Y is for yin and yang

I don’t remember when I first heard of yin and yang, but I can imagine what it was like. I’m guessing that it was presented as a Chinese concept of dualism—maybe a fancy word like dualism wouldn’t have been used, but the thought would have been there. I’m sure that early on, I’d have read something about how the two dots of opposite color in each teardrop-half show that yin and yang are interrelated, and I know I would have been impressed by that, since all the opposites I knew about were more along the lines of oil and water or fire and water: if they didn’t cancel each other out entirely, they had nothing to do with each other, and there was certainly none of this squiggly, boundary-threatening interrelating going on. (Let’s not even get into the idea that maybe those two halves are complementary rather than opposites—way too complicated!)

Yin-yang symbol.
You were expecting a different graphic for this topic?

I probably first started “using” yin and yang after I read Astrology for Yourself by Douglas Bloch and Demetra George. Like most books for beginning astrology students, Astrology for Yourself explains basic astrological concepts like signs, planets, and houses. But unlike most of the beginner books I’d read, the authors used yin and yang to describe the sign polarities rather than the traditional terms feminine and masculine. It was the right idea at the right time for me. I knew what astrologers meant by feminine and masculine, but they were such loaded terms that I was uncomfortable using them. Writers could explain all they wanted to that they didn’t mean female and male, but the words are just too similar in English for me to not make the connection. Sometimes I came across writers who used the terms negative and positive. But again, even though I knew they meant that in the sense of electricity rather than value judgments, the “wrong” meaning was just too ingrained to overlook. Yin and yang had the advantage that I knew no other meaning for them except that of complementary interrelated opposites. It helped me see the yin signs as the same as the yang ones in a certain sense, not as some vaguely defective variant of them. Yin made it more likely that I would think of these signs as having receptive qualities or being inwardly-oriented, rather than tying them to femininity. Yang gave me an idea of outgoing, conscious, and individual that had nothing to do with masculinity per se.

I’m sure I don’t have a full understanding of yin and yang. I’m no expert on Daoism, and what I’ve always gotten is a Western interpretation of a Chinese concept, subject to translation errors, cultural crossed wires, and historical misinterpretations. My understanding is that the original meanings of yin and yang have to do with the shaded and sunny sides of a hill, so there’s been plenty of change even to reach the basic definitions that are common today. But however imperfectly I’ve grasped this concept, I appreciate that it’s given me alternatives to the dualities and opposites I was raised with, and enriched my astrology, divination, spirituality, and philosophy.

F is for feminine and masculine

Once upon a time, I encountered Paganism—specifically Wicca. To state the obvious, Wicca has a (the) Goddess, and it is probably no surprise to learn that I was deeply impressed by this. Deity as female. A deity that was like me in that oh-so-fundamental sense. The feminine as divine. Along with that Goddess, Wicca had a God. Now Christianity had a God, one who was described with terms like “Lord,” “Father,” “he,” and “him.” Despite that, the Wiccan God seemed more masculine to me, maybe because he didn’t have to both be male and still somehow represent the whole of humanity the way the Christian God did. So in becoming Wiccan, I ended up with two deities whose gender was part of their divine nature—the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine.

Traditionally, we have classified far more than just the Goddess and God as feminine and masculine. The water and earth elements were considered feminine, while fire and air were said to be masculine. And as the elements can be used to describe just about everything in the world, this meant that just about everything in the world could be said to be feminine or masculine. You can still see traces of this system. In A Beginner’s Guide to Practical Astrology (1931), Vivian Robson writes, “The odd signs, namely Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius, and Aquarius are termed Positive or Masculine, while the even signs Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricorn, and Pisces are Negative or Feminine. The latter are more receptive and less forceful than the former.” Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs lists the traditional gender for each plant, either feminine or masculine.

That was then, this is now. Although we still classify things along these lines, today we favor other terms, terms without gender. The energy of each entry in Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic is described as “receptive” or “projective” (if either). In Astrology for Yourself, Demetra George and Douglas Bloch state that they “will be using the terms Yin and Yang to describe astrological gender, for they have less perjorative [sic] connotations than the traditional descriptive phrases of ‘masculine/feminine’ and ‘positive/negative.'” Another introductory astrology book, The Only Way to Learn Astrology, describes the energy of the signs as “active” and “passive” rather than Robson’s positive/masculine and negative/feminine. In Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Correspondences, Sandra Kynes explains, “I chose this terminology [yin and yang] to avoid gender bias as well as to encompass the fuller aspect of each energy.”

So…it can be empowering to see Deity as female or male—the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine—but limiting to see the world around us in terms of gender. Feminine-with-a-capital-F good, feminine-with-a-small-f not so good?

Female and male symbols.
But you’re not thinking of women and men at this moment, right?

No easy answers, but I’ll hazard a guess. Okay, obviously the Goddess or a goddess shows us the divine as female. Sure, not all of us human beings neatly divide up between female and male, feminine and masculine, but it’s still a boost to see the feminine considered as holy as the masculine, not just relegated to an “other” “not good enough” category. The divine, bigger than human, can be feminine as well as masculine or both/neither. However, it can be incredibly difficult to keep a distinction between real women and men on the one hand and all the characteristics we’ve been taught are feminine or masculine on the other. If we call a zodiac sign or a behavior or a color or a piece of clothing feminine or masculine, it is way too easy to link it in our minds to women and men. At some point in the future, I think it’s entirely possible that this linkage won’t be automatic and we won’t have to consciously work around it and through it. But for now, yes, feminine and masculine are more loaded and possibly more harmful than (the Divine) Feminine and Masculine.