A Study in Social Evolution
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 2 - AS WIZARD OR WITCH | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 3 - As Inventors of the Arts and Crafts

PERHAPS - as it is now generally considered that the belief in Magic preceded what we call religion, and that the wizard came in order of development before the priest - I ought to have placed the present chapter first; but for some reasons the order adopted seems the better. Anyhow it is certain that among primitive folk the prophet, the priest, the wizard, and the witch-doctor largely unite their functions, and are not easily distinguishable from one another; and therefore, from what has already been said, we may naturally expect to find an association between homosexuality and sorcery.

Westermarck (vol. i., p. 477) mentions the ancient Scandinavians as regarding passive homosexuals in the light of sorcerers; and refers (p. 484 note) to Thomas Falkner, who, in his Description of Patagonia (1775), p. 117, says that among the Patagonians

"the wizards are of both sexes. The male wizards are obliged (as it were) to leave their sex, and to dress themselves in female apparel, and are not permitted to marry, though the female ones or witches may. They are generally chosen for this office when they are children, and a preference is always shown to those who at that early time of life discover an effeminate disposition. They are clothed very early in female attire, and presented with the drum and rattles belonging to the profession they are to follow."

The following is an account given by Dawydow, the Russian traveller, of the quite similar custom prevalent in his time (about 1800) among the Konyagas in the Alaska region:-

"There are here (in the island of Kadiak) men with tatooed chins, who work only as women, who always live with the women-kind, and like the latter, have husbands - not infrequently even two. Such men are called Achnutschik. They are not by any means despised, but, on the contrary, are respected in the settlements, and are for the most part wizards. The Konyaga, who possesses an Achnutschik instead of a wife, is even thought fortunate. When father or mother regard their son as feminine in his bearing they will often dedicate him in earliest childhood to the vocation of Achnutschik. Sometimes it will happen that the parents have in mind beforehand to have a daughter, and when they find themselves disappointed they make their new-born son an Achnutschik."

[See Uranismus bei den Naturvolkern, Dr. F. Karsch, in" Jahrbuch fur Sexuellen Zwischenstufen," vol. iii., pp. 161 ,162]

Here we have the association between homosexuality and sorcery clearly indicated for the very extremes, South and North, of the American continent; and, as a matter of fact, and as appears from various other passages in the present work, the same association may be traced among countless tribes of the middle regions of the same continent, and all over the world. There was a legend current among the North American Indians at one time (Footnote 1) about a Bardache, or man of this kind, who was shot at by an enraged warrior of his own tribe; but when the onlookers ran to the place where the transfixed man fell they found only an arrow sticking in a heap of stones. The man had disappeared!

With regard to the attribution of homosexuality also to female wizards, or witches, I believe that, rightly or wrongly, this was very common in Europe a few centuries ago. Leo Africanus (1492) in his description of Morocco says,

"The third kind of diviners are women-witches, which are affirmed to have familiarity with divels. Changing their voices they fain the divell to speak within them: then they which come to enquire ought with greate feare and trembling (to) aske these vile and abominable witches such questions as they mean to propound, and lastly, offering some fee unto the divell, they depart. But the wiser and honester sort of people call these women Sahacat, which in Latin signifieth Fricatrices, because they have a damnable custom to commit unlawful venerie among themselves, which I cannot express in any modester terms."

[Hakluyt Society (3 vols.), vol. ii., p. 458.]

He then goes on to say that these witches, carnally desiring some of the young women who come to "enquire," entrap them and corrupt them so far as actually to cause them in some cases to "desire the companie of those witches" (and to that end, he explains, deceive their husbands). Whether this is all true or not - and probably it is quite vulgarly exaggerated - it shows the kind of thing that was believed at that time about witches.

In some cases the adoption of the life of priest or sorcerer is accompanied by a change of dress (as we have seen), but this is by no means always so. Speaking of the Pelew Islanders, Dr. Frazer attributes the adoption by the priests of female attire to the fact that

"it often happens that a goddess chooses a man, not a woman, for her minister and inspired mouthpiece. When that is so, the favoured man is thenceforth regarded and treated as a woman."

[Adonis, etc., p. 428.]

And he continues -

"This pretended change of sex under the inspiration of a female spirit perhaps explains a custom widely spread among savages, in accordance with which some men dress as women and act as women through life."

This explanation is certainly not very convincing - though it is just possible that in certain cases of men of this kind in early times, the feminine part of their natures may have personified itself, and presented itself to them as a vision of a female spirit or goddess; and thus the explanation might be justified. But anyhow it should not be overlooked that the same impulse (for men to dress as women, and women to dress as men) perseveres to-day in quite a large percentage of our modern civilised populations; and whatever its explanations, the impulse is often enormously powerful, and its satisfaction a source of great delight. It must also not be overlooked, in dealing with this complex and difficult subject, that the mere fact of a person delighting to adopt the garb of the opposite sex does not in itself prove that his or her love-tendency is abnormal - i.e., cross-dressing does not prove homosexuality. There are not a few cases of men in the present day (and presumably the same in past times) who love to dress as women, and yet are perfectly normal in their sex-relations; and therefore too sweeping generalisations on this subject must be avoided. (Footnote 2).

On the whole, however, cross-dressing must be taken as a general indication of, and a cognate phenomenon to, homosexuality; and its wide prevalence in early times, especially in connection with the priesthood, must give us much matter for thought. Dr. Frazer, in his Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, continuing the passage I have just quoted, says:-

"These unsexed creatures often, perhaps generally, profess the arts of sorcery and healing, they communicate with spirits and are regarded sometimes with awe and sometimes with contempt, as beings of a higher or lower order than common folk. Often they are dedicated or trained to their vocation from childhood. Effeminate sorcerers or priests of this sort are found among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo, the Bugis of South Celebes, the Patagonians of South America. . . . In Madagascar we hear of effeminate men who wore female attire and acted as women, thinking thereby to do God service. In the kingdom of Congo there was a sacrificial priest who commonly dressed as a woman and gloried in the title of the grandmother."

And Dr. Karsch, in his Uranismus bei den Natur: volkern, after enumerating the above and many other instances, says that among many or most of these tribes the main object of the cross-dressing seems to be something of a religious or mystical character, since the persons concerned are accounted as beings of a higher order, priests or sorcerers; but that fact does not stand in the way of the homosexual relationship, which certainly prevails in many cases.

An important point in all this matter, and one which on the one hand gives an air of sincerity to the phenomenon, and on the other may easily have connected it with magic and sorcery in the primitive mind, is the rapidity and decisiveness with which the sexual transformation sometimes seems to take place. This is indicated in Dr. Frazer's just-quoted passage on the Pelew islanders; and in such cases we seem to be witnessing a veritable metamorphosis, and cannot help wondering whether a real psychological or physiological transmutation may not be in progress. For though sometimes, as we have seen, children are brought up from an early age to play this exchanged or inverted part in life, yet often they take it up themselves, and cannot be persuaded to abandon it; and often they quite suddenly adopt it as young men (or women) or in mature age - as the result of some supposed dream or inspiration. Wied, lately quoted, says concerning the Bardaches:-

"These generally assert that a dream or some high impulse has commanded them to adopt this state as their 'medicine' or salvation, and nothing then can turn them away from their purpose. Many a father has sought even by force to divert his child from this object, has reasoned with him at first, offered him fine weapons and masculine articles of dress in order to inspire him with a taste for manly occupations; and when this proved useless, has handled him sternly, punished and beaten him; yet all in vain."

[See Prinz zu Wied, op. cit., vol. ii., p. 133.]

John T. Irving, in his Indian Sketches (1835) - a description of the Pawnee and other American Indians - has a whole chapter (ch. xxii.) entitled "The Metamorphosis" and dealing with this subject. He there describes how among a group of female Indians occupied in drying shelled corn in the sun, he one day noticed what seemed a particularly tall and powerful woman - who, on enquiry, turned out to be a man. This man's story was as follows. Once an Otoe brave of the highest renown, he on one occasion, after a desperate fight with the Osages, returned home, and refusing to speak to anyone, threw himself on his bed for the night. In the morning he rose up an altered man.

"He collected his family round him, and informed them that the Great Spirit had visited him in a dream, and had told him he had now reached the zenith of his reputation; that no voice had more weight in the Council; no arm was heavier in battle. But that he must thenceforth relinquish all claim to the rank of a warrior and assume the dress and avocations of a female."

His friends heard him in sorrow, but did not attempt to dissuade him, "for they listened to the communications of the deity with a veneration equal to his own." So he snapped his bow in twain, buried his tomahawk and rifle, washed off his war paint, discarded the eagle plume from his scalp-lock, and ceased to be numbered among the warriors, relinquishing all "for the lowly and servile duties of a female."

Years had elapsed, says the author, since that act of renunciation, but the man had kept to his resolve.

These strange changes, induced in childhood, or spontaneously adopted in youth, maturity, and even old age, have been observed amongst almost all the North American Indian tribes. Wied mentions the Sauks, Foxes, Mandans, Crows, Blackfeet, Dakotas, Assiniboins, and others. And their connection with the Moon seems to be frequently believed in. W. H. Keating, in his Expedition to Lake Winnipeck (2 vols., 1824), says that the Sun among the Winnebagos is held to be propitious to man; but

"the Moon, on the contrary, they held to be inhabited by an adverse female deity, whose delight is to cross man in all his pursuits. If, during their sleep, this deity should present herself to them in their dreams, the Indians consider it enjoined on them by duty to become cinoedi; and they ever after assume the female garb. It is not impossible (continues Keating) that this may have been the source of the numerous stories of hermaphrodites related by all the old writers on America."

Whatever may be the truth about the connection between these strange changes of sexual habit and visionary appearances of the deities (a subject on which I shall touch again later on), we cannot help seeing, as I say, that the fervent belief in such connection is a testimony to the sincerity and actuality of the transformations, as well as a partial explanation of why sorcerous and miraculous powers were credited to the transformed persons. At any rate, the total mass of facts connecting homosexualism in general with religion and divination, or with unusual psychic powers, and on the same lines as those already presented in this and the preceding chapter, is enormously large; and we need delay no longer on their further accumulation. We may, however, venture to say a few words in possible explanation of the connection.

Dr. Iwan Bloch, in his monumental work, Die Prostitution, (Berlin, 1912) leans to the general explanation that homosexuality, just on account of its strange and inexplicable character, was by primitive people accounted as something divine and miraculous, and the homosexual man or woman therefore credited with supernatural powers. He says (vol. i., p. 101),

"This riddle, which despite all our efforts, present-day science has not yet satisfactorily solved, must to the primitive intelligence have appeared even more inexplicable than to us; and a man born with the inclination towards his own sex must have been regarded as something extraordinary, as one of those strange freaks of Nature which among Primitives are so easily accounted divine marvels and honored as such. The by no means scanty supply of ethnological facts on this subject which we possess confirms the above view, and shows in what odour of sanctity homosexual individuals have often stood among Nature-folk - for which reason they frequently played an important part in religious rituals and festivals."

Bloch also quotes a theory of Adolf Bastian, who, in his great work, Der Mensch in der Geschichte, supposes that the priests among early peoples, as representatives of the bisexual principle in Nature, encouraged homosexual rites in the temples on the same footing as heterosexual rites.

"The men prayed to the active powers of Nature, and the women, in privacy and retirement, to the feminine powers; while the priests, who had to satisfy the demands of both parties, learned the idea of sex-changes from the Moon, and served the masculine gods in masculine attire, and the goddesses in feminine garments, or set up images of a bearded Venus and of a Herkules spinning at the wheel."

Neither of these explanations seems to me to be quite adequate. That of Bloch is hardly sufficient; for though it is true that freaks of Nature are often regarded with superstitious awe by savages, that fact does not quite suffice to explain the world-wide attribution of magic powers to homosexuals, nor the systematic adoption of the services of such folk in the temples. The theory of Bastian, on the other hand, is quite opposed to that of Bloch, for it pre-supposes a very wide original prevalence of homosexuality in the human race, which was only preserved (and not instituted) by the priests in the tradition of the religious rituals; and therefore it cuts away the speculation, that the homosexual man was divinised on account of his rarity. Moreover, the theory of Bastian suffers from the fact that the supposed wide prevalence of bisexuality in aboriginal times is by no means proved, or indeed easily provable - although, of course, it may have existed. However, on the subject of bisexuality I shall touch in a later chapter.

For myself, I think that there are two quite possible and not unreasonable theories on the whole matter. The first and most important is that there really is a connection between the homosexual temperament and divinatory or unusual psychic powers; the second is (that there is no such particular connection, but) that the idea of sorcery or witchcraft naturally and commonly springs up round the ceremonials of an old religion or morality when that religion is being superseded by a new one. This is, of course, a well-recognised fact. The gods of one religion become the devils of its successor; the poetic rites of one age become the black magic of the next. But in the case of the primitive religions of the earth their ceremonials were, without doubt, very largely sexual, and even homosexual. Consequently, when new religious developments set in, the homosexual rites, which were most foreign to the later religionists and most disturbing to their ideas, associated themselves most strongly with the notion of sorcery and occult powers.

For myself I am inclined to accept both explanations, and - leaving out, of course, the clause in brackets in the second - to combine them. I think there is an organic connection between the homosexual temperament and unusual psychic or divinatory powers; but I think also that the causes mentioned in the second explanation have in many cases led to an exaggerated belief in such connection, and have given it a sorcerous or demonic aspect.

To take the second point first. Just as, according to Darwin, the sharpest rivalry occurs between a species and the closely allied species from which it has sprung, so in any religion there is the fiercest theological hatred against the form which has immediately preceded it. Early Christianity could never say enough against the Pagan cults of the old world (partly for the very reason that it embodied so much of their ceremonial and was in many respects their lineal descendant). They were the work and inspiration of the devil. Their Eucharists and baptismal rites and initiations - so strangely and diabolically similar to the Christian rites - were sheer black magic; their belief in the sacredness of sex mere filthiness. Similarly the early Protestants could never say malignant things enough against the Roman Catholics; or the Secularists in their turn against the Protestants. In all these cases there is an element of fear - fear because the thing supposed to have been left behind lies after all so close, and is always waiting to reassert itself - and this fear invests the hated symbol or person with a halo of devilish potency. Think, for instance, what sinister and magical powers and influence have been commonly ascribed to the Roman Catholic priests in the ordinary Protestant parlours and circles!

It is easy, therefore, to understand that when the Jews established their worship of Jehovah as a great reaction against the primitive nature-cults of Syria - and in that way to become in time the germ of Christianity - the first thing they did was to denounce the priests and satellites of Baal-Peor and Ashtoreth as wizards and sorcerers, and wielders of devilish faculties. These cults were frankly sexual - probably the most intimate meaning of them, as religions, being the glory and sacredness of sex; but the Jews (like the later Christians) blinding themselves to this aspect, were constrained to see in sex only filthiness, and in its religious devotees persons in league with Beelzebub and the powers of darkness. And, of course, the homosexual elements in these cults, being the most foreign to the new religion, stood out as the most sorcerous and the most magical part of them. Westermarck points out (" Moral Ideas," ii. 489) that the Medieval Christianity constantly associated homosexuality with heresy - to such a degree in fact that the French word herite or heretique was sometimes used in both connections; and that bougre or Bulgarian was commonly used in both, though to begin with it only denoted a sect of religious heretics who came from Bulgaria. And he thinks that the violent reprobation and punishment of homosexuality arose more from its connection in the general mind with heresy than from direct aversion in the matter - more in fact from religious motives than from secular ones.

But connecting with all this, we must not neglect the theory so ably worked out by Prof. Karl Pearson among others - namely that the primitive religions were not only sexual in character but that they were largely founded on an early matriarchal order of society, in which women had the predominant sway - descent being traced through them, and tribal affairs largely managed by them, and in which the chief deities were goddesses, and the priests and prophets mainly females. Exactly how far such an order of society really extended in the past is apparently a doubtful question; but that there are distinct traces of such matriarchal institutions in certain localities and among some peoples seems to be quite established. Karl Pearson, assuming the real prevalence of these institutions in early times points out, reasonably enough, that when Christianity became fairly established matriarchal rites and festivals, lingering on in out-of-the-way places and among the peasantry, would at once be interpreted as being devilish and sorcerous in character, and the women (formerly priestesses) who conducted them and perhaps recited snatches of ancient half-forgotten rituals, would be accounted witches.

"We have, therefore," he says, "to look upon the witch as essentially the degraded form of the old priestess, cunning in the knowledge of herbs and medicine, jealous of the rites of the goddess she serves, and preserving in spells and incantations such wisdom as early civilisation possessed."

[The Chances of Death and other studies, by Karl Pearson (2 vols., 1897), vol. ii., p. 13.]

This civilisation, he explains, included the "observing of times and seasons," the knowledge of weather-lore, the invention of the broom, the distaff, the cauldron, the pitchfork, the domestication of the goat, the pig, the cock and the hen, and so forth - all which things became symbols of the witch in later times, simply because originally they were the inventions of woman and the insignia of her office, and so the religious symbols of the Mother-goddess and her cult.

The connection of all this with homosexual customs is not at once clear; but it has been suggested - though I am not sure that Karl Pearson himself supports this - that the primitive religions of the Matriarchate may have ultimately led to men-priests dressing in female attire. For when the matriarchal days were passing away, and men were beginning to assert their predominance, it still may have happened that the old religious customs lingering on may have induced men to simulate the part of women and to dress as priestesses, or at least have afforded them an excuse for so doing. In this way it seems just possible that the pendulum-swing of society from the matriarchate to the patriarchate may have been accompanied by some degree of crasis and confusion between the functions of the sexes, homosexual customs and tendencies may have come to the fore, and the connection of homosexuality with the priesthood may seem to be accounted for.

This explanation, however, though it certainly has a claim to be mentioned, seems to me too risky and insecure for very much stress to be laid upon it. In the first place the extent and prevalence of the matriarchal order of society is a matter still very much disputed, and to assume that at any early period of human history the same was practically universal would be unjustified. In the second place, granting the existence of the matriarchal order and its transmutation into the patriarchal, the connection of this change with the development of homosexual customs is still only a speculation and a theory, supported by little direct evidence. On the other hand, the facts to be explained - namely, the connection of homosexuality with priesthood and divination - seem to be world-wide and universal. Therefore, though we admit that the causes mentioned - namely the attribution of magical qualities to old religious rites, and the introduction of feminine inversions and disguises through the old matriarchal custom - may account in part for the facts, and in particular may in certain localities have given them a devilish or sorcerous complexion, yet I think we must look deeper for the root-explanations of the whole matter, and consider whether there may not be some fundamental causes in human nature itself.


  1. See Maxn. Prinz zu Wied, Reise in das innere N. America (2 vols., 1839 and 1841), vol. ii., p. 133. - Return
  2. See, in these connections, Dr. Hirschfeld's remarkable book Die Transvestiten (Berlin, 1910); also Die Kontrare Sexual-empfindung, by Dr. A. Moll (edition 1893), pp. 82-90. - Return

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