Transgender Myths To Know


Dionysus - my favorite genderqueer godOne of the best ways to put your finger on how ancient Greece thought about what it meant to be a woman is to look at the fascinating myths where characters transition from one gender to another. There are a couple of places on the web that mention myths with transgender characters, most of them to do much the same thing I hope to do, except around trans empowerment instead of just women. I’m not going to tell you that these myths are particularly empowering, or were evidence of a trans-friendly culture as I don’t believe the evidence supports that, but you are free to draw whatever conclusions you like!

1) My favorite is the myth of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis, by the way, is a gender neutral name. Like Sam. This is relevant because when Iphis was born, her daddy said he would kill the baby if it wasn’t a boy. Mama Telethusa didn’t want Iphis dead, so she told the world she was a boy. Iphis grows up and falls in love with the girl next door. Dad arranges a marriage. And the crisis begins. It ends when mom helps Iphis pray to Isis and she is transformed to the gender she always felt herself to be. Attis, the boy-toy of Cybele and Agdistis

2) You should also get familiar with the myth of Agdistis. It’s a little convoluted, but also fascinating and full of drama – including sex with trees, self-castration, insanity, and a dominatrix of an chthonic goddess (that would be Cybele, by the way). In short, born a hermaphrodite but made feminine by the gods, fell in love with a boy, who went crazy and castrates himself. Agdistis and Cybele are so closely associated that they are often identified as one and the same. The whole thing about her priests castrating themselves (later Roman phenomena) is obviously related. Read the whole myth here. [ETA: I wrote a post up that has lots about this myth. Check out: Nana, watch out for that almond!]

3) You didn’t think I’d forgotten about Hermaphroditus, did you? You can read that story under Salmacis, but the gist is a besotted (aka, totally horny) nymph overwhelms a young man and forces him to submit to her and the gods help her magically fuse themselves into one being. Generally this means lighter skin and less muscle.

4 ) Caenis. Or Caeneus. The latter is the masculinization of the first that occurred when she claimed her recompense for a brutal rape by the sea god Poseidon. Her recompense, obviously, being that she was changed from a woman to a man “so she could not be raped again.” Since men can be raped, too, being “impenetrable” was thrown in as a bonus and thus Caeneus could not be defeated in battle.

Teiresias whacking a snake5)Teiresias. Oddly enough, I haven’t managed to include him on my site. I say him because that’s how he was born and died and lived the majority of his life. The only time he didn’t is when goddesses (like Athena and Hera and Aphrodite) got mad at him and decided he needed a better appreciation for what it’s like to be a woman. He bore children from his (her) womb and had really beautiful hair whatnot but eventually was turned back. His main conclusion from his years as a woman? The sex is WAYYYY better for chicks.

6)Leucippus – that would be the name of the daughter of Galateia who’s story is literally exactly the same as Iphis‘s above, except that Leto was the goddess responsible for her end transition in time to save the marriage. They had a festival in honor of the stripping of girly-clothes called the Ecdysia, which now is more or less the Greek word for a striptease.

What might the ancient Greeks have thought of this? and furthermore, What should we think of this today? Good questions that I try to address in response to the comments.


One response to “Transgender Myths To Know”

  1. It was good to see this information in one place. I have placed a link to this page at http://www.patconover.com.

    I have two questions related to this posting.

    If these transgender stories are so important to the ancient Greek construction of feminine gender, how much do you think they affect the construction of feminine gender in the contemporary U.S.?

    I thought there were also Greek myths in which the God’s punished mortals with magical transgender assignments, as in the Odyssey.

    Pat Conover

    Hello Pat! Thank you for commenting! And those are great questions, too.

    I’ll address your second question first: the Teiresias myth I mentioned and linked to in the post is certainly a good example of a mortal punished with a change of gender. Aphrodite, in one version, punishes him for saying another goddess was more beautiful by making him a woman (but Kale, the winning goddess, gives him really nice hair as a consolation prize), and Hera punishes him for whacking a snake by making him a woman – and that time he gets married to a man and has babies before changing back. Isn’t it interesting how it was assumed that as a woman she would naturally be marrying a man as opposed to becoming interested in women? You’ll notice how in many of those stories above, the over-arching crisis or abnormality is a woman interested in another woman. But don’t let the fundamentalists get too excited, because it still would have been totally acceptable for a man to be sexually and emotionally interested in another male. Being sexually oriented towards men is WAY more part of gender identity for women than our current western standard of heterosexuality as a gender marker for all.

    Whoops! I thought that was going to be a quick answer! I got carried away. To make a long story short, yes. Teiresias (who is a character in the Odyssey as well) was punished that way, but I can’t think of any other Odyssey characters who might fit the bill.

    Your first question is more difficult for me to answer. The question requires a response to (1) the more general question of how ancient Greek myths continue to affect U.S. culture, as well as (2) a summary of what they might have been reflecting in their proper ancient Greek context.

    As to how ancient Greek myths affect our contemporary U.S. culture, my first point is that I believe stories principally have an impact in the contexts and constructions of their retellings. Obvious, sure, but its a little different from the standard approach to retelling Greek myths today. Many people assume that we have “inherited” lots of stuff (democracy, philosophy, etc.) directly from the ancient Greeks; the idea is that this stuff – or their essential core – has survived through the millenia to form the foundation of the world we live in. Without getting too deeply into why, I will simply say that I don’t really agree with that although I think it is a useful story. What IS important, I think, is that we are part of a culture that has long believed it has descended from the ancient Greeks, and that belief and pride in our mythic ancestry (ie, the idea that we are culturally descended from a grand ancient Greek civilization) means that we continue to value those myths and retell them in various ways. I have no doubt that they have had an indirect influence on other stories that we tell as well, but I think that over 2000 years and countless other civilizations’ influences along the way, it is impossible to identify how.

    In other words, the actual meanings that the stories might have had to the ancient Greeks are not nearly so relevant to us as what the general contemporary U.S. populace perceives those meanings to be.* And, because not many people know any of these stories, I don’t think they have too much impact with the general population. The possible exception is Teiresias, who does show up more often because of his inclusion in the Odyssey, and, as you mentioned, is punished by turning into a woman. He is also, by the way, turned into a woman because the goddesses don’t appear to feel he fully appreciates their gender and he is a respected wise-man so his opinion matters, but they become furious when, in the end, he discounts their feelings of being victimized by saying that women have it better (explicitly in sex, but the implication extends). Even transformed he performs his gender “correctly,” marrying and bearing children and certainly not going around being #1 wise guy. Do I think this is a story that would make sense in the U.S.? Sure! This doesn’t challenge any major gender stereotypes here and primarily reinforces the idea that femininity is a terrible curse for a man.

    On the other hand, the other myths written above are not as widely known, and when they are told, it is most often NOT in support of a conservative conception of gender and sexuality, but as a reclamation by LGBTIQ people. And there’s plenty in there to reinterpret! 1) In the examples of Iphis/Leucippus and Caenis, if you don’t like the gender you were born into, the gods will even help you change to what works better for you! 2) Agdistis is born intersexed and castrated the gods because being intersexed made her TOO powerful, that is intersexed people being so great the gods are threatened! 3) Salmacis and Hermaphroditos could be reinterpreted to be about love being so powerful it created a transgendered person; 4) Teiresias’ transition could even be couched as the gods’ belief that the most knowledgeable person would have to have experienced both genders. So what impact do these myths have on contemporary U.S. culture? I like to think the impact is yet to come!

    * Just to give a short answer to what the ancient Greeks might have assumed reading the aforementioned myths, I think they generally reinforce the idea that 1) genders are physically determined to a great extent but that social performance of those genders is “normally” performed in accordance with one’s “gods-given” sexual identity (see more Iphis/Leucippus: who changed sex to reflect the genders they were acting out; Teiresias: who performed his various genders “properly”; and even Hermaphroditos who was forced against his will to change sex and gender and did so in tandem;) 2) for a “real woman,” feeling erotic love for another woman is simply unthinkable – this goes from a social level where two women could not form a successful family unit, to physical level where the perception of women’s sexuality was as penetrated and sex between two women just wouldn’t have made sense (see Iphis/Leucippus, and inversely demonstrated in the Caenis story) 3) although becoming a man might be considered desirable to some women – albeit less than ideal women (see Iphis/Leucippus and Caenis and Salmacis of the Hermaphroditos story) – no sane man would really want to stop being a man (see Agdistis, Teiresias, and obviously Hermaphroditos). There are more, but there’s a couple for you.

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