Tag Archives: History

The Exaggeration of Trans Identities in Ancient and Indigenous Cultures

There’s no question that Western colonialism (and non-Western colonialism, which also exists by the way) was bad and is bad.  I am also not so much of a Western cultural imperialist to suggest that Western culture has, necessarily, been a net benefit to anyone where it has been foisted upon them violently and where it has displaced a native culture.  However, one of the decolonization talking points that has always struck me as odd is the following indictment: if it were not for Western colonialism, the idea of a gender binary would not exist in many cultures today.

I confess to a certain amount of ignorance about a wide array of cultures, both ancient and modern, but this claim has always struck me as specious.  I am not necessarily doubting that some ancient and indigenous cultures have had room for a proverbial “third sex” or a flexibility of gender roles.  There are a few notable examples that come to mind: the Galli priest(esse)s of the ancient Mediterranean and the similar eunuch priest(esse)s of the cult of Atar’atheh in the Levant, the “two-soul” people of certain Native American cultures, the hijra of Indian, the fa’afafine of Samoa, and so forth.  There are some that could be offered as well that are much more of a stretch, like the ergi men of Scandinavian lore, who may better be described as men accused of effeminacy rather than a separate gender identity.  Perhaps even the castrati associated mostly with 16th, 17th, and 18th century operatic male soprano practice could be considered another stretch, depending on how loosely one chooses to define a third sex.  However, were these third sexes really all that common?  Furthermore, when and where they existed, are they at all comparable to the modern notion of transgender and nonbinary identities?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that first question, and I fully admit that I’m not particularly interested in taking the time to track down every possibility.  I feel that most of what I would find may be exaggerated anyway, much like my examples of the ergi and castrati above, both of which can only disingenuously be called gender roles of their own and are not comparable to a third sex or a trans identity.  (And indeed, since castrati are very clearly part of a relatively modern Western European tradition, it would mean that even “the West” has had a messier view of gender than the oppressive and absolute binary which it is blamed for propagating.)  The second question, however, is much easier to answer, and it becomes quite easy to dispute the decolonizer talking point that the West is responsible for a rigid gender binary that is practiced throughout the world.

For one, I think it’s safe to say that most world cultures have practiced a relatively strict gender binary throughout human history, and the examples usually proffered are the exception, not the rule.  Let’s be honest: what percentage of human cultures that have existed have truly had a third (or fourth or fifth) gender role that was an accepted part of their societies?  Is it even ten percent?  Five percent?  Less?  Secondly, how many cultures with additional gender roles gave those roles dignity?  The hijra, for example, have a history of merely being tolerated, an otherwise unwanted part of society that was nevertheless deemed useful in certain kinds of religious rites.  Indeed, it seems that a lot of third sex roles in societies were subject more to toleration than to anything resembling true acceptance, and these people represented the fringe of their society’s generally accepted behavior at best.  Perhaps there’s something to be said for a culture that allows the existence of these folks at all rather than denying or erasing them entirely the way the Protestant West has had a history of doing, but the irony is that it’s probably the progressive West that is now beginning to make strides for those third sex individuals.  (I’m not trying to say that this makes colonization ok by any means, and it’s impossible to know how these cultures would have fared in terms of trans acceptance if they had been allowed to continue uninterrupted.)

It should also be noted that third sex roles can almost never be considered comparable to the modern and mostly Western idea of transgender identities.  For one, many third sex people in such societies seem to have been placed there without their consent, which is no different than being assigned male or female at birth.  If you behaved a certain way or showed certain traits, you were pushed into a role that you may not have wanted in the first place.  Just because there’s more than two gender roles, it doesn’t mean that the gender roles themselves were any less strict or more fluid or that individuals had the right to assert their identities without censure or persecution.  It’s actually kind of comical in its absurdity to imagine a third sex individual being “transgender” themself, i.e., being forced into a third sex identity but wishing they were a man or a woman instead.  Second, the idea of trans identities is still more or less a modern, Western concept.  Many third sex roles are contingent upon certain kinds of social structures (which, by the way, were universally patriarchal despite an additional gender role being added to the society) or even religious beliefs.  In fact, the use of third sex people as priest(esse)s, healers, or prophet(esse)s and mystics seems to make up the bulk of third sex roles I’ve seen proposed by decolonizer folks.  Without intending to be glib, it’s kind of like calling celibate Catholic clergy a third gender simply because their existence is solely predicated upon the completion of religious rites and not on the normal patriarchal binary of fathering and mothering children (i.e., the binary identities of man and woman, respectively, in a strongly patriarchal society).  Were the Galli really a third sex, or just homosexual eunuchs who were tolerated as necessary for the sake of Cybeline rites?  Did such “trans” people as the Galli, if they were indeed such, take on that identity for devout religious purposes, or was the Cybeline cult simply a haven for them to express their gender identities in a society that was otherwise hostile to them?  We can only speculate, and therein lies the problem with many of the proposed examples of historical third sex roles in these societies.

I think the discussion of third sex roles and supposedly nonbinary identities in non-Western cultures leaves us with more questions than answers.  I think it’s pretty clear that the supposedly trans and nonbinary identities found in (a very small amount of) indigenous and pre-modern cultures were not at all comparable to the modern idea of being transgender or nonbinary, and, in the very least, were probably just as restrictive considering the patriarchal cultures in which they existed.  In short, I think the rumors that the sex binary is a particularly Western Protestant invention foisted upon the world, and that the gender constructs of other societies were/are less oppressive (especially to trans-identifying people today, such as they are), are greatly exaggerated . . .

Magickal Thinking: The Modern Origins of Witchcraft and Its Tenuous Politicization by the Contemporary Feminist Left

I’m going to start this out by saying this: witchcraft isn’t real.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a modern religion known as Wicca or Witchcraft and various offshoots of it within the “New Age”, “Earth-based” new religious movements of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.  Those are most certainly real religions.  Some of them even enjoy the same legal status in some countries that other major world religions have.  As I understand it, U.S. Army personnel can even have their religious designation on their dog tags refer to them as practicing Witches/Wiccans and can request Wiccan chaplains.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to the real, modern religion as Witchcraft and its practitioners as Witches (with a capital W) and distinguish it from the historical phenomenon of the oft-maligned witch and accusations of witchcraft (with a lowercase W).  So again: witchcraft, and witches, are not real, and never were.

There isn’t any historical evidence that anyone has ever actually been a witch.  Surely people have been accused of being witches in Western Europe and have been tried, convicted, and executed for the supposed offense of practicing witchcraft, but this doesn’t mean that any of these people were ever witches.  And, of course, by witches I mean individuals who engaged in some kind of unorthodox religious/spiritual tradition that may have included such things as casting spells, summoning demons, being in league with Lucifer, dancing naked in the moonlight during a Black Mass, or anything else you might have seen in television or movies or read in a New Age book in the spiritualist section of Barnes & Noble or at your local neo-pagan trinket store.  The people executed for witchcraft were almost universally practicing Christians in their own communities.  (The exceptions to these Christian “witches” were usually Jews, who we should note were also not witches because they were, well, Jews, i.e., practitioners of Judaism.)  For historians and scholars, the verdict is quite clear: the witch was a Protestant bogeyman, and accusations of being one were not unlike those accusations seen in the medieval Catholic purges of supposed (and occasionally actual) heretics.  And it seems that almost anyone could be accused of being a witch: men and women, the elderly and children, high-born and low-born.  There are some cases of spouses even accusing each other.  At its height, the Protestant witch hysteria is the exemplar of a moral panic taken to its extremes.  And like nearly all moral panics, there was nary a kernel of truth to any of it.

Some will disagree with me (and historians) on this point and conflate pre-Christian European paganism with witchcraft, suggesting that, somehow, there was a minority of actual, practicing pagans that navigated their way through the centuries of a Christianized Europe.  They might even suggest that some of the witches who were executed during the moral panics actually were these crypto-pagans, and therefore “witch” is just a Christian pejorative for some kind of real, practicing pagan.  There are two problems with this view.  The first is that European paganism wasn’t witchcraft and did not resemble what modern Witches consider historical witchcraft to be.  For example, one probably would not argue that the Vestals of ancient Rome, who were pagan priestesses dedicated to the rites associated with the goddess Vesta, were witches.  No Roman would have viewed them that way, and I doubt even modern Witches would suggest it even to bite the bullet.  Priestesses are not witches.  Paganism doesn’t share the cosmology, ethics, belief-system, or ritual action of Witchcraft or even alleged witchcraft, according to modern Witches.  (N.B.: Modern neo-paganism, which is often influenced by Wicca/Witchcraft, may share considerable common ground, but that is not what we’re talking about.  So-called neo-paganism has no real historical connection to pre-Christian religious beliefs either other than appropriating some of its mythos to various degrees.)

The second problem with conflating witchcraft with pre-Christian European religious practices is that even European pagans accused people of being witches, though the terminology may vary from place to place.  The pagan Germanic peoples, for example, looked down upon men practicing divination and even outlawed such people upon pain of death.  So even in pagan communities you could be executed for being a little too “witchy” for their liking, so to speak.  So it’s clear that the kinds of practices associated with witches—spellcraft, divination, augury, etc.—were not part of mainstream pagan society in many parts of Europe.  There is no evidence that suggests, however, that such “witches” considered themselves practitioners of a separate religion from their pagan neighbors.  It seems that they just engaged in taboo religious practices that were viewed as unseemly, but shared the religious worldviews, cosmologies, beliefs, and general practices of other pagans.

I should also note that I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that indigenous religions outside of Europe constitute witchcraft.  This is a point that can be used against everything stated above.  If witchcraft was never a thing in Europe, then what about the “witchcraft” native to Africa or the Americas?  Well, that’s just not the same thing.  There’s a difference between a European Christian being executed for being a “witch” and an Afro-Caribbean being executed by colonial Christian authorities for practicing his native Vodun.  Such a person is practicing Vodun, not witchcraft, and to call it witchcraft is factually inaccurate and enforces a Western Protestant view of other religious traditions.  So no, Africans (or any others) were not practicing witchcraft either.  There simply was no such thing except in the minds of pious Protestants in the midst of a moral panic or as a racist, colonialist view of indigenous, non-Christian religious traditions.

Where does this leave us?  There was no such thing as witchcraft.  It was never a spiritual tradition practiced by anyone, though admittedly there may have been some people in Europe engaging in taboo and “magical” arts.  But there’s no evidence that this was considered a separate, native religious tradition, and invariably these people all identified with the dominant religious culture of their communities.  If, at most, a witch was just a woman who knew how to use herbal remedies, then I think it’s safe to say that witchcraft was never real in the first place.  However, it was an accusation meant to marginalize and persecute people.  In that sense, it is understandable why the cultural symbol of the witch is one with which marginalized people can identify.  And since up to three quarters of accused witches were women (as far as we know), it’s also understandable why young feminist women today are identifying with the historical symbol of the witch and why books like this exist:


That said, what exactly is my problem, and why am I talking about this at all?  To be honest, this entire post is just setting me up to say this: internet leftists need to stop accusing people of “culturally appropriating” witchcraft!

You can’t appropriate the symbols of a religious tradition that never belonged to anyone. It never existed.  There’s nothing to appropriate.  And even if someone appropriates from Witchcraft (i.e., modern, New Age Witchcraft actually practiced as a new religious movement by some people), then maybe that’s in poor taste, but it still isn’t appropriating from indigenous people.  Modern Witchcraft was invented at the earliest in the nineteenth century by Victorian occultists/spiritualists.  Surely you don’t think that white Victorian-era people count as an “indigenous people”.  (And again, you can’t move the goalposts to call witchcraft some non-European indigenous religious tradition because that’s inaccurate and most certainly racist, and it also makes the connection to the trope of the persecuted “witch” of the European witch hysterias meaningless since it can’t be both.)  Maybe it is in poor taste that Sephora, for example, might be commodifying  (modern) Witchcraft with their “witch bundles” as I saw many people say with “woke” glee.  I can understand why that might upset some actual Wiccans, just as I understand why a Catholic might get upset if Sephora started selling Virgin Mary branded white eyeliner for that extra pure and bright waterline all the girls want.  I won’t begrudge anyone from commenting on the grotesque nature of capitalist commodification.  But it’s not any kind of cultural appropriation, and certainly not from any indigenous culture.

There’s no such thing as witchcraft and you can’t appropriate from any kind of traditional “witch culture”.  And as a final note, there’s nothing inherently feminine about witchcraft either because, again, it isn’t real and never was, but also because plenty of men were accused of being witches too.  Maybe there’s something feminist about being a Witch/Wiccan in its modern imagining, but there’s nothing feminist about being a witch in the real, historical sense of what they were (and, incidentally, were not).  It turns out innocent Christian and Jewish men and women burn at the stake in pretty much the same manner and there’s nothing particularly subversive in that worth celebrating to me.  Don’t get woke.  Get educated.

The Psalm Tones of the Liber Usualis and The Modern Tradition of Psalmody In The Western Rite Orthodox Church

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate two forms of the Liturgy: the Mass, or Eucharistic service, and the Office.  The Divine Liturgy of the Office consists of a daily series of prayers, readings, hymns, and psalms to be spoken and sung at various hours of the day.  It is for this reason that it is also called the Liturgy of the Hours (The Liturgy of the Hours Volume III, 6).  This form of the liturgy is as old as the pre-schism Church itself with the command given by the Apostle Paul: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:23 [New King James Version]).”

The Church Fathers instituted prayer hours from older Jewish traditions of psalmody or psalm-singing and adapted it to Roman hours during the Roman occupation of Palestine (Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, Book X, Letter xcvii).  Within the plainchant tradition of the Western Church the Liber Usualis outlines the chant formula to be used in the Office for the singing of psalms.  These are known as the psalm tones (Liber Usualis, xxxij).  In this paper I will discuss the chanting of psalms within the Divine Office of the Western Rite Orthodox Christian communities in the U.S. and compare it to the rubrics outlined in the Liber Usualis.

A participant needs a source text in order to perform the chants and hymns and know the prayers to be spoken during the Office.  In the Eastern Church the Horologion (lit., “Book of Hours”) is used, and traditionally the Roman Catholic Church used the Roman Breviary; today the three volume Liturgy of the Hours has replaced it for use in the English language (The Liturgy of the Hours Volume III, 6).  In the tradition of Western Orthodoxy, the modern Office in English is outlined in The English Office Noted, published first in 2004 by St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church in Washington D.C. and approved for use by Orthodox Christians within the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (http://www.stgregoryoc.org/article/the-daily-office/).

First, the psalm tones used in The English Office Noted will be examined below.  There are nine psalm tones in total, labeled with Roman numerals I through VIII and including the Tonus Peregrinus (“wandering tone”).  They are written in an adapted form of modern notation as seen in Figure 1 with the prescription for chanting Psalm 1 in Tone I.

Fig 1. Psalm 1 in Tone I (The English Office Noted, 29).

Psalm Fig 1

The whole notes indicate the reciting tones, preceded by the intonations or anacruses sung at the beginning of the psalm, and the first reciting tone is followed by the mediant notated in eighth notes and quarters notes.  The bar line represents the end of half of a psalm phrase.  The second half of the psalm phrase receives its own reciting tone and the final cadential formula or termination is written, as with the mediant, using eighth and quarter notes.  As the number of syllables vary within lines of text, the number of notes can vary within the mediant and termination.  Figure 2 provides another example in the second psalm tone for Psalm 3.

Figure 2. Psalm 3 in Tone II (The English Office Noted, 30).

Psalm Fig 2

The psalms themselves come from the Biblical Book of Psalms, a collection of 151 scriptural poems in praise of God.  When singing in English in the Western Rite, an English translation of the psalms accompanies the psalm tones provided for each of them.  Specialized notation in the text is given so that the reader may interpret which syllables of the text are to be performed on the reciting tones, the mediant, and so forth (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  The Benedictus Dominus in Tone III (The English Office Noted, 15).

Psalm Fig 3

Capitalized words are to be sung with the intonation, with the following syllables to be chanted on the reciting tone.  The slash (/) indicates for the reader to chant the syllables that follow in the formula of the mediant, and the asterisk (*) corresponds with the bar line in the psalm tone and the beginning of chant on the next reciting tone.  The second slash in each line of psalmody indicates the beginning of the termination. Figure 4 presents an interpretation of the first line of the Benedictus Dominus from Figure 3.

Figure 4. Realization of Benedictus Dominus using psalmody rubric.

Psalm Fig 4

The challenge of psalmody using the method of The English Office Noted lies in calculating the number of syllables for each chant on the mediant and termination.  However, this is not different than the method prescribed in the Liber Usualis.  Neither of the two rubrics notate every line of the psalms to a specific pitch.  The chanters are expected to remember the psalm tone formula and adapt it to the lines of psalm text (Liber Usualis, 112-113).  Compare the Benedictus on Tone III with the outline for this psalm tone provided in Liber Usualis (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Rubric for Tone III (Liber Usualis, 114).

Psalm Fig 5

There are some subtle differences between the two tones.  For one, the Liber Usualis only uses music ficta on B♭.  Therefore, the F♯ Aeolian in The English Office Noted is merely a transposition of the original A Aeolian.  The Liber Usualis also uses neumatic notation because there is no need in plainchant to indicate precise rhythmic proportions and divisions, but the pitch content corresponds exactly in transposition.  If the termination species labeled “a²” is used, then the intonation, tenor (i.e., reciting tone), mediant, second tenor, and the termination are all identical to the version of Tone III used in the Benedictus in Figures 3 and 4.

The psalm tones of the Liber Usualis, however, also contain a flexus, or “flex” as well as the reciting tone of the first tenor.  This flexus is another pitch, usually a second or a third down from the reciting tone that is chanted in the middle of an especially long line of a psalm to break it up and add some variety (Liber Usualis, xxxij).  This is indicated by a cross (†) seen under the flexus in Figure 5.  This symbol is also used in the text of psalms in The English Office Noted (Figure 6) and seems to indicate the performance of a flexus as well, although it is not noted in any of the provided psalm tones.

Figure 6. Flexus notated within the text of the Benedictus (The English Office Noted, 15).

Psalm Fig 6The English Office Noted and Liber Usualis are not always in such perfect agreement.  By far the largest meaningful variation between the two is in the diversity of terminations found in the Liber Usualis.  Not all of these are represented in the Western Rite English psalmody.  Occasionally a slight variation to the psalm tone is found in the psalter of The English Office Noted that does not match the prescriptions of the Liber Usualis.  Psalm 2 (Figure 7) is in Tone III like the Benedictus, and though it also uses termination “b” from the Liber Usualis, the mediant is altered with the addition of a lower neighbor which is not found in the second species of mediant found in Figure 5.

Figure 7. Psalm 2 in Tone III.

Psalm Fig 7The mediant has an additional pitch not found in Liber Usualis (The English Office Noted, 29).

It can be argued that The English Office Noted utilizes alternative species of the mediant not provided in Liber Usualis.  In the example in Figure 7 the mediant is clearly derivative of the second species of mediant found in Figure 5.  Figure 8 demonstrates the direct correspondence between the two sources in the rubric for Tone II.

Figure 8. Second Tone of Liber Usualis using first species of mediant corresponds to Tone II of  The English Office Noted (Liber Usualis, 114 & The English Office Noted, 30).

Psalm Fig 8Even the tonus peregrinus from both sources are an exact match, represented crucially by a different reciting tone after the mediant (and from whence it gets its Latin name as a “wandering tone”).  With the exception of slight variations in the mediant and termination formulae, the psalm tones represented in The English Office Noted are directly derivative of those prescribed in Liber Usualis for the chanting of psalmody.

The correspondence may not be surprising.  The Anglican source for singing the Office is The Plainsong Psalter which, like The English Office Noted, uses the same nine psalm tones with very little variation from the neumatic rubric of the Liber Usualis.  The most significant difference is that the Anglican source does not include the anacruses or intonations, preferring to notate that part of the psalmody independently (The Plainsong Psalter, xv-xvii).  The Office Liturgy, preserved as it has been in Western Europe since the eleventh century, varies little from these three sources.  In practice the greatest different is merely language: The English Office Noted is in the dominant vernacular for Western Rite Orthodox Christians in North America, and the Liber Usualis retains the original Latin texts of the Roman Rite from which the (English) Western Orthodox Rite is ultimately derived (http://www.stgregoryoc.org/liturgy/).

There are, however, major liturgical differences.  The English Office Noted only gives the reader the chants, psalm tones, antiphons, hymns, and texts for matins (morning) and vespers (evening) services with a single daily rubric for compline (night).  The Liturgy of the Hours in Roman Catholicism includes multiple prayer hours: matins (early morning), lauds (morning), terce (mid-morning), sext (midday), none (afternoon), vespers (evening), and compline (night).  Liber Usualis is divided into individual days of prayer within the Gregorian calendar year with specific readings and psalms appropriate for each.  This is contrasted with the thirty day cycle for the Office outlined in The English Office Noted.  In other words, while one reads through the Liber Usualis only once a year, one reads through the Western Rite Orthodox Office twelve times during the liturgical year.  This creates significant daily differences in the liturgy itself despite the compelling similarities in the psalmody rubrics.

As an example consider Psalm 112 (“Beatus vir qui timet Dominum” or “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord”).  This would be sung amongst other places at Matins on the first Sunday of February in Tone V according to the Liber Usualis (p. 145).  In the Western Rite Orthodox Office, this is to be sung in Tone VII on the twenty-second day of the month, placing it well beyond the first Sunday of February (The English Office Noted, 170).  The performance of Psalm 112 is thus highly variable in the two liturgies.  The liturgies are entirely dissimilar even though they utilize nearly identical psalm tones for psalmody chant.

It is unclear how the psalm tones are chosen in either liturgy.  The Liber Usualis implies in its extensive interpretation rules that certain poetic qualities of the Latin texts make some psalm tones preferable to others in some contexts (Liber Usualis, xvij-xxxij).  While it seems possible that language difference could have affected the different choice of psalm tones prescribed in The English Office Noted, it is not consistent with the Anglican liturgy in English.  The Plainsong Psalter prescribes Tone V for chanting Psalm 1 (Figure 9) whereas the Western Rite Orthodox Office indicates Tone I (Figure 1 above).

Figure 9.  Psalm 1 chanted on Tone V (The Plainsong Psalter, 1).

Psalm Fig 9In spite of the differences between the rubrics of the Liber Usualis and The English Office Noted, the fact that a person proficient in psalmody can meet with considerable success engaging in either of the two Divine Office liturgies is remarkable.  Some aspects of modern psalm chanting in Roman Catholicism and Western Orthodoxy (and indeed Anglicanism) can be heard today that were heard as many as ten centuries ago, most notably the psalm tones themselves.  For modern Christians this provides both a liturgical and a musical-cultural link to Western European Christianity before the schism of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Western Rite Orthodox Christians of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America as well as Roman Catholics can experience a relatively unbroken tradition of observing the Divine Liturgy of the Office in the singing of psalms.  Both The Liber Usualis and The English Office Noted give Christians today a chance to pray the same way Christians have daily for generations of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in Western Europe.  Unlike plainchant during the Mass, which has fallen out of use in the Western Church over the past several centuries, psalmody offers a liturgical singing tradition that better represents the original musical-cultural ethos of Christian liturgical music.


The English Office Noted. Washington D.C.: St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church, 2007.

The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol III. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1975.

The Benedictine Monks of Solesmes. Liber Usualis. New York: The Declee Company, 1961.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music (9th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014.

Most Rev. Bishop Elijah, ed. The Psalter: A Book of Hours. Roseville, CA: Dry Bones Press, Inc., 2001.

Litton, James, ed. The Plainsong Psalter. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1988.

Pliny the Younger, Epistulae

St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church. “Liturgical Resources.” Accessed November 11, 2014. http://www.stgregoryoc.org/liturgy/

St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church. “The Daily Office.” Accessed November 11, 2014, http://www.stgregoryoc.org/article/the-daily-office/