fracture and spread and develop versions of Goddess-only monotheism, ungendered or multiply-gendered pantheism, and a host of vigorous polytheisms based partly on recreating ancient religions more closely and partly on a blossoming of personal contacts with the plural divine. To those who hailed a bicolor flag over a monochromatic one, the rainbow-watercolor blendings of pantheism and the vibrant many-textured patchwork of polytheism may seem like a confusing swirl, especially given what both of them say about the gender of the holy and the holiness of gender.
It’s been said that the Lord/Lady gender duality of traditional Wicca is such an overwhelming theological truth for Wiccans that it is equivalent to the resurrection of Christ for Christians. This makes it challenging for transgendered people in many Wiccan-based groups … and since Wicca is still the single largest Pagan sect (the comparison has been made of “Wicca is to Neo-Pagan as Catholic is to Christian”), it’s statistically likely that this is what the new seeker will encounter. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Wicca should ditch its Holy Grail. Instead, I’m suggesting that there should be religious materials for well-meaning but bewildered high priests and high priestesses who find someone transgendered in their circle. Perhaps they can be treated as someone who can play both sides and learn both mysteries. Perhaps they can be seen as a blending of Lord and Lady, the fifth point of the pentagram. Perhaps they are binary-identified enough to be fine with being seen as just another kind of man or woman. At worst, perhaps the clergy member in question can have the contact information for local non-Wiccan Pagan groups on hand. There’s a great deal of honor in saying, “You’re not right for us, but I’ll make it my business to help you find a place that’s right for you.”
I cross to the southwest, and I face Dionysos. Long hair tosses and girlish lips laugh at me in a boy’s face. His slender body is wrapped in a purple woman’s chiton, with a leopard-skin thrown over his shoulder. The chiton slips down, revealing one nipple on a flat, hairless chest. His feet are clad in red buskins with built-up wooden heels – the first high heels, representing the bull-footed god. Sacred drag queen, her breath is the first pressing of sweet wine in an Attic grove, or perhaps the whisky-sodden fumes of an alcoholic slumped down in the alley behind the bar. He’ll take them all, he doesn’t care. Her voice is musical, charming, like the hazel eyes that tease me.
Ah, my Third Children. What will you do when you think you have all the answers, and then all the questions change again? That is what happens when you mess with Mysteries. By their nature, Mysteries are not open to everyone. By their nature, Mysteries are not fair. By their nature, Mysteries are terrifying, frustrating, dangerous, transforming, and never what you expect them to be. When you rip off the veil and expose them to the light, they vanish, and you are left with a pile of ashes that is not worth fighting over.
Coming to a Mystery of any kind with the merest hint of the thought in your head: “This will validate some part of my identity; this will prove to myself or others that I am this or that” – it is a guaranteed way to make the Mystery refuse to show itself to you. Coming to a Mystery with the thought of “I am entitled to this; I should be allowed in on principle” will make the Mystery run from you. No one is entitled to a Mystery. Even those who are allowed in may not be shown its ways. There is no guarantee. The only attitude to have when approaching a Mystery is: I am ready to be torn apart, however You choose to do that. If you cannot come to the ritual with nothing but this in your mind, you should not be there. Go clean and stripped of desires, or the Universe will teach you something the hard way.
Remember that your own mysteries – and you do have them – can tear apart the single-gendered just as easily, if they were to come to them in other than a humble manner. Remember that there are many powers in the world, all worthy of respect, and sometimes respect means lowering the eyes and keeping a distance … and that includes the reaction of another to your own Mystery, even if you are the only one who holds that particular space. But, of course, you are never the only one.
The first time I ever ran into the issue of transfolk at a single-gender Pagan event was more than twenty years ago. I hadn’t gotten the courage to look at my gender issues yet, and I was one of the three priestesses doing a women’s ritual at a major Pagan gathering. There was a transwoman present, and during the after-ritual discussion she wept and thanked several of the nontrans women present for vouching for her, standing up for her, making sure that she got in. At the time, I didn’t know that years later, we would date and eventually marry. I didn’t know that she would show me, with her hands and body, that it was possible to be who I really was and still be loved.
I didn’t know that no one with gender dysphoria can sleep every night with a transitioned transsexual and not be forced to deal with their issues. Especially when the Gods are after them. Then I had to look at all these issues close up, and realize that I had to make choices. I would never again walk into women’s ritual space, especially after testosterone had irrevocably changed my face and voice and body. I would not walk into any men’s space where I was not known and welcomed by all. When “women and trans” spaces appeared, I realized sadly that I couldn’t go there either. A space predicated on the concept that all people raised male and choosing to remain that way are uneducable and cannot ever be trusted is not a worldview I can honestly immerse myself in. This restricts me to pansexual space and various trans-only spaces (and only if the boundaries around the trans-only spaces are self-selecting; a matter of “you are one if you say you are one and are willing to be treated that way, if only for now”). I’m not mourning this, however. After all, it does give me the whole rest of the world.
But I also have faith in myself to be able to hold the energy of any space that I create, and to keep it tolerant and open in spirit. In our Pagan church, we have a large segment of queer and trans people – and we also have folks who aren’t. We have farmers who appreciate the cycle of life and to whom “fertility” means not human procreation but plants and animals, and city people who have never experienced any of that. We’ve learned to walk the line between honoring the biological mysteries (which we all take part in, if only because we were born, and we eat food) as well as the mysteries that sidestep or override them. We’ve learned to honor both the “standard” and the “exception” when it comes to the sacredness of bodily reality. We’ve learned ways to include everyone at least some of the time, and calmly put forth that it’s impossible to include everyone all the time, and that this is fine. We’ve found that having areas of sincere and real inclusivity can go a long way toward tolerance of occasional rituals with a more limited demographic.
An example of this is our yearly Beltane ritual. We’ve been doing this for almost two decades now, and we can’t imagine doing it any other way. The men hunt for the pole, the women clear out the hole and make offerings into it, and the third gender people form a human chain to bring the two groups together. This gives the fertility rite an extra dimension: it also becomes a magical act to bring together the male and female principle all over the world, and binds that to an earthy reality. We also make it clear that the three groups are self-selecting; people can choose which energy they want to embody any given year, but they have to actually work at embodying it. (We’ve had teens in our church float from group to group over a period of years, finding themselves and their identities.) At the same time, our Green Man and May Queen are a gender-normative and anatomically-normative fertile male-female couple, because they embody the biological mystery of procreation and earthly fertility. By honoring both sides, we create a full spectrum of reality where people don’t put all their energy into resentment or personal mourning. In twenty years, all we’ve had are compliments.
I move widdershins around the circle to the southeast and face Shiva, sitting cross-legged on his mountaintop. The black hair on one side is drawn up into the neat coil of a high-born woman; the other side hangs long and tangled like a forest hermit. His eyes are closed, including the third one in the middle of his forehead, but as I approach the lower two slowly open. I am fixed, paralyzed, by the intensity of his stare. The snake wound around his shoulders lifts its head as he does, adding its gaze to his. The voice that comes from his blue-scarred throat is like the echo in a deep cave.
Illusions. These are illusions, these lines that are being drawn. They do not come from the deep truth. And the idea that there are no lines is an illusion as well. How is this so? Because in the end, it is the body of energy – not the body of flesh, not the mind, not the ideas, not the heart and its emotions – that counts.
You cannot see the body of energy? Learn. If you would learn the truth, learn how. Until then, begin to burn your illusions. Do not concern yourself with how they came to be. Just take your most cherished ideas about gender … and, one by one, see if you can live without them for a week, a month, a year. One at a time, consign them to the cremation ground. Those that survive a year of fires, they are real. All others are illusions. One at a time. It is a lifetime’s worth of honorable work.
What would it be like if our first questions in this matter were not political but religious? What would it be like if our first line of questioning was not to debate, or to research, but simply to pray? Imagine if the whole lot of us humbly knelt and asked, “Holy Powers, I cannot be objective about this matter. It burns in me too strongly; it touches too much old pain. Please, help me to get past that pain. Help me to see things as they really are, however that is. Help me to see things as You see them. Help me to see beyond myself and my limited horizons.” And then imagine us all listening, really listening, to what is said in the not-so-empty spaces between our self-involved thoughts.
What would it be like? If this last question has made you profoundly uncomfortable, that’s good. It means that you’re getting ready to look hard at what it means to have a faith, rather than a subculture or a philosophy or a political movement or a social group, or even a personal spiritual practice. Because of our unscrutinized theology, the question of gender is intimately tied up with the question of faith. Modern Neo-Paganism continually shies away from questions of theology, because people might disagree with each other, and what would we all do then? Most of our models for theological disagreement come from a history of murder and torture over the issue. We don’t have good rules for peaceful disagreement, and we are not yet ready to take on that challenge, so our solution has been to pretend that we don’t have theologies, or that we all have basically the same theology, so why bother to talk about it? Until, of course, they collide … and even then we pretend that the question is political or personal, not theological.
I cross the center again, but it is a bridge over a dark chasm. On the opposite side – the northwest – stands a figure clad in shimmering robes of blue-green, ocean shading to tree shading to starry heavens. Her face is that of a beautiful woman, but she wears a full beard like an echo of a sideshow lady. Her eyes and lips are painted, and her graceful hands are tiny and feminine, decorated with henna. Her voice is warm and sweet as honey, and she touches my arm gently. She is Aphrodite Urania, the Bearded Aphrodite of Cyprus, She Who Builds Bridges And Crosses Boundaries. She is a light in the darkness which has grown around me as I have walked the path of this problem, and I am grateful.
I beseech you, do not forget Love in all this! Do not forget that one never knows where the heart may land … or, rather, no one knows but me! Do not forget that it is always more honorable to build a bridge than to storm a gate, and that doing it with Love is the best way – Love, not pride, or determination, or anger, is the gentle water that will slowly erode the stone, almost without its notice. Be that water; be the ocean who yields unhurt when struck, but then flows again gently to fill all space. Do not let your pain overcome your ability to love, or you have already lost. Wherever there can be compassion on both sides, there the people have actually triumphed.
Also, do not forget the sacred work of those who take on loving those of your tribe. Let there be places in your rites of love not just for the couple of opposites and the two couples of sameness, but for all the beautiful combinations that mixing with your tribe creates. The sacred stories of those combinations were never written down, and so you must rewrite them. Where is the story of how the bonfire, sitting still in one place and unchanging save for its lifetime, drew to it the lightning that constantly transformed itself, and how they fell in love? Where is the story of how the moth who chrysalized loved the fly who did not? Where is the story of the two dragonflies and how they taught each other how to grow from larvae? If they are gone, reinvent them. That way you’ll know how they end, and will have something to strive for.
I am the Love that crosses all boundaries, even those which are most carefully kept. I am the most terrible of them all, for no one can resist me when I seize two who are far apart and bring them together. And yes, sometimes I do put people in a position where they must choose between their community and their heart … because the best way to change that situation is to tell that story, over and over again. Be assured, when I call you to my altar, you will choose for your heart. You will not dare to do otherwise … and all must see that Love triumphs over politics, inevitably and inexorably.
We may not always know what to do when we are faced with the great tangle that is Divinity and humanity and Nature and culture. We may hurt ourselves and each other figuring it all out. We may take many decades and many tears to work our way around it. But the Gods are watching us, make no mistake. They are watching, and this is a test … for everyone involved. This issue is more core to our future than we dare understand. Where our religion goes from here will depend on whether we pass or fail.
Raven Kaldera is a Northern-Tradition Pagan shaman, herbalist, astrologer, FTM transgendered intersexual activist, homesteader, and founding member of the First Kingdom Church of Asphodel. He is a speaker for the dead of the trans tribe, and has been presenting internationally on Paganism, transgender, and alternative lifestyles for many years. He is the author of too many books to list here, including Hermaphrodeities: The Transgender Spirituality Workbook, Pagan Polyamory, The Northern Shamanic Herbal, and Double Edge: The Intersections of Transgender and BDSM. His hub website is http://www.ravenkaldera.org. >Tis an ill wind that blows no minds.
(reprinted with permission of the author from the anthology “Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism” edited by Gina Pond).
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