Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Four Quarters, an Andean Gender Map by Tali Spencer (GUEST POST)

When I decided to write a gay Aymara serpent-shifter as a main character in my story "The Seventh Sacrifice" in the Devil's Night anthology, I wanted to make the portrayal ring true. I had lived for a while in Bolivia as part of a family with indigenous ties, and I had acquired a wealth of family stories. I traveled to landmarks and historic sites, had conversations with Aymara shamans and elders, and amassed a collection of regional music and folklore. I'd also experienced firsthand the continuing conflict between the Catholicism and Western mindset imposed by Spanish conquistadors and the Inquisition and a still living and vital Andean world-view.

I remember grinding corn in a courtyard with an elderly Aymara woman. We were talking about my sons and my desire that my current pregnancy be a daughter. She said, "Why do you think of one or the other, when you have everything? The child will be what it is."

I thought she wasn't getting it. I was the one who didn't get it until much later.

To the Western mind, a child is a boy or a girl... or rather, it is male or it is "not-male". That distinction lies as the core of much homophobia. The "not" part is powerful. The Andean mindset, however, is less all or nothing; it leans toward reciprocity and complements. Constructions of gender recognize the distinctions between male and female but also regards each individual as a microcosm within which female and male qualities are combined... and negotiable.

The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, which means "the four quarters". Two quarters represented the sun; two quarters belonged to the moon. This metaphor of a whole and four quarters reflects another, larger view of the universe. The famous depiction of the Andean universe, drawn by the native Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua in the second decade of the seventeenth century (see image) is said to depict the altarpiece of the main Inca temple at Coricancha. In it, we see an oval at the center, two sun images on the left and two moon images on the right.

The oval represents Viracocha, the androgynous creator from whom the world's complements—dark and light, left and right, male and female—originated. The complements require each other to make a whole. The left without the right, the male without the female... a thing without its complement is only partly realized. The creator is not only the origin of complementary elements, but serves as a mediator of these elements. Balance is the key to becoming one with the creator.

In the Andean mind, men and women seek to achieve harmony with the cosmos just as Christians are taught to do. They simply see a different path. Balance is easy for children, whose male and female aspects have not yet diverged, and among the elderly, in whom male and female are seen as consolidating once more. For those in the flower of adulthood, sexual activity is considered a natural form of expression and young people are expected to have sex. Marriage and sex are completely separate things. Indeed, having sex was so ordinary to the Incas that few records remain of how most people actually went about it.

And what about people who don't do the male-female thing? Well, maybe they do. The Aymara language has distinct words for male-man, female-man, male-woman, and female-woman. These are not sexual designations. They refer to personality or roles in society as helpmates and partners. Balance is about more than finding a mate of the opposite sex. Balance means embracing our natures.

We know from chroniclers that the Incas had temple virgins dedicated to the sun and forbidden to have sex with men, but who nonetheless consorted with each other. Men reportedly served as sacred people, or dressed in female clothing and became "wives" to other men. We don't know just how these relationships came about, though. We also don't know if anal and oral intercourse (both homosexual and straight) was as rampant as some early colonial reports claimed; charges of sodomy might well have been employed to sanction the slaughter and oppression of the native population.

What we do know is that the conquistadors and their legions of priests regarded the indigenous people as steeped in sin and set about eradicating temples and social institutions. Catholic churches squat on the foundations of Inca temples and holy places. European "whiteness" is valued above darker native skin and features. Sex is used for control now, not balance. Much of the population exalts maleness and vilifies anything that suggests androgyny or balance.

I was told, as a point of great pride, by a man in Bolivia that there were no homosexuals in his country. He was very sure of this. He was also very wrong. Although Church groups have prevented legislation that would allow gay couples to marry and foster children, same sex sexual activity is legal and there's a small but active gay and transgender community. It's not quite the return of the Incas or the overthrow of centuries of oppression... but it's a good start.


Tali Spencer's story, "The Seventh Sacrifice", appears in the Devil's Night anthology by Storm Moon Press. Available now!

Two stone steps flanked by tables of packaged, prefabricated charms led to the narrow hole-in-the-wall that constituted a store. Every spare millimeter of space was packed with arcane objects. Fully furred llama fetuses with huge, black eyes and grimacing teeth hung from a pole over the doorway, while more of the same—mummified and without fur—lay piled in baskets. The dried husks of armadillos, toads, and starfish held sway among racks of cheap beads, brass bells, and trays of colored powders. Beltran hoped the powders were herbs, but at least one looked like dried blood, and he knew the others could be anything from antlers to hooves, teeth, or bones.

But what caught his eye next, and took away his already scanty breath, was the man sitting on a stool just inside the doorway. Black hair, straight and shining, framed a brown face with strong features and high cheekbones. The heavy mane cascaded behind broad shoulders and a red poncho of alpaca wool. As the man rose to his feet, Beltran saw that he was taller than most native men, with a wiry, powerful frame. The shopkeeper's eyes commanded him most of all: deep and black, they locked onto his with a hunger so fierce, the compulsion in them made him quiver.

Holy Mother of God, Beltran thought, forcing himself to breathe normally. Marisol never told me her shaman would be gorgeous!

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