Deities of non-binary gender

As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.

The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)

Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:

“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)

While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.

The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.

Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:

“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China, E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)

There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.

Skunk skull

A few months ago, I found a dead skunk in a forgotten corner of St. John’s Cemetery; at that time, all that was left was the skin and the skeleton, and of course a faint smell of skunk. The skunk was lying in the midst of a deer trail. I couldn’t figure out how it had died: did a predator such as a raptor or a Bobcat kill it (Carol has seen a small Bobcat near the cemetery)? or did it die in some other manner? Based on what was left of the pelt, I’d say it was a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), not a Western Spotted Skunk, the only other species that lives in this area.

Since I first saw the body, the decomposers have been at work, and as the skin withered and decayed, the skeleton has slowly been emerging. Some of the smaller bones are now missing — it looked like Mule Deer have stepped on what’s left of the skunk — but the skull is now clearly visible. Using a stick, I positioned the skull and jawbone so I could see the teeth.

The dental formula for both the Striped Skunk and the Spotted Skunk is: Incisors 3 per side upper / 3 per side lower, Canines 1/1, Premolars 3/3, Molars 1/2, for a total of 34 teeth. This individual was missing one lower right incisor, the lower right canine, and one upper right premolar.

We have seen Striped Skunks wandering around the cemetery at night. In fact, skunks are the primary reason to not go into the cemetery at night: it would be far too easy to stumble across one as it came walking around from behind a gravestone, and the consequences of such a meeting could be unpleasant. Most of us would prefer to run into a ghost than a skunk.


It has been a moist winter, and I’ve been seeing quite a few mushrooms walking around San Mateo. Most of the mushrooms I’ve been seeing are small and inconspicuous, but a few days ago I came across a showy large orange fungus in a hidden location. Today I went back and took some photographs:

I feel fairly confident assigning this to genus Gymnopilus, given the large diameter of the cap (6+ inches / 15+ cm), its orangeish color, and the fact that it is growing on decaying wood (a rotting stump that could be either a conifer or deciduous tree). Based on the description in A Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America (Kent and Vera B. McKnight, Houghton Mifflin, 1987), and without examining spores under a miscroscope or doing chemical tests, I’ll venture a guess that this is Showy Flamecap (Gymnopilus spectabilus, considered by some to be conspecific with G. junonius); however, this is an uninformed guess on my part, and it could easily be another Gymnopilus species. According to Michael Kuo, “identifying the species of Gymnopilus, in North America anyway, cannot yet be done with scientific accuracy.” (Laura Guzman-Davalos et al. [Mycologia, 95(6), 2003, pp. 1204–1214] found genetic evidence that the spectabilis-imperialis complex represents a clade, but they did not attempt to resolve the distinctions between species within this subgroup of Gymnopilus.) So it’s best to leave the identification as Gymnopilus species.

(Revised on Feb. 4. Written on Jan. 19 and posted on Jan. 25; I held this post for several days, because subspecies of Gymnopilus junonius from the eastern U.S. and Korea may contain psilocybin. I didn’t want some idiot to find this mushroom and, based on my very tentative identification, ingest it hoping for hallucinations. The mushroom in the photographs is now pretty well decayed, so that danger is past.)

Clergy hit a new low in perceptions of ethics and honesty

Gallup has been polling people in the U.S. since 1977 about perceptions of the honesty and ethics of various professions. These Gallup polls rate the perceived honesty of professions as “very high/high,” “average,” or “very low/low” (with the obvious addition of a choice for “no opinion”).

In Gallup’s most recent poll about perceptions of the ethics and honesty of various professions, the nursing profession again tops the list, with 84% of people giving them a “very high/high” rating, 15% giving them an “average rating,” and 1% giving them a “very low/low” rating.

By contrast, only 37% of people give clergy as a profession a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics; 43% give an “average rating,” 15% give a “very low/low” rating, with the remainder offering “no opinion.” In their report, Gallup made a special note of the decline in the perception of clergy honesty and ethics:

“Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985. Positive views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy dropped in 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and although positive ratings rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been steadily declining since 2012.”

However, although the Catholic sexual abuse scandal is foremost in many people’s minds, evangelical Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton notes that there are other clergy scandals affecting some people’s perceptions of clergy. Throckmorton specifically mentions the recent accusations of clergy financial misconduct at Harvest Bible Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch near Chicago: when some whistle-blower bloggers made those accusations public, rather than addressing the accusations, Harvest Bible Church sued the bloggers for defamation. Throckmorton contrasts Harvest Bible Church with Willow Creek Church, another big evangelical Christian megachurch which recently ousted its founding pastor after credible allegations of misconduct; subsequently the entire leadership team resigned, realizing their leadership had been compromised by their poor handling of the allegations, and realizing that the church needed to get a fresh start. (Throckmorton’s most recent blog post about Harvest Bible Church, which links to the Gallup poll, is here.) We could add more examples from outside evangelical Christianity of how organized religious groups respond poorly to accusations of ethical lapses and dishonesty: the many accusations against the Church of Scientology and their opaque responses come immediately to mind.

One thing that I get from Throckmorton’s post is that poor governance goes hand in hand with decline in trust in clergy. And we should distinguish governance from polity. The hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church should in theory be more effective at removing unethical clergy than our Unitarian Universalist congregational polity; more than one unethical Unitarian Universalist minister was able to continue their unethical ways because the Unitarian Universalist Association cannot prevent a local congregation from hiring whomever they want as minister. However, all too often the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy covered up clergy misconduct. The Unitarian Universalist Association, by contrast, has recommended that search committees carry out careful background checks of potential new clergy hires; in Unitarian Universalism, the failures in governance too often take place at the local level, representing the biggest weakness of congregational polity is dealing with ethics; but on the whole, despite the weakness of its polity, Unitarian Universalists have a somewhat better record of dealing with clergy misconduct than the Roman Catholic Church. Again, my point here is that no type of polity is immune from ethical lapses; the real issue is good governance practices within whatever polity a religion might have.

I suspect, therefore, that the decline in the perception of clergy honesty is linked to a wider decline in trust of organized religion — a decline that in many cases is deserved. Lay leaders and clergy, regardless of our polity, need to be scrupulously careful about maintaining good governance practices that are transparent and that strengthen accountability; and when ethical violations arise, we need to address them quickly and transparently.

Your CEO has already earned more than you

According to the BBC:

The date of 4 January is marked as the day when CEOs of Britain’s biggest companies already earn what it takes an average worker to make in a year. But British CEOs are not the only ones who out-earn their workers so quickly. An analysis of the wage gap between CEOs and workers in 22 countries by the financial and media company Bloomberg shows that executives in the United States and India can get the average worker’s yearly wage even faster.

In Great Britain, CEOs make 201 times the average workers salary; in the United States, they make 265 times as much as the average worker. So if you live in the U.S., Great Britain, or India, your CEO may already have made two or three times your annual salary.

Silicon Valley has a high concentration of CEOs living here (that is, one of their many houses is located here). We also have a heck of a lot of homelessness here — people living in RVs, people couch surfing, people living in tent encampments, people living on the street, people living in homeless shelters — because of the high cost of housing, which has been driven sky-high in part by demand from people who have lots of money to spend on housing.

Which means if we want to solve the homelessness problem, it’s not enough to build more housing (the supply-side solution). Cutting CEO salaries, and the salaries of all the top 1/10%, is a good first step; Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, is not worth $40 million a year, nor does she need that much money, nor does she deserve it when her salary means that lots of people have to live on the street.

This also means that it’s not enough for Democrats to get angry with Donald Trump. The Democrats have been trying to ally themselves to Silicon Valley, but in terms of inequality of wealth the Silicon Valley execs are just as evil as Mr. Trump.