Commentary

Trans History 101: Transgender Expression in Ancient Times

Dually-Gifted, Dually Respected?

What we understand as transgender (in its many different forms) has been understood quite differently at various periods of time. In the earliest ages, people who were seen to bridge the genders were quite often thought to possess wisdom that traditionally-gendered people did not, and were venerated for this. As civilizations transformed from matrilineal and communal societies into male-driven (patriarchal) societies with rigid class divisions and emphasis on property ownership, those male-driven cultures reduced the status of women… and because they were threatened by a persistent belief that those who blurred gender lines possessed some greater insight, they set out to crush gender-transgressive people most of all. Into the modern age, transfolk resurfaced, but it is a long climb back just to restore any sense of equality.

In earliest civilizations, throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, tribes of different types venerated what they often identified as “The Great Mother.” In nearly all of these traditions, MTF priestesses (often castrated or with some form of eunuching, which included a number of different body modifications of the time) presided, and the cultures were primarily communal systems which held women (venerated as a source of life) in high esteem. Matriarchal in nature, the cultures often espoused peace, but the realities of early civilization and tribal existence did not always allow for this.

Roman historian Plutarch depicts “The Great Mother” as an Intersex deity from whom the two sexes had not yet split. Trans-gendered depictions of The Great Mother and Her priestesses are found in ancient artifacts back to the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia and Akkad. Some historians portray MTF priestesses as being recognized as something sacred, while others portray them as undergoing castration in order to subvert matrilineal rule and wrest religious direction from the control of women. David F. Greenberg, however, concludes that records of trans priestesses do date back “to the late Paleolithic (if not earlier),” suggesting that the advent of transgender priestesses was not simply a later reaction to feminine leadership and veneration. In some regions, particularily the oldest European customs, it even appears that some form of gender transgression was almost considered one’s religious duty, at times (i.e. certain revelries).

Surviving Records

Displaying the earliest records of trans existence chronologically is virtually impossible, so I will sort them primarily by location.

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