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Ten Gender Variant Religious Figures

by Levi Alter


The blog post "Ten Intersex Gods and Goddesses" by Lusmerlin Lantigua is a wonderful beginning synopsis of gender diversity in ancient text and tradition. The list of ten stories is diverse -- though there are many other examples that could be included! It is powerful to acknowledge that diverse religious traditions through the ages have lifted up gender identities and gender experiences that don't match rigid categories of "male" and "female."

Yet, labeling all of these stories "intersex" can cause confusion for actual people of intersex experience. Therefore, I want to offer a few clarifications about intersex conditions.

Many people with intersex conditions do not even know they are intersex. Some are diagnosed at birth, some in early childhood, others at puberty or as adults. Intersex people may be born with genes that are either partly male (XY lacking an SRY factor), partly female (XO), or both (XXY, XXXY or XX plus an SRY factor). Intersex people may have reproductive anatomy that is either partly male, partly female, or both. Intersex people may have hormones that are either partly male, partly female, or both. Or they may otherwise not fit expected definitions of male or female.

Many intersex people identify as male or female, although a diversity of gender identities are found in the intersex community. Some intersex people identify as transgender because they have transitioned from the gender they were assigned at birth or because they embrace a non-binary gender identity.

People of intersex experience are often misdiagnosed, receive inadequate medical care, or have non-consensual surgical procedures to "correct" the natural human gender diversity of their bodies.

There are many medical conditions included under the term "intersex," but "hermaphrodite" is no longer considered an appropriate way to refer to people of intersex experience, though it may be used in referencing mythic figures.

Intersex people have contributed to all historical eras and human societies and cultures and their presence and contributions are also celebrated in myths such as those mentioned by Lantigua. Like real life intersex people, each mythic figure has their own unique story.

1. Hermaphroditus (Greek) (also on Wikipedia)

In Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus was associated with androgyny, at whose sacrifices men and women exchanged garments. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) in Bibliotheca historica, book IV, 4.6.5 wrote that Hermaphroditus was born of Hermes and Aphrodite and received a name which is a combination of both parents and had a dual gender body.

2. Agdistis (Phrygian, Greek, Roman) (also on Wikipedia)

Agdistis was a deity of Greek, Roman and Anatolian mythology possessing both male and female organs. Some scholars have theorized that Agdistis is part of a continuum of androgynous Anatolian deities (including one called "Adamma") in the 2nd millennium BC.

3. Hapi (Egyptian) (also on Wikipedia)

The Egyptian Nile-flooding god Hapi was considered to be male and wearing the false beard, but was also pictured with pendulous breasts and a large belly as representations of the fertility of the Nile.

4. Ardhanarishvara (Hindu) (also on Wikipedia)

Ardhanarishvara is a composite androgynous half male and half female, split down the middle. The name Ardhanarishvara means "the Lord who is half woman."

5. Lan Caihe (China) (also on Wikipedia)

Lan Caihe is one of the Eight Immortals. Lan Caihe's age and sex are unknown. Lan is depicted in ambiguous clothing or as a young boy or girl carrying a bamboo flower basket, and is associated with male minstrels and female singers. Like the other immortals, Lan Caihe left this world by flying on a heavenly swan or crane into heaven.

6. Ymir (Norse) (also on Wikipedia)

In Norse mythology Ymir is a primeval being in the Edda and skalds. Ymir birthed a male and female. Scholars have linked Ymir to Tuisto, who some scholars argue is a "two-fold" or hermaphroditic being.  Scholars also believe that Ymir is an echo of a primordial being reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European mythology (Persian and Vedic) and the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

7. Ometeotl (Aztec) (also on Wikipedia)

Ometeotl (Two God) is the combined god Ometecuhtli (male)/Omecihuatl (female) or Tonacatecuhtli (male)/Tonacacihuatl (female) in Aztec mythology. This"Lord of the Duality" is the supreme creator deity.

8. G-d (Jewish) (also on Orthodox Union)

According to the rabbinic commentaries on Genesis the Primordial Human (Adam means human) was not a male, but both a male and a female, one face forward, one face behind. The Hebrew word tzela mistranslated in some Christian Bibles as “rib” means “side.” Since Adam was made in resemblance of G-d, then G-d is a being of all genders.

9. Phanes (Greek) (also on Wikipedia)

Phanes was the mystic primeval deity of procreation and the generation of new life, who was introduced into Greek mythology by the Orphic tradition. Other names for Phanes are Ericapaeus, Metis ("thought") and Protogenus ("First Born"). Phanes was depicted as androgynous with several animal heads and golden wings.

10. Ahsonnutli (Navaho) (see History of Arizona, Navaho)

“In the Ure mountains lived two women, Ahsonnutli, the turquoise hermaphrodite, and Yolaikaiason, the white shell woman... ‘Ahsonnutli, the hermaphrodite, had white beads in her right breast, and turquoise in her left... And Ahsonnutli commanded the twelve men to go to the east, south, west and north, to hold up the heavens, which office they are supposed to perform to this day.”

Read the original article (with images) at Lusmerlin's Blog: "Ten Intersex Gods and Goddesses" by Lusmerlin Lantigua

Rabbi Levi Alter is the spiritual leader of his congregation of Holocaust survivors -- and has previously served on the clinical faculty of UCLA Medical Center. A nationally-renowned expert on intersex concerns, he has been called upon on a regular basis to advise physicians concerning the treatment of intersex newborns. He is the fourth of five generations of intersex individuals in his family and the President of FTM International (www.FTMI.org).


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