Throughout human history gender has always exerted its influence over human beings and, more specifically, over the societies in which they live. By assigning differenced between the male and the female genders, how the notion of sex is treated by each society varies from one culture to the next, thus lending towards the widespread cultural diversity between each different society and their treatment of gender. It is actually because of this very strong role that gender plays over society itself that many times gender, and the treatment of sexuality finds a place within the rituals and beliefs of that society. Often times, gender roles are found to be expressed openly in a religion by being used to address the sexuality that nature has biologically placed between the male and female sexes and assigning ritual to each by addressing issues such as fertility and infertility.
However, while many cultures do address the biological difference between the male and female gender, there is still the issue of the so called “third gender” and its role within a society’s culture, more specifically, within its rituals. Men and woman who usually identify themselves culturally with the role society has placed on the other sex. Often times, known as “transsexuals”, individuals who embody social roles that are placed on the other sex. Whether or not they actually dress according to these roles; it is still common to address these social differences.
In the text, Ritual and Belief; Readings in the Anthropology of Religion by David Hicks, a wonderful example of just how the “third gender” fulfills its role in the idea of ritual. This ideal example actually comes from anthropologist Serena Nanda by addressing the extent that the third gender role plays in the religious practices of a society through her studies of the hijras of India in the textbook readings “The Hijras of India: Cultural and Individual Dimensions of an Institutionalized Third Gender Role”. Nanda expressed that the reason that the hijra, otherwise known as eunuchs or transvestites, are an institutionalized gender in India is because the hijra are neither male nor female, but contain elements of both sexes. (Hicks; 360) By being neither men nor women the hijra blend the attributes socially signed to the male and female gender by forming a third gender in the Indian society. These members of the third gender develop an indistinct role by becoming followers of the Mother Goddess, Bahuchara Mata. By evolving themselves in this role and through their association with Bahuchara Mata, these individuals are considered to posses a sacred power, which aids to setting them apart from the other genders socially.
Being either “male or female”, the hijra are commonly believed to be intersexed by the larger part of Indian society. (Hicks; 359). Even some men, who are found to be impotent, will undergo emasculation, a technique in which all parts of their genitals are removed take up some aspects of behavior assigned to the female gender as well as, adopting their dress. While there are many features are of the hijra, the central feature if their culture is their commitment to the goddess Bahuchara Mata, one of several goddesses found all over India for whom emasculation is carried out in the name of.
Nanda points out that it is because of the hijra’s association with the “Mother Goddess” that gives the hijra special claim to their place in Indian society. Their importance including belief that those members of third gender are blessed with certain abilities, like the traditional belief that the hijra have the power to either bless or curse male infants among other things. Built on a social structure within their own subculture, Nanda expresses that the most significant relationship in the hijra is actually between the master, or “guru” and the disciple. (Hicks; 359). According to Nanda, people of the ambiguous “third gender” take on religious significance because they, as mentioned earlier, embody both aspects of the female and male gender as a society. In the Indian society in particular, the hijra gain religious importance because of the sexual ambiguity of their own deities and cultural beliefs. In India, normally if a male is found to be impotent he is considered to be useless because of the man’s inability to procreate. (Hicks; 361) Therefore, because of Indian mythology, there is belief in the Indian culture that impotence can eventually be transformed into generativity through the practice of asceticism and abstinence, other wise known as the ideal a “tapaya”. This kind of theme, according to Nanda, demonstrates the positive side role given the hijras in Indian society.
However, it is unfortunate that not all roles can be considered positive when it comes to dealing with issues regarding the so called third gender. With the belief coming from some cultures that these individuals oftentimes possess some degree of supernatural powers, often times powers regarding something to do with fertility, as was the case with the hijra. It is these kind of ideals that in part ties into Stanislov Andreski’s, theory about trying to link “witchcraft” to certain sexually transmitted diseases. In his case, syphilis. While he does make it clear that he does not know why some people believe in magic and certain forms of it, he does go on to try to link the two nonetheless. (Hicks; 371) According to Andreski, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the great epidemic known as “the great witchcraft craze” also coincided with a rise in the disease of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis during the particular time from that he studied. (Hicks; 370)
The spread of syphilis undoubtedly caused a great amount of fear as well as an outstanding loss of life; therefore, in witchcraft believing societies, such panics often lead to accusations of witchcraft. Andreski argued that syphilis had a particular features about it that made the disease especially likely to have such an outcome, and to make women the victims. Specifically, it was known that syphilis was a sexually transmitted disease and Europe, during this particular era was a culture where sexuality, with the very narrow exceptions confined to marriage, was officially forbidden. Because adultery and pre-marital sex was so strongly frowned upon, much of the “pollution” associated with illicit sexuality was blamed on the woman. Therefore, when the disease struck those who it shouldn’t, often times the blame was placed on the woman, who were already seen as sexually dangerous. In many cases, accused witches, both male and female, were said to have managed a “carnal connection with their victims while they were asleep, in the spiritual form of an incubi or succubi. Furthermore, the disease, far from being understood, many aspects of syphilis, particularly in its late mental complications, were seen as supernatural, rather than physiological in nature, and could therefore be blamed on witches.
It is easy to see that in such an atmosphere, people were quick to accuse their neighbors, particularly if they were different, or if they had secrets of their own which could be concealed by deflection of blame onto another. Of course, since hysteria takes n its own momentum, Andreski assumes that things not directly related to syphilis were also blamed on the perceived menace of witchcraft. The facts that Andreski presents support the notion that the Witch Craze and the spread of syphilis may be linked. This tying into the strong belief in many cultures that sexuality and witchcraft are in some way linked. Like in the case of the third gender, back to the Indian belief in the ability that they hold certain powers over fertility because members of the third gender differ from the social norm, like Andreski’s link from syphilis to witchcraft where the victims accused also typically deviated in some way from what was considered to be normal.
Andreski and Nanda both provide vast information regarding the link between sexuality and witchcraft, both sharing the same theme. A deviance from what is socially acceptable in the societies that they studied. Syphilis, linked to witchcraft in those that violated moral codes regarding sexual behavior and hijras who are members of neither the male or female classes. These individuals are thus set apart socially, lumped into their one group so it is not hard to see in the end how the ideas of witchcraft on and sexuality might have been linked in either of these examples. Though the circumstances in both Nanda’s and Andreski’s studies are vastly different from one another, they do share the common theme that sexuality and witchcraft do share a role in these societies and possibly in others.
In conclusion, the link between sexuality and witchcraft in society has a clearer definition when applied to the circumstances that Andreski and Nanda both offered. Each uniquely different, both share in the aspect that they are indeed similar as well. In each case, accused members were social deviants, be they members of the third gender, or merely individuals who engaged in acts of sex outside of a defined moral code society had placed on them. Therefore, neither concept can be considered false. It is interesting to see how these two concepts reflect upon one another, thus shedding light onto an otherwise unclear topic and how many more cultures possibly share this same theme.
Hicks, David. Ritual and Belief; Readings in the Anthropology of Religion.
McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. New York, NY. 2002.