Welcome back everyone! It’s been a long LONG time since the last blog post – all thanks to a heady combination of PhD applications, online conferences podcast appearances (check out my upcoming collaborations with ‘Partial Historians’ and ‘Let’s Talk About Myths Baby!’ on Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!). But we’re back, finally! There’s a lot of exciting things lined up for the next couple of weeks, and I can’t WAIT to share them with you all!
With all that out of the way, let’s get onto a part of ancient history I’ve been wanting to share for a long time now - the transgender Aphrodite. First of all, let’s clear up who the heck we’re talking about when I say Aphrodite. So Aphrodite is best known in the modern day as this amazing goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility – if you know your Classical mythology, Aphrodite was the goddess that the mortal dude Paris thought was the most beautiful, kick starting a whole bunch of kidnapping, bloodshed, and a good old ten year war. But anyway, that’s a story for another time!! So yes, Aphrodite, very beautiful lady, extra sexy goddess – all on the same page? You might also have heard of her being called Venus – that’s basically just the Roman version of her name.
As a goddess, her roots are unbelievably ancient –Aphrodite can be traced back to the Phoenician goddess Astarte, who in turn developed from the Near Eastern goddess Ishtar, who can be traced even further back through history to the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna, who was worshipped as early as 4000 BCE (!!!). In these earliest forms, the goddess often was worshipped in two almost contradictory ways- celebrated for her role in beauty/sex/love, and then also as this incredible warrior. While this last bit kind of disappears in the Classical Greek version, in ancient Sparta we actually see cults that still celebrate Aphrodite as a goddess linked with war.
Now in this post I want to talk about a way of using something called Queer Theory, which put extra simply is just when you look at a subject (in this case Ancient History!) through a LGBT+ lens, so you’re kind of ‘imagining’ how LGBT+ or Queer identities can be read through that subject. I know that might seem confusing, but hopefully once I chat about how this works with imagining a Transgender Aphrodite, it’ll become a bit clearer!
So first things first, let’s take it back to the birth of Aphrodite. The myths tell us that Aphrodite was born after a titan (basically like the OG gods) called Uranus had his *special bits* cut off by his son (good old ancient Greek family life for you!) and it got chucked into the sea. So yeah, dick thrown in the ocean, sends up a bunch of foam, and from that – Aphrodite emerges!! Wow! What a birth story hey?? Now the narrative of a Queer (read: transgender) Aphrodite first appears at this point, basically the second of her birth. Aphrodite is solely constructed from what the ancient Greeks perceived to be the defining male feature, and yet she’s a woman. The most beautiful goddess, who was born as a fully formed woman, was at the same time considered to be biologically just 100% Uranus d*ck.
This idea of a Gender-Queer side to Aphrodite is also talked about by one of my all-time icons, Professor Bettany Hughes, who in her incredible book VENUS & APHRODITE: HISTORY OF A GODDESS, mentions how this story of Aphrodite’s birth might be part of
“an early recognition of the nonbinary nature of sex and desire”.
Because this isn’t the only ancient source that supports a transgender reading of Aphrodite: especially if we go back to one of the earliest places of her worship, Cyprus.
On the island of Cyprus, we’ve found multiple sculptures that show the goddess in her traditional female form and dress, while also wearing a pretty thick beard - pretty much like an ancient depiction of the beautiful Conchita Wurst. In fact, it wasn’t just Aphrodite’s gender identity that seems to have been supported in Cyprus, but instead also her worshippers, with other figurines in Aphrodite’s sanctuaries across Cyprus appearing to depict non-binary figures, and transgender priests.
The playwright Aristophanes also reports on the idea of a Gender-Queer, or transgender Aphrodite, who allegedly was brought to Athens from - you guessed it, Cyprus. Apparently on Cyprus, people worshipped Aphrodite-Aphroditos, an Aphrodite in both female and male form, and there were major celebrations where people cross dressed in her honour.
All of this was summed up by an ancient Roman dude called Macrobius, who was living in around 400 CE, and wrote:
“There’s also a statue of Venus on Cyprus, that’s bearded, shaped and dressed like a woman, with scepter and male genitals, and they conceive her as both male and female. Aristophanes calls her Aphroditus, and Laevius says: Worshipping, then, the nurturing god Venus, whether she is male or female…” Philochorus, too, states that men sacrifice to her in women’s dress, women in men’s, because she is held to be both male and female.” (Saturnalia 3.8.2)
But what does this all mean? Well it doesn’t really have to mean anything, it’s more of just another way of considering Aphrodite. Through these sculptures and writings we get an idea of another form of Aphrodite being worshipped throughout the ancient world, who could be interpreted as transgender, non-binary, or gender-queer, and who perhaps had priests who identified in the same way. Maybe in Aphrodite’s earliest cults on Cyprus, her sanctuary was one of gender ambiguity and acceptance – there’s evidence there if you want to theorise. What reading these interpretations of Aphrodite does do however, is really emphasise how colourful and non ‘binary’ ancient history is – that the idea of a hard gender binary actually doesn’t always match up with the historical evidence that we find across the ancient world. Using Queer Theory helps us to realise that we can find all this amazing liminality and fluidity throughout ancient history, that nothing fits into specific boxes, and that cultural identities and concepts are constantly changing.
Was Aphrodite transgender? Well I mean she’s a goddess, a deity – by her nature she is whatever her worshippers view her to be. And from our evidence from her sanctuaries on Cyprus, it seems like beliefs about Aphrodite’s gender would probably fall under the umbrella of transgender now. So yeah, to some ancient people Aphrodite was transgender – and like I said, she is what you make her, and to me, she’s Aphrodite, the trans goddess of beauty, love, and sex. Just pretty much a queen.