Evidence for Trans Lives in Ancient Sumer


Upper part of a gypsum statue of a Sumerian woman. The hands are folds in worship. The eyes would have been inlaid. A sheepskin garment is wrapped on the left shoulder. Early Dynastic Period, c. 2400 BCE. / Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, British Museum, Wikimedia Commons


Do we have any evidence of actual gender transition in Sumerian society?


By Cheryl Morgan / 05.02.2017


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.

Those are the words of Enheduanna, High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur. They are part of her poem, Passionate Inanna, which she wrote in the 23rd Century BCE. Enheduanna is the earliest known example of someone signing their name to a literary work.

Enheduanna (3rd from right) as depicted on the Disk of Enheduanna (Wikimedia Commons)

Inanna, who became, or merged with, Ishtar in the successor civilizations of Babylon and Assyria, is a fascinating character who is often described as liminal, paradoxical or contradictory. Some commentators have even described her as androgynous, though this appears to be a misunderstanding of the source material made by people unfamiliar with gender theory.

There have been suggestions that Inanna has been described as bearded. In some cases this is probably no more than gender performance, an indication of her might. In others it is a misunderstanding of references to the appearance of Inanna’s astronomical aspect, the planet Venus.

Translators of ancient languages wisely tend towards literal renderings so as to avoid interpretation, but Enheduanna’s words might be referring to gender stereotypes. A possible interpretation might be simply, “To make a man meek and a woman brave are yours, Inanna.” Besides, the actions of gods belong in the realm of myth, not real life. Do we have any evidence of actual gender transition in Sumerian society?

One well known text of similar antiquity to Enheduanna’s work describes a religious festival held in honour of Inanna. It describes the celebrants as follows:

The people of Sumer parade before you.
[…]
The male prostitutes comb their hair before you.
They decorate the napes of their necks with coloured scarfs.
[…]
The women adorn their right side with men’s clothing.
[…]
The men adorn their left side with women’s clothing.
[…]
The ascending kurgarra priests raise their swords before you.

This has led commentators to state that Inanna’s temples employed “transvestites.” Can we cite these comments as evidence for the existence of trans people in the earliest human civilization? That rather depends upon what we mean by “trans people.” In modern parlance the term “transvestite” would usually refer to people who identify as male but wear women’s clothing at times for various reasons. However, many of these commentators, especially those from the twentieth century and earlier, may not have seen any difference between such cross-dressers and other trans people who identify strongly as female and seek to live as such for their entire lives.

We must be careful not to impose modern ideas of identity on the ancient world. The Western concept of the transsexual relies in part on medical technology not available to the ancients. However, people such as two spirits from North America and hijra from India have traditions dating back into antiquity. And even modern non-binary people often don’t identify as transsexual. The use of trans as an umbrella term allows us to encompass a variety of identities, including those from history.

The description of the festival appears to show the people of the city cross-dressing specifically for the purpose of the celebration. Indeed the whole thing sounds very like a gay pride parade, with lots of people just dressing up for the party. We must be careful to exclude any recreational cross-dressing, but look instead for evidence of lives lived outside of the narrow gender binary.

Gwendolyn Leick speculates that some of Inanna’s gender variant cult workers may have played a role similar to that of the hijra in Indian society. There is certainly evidence to support the suggestion. To find it we need to look for other references to the gender of Inanna’s followers. The myth of Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, thought to be a mythic explanation of where Venus goes in between being the morning star and evening star, survives in different versions from different periods of Mesopotamian history. In all of them Inanna is captured by Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and has to be rescued by the other gods.

A Sumerian version of the myth explains how the god Enki sends two emissaries, a kurgarra and a galatur, to rescue the goddess by tricking Ereshkigal into granting them a boon. There is a temptation to assume that these are simply types of demon, except that both are known from other texts as names for people associated with Inanna’s cult. The kurgarra march in the festival brandishing swords, so they are not meek and girly, but then they do serve a goddess who is often shown bristling with weapons and riding on a lion. We shouldn’t make gender-normative assumptions about anything to do with Inanna.

The gala, on the other hand, appear more effeminate. A gala is a temple employee whose job it is to sing lamentations, and a galatur is simply a junior gala. They appear to have spoken a Sumerian dialect called Emesal which was possibly reserved for women.

One well-known statuette of a person named Ur-Nanshe was found in the Sumerian city of Mari. An inscription on the back describes this person as a master singer and includes a dedication to a version of Inanna. The statuette has a soft face, a suggestion of eye make-up, is clean-shaven, has long hair and a suggestion of breasts. Although Ur-Nanshe is a male name, the statuette has variously been gendered as female and a eunuch as well. The original dig report  has a lengthy section on the gender of the person depicted.

Ereshkigal celebrates her triumph over Inanna (British Museum)

Singers of lamentations, of course, might well be required to have a high-pitched voice, suggesting possible castration in childhood. Then again, the inscription states that Ur-Nanshe is a “naru,” a singer, not specifically a “gala.” Also we can’t be certain that the Sumerians followed our own conventions for gendered representation of people. Man-boobs do exist, and the statuette’s maker might simply have shown them honestly. All of this makes precise interpretation very difficult.

Another clue might be the mention of male sex workers in the description of the festival. One Sumerian proverb refers to a gala wiping “that which belongs to my mistress” from his backside. That’s presumably a reference to semen as Inanna is a fertility goddess. A possible literal translation of the word “gala” is “penis-anus.”

In an Assyrian version of the story the kurgarra and galatur are replaced by an assinnu. Stephanie Dalley coyly translates this as “Good-looks the playboy,” but the word “assinnu” is often translated as “feminine man” and there are references in other documents that have been taken to indicate assinnu doing sex work.

Further evidence comes from the Babylonian poem, The Epic of Erra. This also references kurgarra and assinnu, of whom the poet says, “Whose maleness Ishtar turned female, for the awe of the people.”

A complication is that some Sumerian sources refer to women who are the wives of gala, and even a few gala that have children (ironically one of the best known examples is a gala called Dada). Possible explanations for this include that gala are associated with more than one god, and only Inanna requires castration; or that we are seeing a change in the status and function of gala over time.

I note also that it is probable, given a sizeable population of gala, that they would have exhibited a range of gender identities and sexualities. Babylonian law has extensive provision governing adoption, so the concept is likely to have been known in Sumer. Therefore queer families were not out of the question.

Possibly the clearest evidence, however, comes from a fragment of a statue held in the archives of the British Museum, dating probably from the late third millennium BCE. It is only the right shoulder and arm, but it bears an inscription. The British Museum’s Dr. Irving Finkel translated this as: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”

The term hermaphrodite is, of course, of post-Sumerian invention, and these days carries a specific biological meaning. The literal translation is more like, “person-man-woman.” The term “man-woman” is found in many cultures when referring to trans people. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Silimabzuta was a eunuch or intersex. It may simply indicate social gender transition. What it does say very clearly is that someone in Sumer recognized the existence of people who were neither man nor woman.

The presence of people living outside of the gender binary in the ancient world doesn’t necessarily imply social acceptance, and over thousands of years attitudes can change. In the Assyrian version of The Descent, Ereshkigal curses the assinnu to be shunned by the rest of society. This is an addition to the Sumerian text, implying a possible downgrading of the status of gender diverse people in Assyria as compared to Sumer. What does seem probable is that in the cradle of human civilisation people were not only living lives outside of the gender binary, but in doing so played a key role in important religious ceremonies.


Originally published by NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

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