Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mythological Musings

I think I've mentioned before that I love mythology. It's fascinating to contemplate the fact that these ancient, stripped-down stories still have resonance for so many people today. What makes them eternal?

And although we have only the bare bones of each story, still it often happens that mythology contains concepts which our modern civilization has forgotten about.

The term "hermaphrodite" comes from a Greek myth in which the deities Hermes and Aphrodite had a child together, who, as they say, "combined the attributes of both genders." One encyclopedia of mythology describes this child as "a female boy," as if everyone knows what that is. According to another source, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art (available online):
The fable probably arose from the inclination, prevalent in the Eastern religions, towards confusing the attributes of both sexes. In Cyprus, for instance, a masculine Aphroditos, clad in female attire, was worshipped by the side of the goddess Aphrodite. Figures of hermaphrodites are common in art.

Wikipedia has more information about Aphroditos - includes nude photos - and the rituals celebrated in hir honor by people of all genders. Statues of a sleeping Hermaphroditos also appear to have been popular (you can't see the naughty bits from this angle, but they're there.)
sleeping Hermaphroditos
source: Wikimedia Commons
Of course, these depictions of Hermaphroditos are rather biased towards people who were born with penises. There are, however, some Greek myths about people who went the other way, such as Caeneus and Leucippus. (The Roman Ovid retells the story of Leucippus, calling him Iphis instead.)

Perhaps the best-known example of gender non-conformity in Greek mythology, however, are the Amazons. They are described as female warriors - some say they live entirely separate from men, and others say that they live in a "matriarchal" society where men stay home and are subservient to women. Since that was a complete reversal of patriarchal Greek society, some people believe that the Amazons were entirely imaginary, a sort of tall tale about strange people in foreign countries, rather like the myth that people in Australia walk around upside down.

Others point to archeological and anthropological proof of the existence of "women warriors" in the same parts of the world where the Amazons were said to live. (Some said they came from Scythia - others, Africa - and there is historical evidence of female warriors in both areas.) Then again, there are other stories about Amazons living in Greece itself, and depictions of Greek heroes fighting them. Perhaps the Amazons weren't that foreign after all.

No one, as far as I know, has ever identified the Amazons as transgender. But where do we draw the line between gender non-conformity and transgender? Many depictions of trans people in traditional societies classify them as trans based on the fact that they wear the clothes and do the work of one specific gender. Moreover, it's only recently that characters such as Caeneus, Leucippus, and Aphroditos were identified as transgender or intersex. Nobody used to think in those terms. And it's quite common for trans men to be misidentified as "passing women."

One of the things I love about mythology is that each of us can create our own interpretations of it. For example, many lesbian students of mythology believe that the Amazons were lesbians, even though no ancient Greek writer, that I am aware of, ever made that suggestion. Likewise, if I want to speculate that the Amazons were trans men, I'm free to do so.

Besides their gender presentation, there's another aspect of the Amazon myth that speaks to modern trans men. It's said that the Amazons used to have their breasts surgically removed. Oddly, this "top surgery" takes the form of a myth within a myth - by that I mean, Greek writers said that Amazons cut off one of their breasts, but Greek artists and sculptors never portrayed them with breasts missing. It's been suggested that this voluntary mastectomy is the equivalent of voluntary castration, described in the myth of Attis and carried out, we are told by many people who wished to serve the Goddess.
source: Wikimedia Commons
Here is a picture of an Amazon from Scythia. I want to mention that although hir clothes are not traditional female garb, they are meant to be those of a foreigner. Greek Amazons generally wore the same type of clothing as Greek men.

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