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We Are an Old People, We Are a New People

Part Two,  Transsexual Priestesses, Sexuality and the Goddess

by Cathryn Platine

Sexual "morality" is one of the major blind spots to understanding the past.  The Western world has become so enmeshed in the Judaeo-Christian view of sexuality that it takes a major effort for most to take an unbiased viewpoint of cultures that had a much healthier view of human sexuality.  Even today's neo-Pagan, who is taught that all acts of pleasure, that harm none, are forms of Her worship, often still struggle with the "morality" of same-sex relationships and even the existence of transsexuals so it should not be a surprise that much written about ancient sexuality is tainted with unexamined bias.  The term "temple prostitute" is an excellent example.  The very term is extremely negatively emotionally loaded.  To avoid this, I shall refer to those who practiced the institutional sacred sex role as hierodules, a greek term without that loading to the modern reader.

One other term widely used incorrectly is eunuch.  Historians apply this term indiscriminately with clearly no idea of it's meaning.  It conjures up visions of large castrated male harem guards and castrati singers of Middle Ages which falls within the true meaning of the word but is widely applied to the transsexual priestesses of the Goddess, which is misleading at least, and at any rate, insulting in the extreme to those ancient transsexual women.  Today it is widely applied to the Hijra of India as well, also in blatant disrespect of their own identity.  When the term eunuch is not used, we find in it's stead "castrated male priests" almost universally.  Gay and feminist historians are particularly guilty of this last use.  So what is the truth?  The truth lies in examining the lives of these priestesses, for deeds speak louder than words and how they lived is the best record we have of who they were.

Some things never change regardless of culture.  As any woman can tell you, men place a very high sense of their identity on their genitals and always have and so the idea that thousands upon thousands of "men" would willingly castrate themselves and then live as women the rest of their lives is just as absurd then as it is today.  We aren't talking about involuntary castrations of infants or young males by others such as is the source of the historic eunuchs, we are talking about individuals cutting off their own genitalia in order to live as priestesses.  Any transsexual woman reading the accounts decodes the mystery instantly and effortlessly.......these individuals are not males, they are transsexual women.  Knowledge about transsexuality is widespread enough today among the educated that continuing to refer to these ancient women as "castrated male priests" or eunuchs is out and out transparently transphobic.  Unfortunately this transphobia runs rampant everywhere even today.  Despite their expressed wishes, despite the way they live their lives, almost all accounts today of the Hijra of India refer to them as eunuchs or "neither male nor female", a sort of third sex.  If you ask a hijra about her sex, she'll tell you she is female in her eyes just as any modern transsexual woman would.  If you observe their lives, they live and function (as much as they are allowed to) as women.  Even in our own culture it has been only a few years past that the press even wrote guidelines regarding the pronouns to use when writing about transsexuals and even with those guidelines, a lurid, post-mortem insult of "man living as a woman" is still too often the default of the press when one of us is murdered.  Transphobia is rooted in gynophobia, it is the last socially "acceptable" form of bigotry, but is pure bigotry nonetheless.  In ancient times as well as today, the imperative to bring one's body in conformity with one's identity cannot be truly understood by those who don't have it.  The non-transsexual will just have to accept the word of those of us called, a call that cannot be denied.  Now we have the key to unlock truth of the transsexual priestesses, for indeed, that was what they were.

How common were transsexual priestesses in the ancient world?  Almost every form of the Goddess was associated with them.  Inanna, also called Ishtar, had Her Assinnu.  The Assinnu were the hierodule priestesses of Inanna whose change was performed by  crushing the testicles between two rocks in the earliest references.  Inanna also had transgendered priests who did not do this and who wore clothing that was female on one side and male on the other called the Kurgarru.  They were two distinct groups.  Becoming an Assinnu was a mes, a call from the Goddess.  This mes is a common thread among all transsexual priestesses.  It was recognized that transforming one's life and body was not a choice but a destiny, the call usually in the form of dreams of Inanna when young.  We have several different accounts of Inanna's decent to the underworld and rescue from Her sister, Ereshkigal.  In one, Asushunamir (She whose face is Light), the first Assinnu, was created to save Inanna.   In another version,  two beings, the first Kurgarru and Kalaturru, neither males nor females, are created by Enki from the dirt under his fingernails for the mission.  As hierodules, the Assinnu were seen as mortal representatives of Inanna and sex with Assinnu was congress with the Goddess Herself.  As magicians, their amulets and talismans were the most powerful of magick to protect the wearer from harm, even just touching the head of an Assinnu was believed to bestow on a warrior the power to conquer his enemies.  As ritual artists they played the lyre, cymbals, 2 string lutes and flutes and composed hymns and lamentations all in Emesal, the women's language, said to be a direct gift of Inanna, as opposed to the common language of men, Eme-ku.

In Canaan we find the Goddess as Athirat also called Asherah or Astarte and Her hierodule transsexual priestesses, the Qedshtu.  It should be noted that just as Gallae is changed into Gallus denying the very gender of these priestesses and erasing the truth of their lives, the bible refers to them as Qedeshim (masculine).  The functions of the Qedshtu were almost identical to those of the Assinnu and sexual congress with the Qedshtu was considered sex with Athirat Herself.  Apparently they also practiced a tantric sexual rite accompanied by drums and other instruments and also used flagellation to obtain an estatic state.  The worship of Athirat dates back as far as 8000 BCE by the Natufians who were replaced around 4000 BCE by the Yarmukians.  The young consort, Baal added around this time and somewhat better known in biblical times as El.  By around 2000 BCE the Qedshtu worn long flowing caftans made of mixed colours, interweaved with gold and silver threads intended to envoke a vision of Athirat in Her full glory in the springtime and are thought to have also worn veils over their faces.  They were renown for charity, maintained the garden like groves and temples of Athirat and were prized potters and weavers.  Among the surviving rites was the preparation of a sacred ritual food made from a mixture of milk, butter, mint and coriander blended in a cauldron and blessed by lighting seven blocks of incense over the top while accompanied by music played by other Qedshtu.

The invasion of Canaan by the bloodthirty, patriarchial and fanatical followers of Yahweh, the people later known as the Israelites, took place around 1000 BCE.  Yahweh's worshipers insisted he was a jealous god that would have no rivals.  Unable to completely conquer the Canaanites, they lived in close proximity for a while.  It's no wonder that the Israelite women were drawn to Athirat, now often called Asherah, whose followers believed in equality of the sexes.  It is no wonder that the sexually repressed Israelite men would also want to participate in Her rites.  For a time the religions mixed enough that Yahweh and Asherah were considered co-deities.  The Levite priests of Yahweh were at their wits end, since even their wives often openly worshiped Asherah.  That some of their "sons" became Qedshtu, can be decoded in the story of Joseph and his "coat of many colours".  It is believed that Rachel, Joseph's mother, was a priestess of Asherah and the coat came from her.  We've mentioned the colourful caftans with gold and silver threads that were the marks of the Qedshtu, both transsexual and non transsexual priestesses.  Small wonder that Joseph's brothers, devotees of Yahweh, would react badly to their brother becoming a woman, a hierodule priestess of Asherah, for indeed this is what the story indicates.

Almost all of the various levitian laws came from this period as an attempt to kept the Israelites from worshiping Asherah.  Outlawed was the "wearing of cloth made from mixed fibres", banned from the presence of Yahweh were the eunuchs who "had crushed their testicles between stones", outlawed was the wearing of clothing of the opposite sex.  Israelite men were given permission, even directed, to kill their own wives and children if they did not follow their teachings. The Levites were essentialists and not only would not recognize the womanhood of the trans-Qedshtu, but referred to them as men who laid with men.  Among the Canaanites, homosexual behaviour wasn't uncommon and was widely accepted.  There are ample examples of artwork showing these relations that are clearly not with Qedshtu.  Then, as today, these essentialists failed to understand the difference between a transsexual and a homosexual.  It wasn't so much the homoerotic sex that upset them, it was the idea that a man would become a woman and chose to live that way that terrified them.

The open warfare between the Israelites and followers of Athirat began in earnest soon after the rule of Solomon when Canaan was divided into Israel and Judah.  That many Hebrew rulers were not only tolerant of the worship of Athirat, but sometimes were themselves worshipers cannot be denied.  Qedshtu were welcomed and openly practiced in Hebrew temples. Jeroboam, Rehoboam and Abijam all openly worshiped Athirat and Baal.  Rehoboam's mother was a Qedshtu. Abijam's son, Asa, who ruled between 908 to 867 BCE, converted wholy to Yehweh and exiled many Qedshtu and destroyed their temples and burned their groves.  He removed his own mother, Maacah, from the throne because she was a Qedshtu priestess. Jehosphaphat of Judah, went further and "the remnants of the male cult prostitutes who remained....he exterminated." ( 1 Kings 22:46 RSV)  The war on the followers of Athirat continued, it's interesting to note that Athirat was so feared, She is not even mentioned, but rather the biblical text refer to the followers of Baal, her consort, only.  This pattern is repeated in much of the old testament.  King Jehu, whose murderous attempt at genocide of Athirat and Baal's worshipers is called "cunning",  pretended to convert and called all the Qedshtu together for a mass celebration at the temple of Jerusalem.  When he had gathered them all together and invited them to partake of their rituals, he had the doors locked and his guards murder everyone and then throw their bodies on the city garbage dump.  King Josiah, yet another son of a follower of Athirat, Amon, in the tenth year of his rule ordered all images of Athirat and Baal gathered together at Kidron and burned.  Not content with this, he then committed total sacrilege and ordered all the bones of Her worshipers dug up and burned on the altars and then scattered to the winds.  Then he proceeded to hunt out the remaining worshipers in their communal homes and temples (he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes......where the women wove hangings) and killed them all.  The christian decendants of the Israelites a thousand years later would repeat these deeds, but more of that later.  Let us now journey to ancient Russia then back to Anatolia and then on to Greece and Rome.

Reaching back as far as  8000 BCE the people of the area known today as Russia and the Ukanine worshiped a Mother Goddess.  Our first records give Her name as Artimpasa or Argimpasa and like most other Mother Goddess aspects, She had her transsexual priestesses.  What they called themselves is lost in the mists of time, we know them ony by the names the Greeks gave them, insulting names, the least of which was Enarees, meaning un-manned.  Many authors suggest they are the spiritual decendants of the paleolithic shamans of Siberia and the source of the "twin-spirits" of the AmerIndians and Inuit.  We do know something about them.  The not only "lived like women" but also "play the woman" in all things.  Artimpasa was associated with plant life and particularly cannabis.  Like Cybele, She is accompanied often by a lion.  We know the Enarees wore the clothes of women and spoke the women's language and performed the tasks associated with women.  Writing about them, the Greeks, who were somewhat transphobic, claimed that they were who they were as a punishment and made jokes about how they were the Scythians who had castrated themselves by spending too much time in the saddle.  From a plaque that formed the front of a queen's tiara dating from between 4000 to 3000 BCE, we know that they probably served the same function as priestesses as almost everywhere She was worshiped.  From Herodotus we learned that they acted as diviners by "taking a piece of the inner bark of the linden tree" and cutting it "into three pieces and twisting and untwisting it around their fingers".  We also know that part of the rites included making a "sweat lodge" and burning cannabis inside to obtain an estatic state, some of the tripods, braziers and charcoal with remains of cannabis have been found in various digs in the area.

By the time of the Scythians, the relations with the Enarees were mixed, both respected as priestesses and seers and also ridiculed.  This was the common pattern as societies turned more patriarchial and the fear of men of being "called" as were the trans-priestesses was given voice.  By the sixth century BCE the Scythians had a far reaching empire and one of the more interesting tales was how they came into conflict with Amazons, made a truce and intermarried for a while then separating.  Another tells of a Scythian noble, Anarcharsis, who traveled to the west in search of wisdom around 600 BCE.  He joined a mystery religion and while visiting Cyzicus encounters a festival of Cybele.  He made a vow that if he was able to return home safely, he would worship Cybele just as he'd seen.  Good to his word, upon returning to his homelands he donned the dress of the Gallae and "went through the ceremonies with all the proper rites and observances".  As we shall see, the "proper rites and observances" of the Gallae included an initiation by working up an estatic state and then quickly removing both the penis and testicles with a sharp object and thereafter donning the robes and dress of the Gallae and living as female.  Anarcharsis would have had to done this if he made the proper rites.  He no doubt witnessed the rites if he attended the major festival of Cybele and would have been aware of this had he been initiated into one of the various mystery religions.  While Aanrcharsis is refered to in the masculine throughout the account, it comes to us via those horrified by the Gallae.  Fearing the re-introduction of Goddess worship to the Scythians, who had just recently separated into two camps, Anarcharsis' brother, King Saulius murdered her.  Centuries later, Clement of Alexandra wrote of it:

"Blessings be upon the Scythian king"  " When a countryman of his own (his brother) was imitating among the Scythians the rite of the Mother of the Gods as practiced at Cyzicus, by beating the drum and clanging the cymbal, and by having images of the Goddess suspended from his neck after the manner of a priest of Cybele, this king (Saulius) slew him (Anacharisis) with an arrow, on the ground that the man, having been deprived of his own virility in Greece, was now communicating the effeminate disease to his fellow Scythians."

A few words about hierodules are in order.  These priestesses were both transsexual and non transsexual women.  Often, during the festivals of almost all these various aspects of Her, women who hadn't also dedicated their lives to Her would take part and children concieved at these times were considered special gifts of the Goddess.  Because transsexual women could not become pregnant, they had a special regard and sacred sexual relations with them, which were indeed viewed as a sacred rite and not some wild orgy, brought the partner into an even more sacred state.  Today we've lost the connection of the sacred with sex because of the repressive nature of Judeao-Christian traditions towards anything pleasurable.  Tantric sexual worship is still practiced today in India.  Now let us talk of the Mother of the Gods Herself, Cybele, Her consort son/daughter Attis and Her Gallae.

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copyright 2003, Cathryn Platine.  All rights reserved.  This page may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any electronic or print media without the express written permission of the copyright holder.