Observations on the Gender Status of the Chalice
by Race MoChridhe
In the last installment of my series on magickal tools, we looked at the story of the athame and its entrance into modern Wiccan practice, focusing especially on Gerald Gardner’s fascination with the magical knives of Southeast Asia.
The meaning of the chalice ranges just as far. In its symbolism and functionality it is a tool documented back thousands of years, sometimes bearing sacred drink as in the soma rites of India, and sometimes bearing sacred flame as on the altars of Greece and Rome. The conjunction of these two uses is in no way accidental, as the motif of “the fire in the water” can be found ubiquitously across Indoeuropean cultures, where this particular miraculous paradox represents the union of opposites generally, but with a sharper point depicts the descent of essence or form onto unformed substance (or sometimes, its birth within unformed substance).
In classical Greek thought, certainly, this eternal moment in which the illuminating power of fire meets the fecundity of the waters was the fulcrum of creation—the point at which divine intelligence refashioned chaos into the ordered cosmos, a point reflected in their (admittedly unscientific and often sexist) view of the relationship of the male to the female in the act of procreation. Modern witchcraft’s dipping of the athame into the chalice, previously discussed, as well as certain Druidic rituals involving tapping a chalice with a wand, all hearken back to this basic ritual framework of metaphysical meaning.
That the modern use of the chalice is not directly descended from this double-symbolism of Classical culture is indicated by the fact that we do not now, generally, regard the chalice as a fire symbol, or light fires in it. (Except for Unitarian Universalists. Cauldrons, of course, are another story.) All modern Western ritual use of the chalice (aside from a small number of rites inspired by Hindu tradition) has been filtered through Christianity. From the classical world, the Christians inherited the metaphor of chalice as womb, with Mary carrying the “light of the world” reprising the ancient theophany of the fire in the waters.
The first of these conflations occurred across the Christian world at an early stage, when the dove and the ray of light from the Baptism became identified with the Pentecostal flame, and both were figured as descending upon the Eucharistic chalice. Most people with an interest in esoteric matters know this image from A.E. Waite’s design of the Tarot Ace of Cups. While fire has been esoterically masculine in Western cultures going back to the oldest strata of Greek thought (and grammar), the Holy Spirit was, until relatively recent times, consistently feminine in Christian tradition (a fact made explicit in the Gospel of the Hebrews, which was quoted to make this point by several Church Fathers). Furthermore, the dove, which accompanied the descending light of heaven at Jesus’ baptism, was made a Marian symbol through syncretism with the that bird’s ancient associations with Venus. These two developments together ensured that, while fire remained masculine in most Western occult thought, the fire of the Spirit became feminine in Christian contexts.
In medieval Wales, this line of thinking was taken a step further by reflection on Aristotle’s medical treatises, which claimed (inaccurately), that the developing fetus derives its blood from its mother. This led a number of Welsh theologians to conclude that the blood Jesus shed upon the Cross, and which had been contained in the Holy Grail at the Last Supper, was, in fact, Mary’s. To the extent, then, that the blood within the cup had recapitulated the metaphor of the light of the world within Mary’s womb, that symbol became circular, with Mary as both blood and womb—both fire and water, both essence and substance. In short, it made her All in All.
Britain most particularly thus developed an exclusively feminine association to the chalice as symbol of the womb, symbol of the unformed, symbol of the spirit, and symbol of divine inspiration (this last being helped by Celtic traditions that had treated whiskey as “fire in the water”). To what extent Gardner was knowledgeable about indigenous British theology is unknown, but it is wholly conceivable that he had some knowledge of Welsh traditions on this point. Whether or not he did, however, we are left with a tantalizing thread to follow.
We observed last time that “in his [Gardner’s] tools we find suggestions that it [the union of opposites between athame and chalice] is an operation internal to the masculine nature as well” as being enacted between the masculine and the feminine. Armed with a deeper knowledge of the chalice’s background, we find that it can contain the whole principle of union within itself also, and thus locate it internal to the feminine nature.
There is much talk these days about developing an “inclusive” Wicca, and much criticism of the Gardnerian tradition for its staunch heteronormativity. Much of that criticism has been deserved by the conduct of many of that tradition’s advocates. Nonetheless, a close examination of Gardner’s unique symbolic construction of the toolkit offers possibilities for reading even very strict, traditional Gardnerian rites in a new and more inclusive light, with both athame and chalice being complementary, and yet also whole and dialectically dynamic within themselves. This is, perhaps, a paradox, but the fire in the water always was.
Other articles in this series:
The Druid's Sacred Tools
The Athame's Ancestors
Bells in Ritual Usage