Ishtar. Lewis Spence (1916)
How many times have you heard that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing? With more people becoming aware of differing gender identities and many feeling empowered to share their own, the subject has become a staple of lazy comedy at best and an excuse for horrific violence and harmful legislation at worst. While arguments for the repression of these identities vary, one theme seems to repeat—the idea that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing that manifested spontaneously in the modern world.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
To talk about trans and non-binary identities in history, I’m not going to start with Dr. James Barry. I’m not going to talk about William Dorsey Swann, the Chevalier d’Eon, or even the Molly houses of Georgian London. We’ll get there—don’t worry—but today, we’re taking it all the way back to the beginning.
For those of you just joining us, Mesopotamia was home to the first known civilization in human history. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq is now, the area was populated by the Sumerians and Akkadians from the earliest days of recorded history, around 3100 BCE.
Mesopotamia was polytheistic, and one of the many gods worshiped was Inanna. Also known as the Queen of Heaven, Inanna was the goddess of love, beauty, sex, violence, and justice. Although she was the goddess of sex, it’s interesting to note that she was not a goddess of procreation or indeed a mother herself. She was usually portrayed as promiscuous, but this wasn’t a negative thing—as far as Inanna was concerned, sex was a sacred rite to be enjoyed as an expression of love and not exclusively for the purpose of procreation. Sex wasn’t something shameful yet. An all-powerful goddess with a devoted cult, she is often portrayed with lions. Surviving artifacts from later periods, when she evolved into or was combined with Ishtar, even show her riding a chariot being pulled by lions.
If love, beauty, war, and justice aren’t enough for one goddess to handle, Inanna also had another very important ability.
She could change men into women and women into men.
That’s not just awkward phrasing there—that’s a quote. Around 2280 BCE, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), the Akkadian High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur, wrote a number of poems and hymns for Inanna, including “The Great-Hearted Mistress,” “The Exaltation of Inanna,” an “Goddess of the Fearsome Power.” She describes some of this power here:
Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.
This isn’t a metaphor, and it isn’t the only source that mentions this.
In the Epic of Erra, a Babylonian poem, there are references to kurgarra and assinnu, classes of servants of the goddess, “whose maleness Ishtar turned to female, for the awe of the people.” The British Museum has a fragment of a five-thousand-year-old statue with a still clear inscription that translates to: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”
But these are only references to the goddess’s ability to transform gender. The most compelling evidence for trans and non-binary identities among her worshipers is the existence of her priests, known as the Gala.
The Gala were a class of priests sacred to Inanna. It was said they were initially created by the god Enki to sing “heart-soothing laments,” for the goddess, and they certainly did that. To begin with, one of their primary roles was to sing hymns and laments to the goddess in eme-sal, a Sumerian dialect spoken primarily by women that was used to render the speech of female gods. They presided over religious rites, healed the sick, predicted the future, made music, raised money for the poor, and “dissolved evil” during lunar eclipses. Akkadian omen texts said that having sex with them was lucky. They were well-known and respected members of their communities, and many of them were what we would think of now as transgender.
While it can be problematic to apply modern terminology to five-thousand-year-old gender identities, I’ll tell you what we know of them. Whether called in a dream, given a vision of the goddess, or driven by devotion, biological males entered into the service of the goddess and became female for all intents and purposes, taking on feminine pronouns and dressing and living as women. While various sources argue that ritual castration was involved, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that this early, and in any case, surgery is still not necessary to validate gender identity today. As they saw it, Inanna had made them women, and though they didn’t have the same verbiage for it, their society accepted that identity.* After all, this change was a gift of the goddess.
Swapping genders and pronouns wasn’t a comment on their sexuality, as it could be in later years. I shouldn’t have to tell you that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things: gender identity is who you are, and sexual orientation is who you love. We cannot make blanket assumptions about the sexual orientation of the Gala, but we do know that they had relationships as diverse as people do today—many served as sacred sex workers within Inanna’s temples, but others did not. Some were married (to men or women) and had families, often adopting children together. Queer families certainly existed, and homosexuality was not a crime. It wasn’t shameful or a hot-button issue—it was a normal aspect of everyday life, not even mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which provided the basis for law in the region for more than a thousand years.
Looking at the Gala in isolation, you might think their existence was an anomaly of the ancient world. Those cults got up to some strange things; that could hardly be common!
Except it was.
Inanna was a very popular goddess, and her worship spread and evolved throughout the ancient world. While her name changed to Ishtar, Rhea, Cybele, Bahucharā Mātā, and Astarte, one thing remained the same: her priests.
Cybele on a cart drawn by lions. Bronze, 2nd century AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art
All Roads Lead to Rome
When Phrygian goddess Cybele became a part of the official state religion of Rome in 204 BCE, her Gallai came with her. At this point, genderqueer priests had served Cybele, Inanna, and other interpretations of the goddess for nearly three thousand years. They were a common sight in the ancient world, but Rome wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.
Concerned with inheritance and property law, Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Gallai because of the ban on castration. Whether or not they actually practiced this is debatable, but as far as Rome was concerned, anyone who could not procreate for any reason—including disinterest, infertility, homosexuality, celibacy, or impotence—was neither truly male nor female. Castrated or not, the Gallai’s non-binary status meant they could not inherit property.
To the Romans, gender not only depended more on one’s ability to procreate than anything else, but it was subject to change. Greek and Roman medical texts from the time describe gender not as fixed, but fluid depending on humors like heat and moisture in the body. According to them, these factors could determine an infant’s sex during pregnancy, and they could also change one’s gender after birth. While the terminology was not there in the same way it is today, all of this points to the existence and tacit acceptance of a third gender in Ancient Rome, even if they did not have the same citizenship or property rights as their cisgender (and procreating) neighbors.
In spite of this, some Romans gave up their citizenship to become Gallai. Others had been slaves or had come from other parts of Asia. While it’s unclear how many Gallai were castrated or at what point in their service this happened, there is more documentation to support this happening at this point. Pliny does not go into detail but describes the process as relatively safe, and it was said to take place on Dies Sanguinis, “the Day of Blood,” on March 24th.
Still, castration alone does not change gender. Castrated or not, Gallai throughout the Roman Empire dressed, worshiped, and lived as women. They were noted for their saffron gowns, long hair, heavy makeup, and extravagant jewelry. They existed in every part of the Greco-Roman world at every level of society and were mentioned by Ovid, Seneca, Persius, Martial, and Statius as a common sight in the first century. Apuleius even described them in The Golden Ass:
“The following day they went out, wearing various colored undergarments with turbans and saffron robes and linen garments thrown over them, and every one hideously made up, their faces crazy with muddy paints and their eyes artfully lined.”
Statue of a priest of Cybele
If nothing else, the Gallai knew how to make an entrance. One of the ways in which they practiced healing was through a sort of music therapy that involved parading through town while singing and playing chaotic music to induce a sort of transcendental, joyful mania in the crowd. Others told fortunes—along with service to the goddess, castration was believed to give one the ability to see the future—or begged or danced for money on behalf of the poor. They were hard to miss, wonders in their own time. Diodorus called them terata—“marvels, monsters, prodigies, signs.” As historian Will Roscoe so beautifully put it, they were “the sacred breaking through to the level of the mundane.”
Early Christians weren’t as fond of the Gallai. They preached spiritual androgyny, but physical androgyny was complicated; although trans and non-binary identities had existed throughout the ancient world for more than three thousand years, they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. At this point, they may have been such a common part of society that they would have been more or less taken for granted.
Still, early Christian apologists describe the Gallai in less flattering but suspiciously familiar-sounding terms:
“They wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?” – Fermicus Maternus
“Even till yesterday, with dripping hair and painted faces, with flowing limbs and feminine walk, they passed through the streets and alleys of Carthage, exacting from merchants that by which they might shamefully live.” – St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 7.26
Ugh! Buying groceries. How dare she?
It wasn’t only toxic masculinity and transphobia that fueled this distaste; the cult of Cybele was hugely influential throughout the ancient world and was one of early Christianity’s biggest rivals. In some places, Christians and followers of Cybele had street fights when their religious festivals overlapped in the spring, and the Gallai came to represent to some what they didn’t like about pagan culture.**
Nevertheless, Cybele continued to be worshiped until the fall of Rome, with the religion’s last known rites being celebrated in 394 CE.
So far, so Mediterranean. What about the rest of the world?
But Wait, There’s More
In India, the Hijra are intersex and transgender people with history dating back to antiquity. Like Cybele’s devotees, they are connected to music. They are considered the third gender there, and they were even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Beyond India, trans and non-binary priests have been documented throughout southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Like the Gala and Gallai, all of these roles involved the worship of a goddess, gender transgression, elements of healing, and actual or symbolic castration. In their capacity as religious figures focused on sacred rites and community care, they were all important and respected members of their various communities.
In the Americas, the term “two-spirit” was coined in 1990 to describe the non-binary people who had existed within Indigenous communities since time immemorial. Although written historical records on this are limited, historical references can still be found.
When Don Pedro Fages wrote his account of the 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition of what is now California, he reported meeting two-spirit people within the local tribes:
“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession. (…) They are called joyas (jewels) and are held in great esteem.”
Earlier, Bacqueville de la Potherie described a third, non-binary gender identity among the Iroquois in his Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale (1722).
Trans and non-binary gender identities have existed in many cultures since antiquity, and the fact that they developed independently of each other strongly suggests that they are natural rather than learned. Not only are these identities older than 1960, but they predate Christianity by some three thousand years. So the next time someone tells you they want to “return to traditional values,” you be sure to ask them, “How far back do you want to go?”
*Note: worth mentioning that this presumably also happened for trans men, although there is unfortunately less documentation of them from this period.
**Like music, makeup, and having fun.
Berkowitz, Eric. Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.
Fages, P.; Priestley, H. I.; Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). A historical, political, and natural description of California. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33.
Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between myth and history: king, priest, and God; Volume 149 of Religions in the Graeco-Roman world. BRILL. pp. 96–97.
Morgan, Cheryl. Evidence for Trans Lives in Sumer. Notches: http://notchesblog.com/2017/05/02/evidence-for-trans-lives-in-sumer/
Roscoe, Will. “Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion.” History of Religions 35, no. 3 (1996): 195-230. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062813.