The last few thousand years of human history might be called the Age of Patriarchy, when heterosexual men aggressively established their power over others. For this to happen they first had to destroy the spiritual power held by women and queers – at the time of Jesus Christ, religious life around the whole of the Mediterranean Sea had long been led by women and effeminate priests – the next few centuries would see straight men gradually imposing their desire for order, structure and control via the destruction of pagan temples and eradication of the memory of the sacred roles of same-sex loving and gender-variant individuals.
The men of war shut down our temples, rounded up the pagans and slaughtered them. The sexual practices of the pagans were seen as a justification for doing this. This pattern had begun in fact a millennium previously under the Hebrew kings, some of whom took great offence to the continuing tradition of Goddess worship, led by the sodomising, genderfluid Qedesha in the temples of Asherah. Qedesha means Anointed or Holy Ones, but was translated into the King James Bible as ‘sodomites’ and appears in modern translations as ‘male shrine prostitutes’. The idea that temples were where prostitution took place was planted early in the first millennium by Christians in order to discredit the pagan faiths – until that time sexual congress with deities, through the medium of a priest/ess, had been a respected practice dating back maybe 10000 years in the temples of Ishtar/Inanna/Cybele throughout the lands of the Middle East. Some have argued that Mary Magdalene was part of this tradition and see her as being the conduit for Jesus’s mystical revelations and growth.
The oldest term on the planet for priesthood is the ‘Gala’ priests of Inanna, whose name in the ‘cunieform’ writing of the time was a combination of the symbols for penis and anus. Similarly named, and extremely queer and flamboyant, Gallae priests served Cybele – considered the Mother of the Gods, her worship originated in Anatolia in the Asian part of Turkey and became the official religion of the Roman Empire around 200 BCE. The Gallae’s camp and loud behaviour upset many Christians, and, especially as Roman emperors converted to the new faith, emphasising the prohibition of sodomy became a way of setting Christianity apart from the pagan past.
The Hebrew persecution of the gay temple priests lasted, on and off, for four centuries from 1000BCE to 600BCE, it seems that after that the atmosphere became more relaxed again. Historian Randy P. Connor goes as far as to say that the period from 2nd century BCE to 4th century CE was the high point of queer-led religion, with the ArchGallus playing a leading role in Roman life. The ArchGallus wore a tall mitre hat, something that was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and still worn by Popes today. The Gallae priests led the early Spring ceremonies which were focussed on the death of their god Attis, the lover of Goddess Cybele, who self-castrated in order to avoid marriage to a human woman. He died from the wound but was resurrected and became in the older stories Cybele’s daughter, in the later versions he became, like Jesus, the heavenly avatar linking humanity to heaven. The Christian Easter festival was timed to replace this older rite.
When Europeans set out to explore and conquer the rest of the world they came across gender-bending, sodomising, shamans and priests on every continent. There are many examples from Africa of queerness being associated with spiritual power – eg among the lesbians of the Azande people of ……. or the Quimbanda wizards of Angola. When African politicians complain that homosexuality was brought to the continent by the white man they have a point – until the Europeans came sexuality was not associated with the taboos it is now, and the spiritual role of same-sex loving or trans individuals was recognised. The Native American shamans were given the name ‘berdache’ by the Europeans (the name basically means a bottom in sodomy), which stuck until the 1990s when the American shamans chose the name ‘Two-Spirit’ to replace it, a term much more resonant with the many original names that the tribes used for us. In China and Japan homosexuality was regarded as a privilege of the monastic class, this view fully supported by the populace, and in India the surviving example of the Hijras point to a time when the spiritual power of queers was better recognised. Examples exist also from Australasia, Polynesia, Hawaii….
Gay men and women have always been drawn to the religious life in the Christian west as well, despite the homophobic atmosphere. Medieval monastic life saw a flowering of same sex love, and the Buggery Act was brought in by Henry VIII to destroy the power of the Catholic monasteries. To this day gays are drawn to service in the Church, and the arguments about us go on and on. But even the Christian notion of a celibate priesthood is a hark back to the ancient days when the gays ran religion. Celibacy had to be brought in once straight men got involved, to control them. Islam, for most of its history, has been less bothered about sexual expression, with a long tradition of mystical poetry in which god is known through same-sex erotic imagery. The savagery with which some Islamic states treat queer people now has more to do with the homophobia spread by Europeans over recent centuries than with Islamic traditions.
So the straight men kicked us out of the temples and monasteries and took our jobs, but what does this piece of the historical queer jigsaw mean for us today?
While some spiritually motivated queers choose to be active in established religious circles, there are many of us who are drawn to self-exploration in ways of our own choosing. Many of us are drawn to witchcraft, shamanism etc because these magical practices do not dictate a belief system – they instead provide tools we can use for our own self-discovery, and to build a relationship with the subtle energy fields all around us.
Coming Out is a spiritual process of self-affirmation, but it’s not the end of the story. In the 1980s I was a young atheist seeking nothing from life but good times, but who was quickly facing an HIV diagnosis and the onset of AIDS. This experience awoke in me the wish to understand life, and the roles of queers in the bigger picture, and kicked off a mystical journey that continues to this day – a journey that includes uncovering the forgotten or hidden history of the relationship between queerness and spirituality. Until this history is understood, ignorant religious preachers will continue to attack us, and spread their hate around the world, providing justification to those who would persecute, imprison or kill our kind. My journey since AIDS in queer spiritual circles such as the Radical Faerie community convinces me that we queers do have ‘magical’ powers – they come from our internal fluidity and creativity, they relate to the heart and spirit, to our relationship with nature and the unseen world.
I am one of the organisers of this summer’s QUEER SPIRIT FESTIVAL in Northamptonshire, UK, August 14-18th 2019. This third outing of the festival brings together a few hundred questing, evolving, seeking queers in a melting pot of play, creativity, sexuality, spirituality and magic for five days of magic and discovery, changing the story of who we are, remembering a hidden past, and creating a new, vibrant and more conscious future. www.queerspirit.net