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.