ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
© All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe 2015-16  All artworks copyright the estate of the artist.

the major themes

the androgyne Starting in the late 1930s and continuing throughout the early 1940s, Colquhoun’s exploration of gender increasingly took on a spiritual aspect. Rather than using stories from the historic or mythic past to disparage traditional asymmetric gender power, she turned her attention to the more fundamental questions of the origin and nature of gender differences and the possibility of their ultimate reconciliation. She drew inspiration from Christian and Hebrew mysticism and from hermetic sources. This rich brew was distilled partly in her writings and partly in her painting. A central theme in this was the androgyne. Some background information will be helpful before considering Colquhoun’s own views. The Myth of the Androgyne There is a long history of androgyny in occult and mystical writings: that is to say, the assertion that male and female properties were originally contained within one body. Some stories of androgyny refer to the gods and others to the early history of human kind. References to a race of androgynes which once inhabited the world occur in the myths of both East and West. In the Western tradition this primordial androgyne is to be found in the writings of certain of the Qabalists, Gnostics, Neo-Platonists, Swedenborgians and Theosophists. (1) Here, Adam was an androgynous being whose fall from grace was marked by splitting into separate genders. Redemption occurs when the duality of gender is transcended and male and female are reunited in wholeness and completion. (The occult importance often given to the sexual act by magicians is that, momentarily, orgasm mystically reunites separated souls and brings the participants closer to the absolute. The true joy of sex has less to do with physical pleasure and more with the temporary spiritual integration of separate individuals in the original condition of the complete human.) And what will the outcome be following reunification? Will the perfected human be double sexed, or no sexed? Will there be two sets of genitalia or none at all? For certain of the medieval Qabalists redemption was a state in which the feminine was absorbed into the male. Alternatively, some twentieth century feminist theosophists posited a future without males in which females, with no need for genitalia, would have the ability to reproduce parthenogenically. (2) This, in brief, was the somewhat confusing context in which Colquhoun conducted her own investigations into mystical gender. Colquhoun’s Search for the androgyne Colquhoun argued repeatedly that the true meaning of the Biblical passage ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them’ (Genesis 1.27) is that of a hermaphrodite creator extending and reflecting himself in his creature, Man, also hermaphrodite … male and female are co-equal and co-existent and reflect equally the manifest aspect of the Divine. (3) In another essay Colquhoun struggled to decide how many openings the human body contained (whether, for example, sweat glands should be included in the count) before deciding that the male body has twelve and the female thirteen. (4)  She suggested, on this basis, that the female body is more specialised and evolved than that of the male. By referring to these openings as ‘gates’, she acknowledged her indebtedness to Helena Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society. Ever since Blavatsky had expounded her theory of root races, theosophists had argued about the evolution of sexual function. Some believed that a new human type – the Uranian – double-sexed and a perfect blend of masculine and feminine qualities as well as spiritually highly advanced, would emerge. Others argued that woman was the pinnacle of spiritual and physical evolution. For them, there was only one sex: men were simply imperfect women. Elsewhere Colquhoun explained that: The division into male and female represents ‘a split in the psyche’. The task is to replace this unresolved duality by a genuinely androgynous whole, the fruitful relation of man and daimon,  conjunctio. (5) Expressing it in alchemical terms, Colquhoun described the mission of the Order of the Parthenogenesists, the religious order to which the heroine belongs in I Saw Water: This was no less than the mystery of Parthenogenesis, wherein the lunar soul that perceives and feels is fertilised — a long eclipse over — by rays from its own hidden sun, to bring forth at last the radiant Child. In other words, it is the reunification of the separated genders. Gender-based imagery Colquhoun’s exploration of male and female is a regular theme in her writings, but is also to be found in her artworks; in particular a large number of watercolours that date to the early 1940s and which form a number of interconnected series. in which she developed a highly personal visual vocabulary. Taken together, her watercolours of the early 1940s form a serious and systematic exploration of love and sexuality, physical and spiritual, Christian and pantheistic. Phrases such as Alchemical Figure; Diagrams of Love and Christian Marriage constantly recur as titles or annotations. In Diagrams of Love: the Androgyne 1 (1940) vertical lips extend, like an emission, through the midline of the torso from the tip of the erect penis to the head. The paintings of The Homunculus series (c. 1940) are to be understood as the metamorphosis of gendered individuals and the birth of a unified, integrated, being. Each work shows an immature body with budding limbs. Within this form the openings of the body – eyes, lips, mouth, nipples, genital and anal orifices - are all indicated. So too are the cardinal points. Conjoined red and blue triangles at the heart of the figure symbolise the unification of the genders, and the worlds of nature and spirit. Notes 1.  Gibbons, B.J. Gender in Mystical and Occult Thought. Cambridge: University Press, 1996. 2.  See Robb, G. Between Science and Spirituality: Francis Swiney’s Vision of a Sexless Future. Diogenes, 208, 163-8, 2005. 3.  Undated typescript TGA 929/2/1/67/1. 4. “The Opening of the Body”. Reprinted in Shillitoe, R.W. & Morrisson, M.S. (eds.) I Saw Water. An occult novel and selected writings by Ithell Colquhoun. Pennslyvania, Penn State University Press, 2014. 5. “The Night Side of Nature”. Reprinted in Shillitoe & Morrisson, op. cit.