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War (and Peace) of the Sexes: Duality in Mesoamerican Sexuality

(Since I wrote to you, sap sprang free
in the masculine blooming,
which is rich and puzzling
to my very humanity.

Do you feel, distant dear miss,
since you are reading me,
what sweetness fuses willingly
in the feminine chalice?)

-Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. John J. L. Mood

For pre-Colombian Mesoamerican cultures the universe existed in strict duality. The masculine and the feminine symbolized the polarity among the forces of nature. The celestial sphere was the masculine representing maturity, fire, heat, light, force and life. The underground was feminine: it was germination, water, cold, darkness, weakness, and death. This opposition between the sexes held great significance for the balance of the universe as the Mesoamerican civilizations understood it.


I learned this while visiting an exhibition in Mexico on the ancient Western Mesoamerican conceptions of sexuality. The exhibit “Semillas de Vida: La Sexualidad en Occidente” (Seeds of life: Sexuality in Western Mesoamerica) showcased an impressive collection of pieces ranging from 2000 BC to 400 AD from the region that are the modern states of Colima, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Sinaloa in Mexico.

Upon entering the museum I stood before a poster that delineated the polar universe of the Mesoamerican. At first, I fell into the trap of interpreting the male-female dichotomy through that feminist lens so conditioned to fight the Judeo-Christian shackle on everything feminine. Rolling my eyes, I thought: even the Mesoamericans viewed their women with suspicion and malaise just like every other patriarchal society that has come and gone and returned.

Fortunately I managed to put my feminine frustration and Eurocentric bias aside. I kept browsing the sculptures and figurines, some of which engaged in very non-puritanical acts.

For the indigenous civilizations of Central America sex is a process rather than a singular, private act. It is the embodiment of the connection to the Gods, to nature, to Earth. The Mesoamerican philosophy not only divides the universe into two spheres of the masculine celestial and the feminine underground, but posits the human at the point of its convergence: on Earth where “the two extremes unite to give birth to man’s conception.”

The feminine and the masculine are beyond gender or sex for the ancient Mesoamerican. They encapsulate everything. We—male and female humans—are the earthly representations of the divine polarity that ruled the universe. This novel perspective somewhat eased my annoyance over falling on the “dark” side of the Mesoamerican universe.

In addition to representing darkness and death, the female is the symbol of creation itself. According to one of the oldest Mesoamerican creation myths, the universe originated in the depths of the earth in a cave that regenerated life. It was in the underworld—in a dark, humid, feminine place—where life sprouted. The female is fertility and life takes its first breath in a dark, humid place.


Figurine where the gender is unclear. Is that a giant penis or a cave representing the female womb?

Bridging two poles: The Embrace of the Feminine with the Masculine

Any discussion of polarity is also one on unity. According to the exhibition’s narrative, the male and the female as a pair complement one another despite being opposed in a dual world.

One of the pieces at the exhibit that struck me the most was the below figurine. At first glance, the sculpture seems like a female figurine with her spread legs showing her clearly marked sexual organ to emphasize fertility. However, the sculpture is also the phallus itself: the head of the figurine forms the penis and the legs the testicles. It is both she and he, the feminine and the masculine.


The unison of that which is binary is also exemplified in the deities to whom the indigenous civilizations of Central America performed rituals and sacrifices. Tlacatecutli, the Aztec god of the Earth is both male and female. One of the most important goddesses of the Nahua was a hermaphrodite. Tlazolteotl was often depicted with both male and female attributes, which allowed the goddess to “supersede all gendered categories.” (See Pete Sigal’s fascinating book The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture)

Aztecs believed that the emergence of all living things required male and female attributes to be complete. The importance of androgyny for creativity—since after all every human act is a creation—was obvious for these pre-Colonial civilizations in Central America.

Uniting that which is separate was a concern for the Mesoamerican just as much as it is for the modern Westerner. In his famous treatise on The Art of Loving, Eric Fromm writes:

man—of all ages and cultures—is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s own individual life and find at-onement.

The pain of human existence lies in our incessant desire for achieving unity—with our environment, with others, with ourselves—all the while trapped in a vision of a dual universe. Our brains are conditioned to view everything around us in opposing pairs: life and death, dark and light, good and bad, all or nothing, female versus male…

Fromm’s recipe for overcoming human separateness to reach a state of union and peace is love. But he writes that at its core, the existential need for union is biological and rooted in our sexuality, our “desire for union between the masculine and feminine poles.”

Man—and woman—finds union within himself only in the union of his female and his male polarity. This polarity is the basis for all creativity.

Before Fromm, Virginia Wolf praised Shakespeare’s “androgynous mind” in A Room of One’s Own. She argued that no writer stuck within his or her own gender could produce great writing:

I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating. If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her.

I will finish by alerting the reader to the poem that opens this post. It is a homage to the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who have often been deemed “too feminine” in his work. Yet it is precisely his weaving together of the feminine and the masculine that ushered him into magnificence.

The moral of the story? Let men plays with dolls and woman wear strap-ons. And go to Mexico. It’s awesome.


The temporary exhibition was hosted by Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca, which not only is a top-notch museum but also happens to be in one of Mexico’s most beuatiful baroque buildings: the convent of Santa Domingo.

The temporary exhibition was hosted by Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca, which not only is a top-notch museum but also happens to be in one of Mexico’s most beautiful baroque buildings: the convent of Santa Domingo.