One of the earliest controversies I can remember from Ars fandom is this: given that magic can’t affect your essential nature, can it change your gender?

The generally given answer is no, and this is because the way gender is affected by magic in other roleplaying games is so terribly, terribly juvenile. Basically being transformed into a woman is seen as a shaming, disempowering, embarrassing thing and so its treated as a practical joke played on male characters. Being a woman is a curse they need to fight and eventually be cured of.

Very early the history of Ars Magica the writers indicated that the Gift was found equally in male and female children and therefore the Order of Hermes embraced equality. Strangely the Founders were and not split 50/50, but you could claim that this was because they were descended from a Roman priesthood, with a patriarchal cultural bias. So magic can’t change your gender because it is essential to your character.

This is rather strange though, because magic can do so much else that isn’t prevented by the Limit of Essential Nature. It can make you older. It can change you, temporarily, into a wolf. It can cut off your arm. These changes are, apparently, less essential than your gender. It can’t make you younger, because mortality is inherent in the human condition, but it can slow the rate at which you age.

If gender is essential, how much resistance to magic does this grant? Your soul’s freedom is essential. You can’t sin under influence of magic. You can’t sell your soul under the influence of magic. Things you are forced to do, you cannot be made morally culpable for by magical means. If your gender is protected in the same way, does it protect the expressions of your gender? I’m not talking about the most overt expressions either. I’m male, so I have androgenic forearm hair. As that is a secondary sexual characteristic, does it have resistance to magical destruction?

The Church had to deal with this issue because intersex people exist. In the modern United States, about 1.7% of babies are born in some sense intersex. The Church, facing similar numbers, ruled that if a person could function more ably in one gender than in the other, that was their gender. The point was to force people to pick one role and keep to it, rather than switching.

There are all kinds of weird writings at the time indicating that, physiologically, sex was more permeable than it than it is in our world. Women were counselled against strident exercise, warming foods and hot baths, because these would affect their fertility and, in extreme cases, cause them to change into men. Despite these writings, there is no sign that children were prescribed warming as a treatment to change a female heir into a male one: Kings without sons, like Henry the VIIIth for example, never fed their daughters pepper, submerge them in warm baths and force the to go hurdling, in the hope they will become boys.

So, in Ars Magica, sex is often said to be immutable, because other systems handle this so badly, and because permanent changes to the mind of the character are seen as disempowering to the player. I’d argue that in Arrs Magica we have a mechanism which allows us to sidestep these issues: mystery cult initiation.

Cult initiation means a character can change deeply ingrained features, but only with effort, so that trivial switching is reduced. If, however, you want your character to undergo a metamorphosis, and spiritually transcend their limiting physical realities, this is possible. This means a transgender character could undergo ritual initiations which allowed a change of sex. Certain ancient Greeks had this done to them by faeries: Tiresias, a blind seer, was changed into a woman by a goddess, and lived as one for many years. This was seen as the source of his wisdom. Mystery cult initiation allows a character to change gender or race, and know the things only people in those communities know. This allows us to pass tangentially through real world religions that see twinspirited people as shamanistic: living on the margin of society, protecting it from hostile spiritual forces.

So to conclude, I understand why early Ars Magica fandom thought male characters could not become female through Hermetic magic, but I’d like to suggest that the later, Mystery Cult, mechanic gives the player enough control over the process that it becomes a roleplaying challenge rather than a childish joke or punishment. This provides a loophole, which some troupes may wish to explore in their sagas.

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5 replies on “Intersexuality and Essential Nature

  1. Hello! Very interesting post in a really god question. But, apart from intersex, what would happen with transex? Would be able to change with magic due to its nature is different to they body? Maybe is not that important in game but I remember a “crossdress” flaw. Maybe one of this caracters would search for Magi help (story seed ahead).

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  2. I think than some “appearance”of the other sex are possible, like the size… but just like the wolf or the size, it’s not the same than a intersexuallity situation more like one disguise through magic; but the Mystery thing is very likeable. I like than the Gender issues is one personality flaw more related to the social interaction than another thing.

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  3. I like the mystery cult bit a lot, but I don’t see why Muto Corpus shouldn’t be able to alter one’s gender for the Duration of the spell. I concur that RPG books have a bad history on this sort of thing (hello Girdle of Femininity/Masculinity. Fun fact, though, reading my dad’s old D&D books and seeing that helped me come to realize that I myself was transgender.)

    Speaking of, the twin-spirit thing is really an extremely uncommon variant of the wider topic of transgenderism in anthropology, and indeed not really considered a sensitive term anymore, nor is it especially useful, because it was meant to apply to more than just being transgendered or intersexed. There’s a lot of “being both genders” in that which is really not accurate to the vast majority of transgender people, and is more of a socially-constructed alternative that, sure, people like me in those cultures probably would have pursued, but doesn’t have a lot of relevance to today’s experience.

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    1. I don’t see why either. On the Forum various people have said that was a fan consensus not a rule, so I may have misunderstood that. Thanks for the detail on two spiritedness. I was trying to be inclusive, but I’m not from the US, and our local I defended practices have some similarities and differences I may have mixed in accidentally.

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