The Kybalion, Gender, and Queerness

Disclaimer: I identify as a masculine, cisgender, homosexual man.  In layman’s (and potentially brusque) terms, I’m a guy born a guy who likes guys.  I have not, since puberty and self-recognition, identified as anything else.  I have not experienced anything but occasional and minor social marginalization or confrontation based on this identification.  Just in case this might come up later in this potentially touchy subject.

Lately I’ve been reading the Kybalion, a short text written by the “Three Initiates” back around the start of the 20th century.  It’s definitely a modern text with roots in New Thought and Theosophy, but it has notable Hermetic influences as well.  As a text of occult literature, it’s one of the most influential texts on modern occulture and occult philosophy, much as Agrippa’s Three Books and Fourth Book is on occult practice.  It’s also a book I’ve been pushing to the side, seeing it as unnecessary and silly in my own life and practice, but since I found a cheap copy lately, I figured I may as well pick it up and give it a decent perusal.

The Kybalion lists and then fleshes out, in its post-Victorian, supercilious, and occasionally bombastic language, seven “Hermetic Principles”, aphorisms that describe the general function and workings of the cosmos and the All.   The seventh one is the stickiest, the Law of Gender, which states:

Gender is in everything; everything has its Masculine and Feminine Principles; Gender manifests on all planes.

For most people, and certainly for most occultists and occulture, this makes sense.  There’s the Wand and the Chalice, the Holy Spirit and the Holy Grail, Father Sky and Mother Earth, the Yang and Yin, Fire and Water.  Duality is a feature of many forms of occult philosophy or a tool in occult practice.  In physical terms, there’s men and women, protons and electrons, positive and negative.  Generally speaking, these things are all active and passive: one initiates, the other generates; one issues, the other receives; one wills, the other implements. 

Also, like the Yin and Yang, there is a bit of the Masculine in the Feminine and vice versa.  This goes along with the Law of Polarity (extreme opposites are essentialy the same quality, differing only in degree) and the Law of Rhythm (events and situations periodically and regularly switch from one extreme to another).  Further, these two attract each other, Feminine to Masculine and Masculine to Feminine.  It’s why electrons and protons join up to form atoms, Spirit and Body to create Life, the Wand and Chalice to complete the Great Rite, man and woman to create love.

…and that’s where I stumble.  For me and many others that I know, that last bit doesn’t quite hold true.  I’m often in social situations and contexts where people of the same gender love each other, or where a single person may identify as both genders, a gender in-between, or neither gender.  Hell, I’ve known at least one intersex person (hermaphrodite, in slightly less PC terms), whose parents reassigned them one gender but who now prefers to be androgynous.  I’ve known many people with gender identity disorder, and a number of people who’ve undergone gender reassignment surgery.  And when it comes to sex, there’s no defined roles for people to play, even if they’re not queer in any sense; some people top with toys for some people and bottom with anything other times, some bottom not-at-all or prefer other forms of sexual arousal and play, and some people don’t have any sexual urge or drive to speak of.  None of this contradicts or obsoletes the Kybalion’s Law of Gender, but it does make it awfully hard to generalize and apply in my human experience.

For instance, consider the joke “asking who’s the man or woman in a gay relationship is like going to a Chinese takeout and asking which chopstick is the fork”.  It’s definitely got an element of truth in it: there is no defined gender role for partners to play when they’re in a queer relationship.  Expectations like that tend to go out the window, and things often end up egalitarian or equal on most levels.  In this case, it’s not that opposites attract, but rather that similarities resonate with each other.  There isn’t as much a plus/minus dichotomy forming a unity, but a plus/plus or minus/minus harmony forming a unity.

Keep in mind, though, that the Law of Gender states that there’s Masculine in the Feminine and vice versa.  Gay men can and often are seen as effeminate, and lesbian women can come off as butch.  However, that’s definitely not always the case; plenty of gay men are straight-acting, if not outright bears and bikers, and there’re lipstick/femme lesbians aplenty as well.  If you want to put Masculine and Feminine in sexual terms, there can sometimes be dedicated tops or bottoms in these relationships, but this can’t always be expected or relied upon.  Heck, even straight guys can often be into pegging or getting blown by other guys.  It’s not just a queer thing, after all.  People do what they want.

But expanding that to other things besides physical bodies and acts, the ideas of Masculine and Feminine (in the chapter of the Kybalion called “Mental Gender”) reflect more of an initiating and generating idea.  Just as in conception where the man emits semen into the woman, who then generates a new human being, the Masculine starts off a process and the Feminine procedes with it.  Artists, for instance, are definitely Feminine in this sense, as they spend their whole works generating and creating; they can also be Masculine if they find their own initiatives and inspirations, or they can be strictly Feminine if they only take in what’s around them.  Engineers, coders, and scientists do the same: they produce technologies, methodologies, and facts based on either things handed to them (like a passive machine executing commands fed to it) or based on their own curiosity and inspiration.  Visionaries and those who inspire are often masculine in this regard, especially if they initiate in others but never initiate anything for their own generation or production.

The Kybalion distinguishes a thinking entity into the Me-part and the I-part.  The Me-part is the conception of self and its trappings, its body, appearance, thoughts, wants, emotions, and so on.  These are ephemeral, passing, and transitory; once they leave, the underlying self is unchanged and still there.  This underlying self is the I-part, the part that actually guides and experiences the Me-part as its self.  A lot of people tend to focus on the Me-part and tone down or tone out the I-part due to our conditioning (my sister would have a field day explaining this concept in the realm of Human Design), and so occultists work to work up the I-part in order to get a sense of who they really are and what their True Will is, through e.g. meditation to clear the mirror of the mind or by K&CHGA.  In this sense, the higher cosmic portion of the Self (Tiphareth and above) can be seen as the masculine I-part, and the lower material portion of the Self (Tiphareth and below) as the feminine Me-part.

This leads to an interesting reversal (cf. Law of Rhythm) of normally-accepted symbols in Qabbalah.  If you look at the Qabbalah, you might notice that the entire glyph can be contained within the ankh or symbol of Venus: sephiroth 1 through 6 fit in the circle above, and sephiroth 6 through 10 fit in the cross below.  The circle is generally seen as a feminine symbol, like the yoni in Hindu symbolism, while the cross can be considered masculine with its straight and penetrating lines, almost (but not quite) like the lingam.  However, we noted above that the cosmic I-part is Masculine, and the material Me-part is feminine.  Again, Masculine in Feminine, Feminine in Masculine.  Interpretations of this abound, but one I might select would be that the masculine I-part acts (able to influence) on the feminine macrocosmos (subject to influence); this is transformed once it becomes more manifest into the masculine microcosmos (able to influence) acting on the feminine Me-part (subject to influence).  And, once one attains unity with the All (going past Kether into Infinity), one suspends notions of gender entirely…I guess.  For here and now, though, there’s the Law of Gender to contend with.

On a more human level, this can boil down to a matter of drives (Me-part) and desires (I-part) in terms of “mental” action.  Drives are what our bodies, our lower functions, and our sensations lead us to do; desires are what lead our mind, our soul, and our comprehension to do.  I desire unity with another human; I am driven to be with a man (preferably a masculine one who also likes men).  Works well enough for me, but why am I not driven to be with a woman, if opposites attract?  After all, the idea of resonance certainly postdates the Kybalion, having come about (as far as I can tell) to deal with same-sex pairings in the Great Rite.  Whence this drive?  Is this a drive at all, or a desire instead?

I know that, in at least one occult tradition designed for queer men (the Unnamed Path), its concept of the God is helpful to this discussion.  Unlike many other pagan paths with a single God and Goddess, the Unnamed Path has two gods, a Light God and a Dark God, and two goddessess, a Light Goddess and a Dark Goddess.  The Light God and the Dark God will periodically meet and mate, with the Light God as masculine and on top and with the Dark God as feminine and on bottom.  However, at climax, the two shift roles: the Light God becomes the Dark God and the Dark God becomes the Light God.  They maintain a periodic equality, where both are on the same level, but constantly shifting between themselves.  (I’m tempted to make a joke involving the transferral of divine essence as cosmo-sexual snowballing, but I’ll let your own nasty minds do that.)

In that way, according to the Laws of Gender and Rhythm, things become a little more clearer.  In my experience, some people like to top here and bottom there; some people roleplay a more masculine character now and a feminine character then; some people like being the dominator and dominated in different settings.  Artists draw, then observe, then draw, then observe.  Developers code, then analyze, then code, then analyze.  The Masculine becomes Feminine, the Feminine becomes Masculine, repeatedly and endlessly.  Still, why should a person of one sex and gender be attracted to another of the same, especially one of similar temperament (two butch lesbians, two twinks, etc.)?  Mental state, productive stage, and sexual mood may change back and forth over time, but bodies don’t tend to do that.

In the end, I guess I don’t have enough information or experience to answer this.  Maybe the Law of Gender is just poorly thought out, or doesn’t fit in the queer framework I want to apply it in, or I’m trying to apply something too broad to something too specific.  Queer occultism is definitely a topic to be discussed further, both by myself and those interested in it.  What do you think?  Feel free to discuss this and offer your (respectful, polite, well-thought-out) comments and ideas.

21 responses

  1. Addendum: Maybe it’s less that being attracted to a same-sex/gendered partner is a drive and more another reflection of attraction. There’s evidence that a homosexual person’s body operates subtly differently than a heterosexual one (different reactions in the brain, etc.), which again implies one gender being present in another. Perhaps one Masculine drive in me desires a Feminine counterpart while a Feminine drive in me desires a Masculine counterpart, but in a way similar to what exists for me; it’s less a matter of “crossed signals” and more a matter of resonance (which has its representation in the Kybalion as the Principles of Correspondence and Vibration, as well as Polarity). It’s an idea. In a way, a lot of these Principles seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, or reflecting the same gem from different facets.

    I’m not so much trying to fit a potentially outmoded and obsolete philosophy on modern artefacts of human civilization and the realities of the human condition, but more testing how universal these Hermetic Principles are.

  2. Hi Polyphanes. “As above so below”. I do not think that masculine and feminine is physical gender or sexual preference related. A woman riding a street bike or a woman going hunting is a woman doing something masculine, the gender is always the same, no matter the sexual preference or the act. When i am baking cookies i am doing something feminine, it feels feminine, but i am a straight male. I think that we all do masculine and feminine things and behave in masculine and feminine ways. I think that social norms and social stereotyping have no validity in spirituality. Just a thought :)

    • I tend to agree, definitely. However, the Kybalion does state that the Law of Gender is as much represented in human sexuality and physiology as it is in spiritual and mental matters (though it declines to talk much about the physical side of things). Social gender roles, certainly, have little to no part in spirituality, but what about gender itself? After all, there were those big flaps over the last two Pantheacons about transgender-inclusive rites in Dianic paganism. In your example about the woman going hunting, the woman’s body is Feminine, but her act is (considered to be, at least) Masculine. But that doesn’t talk about her spirituality, or her sexuality; in terms of hierogamy, what does a lesbian have to say about Divinity, if there is no Masculine counterpart to her Feminine self? Or is her self partly Feminine, partly Masculine, in the ways that another partly Feminine, partly Masculine lesbian would complete to form a perfect divine union?

      Plus, as for the Law of Correspondence (“as above, so below”), that shows that there are parallels between sex and sexual acts in the physical realm with the mental and spiritual realms. If all we’re ever faced with is a heteronormative view of human sexuality, does that deny queer people outright from participating in the Great Rite, or in understanding divinity? If there really is a correspondence between above and below, then what does genderqueerness or homosexuality Here correspond to There?

      In other words, how can human sexuality and physiology, incorporated as spiritual parts of ourselves, be described in terms of the Kybalion’s Law of Gender, or can it at all? That’s the big question here.

  3. Kybalion Page 48: “At this point we think it well to call your attention to the fact that Gender, in its Hermetic sense, and Sex in the ordinarily accepted use of the term, are not the same.

    Sex is merely a manifestation of Gender on a certain plane of the Great Physical Plane–the plane of organic life.

    We wish to impress this distinction upon your minds, for the reason that certain writers, who have acquired a smattering of the Hermetic Philosophy, have sought to identify this Seventh Hermetic Principle with wild and fanciful, and often reprehensible, theories and teachings regarding Sex.”

    As noted above, physical sex or sexual preference are irrelevant with spirituality. I think that It doesn’t matter if you are a man, woman, hermaphrodite, straight, gay or anything else. Spirit (alcohol) is found in beer, gin, vodka, rum, scotch, martini, etc, but alcohol is alcohol in the same way that soul is soul.

    When you code an application you can make the application appealing to females by designing a pinkish interface with relevant icons. Yet the code is the same. And i presume that you know this far better than i do:) You can use exactly the same code to make the same application appealing to men. Barbie dolls and Action figures. Same thing, same substance, same materials, same process, different mould and different packaging.

    I hope that i make sense :)

    • I can see where you’re going, but I have to disagree with you. Yes, physical sex and mental gender are not the same, but since “Sex is…a manifestation of Gender” according to the Principle of Correspondence, and since we are physical beings with spirit, sex is not irrelevant to spirituality since it corresponds to something higher (“as above, so below”). The Kybalion is warning against trying to make sex into a tool for its own end, I believe (“wild, fanciful, and often reprehensible theories and teachings regarding Sex”) as opposed to incorporating sex into a complete notion of Self (Me-part and I-part, combined).

      If I were to design an application with two parts, the backend that does all the processing and the frontend that does all the interacting with the user, I need to take into account the context and situation of how that application will be used. A “girly” interface would help it interact more with women, sure, and so it’d repel men; conversely, a “manly” interface would help it interact more with men and not women. The underlying backend and functionality of the program might be the same, but if it’s used differently by different user groups (or not at all by particular user groups), then I’d argue that the application is not the same. The resulting Manifestation of an originating Idea, based on how it’s manifested, will affect how that Idea is received, worked with, and accepted in its manifested form (masculine microcosmos affecting feminine Me-part of the Self).

      To me, it follows that if different human souls are capable of the same thing, regardless of what higher Gender it partakes in, their capabilities could feasibly change once they’re manifested into lower human bodies with different sexes, genders, and sexual orientations because of the body they’re given to work with in the physical plane.

      …unless, of course, the Kybalion didn’t emphasize the part of that quote that “Sex is merely a manifestation of Gender”, but to be fair, they also didn’t have much to say on physical gender at all like they did with most of the other principles. Based on the notions of politeness and policy at the time of the Kybalion’s writing, I think the author(s) kept from talking about spiritual sex for decency’s sake. However, if physical sex is just that with no higher meaning, then I don’t see the Principle of Correspondence applying here, which would contradict the universality of the Kybalion; this seems to be a major fault that shouldn’t be happening.

  4. Pingback: Sex, Gender, and Magic 1/n+1 | Journey Through The Obsidian Dream

  5. Rather than reply to you directly, I wrote a great big long rant-post. If read while in a bad mood, it might come off as an attack, and I just want to make clear that it’s not intended that way.

    You’re asking an important and valuable question for which I have nothing but respect. My issue is not with the question itself but with the genre of answer into which zenith’s reply falls (see the comments on the other link).


  6. This is quite the conundrum and I think ultimately every answer has to be personal to the one asking the question. That being said, I rather agree with Zenith and the quote from the Kybalion he gives. Also your examples of sexual activity are also demonstratable of the difference that that Kybalion gives between Gender and Sex.
    the facts of the matter is that there is a spectrum of gender expression irregardless of sex and sexual orientation, or sexual identity. Even within the microcosm of a personal relationship there is the interplay of gender expression, no matter the sexes that operate within the relationship. It is only the broad and vague brush of stereotype and culture that erroneously declares that because this naked ape has a penis and that one has a vagina that they must follow these behaviors and are indentified with that gender, and that is an erroneous application of the hermetic principle of gender upon the physical plane and on delineating physical sex of people.
    If you look the the prior law of polarity, it indicates that two opposites are really the same thing, the same essence, just different in the appearance of degree relative to the observer. The principle of Gender is really just a derivative of Polarity, and so Gender (in behavior and in the mental place) can be changed by changing the relative degree. What is masculine and feminine to you may be overly masculine and perhaps misogynistic to me, whereas what another considers moderately feminine may appear extremely feminine to you. But you change your relative degree of perception (or vibration) and the appearance of gender polarity will shift and become different.
    Consider the sephiroth. While ascending the tree, moving from chesed to binah make binah feminine and receptive, while chesed is projective and masculine. If you were descending, the reverse becomes true and binah becomes masculine and projecting to the now receptive chesed who has become feminine to binah’s action.
    I also think this interplay of resonance and polarity is present in most pagan traditions, it isn’t just emphasized as it is in the Unnamed Path. The Oak King and the Holly King, the Maiden and the Crone, anarchic femine Dionysos and orderly manly Apollo, yet Dionysos marries Ariadne and has ecstatic female worshippers (maenads) and Apollo was actually identified with the moon in older lore (his bow and arrows were silver among other things while Artemis has Gold), and weeps for the loss of his male lover Hyacinth. And one of my favorite quotes is the nature of Hermes/Mercurius “male with male, female with female.” This interplay is all around, but its’ messy and muddles things and the prudish victorians didn’t like that.

  7. Pingback: Search Term Shoot Back, August 2013 | The Digital Ambler

  8. Pingback: Search Term Shoot Back, September 2015 | The Digital Ambler

  9. This was wonderful to read, I too am a cis-, gay-male, and as an artist I’ve been doing some research into the hermetic principles along with alchemy for inspiration towards a gallery exhibition I have coming up. Thank you for writing this!

    • It’s good to see more people like us thinking about this in our day and age!

      I will say, though, that it’s been some time since I wrote this post, and my thoughts on the Kybalion as a whole are…unkind. Basically, it’s not Hermetic (rather, it’s a late rendition of New Thought, itself related to Christian Science), it’s clutter on our bookshelves, and it puts forth ideas that are hard to reconcile, if at all reconcilable, with actual Hermetic principles. In short, I find it a waste of ink, paper, money, and time. Sure, it may have gotten people more interested in the occult and actual Hermeticism, and that’s about all the good I can say of it, if that.

      I recommend just disregarding the Kybalion in general, especially as anything purportedly Hermetic.

        • I’m glad you asked!

          For one, if you compare any of the classical texts that can generally be considered Neo-Platonic or Hermetic (the Corpus Hermeticum, the Perfect Sermon, Plato, Iamblichus, Plotinus, the Chaldaean Oracles, Agrippa’s Three Books, etc.), you’ll find so little in common between those and the Kybalion’s philosophy. The Kybalion makes a lot of claims about it being ancient and Hermetic, but doesn’t have a lot to back up those claims. Even some of the terminology it uses, like “vibrations”, are a product of modernity rather than antiquity; rather, the philosophy and “laws” in the Kybalion shares far more in common with New Thought, which was heavily influenced by Christian Science.

          For more on this, I recommend you read more in depth the following links:

          Long story short, the Kybalion is much more a New Age text than a Hermetic one and doesn’t serve anyone well once you actually start getting to the good parts of magical practice. But, it’s short, easily digestible, and easy on the mind without causing too much introspection, which is likely one of the reasons why it’s so popular (much like “The Secret” is, which is so meretricious it’s an insult to actual sex workers, and yet is a direct descendant of the Kybalion’s “law of attraction”).

        • Ah, now that I’ve fully woken up, I see you were just asking about the connection to Christian Science. Mea culpa! (The Kybalion tends to send me into a flying rage.)

          The connections are discussed more in the links I commented with earlier, but here’s the rough outline: the author of the Kybalion (although technically anonymous) was most likely one William Walker Atkinson, who was known to have used at least six other pseudonyms of various forms (including a French-, Latin-, and Hindi-style name), and whose other texts have more than striking similarities with the Kybalion. Atkinson was a big person in New Thought, which was essentially the American self-help pseudo-psychology feel-good fad that started in the late 1800s.

          Phineas Quimby was essentially the founder of New Thought, based on his teachings and writings. Quimby took on Mary Baker Eddy first as a patient, and then as a student, to continue practicing her methods of self-help, mesmerism, faith healing, and philosophy. She then went on to found Christian Science, whose It was only later after she was accused of plagiarizing her teachers (Quimby among several) that she started drawing distinctions between what she was doing and what Quimby et al. were doing, and then disavowing any connections.

          In short, Christian Science is an offshoot of New Thought with heavy overlap between its practices and beliefs.

            • The Corpus Hermeticum is much longer and talks more in depth about the nature of spirit and body, of cosmos and world than the Kybalion does, and approaches it from a completely different angle. While the Kybalion may touch on some of these points, it’s a far cry from saying that it “covers all” of the Corpus.

              It’s important to note that unlike many people, I didn’t start out in Hermeticism or occult practices with the Kybalion. Rather, I started with the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, and the Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, so when I eventually did read the Kybalion, I saw very little that actually matched up in either actual content or style of its presentation. Of the friends I know, trust, and respect in the work, many did indeed start with the Kybalion, but as they continued learning, they also came to the same realizations I had, that it’s simply not Hermetic and doesn’t line up with Hermetic philosophy or teachings. Plus, some of the rules I have deep-seated issues with (like that of gender) which have only grown over time and which the Kybalion has never resolved, while in the Corpus and in original, authentic Hermetic texts, I find either clear solutions to those problems or they never arose as problems in the first place and become moot points.

              The only redeeming factor I can point to is that the Kybalion is an easily-approachable, easily-digestible spiritual/self-help book that can open the door for others to actually get to actual Hermetic studies. Because of that, many people who have a fondness for the Kybalion, a “baby’s first book”, say in the same breath that it doesn’t serve them anymore. Beyond that, it’s worthless, and it irritates me when I find so many people recommending the Kybalion as Hermetic when it’s simply not Hermetic at all. So much from the Kybalion has to be re-understood in proper Hermetic thinking or outright unlearned if you start from there and go into proper Hermetic studies, and I find it would be better to not bother with it at all.

              That it so brazenly claims to be Hermetic truth and law is as offensive to me as someone walking into a Jewish kosher restaurant and suggesting that they should add bacon cheeseburgers to the menu because it’d make people full and happy; perhaps, but it goes completely against what the restaurant actually does and serves.

  10. I think even in bears and bikers there is that ME and that I. There is no male male or female female in any relationship mental or sexual or from whatever plane. The issue here seems to revolve around contra-sexual development within a tolerant society. No! the Kybalion is not dated and neither is it mailable.

  11. Pingback: On Gender in Magic, or, What to Rename Puer and Puella « The Digital Ambler

  12. Pingback: On Gender in Hermeticism: Excerpts and Commentary « The Digital Ambler

  13. Pingback: Last minute notice: Ariana Serpentine’s online book release party for “Sacred Gender”! « The Digital Ambler

Leave a Note

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: