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The first chapter of Will Roscoe's book Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native America is a brief, general introduction to traditional Native American societies. I wonder if there's a correlation between the acceptance of gender variation and the fact that most of these societies were "only weakly stratified" and that "opportunities for women to acquire prestige and take leadership roles existed in every group". (These are generalisations; Roscoe is careful to note the wide variety of social arrangements in the ~400 different groups.)

Roscoe writes: "Alternative gender roles were amongst the most widely shared features of North American societies. Male berdaches* have been documented in over 155 tribes... In about a third of these groups, a formal status also existed for females who undertook a man's lifestyle, becoming hunters, warriors, and chiefs." These groups "occur in every region of the continent, in every kind of society, and among speakers of every major language group."

The "core set of traits" of these third and fourth genders were "[s]pecialized work roles", "gender difference [ie] temperament, dress, lifestyle, and social roles"; "spiritual sanction"; and "same-sex relations... with non-berdache members of their own sex". As well as taking on jobs usually done by the "opposite sex", there might also be special tasks reserved for gender variant people. Their "active sex life" meant they were "considered fortuitous in all matters relating to sex and romance" - matchmaking, love magic, curing STDs. Their same-sex relations were the result of their gender status, rather than the other way around. "... rather than an opposition of heterosexuality to homosexuality, native beliefs opposed reproductive to non-reproductive sex." "[K]inship-based social organization" dictated most people's sexual availability, but the same restrictions didn't apply to gender variant people; similarly, some of the elements of marriage, such as bridewealth and political alliances between families, didn't apply.

Third and fourth gender people both had roles in war, from "provid[ing] support, entertainment, and luck", to "joining in the fighting, handling enemy scalps, and directing victory ceremonies". Roscoe remarks on "[t]he associations of alternative genders with death", such as in war or as "undertakers or mourners". He says: "They point to a nexus of beliefs difficult to grasp from a Western perspective, in which nonprocreative sexuality and fertility, creativity and inspiration, and warfare and death are linked". (I think there's something similar in Aztec culture, which Peter Sigal talks about in The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture, of which more later.) In some groups, the alternative genders "enjoyed special respect in privileges"; in a few, their supernatural powers were feared.

In an overview of third and fourth genders in various groups, Roscoe mentions a study of "central arctic Inuit, in which arbitrary gender assignments along with individual preferences result in complex and varied 'gender histories' for many individuals. Boys and girls are raised in accordance with the gender of one or more names selected for them before their birth. Consequently, some children are raised with cross- or mixed-gender identities" which they may retain or change at puberty. Also "[t]he Inuit believe some infants, called sipiniq, change their anatomical sex at birth." My curiosity is piqued.

* Roscoe mounts a thoughtful defence of this term, but I think it's now largely been discarded.


Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. London, Macmillan, 1998.
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Multiple sources say the Chukchi people of Siberia have, or had, seven genders, citing a 1904 account by Russian anthropologist Waldemar Borgoras. For example, Sue-Ellen Jacobs and Christine Roberts in the chapter cited below say that "three were female and four were male". Looking at his account, I can only find four: man, "soft man" / "similar to a woman", woman, and "similar to a man". I'll pursue this - it'd be much more interesting if there really were three more.
Borgoras, Waldemar. "The Chukchee". in Franz Boas (ed). The Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Memoir of the American Museum of Natural History 11, part 2, 1904, pp 449-451.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen and Christine Roberts. "Sex, Sexuality, Gender, and Gender Variance". in Sandra Morgen (ed). Gender and Anthropology: critical reviews for research and teaching. Washington DC, American Anthropological Association, 1989. p 440.

ETA: I thought this might be the case: Jacobs and Roberts count the intermediate stages of gender transformation as separate genders. Women start by changing how their arrange their hair, then begin dressing as men, and finally take on men's behaviour and tasks; men follow the same pattern. The seventh gender in this schema is the transformed person "feeling like" their new sex and taking on an appropriate spouse and domestic role.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen and Jason Cromwell. Visions and Revisions of Reality: Reflections on Sex, Sexuality, Gender, and Gender-Variance. Journal of Homosexuality 23(4), 1992. pp 43-69.

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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.

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I've just read some articles on alternative genders in non-Western cultures which each sound a note of caution, as well as providing more information on those genders. Oversimplification and misinterpretation are of course hazards of my cursory note-taking, so these warnings are relevant to my interests.
In "Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the 'Third Gender' Concept", Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan raise a number of problems with how Western popular accounts (in particular, those written by transgender people from the US) interpret alternative genders in potentially misleading ways. For instance, cultures with a "third gender" may be thought of as "primordial", as if all cultures "evolve" from more gender diverse to less gender diverse. Also, alternative genders from different cultures tend to be lumped together into a single category, into "a single, universal transsexual experience", one shared by trans Americans. "Third gender" categories may be depicted as homogenous and unchanging, and the extent to which they are accepted by their cultures may be exaggerated.
The authors ask whether the concept of a "third gender" actually protects binary gender rather than challenging it: "The existence of the 'third' category might imply - wrongly, in our view - that 'first' and 'second' categories are inviolable and unproblematic." Carolyn Epple makes the same point in her article "Coming to Terms with Navajo nádleehí" - that for there to be an alternative third gender, there must be a first and second gender which are not alternative or other. She asks: "But is it not possible that the existence of Navajo nádleehí is not in fact evidence of third genders but is instead constructed as such, given current theoretical interests?"

Moreover, adding additional genders doesn't guarantee a system in which individuals are free to express themselves. Towle and Morgan quote Anuja Agrawal re the hijra of India: "The greater the number of genders, the greater their oppressive potential as each may demand the conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines." A "real" hijra is a castrated man, not just a cross-dressing or effeminate one. Another researcher, Don Kulick, argues that the Brazilian travesti helps "solidify normative binary gender system, but not the Euro-American system that makes gender contingent on sex." Rather, the role in intercourse determines gender; the travestis "understand and position themselves as women". (Cf Unni Wikan's comments on the xanith.) So a "third gender" may uphold "a rigid gender system by formalizing variation."
Similarly, in "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native America", Harriet Whitehead warns against confusing Western homosexual people with Native American gender-crossers, who were defined by "occupational pursuits and dress/demeanour" rather than sexuality. They occurred in some nations (such as the Yurok, the Crow, the Miami) but not others (including the Inuit, the Comanche, and the Maidu).
Discussing the cultural construction of gender, Whitehead writes: "A social gender dichotomy is present in all known societies in the sense that everywhere anatomic sexual difference observable at birth are used to start tracking the newborn into one or the other of two social role complexes." Anatomy creates the dichotomy, "but in no culture does it exhaust the ideas surrounding the two classes thus minimally constituted." Assumptions about additional differences between the sexes, along with beliefs about their "fate, temperament, spiritual power, ability, and mythical history" form a "cluster" of defining features, which vary from culture to culture, and make possible "a mixed gender or deficient gender status" - "a person of one anatomic sex assuming part or most of the attire, occupation, and social - including marital - status of the opposite sex for an indeterminate period."
A Native American gender-crosser (I'm avoiding the dubious catch-all term "berdache") might behave like a member of the "opposite" sex during childhood or adolescence, or might receive messages in dreams and/or visions telling them to do so. There were also male war captives who were given the status of "wife" in their captor's household, and made to dress as women and do women's work. Whitehead also mentions a Gros Ventre warrior woman who became a Crow chief and took wives.
Whitehead discusses why "the gender-crossed status was more fully instituted for males than females"; there were "[f]emale deviations in the male role", but not a "named, stable status category". There were two reasons: one, it's easier to move down in status than it wis to move up. Two, women were more defined by their anatomy, in particular their reproductive role, while this was less significant for men and made it easier for them to gender-cross. Female gender-crossers claimed not to menstruate. They were known for the "Mohave, the Cocopa, the Zuni, the Apache, and the Navajo"; the Kaska apparently had only female-to-male gender-crossers. Some had wives.
Without taking on this "fourth gender" identity, IIUC, women might also temporarily engage in male tasks (for example out of economic need), they might be trained in male skills by a husband or father, or they might "consistently cultivat[e] male skills from an early age". Women who were successful in the male domain were honoured as if they were men. OTOH, because "[w]omen's labour was not subject to total or even very extensive appropriation by men", a gender-crosser might make himself rich and respected with his expertise in female crafts.
The male gender-crosser was "a mixed creature", a "man-woman" or "part-man, part-woman". Whitehead remarks that "Navajo, Cheyenne, and Mohave lore about the berdache's exceptional abilities as a matchmaker, love magician, or curer of venereal disease again expresses the logic that the berdache unites in himself both sexes, therefore he is in a position to facilitate the union of the sexes." He might engage in male tasks as well as female, and/or have "specialized duties" such as handling corpses, carrying provisions for war parties, and looking after the sick.
Whitehead discusses why these cultures were "permissive" towards gender-crossers. She suggests this is because of the belief that peoples' characteristics, their talents, luck, and idiosyncracies, were unpredictably assigned to them by supernatural helpers (often via visions). The gender-crosser was just one of many types of person whose nature was decreed by forces beyond human control. (Carolyn Epple explains that the Navajo see an individual as the product of complex, cyclical natural processes, not "a handful of traits".)
Finally, Peter A. Jackson's chapter "Tolerant but Unaccepting: the myth of a Thai 'Gay Paradise'" does what it says on the tin, debunking the myth that Thailand is accepting of "non-normative sex/gender behaviours". Homosexuality is not illegal, nor considered immoral by the Buddhist majority, and gay-bashing is rare; however, homophobic rhetoric comes from both popular and official sources, pressure to conform comes from parents and from shaming through gossip, and "cross-dressing kathoey, like Thai women, are often subject to sexual harassment and even sexual violence by heterosexually identifying males." "Tolerance," Jackson writes, "denotes a preparedness to endure, put up with, or permit to exist, but does not necessarily imply the lack of criticism or the favorable or approving attitude connoted by acceptance."
The kathoey identity includes intersex people as well as cross-dressing and transgender men. They are assumed to take non-kathoey men as their lovers; they are more accepted than male-identifying gay men, whose existence seems to have come as something of a shock to mainstream Thai culture in the mid-60s. In turn, kathoey who "exhibit a high standard of feminine beauty and who adopt the reserved, polite manners and speech of a genteel Thai man or woman" are more accepted than those considered "loud-mouthed, aggressive or lewd". (Perhaps this is another example of a confining, rather than freeing, "third gender".) A heterosexual man can have sex with a kathoey without losing his masculinity, assuming he takes the role of "husband".
Jackson comments on the multiple masculinities present in Thai culture, remarking that "in classical and some contemporary literature it is not unusual for the ideal Thai man to be portrayed as soft-featured, occasionally being equally sexually attractive to men." There's a class component to this as well, I think, as in a 1991 story Jackson cites in which an "ambiguously attractive" refined nobleman, a kathoey, is contrasted with a peasant with "rough manners, a dark complexion and coarse features".
It's only natural that LGBT+ people would look to other cultures for evidence of their existence and acceptance. These writers are just cautioning against imposing Western ideas onto non-Western cultures. Even my slight reading has made it clear that Western assumptions about gender and sexuality - even the concepts "gender" and "sexuality" - are not natural and universal. That profoundly challenges sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
Epple, Carolyn. Coming to Terms with Navajo "nádleehí": A Critique of "berdache," "Gay," "Alternate Gender," and "Two-Spirit". American Ethnologist, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 267-290.
Jackson, Peter A. "Tolerant but Unaccepting: the myth of a Thai 'Gay Paradise'." in Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook (eds). Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand. Silkworm, Chiang Mai, 1999.
Towle, Evan B. and Lynn M. Morgan. "Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the 'Third Gender' Concept". in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).The Transgender Studies Reader. New York, Routledge, 2006.
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. (Originally published in Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead (eds). Sexual Meaning: the Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality. Cambridge University Press, 1981. pp 80-115.)

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With the ugly possibility of a pointless postal survey on same-sex marriage in Australia, with the inevitable attendant claims that marriage has eternally and universally between one woman and one man, it seems like a good idea to revisit the fact of woman-woman marriage in traditional African societies with a few notes from the book Male Daughters, Female Husbands, a study of gender roles and relations in the Igbo town of Nnobi, Nigeria.

In Nnobi, writes Ifi Amadiume, "'male daughters', first daughters, barren women, rich widows, wives of rich men and successful female farmers and traders" all might have wives of their own. The term for woman-woman marriage was igba ohu. "Such wives, it seems, came from other towns. The 'female' husband might give the wife a (male) husband somewhere else and adopt the role of mother to her but claim her services. The wives might also stay with her, bearing children in her name."

Wives and children were a kind of wealth, for both men and women - "a question of a large workforce versus a small workforce". Women's wealth might also include animals and crops, but not land, which was passed from father to son. What to do, then, when there was no son? As with the Hittites and Hurrians, the solution was simple: give a daughter the status of a son, with a ceremony in which the father summoned "members of his patrilineage and gave them palm wine".

Generally, men owned the land and women worked it; Amadiume notes that women's access to gardens and farm land depended on men. She writes: "On the death of a husband, a wife's continued access to farmland depended on her having a son, or a 'male daughter'. On the death of a woman as wife and mother, the continuation of her matricentric household depended on the woman's son, or a 'male daughter', or respected ada, first daughter, marrying a woman to take the place of the dead wife."

This is only one of many societies in which marriage was not defined as one man and one woman, with polygamy and woman-woman marriage both well-established customs.

Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: gender and sex in an African society. London, Zed, 1987.

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(One of these days I would like to go back through all these jillions of links and organise them by subject. "'I would like'? I would like a trip to Europe!" - Daffy Duck)

Anat: Autonomous Goddess Of Ugarit. Presented by Ellie Wilson at the Society of Biblical Literature's annual meeting, November 1993.

Artefacts found in Pilbara cave show Aboriginal life in northern WA dates back 50,000 years (ABC, 19 May 2017) | The extraordinary science behind an Aboriginal history discovery 65,000 years in the making (SMH, 20 July 2017). "Artefacts found in Kakadu national park show that Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for a minimum of 65,000 years, 18,000 years longer than the previous estimate."

The world's oldest observatory? How Aboriginal astronomy provides clues to ancient life (Lateline, 13 October 2016) | How astronomy paved the way for terra nullius, and helped to get rid of it too (phys.org, 14 October 2016)

Ancient Humans Liked Getting Tipsy, Too (Smithsonian.com, 10 July 2017) | What wine did Jesus drink at the Last Supper? (phys.org, 17 April 2017) | Barley dormancy mutation suggests beer motivated early farmers (phys.org, 21 November 2016) | Revealing the science of Aboriginal fermentation (phys.org, 24 October 2016)

Late last year the Brooklyn Museum's Tumblr posted about the use of "Visible-Induced Luminescence imaging to map the presence of Egyptian blue". Meanwhile, the earliest known use of Egyptian blue has been identified in a bowl from the time of King Scorpion.

Archaeologists discover earliest monumental Egyptian hieroglyphs (phys.org, 26 June 2017)

DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies reveals their ancestry (Washington Post, 30 May 2017)

The origin of the tabby coat and other cat mysteries revealed (ABC Science, 20 June 2017) | No, Those Aren't Male Lions Mating. One Is Likely a Female. (National Geographic, 18 April 2016)

The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth? (Smithsonian Magazine, April 2014) | The kingdom of women: the society where a man is never the boss (The Guardian, 1 April 2017) The Mosuo of Tibet.
What ancient Egypt tells us about a world without religious conflict (The Guardian, 30 October 2015) The Faith After the Pharaohs exhibition at the British Museum.

Information-age math finds code in ancient Scottish symbols (Scientific American, 31 March 2010)

How we discovered that people have been cooking plants in pots for 10,000 years (phys.org, 24 January 2017)

Scientists find advanced geometry no secret to prehistoric architects in US Southwest (phys.org, 23 January 2017)

Why we'll always be obsessed with – and afraid of – monsters (Medical Xpress, 31 October 2016)

Inscription About Ancient 'Monkey Colony' Survives [Daesh] Attacks (LiveScience, 9 December 2016)

Women Are the Backbone of the Standing Rock Movement (Time, 29 November 2017)

This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits (Medical Xpress, 29 November 2016)

Pristine pressed flower among 'jaw-dropping' bronze age finds (The Guardian, 30 September 2016)

“Gay” Caveman Wasn’t Gay… (En|Gender, 7 April 2011) "... she was trans." Or third gender. Or...

Unearthing the origins of East Africa's lost civilization (CNN, 19 October 2015). Kilwa in Tanzania, part of the Azania trading society.

Gender and the Generic in Divine Acclamations (a series of Tweets from Edward Butler, 28 November 2015).

Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae
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You read something over breakfast thinking, this is short, it'll only take a minute, and before you know it you're embroiled.

This short article from the year 1900 suggests that Ishtar was originally an androgynous deity before being "split" into male and female aspects. Similarly, Barton argues, Enlil and Ninlil were originally one and the same god. This intriguing idea is based on three pieces of evidence: one, in South Arabia, the goddess Athtar became the god Athtar, the deity's female aspect becoming a separate goddess, Shamsu; an inscription which Barton argues should read in part "the king of countries, the god Ishtar, the lady, the goddess Ishtar"; and an incantation in which both Enlil and Ninlil are called "mother-father". Barton also mentions Phoenician inscriptions referring to "Ashtart of the name of Baal" and "Tanit of the face of Baal".

This is appealing, but I don't quite know what to do with it. I can't find any citations of this article (which makes me wonder how I found it in the first place); apparently no-one else has built on this idea (although Barton discussed it further in his 1902 book A Sketch of Semitic Origins: Social and Religious). Connections suggest themselves: the primordial Aztec creator deity Ometeotl, both male and female, who can also appear as a male god, Ometecuhtli, and a goddess, Omecihuatl. OTOH, the Egyptian god Atum seems to have started off male and acquired female characteristics as a necessary part of being a creator.

There's also a mention of a Phoenician idol of a bearded goddess (Tanit, but with Baal's face?). I tried randomly searching for "bearded goddess" and came up with various examples, including a bearded Isis (which I will ETA), and the bearded Aphrodite / Aphroditus / Hermaphroditus, and his/her festival in which men and women swapped clothes - shades of the transvestism apparently involved in Inanna's rituals. Scholars have argued over whether Anat wore a beard. (Which I will also ETA because I can't lay hands on the photocopies right now.)

ETA: After much faffing about I found a section on Anat's beard in Neal H. Walls' book The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth. There's a description of the god El mourning the slain Baal in a series of ritual actions, which includes shaving his beard and whiskers. Then Anat goes through the same series of steps. IIUC what El does, literally, is to "cut his cheeks and chin", where the word for "chin" is also used to mean "beard". So in Anat's case, she "gashed her cheeks and chin". Walls remarks: "the comparative evidence for bearded goddesses is dubious". I shall pursue this question. (Does Sekhmet's ruff count?)

ETA: Here's bearded Isis (click for larger size):

This is a plate from Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker: besonders der Griechen (Symbolism and mythology of the Ancient Peoples, Especially the Greeks) by Friedrich Creuzer. This in turn reproduces an illustration from Nachträge zu meinem Werke betitelt "Reise zum Tempel des Jupiter Ammon in der libyschen Wüste" (Supplements to my work titled "Journey to the Temple of Jupiter Ammon in the Libyan Desert) (whew!) by Heinrich Karl Minutoli. Here, alas, the trail runs out: Minutoli tells us that this is a relief in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, and that is Graeco-Roman, but gives no further information.
Barton, George A. An Androgynous Babylonian Divinity. Journal of the American Oriental Society 21, 1900, pp. 185-187
Walls, Neal H. The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth. Scholars Press, Atlanta GA, 1992.
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These figures appear on the back pillar of a magical healing statue, Turin 3031, which portrayed a man holding a Horus cippus. Only the lower part has survived.

If that's an accurate rendering of "Sekhmet the Great, beloved of Ptah", then her phallus seems to have slid down to her knees. Kákosy compares her to other lioness-headed, ithyphallic figures, from Karnak and Hibis, and also "the statue in Naples inv. 1065 back pillar right side ref V.1.", which alas I seem to have neglected to photocopy.

There are enough examples of this figure - the ithyphallic lioness-headed goddess - to say that it was definitely A Thing, a rare example of androgyny in Egyptian religion. But what did it mean to the ancients? If it's a syncretism between Mut or Sekhmet and a specific male god or gods, then why not name them? Perhaps it was comparable to pantheistic figures - showing that the deity in question had the powers of all the gods, male and female?

ETA: Figures labelled as Sekhmet appear elsewhere on the same statue - which makes sense for a goddess associated with sickiness and healing. The goddess takes various forms: holding two snakes; holding a long double-headed snake ("Sekhmet who subdues the Rebel"); as a lion-headed uraeus, presented with the wedjat by a baboon (presumably a reference to the tale of the Distant Goddess); and as a lion lying on a shrine, wearing the atef crown ("Sekhmet the Great who dwells in the City" (perhaps Thebes)).

Nefertum also makes multiple appearances, firstly to the left of Horus on the cippus, in the form of a lotus with tall plume hung with two pairs of menits. The texts on the cippus which refer to this symbol name "Horus the Saviour", who Kákosy speculates was identified with Nefertem in this case. Kákosy writes that this symbol was "a potent emblem" and says that Nefertem and his lotus often appear in magic; Horus on the papyrus, which appears on the right side of the cippus opposite Neferterm's symbol as its "counterpart", "may have been the symbol of rejuvenation and freshness of health" as well as the union of male and female (many goddesses hold a papyriform sceptre).

There are several other interesting figures, such as Sobek pulling a snake out of his mouth and two cats flanking a sistrum. "Khonsu the Great who came forth from the Nun" appears in the form of a crocodile on a pedestal with a falcon-head and sun-disc emerging from its back.

Kákosy, László. Egyptian Healing Statues in Three Museums in Italy: Turin, Florence, Naples. Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali, Soprintendenza al Museo delle antichità egizie, 1999.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
A long, copiously footnoted, often technical, and frequently filthy dirty article, "A Cloud Roams and Beautifies by Spitting Out Her Brother" discusses a Ugaritic composition called KTU 1.96. The author, Matthew S. Tarazi, discusses prevous interpretations of the hymn, and gives his own: it describes the goddess Anat, acting as the "servant-messenger" of the storm-god Baal, collecting the rainwaters and distributing them to the freshwater springs which are essential for civilisation. Here's his translation of the first 9 1/2 lines:

"A Cloud roams and beautifies by spitting out her brother —
And her brother is beautiful, how very beautiful!
May she devour his flesh without a knife,
May she drink his blood without a cup:
May she face the spring of shame.
From the spring of shame may she face the spring of the market, the spring of the assembly, the spring of the gate."

Tarazi interprets this as Anat performing fellatio on Baal to obtain his semen, which she then distributes to the underground springs and brings to the surface, fertilising ("beautifying") the land. Baal's "flesh and blood" is his "entire essence and nature", the rainwater; the "spring of shame" is Baal's penis. The market, assembly, and gate are all "components of civilized life in Ugarit", so Anat's visit "vivif[ies] these sectors of life and civilization." The title of the hymn can be less poetically interpreted as "A cloud roams and irrigates by emitting out rainwaters", fertilising the earth "so that it brings forth magnificent life, vegetation, and civilization".

The Ugaritic word 'nn means both "cloud" and "servant, messenger"; it makes perfect sense for the storm-god's servants and messengers, including in this case Anat, to be clouds.

"Shame" seems like such an odd word in such a positive context. I wonder if it's really the right translation. Tarazi points out that Anat herself might not feel ashamed, even if "she is shameful by certain social standards".

Tarazi argues that it's Baal who does the fertilising here; although she acquires his waters in an *ahem* active manner, Anat is his agent, not a fertility goddess in her own right. He believes this is a deliberate change from an older view of Anat as having the "innate capacity to fertilize the earth". ("It also accords well with iconographic images depicting her with small breasts, thus internally deficient of life-sustaining fluids." OTOH, Ishtar is depicted proferring full breasts, and yet is arguably a goddess of sexual desire rather than fertility per se*.) I guess that would fit with the image of Anat taking Baal's semen in her mouth, rather than her vagina. (This is not the same thing, but I thought of Atum, who is what Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty would call a "male androgyne", producing Shu and Tefnut by taking his semen in his hand and placing it in his mouth.)

The author discusses at some length "a literary convention wherein [poet-scribes] would pluralize a term that denotes a particular person, typically a deity, to refer to the essential manifestation of that person". (He argues in particular that the word "brother" is actually "brothers".) "... deities are construed as ultimate sources of certain constituents and phenomena of the natural world [which in turn are] construed as coming out from the body of the person of the deity himself, and embodying that deity's essential nature." The point of this convention was to show that the god and their essence were different, but intimately related. It also addresses the idea that a god can manifest simultaneously in multiple places; similarly, in the Hebrew Bible, "plural forms of deity names... can be used to refer to idols of that deity [because] an idol is construed as sharing in the very essence and nature of the god whom it represents."

* I can't remember for the life of me who made this argument.

Doniger O'Flaherty, Wendy. Women, androgynes, and other mythical beasts. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Tarazi, Matthew S. A Cloud Roams and Beautifies by Spitting Out Her Brother: KTU 1.96 and its Relation to the Baal Cycle. Ugarit-Forschungen 36 2004, pp 445-509.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
Egyptian hieroglyphs at Mnamon: Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean: A critical guide to electronic resources

Ancient Egypt for kids - Egyptian Crowns and Headdresses of Gods

A Very Remote Period Indeed: A blog reviewing recent archaeological publications having to do with Paleolithic archaeology, paleoanthropology, lithic technology, hunter-gatherers and archaeological theory.

Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery (NYT, 2 January 2016)

Diodorus Siculus describes the Assyrian king Sardanapallus (perhaps Ashurbanipal) as a transvestite / transgender bisexual and blames him for the destruction of the Assyrian Empire - although the Greek historian's account mostly sounds like a pretty ordinary war.

Ancient Egyptian herbal wines (Patrick E. McGovern, PNAS 106(18), 5 May 2009) | Archaeological team prepares 4,000-year-old Hittite meals (Slate, 8 September 2016)

Ancient 'Mad Libs' Papyri Contain Evil Spells of Sex and Subjugation (LiveScience, 20 May 2016)

Scientist debunks nomadic Aboriginal 'myth' (GA, 9 October 2007) | Waking our sleeping Indigenous languages: 'we're in the midst of a resurgence' (GA, 31 August 2016) | Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms (GA, 21 September 2016) | World-first genome study reveals rich history of Aboriginal Australians (ABC, 22 September 2016) | Indigenous Australians know we're the oldest living culture – it's in our Dreamtime (GA, 22 September 2016)

A Lost European Culture, Pulled From Obscurity (NYT, 30 November 2009). Review of the exhibition The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.

How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality (Aeon, 8 June 2016)

The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome (The Atlantic, 30 March 2016)

Female King Ruled in Canaan, Carving Suggests (National Geographic, 10 April 2009)

Scientists use 'virtual unwrapping' to read ancient biblical scroll reduced to 'lump of charcoal' (GA, 21 September 2016)

Unearthing the origins of East Africa's lost civilization (CNN, 19 October 2015)
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
Alexander Pruss' chapter "The Use of Nude Female Figurines" discusses terracotta figures from Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine, including those weird-looking ones with all the holes in the head for attaching hair and earrings, and the later, more naturalistic ones which sort of wave their boobs at you. These and similar objects have long been interpreted as "fertility figurines". Pruss argues that "any link to childbirth and motherhood is completely lacking with these figurines". None are pregnant; none hold a child; the hands are not pressing milk from the breasts, but supporting them, presenting them.

"Generally, there is no reason to believe that the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia and Syria could not separate the fields of eroticism and human procreation," writes Pruss. In fact, in the ANE, fertility was more closely linked with male deities, such as Dumuzi. By contrast, the patroness of sexual desire, Inanna/Ishtar, was childless ("except for some ephemeral traditions").

That said, questions remain about who used these sexually aggressive little figures, and exactly what for (household rituals? votive offerings?).

Pruss, Alexander. "The Use of Nude Female Figurines". in S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting (eds). Sex and gender in the ancient Near East: proceedings of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Helsinki, July 2-6, 2001. Helsinki : Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2002. pp 537-545.


Mar. 19th, 2016 06:45 pm
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
A chapter on Hittite birth rituals, discussing "binding" in sorcery and mythology:

"Here [Text F in Beckman's catalogue] the goddess IŠTAR speaks to the goddess Malliya, who speaks to the goddess Pirwa, she she in turn to Kamrusepa, who 'yoked her horses and drove to the Great River, whom she conjured by incantation'. Then all that had been bound was loosed, through the ritual agency of Kamrusepa.

This goddess is found frequently in the circle of IŠTAR (ie the Hurrian Shausuga), Malliya (a river goddess), Pirwa and Askasepa, the 'genius' of the Gateway. Pirwa, both god and goddess, honoured by songs in Nesite and Luwian, is described as the god upon a Silver Horse and depicted in the iconography of Kültepe/Kanesh with chariot and team of horses... The logographic writing IŠTAR represented a deity, at once male and female, of War and Love." (All emphases mine.)

What caught my eye here, of course, was the hints of gender ambiguity; but also - look at all those goddesses! The article goes on to describe Kamrusepa's healing a newborn child and calming the anger of "the Hattic god Telepinus".

Beckman, Gary M. Hittite birth rituals. Wiesbaden, O. Harrassowitz, 1983.
Pringle, Jackie. "Hittite Birth Rituals". in Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt. Images of Women in Antiquity. Croom Helm, London and Sydney, 1983.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
More about Emesal, the Sumerian "women's language" - or was it? Gordon Whittaker argues that Emesal should be understood as a literary device, not as the genderlect used by Sumerian women (in contrast with with the differences between male and female speech in other languages, including Japanese). He points out that although Emesal is used for the speech of goddesses in certain types of Sumerian compositions, "the evidence for mortal women and girls actually using Emesal still needs to be presented." Enheduanna, the "greatest known author of Sumerian cultic literature, did not write in Emesal... even when she is writing in the first person and identifying herself by name."

Whittaker also discusses the evidence for the gala-priest as eunuch - concluding "more evidence is needed". The gala uses Emesal when singing laments and so forth; some Sumerologists have suggested that he was a castrato. Whittaker counters: "no direct, or even reasonably cogent evidence has ever been proferred that the genitals of the gala suffered the fate of the pre-modern choirboy." He also notes the evidence of galas having children and passing on their profession to their sons (although they could have been adopted?) and a reference to a gala as puršum bitim "patriarch". (In Sumerian proverbs, the gala speaks Emesal "in everyday life", but this could be stereotyping and/or satire.)

The more I read about this stuff, the less certain everything becomes.

Whittaker, Gordon. "Linguistic Anthropology and the Study of Emesal as (a) Women's Language". in S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting (eds). Sex and gender in the ancient Near East: proceedings of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Helsinki, July 2-6, 2001. Helsinki, Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2002.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
The idea that the Sumerian term kar.kid (and its Akkadian equivalent ḫarimtu) consistently means "sex worker" has been put under the microscope. A proper analysis of this may have to wait until I can copy Julia Assante's article on the subject without cutting off half the pages this time. In the meantime, a short excerpt from a recent paper:

"In the list the word nidnu, although seemingly without a context, can be thought to denote (although not necessarily) 'wages' of a prostitute. After all, the prostitute is termed in Sumerian as MUNUSKAR-KID. As Sallaberger brings to my attention, the early writing of KAR-KID as KAR-KÌD/KÈ(AK) points to the etymology of the term as 'a worker at the quay/market place', although a less literal meaning can be thought of, such as 'a (woman), engaged in trade', or what in modern parlance would be called (offensively) as 'a
working girl'."

(Let us put aside the fact that "prostitute" is also an offensive term.) Were there no women who worked in the marketplace or at the quays other than sex workers? The author, Yoram Cohen, has considered Assante's argument that kar.kid/ḫarimtu has been misinterpeted, but considers it to have been "safely dismissed". Yet again and again there are texts he quotes in which "woman worker" would make just as much sense as "sex worker" where the word kar.kid or ḫarimtu appears. For example, Cohen writes:

"Under the ideal conditions of the land during Assurbanipal's reign, these workers will receive for their commodities by far more than the going rate — they will be paid by camels and slaves. The brewer sells as his commodity his beer, the gardener his vegetables and the tavern-woman — she sells what? Presumably sex for which she receives her nidnu."

Were there no women who worked in the tavern other than sex workers - no women innkeepers? No barmaids? Even the text under examination, which states that if a stranger asks for a bed for the night, you should give him the wages of a ḫarimtu, makes just as much sense if the woman in question is an innkeeper.

I retain a strong suspicion that the same assumptions and circular logic that invented "sacred prostitution" may be at work here. I have a mountain of material to get through, but something which would help convince me that kar.kid/ḫarimtu specifically indicates "sex worker" would be if there are terms for women workers that are consistently distinguished from it.

Assante, Julia. The kar.kid / harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman? A Reconsideration of the Evidence. Ugarit-Forschungen 30 2003 pp 5-96.
Cohen, Yoram. The Wages of a Prostitute: Two Instructions from the Wisdom Composition 'Hear the Advice' and an Excursus on Ezekiel 16,331. Semitica 57 2015, pp 43-55.

ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
Continuing with Mesopotamian cultic personnel: the kurgarrû held a "recognized office" rather than a temporary role (so was the saĝ-ur-saĝ, but the same evidence is lacking for the assinnu). Kurgarrû and assinnu often appear together, in lists and in rituals. In the Descent of Inanna, the kurgarrû and kalatura are sent to rescue the goddess, but in the Descent of Ishtar, it's Asushanamir the assinnu.

The kurgarrû, like some other "cultic officials", carried weapons. Henshaw cites lines from "Inanna and Ebiḫ", in which the god An says: "to the kurgara I have given the gír 'sword or dagger' and ba-da-ra ["club", "prod", "knife"] / to the gala I have given the drum and the li-li-is / for the pi-li-pi-li I have changed the sex".

(Interesting that it's An, not Inanna, doing the changing - "either a garment change, or a role change, or a literal sex change". It's Henshaw's parsimonious view the pili-pili carried the spindle when he played a female role, and a weapon when he played a male role. OTOH, the ETCSL gives a different translation: "I have transformed the pilipili cult performers." ETA: According to Jarle Ebeling, in pi-li-pi-li saǧ šu bal mu-ni-ak, the verb saǧ šu bal can mean "to turn something on its head / to turn something upside down". Betty De Shong Meador describes the transformation as "ritual head-overturning".)

Also in the kurgarrû's arsenal: the naglabu "razor", quppû "knife", ṣurtu "flint knife", and the belu / tillu also worn by the assinnu - all of which ulluṣ kabtat ᵈIštar, "delight the heart of Ishtar". An ershemma lamenting Dumuzi states: "the kurgarra of his city did not brandish the sword". "Elsewhere", says Henshaw, "one finds that these are not merely ceremonial weapons, but are covered with blood." Some authors suggest this is the result of self-mutilation; Henshaw believes it's part of a "war game". For example, in one rite, the kurgarrû and others "play war (lit. 'battlefield'), ie, act out a battle in dramatic liturgical form".

The kurgarrû also carry "instruments symbolic of the female": the pilaqqu "spindle, distaff or hair-clasp", whip, and comb. An astrologial prophecy tells us: "If Adad in the midst of the constellation Great Bear (gave a cry) and it rained cardamom (and they became?) men, then the kurgarrûs will sit in the house and the kurgarrûs will give birth to men." With epic litotes Richard Henshaw describes this as "difficult", but points out it does refer to the kurgarrû's "female role".

Ebeling, Jarle. "Multiword-verb combinations with and without ak". in Jarle Ebeling and Graham Cunningham (eds). Analysing literary Sumerian: corpus-based approaches. London, Oakville, CT, Equinox, 2007.
Henshaw, Richard A. "Appendix Three: The assinnu, kurgarrû and Similar Functionaries". in Female and male - the cultic personnel: the Bible and the rest of the ancient Near East. Allison Park, Pa, Pickwick Publications, 1994.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
(Long ago (June 2011) I started a series of postings about the ancient Mesopotamian assinnu which I made a hash of, so this is a do-over!)

Richard Henshaw (1994) groups the assinnu with the kurgarrû, the kulu'u, the saĝ-ur-saĝ, the pilipili (pilpilû), and similar cultic functionaries who are "a kind of actor in the cultic drama". He remarks that, unlike most professional titles, many of these can't be translated; possibly they're foreign loanwords, or pre-Sumerian words.

Like many Akkadian words, assinnu was actually written down using Sumerian signs; someone reading a tablet out loud would have said "assinnu" when they saw LÚ.UR.SAL or UR.MUNUS. The LÚ indicates it's the name of a profession; SAL and MUNUS both mean 'woman'. Martti Nissenen (1998) says that: "UR.SAL, or 'man-woman', should actually be read "'dog-woman', 'dog' representing masculinity in a despicable sense" (147n45). I've often encountered this assumption in the literature - that 'dog' in terms like the Sumerian saĝ-ur-saĝ or the Akkadian keleb must be derogatory. However, UR also appears in terms like ur.mah "lion" and ur.saĝ "hero, champion"; more than one scholar has wondered if the saĝ-ur-saĝ is a type of ur-saĝ. (Henshaw says that it's not "bitch", which was written SAL.UR.) Drawing on the online Sumerian Lexicon, Saana Teppo points out that "'dog' can also mean a young man, a servant, a warrior, or an enemy".

In various cultic texts, we get glimpses of the assinnu's religious jobs, including chanting, singing, and dancing. In one ritual, the assinnu and the kurgarrû wear the belû / tillu (possibly a scabbard?) of the goddess Narudu. (Any relation to the saltier of Atargatis, I wonder?) In another, "... the assinnu is found setting a brick down in the House of Lament... He lights a fire over it and roasts on it various meats, fish, and other items. He pours a libation of beer and places seven loaves on the fire. The ritual ends with him singing the Love Lyric 'When I saw you in the Equlû.'" (One of several tasks for the assinnu and the kurgarrû during the month of Simanu, as described by A.R. George, who remarks that they were probably busy the year round.)

Martti Nissinen (2003) describes letters from Mari which mention prophecies delivered by assinnus attached to the temple of Annunitum ("a manifestation of the warrior aspect of Ishtar" - Wilson). (Prophets are often grouped with assinnu in "lexical and administrative lists".) Åke W. Sjöberg quotes passages describing saĝ-ur-saĝs carrying "the corvée basket" and yokes, which "show that the saĝ-ur-saĝ (when corresponding to the assinnu) had duties other than only cultic assignments".

Richard Henshaw cautiously outlines the evidence for the assinnu's sexuality. The Epic of Erra contains a line referring to the assinnu and the kurgarrû in Anum and Ishtar's temple, the Eanna:

ša ana šupluh nišī Ištar zikrusunu uterru ana ain [nišūti]

"The translation of this is ambiguous," cautions Henshaw: "'those who in order to bring about awe/religious awe in people, Ishtar turned their maleness into femaleness'... Nothing more appears in this text to indicate the nature of this change".

In a text describing "sexual advances, sexual dreams, etc", there's a line "something like: 'if a man suffers physically in prison, and like an assinnu the desire to copulate is taken away from him..." (This impotence could mean sterility rather than erectile dysfunction.) And another line: "... if a man approaches (for sexual purposes) an assinnu..." (Henshaw cautions that many lines of the text describe the "fantastic actions" in dreams rather than "actual cases".)

Of the Descent of Ishtar and Asushanamir, Henshaw says, "Why the assinnu could pass through the gate and confront the queen... is not explained in the text, but I propose that being of in-between sex made him impervious to the sexual rites and power that Ereshkigal, following the example of her sister, could impose upon him." (She herself is a pretty sexy goddess.)

One text pairs the assinnu with the sinnišānu: "The form of this word can be explained as the word for woman, sinništu, with the feminine ending" replaced by the masculine ending -ānu, perhaps to be understood "man-woman". Elsewhere, a curse promises to "(turn) his maleness like (that of) a sinnišānu".

One text, says Henshaw, includes a possible reference to a female assinnu - that is, "the feminine form of the noun assinnu" - and another mentions a female kurgarru.

Concluding his appendix on the assinnu and co, Henshaw remarks: "Many of the texts discussed in this section are cryptic; indeed, I think they were meant to be." Scholars sometimes seem to have drawn great, and sometimes questionable, conclusions about these cultic personnel from very small scraps of information.

ETA: More on the assinnu's unclear sexuality from Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Robert R. Wilson cites the lines from the Epic of Erra above and notes that "This has been variously been interpreted to mean that the assinnu was a eunuch, transvestite, male cult-prostitute, or pederast. However, none of these interpretations can unambigously be supported by reference to other texts [therefore] some scholars hold that the assinnu was simply an actor who took a female role in cultic dramas." Assinnus appear in three of the Mari letters, and in one of them, the assinnu Šelebum goes into a trance in Annunitum's temple before giving a prophet warning meant for the king. Wilson suggests that, during the trance, Šelebum was possessed by the goddess, and therefore would have spoken and acted in a feminine way; and that this might have been a regular part of the assinnu's job.

George, Andrew "Four temple rituals from Babylon." in George, A R and Finkel, I L, (eds). Wisdom, Gods and Literature: Studies in Assyriology in Honour of W. G. Lambert. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 2000, pp. 259-299.
Henshaw, Richard A. "Appendix Three: The assinnu, kurgarrû and Similar Functionaries". in Female and male - the cultic personnel: the Bible and the rest of the ancient Near East. Allison Park, Pa, Pickwick Publications, 1994.
Kessler Guinan, A. Auguries of Hegemony: The Sex Omens of Mesopotamia. Gender & History, 9: 462–479, 1997.
Nissinen, Martti. "Introduction". in Prophets and prophecy in the ancient Near East, Martti Nissinen with contributions by C.L. Seow and Robert K. Ritner ; edited by Peter Machinist. Atlanta, Ga, Society for Biblical Literature, 2003.
Nissenen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998.
Sjöberg, Åke W. A Hymn to Inanna and her Self-Praise. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 40(2) autumn 1988.
Wilson, Robert R. Prophecy and society in ancient Israel. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1980.
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)
In this chapter from Sacred Marriages, Saana Teppo (now Saana Svärd) describes the assinnu, the kurgarrū, and the kulu'u (or gala), and their role in the worship of Ishtar. "in their ecstatic performances," she writes, "they were joined with Ishtar in a union comparabable to sacred marriage... they fulfilled the same function as the king in the sacred marriage ritual: they ensured the blessing of the goddess for the country."

"It seems that all three groups of cultic functionaries were born as men (or hermaphrodites [that is, intersex people]), but... their appearance was either totally feminine, or they had both male and female characteristics. [All three are] recorded in the literature of the Sumerian period [and] continued to appear in Akkadian texts up to the Seleucid and Persian eras." They were rained for their ritual duties: "ecstatic dance, music, ritual plays, and performances", in which they wore female dress and makeup and carried masks, spindles, and weapons. Teppo admits that the "evidence for this from Mesopotamia is not overwhelming", but it is possible that, like the galli and the hijra (?), the cultic performers mutilated themselves to achieve "an altered state of consciousness in which they could achieve union with the divine - a sacred marriage". (Perhaps the weapons were for mock or ritual battles? One of the love lyrics W.G. Lambert translates, perhaps describing a ritual, includes the lines 'Battle is my game, warfare is my game,' he/she will utter and the Assinnu-priest will go down to battle, he will ... a jig [...]".)

In the Sumerian version of the Descent of Inanna, Enki creates the kurgarrū and "the kalaturru (GALA.TUR, which can be translated as 'young kulu'u')" from dirt under his fingernails and dispatches them to rescue Inanna. In the Assyrian version, Ea creates the assinnu Asushanamir for the same purpose.

Teppo discusses the possibility that the assinnu, kurgarrū, and kulu'u performed sex work connected with Ishtar worship; I'm going to put that aside for now, because I still haven't fully got to grips with the recent overturning of the long-standing assumption that every priestess (and almost every woman!) in Mesopotamia was a sex worker. I will note, though, that the "kulu'u is called Ištar's 'sweet bedfellow' (ṣālitu ṭābu) and 'lover' (ḫabbubu)."

(ETA: Henshaw (p 300) discusses this last, translating the lines from a "namburbi text addressed to Ishtar": "come enter our house / with you may enter the beautiful one / who sleeps with you / your lover and your kulu'u." Henshaw notes: "it couldn't be three separate people invited in!" Oddly, that was exactly how I read it - although I think Henshaw's interpretation is probably right.)

Teppo suggests that the assinnu's role in healing is explained by Asushanamir's helping to bring Ishtar back to life. Assinnus could also be prophets (and there are three Neo-Assyrian prophets who, though are not called assinnus, are described as being both men and women). The kurgarrus performed a "war dance" "with knives, swords, and clubs", and played "ritual games with skipping ropes and bawdy speech". The assinnu and the kurgarrū are often found in each other's company, such as at liminal moments - the New Year's Festival, and eclipses.

The kulu'u or gala was originally a lamentation chanter, listed alongside "female mourners and wailers" and using the female literary dialect, Emesal. (Possibly they replaced female singers, retaining "the female forms of the profession".) An Old Babylonian poem describes Enki creating the gala to soothe Inanna's heart. Galas peformed in temples, at funerals, and possibly at court. The chief gala (GALA.MAḪ) was a high-ranking official; there may have been gala guilds, gala families, and female galas. (There's possible evidence of a female assinnu and a female kurgarrū.) But some galas were slaves, and the galas could be forced to do corvée work for the temple.

Ishtar could change someone's sex or gender, as noted in Inana C (aka The Stout-Hearted Lady, Lady of Largest Heart), the hymn Išme-Dagan K, and The Epic of Erra, which says of Ishtar and the kurgarru and assinnu: "Who changed their masculinity into femininity to make the people of Ištar revere her. The dagger-bearer, bearers of razors, pruning-knives, and flint blades, who frequently do abominable [ie "taboo acts, forbidden to regular persons] to please the heart of Ištar." Which said, nobody knows for sure whether some or all of the assinnus, kurgarrūs, and kulu'us were castrated (and if so, to what extent). (Eunuchs, ša-rēši, were a separate category of persons.)

So these cultic personnel had an established, institutional role, but how well were they treated as individuals? Some of Teppo's evidence that they were marginalised doesn't quite convince me. Enki created them from the dirt under his fingernails, but then, he created the human race out of lowly clay (maybe there was a bit left over :). The curse placed on Asushanamir is pretty unequivocal, though, damning the assinnu to a homeless city life, and someone is insulted with the remark "He is a kulu'u and not a man" - a reminder that "in practical terms Mesopotamian society was strongly patriarchal and had fairly inflexible gender categories," as Teppo remarks. She goes on to say: "There was very little toleration for individuals who did not conform to the expected male and female roles." (I wish she'd given some evidence for Mesopotamian gender non-conformity!) Perhaps these "third gender" roles "existed specifically because the roles of men and women were so clearly defined" - they represented "an outlet, a means for society to deal with people who could not, for whatever reason, function in society as men and women."

Lambert, W.G. "The Problem of the Love Lyrics". in Hans Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts (eds). Unity and diversity: essays in the history, literature, and religion of the ancient Near East. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975. (p 105)
Teppo, Saana. "Sacred Marriage and the Devotees of Ishtar". in Martti Nissinen and Risto Uro (eds). Sacred marriages: the divine-human sexual metaphor from Sumer to early Christianity. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 2008. pp 75-92.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
"Woman-woman marriage - in which one woman pays brideprice to acquire a husband's rights to another woman - has been documented in more than thirty African populations," opens this chapter from Boy-Wives and Female Husbands. "In these groups," the authors go on to say, "female political leaders are also common. These women chiefs rarely have male husbands (whether or not they had wives). Indeed, among the Lovedu, the queen was prohibited from having a male husband and was required instead to have a wife."

Amongst many examples, they quote E.E. Evans-Pritchard about the Nuer version of the practice: "... the husband gets a male kinsman or friend or neighbour... to beget children by her wife and to assist... in those tasks of the home for the carrying out of which a man is necessary." (He's paid in cows for each child and for his work.) And Max Gluckman about the "rich and important Zulu woman" who takes a wife: "she is the pater of her wife's children begotten by some male kinsman of the female husband. They belong to the latter's agnatic lineage as if she were a man." And George W. B. Huntingford about the Nandi: "This gave both women the legal and social status of husband and wife respectively. There was no lesbianism involved here, for the female husband could have her own men friends and the wife could have intercourse with any man of whom her 'husband' approved." (The chapter's authors warn against ethnographers' assumptions that female husbands and their wives never had sexual relations.)

Discussing the gender of the female husband, the authors draw on researchers whose view is that gender or sex are not as important in African societies in general than social standing, age, and lineage. Evans-Pritchard said that a woman who had not had children "for this reason counts in some respects as a man". She is her wives' "legal husband and can demand damages if they have relations with men without her consent... Her children are called after her, as though she were a man, and I was told they address her as 'father'. She administers her home and herd as a man would do, being treated by her wives and children with the deference they would show a male husband and father."

"In other words,' remark Carrier and Murray, "African marriages are between individuals in male and female roles, not necessarily between biological males and females." More than one author calls the female husbands "social males", "promoted" to the status of men. There's a parallel here with the ancient daughters adopted as sons, especially when it comes to inheritance. To what extent are, or were, the female husbands "social men"? Among the Nandi, "to some extent" the women dressed and adorned themselves as men, and stopped doing "women's work", and have the right to attend "public meetings and political discussions" (but don't!). OTOH, amongst the Simiti, husband and wife are considered mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Interestingly, the chapter also mentions an Igbo dike-nwami ("brave-woman"), who described her belief that she "was meant to be a man" and her interest in "manly activities". Childless, she was divorced, dressed as a man, farmed and hunted, was initiated into men's societies, and took two wives (her brother begat her children).

Carrier, Joseph M. and Stephen O. Murray. "Woman-Woman Marriage in Africa". in Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (eds). Boy-wives and female husbands: studies in African homosexualities. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
ikhet_sekhmet: (ankh-mi-re)
It's been a long time since I made one of my postings about gender in the ancient world. Until now, I've mostly posted about "third genders" which undermine the assumption that "man" and "woman" are universal constants in all times and places. This time I want to share my notes on a practice which calls into question the "natural" nature of gender. In at least three ancient Near Eastern cities, a woman could become a man, or simultaneously a man and a woman - at least for the purposes of inheritance.

Counting descent solely through the male line requires any society to tie itself into knots*, especially when sons are necessary not just to inherit the property of the paterfamilias, but to perform ancestor worship. In the ancient Near East, a daughter could inherit, but then her father's property would go to her husband's household. In the absence of a son, an ancient Near Eastern man would usually appoint his son-in-law, brother, or brother's son as his male heir; or he might adopt a son. However, as Zafrira Ben-Barak points out, a man from another household could be a dangerous place to stash your patrimony. We have the documents from a case in which, through a series of dodgy steps, the son-in-law's brother ended up inheriting everything - taking the original testator's property entirely out of his household, and extinguishing his line to boot.

One solution? If you had a daughter, you could make her into a son. In a will from the Hittite city of Emar, a man's will states: "I have established my daughter Al-ḫati as female and male [MUNUS ù NITAḪ]." and charges her with the worship of the household gods and ancestors. (His brothers were called as witnesses to the will; I wonder what they thought of not being appointed his legal heirs.) He also appoints his wife "father and mother [a-bu ù AMA] of my estate".

In another will, also from Emar, the testator's wife is appointed "mother and father of the house", and his daughter is declared to be "male and female" and again given a son's responsibility of maintaining worship of the family's gods and ancestors.

From the city of Nuzi, in the Hurrian-speaking kingdom of Mitanni, comes a will in which Unap-tae declares: "My daughter Šilwa-turi as a son I made." "Using the accepted term for son-adoption, marutu ["sonship"], the father adopts his daughter as a son," writes Ben-Barak. Another will gives three daughters all the status of sons and leaves the testator's property and gods to them. And finally, in a will from the Syrian city at el-Qitar, the testator adopts the wife of his adopted son as his own son.

Katarzyna Grosz suggests that this custom - which, from the documents, was clearly a well-established practice - paved the way for "full legal independence" for women. What I'd like to find out is whether a woman's legal status as "head of the household" gave her any other rights which were normally exclusively male - or was her new status only relevant when it came to the family?

Ben-Barak's analysis of the term "male and female" is that it doesn't literally mean Šilwa-turi is a legal hermaphrodite; rather, she is "a female with the status of a male". The entire business is a reminder that "man" and "woman" are social categories which can be changed by a bit of clay with marks on it**.

(In one of the wills from Nuzi, the testator says that should his nephews try to make a claim on his estate, "may this tablet break their teeth". I just had to get that in somewhere.)

ETA: Left out a bit. There's a parallel from India, the putrika-putra, a "daughter appointed as a son". Because she was considered a son, her son would not be the heir of her husband, but the son of her father: "As the merits of a son and grandson are equal (eg in offerings made to ancestors)," writes Grosz, "the latter ranked as a son." (A quick Google showed that this is only a glimpse at the complexities of traditional Hindu inheritance law.)

ETA: The Women Designated 'Man and Woman' in Emar and Ekalte - presented by Masamichi Yamada at the 4th REFEMA Workshop, 2014. This mentions two cases in which a sister rather than a daughter was appointed as a man's heir, as well as examples involving a ḫarimtu and a qadištu.

* We're watching the TV series Wolf Hall at the moment. When you're the King of England, the lack of a male heir has world-changing consequences, not to mention getting a lot of people killed. (Do matrilineal societies have the same kind of crazy problems?)

** Come to think of it, I wonder if there's any chance those curses - "may Ishtar impress female parts on your male parts" - have some basis in some real-life events? I have no doubt that the goddess can change anybody's physical sex, but perhaps the ancient civilisations of the Near East were familiar with a change of gender, and might wish the inferior social status of "woman" on their male enemies?


Ben-Barak, Zafrira. "The legal status of the daughter as heir in Nuzi and Emar." in Society and economy in the Eastern Mediterranean (c.1500-1000 B.C.): proceedings of the International Symposium held at the University of Haifa from the 25th of April to the 2nd of May 1985 / edited by M. Heltzer and E. Lipinski (eds). Leuven, Uitgeverij Peeters, 1988.

Grosz, Katarzyna. "Daughters adopted as sons at Nuzi and Emar". in Jean-Marie Durand (ed). La Femme dans le Proche-Orient Antique: compte rendu de la XXXIIIe Rencontre assyriologique internationale (Paris, 7-10 juillet 1986) (Rencontre assyriologique internationale 33). Paris, Recherche sur les civilisations, 1987.


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