- Creation, transformation, the quest for self-knowledge.
These are universal themes that appear across world mythology.
But there's another common thread within these tales: gender fluidity.
- It's not only commonplace in many mythologies, but an essential aspect of some important mythical figures: from androgynous creators and fertility deities to warriors and prophets that defy the gender binary.
(mysterious music) - These figures challenge the belief that sex and gender are split into male and female.
Since ancient times, societies have recognized the existence of more than two genders.
While the language used to refer to these different identities and experiences varies hugely, transgender, intersex, and nonbinary people have always existed and played a crucial role in world mythology.
So why was the ability to bend and transcend gender sacred, and what do these figures tell us about gender in society?
- When it comes to creation myths, many primordial deities cannot be understood as solely male or female.
For instance, a Babylonian creation myth sees Tiamat, or salt water, mingle with Abzu, or fresh water, to create the rest of the gods.
The Babylonian source, called the Enuma Elish, refers to the primordial Tiamat as both he and she.
However, 19th century European scholars revised the original myths to fit their own standards of gender, referring to Tiamat as female and often characterizing them as a monstrous sea goddess.
Similarly, the Aztec creator deity Tlaltecuhtli was described as an earth lord and a reptilian monster with feminine and masculine attributes.
When they waded into the sea looking for flesh to eat, the other gods ripped Tlaltecuhtli in half to form the earth and the sky.
Much later, European colonizers recast Tlaltecuhtli as a motherly earth goddess, simplifying their complex role as a formidable protector who is also a flesh-eating destroyer.
Another Aztec god, Ometeotl, was also a genderless agent of creation.
Ometeotl created themself, the universe, and the other gods, and resided in the 13th and highest heaven alone.
While some sources have framed Ometeotl as a husband and wife pairing within one god, others have argued that this is an overly simplistic understanding of their gender.
Colonial retellings often simplified these creator deities, using gendered tropes like the fearsome lord or gentle mother.
But the original myths don't conform to cliches.
Instead, nonbinary primordial deities embody the duality of creation, distilling the twinned energies of birth and destruction, wonder and dread.
- In the Tagalog mythology of the Philippines for instance, Lakapati was worshiped as a goddess of the fields and fertility who was represented with reproductive organs traditionally labeled male and female.
This representation of Lakapati's gender may have associated her with balance and abundance.
Similarly, certain androgynous deities were associated with fertile land in Ancient Egypt.
As the annual flooding of the Nile approached, the Egyptians appealed to Hapi for rich soil.
Hapi was seen as a fatherly figure who sported the false beard of the Pharaoh, full breasts, and a pregnant belly.
Intersex children, who were believed to be sacred, sometimes served at Hapi's temple.
Another Egyptian icon, Wadj-Wer, was depicted as a blue-green pregnant deity who protected lakes and lagoons.
In both these figures, fertility is not understood as a purely masculine or feminine attribute.
Because the Ancient Egyptians believed that men carried the fetus before transferring them to women, the idea of the pregnant man was not uncommon.
The concept is making a comeback today as advocates push for more inclusive language in traditionally feminine spaces.
When an Ancient Egyptian woman died, priests temporarily transformed her corpse into a man, just long enough for her to create a fetus, thus ensuring rebirth in the afterlife.
They did this by reciting spells and changing the corpse's pronouns in prayer, as well as painting its skin red.
The corpse then returned to female form, ready to rebirth herself.
This ritual is one way in which gender transformation was commonplace, and desirable, in Ancient Egyptian life and afterlife.
- While gender transformation was an accepted part of life in some mythologies and cultures, other traditions reflect a more ambivalent approach.
Classical myth is full of gods and humans turning into plants and animals, but there are lesser-known figures who change their genders.
In Ancient Greek mythology, at the hands of various gods, Tiresias' gender was changed up to six times, depending on the source.
Tiresias served as a male prophet of Apollo, but also married and had children in female form.
They were known for settling disputes between the gods, like the time Zeus and Hera asked them to compare the sexual experiences of men and women, and to advise famous warriors like Odysseus.
Tiresias' transformations have traditionally been depicted as godly punishments, but there's another way to read their gender fluidity.
Tiresias was adept at absorbing new experiences and inhabiting different roles, skills that also make them a wise prophet and skilled mediator.
Classical myths offer a range of gender identities, with figures like the gender-bending god of pleasure Dionysus and the androgynous love deity Hermaphroditus celebrated in art and literature.
One moonlit tribute to Hermaphroditus involved men and women swapping their clothes.
Other sacred rites involving dance, drinking, and mind-bending substances invited marginalized figures like women and non-Greek citizens to express themselves.
Scholars have noted the existence of the galli, priests who were assigned male at birth but lived as women, as a recognized group in society who determined their own gender presentation.
But they were a small and privileged group, and it is likely that many more gender non-conforming people have slipped through the cracks of classical history.
- Still, across world mythology, myths of gender fluidity testify to the material existence of many gender identities throughout history.
Gender fluidity often acts as a powerful symbol for heroism and self-determination.
In Philippine Suludnon lore for instance, maidens known as binukots could transform into male warriors in an emergency, rescuing their friends, searching for their husbands, and engaging in righteous combat.
In Hindu mythology, Shikhandi is assigned female at birth but later transforms into a man with the help of a Yaksha or benevolent spirit.
Known as Shikhandi, he becomes a great warrior and works to overthrow Bhishma, a king who had abducted and humiliated him.
These myths depict gender transformation as a powerful model for adaptation and spiritual growth.
Beyond the story of Shikhandi, Hindu cosmology offers some of the richest understandings of the gender spectrum.
In the Ramayana, the god Rama retreated into exile, only for his devotees to follow him out of love.
He ordered all men and women to return to their homes so he could be alone, but when he finally emerged from exile, he found that those who did not identify as male or female had waited for him.
Rama blessed these apparent outcasts and gave them permission to bless newborns in ritual, thus testifying to the importance of inclusion.
Commonly called Hijras, these blessed individuals have historically been aligned with fertility, music, and liminality, testifying to their spiritual significance in Hindu scripture.
But even the divinely blessed aren't guaranteed happy lives.
While Hijra are an integral part of the culture, they often face discrimination and abuse.
This shift from acceptance to discrimination was heavily influenced by British colonialism in India.
In the 1860s and 70's for instance, British settlers compiled registers of Hijras that used derogatory language and stripped them of their rights.
This is just one instance of how colonial policies and texts have attacked gender diversity across the world.
From revising ancient myths to conform to binary gender, to dismantling human rights, Western colonialism has sadly imposed the gender binary on mythologies and material realities alike.
- Today, efforts to recognize and celebrate gender fluidity, in ancient myths and modern times, continue.
Ancient gender fluid deities show us that trans and nonbinary identities are nothing new, and queer and gender nonconforming people continue to find community through these mythical figures.
For instance, thousands of trans and nonbinary people partake in the Chamayavilakku festival in Kollam each year, celebrating their protector goddess Bhagavati-devi.
Contemporary artists and writers have also used ancient deities to explore gender expression.
- Whether reclaiming the gender queerness of mythical creatures and deities.
- Or subverting gender roles in ancient myth.
- Or decolonizing world mythology.
- These efforts emphasize the importance of representation and expression for all genders.