LGBTime Machine: Ancient Greece

Note: This post is part of a series. Read more about the LGBTimeMachine series here

By Sabeau Rea, Communications Department Intern

Welcome back.

We swirl around the vortex, bumping into clunky bits of time as the wobbly LGBTime Machine  hurtles us towards our newest (well, I guess oldest if you want to be literal about it) destination. You look like you’ve become clairvoyant, and the only thing you’re seeing in your future is the unwieldy regurgitation of your lunch.

“What? Did you expect the LGBTime Machine to fly straight?” I protest. (Get it? Do you get it? Because this whole series is super gay?)

In the second miracle of our trip (the original being this ship getting airborne in the first place) you do not puke in space. My reliable–if not a little bit squiggly–machine rattles to a halt, and we tumble clumsily out of the contraption to find ourselves in the middle of a pristine-condition Parthenon. That’s right– I took us to ancient Greece.

Going Greek

Tugging you along by the hem of your toga, I weave through the crowded city streets. Eventually we reach our destination–a temple slightly removed from the city’s central urban area. “This beaut,” I explain, unnecessarily entering into a squat and patting the stone wall of the building, “is home to the transgender priestess community whose religion would eventually evolve into the goddess Cybele and her followers whom we discussed in our Roman adventures.” (See? Told you we’d get back to these gals.)

If you recall from our last installment, Cybele was an ancient female-identifying intersex pagan deity.  Before Cybele was Cybele, however, she was Agdistis– a young small town goddess with just a song in her heart and dreams of the big city with her name in lights… okay, let me stop. I digress, before the Roman Empire, Cybele was known to the Greeks as Agdistis, or, The Great Mother.

Now, The Great Mother was a totally old-school goddess. No, wait, she was just literally old. Sorry, I spilled Kirkland Maple Syrup (Not sponsored. Though I can dream.) all over my notes.

You then realize I’m exactly the type of person who would drink syrup from the bottle. My personality begins to make a little more sense to you. Also, hey, pay attention to this article!

“What is important though,” I continue, “is the fact that relics depicting The Great Mother can be traced back as far as the prehistoric era.” As incredible as these discoveries of her prehistoric depiction as intersex are, she was not exclusively depicted as such until the Greek Empire. For this reason, we will only discuss her as far back as the Greek Empire to ensure our arguments here remain as irrefutable as you can possibly make discussions of phenomena that happened 3000 years ago.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Your Substantial Population of Transgender Followers

The only thing more fabulous than an intersex goddess is an intersex goddess with a following of transgender priestesses– and these devout gals are exactly who we’re discussing next. A substantial portion of The Great Mother’s AMAB (assigned male at birth) followers were MTF (Male to Female) transgender High Priestesses. These followers were known as the Gallae. The Gallae dressed in attire associated with Greek women of the era but their presentation of their gender, and presentation of that gender were not merely relegated to religious ceremonies and the temple’s book club, but blended into their everyday lives in much the same way Elagabalus came to do. The women would present female in the public sphere, and even host their annual initiation ceremony in the empire’s streets.

Essentially, the ceremony was both a rite of passage and a day to publicly worship the goddess. The new priestesses who had joined the church that year would run through the city streets, and eventually perform public self-castrations in homage to their goddess and as a symbolic entrance into womanhood.

The procedure was akin to an ancient low-tech version of a Sex-Reassignment Surgery in which the phallus and testes were removed to mimic the silhouette of a vagina. In this act of castration, the priestess would bleed onto the streets symbolically having her first menstruation, and thus enter “officially” into womanhood. It is at this point I would like to say how incredibly grateful I am for the immensely safer procedures we have today.

Disney’s Hercules Mislead Me About How Many Trans People Lived Olympus-Adjacent

The Great Mother’s religion was not the only one to possess spaces for transgender and intersex identities. As we’ll soon see, another Greek religion did the same. More specifically, THE Greek religion also held space for LGBTQIA+ identities. What we consider the predominant Ancient Greek religion, complete with Hera, Poseidon, demigods, and way more centaurs than is ever necessary for any plotline, was actually rife with transgender, genderqueer, and intersex individuals.

Remember the veritable dozens of times Zeus, and other primary and all-powerful gods cross-dressed, or even swapped to another sex during one of their adventures? Better yet—you might even recall the tale of Aproditus Hermaphroditus, the intersex child of Aphrodite and Hermes. (Their parents really got creative to come up with that kid’s name.) Finally, if you really reach back you’ll also find Tiresias, the prophet who warned Oedipus of his fate, and who also spent much of their life switching genders.

Even the great Roman philosopher Ovid wrote on the Greek transgender experience in his book Metomorphoses. His primary character, Iphis, underwent the Greek myth equivalent of Sex Reassignment Surgery–which, for those who aren’t in the know, is getting your prayers met with magical sex reassignment courtesy of the goddess Isis. Pragmatic.

There are countless other examples to mention, but we’ve got a medical text to find, too, and very little time before this blog post is done, so let’s go!

If Greek Scientist’s Understanding of Gender and Sex was a Number on the pH Scale it Would be a One Because that Discourse was Anything but Basic

The most fascinating and inspiring discovery here in the land of Gyros and naked marble sculptures (two of my favorite things) is the Ancient Greek’s scientific understanding of both gender and sex as a spectrum. Yes, you read that right, a spectrum. Do you hear ode to joy? Does this room feel warm to you? Because I think I just found LGBlissTQIA+. Ok, not my best, but I watched you walk into the glass door of the LGBTime Machine an hour ago so I’d say we’re about even here.

The Greeks wrote in the Hippocratic Corpus, the FOREMOST MEDICAL TEXT OF THE ERA, that sex and gender were chemically influenced spectrums. Their scientific suppositions (try saying that three times fast) were that the body possessed two sets of opposing chemicals, and the balance or imbalance of these chemicals influenced a person’s gender and sex. Certain combinations of these chemicals, the scientists said, would result in “mannish girls,” or “girlish boys,” which in ancient medical Greek-speak, was code for trans, intersex, and genderqueer people.

Wait a second, let’s go back really quickly here just to make sure you caught that through the probable concussion you sustained from the glass door. In case you missed it—one of the greatest empires in the world just had a whole group of their scientists and doctors affirm that genderqueer, intersex and transgender individuals are real and valid. Sheesh.

So, what can we gather from all of this? Were the Greeks just avant-garde philosophers who drank too much at a bacchanalia and decided to wax poetic about sex and gender, or were they on to something?

I leave that opinion up to you.

What may help in your deliberation is to join us here next time (shameless plug) as we travel to the driest place I’ve ever been besides my freshman year Astronomy class… the deserts of Ancient Egypt. There we’ll discover not one but two LGBTQIA+ pharaohs, and at least one genderfluid aquamarine-tinted god.

See you there.

 

Citations:

  1. Northrop, C. (2016, April 1). The amazing story of the intersex goddess cybele and her trans priests. Retrieved November 24, 2016, from Gay Star News website: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/intersex-goddess-cybele-trans-priests/#gs.yiu15cQ
  2. Legge, F. (1917). The Most Ancient Goddess Cybele. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of   Great Britain and Ireland, 695-714 (698). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.goucher.idm.oclc.org/stable/25209314
  3. Gasparro, Giulia Sfameni. Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis: With a Frontispiece. Illustrated ed. N.p.: BRILL, 1985.
  4. Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. N.p.: University of California Press, 1999.
  5. Legge, F. (1917). The Most Ancient Goddess Cybele. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of   Great Britain and Ireland, 695-714 (698). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.goucher.idm.oclc.org/stable/25209314

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