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This year, I paid my first visit in a long time to the Library of Congress. Once I found a photocopier with paper in it, I was able to make myself a copy of Cecelia F. Klein's chapter on gender ambiguity amongst "the Late Postclassical Period (1250-1521) Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants of Central Mexico", of whom the most famous were the Mexica, aka the Aztecs.
Alas, it seems that the Nahua were about as tolerant of gender variant people as the modern West has been. Intersex people were considered to be women with male characteristics and held in low regard. As in many cultures, a man who permitted anal intercourse was considered "womanly" - although both partners were killed. Harriet Whitehead states that the Spanish accounts of Mesoamerican cultures "provide little more than allusions to effeminate male prostitutes and to sanctions against homosexuality", leaving us with no evidence of a "third gender".
"Unlike us today, however," writes Klein, "the Nahua harnessed the metaphorical power of ambiguous gender and turned it back upon itself." Mixing genders was a feature of numerous ceremonies performed at important turning points in the calendar: the end of the year, the end of the dry season, the end of the wet season, and at the end of each month.
Klein contrasts "gender ambiguity" with "gender duality", when an entity has both a male aspect and a female aspect - for example, the male-and-female deity Ometeotl, "Two God"; two genders are present, but "there is nothing uncertain, unpredictable, or incomplete about them." Gender ambiguity symbolised "inversion", "reversal", and the "in-between"; ambiguous beings have been "infused with traits of the other gender" and are therefore "incomplete, imperfect, unfulfilled, partially disguised or hidden". Gender ambiguity gave form to fears of "cosmic and social chaos, loss of direction and purpose, illness and madness, the recklessness of youth, impotence, barrenness and loss of reproductive energy, darkness and deception, the onset of poverty and powerlessness - indeed, formlessness itself." Given form, this chaos could be used to restore order.
In practice, gender ambiguity seems to have largely consisted of men wearing women's clothes. During the month of Tititl, male priests donned female clothing and danced with a slave woman before she was sacrificed to the goddess Tonan. The Codex Borbonicus depicts another ritual in which priests dressed as deities, including male priests dressing as goddesses. A female slave impersonated the goddess Cihuacoatl in her aspect as Ilamatecuhtli; she was sacrificed and a male priest donned her flayed skin and danced backwards with her severed head. Klein quotes Susan Milbrath, who describes this as a "transformation into a male persona". Milbrath remarks that an old man would take hold of the severed head, becoming the "likeness of Ilamatecuhtli" - a "gender change" for the goddess. Cihuacoatl herself has an ambiguous gender: she is  impersonated by a man dressed as a woman, and referred to with pronouns of either gender. This, plus other examples of the sacrifice of a lunar goddess who then becomes male, indicate that the moon was seen as changing gender as it changed phases. Milbrath also remarks on the gender ambiguity of the Tzitzimime and the iconography they share with Cihuacoatl.
Women who died in childbirth might become one of the Cihuateteo, the "Divine Women" - malevolent spirits of women who had died in childbirth, who caused disease and deformity. Obliged to wear "the costumes and shields of male warriors", the Cihuateteo returned to Earth to search for their female clothes and tools, in the darkness of midnight and eclipses, at crossroads. ("In Mesoamerican thought," says Klein, "crossroads appear to have represented an excessive number of paths or directions.") Their patroness was Cihuacoatl-Ilamatecuchtli; in ritual, they were impersonated by masked men. Milbrath also remarks on the gender ambiguity of the Tzitzimime and the iconography they share with Cihuacoatl.
In the month Quecholli, at the end of the wet season, rituals included "public, indecent women who were dressed for war" (I assume this means sex workers) and "effeminate men" dressed as women.
Discussing the syncretic deity Maximón, worshipped by modern Maya, Klein remarks: "What we are seeing... is the need to give a name and a physical form to socially unacceptable sexual behaviour. This need is felt at moments when an important time period has come to its end, necessitating the removal of those dangerous forces that have accumulated over its course in order for the next period to begin on schedule, with renewed vigor. It is precisely because the materialized being represents, and thus locates and crystallizes, those threatening forces that it is properly equipped to remove them... the ambiguously gendered embodies the very principles of transition and reversal. It is the ambiguous nature of Maximón's gender identity that makes it possible for him to safely 'cross over from the stable center into the world of spirits, sickness, and death - to leave the one true path for the crossroads at the periphery, where he can aimlessly mix with the forces of the wild and lawless. Maximon was described... as a 'great traveler' who traveled at night through every country..." (In a footnote, she adds: "in Mesoamerica the center is contrasted with the periphery, which is represented by the wilderness and represents, in turn, asocial, immoral behavior, danger, filth, and disharmony. Yet the periphery... is also a place of creativity and sacred knowledge." (p 218) I thought of the Descent of Inanna / Ishtar and the ambiguous assinnu, Asušu-namir, and the kurgarra and kalaturra, and their ability to journey to the underworld (and return?).
Klein discusses the association between deformed or missing feet and legs and deviant sexuality in Mesoamerican myth. Notably, Tezcatlipoca, the god with one foot, was in the habit of changing himself into a woman and seducing his enemies; he may also have been the god who taught humans how to have anal sex. In mythology he is often accompanied by "a male friend or a younger brother"; Klein wonders if this was the role of the young man sacrificed after Tezcatlipoca's impersonator, who lived with the "god" before his death. The physical perfection required of Tezcatlipoca's impersonator strikes Klein as "effeminate"; she notes that he broke his whistle and flute on the steps of the temple where he would be sacrificed - a symbolic self-castration. Tezcatlipoca is both the only god who has "sexual relations with goddesses", but also the only god "without a permanent female consort". To the Nahua, his sexuality would have seemed "immature, asocial and unpredictable" - the exact opposite of the "ideal, married man".
For the Nahua, sex and gender were slippery and might mingle or change; it was crucial to "stabilize a child's gender" so they could marry and reproduce. Rosemary A. Joyce writes that newborn boys were presented by the midwife with miniature weapons and dressed in tiny versions of the clothes of adult men; girls were dressed as adult women and given miniature weaving equipment. Now, as I write this, the government plans to poll Australians on same-sex marriage; the "No" campaign centres not on marriage, but on the teaching of tolerance of gender-variant people in schools. I think in some ways modern Westerners are not so different from the Aztecs: many of us believe that gender and sexuality are not in fact dictated by nature, but mutable. The Nahua parents anxious that their sons might touch a spindle and become effeminate parallel the "No" campaigners terrified that acceptance of LGBTIQA+ people will somehow create more of them.
Joyce, Rosemary A. Girling the Girl and Boying the Boy: The Production of Adulthood in Ancient Mesoamerica. World Archaeology, Vol. 31, No. 3, Human Lifecycles (Feb., 2000), pp. 473-483.
Klein, Cecelia F. "None of the Above: Gender Ambiguity in Nahua Ideology". in Cecelia F. Klein (ed). Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2001.
Milbrath, Susan. Decapitated Lunar Goddesses in Aztec Art, Myth, and Ritual. Ancient Mesoamerica 8 (2): 186–206.
Whitehead, Harriet. "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look At Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America". in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London : Routledge, 2006.

ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
Idly eyeing an article on Hittite birth rituals, I read that the midwife would give a newborn boy "the goods of a male child", and a newborn girl "the goods of a female child"; similarly, in a Sumerian ritual, the midwife gives a male child a mace and axe and a female child a spindle. The Hittites and the Mesopotamians were neighbours, but Aztec midwives, hugely separated in time and space, did exactly the same thing. I wonder how many cultures throughout history have engaged in this gender enforcement (and how the midwives handled intersex births, of which they must have seen very many).

Pringle, Jackie. "Hittite Birth Rituals". in Averail Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt (eds). Images of Women in Antiquity. Croom Helm, London and Sydney, 1983.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
In "Genre, Gender, and the Sumerian Lamentation", Jerrold S. Cooper discusses the origins of the lamentation genre and the gala-priests who performed laments.

Cooper writes that the gala is "attested from the Fara [Early Dynastic IIIa] period... and at Lagash in the late-pre-Sargonic period and under Gudea the gala is associated with funerals". For example, mourners at Queen Baranamtara's funeral included "numerous gala"; Gudea's Statue B describes a general shut-down of funerals in Girsu during which "the gala did not set up his balag-drum and bring forth laments from it". (The balag-drum, Cooper points out, is the source of the name for the most common of the gala's laments, the balag; the term balag-di means "lamentation performer". "The gala first appears five hundred years prior to Ur III, and the balag-performer is attested five hundred years earlier still, in the earliest cuneiform lexical lists".)

In both examples above, "the gala is accompanied by women lamenters. Women may actually have served as gala in Presargonic Lagash, as they did later in the Diyala region". In cultures around the world and throughout time, funeral laments, as well as love songs and wedding songs, are the "musical province par excellence of women". Cooper notes that Inanna and Dumuzi appear in songs for both marriages and funerals, and that in some cultures these two rites have similarities. "That Inanna-Ishtar should be at the nexus of love and death is very fitting for a deity who is patron of both prostitution [sexuality, certainly] and battle. She is also associated with transformation and inversion... and weddings and funerals are the only two transformative rituals in ancient Mesopotamia of which we are aware."

Cooper's thesis is that the official lamentations developed from women's songs, much as Ancient Greek women's funeral laments were "brought under control and channeled into male-dominated ritual or literary enterprise"; female mourners were "joined by male colleagues who eventually replaced them". (Similarly, "the other realm of women's performance and Emesal usage, courtship and wedding song, came to be, at least for the elite, dominated by male performers.") Emesal is only used in Sumerian literature for the speech of women and goddesses, and for ritual laments, sung by galas. (A possibility about Emesal is that it was the local dialect of Lagash, and could only be written down "once Sumerian orthography fell under the influence of phonetic semitic orthography [which] could express dialectal differences", which is why no Emesal texts appear until the Old Babylonian period.)

This association with women, says Cooper, could explain "the ambiguous image of the gala - a ridiculous figure of uncertain sexuality according to some literary texts; a respected cleric with a wife and children in many documents". (Though personally I'm not convinced that the gala's "ridiculous" nature isn't a projection by modern authors.) Cooper points out that galas might have had different roles depending on historical period, context, and which deity they were serving. He also disputes that the logogram for gala, UŠ.TUŠ, should be read GÌŠ.DÁR, "penis + anus" - "the interpretation is not compelling, and other suggest themselves." (An example of projection? Here's another - the chief gala was in charge of "prostitutes", géme-kar-kíd. géme means female worker or slave, but the translation of kar-kíd (ḫarimtu) as "prostitute" has been challenged, as Cooper acknowledges; it may only mean "unmarried woman".)

(I thought of the cihuacoatl, the male deputy of the Aztec emperor, who was named after the snake goddess Cihuacoatl, "Snake Woman" - and speculation that the office might originally have belonged to women.)

Cooper, Jerrold S. Genre, Gender, and the Sumerian Lamentation. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 58(2006) pp 39-47.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
The Perfect Victim makes an appearance in the 1964 Doctor Who story The Aztecs, in which Susan is nearly married off to him. He's "perfect" because the captive warrior chosen to embody Tezcatlipoca (his teixiptla) had to be unblemished, ideal appearance.

But was his beauty, and other attributes, symbolic of divine androgyny? The chapter by Peter Sigal about which I blogged earlier makes that argument, and so does another chapter in the same book by Cecelia F. Klein. With the usual caveat that they're rather more likely to know what they're talking about than I am, let me go over the evidence they outline.

Firstly, the teixiptla's hair, which fell to his waist or lower. Klein points out that "only girls and unmarried women... wore their hair both long and loose". Men who grew their hair long tied it at the nape.

However, as Klein notes, at the time of the sacrifice, his hair was cut and adorned like a leading warrior's. IIUC, she sees this as indicating that his physical sex was seen as male; but if his long hair indicated a feminine aspect to his gender, what happens to that femininity when his hair is given a masculine style? Does he perhaps become less divine at the time of his sacrifice, as he hands over the role to the next years' impersonator?

Sigal notes that, having played the flute all year, the teixiptla shatters it as he goes to sacrifice, symbolically crushing his masculine self. Does this make him feminine? Sexless? Androgynous? What does it mean to wear your hair like a warrior but break your phallic signifier? Sigal also notes the teixiptla's suspiciously long breechclout, but this seems to have gone with him to the sacrifice.

Sigal notes that the description of another ceremony speaks of the "beautiful hair" of the male victims, which the priests then cut off - "hair that signified their positions as warriors". Again I'm unclear on the significance here - was their hair female or male? Did "beautiful" for the Aztecs imply "feminine"? (I need to check the exact text in the Florentine Codex for the exact style in which these men wore their hair.) (ETA: bk 2 ch 29 refers to the victims' hair, locks of which were cut off, but it doesn't describe it nor laud its beauty.)

Klein notes that, along with the four wives he was given twenty days before his death, the god's impersonator lived with a slave who who also dressed as Tezcatlipoca and who was also sacrificed. She speculates this could have been a male sexual partner. She also mentions the young men who danced "just in the fashion of women" after the sacrifice.

Klein also points out the sexual ambiguity of Tezcatlipoca in myth; the god himself had a male sexual partner, introduced male-male sex to the Aztecs, and could change into a woman to seduce men. (Did the Aztecs think homosexual behaviour feminised a man? I don't think I trust the Florentine Codex on that one. Did they see the penetration of the male body by the sacrificial as "feminizing", as Sigal argues?)

Discussing another ritual, Sigal considers the ornamenting of male victims' bodies with flowers a "ritual feminization", and notes that Tezcatlipoca's impersonator "was required to wear an item termed the 'flowered garment', associated with women's dress, explicitly representing feminine sexuality" (specifically, he adds, "the clothing worn by prostitutes"). The Florentine Codex describes him as wearing a crown of popcorn flowers: "And he was dressed in these same on both side; they drew them out to his armpits. This was called 'the flowery stole'." OTOH, the description of the sex worker in the Florentine Codex doesn't mention this garment or adornment with flowers; and, like butterflies (sez the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures), "flowers were strongly identified with the sun... and were central components in the solar war cult." So was the flower a specifically feminine symbol for the Aztecs? (ETA: The University of Oregon's online Nahuatl dictionary remarks that Xochitl, "flower", was a boy's name.)

As so often happens, I've ended up with far more questions than answers - I don't know whether to understand these ambiguous gender cues as evidence of the Perfect Victim's androgyny, or as the projection of Western concepts - and a reading list as long as your arm. Oy.

On a related note, the Oxford Encyclopedia notes that although priests could appear dressed as goddesses, there aren't any known examples of priestesses costumed as gods. This reminds me of the argument that the Egyptian creator gods weren't so much androgynes as male gods who had incorporated female power. The cihuacoatl, a priest second in rank only to the king, took his title (and sometimes his costume) from the patron goddess of a conquered city.

(btw, has anyone else tried to watch the BBC series The Feathered Serpent? Patrick Troughton does his best as the evil priest, but alas, unlike Doctor Who's The Aztecs, no research appears to have gone into it. And it's dull. I didn't make it past the first episode.)

Taube, Karl A. "Butterflies". in Davíd Carrasco (ed). The Oxford encyclopedia of Mesoamerican cultures: the civilizations of Mexico and Central America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Klein, Cecelia F. "The Aztec Sacrifice of Tezcatlipoca and its Implications for Christ Crucified". in Peter Arnade and Michael Rocke (eds). Power, gender, and ritual in Europe and the Americas: essays in memory of Richard C. Trexler. Toronto: CRRS Publications, 2008.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. General history of the things of New Spain: Florentine codex.
Santa Fe, N.M : School of American Research ; Salt Lake City, Utah : University of Utah, 1950-1982.

Sigal, Pete. "The Perfumed Man: Sacrifice, Penetration, and the Feminization of the Male Body in Sixteenth-Century Mesoamerica". in Peter Arnade and Michael Rocke (eds). Power, gender, and ritual in Europe and the Americas: essays in memory of Richard C. Trexler. Toronto: CRRS Publications, 2008.
ikhet_sekhmet: (phoenix)
Randomly (as is my wont) I read a chapter on gender and human sacrifice in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The argument was that a male sacrificial victim was given feminine attributes, so as to become androgynous and thus appropriately liminal, a "man-god" bridging the human and divine worlds.

For example, the author, Pete Sigal, describes a ritual in which the male victims were decorated with flowers, suggesting the flowered garments of women; and another ritual in which female victims were decorated with feathers, suggesting the costumes of warriors. He goes on to describe the sacrificial victim who spent a year embodying the god Tezcatlipoca, who wore "the flowered garment", normally worn by female sex workers, and elaborate finery "normally reserved for elite women".

Brilliantly, Macquarie Uni has the Florentine Codex, source of many of Sigal's footnotes, allowing me to follow some of his argument with the primary source. Which I shall do - for instance, I'd like to know if when Nahua or Maya literature describes these male victims as "beautiful" whether it's using a word normally reserved for women.

ETA: Looking over Sigal's references to the Florentine Codex has left me confused. There is no mention of "male victims" being decorated with flowers (book 2, chapter 28), only says "each made offerings to Uitzilopochtli; they adorned him with garlands of flowers; they placed flowers upon his head". I wasn't sure if that referred to the god's mortal impersonator or to his idol. Nor is it stated that the women decorated with feathers were sacrificial victims (bk 2 ch 23). We're both looking at the same published version of the text, so I'm at a loss. (Possibly Sigal is reading the Nahuatl, where I can only read the English?)

Sahagún, Bernardino de. General history of the things of New Spain : Florentine codex. Santa Fe, N.M : School of American Research ; Salt Lake City, Utah : University of Utah, 1950-1982.

Sigal, Pete. "The Perfumed Man: Sacrifice, Penetration, and the Feminization of the Male Body in Sixteenth-Century Mesoamerica". in Peter Arnade and Michael Rocke (eds). Power, gender, and ritual in Europe and the Americas: essays in memory of Richard C. Trexler. Toronto: CRRS Publications, 2008.
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The Art Gallery of NSW is currently running a magnificent exhibition of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepali art, Goddess: Divine Energy - just the most gobsmacking collection of paintings and sculptures of Buddhist, Hindu, and related goddesses. It's on until January.

Lloyd sent me clippings on three exhibitions Up Over: Devi: The Great Goddess, shown at the Smithsonian in 1999; Divine and Human: Women in Ancient Mexico and Peru, shown earlier this year at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and the New Yorker review of The Aztec Empire, shown in 2004 at the Guggenheim.
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I love stuff like this: "Enjoy the power and protection of the ancient Aztec Moon Goddess." No, I don't think you will - she's just been thrown off a mountain by her brother, which is why she's lying at the foot of his temple in a dozen pieces.


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Plaything of Sekhmet

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