Ineffable Experiences and Effable Gender

After what let’s call a "heated debate" on the HHoL, I find I have something to say about the perennial problem of gender, and especially the gender binary, in occultism and mysticism. I’m not going to bury the lede here: they’re just not things. Genders, I mean. They can be important to people’s experiences, but they cannot be ascribed to things outside of our social context.

That’s basically the thesis. Oh joy.


I don’t remember what it’s called, but since the 1980s gender theorists will often begin pieces by talking about their backgrounds. If you know what it’s called, by all means let me know! It’s annoying that I can never remember.

At any rate, I’m an animist and an existentialist. I’m a druid and a queer trans person. As the meme goes, while I’m not a specialist in gender theory, I am by necessity more familiar with it than many untutored straight cis people will be. However, I did study it in school, it just wasn’t my speciality (except insofar as it impacts Gothic liminality, which is a good deal, so let’s call me an intermediate student of the field). I also study and am an advocate for semiotics, postmodernism (whatever that means), and poststructuralism.

That seems like everything.

Trees and Signs

As you might be unsurprised to hear, I like trees. So let’s think about trees. Imagine my backyard, which has many trees in it (this is true). Imagine, also, that I walked around in my yard one day and tied labels to each tree, with their names written on them. An oak here, a eucalyptus there. This isn’t my actual backyard, you can imagine anything you want.

This is an example of structural semiotics. I have produced signs that are labeling things which exist. Without going too far into it (lucky for you, I did already if you’d like to hear it: it’s on my Soundcloud), signs are things we make, symbols, usually built of other symbols, simple and complex. They categorize, they help us to think, they help us to identify and to move through the world. But they have no fundamental link to the thing being described.

The little label hanging from the tree is not part of the tree. It did not emerge from the tree. It did not even emerge from my exerience with the tree. It’s a shorthand, a sign presumably helping me to figure out something, such as whether it’s safe to cut down a shade tree or which kind of fertilizer to use.

This is what we call an analogy. Genders are signs. They are social constructs. They’re like Katy Perry songs. They may exist, but we made them. They are no more inherent to the world than the little labels I hung from every tree. To say that a person, a god, a tree, or even a dog "is a boy" ("is male," "is a man," whatever), is to engage in creating signs — words, symbols, and descriptions. We are not engaging with the person or the god. We’re making labels.

And some people like those labels! Some people find great power in being a woman, and some gods may center themselves on being a man, but they are being things. The are not those things, they are doing them. They are performing certain sets of speech, action, and behavior to align themselves with those labels.

It’s the same as making a talisman from iron on a Tuesday when Mars is in the midheaven: it’s performing things to align oneself with a sign or a system of signs that one wants to use for something (even if that goal is "feel better about myself").

We can extrapolate further.

The Next Person Who Comes Along and Cultural Context

Let’s keep imagining my backyard. Let’s go back there. So I’m going to die at some point. Someone else will live in my house after me. It won’t be my kid, because I won’t have any of those. But let’s say my good friend’s kid wants a house, and we leave it to them. They move in. They spent time here, and it makes them feel good just to be here. They remember my silly signs, too, and they walk around sometimes, in the spring, and read the signs and commune with the back yard. This is, any druid will tell you, The Good Shit.

But let’s say their best friend, who is a horticulturalist, or even better, an arborist, comes to visit. And they say, "huh, these little signs are totally wrong. I mean, eucalyptus trees don’t even grow around here. It’s a mimosa." That could happen! Maybe I wasn’t even wrong! Maybe it was some weird kind of art installation, or I randomly shuffled the little cards! Maybe I had a spell I was working on that required me to turn my grove of walnuts into a circle of sympathetic, world-spanning tree representatives!

My inheritor is going to be very unreasonable if their response is "my friend labeled these trees, so that must be what the trees are!" I can be wrong. I can be high, or drunk, or doing magic. I can be all four at once, technically speaking (I don’t smoke pot though, so being high is going to require some real doing).

See, my inheritor doesn’t know the context of what I was doing. And they can’t guess at it. Gender as applied to mystical things, like gods or forces or "positive and negative polarities" are that. They came out of a context — in this case cultural, not idiosyncratic — and you cannot simply shrug and say "well, the ancients said God was a man." Of course they did! All bosses of things were men! They were in a patriarchal society! Naturally they were going to say the Big Boss was a dude!

To perform textual criticism, to understand a sign, you can’t ignore its context. You must, as best as you can, understand it within that context. So my inheritor really needs to find my journal where I describe whatever-the-fuck I was doing, to understand those signs. And if you’re going to talk about how your god(s) and genders, you have to go back to those contexts too — and not just to insist "they were right," but to understand the specific ways that their language and other semiotics were bound culturally and how it was either not optimal, not desireable, or not possible to go outside those semiotic bounds.

Language Itself: Trees and Simple(r) Signs

Let’s circle back to the trees and my backyard. I’m a druid. It’s not that weird if I were to spend time communing with the trees back there. They could talk to me. Now, let’s say I was surprised to hear back. I might say, "Whoa! Is that you, tree?" Hopefully I’d be faster on my feet. Signs point to no, though.

The tree might say "Yes. I’m the tree. It’s me."

To me.

But the tree doesn’t speak English. If my hypothetical friend from Japan, who’s not comfortable with English just yet, came by, and the tree spoke to them, it would not say that. It would say "はい。木です。"

This is bog-standard anthropological perspectivism, applied to semiotics. In short, we see bears as bears, but bears see us as fish. We see fish as fish, but fish see us as bears. But in spiritual experiences, people can and do see fish and bears and trees as people.

We translate mystical experiences into our semiotics, into the systems of signs we live within and through.

This is probably the least contentious part of this essay. Nearly all mystics have said or written that it is difficult, if not impossible, to truly describe what happened to them in language. If you ask me, an inveterate poststructuralist, it’s because, to some degree, a mystical experience is when one brushes up against something that’s not easily categorized within our semiotics.

So imagine it’s 100 CE and you meet God. You won’t really be able to explain it, because the experience is outside your ability — anyone’s ability — to explain. So you translate it into the terms you know.

But this will happen on more than just a linguistic level, though that’s the level I’m talking about the most here. We know from studies of trauma that memories themselves are affected by liminal and traumatic events. We can’t hold memories of certain experiences, so they change so we can hold onto something, at least, of it.

Perspectivism is important to that. When we meet the spirit of a bear, and it speaks to us, what the hell will our brains and our semiotic systems do with that? Our brains basically go "ok yeah that was a person, so they must have been person-shaped."

And what do our semiotic systems attach to person-shapes? Genders.

Remember that this is gender as per semiotics, as the label we tied to the tree.

If I see another tree just like the one that I tied my little "oak" label around, I’m going to go "oak tree." And if I painted a sweet little portrait of my cat on that sign for some reason, I’m going to think of my cat when I see that new oak tree.

Associated Ideas

You can come at that idea from several angles, such as associational psychology or, again, talisman-making. But, simply, we make chains of associations, and all of them come up together when we think of things. Think of the webs, which I’ve written about both on and here.

So when the human brain tries to make sense of something outside the ordinary, outside the daily semiotic web, it translates it — and it if happens to translate it into X sign, all of the other stuff, X+1, X+2, X+3, will come with it into the translation. And if somebody encounters a god that has big violent energy, provides for its people, and brooks no sass? Well, if you live in a patriarchal society, that’s your dad, not your mom.

Here’s a simple, cut and dried example of translation pulling related signs into view: say you have to translate the word Ανίσχυρος<sup>1</sup>. It basically means "powerless." But you could translate it as "impotent." That works too. However, now, with that second choice, you’ve brought up a sexual implicaton that wasn’t necessarily present in the first version. But the translation has hauled along with it a bunch of other stuff.

That’s basically gender when our brains translate mystical experiences into memory. Since gender is abstract, a system of signs within a bigger system of signs, it wasn’t part of the thing.

What About When Gender Works?

So many trans people and many occultists say that, in some form or other, gender works for them, so it must be "real." Well, I never said it wasn’t real. I said it was a thing we made, a sign. It’s abstract. Specifically, it’s an abstraction of values, signs, visual elements, and other things clustered around an attempt to categorize humans based on an apparent biological difference. Note that I’m not even saying the difference isn’t there. I’m saying the genders are not inherent to the differences. They are signs made to describe, categorize, and oftentimes, judge, those differences.

There are two passages, from two of my favorite writers, that speak to this. The first is from Terry Pratchett, in Hogfather:


"So we can believe the big ones?"


It’s Death, and with his characteristic personality he’s used the word "lies." But they’re things that aren’t concrete, but still exist. Gender is just an abstraction. To say it’s an abstraction is not the same thing as to say it’s not real, and certainly not to say you can’t draw power and identity from it. It’s just that I can draw power and identify from justice as well, and it’s similarly abstract, a thing we made (even if we think we’re pursuing a cosmic, theurgic, or karmic justice, our system is by necessity ours, just as the little signs on the trees are ours).

the second passage is from Patrick Dunn, all around excellent magician and academic, in his book [edit]:

According to postmodernists, everything is a symbol. I’ve sometimes seen the criticism, "If everything is just symbolic, then we can act any way we want and hurt anyone we want!" It’s difficult to get one’s mind around what postmodernists are saying about reality. They are not saying, "Everything is just a symbol," because that word just implies that there’s something th at isn’t a symbol, something more real than the symbol. There isn’t. Symbol doesn’t mean non-real to the postmodernist: it means really real. There’s no other way to be real than symbolically. So if we hurt something, we really hurt them, even if htey are symbols and our actions are symbols — they’re still symbols that hurt. The advantage of recognizing the symbolic nature of reality is that we can make choices about the way that we interpret it, which could make us less vulnerable to being hurt. We can also be more conscoius that what we observe is not necessarily what we interpret. (p. 5)

To say that gender is a sign, an abstraction within a system of abstractions, is not to say it’s not real. It’s to say it’s "really real." But like all signs, they must be interpreted. What we observe is not the same as what we interpret.

  1. thanks to Chelydoreus for the quick help with a Greek term!

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