Metaphors can kill

In a ground-breaking book called Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson pointed out the underlying metaphors used in many figures of speech. For example, the underlying metaphor “Argument is War” has us talking about winning an argument, wiping the floor with our opponents, and so on. Imagine how different arguments might be if the underlying metaphor was “Argument is Dance”. Another example they give is “A Relationship is a Ship”, where we talk about marriages foundering, being on the rocks, and breaking up.

Similarly, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Myth as Metaphor and as Religion, Joseph Campbell explored some of the bodily metaphors underlying religious symbolism and mythology.

Metaphors are a very powerful thing. They can dictate how we we see the world, and therefore how we behave. They can constrain our expectations of what will happen, and how it will happen. The metaphorical connotations of an idea shape and limit what can be said about it.

In a comment on an earlier post, C Brachyrhynchos wrote:

Many of those metaphors involve a fair bit of projection of human cultural ideas onto things that are distinctly non-human and incomprehensible, or even human diversity. Take for example the idea of masculine and feminine as broadly applicable metaphors. That metaphor breaks as applied to many human beings who don’t experience gender that way, much less fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species.

And that’s not even touching the equally complex realms of the non-biological, formal, or philosophical. To say that being is Being is one thing. To say that it’s *a person* with likes and dislikes, prophetic speech, children (mortal or immortal), and a relationship is another thing altogether.

None of this is beyond the pale for religion. If it’s reasonable to consider deus a metaphor then it’s reasonable to doubt (which is the essence of atheism, not denial) the relationship between signifier and signified in that metaphor. Negative theology, the stripping away of those metaphors until you’re left with questions and uncertainty is an ancient practice.

I have written before (and so has Christine) about the limitations and negative effects of the gender binary in much of Pagan mythology. I have also argued for a more nuanced view of gender. I see that in my previous attempts to write about this, I didn’t actually move that far from the binary model, but I think I have moved further away from it now.

I also agree that the practice of stripping away metaphors until you are left with questions and uncertainty is ancient, and is a very good thing. It is known as apophatic theology or the via negativa, and it is a very important part of my spirituality. I think we need more apophatic theology in Paganism. However, according to Matthew Fox, there are four ways to engage with spirituality, of which the via negativa is only one. The others are via positiva, via creativa and via transformativa.

However, saying something is “only a metaphor” is a bit disingenuous, because we live by metaphors and they shape our thoughts.

There is hope, though, because the power of metaphors is such that if you create a new metaphor to live by, you can create a new reality. For instance, many Pagans have adopted the eightfold wheel of the year (eight seasonal festivals), and this metaphor, which expresses sacred time, has shaped our relationship with the cosmos and with Nature. So if we want to change the binary model of gender, we could create a more powerful metaphor to replace the gender binary. We can use the examples of “fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species” as a metaphor for the diversity we wish to celebrate in human sexuality.

Stories are very powerful. Many years ago, I saw a made-for-TV film which had the resounding slogan “Folklore can kill” (which inspired the title of this post). In the film, weird things start happening to a folklorist who is investigating urban legends – the legends are happening right in front of him, but he is in denial, insisting that folklore can’t come true… but it does.

If you attend a Pagan camp, or a UU or Unitarian church service, there will very likely be stories. What will be the bit you remember? The talks and workshops you attended, the sermon you heard, or the stories? I can guarantee that the thing you will remember will be the stories. Stories speak directly to both hemispheres of the brain,  and that’s probably why they are remembered. Jack Cohen has suggested that Homo sapiens should be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. People like stories.

So if you take all the metaphors away, then you’ll have to take away all the stories. That doesn’t just mean an absence of fairy tales and folk tales and mythology; it also means an absence of inspiring stories about science, or stories from history or literature. And even in this story-free vacuum, people would instinctively create more stories.

So, given that you can’t have a metaphor-free vacuum; and given that stories and metaphors are so powerful that they can actually kill (and make no mistake, the gender binary claims a victim every time a transgender person is murdered or commits suicide) — given this, we had better make sure to choose liberating and inclusive metaphors to express our religion. And if a metaphor (such as the gender binary) is broken, then we need to fix it.

Further reading on metaphor

Further reading on sexuality and gender

10 thoughts on “Metaphors can kill

  1. the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, by Julian Jaynes.
    he gives a good analysis of metaphor.


  2. Something that Myra Hird has written about in a few different locations is what might be called “bacterial queer theory,” where she mentions (amongst other things) that there are some fungal bacteria that can be considered to not just have five genders, but 250,000. While I often say there are 87 genders (as someone at a conference I attended in 2000 said she had identified that many different gender identities amongst humans in her research), even 87 looks pretty paltry when it comes to 250,000.

    On the matter of apophatic theology, however, I am conflicted. Yes, I don’t think it’s a bad thing; but, it’s a lot more useful for theological systems (like creedal monotheism) which posit a transcendent, unknowable deity who is so superlatively powerful that it cannot be imagined, than it is for most Pagan theologies (polytheistic or not) which tend to be far more immanent, sensual, and palpable in their experiences of divine beings than many other religious systems. If anything, Pagan theology has not been kataphatic enough, because there is this tendency to say “But XYZ god/dess doesn’t look like that all the time.” Just because someone might provide a description of a particular deity that arises from a certain experience of that deity doesn’t mean that the deity always looks that way, or will look that way in the future, etc., much less act a certain way, say certain things, etc. I think it is a holdover from creedal monotheistic apophatic models that prevents many modern Pagans (polytheistic or not) from really indulging the kataphatic mode to the extent that we could.


    • Wow, I would love to see the list of the 87 gender identities. That’s awesome.

      I think apophatic and kataphatic theology are supposed to balance each other.

      I don’t think apophatic theology is very popular in Western Christianity, so I am not sure that your theory about Pagans holding back from kataphatic theology because of it holds water, sorry.


      • It’s not a theory, it’s something I’ve heard directly from a lot of Pagans. “We can never really know the gods fully, therefore why depict them?” and other such statements get used all the time in circles that I’ve mixed with over the years. An apophatic tendency often accompanies an anti-idolatrous tendency; and, Michael York and others’ thoughts on it notwithstanding, there are a lot of modern Pagan anti-idolaters.

        This tendency doesn’t come from the more ancient forms of polytheism, for the most part. Even though the common Christian in the Western world does have the “big bearded white guy” view of their supreme god, mainstream Christian theology has been apophatic for the most part. No, not all Christian theology is as strongly apophatic as Meister Eckhart or Marguerite Porete, but given that this tendency is inherited from the tradition within Judaism which (for entirely other reasons, but ones which have become apophatic in their overall thrust) does not even pronounce or often write the name of its god, it is there in a background sense no matter what, and underlies the “all-powerful, omnipresent, transcendent, omniscient,” etc. theologies of that deity, which by definition put it so far outside the realm of human thought and experience that it is naturally apophatic.


  3. The article could use some cleaning up. Your tossing in to many things. You don’ t really talk about metaphors killing people, other then the political stance you take at the end(which honestly is an opinion) so the title could use changing.

    Once you take out the biases, it’s a useful article.


  4. So if you take all the metaphors away, then you’ll have to take away all the stories.

    Woah! This is taking my quote in a direction that I don’t endorse. The point isn’t to abandon metaphor entirely, the point is to question the relationship between signifier and signified, to consider that a given metaphor or language should not be embraced too tightly, because it might become a burden. (“The map is not the territory.” “The description is not the described.” “This is not a blog response.”)

    This doesn’t mean that we should abandon metaphor entirely. My experiences or revelations are metaphors or perhaps better described as meta-metaphors since they involved another layer of symbolic abstraction which can’t be described without more symbolic abstraction.

    The context of the quote was yet another discussion that, IMO, unreasonably focused on atheist critiques of naive claims about deity. (Two more dropped into my feeds today.) My point was that if gods and myths are metaphors that can be examined with critical and skeptical inquiry, then theological noncognitivism is a reasonable position or practice. Questions of belief, existence, or nature are viewed as ill-defined and quite possibly meaningless.

    That doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t use a metaphor. But saying, “my coffee cup exists” is a very different thing from saying, “the character printed on the coffee cup exists.”


    • hey, sorry if I implied that you were saying we should abandon metaphor.

      I completely agree that we should not embrace metaphors too tightly; to do so is to start to take them literally.

      I am not sure what theological non-cognitivism is. If you mean non-realism, of course it’s a reasonable position.


  5. Are you a pagan and a Wiccan, or are you Yvonne, who happens to practice these traditions in this female manifestation of your own share of The Sacred Spirit?


    • I am Yvonne, who is also a Pagan and a Wiccan, who happens to practice these traditions in this genderqueer manifestation of my own share of The Sacred Spirit…. interesting question, where are you going with that question?


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