Androgyny in the Levantine World
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Introduction A number of colleagues have reacted adversely to my characterization in recent studies on the Ugaritic texts of the deity El as androgynous. It was in response to this criticism that I wrote the ﬁrst draft of the present paper for a Festschrift in honour of Yitzhak Avishur in the summer of 2002. The present version has broadened it a little, and alluded to, but not merely repeated, other elements that I have already published, as well as adding new material, in order to address more directly than in the ﬁrst draft some of the biblical passages which I shall maintain have a connection with the theme. This in turn will provide at least circumstantial evidence in support of my interpretation of the Ugaritic matieral. By ‘androgyny’ in the ensuing discussion I mean not merely ‘bisexuality’ (as with an aphid or other invertebrate life-forms) or ‘hermaphroditism’, as having both male and female genitalia, and therefore a monster both in reality and in symbolism (as representing chaos), but rather a widespread metaphor, which has its origin in ancient conceptions of sexuality, concerning primordial deities and primordial men, who contain within themselves an archetype, later to be reiﬁed in the separated genders. Such ﬁgures, divine or human, are essentially prototypical, and this mode of their being belongs to the primordial time of the foundation of the world. It follows from their wholly conceptual imagining, that is, as having no actual reality in the world of experience, that they represent a ‘theoretical reality’, which in Platonic terms would be called an Idea. There is no reason to assume that Platonic modes of thought were invented by Plato. In all probability he was heir to an ancient tradition, and as regards the theme of androgyny, he himself is credited with a version of the concept in mythic form, of Hermaphroditus the offspring of the love of Hermes and Aphrodite. This ﬁgure was, however, bisexual rather than androgynous in the sense espoused here, and in any event was hardly a primal ﬁgure. In a pre-scientiﬁc (even formally pre-philosophical) world, the
concept is generally expressed in a rather unsophisticated way by positing a single parent, who performs the roles of both father and mother of divine or human offspring. That is, the image has its origin in a simpler, bisexual expression, but which is striving through the metaphor to articulate something more complex, and which is consequently ﬁlled out with symbolic potential over and above the original sense. This initial act sets in train a new order, perhaps to be seen rather broadly as ‘creation’, though strictly conﬁned in practice to those subsets we classify as theogony or anthropogony, that is, those conceptual forms which attempt to describe a derivative order which is ‘of one substance with the father’. The androgynous state is thus ipso facto transformed, as in the Ugaritic example below, in which henceforth the creator deity who is at ﬁrst male and female becomes simply male, for purposes of the initiation of the next generation, thus distinguishing the further levels of the pantheon. That is, the androgynous condition does not persist, but is itself a primordial phase in a developmental process, though the period of initial development may be prolonged, if we assess the Egyptian examples correctly. The once separated genders, particularly when dealing with human examples, are often regarded as deﬁcient until reunited, as perhaps hinted at in Genesis 2.24, which also offers a clue to the correct overall interpretation of the metaphor. An associated notion which we have no time to develop here is the Aristotelian idea that there was only one gender, the conventional ‘male’ and ‘female’ manifestations of it being ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’.1 In his essay The Two and the One, Eliade subsumed the concept of androgyny under the more philosophical term Coincidentia Oppositorum, the sexual nature of the androgyne being thus one of a range of metaphors for the expression of the totality of the concept.2 Eliade evidently considered androgyny to be a sexual metaphor for the philosophical ontological issue involved in the ultimate being, namely the oppositions of ‘esse and non esse’.3 This comes out rather nicely in the developing metaphysics of late Vedism, where Prajāpati, an androgynonus creator and prototype of Brahmā, was the personiﬁcation of Brahman, which was developed in the later Upanis ads on two levels, as sat (‘being’) and asat or bhava (‘not being’, ‘becoming’). There is no evidence of such thought in the ancient Near East, and yet it may already have been intuited by the mythographers. Without explicit clues, we are often at some loss as to the precise meaning of what they wrote. The primacy of the androgyne may be explained in terms of the importance of anthropomorphism in human consciousness
(and the unconscious) from hominid times.4 If some of the Vedic insights just mentioned be regarded as falling foul of E. Johnson’s critique of the implicit sexism of much male discourse on this subject (see below), this may be explained frankly in the context of what W.D. O’Flaherty has called the ‘virulent misogyny’ of much Hindu thought.5 But the Indian androgyne is not anti-female; it is anti-gender, in its insistence on the phenomenality of all dualities. The chief importance of androgyny as a religious symbol lies in its offering a counter to the relentlessly analytical nature of human thought, which so readily and persistently splits hairs into ever ﬁner strands, inventing differentiations where none were perceived before, and essentially fragments the universe and human experience into disparate and opposed orders of reality. To this schizoid trend in human culture, androgyny proposes a countervailing primordial oneness, a wholeness from which the fragments emerged, and to which they may periodically return. Cult offers some realization of this aspiration, theology afﬁrms it in seeking a higher synthesis of reality, and as we shall see, it lies deeply within sexual consciousness, and in the longing of lovers to be one, and in the biblical concept of marriage as enunciated in poetic form in Genesis 2.24. Examples of the motif are well known from around the ancient world, notably in Egypt and India, but also in Greece, Iran, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. I am going to deal here with evidence from Egypt, Ugarit, and Israel.