6 Transgender Myths From Ancient Greece - And Are They Really Trans?
Content warning: this article contains mention of genitalia, homophobia, transphobia, forced sex change, outdated terminology that may be considered slurs, and sexual violence. For the mythological characters, this article will use the pronouns used in the translations.
While the term ‘transgender’ is relatively modern still, people who don’t fit neatly into the binary sexes, don’t identify with their gender assigned at birth, have fluid gender and identity, or are otherwise genderqueer have always existed. These people have been identified in many ways throughout history, such as ‘eunuch,’ ‘hermaphrodite,’ ‘third gender,’ or ‘two spirit,’ with some terms seen as offensive nowadays, and others still in use in various cultures around the world.
The prejudice and persecution experienced by people who don’t conform to the dominant cis-heteronormative, patriarchal culture sometimes makes it difficult to identify transgender historical figures. It’s also difficult to say whether a historical figure would have identified with the language and terminology we use today.
For example, Dr James Barry was a military surgeon who, after his death 1865, was discovered to have a woman’s body and possibly have been pregnant previously. At the time, the University of Edinburgh where he studied did not admit women.
So, was Dr James Barry a transgender man? Or a woman in disguise pursuing a forbidden career? Only he could answer that question. And, until time travel is invented, it will forever be a matter of debate for historians.
How else can we know trans people existed in the past then? One clue comes from the mythology passed down through the ages. A culture’s stories can tell us about how they see the world, and while the inclusion of characters we might nowadays label as transgender or gender non-conforming does not necessarily indicating acceptance and understanding, it can suggest these concepts were at least somewhat known. In this post, we’ll have a look at transgender themes in 6 Ancient Greek myths, and some of the identities we might recognise in them today.
Ancient Greek Myths – The Basics
What we call Ancient Greece existed from around 800 BC until it was conquered by the Roman Empire in 146 BC. The ancient Greeks worshipped a pantheon of gods and told many stories about them, often to offer explanations for the natural world. Many of these stories are recorded in books such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
1. Prometheus, The “Champion of Humankind”, Invents Queer People
Some possible identities in this myth: trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual
Although the Ancient Greeks didn’t have the same concepts of gender and sexuality we do today, homosexuality between men does feature in many of their myths. The sun god Apollo famously appears as a beardless, effeminate young man and has many male lovers. There are few accounts of female homosexuality and the topic was likely considered taboo (see number 4 – Iphis and Ianthe) though the poet Sappho (who gives us the terms sapphic and lesbian) identifies Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as also the patron god of lesbians in her poetry.
And to explain why some people felt same-sex attraction, the Ancient Greeks told the story of Prometheus. You might recognise him as the guy who stole fire from the gods to give to humans and got his liver eaten by eagles as punishment, but before that he helped create humans in the first place.
The story goes: he was busy shaping humans out of clay, but before he was done he got drunk with his buddy, Dionysus, god of wine. When he came back to finish the job, he accidentally stuck some of the wrong genitalia on the wrong people, which is why we have men who like men, and women who like women.
2. Hermaphroditus, The Hot Intersex God, and his Pool of Transitioning
Some possible identities in this myth: intersex, trans, genderqueer, non-binary
Androgynous deities are a feature of many mythologies from around the world, and Greek mythology is no exception. Although intersex individuals are not inherently trans unless the individual identifies as such, Hermaphroditus is included here because he wasn’t born intersex, but was transformed by godly magic.
Hermaphroditus was the child of Aphrodite (goddess of love and lesbians) and Hermes (the messenger god.) One day he was bathing in a pool when a nymph saw him and fell in love. She prayed to Aphrodite and Hermes that they would be united forever and threw herself at him. When they touched, the gods merged them into one person with breasts and a penis, which is where we get the now outdated term for an intersex person, ‘hermaphrodite.’
When Hermaphroditus emerged from the pool and saw his new form, he prayed to his parents to bless the pool so that anyone who bathed there would be similarly transformed, and his wish was granted. The spring eventually became the Salmacis fountain, in what is now Turkey, and classical authors recounted how the water made men ‘effeminate’ if they drank from it. Unfortunately, transitioning these days requires a bit more than a drink, but you can read about what you might need for a great MTF transition here.
Hermaphroditus was unusually beautiful and androgynous, and became one of the Erotes, a collection of gods associated with love and sex. He was considered the original intersex person and all others came from him, as well as being the god of effeminacy, androgyny, and marriage. The union of masculine and feminine when Hermaphrodite and the nymph were joined symbolised how men and women were joined by marriage, so he was often worshipped especially on the 4th day of the month, the luckiest day to have a wedding.
3. Tiresias, A Liminal Figure Between Gods and Humans, Present and Future, And Male and Female
Some possible identities in this myth: trans, genderfluid, bisexual, pansexual
Tiresias is an important character in Greek Mythology, and as the blind prophet of Apollo gave advice and guidance to many mythological figures. If that wasn’t enough, his other claim to fame was being transformed into a woman for striking a pair of mating snakes. Seven years later he found another pair of snakes and was turned back into a man, either for hitting the snakes again, or leaving them be, depending on which version of the story you read.
While she was a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera (goddess of women, family, and childbirth,) got married, and had several children. According to some myths, his blindness was because Zeus and Hera were arguing over whether men or women enjoyed sex more. They asked Tiresias, who had experienced both, and when he said women did, Hera got angry and blinded him.
All these stories make Tiresias interestingly liminal, as he acts as a go between for humans and the gods, has been both blind and seeing, male and female, and can both understand the present and future at once.
4. Leucippus of Crete (and possibly the only trans companion of Artemis)
Some possible identities in this myth: trans, genderfluid
The story of Leucippus takes place in the city of Phaistos, on the island of Crete. A farmer tells his wife she must give birth to a son, but while he is away tending his fields, she has a daughter. The mother decides to raise the child as a boy, named Leucippus, and nobody suspects a thing for years. As Leucippus approaches adolescence, the mother becomes afraid the truth will be revealed and, as puberty blockers or testosterone shots hadn’t been invented yet, prays to the goddess Leto for help. Leto takes pity and tranforms Leucippus into a man.
To celebrate this story, the people of Phaistos called Leto ‘Leto Phytia,’ with ‘phytia’ referencing how she caused Leucippus to grow a penis. A festival of sacrifices to Leto Phytia was created, named Ekdysia (to undress) after how Leucippus could discard his female clothing after his transformation. It also became tradition for women to sleep next to a statue of Leucippus the night before their wedding.
In the book Leucippus’ story is written in, there is also a brief reference to other stories of transformation, such as Tiresias who we just met, and a very quick mention of Siproites. Siproites was a boy who accidentally sees the virgin goddess Artemis bathing, which is forbidden for any man. Not wanting to kill a young boy, Artemis instead transforms him into a girl, and she then joins Artemis’ retinue.
5. Iphis and Ianthe – Childhood Gal Pals to Husband and Wife
Some possible identities in this myth: lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, trans, genderfluid
The story of Iphis and Ianthe begins pretty similarly to Leucippus’. A man tells his wife they can’t afford to have a daughter, but then she has a daughter anyway, and raises the child as a boy. Iphis was a unisex name, so both the mother and father were happy with the choice.
At 13, Iphis is betrothed to her childhood friend Ianthe, and they both fall in love. Secretly, Iphis is afraid of what will happen once they are married and the truth is revealed, and with her mother’s help they delay the wedding as long as possible. When it can’t be put off any longer, they pray to the goddess Isis for help. Isis transforms Iphis’ sex to male, and as a man he marries Ianthe, and they live happily ever after.
6. Caeneus – The Epic Hero Who Defeated Transphobes in Battle
Some possible identities in this myth: trans, genderfluid
(Trigger warning for sexual violence.)
The myth of the great hero Caeneus is found in a book called Metamorphoses, in the form of an old soldier telling the story of when he fought alongside Caeneus in battle.
The story goes: a young woman called Caenis is raped by Poseidon, god of the sea. Afterwards, he offers her a wish, telling her to ask for what she most wants. Caenis asks to be transformed into a man so she would never suffer in the same way again, and Poseidon grants her wish. He also makes him invulnerable to all wounds. Caenis changes his name to Caeneus, and goes to have fun doing manly things and gains renown as a hero.
Caeneus’ sister gets married, and at the wedding a herd of centaurs get drunk and try to rape the women present. A battle begins, between the heroes and the centaurs, and Caeneus easily kills five.
One of the centaurs becomes angry at him, and begins to taunt him with transphobic insults, telling him to leave war to the men. Caeneus kills him too, still uninjured, which enrages the other centaurs even more.
The story has a sadder ending than the others. The Centaurs realise their weapons can’t hurt Caeneus, so they bury him under a mountain of rocks and tree trunks. But even that wasn’t the end of him, as the old soldier telling the story saw him transformed one final time, now into a little bird that escaped the pile and flew away.
But are these myths really trans?
The answer is complicated. The concept of transgender as we understand it today didn’t exist in the Ancient World. If anything, these myths somewhat suggest the Ancient Greeks didn’t have a separate concept of sex and gender. The myths don’t give any insight into how the characters feel about their transformation, though it’s usually presented as either neutral or a good thing. But in all the myths, the sex changes are for practical reasons, with little regard for the gender identity of the individual. There’s also a multitude of ways to interpret each myth and which identities you might ascribe to them.
With the myth of Prometheus creating queer people, (Number 1) it’s not hard to see how, with today’s understanding of the difference between sex and gender, and a concept of transgender individuals, you could easily read this story as an explanation for why some people’s gender doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth. And there may well have been people of the time who did see the story that way, we’ll never know. To some, the idea they’re the result of a drunken god’s mistake isn’t a happy one. And to others, it can be something to celebrate.
The story of Hermaphroditus (Number 2) is undeniably about intersex people, but in some versions Hermaphroditus is angry and upset at his transformation, and the prayer to make the pool have the same effect on others is more of a curse. There’s also the disturbing non-consensual aspect of the nymph forcing herself onto him and causing this transformation.
Similarly, Tiresias (Number 3) becoming a woman is sometimes framed as a punishment for attacking the snakes, and returning to a man’s form is a reward. However, the way Tiresias embraced life as a woman and was able to marry, have children, and become a priestess for the goddess of women makes it possible to read her in this time as a well-accepted trans woman.
Neither the stories of Leucippus (Number 4) or Iphis (Number 5) give any insight into how they feel about their transformations into men, though both stories are presented as having happy endings. In the case of Iphis, what we do see of her thoughts and feelings is distress at falling in love with another girl, and when he becomes a man this is celebrated because it means they can have an approved heterosexual marriage. So a story that may seem queer under one interpretation can also appear to uphold the heteronormative patriarchal society under another.
Caeneus (Number 6) is perhaps the character with the strongest case to read as transgender. When offered anything at all, he chose to become a man, and is noted in the text to have enjoyed ‘manly pursuits’ and was held in high regard by other heroes. Latreus, the centaur who taunts him with what we’d now call transphobic insults, is clearly painted as a villain in the story. But still the story differs from the modern idea of transgender--Caeneus says he chose to become a man out of fear of being raped again (reinforcing the false idea that men cannot be a victim of sexual violence) with little to suggest it has anything to do with his gender.
Can I decide these myths are trans anyway?
Ultimately, these myths, as with all myths, are up to the interpretation of the reader. It’s not possible for these ancient myths to give an accurate and positive representation of identities that wouldn’t be conceived of for thousands of years. Stories and myths like these endure because they speak to universal human emotions such as love and fear, and in every generation are given a new meaning within the context they are told. So even if these mythological characters weren’t originally intended to be queer or transgender, it’s fully within the storytelling tradition to interpret them as such, or any other identity that speaks to you.