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Fox from AZ

nita munus.ra munus nita.ra

Sonya Taaffe has a beautiful rebuff of the idea that gender in ancient cultures was bereft of trans*, non-binary and other gender identities beyond the modern "cis", as if non-cis gender was invented recently. Here is a snippet:

You read Frazer, so you must have a smattering of interest in comparative religions; are you familiar with the diverse gender identities of the gala/kalû of Inanna/Ištar, who were sometimes men who took female names and wrote hymns in the exclusively female eme-sal dialect of Sumerian and had sex with men and married women and fathered children and were sometimes women? And that this is a rudimentary and almost certainly misgendering way to discuss this priesthood, because as the above description implies, the gala were not defined on a gender binary? Aṣûšunamir the assinu of Ištar's Descent is another gender-crossing figure of Mesopotamian myth. Often assumed to be a eunuch. Maybe. You can find lots of literature describing the assinû as homosexual cult prostitutes, although since Aṣûšunamir's explicit function is to delight and distract and soften the mood of Ereškigal, Queen of the Underworld . . . The kurgarrû are likewise ambiguous in gender.



I recommend reading the full post, as well as a subsequent translation of Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius' Saturnalia 3.8.2–3.

It prompted me to dig up Kathleen McCaffrey's article "Reconsidering Gender Ambiguity in Mesopotamia: Is a Beard Just a Beard?" in S. Parpola and R.M. Whiting (eds). Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, which I photocopied during my MA and never got around to reading. It's a useful article that covers some of the same ground as Sonya's post, but suffers from a lack of the idea that gender can be "neither". It's worthwhile to look at gender through the lens of role rather than genitals: the possibility of changing gender by changing role without any modification of the body, possibly? (eg: women entering the male role of "king", thus beginning to be depicted iconographically as men, with features including weapons and beards, which raises the question of whether they grew/wore beards in reality; the example given is a 9th C BCE Assyrian "bearded queen" represented at Nineveh, notably only c.50 years distant from Šammuramat). But, but, this system of gendered roles becomes just as rooted in the binary as the gendered bodies of the Western system, this crossing between male and female without leaving the two genders, whether partially or totally. (It reminds me of reading Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World, which I wrote about on Tor.com: the troubling of male and female by "both", sort of, without strongly considering the possibility of "neither".) And, really, gender beyond the binary and beyond aspects of a binary-defined "both" seems, to me, to be there. The bigger (and perhaps un-answerable) questions are what "neither" might have meant for people in the past, what the relationship/s with male and female was, what fluidity was possible, what relationship/s it had with bodies, roles, and so on.

(There're things I want to say about performance and gender and how talking about, say, a woman taking on aspects of male performance and therefore queering her identity, really frustrates me when it's talked about in a certain way, but I think that's a post for another day. I need to pin down my thoughts better.)

I want to talk about gender in the past on Tor.com, because I think it's important to talk about history. As I said elsewhere: our history is often visible between the lines of what we write about the future. (What we write about the present, too.) Many SFF writers struggle to depict people of all genders as people of the future, not men and women of the past -- based on a flawed understanding of the past. The supposed "newness" of queerness is an oft-used excuse for dismissal.

I recently re-read B's essay "What "queer" could look like in Hindi: translated poetry and queerness in regional tongues", which talks about the tension between trying to look to the past for our queer history -- through which lens/es? -- yet how important it is to see the queerness. There are always lenses, there is no objectivity, considering the possibility of gender identities that can be usefully termed "non-binary gender" is not (in my opinion) an overactive modern lens, but the how of approaching gender in the past is always important.

(This isn't my research area -- sidenote: it darkly amuses me when people assume my academic work is gender-related, as if I cannot possibly have other interests -- but it's something I intend to keep reading about, where I can, and I can, because I GOT THE FUNDING TO GO TO OXFORD TO DO A MASTERS IN CLASSICAL ARMENIAN STUDIES.)

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The bigger (and perhaps un-answerable) questions are what "neither" might have meant for people in the past, what the relationship/s with male and female was, what fluidity was possible, what relationship/s it had with bodies, roles, and so on.

This is one of the questions that hampers scholarship around Athene. Παρθένος does not mean "virgin" in the traditionally translated sense. Virginity implies a change of states, the potential that Angela Carter is so fond of evoking in stories like "The Lady of the House of Love" and "The Company of Wolves." Athene is παρθενική not because she hasn't yet had sex, but because she never will: she is a kind of erotic null space, as seen by the fact that sex doesn't work around her. Or it malfunctions weirdly—Hephaistos tries, comes on Attic earth and accidentally fathers Erichthonios; Poseidon sees Athene naked and ejaculates instantly, producing the first horse. These are acts of procreation, but they have nothing to do with her. Adolescent Teiresias in one variant of his origin story sees Athene bathing and, being mortal, at once loses his sight: she is not meant to be viewed in any sexual way. It's the reason for the violent punishment of Medusa and Aias, both of whom engage in sexual behavior in her temple. But it's not chastity. It's not celibacy, which we frame as a choice. It just doesn't happen. It is likely not accidental that Athene is a female goddess whose most characteristic traits, from her strategizing to her armor to her patronage of warfare, are male. And yet she is associated also with the weaving of threads and words, the former an especially female task. Plots, texts, lies like Odysseus. Her gender is complicated.

(There're things I want to say about performance and gender and how talking about, say, a woman taking on aspects of male performance and therefore queering her identity, really frustrates me when it's talked about in a certain way, but I think that's a post for another day. I need to pin down my thoughts better.)

I look forward.

I want to talk about gender in the past on Tor.com
The supposed "newness" of queerness is an oft-used excuse for dismissal.


And this!

I GOT THE FUNDING TO GO TO OXFORD TO DO A MASTERS IN CLASSICAL ARMENIAN STUDIES.

w000000000000t!

Edited at 2014-06-06 06:52 pm (UTC)
There is an Irish prose tale dating to, I think, the 10th century, about an Irish abbot who becomes a woman, and this is presented as something that happened, not as some kind of Huge! Deal! It's not been translated from Old Irish, sadly. There are also a number of iterations of men performing female gender and vice versa in magical/liminal contexts. I think one could make a case that some early hagiography encodes notions of asexuality (as opposed to celibacy), too. While both Welsh and Irish texts of this period express notions of gendered behaviour, they're far less clear on *gender*, if that makes sense.
I had a very heated debate with students (and one peer) when I pointed out that the friendship patterns and behaviour of one rather culted Welsh leader suggest strongly that he was predominantly gay. They all announced themselves as liberal: they were all horrified by the suggestion, because Hero. Which was interesting. (In period, there is little or no material expressing what his contemporaries might have thought: it seems most likely that male sexual expression, at least, was not policed that heavily despite supposed religious strictures.)
vomiting foxes

August 2014

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