Initiation, and The Metaphysics of Manhood

“To be thus a man was … to be more a man today than yesterday, more a man tomorrow than today. To be a man was to forge ever upward toward the peak of manhood,” writes Yukio Mishima in Runaway Horses, “there to die amid the white snows of that peak.”


But what is it to be a man today, in the modern world? While gender itself is increasingly seen as a matter of choice — with, for example, Facebook recognizing over 70 different genders — the question of masculinity is more deeply rooted. Gender ambiguity has been  part of culture since before civilization. According to Mircea Eliade, male shaman’s — sometimes referred to as “wizard priests” — often dressed in female clothing, thus transgressing the norms of the relatively small and insular tribal culture, as well as transcending what would have appeared to have been the dual nature of the material world (we should not forget, of course, such ideas as the sun and moon being male and female, for example). Eliade refers to this, explicitly, as the shaman’s “Ritual transformation into a woman.”

In the Icelandic Poetic Edda, a story of the god Thor is related, where his hammer has been stolen and is being kept by Thrym, the king of the giants, enemies of the gods. For it’s return he demands to marry the goddess Freja. Not liking the bargain, the gods convince Thor to go to Thrym dressed in female bridal clothing with his face veiled (as Freja would have been, as the gods had handed her over), so that he can get close to the hammer, and will have the chance to to get it back.

Although it has been claimed by some scholars that the strange tale could have been created by Christians who wanted to poke fun at the old gods, this seems unlikely, since Thor is ultimately victorious, taking back the hammer and slaughtering the giant and all his family. The story makes it clear that the hammer, Mjolnir (“the grinder” or “the miller”) was, on one level of meaning, a symbol of male virility and sexual power (which, of course, was tied to family, the continuation of the tribe, etc., rather than just pleasure). But, it is also possible that it retains a distant memory of the shamanic practice of cross-gender dressing.

This kind of gender ambiguity arises in the modern era with such movements as Dandyism, and such figures as David Bowie and British playwright Quentin Crisp (though neither dressed as women per se). Undoubtedly, gender ambiguity has emerged at least partly in response to the unimpressive cliches of modern masculinity. No longer do we find, in contemporary society as a whole, the idea that masculinity is tied to certain virtues, such as bravery, speaking the truth, protection of the weak, self-sacrifice, etc. Instead, the male gender declined, spiritually speaking, becoming from the end of World War II, at least, a kind of home cultural “home guard,” talking always of freedom while denying any new or original expression to emerge in the culture.

Instead of engaging with the great ideas, such as God, spirituality, Truth, beauty, and so on, the male sex in particular came to worship the institutions, even as the values and worldviews they stood for were rejected. Hence, in England, even those who did not believe in Jesus or God would still answer that they were “Church of England” is asked their religious affiliation. Values, ideas, danger, and daring all came to be regarded as relics of an un-evolved society. What mattered more was the acquiring of material comforts and safety. (One must realize that in the post World War II era entire streets all over the major cities of Europe — including London — were reduced to rubble, so such an attitude is hardly surprising.)

The material body is a kind of karma, however, and neither material comforts nor intellectual movements that seek to deny this can prove satisfactory in the long term. The male body is a a kind of karma that must be wrestled with. Though men and women will share many problems, since they must live and work together in society, they also have their own distinct karmas and questions to be addressed. Today one of the most serious issues facing men is the absence of male role models who can exemplify what authentic masculinity is. The vast majority of men in prison either had no fathers, abusive fathers, or absentee fathers. Boys are also failing in schools in part because the type of literature, and the way it is discussed, tends to appeal to girls. Boys prefer non-fiction, for example, and don’t like talking about feelings.

Spirituality follows very closely the flavor of modern education. It is about feelings (especially love for humanity), optimism, imagination, art, etc. Throughout the modern era, spirituality has been drafted in to support the emerging zeitgeist and politics of the day. Nazism drew on Christianity and neo-paganism, as well as on Darwinism. Today — though the politics may be the absolute opposite — progressives also seek to find a mythological and spiritual basis for their contemporary, modern worldview. What is important is not so much self-transformation, but changing in line with the opinions of those deemed cooler and blazing a trail to the future (even though opinions deemed to be correct, in this regard, will inevitably change and may even reverse themselves).

Time is seen as linear. For progressivism, humanity is inevitably moving ever toward a fairer, better, more enlightened society. We must conform to what we imagine tomorrow’s society will look like.

Authentic spirituality is, in contrast, rooted in “the eternal return,” cyclical nature, and time cycles — birth, death, and rebirth; spring, summer, fall, and winter; the rising and setting of the sun; the golden age, the iron age or Kali Yuga, etc. The initiate is called to face what is — not merely himself or his psyche, but what is transcendent and beyond and greater than the merely human. For some men, it may involve a shamanic gender-ambiguity. We cannot rule it out, especially, undoubtedly, for gay men. However, for most, it will also, to some degree, require learning the skills and psyche of the warrior — the development of muscles; the training of the body; learning patience, comradeship, acceptance of hardship; accepting victory; responsibility; etc. Meditation, ritual, cultivating inner energy, etc., has long been a part of this Way, and can be for the contemporary man. But it is not enough in itself.

claudiusClaudius Aureus is a blogger and spiritual practitioner with one foot in the West and the other in the East.


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