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14 January 2017

[Tr]an[s]tiquity – a session at the 2017 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting

The Society for Classical Studies (previously the American Philological Association) held its 2017 meeting in Toronto 5-8 January. On Sunday, the last day, there was a session, [Tr]an[s]tiquity. Which looked at trans and intersex in the ancient world. The session was chaired by Walter Penrose, author of the new book, Postcolonial Amazons: Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature (US$95), and Thomas Sapsford.

The introduction gave a quick summary of North American trans history mentioning the Cercle Hermaphroditis at Paresis Hall in 1890s New York, Virginia Prince, Leslie Feinberg and Rupert Raj.

The first paper “An Intersex Manifesto: Naming the Non-Binary Constructions of the Ancient World” (abstract) was by Chris Mowat from the University of Newcastle who criticized the still ongoing practice in Classical discourse of using the term ‘hermaphrodite’ although it has largely been dropped in other areas of discourse, replaced by intersex, and more contentiously Disorders of Sexual Development. He cites 1990s writers such as Alice Dreger and Cheryl Chase (but does not mention that she is more latterly known as Bo Laurent). Should modern terminology be used, “transposed into ancient constructions” or should classicists stick to the terms used in ancient Greece and Rome: ἑρμαφρόδιτος/ hermaphroditus and ἀνδρόγυνος/androgynous? Mowat also discusses using ‘intersex’ for mythical/art persons such as “The Sleeping Hermaphrodite” in the Louvre, and a wall painting in Pompeii. He proposes that Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) “constructs intersexuality as a medical condition” when he wrote: “It was assumed, however, by those who were privy to the strange secret that she was a hermaphroditos, and as to her past life with her husband, since natural intercourse did not fit their theory, she was thought to have consorted with him as male to male”. This is compared to later writers such as the Elder Pliny, a century later, who commented that such persons were previously considered prodigia (monsters) but were now considered deliciae (sexual pets). Mowat concludes: “this paper is not to argue that ‘intersexuality’ and its derivatives are perfect terminology – and their own shortcomings will be analysed – but to posit the idea that they can and do create a more nuanced understanding of non-binary bodies in the ancient world”.

The second paper by Rachel Hart at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was titled: “(N)either Men (n)or Women? The Failure of Western Binary Systems”(abstract), but was actually mainly about the Enareës, the shamans among the Scythians, Iranian nomads who roamed from the Black Sea to central Asia. Hart cites only old articles on Enareës as Shamans (Meuli 1935, Ballabriga 1986, Asheri 1977) but nothing from the large library on shamanism or two-spirit. What she does is a close reading and comparison of the mentions of the Enareës in Herodotus (5th century BCE) and Hippocrates (a generation later), and concludes “It is more likely that the Enareës would self-identify as intersex or perhaps even transgender individuals”. She admits that “this terminology is anachronistic” and turns for a less-rigid gender system, not to two-spirit studies but to gender in the Rabbinic tradition. Her rational for this is: “I do not apply the rabbinic analogue arbitrarily: Herodotus notes that the Enareës were originally a group of Scythian men who defiled a temple at Askalon, located in Palestine”.

The third paper was by Jennifer Weintritt of Yale University, titled “Textual and Sexual Hybridity: Gender in Catullus 63” (abstract). Catullus’ poem is about the godling Attis and his/her celebration of the rites of Cybele (which includes castration and taking female dress). While the original manuscripts use male endings describing Attis, several editors have revised them as female endings: e.g. excitum, ipse become excitam, ipsa; tenerum, ille become teneram, illa etc. A key line is 54: “ego … earum omnia adirem furibunda latibula”, àwhich could mean either “that I should approach all of their hiding-places as a frenzied woman” or “that I should approach all of their frenzied hiding-places”. Weintritt comments: “Surprisingly, earlier discussions, for all their well-researched arguments, have underappreciated that the phrase occurs in a purpose clause: if furibunda is determined to agree with ego, then Attis may have come to Phrygia with transgender intentions”. Line 63 “ego mulier, ego adolescens, ego ephebus, ego puer”à “I have been a woman, a young man, an ephebe, a boy”. Remarkably some editors altered ‘puer’ to ‘puber’ (adult male) which breaks the age order.

The fourth paper was by Kelly Shannon of the University of Alabama, titled “Life After Transition: Spontaneous sex change and its aftermath in ancient literature” (abstract) There are a good handful of ancient accounts of supposed women who spontaneously change into men. Similar stories are recorded in the early-modern period (see Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, 1990), and in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, 1886, and the most prominent 20th century account is that of Peter Stirling. Shannon discussed six examples who had varying consequences. They either became successful men or were put on trial and even, in one case, burned alive, but the gender binary stands firm.

The fifth paper was by Barbara Blythe of Wheaton College, titled “Gender Ambiguity and Cult Practice in the Roman Novel” (abstract). She demonstrates that Roman novels differ from Greek novels in that the male protagonist is depicted as effeminate. In Petronius’ Satyrica the protagonist Encolpius often takes a passive role in sexual encounters (many of which involve beatings and bondage), including one with a cinaedus during a ritual for the god Priapus. At various points in the narrative we hear that he wears makeup, ornate hairstyles and wigs, and effeminate Greek slippers. Twice he is mistaken for a male prostitute. At one point he contemplates severing his penis while reciting a poem in Sotadeans (132.8), a meter associated with cinaedi. (This novel was filmed by Fellini in 1969 adding extra gender variant episodes.) In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses Lucius is likewise dominated, sexually or otherwise, by almost every female character he meets. When he accepts Isis as his saviour goddess, he submits yet again to a powerful female figure. His vow of sexual abstinence and shaved head do not feminize him per se, yet they signal his willingness to compromise his youthful virility in order to please his new mistress. Apuleius seems to imply that the reader should view Lucius alongside the galli who are often taken as transgender.

The sixth paper was by Anna Peterson of Pennsylvania State University, titled “Dio’s First Tarsian Oration and the Rhetoric of Gender-Indeterminacy” (abstract). Dio Chrysostom also called Dio of Prusa, lived in the late 1st century CE. He left about 80 orations. A couple of these were delivered in Tarsus (whence Saul/Paul of the Christian testament is said to come from). While speaking in analogies, Dio harangues against “a mysterious fault that he refuses to name, despite the threat he says it poses to the reputation of the city”. Scholars debate what this ‘fault’ was. Peterson comments: an “unmistakable rhetorical cue comes at the speech’s conclusion, where Dio turns his attention to the Tarsians’ treatment of their bodies. Assuming the role of doctor, Dio diagnoses his audience’s decline into effeminate behavior as the result of excessive depilation, sarcastically quipping in the final line of the speech: ‘if it were possible to borrow from women other attributes, then we should be supremely happy, not defective beings (ἐνδεεῖς), but whole and natural ἀνδρόγυνοι (androgynoi)’ ” . Peterson expands: “ I explore how the uncertainty caused by Dio’s refusal to speak in specifics brings into relief, reflects on, and ultimately stages the gender-indeterminancy inherent to the term androgynos. Dio’s speech, as I suggest, reaffirms through its vitriol the idealized masculine identity of the time, even as the confusion it inspires in its audience mimics the indeterminate nature of its concluding image.”

A friend with very good Latin read this and commented on Catullus’ poem: “Furibunda means ‘frenzied’ or ‘mad’ and is used of people prophetically inspired. Therefore it cannot describe the hiding-places, and must agree with ego. However, this may not be a purpose clause, but a result clause; Attis regrets these consequences.”

While Virginia Prince, Leslie Feinberg and Rupert Raj were mentioned in the introduction, nobody at all like any of them is discussed in any of the papers.

Weintritt, discussing Attis and Cybele, does not mention that there is a Cybele Maetreum run by trans women in upstate New York.

The paper by Shannon is the only one to name actual persons who probably did live at the time.
The paper by Blythe on novels is not, of course, about gender variant persons, but about heteronormativity and panic about departing from it.

Peterson does not mention Saul/Paul of Tarsus. Let us turn to p61 of Donald Akenson’s Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, 2000: “ ‘Saulos’ despite its Hebrew origins, had a slang meaning in demotic Greek that would have been impossible for the apostle to live with. ‘Saulos’ meant ‘slut-arsed’ and referred to the swinging gait of prostitutes. Given his adamant condemnation of homosexuality, one can hardly expect the apostle to accept a name that would liken him to the mincing posteriors of rent boys and queens. His dignity could take the word play that would come from Paulos – little guy, short-stuff, things like that – but Saulos, never.” Dio and Saul/Paul were roughly the same generation. So how come, no-one, New Testament scholars, Dio scholars, ancient sexuality scholars, has put Dio’s oration to the Tarsians and the sex-implied name of the most famous Tarsian in juxtaposition?

Who are the most famous trans persons in antiquity? Many would say Sporus and Elagabalus. They were not mentioned in this session.

Pioneering work on trans in the ancient world was done by Werner Krenkel, professor of classics and philology at Rostok University. He wrote a paper, “Transvestismus in der Antike”, 1990 which was included in a collection of his work, Naturalia non turpia. Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece and Rome. Schriften zur antiken Kultur- und Sexualwissenschaft, 2006. Nobody seems to mention it any more. Here is a review of the book.

There is a new book, to be released in February, called TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World, edited by Domitilla Campanile, Filippo Carlà-Uhink & Margherita Facella (US$140).

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