Androgynous Myths


Androgynes have a significant place in the human religious imagination. Androgynes are people who embody both male and female characteristics. But this basic definition must necessarily be qualified by recognizing the diverse forms of androgyny. For example, there are physiological androgynes—such as hermaphrodites—but there are also psychological androgynes. Wendy Doniger identifies three kinds of psychological androgynes: a “splitting androgyne,” who embodies male and female qualities but must “split” to become creative; a “fusing androgyne,” who must merge with a male or female side of the personality to become bisexual; and a “two in one” androgyne, often represented by a couple that unites in a perfect love. There are also androgyne-like figures such as eunuchs and transvestites.

No less complicated than androgyny is the category of myth. In recent decades, the category of myth has been challenged in the academic study of religion. Many scholars have argued that “myth” is a Western category that does not correspond well to the way religious traditions understand their own authoritative stories. For example, Christians would not understand the story of Jesus as a “myth,” nor would Hindus speak of the “mythology” of Shiva. But unless one is inseparably joined to a rigid form of empiricism, myth is a useful scholarly category to describe special kinds of religious storytelling. Myths are narratives, but not simple stories or “tall tales.” Myths are narratives with a special claim to authority—a divine or transcendent authority that sublates or encompasses other claims to truth. In this way, myths are not only narratives that ground the worldviews of particular religious traditions, but also personal revelations and experiences that seek a special kind of recognition.

Androgynous myths can be seen in accounts of creation, as well as in the diverse spiritualities and religious figures embraced by the world’s religious traditions. Myths of creation often invoke powerful androgynous imagery that reflects an understanding of primordial union. Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, two renowned medieval Jewish commentators, interpreted the creation of Adam as told in the topic of Genesis as an androgynous myth, because God originally created man and woman as one. When God created woman, he effectively separated the female side from the androgyne Adam. This understanding of creation as originally undifferentiated also finds its way into Christian esoteric speculation.

John Scottus Eriugena, writing in the ninth century, also focused on the first three chapters of the topic of Genesis to argue that sex differentiation is one of the products of the Fall. This of course implies a primordial androgyny. Jacob Boehme, a seventeenth century protestant mystic and theosophist, elaborated a complex understanding of androgyny in which God the father was male and God the son, female. The opposing sex or gender identities that resulted from the Fall were remedied by Christ—who was a perfect androgyne, and through whom humanity could once again obtain equilibrium. The writings of Eriugena and Boehme thus constitute an exegesis of Christian myths of the Fall and redemption through Christ, myths in which androgyny becomes a crucial symbol for wholeness or divine consciousness. Taken together, Jewish and Christian reflections on creation initially reveal an understanding of a “splitting androgyne” in that creation is associated with the division of a primordial androgyne. Human destiny then becomes a kind of bisexuality, an androgynous fusion with the divine that represents a return to an undifferentiated essence.

The image of the splitting androgyne is especially prevalent in Hinduism. In the Vedic period, the figure of Dvaya-Prithvi or “Sky-Earth” is another primordial androgyne who subdivides into masculine, feminine, and neuter parts. In the Upanishads, the figure of Purusa subdivides into male and female parts to begin the process of creation. In the Puranas, a later series of Hindu mythological texts, Prajapati divides into male and female parts, which then incestuously copulate.

Androgyny is also an important spiritual theme that suggests equilibrium. For example, Jacob Neusner has written about “androgynous Judaism,” while Carol Ochs envisions an androgynous Christianity, beyond patriarchy and matriarchy. Of course, neither Neusner nor Ochs speak of “androgynous myths” per se. However, both use the trope of androgyny to frame the mythic discourse with their own religious traditions to emphasize or point to a balance between male and female elements or themes.

Within Christianity, Christ sometimes becomes an androgyne who combines male and female elements. For example, medieval female mystics imagined Jesus as a mother or correlated the blood from his wounds to breast milk or menstrual blood. These androgynous visions of Christ are also reflected in artistic portrayals of Jesus with the wound in his side situated near his breast. Myths of Christ’s crucifixion are thus framed in a way that emphasizes Jesus’ maternal qualities along with his clearly masculine identity. Catholicism in particular harbors numerous images that reflect a “two in one” form of androgyny. For example, the image of the Church as the bride of Christ is an image of union that is, for all intents and purposes, an “androgynous myth.”

A study of Hinduism and Buddhism reveals an “androgynous spirituality” associated with Tantra. As Sudhir Kakar explains in his psychoanalytic study of Hindu spirituality, practitioners of Tantra attempt to cultivate a kind of androgynous awareness. For example, a man might imagine himself as a woman while engaging in sexual intercourse. Such meditative practices are necessary because assuming a particular gender identity is associated with being confined to the illusions of the phenomenal world, or maya, and its dualisms. According to some renditions of Tantra, human beings are divided into male and female parts, representing love and lust respectively, which must be harmonized or brought together. For Hindu practitioners of Tantra, especially important are myths concerning Shiva. According to one particularly prominent Hindu mythic theme, Shiva becomes an androgyne by incorporating his wife Parvati into his own body. The ascent of the female serpent Kundalini through yogic practice is also an androgynous myth in that Kundalini unites with Shiva as she enters the final energy center, or chakra, of the subtle body. Within Buddhism, particularly important are myths surrounding the yab-yum, or “father-mother” union, as represented by the sexual embrace of a male deity with his female consort. Such images constitute a two-in-one androgyny in which the dualisms of the phenomenal world are transcended.

Androgynous figures—both human and divine—exist within many religious traditions that are considered worthy of special attention and often veneration. In Judaism, androgynes occupy a special legal status. The Tosefta Be-rakhot, for example, articulates special regulations that apply to those with underdeveloped genitals or attributes of both sexes. Within Christianity, there is a long history of female mystics who have possessed the “stigmata,” or the wounds of Christ. Such mystics become the focus of almost mythical fables that celebrate their supernatural powers as essentially two-in-one androgynes who have achieved special union with Christ. For example, Audrey Santo, a mute, comatose stigmatic who lives in Massachusetts, is attributed with the power to bilocate and to heal. In Islam, stories of the eunuch have a special place, while in Hinduism, the transvestite hijras are the subject of numerous tales that testify to their power to bring auspicious blessings to children. Androgynes exist between gender categories and by this fact become potent symbols for transcending the distinctions that shape human life. Androgynous myths are narratives that understand the androgyne as the locus of a particular kind of authority—one that derives its power from pointing to a plane of existence in which conventional human boundaries no longer have meaning.

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