Commentary

Trans History 101: Transgender Expression in Ancient Times

The Middle East

In the Middle East (Cradle of Civilization), MTF (male-to-female) priestesses were known to have served Astarte, Dea Syria, Atargatis and Ashtoreth / Ishtar. Additional MTF “gallae” served Cybele, the Phrygians’ embodiment of The Great Mother. Trans expression was also present in the early genesis of the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahbad (India).

For centuries, Muslim tradition differentiated between MTF transsexuals who live as prostitutes or criminals, and those in whom femininity was innate and who lived blamelessly. The latter were called “mukhannathun,” and accepted within the boundaries of Islam. Mukhannathun could have relationships with either men or women, but only those who had been castrated or were exclusively attracted to men were allowed into womens’ spaces. Later, it was ordered that all mukhannathun undergo castration.

Africa

In Africa, intersexed deities and spritual beliefs in gender transformation are recorded in Akan, Ambo-Kwanyama, Bobo, Chokwe, Dahomean (Benin), Dogon, Bambara, Etik, Handa, Humbe, Hunde, Ibo, Jukun, Kimbundu, Konso, Kunama, Lamba, Lango, Luba, Lugbara (where MTFs are called okule and FTMs are called agule), Lulua, Musho, Nat, Nuba, Ovimbundu, Rundi, Sakpota, Shona-Karonga, Venda, Vili-Kongo, and Zulu tribes. Some of this tradition survives in West Africa, as well as Brazilian and Haitian ceremonies that derive from West African religions. In Abomey, the Heviosso maintain trans traditions, in an area renowned for Amazon-like warrior women.

In seventh Century BC, King Ashurbanipal (Sardanapalus) of Assyria spent a great deal of time in womens’ clothing, something that was later used to justify overthrowing him. In Egypt, 1503 BC, Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut ascended to the throne, the second Egyptian queen to rule (the first was Queen Sobekneferu of the 12th Dynasty). Possibly learning from the disfavor shown to her predecessor, she donned male clothing and a false beard signifying kingship, and reigned until 1482 B.C. She had one daughter, Neferure, who she groomed as successor (male clothing, false beard and all), but Neferure did not live into adulthood. After her death, her second husband attempted to erase all record of her. And Nzinga ruled as King of Angola from 1624 – 1653, cross-dressed and led several successful military battles against the Portuguese.

Asia

In Asia, Hijras persist even today, although their reverence is often limited to the belief that their presence at weddings is a good portent for the couple. They do tend to suffer in the modern Indian caste system, something that “eunuchs” of all types are banding together to work to improve (i.e. only recently was a Hijra able to vote, and now there have been Hijran elected officials). Historically, they have often worshipped the mother-goddess Bahuchara Mata, although some also worshipped Shiva in his half-man, half-woman persona, Ardhanarisvara.

Many early Indonesian societies had transgender figures in religious functions, including the basaja, from the island of Sulawesi (The Celebes). In ancient China, the shih-niang wore mixed-gender ceremonial clothing. In Okinawa, some shamans underwent winagu nati, a process of “becoming female.” In Korea, the mudang was a shaman or sorceress who was quite often MTF. In February 1995, archaeologist Timothy Taylor discovered evidence of transgender lives in the Iron Age graves found in southern Russia.

Fanchuan was a name given to stage crossdressing, such as male-to-female performances in Beijing opera, and female-to-male acting in Taiwanese Opera. Chui Chin, a cross-dressing Chinese revolutionary and feminist was beheaded in 1907 for organizing an uprising against the Manchu dynasty.

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