Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Hermaphrodite Satanist

“The Hermaphrodite Satanist: Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Subversion of Gender Categories and Christian Misogynist Mythology” was the subject of a presentation by Per Faxneld at the 4th Global Conference: Evil, Women and the Feminine held in Prague, May 6 to 8. Per Faxneld’s paper was given as part of the session A Different Monstrous Mother, which included papers on Lady Gaga and Lady Macbeth. Faxneld, who is a doctoral research fellow in the History of Religions at Stockholm University, Sweden, says

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) was the chief ideologist of the Theosophical Society – around the turn of the century the most influential international movement in the realm of alternative spirituality. Her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and in 1889 the society had 227 sections all over the world. Theosophy can be considered part of a broad counter culture, which included socialists, vegetarians and feminists. While Blavatsky did not self-designate as a feminist, she nonetheless made several contributions to the feminist struggle. A celebration in her esoteric system of the “divine hermaphrodite”, along with an insistence on the uselessness of the soul, made it clear that in her opinion no individual ought to be subjugated because of what flesh their spirit was temporarily housed in. Her public rejection of “proper” Victorian womanhood – traveling extensively on her own, occasionally dressing up in men’s clothing, swearing and smoking profusely, reviling marriage – also helped destabilize gender categories. It has further been suggested she herself was a physical hermaphrodite, though this theory is mere speculation. This paper focuses on Blavatsky’s reinterpretation of the story of the Fall of man in Genesis 3, where she lauds Satan as a helper of mankind. Since Genesis 3 has traditionally been used in Christian culture to legitimise the subordination of woman (wicked Eve being the one to first eat of the forbidden fruit), Blavatsky’s counter-hegemonic reading has far-reaching implications. As will be demonstrated, some theosophist women incorporated Blavatsky’s Satanist Bible interpretation in their polemics against the Christian patriarchy, while others engaged in a feminizing of the cherished figure of Satan. Using Satan as a symbol of liberation in this manner was, the paper shows, an established part of many types of anti-clerical and progressive discourse at the time, and theosophical feminist Satanism thus becomes culturally logical in its specific political context.

Though not related, the paper presented by Krishna Menon, an Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, India, on “The Construction of Gender and Music in modern South India,” which detailed “the re-invention of new hegemonic tradition of classical music in south India” at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, is also worth mentioning here.

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