Friday, February 25, 2011

Attis, Agdistis, and Kybele

As I've mentioned before, I love mythology.  These stories which have endured for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so old in most cases that their authors are no longer known . . . stripped down to their most basic elements, like stones polished by the ocean.  All that's left is meaning; some deep significance that speaks to us, even if we don't know why.

They have endured and they have also changed.  When you think of fairy tales, do you think of Walt Disney?  Or have you sought out the older versions, full of sex, violence, proactive heroines, and various other things of which the censors don't approve?

The purpose of mythology is not to teach conformity:  this I believe.  It is to open up to us another world - call it the collective unconscious, sacred space, the Dreaming, the shamanistic world of magic, what you will.  The purpose of mythology is to say there is another world.  And the fact that we feel drawn to it - those of us who feel drawn to it - proves that there is something there of value.  It is not "real" but it is real.

Recently I discovered the myth of Attis and Agdistis and it has stayed with me.  Here is the oldest version that we have (from
"The local [Phrygian] legend about him [Attis] being this. Zeus [equated here with the Phrygian sky-god], it is said, let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a Daimon, with two sexual organs, male and female. They call the daimon Agdistis. But the gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Sangarios, they say, took the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child. A boy was born, and exposed, but was tended by a he-goat. As he grew up his beauty was more than human, and Agdistis fell in love with him. When he had grown up, Attis was sent by his relatives to Pessinos, that he might wed the king’s daughter. The marriage-song was being sung, when Agdistis appeared, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals, as also did he who was giving him his daughter in marriage. But Agdistis repented of what she had done to Attis, and persuaded Zeus to grant the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay. These are the most popular forms of the legend of Attis." - Pausanias, Guide to Greece 7.17.8
So.  What is it, you ask, that I like about this myth?  First of all, I like it because it's transgendered.  The birth of an hermaphrodite sends the gods into a tizzy.  Why do they care?  I don't know.  Second, I like it because Agdistis suffers, but endures.  And third, I like it because it is the basis of a major religious movement.

Agdistis was associated with the goddess Kybele (also spelled Cybele.)  Some say that after Agdistis was castrated "she" became Kybele.  But Kybele was widely known as a mother goddess; the Greeks identified her with Rhea.  Does that mean that Rhea was once androgynous?  One source says that Cybele was the mother of Agdistis, which makes sense insofar as she is the Great Mother, but I'm not sure if they got that right.  Worship of Kybele and Attis spread from Turkey (Phrygia was in what is now Turkey) to Greece and then to Rome.

There are a couple different versions of the myth of Kybele (as opposed to Agdistis) and Attis.  One says that Attis was born a "eunuch" (which probably means in modern terms that he had some kind of intersex condition) and became a priest of Kybele.  He was killed by a wild boar and Kybele mourned for him.  This motif is widespread throughout mythology.  In any case, eunuchs - persons of unconventional gender - have always served as priests of Kybele.  They were considered to be men who dressed in women's clothing and behaved in an "effeminate" way.

In 204 BCE the Sibylline oracle announced that Rome would be victorious against Hannibal if the statue of Kybele was brought from Phrygia to Rome.  So they did that, and some of Kybele's eunuch priests came with her.  Rome had very strict gender roles, and many people were uncomfortable with the whole idea of eunuchs and castration and all the rest of it.  But they instituted the worship of Kybele and Attis nonetheless, and kept it up for at least 400 years.  What did it mean to them?  Why was it so popular?

Last of all, I like this story because it is only one version of the story.  It is a Greek interpretation of a Turkish myth. Maybe it leaves some stuff out.  Maybe it got some stuff wrong.  It's not the one and only version of The Truth.  It's just a story - one that resonates across time.  It doesn't explain everything.  It stands on its own terms.

Image source:  Wikimedia Commons.  This statue is from the mid 6th c. BCE and is currently located in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Butch Homage: "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself"

Oh, Radclyffe, Radclyffe, Radclyffe Hall.  I've never read The Well of Loneliness.  Is it okay for me to reject you because of your conservative political beliefs?  Guess I don't get to call you John, the way your friends did.

Hall wrote "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself" in 1926, shortly before starting work on The Well, and apparently it is rather like a short version of the novel.  Wilhelmina Ogilvy is what Hall called a "sexually inverted woman" and what we today would call a "gender-non-conforming individual," or "transgendered."  As a child she (Hall always refers to her with female pronouns) was a tomboy, which many girls are, but "she remembered insisting with tears and some temper that her real name was William and not Wilhelmina," which is not common, unless you're trans.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when this story is set, women's lives were so restricted that it's hard to tell sometimes if a woman is rebelling against her socially assigned gender role because she's trans, or because she just wants to do more than get married and have children.  Of course, by the same token, "inverts" often took up the cause of feminism, not necessarily because they identified as female, but because it gave them an opportunity to demand more freedom.  (Radclyffe Hall flirted briefly with feminism but I believe she ultimately rejected it.)

In the fictional Ogilvy family, William (shouldn't I call her William, if she said that was her name?) rejects the marriage market utterly.  Her two feminine sisters attempt to get married and fail.  After their father dies, William's womenfolk - her mother and sisters - encourage her to take over the male role and deal with all the things they don't want to be bothered with, like finances.  Not that they really approve of her butchness; it's just convenient for them.  She has no friends, no lovers, no one who understands her.

The years go by without any particular pleasure, and when war breaks out (World War I) William is fifty-six.  She realizes that now she has a chance to do things women are not normally allowed to do: she cuts her hair short, goes up to London, and pesters the authorities until they allow her to go to France and form an ambulance brigade.
During those years Miss Ogilvy forgot the bad joke that Nature seemed to have played her.  She was given the rank of a French lieutenant and she lived in a kind of blissful illusion; appalling reality lay on all sides and yet she managed to live in illusion.
Because war work is such a liberation for William, and because Hall would not have dreamed of criticizing the war, it's all presented as a great lark. There are no descriptions of battle, no deaths, none of the horrific details you can learn about in any book on the Great War.  Ambulances are mentioned - because that's the only way she could experience the danger and excitement of the front - but casualties are not.  (By the way, Hall based this plot point on the real-life exploits of her friend Toupie Lowther; she herself was extremely patriotic about the war, but not to the extent of risking her life for her country.)

After the war William sinks back into uselessness and misery.  One day she decides to take a vacation, and chooses, seemingly at random, to visit an island off the coast of Devon.  When she gets there she seems to recognize the place, and has a dream about her past life on the island, when she was a man and had a female lover.  I won't give away the ending.

Trans people have two choices:  to try to be as much like other people as possible, or not.
For Miss Ogilvy had found as her life went on that in this world it is better to be one with the herd, that the world has no wish to understand those who cannot conform to its stereotyped pattern.
Certainly Radclyffe Hall tried to conform as much as possible - or rather, she made a bargain with society:  if I agree with you about everything else, can I live my life as a butch and lover of women?  That  was her choice, and I can't disagree with other people's opinions on what they personally need to do in order to survive.  Hall wanted more tolerance for herself and people like her - that was her aim in writing works such as The Well of Loneliness. And yet I don't believe that conformity is what will save us.

"Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself" is the first story in The Persistent Desire: a Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle and published in 1992.  That's 66 years after the story was written - almost a lifetime.  Ironically, in 1992 lesbian publications were frequent and uncensored (usually) but butch and femme were verboten and transsexuality was still a perversion, according to lesbian-feminism and the world at large.  One wonders why that is.

Here's to the day when someone who insists that their name is William and not Wilhelmina gets taken at their word.

Recommended Reading: if you're interested in the intersection of queer experience and World War I, I highly recommend the book Lesbian Empire by Gay Wachman.  It is primarily about the work of lesbian writers, including Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, and the person who is probably my most favorite writer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, but it discusses history and wartime propaganda too.  Did you know that the Germans recruited all the homosexuals in Britain to spy for them?

Also, here's some more information on Toupie Lowther:  tennis champion, fencer, decorated with the Croix de Guerre for her war work.  Lowther and Hall definitely lived more active - and hopefully happier - lives than fictional characters such as Miss Ogilvy.