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Men-Women, Gatekeepers, and Fairy Mounds

Parabola, SPRING, February 2000. Volume 25, No.1, pp. 71 - 77.

Randy P.L. Conner

People who leave behind traditional gender roles become bridges to the Other

Long ago, the Tewa people of southwestern North America lived beneath the surface of a lake. For a long time, they lived without guidance. One day, they learned of a mysterious being who was both male and female, and they wondered if this being might guide them to another world where they might find a better life. Three times they called this being by the name of kwih-doh, which means "man-woman, " but they received no reply. Before giving up, they called upon the being a fourth time. This time, the being appeared and answered, "Yes, I am a kwih-doh, and I will guide you. "

With this, the man-woman, a shaman named Kanyotsanyotse, left the lake and travelled north, west, east, and south, asking the spirits and animals of each place if they would receive his-her people should they decide to journey and perhaps settle there. One day, the man-woman returned and, having found a good place for the people to dwell, led them from the lake to the world above.1 Not surprisingly, the journey of the man- woman originates in water, which is of ten symbolic of liminal states, including gendered and erode fluidity.

Numerous deities and spirits of other traditions express similar connections between liminality and gendered or erode diversity. Associated with amazonian behavior and with intimacy between women, the Mediterranean Artemis/Diana is frequently linked to moments of transition. She is the "one who looses" or who sets free and is the "goddess of the 'out there.'" Within her cult, her priestesses metamorphose into wolves and bears, and she is the patron of "all those who live outside the social order," including "outlaws and strangers." 2

Legba, a deity of West African origin revered in Vodoun, inhabits threshold sites including crossroads or intersections, and as a divine intercessory serves as a guardian of and a guide across the borders of the worlds of the living, the dead, and the lwas (the gods). Ogundipe, a Yoruba scholar, stresses that Legba is "certainly not restricted to human distinctions of gender or sex; he is at once both male and female." This androgynous quality is reflected in the very design of the Vodoun temple, the ounfo. While the central pole of the temple, the potomitan, represents Legba's "phallus... the open space around it... is his womb."3

The plump, elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha is likewise associated with the threshold and with the blurring of gender distinctions. As the loyal son of the goddess Parvati, Ganesha guards her bedchamber. In this capacity, he is described as a "protean, liminal character" who "stand [s] on the threshold between the profane world . . . and the sacred territory," who "protect[s] the purity of the inner shrine," and who "provides access to the other gods and goddesses." Ganesha's head is that of a female elephant, while his torso is that of a human male. Even Ganesha's male torso is, however, perceived as androgynous; his softness, plumpness, and breasts are viewed as feminine. Moreover, both his "perpetually flaccid trunk" and his role as bringer of rain indicate an association with eunuchs, considered liminal figures in the Hindu cosmos. Ganesha is also associated with homoeroticism, by way of both the upanayana ritual, which may include an intimate relationship between master and disciple, and his patronage of the muladhara chakra. This chakra signifies not only the threshold leading to the awakening of the kundalini but also to the practice of cultic homoeroticism.4

IN MANY CULTURES, individuals whose expression of gender lies beyond the bounds of masculine-feminine duality —like the deities above—have been envisioned, in the terms of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, as "threshold persons."5 As such, they are thought to inhabit the threshold or limen—the border, margin, or outskirts of a certain place—or to traverse it as they journey to another, often wild, magical, or "topsy-turvy" region of the cosmos. These "threshold persons" may also manifest—or else may be joined by others who manifest—erotic diversity in the form of same-sex intimacy or transgendered intimacy. Transgendered intimacy refers to that shared by a man-woman or woman-man with a traditionally masculine male or feminine female, or else with another gender-crossing or gender-mixing person.

Such threshold persons often serve their communities as guardians of and guides across the threshold. In this capacity, they empower others to traverse liminal regions which might otherwise prove unnavigable. The kwih-doh Kanyotsanyotse is an archetypal embodiment of the androgynous shaman.

Threshold persons such as the kwih-doh have traditionally been bestowed with names or descriptions expressing their gender liminality, their 'betwixt-and-between' identities. While the transgendered priestesses of the Mesopotamian Inanna-Ishtar are sal-zikrum, "women-men," or sinnishanu, "like women," the galli or gallae of the Greco-Roman goddess Rhea-Cybele are semi-viri, "half-men," or anandreies, "not men."

Among the Aleuts of northeastern Siberia, gender-mixing shamans are called ne-uchica, "appareled like a woman" or yirka'la'ul, "males transformed into persons of the softer sex." Ishquicuink is the name traditionally given to males who assist curanderas (female healers) among the Kechki people of Guatemala; the name describes a male who "sometimes acts like a man and sometimes like a woman." Similarly, the female-to-male shih fu ("stone maiden") shamans of ancient China have been described as "not male, not female," while the male-to-female wikiga-winagu of Okinawa are said to have undergone a ritual of winagu nati, "becoming a woman."

Some names reflect liminality in other ways, such as in terms of location. Both the Greek name for the transgendered votaries of Rhea-Cybele, metragyrtes, and the name of the male priestesses of the Hindu goddess Yellamma, jogappa, refer to a spiritual life of wandering. Still others have been described in terms that express states of consciousness. For instance, the anatomically male, gender-mixing shih-niang or "master girl" shamans of ancient China have been depicted as "not dreaming and not awake." The ne-uchica, kwih-doh, and other such shamans are especially known for journeys involving metaphysical death and rebirth, and for traversing thresholds between the worlds on journeys of soul retrieval. 6

Among the Dagara of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Burkina Faso, androgynous, homoerotically-inclined, or bisexual individuals serve their communities as threshold guardians and guides. As such, they are known, according to Malidoma and Sobonfu Some, as "gatekeepers." Sobonfu Some observes, "Gatekeepers are people who live a life at the edge between two worlds—the world of the village and the world of spirit... . The gatekeepers stand on the threshold of the gender line. They are mediators between the two genders. They make sure that there is peace and balance between women and men." 7 This is also a role traditionally played by the gender-mixing, homoerotically inclined ha-na of the Mazatecs of Mexico. 8

Malidoma Some describes Dagara gatekeepers as beings bridging "this world and the other world" who "experience a state of vibrational consciousness which is far higher, and far different, from the one that a normal person would experience." Sobonfu notes that as such, gatekeepers "have access to other-dimensional beings ... who are very magical and knowledgeable." Malidoma posits that gatekeepers "are not of this world. They come from the Otherworld ... they were sent here to keep the gates open to the Other- world." He elaborates, 'You decide that you will be a gatekeeper before you are born. ... So when you arrive here, you begin to vibrate in a way that Elders can detect as meaning that you are connected with a gateway somewhere."

The Somes stress the importance of gatekeepers to the village as a whole. Sobonfu observes, "gatekeepers are encouraged to fulfill the role they're born to, to use their gifts in the interests of the community." Perhaps most remarkable is the Dagara belief that if the gatekeepers are relieved of duty or disappear, apocalypse will surely follow: "If the gates are shut, this is when the earth, Mother Earth, will shake— because it has no more reason to be alive, it will shake itself, and we will be in deep trouble."

IN NUMEROUS CULTURES, the associations described herein are not limited to a special class of threshold persons but may also be experienced by more general populations dirough participation in rites of passage and liminal festivities, or else by paying visits to liminal sites. For instance, to return to the Tewa, young persons traditionally took part in a ritual held in the kiva in which they were asked by a shaman, "Are you a man?" to which both males and females would respond "yes." They were then asked, "Are you a woman?" to which they would also collectively respond "yes." The shaman then said to the initiates, "If you are a man, and if you are a woman, then you can be a bear," underscoring the association of gender liminality with fluidity and metamorphosis.9 In Western culture, festivities such as Halloween, Carnival, and Mardi Gras permit otherwise ordinary people to experience these associations temporarily within themselves, celebrating fluidity and metamorphosis through costuming and particularly transvestism.

Visits to special wilderness and urban sites may also trigger threshold experiences within the wider population. Among the latter, the tavern is significant. In premodern Europe, it was primarily in taverns that scholars and students came into contact with threshold persons who introduced them to experiences they might otherwise never have known. In Richard Devize's Chronicle (1192), we find that such threshold persons included "actors, jesters... Moors ... pretty boys, effeminates ... belly-dancers, sorceresses . .. night-wanderers, magicians, [and] mimes."

While mujun is a multivalent term used to describe bawdy literature, mad-cap behavior, pantheistic sentiment, and many other things, it also refers to the bohemian subculture of the Arabic world, concentrated in tavern settings.

"These taverns were places where many kinds of pleasure were served up.. .. Singers, dancers... homosexuals of both sexes, taught the art of pleasure . . . mujun was an ars vitae, a permanent carpe diem." Here, "homosexuality, so violently condemned by Islam, could be ... widely practiced among both men and women." Among the chief expressions of homoeroticism—sometimes sublimated, sometimes not— occurring in taverns were those linked to the sama', Sufi rites frequently held there. "Do you want a guided tour/ of the Mecca of Love?" the thirteenth-century poet al-Iraqi asks; "Come, sit in the tavern."10

Among rural liminal sites, the rainbow and mounds thought to be inhabited by fairies occupy a central place in European myth and spirituality. In pre-modern France and Eastern Europe, many imagined that a person might change sex by passing under the rain-bow. Some Rumanians further imagined that the "rainbow stands with each end in a river, and anyone creeping into its end on hands and knees and drinking the water it touches will instantly change sex."

IN A FIFTEENTH-CENTURY Irish tale, we learn of a young man who served his church by organizing festivals. Perhaps because the faithful appreciated his service so much, he was given the nickname of the "abbot of Drimnagh," after the village near Dublin where he and his young wife lived. A handsome young man, the "abbot" had long, golden hair. He wore a tunic with a mantle draped over his chest and carried a sword resembling a cross.

One afternoon, after making preparations for an Easter feast, he decided to take a walk before going home to his wife. As he ascended a nearby mound—one that was said to be inhabited by the sidhe, the fairies—he began to grow weary and soon fell into a deep sleep.

He awakened to the voice of an elderly woman, a stranger to him, asking, "So how did you, beautiful woman with golden hair, come to be on this deserted mound, and what will you do, now that the sun is setting?"

The old woman, he thought, must be mad. But as he roused himself, he discovered, to his shock, that his sword had been replaced by a spindle and his tunic by a woman's dress. His long, golden hair was now bound by a net, and there was no trace of a beard on his chin. When he felt between his legs, he realized that he had been transformed into a woman. Surely his transformation was a trick of the sidhe.

He, now she, began to cry. "I don't know what I'm doing here, or where I shall go. I can't go home, because no one will recognize me. And I shall be in danger if I remain here, as it's unsafe for a young woman to be travelling alone. I don't know why this has happened to me. I've never killed anyone or dishonored anyone." The crone did not reply; instead, she vanished.

The transformed "abbot" began walking toward Crumlin, which lay to the west of Drimnagh. Soon she encountered a handsome young man. This young man fell instantly in love with the transformed "abbot." He told her that he worked at the Crumlin church, and that he wished to marry her. She accepted his proposal. After all, what else was she to do? He was a handsome man, and a prosperous one. In her condition, she might have done much worse.

They lived together for seven years. During that time she gave birth to seven children. One day, they were invited to a great Easter feast at Drimnagh. Although she became quite nervous when she thought of returning to Drimnagh, it had been a long time, and she was certain everyone there counted her among the dead. Surely, no one, not even her wife, would recognize her, which, needless to say, made her a bit sad. But she agreed, and they gathered themselves and their children together to depart.

As they approached the Drimnagh mound, she began to grow very tired, and shortly thereafter fell asleep. A great noise awakened her. Once more, she was a man, with sword and male clothing and a male organ. The wife of the "abbot" was chiding him, "Where have you been? I've been looking for you for over an hour!" When he told his wife the strange story, she might not have believed him had not the churchman, anxious to wake his wife up, cried out to her. There was the churchman, with their seven children. Whatever were they to do? In the end, the court awarded four of the children to the husband and three to the wife, that is, the "abbot" of Drimnagh. The people of the region accepted the event as a trick of the fairies, and the two men remained great friends to the end of their days."

In The Fruitful Darkness, Joan Halifax describes the threshold as
a territory . . . where the boundaries of the self are tested. ..... In the Threshold we experience ourselves as multiplex. We are both mortal and god, human and creature, wild and cultured, male and female.12

Much of the information found herein is derived from Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit by Randy P. Conner, David H. Sparks, and Mariya Sparks (London: Cassell, 1997).


1. Lucien Sebag, L'Invenlion du monde chez les indiens pueblos (Paris: F. Maspero, 1971), pp.420-427.

2. Hans Peter Duerr, Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization, translated by Felicitas Goodman (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1987), pp. 13, 24, 43.

3. Ogundipe, quoted in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 29; Leslie G. Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), pp.108-109.

4. Paul B. Courtright, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 32, 44-45, 54—55, 61, 102; Alain Danielou, Shiva and Dionysus: The Religion of Nature and Eros (New York: Inner Traditions, 1984), p. 89.

5. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969).

6. Holger Kalweit, Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the. Shaman (Boston: Shambhala,1988),pp.73,79.

7. Malidoma Some and Bert Hoff, "Gays: Guardians of die Gates: An Interview," in Seattle M.E.N. Sept. 1993, pp. 1, 6, 8; Sobonfu E. Some, The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 1997), p. 133.

8. Eckart Boege, Los mazatecos ante la nacion: contradicciones de la identidad etnica en el Mexico actual (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1988), pp. 72ff., 171ff.

9. Sebag, pp.424-425.

10. Abdelwahab Boudhiba, Sexuality in Islam, translated by Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 127, 131, 200; Peter Lamborn Wilson, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1988), pp. 45, 131, 145.

11. H. Gaidoz, "Du Changement de sexe dans les contes celtiques," in Revue de I'historie de religions (1908), pp. 317-322.

12. Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness: Reconnecting with the Body of the Earth (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), p.17.






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