Masculinities and Third Gender: Gendered Otherness in the Ancient Near East

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR, Near Eastern Archaeology

By: Ilan Peled

There is a distinct human phenomenon in ancient Near Eastern history: persons who were born males, but under various social and historical circumstances their masculine identity was considered to be ambiguous. These persons can be classified as belonging to a third gender.

How did ancient Near Eastern societies treat cases of deviation from the normative social order, in which people were arranged in two distinct gender categories: masculine and feminine? What was the social status of those who belonged to a different class of gender? What attitude did their surrounding community show them?

Third gender persons comprised distinct groups in society with clearly defined titles. What was the significance of this fact? What were the differences between the various sub-categories of third gender figures? What did they all have in common, beyond their basic relation to the third gender? No less important are historical changes in social attitudes towards this class of people.

Victory stele of Naram-Sin

My book, Masculinities and Third Gender: the Origins and Nature of an Institutionalized Gender Otherness in the Ancient Near East, uses as its framework the theory of hegemonic masculinity, developed by R.W. Connell, which sees ruling social elites consisting of hegemonic men who aspire to suppress women and non-hegemonic men. In light of this theory, the book analyzes the third gender group of persons as belonging to a non-hegemonic group of men. In Mesopotamia, the terms that describe these persons were grouped in numerous lexical lists, which supply us with the frame and boundaries of the research. To a lesser extent, the grouping of these persons is apparent in narrative and literary compositions. Two aspects of the research are discussed in the book: masculinity, and third gender. Though the two are naturally related, they are by no means identical.

The most notable of these titles were gala/kalû, assinnu, kurgarrû and lú-sag / ša rēši. Other similar titles that were documented less frequently were kulu’u, girseqû, tīru, SAG-UR-SAG, pilpilû, nāš pilaqqi, sinnišānu and parû. Their sexual and gender ambiguity was realized in numerous and diverse manners. Occasionally, it bore a clear physiological form, in the shape of castration. But mostly, their lack of procreativity constituted another form of gender ambiguity, as it contradicted one of the most important gender functions in the ancient Near East, the siring of offspring.

Ur III / Old Babylonian terracotta plaque of a beardless cult attendant.

Old Babylonian terracotta plaque from Ur of a sexually-ambiguous beardless figure

The common denominator of all these figures appears to have been a concept of flawed manliness. But effeminacy was not necessarily the key factor, as some of these figures seem to have been rather masculine indeed. For example, two of the goddess Ištar’s male most prominent cult attendants were the assinnu (written phonetically or in logograms (lú) ur-munus, literally “man-woman”) and the warrior-like kurgarrû. Presumably, each was the mirror opposite of the other and represented one of Ištar’s attributes, erotic love and sexuality, and aggressiveness and war. In contrast, girseqû and tīru were childless males who worked in palace administration. But third gender individuals were not necessarily of low social status. For example, from the third millennium through the first, the gala/ kalû was a performer of lamentation songs in the Emesal dialect of Sumerian.

Cuneiform tablet of Old Babylonian Sumerian proverbs mentioning the gala.

A Neo-Babylonian kudurru from Uruk. According to the inscription, the beardless person is Ibni-Ištar, kalû of Ištar-of-Uruk.

It was sufficient that these persons deviated enough from the customary model of ancient Near Eastern masculinity, in order to be considered as part of this third gender class. The standard model of masculinity in the ancient Near East was exemplified the idealized sexually active party in heterosexual relations; having the ability and intention to sire descendants.

These third gender men were by and large anonymous, known by title and not as private persons. The book does not, therefore, investigate the psychological characteristics of individuals, but rather the sociological phenomenon of title-holders within Mesopotamian society. Arguably, this third gender was a social construct, meant for delineating the social norms typical of the ruling men.

To my understanding, hegemonic masculine men in society used the concepts of “different,” “other”, and “strange” in order to demonstrate and highlight their own characteristics of conformity. These concepts of otherness are essential for demarcating social borders, which, in turn, define patterns of normative conduct.

Identity is defined by its limitations: where it begins and ends, and what exists beyond it. The strange, the extreme and the bizarre signify what common, hegemonic, people are not, and therefore mark who common, hegemonic, people actually are. These boundaries are constructed by using social mechanisms of norms and prohibitions. In this sense, the third gender figures served social needs of defining norms of conformity. Not only did they form an integral stratum within the structure of their society, in many respects their stratum was highly critical and contributed a great deal to social stability.

The very instability involved with these figures was the chief reason for their existence, and their most important contribution to maintaining order within the society in which they lived. We have to remember, of course, that these forced order and conformity were meant to serve first and foremost the androcentric interests of specific parts of society, the hegemonic masculine ones.

As such, the third gender class – and its formal articulation in Mesopotamian literature and religion - should be viewed as a social mechanism for the enforcement of control and the perpetuation of gender division and male superiority. This is an important lesson for any person living in the 21st century who ponders about social structure and conformity. One wonders how different ancient Mesopotamia actually was in this respect from present-day societies. The similarities, it seems, are at times quite striking.

Ilan Peled is a Guest Lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.


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