The Question of Gendered Cultus

Logging into my feed today, I saw this post by P.S.V.L. It’s rather cumbersome, but asks a very good question: should people of any/all genders be able to take part in the cultus for Deities when traditionally those Deities were venerated by only one gender. For instance, e mentions specifically the cultus of Bona Dea in Rome. She was traditionally honored only by women and harsh penalties befell any man known to have violated Her rites. There were other Deities as well: for instance, the Goddess Pudicitia was served only by married women. The rites of Mithras were, to my knowledge performed solely by men (Mithras was popular amongst soldiers and that was not a profession generally open to women, esp. in Rome. It would be an interesting thing to find out if He welcomes female soldiers today). So, in our modern day when gender roles or even our understanding of gender (rightly or wrongly) is not what our ancestors would have necessarily recognized, should gendered restrictions on a particular Deity’s veneration be removed? 

I would say no. Or rather I would say not without a damned good reason; and people’s comfort, modern values, sense of entitlement, or well-meaning desire for equity are not good enough reasons to destroy a cultus. There’s a rule with ritual and I think this holds true with respect to cultus as well: “don’t change it if you don’t understand why it’s there or what it’s purpose is with respect to the whole.” Without knowing, and really comprehending *why* a rule exists with respect to gendered cultus, it approaches hubris to simply discard such restrictions. Now, Gods are more than capable of making Their wishes known and there are on very rare occasions, exceptions. P.S.V.L. notes this when e writes: 

“Though men were not supposed to enter Bona Dea’s sanctuary, exceptions could be made, especially if the Goddess Herself expressed such a desire for the exception to be made. Since She was associated with prophecy, such an utterance from one of Her designated functionaries would probably be obtainable in a ready manner.

What we see here is an important difference that needs to be understood (and, in my view, respected). Any person can have a cultus to any Deity, and if the Deity either specifically allows or forbids it in a given individual’s case (and divination can always be done to find out if this is the case!), then such directives should be followed, in my view; but without such explicit proscriptions or prohibitions, anyone and everyone should be able to simply offer to, praise, and carry out other devotional acts with any and every Deity, no matter the genders of the Deities or the genders of the devotees.”

I would, for the most part agree with this. However, these are exceptions, not the rule, and exceptions are rare. I think it’s very easy to be so eager to consider oneself an exception that one doesn’t go through all the requisite and respectful steps to determine the Deity’s will, but rather puts one’s own desire ahead of that will. Likewise, I think diviners have to be very careful about allowing their own values and preconceptions to influence their results. I don’t think a person’s self-identification is enough of a reason to override such prohibitions, not without clear assent from the Deity in question. (Easy enough to get via divination–I recall asking about this once from a Lukumi elder, and he said that before initiation, divination would be done for trans people—for everyone but I was specifically asking about transfolk. That divination would determine whether a person would perform certain ritual prostrations in the male or female form. The result was up to the Orishas. I suspect each House handles this differently but in the end, the decision should be up to the Holy Powers, who made us as we are, rather than our modern iteration of Manichaeism writ large). Here I disagree with P.S.V.L who writes:  

“ if the grounds for exclusion are a matter of identity, then the self-identification of the people involved should be what determines that identity’s validity…” 

I do think there is a difference between a Deity’s Mysteries and personal devotion, the latter of which should not be affected by any such prohibitions. We are free to pray as we pray after all. There’s a difference between having a personal devotion to a Deity and celebrating the Mysteries of that Deity and that’s the line at which prayer, discernment, and divination must occur, the former two by oneself and the latter by experts before any changes in protocol happen. Anyone who carries the Mysteries of a tradition or God, or to be honest, anyone who respects their Gods and wants to see proper restoration of Their cultus occur is charged with protecting Their rites and rituals. 

As an aside, I am fascinated with the suggestion offered in the article that Bona Dea’s mysteries might be expanded to include abortion and also with the suggestion that this well may have been part of Her original area of expertise (in addition to other areas of relevance to fertile women). Yes, and yes. Knowing what I know of ancient Rome, this would not surprise me at all. Birth control and abortion were so widely practiced in ancient Rome that one plant, silphium, was so effective and popular that it went extinct from overuse and there were, especially during the Augustan period, serious concerns about declining birthrates. However, I digress. 

Someone who is pious should not WANT to force his or her way into a cultus restricted by gender, and if that person is trans, I would think that the requirements of the God would take precedence over desire for human recognition as male or female—recognition happily given in every other area. But, as a line from the Book of the Dead that came up in recent div (unrelated to this topic) said, “we are not perfect but perfecting” and I think that holds true here.  When in doubt divine, but also be willing to accept the answer. We’re not entitled after all to any Mystery of any God. We may, however, ask. 

Unlike Christianity, we have options. It isn’t as though one Deity holds the key to all the Mysteries. We can go to another Deity or approach that Deity in a different form outside of those rites and if we’re unwilling to do this, but instead are yammering about how we should be granted access then the problem is our own arrogance, not the proscriptions. I have been barred from receiving the Mysteries of specific Gods that I love very much. I am free to honor the Deity in question (Dionysos) but I was barred from initiation because I am owned by Odin and initiation has soteriological consequences. I accepted the decree of the Gods because in the end, THEY get to decide and my obligation as a pious human being is fulfilling Their will. We are lucky that we have the option to do divination, to hear firsthand via oracle or div. what our Gods might want. Not every tradition allows its votaries direct access like that. It’s a blessing of being a polytheist. I think we should focus more on what we can do for our Gods and traditions and move with gratitude into devotion.  

By trying to force your way into these restricted areas, you’re missing the opportunity to find Mysteries and rites and roles that are accessible to [insert your gender here]. You’re missing the opportunity to create another doorway through which the Gods you love may work. That’s a powerful thing, and a heavy responsibility to accept. It takes more integrity than trying to tear down established and productive traditions. Someone, by the way, might have wanted to mention this to the Catholics before the abattoir that was Vatican II. Traditions are meant to be nourished not picked apart into irrelevance. 

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About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on December 5, 2022, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. “I would say no. Or rather I would say not without a damned good reason; and people’s comfort, modern values, sense of entitlement, or well-meaning desire for equity are not good enough reasons to destroy a cultus…Someone who is pious should not WANT to force his or her way into a cultus restricted by gender, and if that person is trans, I would think that the requirements of the God would take precedence over desire for human recognition as male or female—recognition happily given in every other area.” – Finally, a voice of reason!

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  2. I am largely on the same page, especially once including the distinction you make between everyday prayer/worship and the Mysteries. But I think that last paragraph needs to be highlighted. Just because one can’t enter such-and-such specific Mysteries does not preclude finding rites equally as powerful – even in many cases for the same god. After all, ancient cultus for any deity was wide and varied in almost all cases. One wouldn’t suggest, for instance, that a 40 year old woman should do the Brauronia rites, even though the gender matches, because they were very specific to a certain life phase. But that wouldn’t bar her from ANY rites of Artemis. Returning to the specific topic at hand, I’d also be willing to bet that there are many Mysteries out there to be discovered/brought forth for various deities (including some unexpected ones) that are ONLY for transfolk or other non-cis identities.

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  3. Divination is something people really need to do more of in revived Polytheistic traditions. Divination by a competent diviner can clear up a great many questions and issues of uncertainty.

    I absolutely believe that transmen are men and transwomen are women. There is no excuse to treat people poorly based on their gender identity. Still, if I was a Mithraist priest speaking to a transman who wanted initiation, I would have a trusted diviner ask Mithras what His will in the matter is just to be sure. If the answer was yes, then I would welcome him with open arms. If the answer was no, I would tell him so politely and do what I could to help him find some other method of fulfilling his spiritual needs.

    Competent diviners, a great deal more piety, and some basic human decency would go a long way toward helping ease the problems within our various traditions.

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