Ancient Transgenderism at Uruk

At a recent conference I was questioned along these lines: If terms for non-binary gender or the transgender experience did not exist at the time writers wrote Scripture, how do we know non-binary does not exist and is not legitimate?


I appreciated the question’s intent. Did the Biblical writers even have the categories to understand the feelings and experiences of people who feel they do not fit as man or woman? Or those who think that they should be different than what they are? Shouldn’t we be sensitive to issues that the Biblical writers didn’t know about and so couldn’t be expected to address?


But the question assumes something quite wrong, namely that the trans phenomena is something new to history. Pagans have departed from the (binary) gift of gender from ancient times. Deuteronomy 22:5, which hails from the second millennium BCE (the late Bronze Age is the book’s claim), forbids the Israelites to cross-dress. You have to wonder, if the prohibition is there, doesn’t that mean the practice is there also? Why would they be so tempted if the experience and the practice were not part of their world? The apostle Paul, in the first century CE in fact, describes the breakdown of intergendered relationships and the accompanying dishonoring of the human body that attends to any society that stops thanking God (Romans 1:21-32). Apparently, even in his time, the apostle observed it as a regular historical occurrence.


But we witness transgenderism much earlier, in the third millennium BC. Ancient Uruk (the hometown of Gilgamesh, you recall) cult of Inanna inscriptions speak of the “man-woman.” The goddess, Inanna (that’s her Sumerian name, otherwise known as Ishtar), was pretty good at mixing up womanliness with manhood.


The most famous priestess of Inanna, Enheduanna, often hailed as the first published poet, wrote this prayer in to the goddess in 2300BC:


“Inanna was entrusted by Enlil and Ninlil with the capacity…

To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man,

To change one into the other,

To dress young women in clothes for men on their right side,

To dress young men in clothes for women on their left sides

To put spindles into the hands of [men…]

And to give weapons to a woman.”


To these we could add other texts and images that attempt to blend the genders in ancient Uruk. Worshippers recited the hymns of this royal priestess over and over. Her influence lasted for a thousand years. Just because they didn’t use the term, “non-binary” or “trans-man,” it doesn’t mean that they weren’t doing it.


(For those interested in this ancient thread, Philadelphia’s Penn Museum sports an impressive collection of Middle Eastern artifacts. These we have to enjoy from the University of Pennsylvania’s long history of archaeology in the region. the museum has a cylindrical seal showing the priestess’ setting, a tablet inscribed with a hymn to Inanna, and even a disk dated to 2,300 BC picturing Enheduanna herself! Sadly, these are loaned out from the museum until March. Somebody else is very interested in Enheduanna, perhaps because her teaching has come eerily back in style.)


We must keep this historical pedigree clear as we offer compassion and truth for troubled friends in our time. We must listen and sympathize. But what we must never do is discard the Bible’s counsel on the mistaken idea that transgenderism is new.


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