Art and culture from Ancient Persia, £20.00
Gender roles vary between different cultures and are not a universal ‘given’. Ideas of what it means to be a man or woman vary, but many cultures also envisage the possibility of a third gender and the possibility of changing gender.
A goddess associated with gender ambiguity
This ancient plaque is now popularly known as ‘the Queen of the Night’. It shows a naked woman wearing the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and could be an aspect of Ishtar, goddess of sexual love and war - also called Inana.
Kurgarrus, followers of the cult of Inana, were said to have had their gender changed from male to female by the goddess. What was the significance of this?
It may simply indicate the goddess - the most powerful of the Sumerian civilisation - was able to change everything in the universe. It probably tells us little about the experience of individual lives, but it shows us that gender was considered changeable in this enduring state religion.
A god who is half male and half female
The Hindu deity Lakshminarayan represents the god Vishnu and his female consort Lakshmi in a figure whose body is half male and half female.
These qualities are symbolically associated with left and right sides of the body. The left side is feminine, the right side is male. This concept is also found in the form of Ardhanarisvara, which represents the god Shiva and his female consort Parvati.
The notion of two in one, or none, mirrors the idea that there can be genders with no sex as testified by hijiras, a class of men that follow either Shiva or the Goddess Bahuchara Mata.
A bronze figure of Shiva Nataraja
An African Bamana mask
Bamana associate the number four with women and three with men. Women have two breasts one vagina and one clitoris, men have a penis and two testes. Masks with seven horns represent androgyny, the essentially dual nature of humans created by the fusion of feminine and masculine.
Circumcision rituals in this society are believed by them to turn children into men and women, making them lose their androgynous nature which is associated with hermaphrodites who were believed to be the first humans ever created.
Androgynous N’domo masks represent the dual nature of children, a state that needs to be manipulated in order to create adult males and females. Blood released from circumcision enters the mask’s horns which causes children to become fertile adults.
A Native American Winter Count
Winter counts are kept as records of the histories of many tribes of the North American Plains. On this winter count, the year 1891 includes an image representing the suicide of a winkte (translated from the Dakota language as ‘wants to be a woman’). This is a category of males whose occupations and social roles were those of women.
The episode describes the moment of this person’s self-inflicted death as a result of abandonment by his lover. His name was Grass and he was of the tribe of the Dakota.
Among some Native American tribes such individuals were considered ‘special’ in that they bridged gender differences. Among the Dakota Sioux Indians there were at any given time up to 10 (recorded) individuals belonging to this class of people.
With the arrival of Anglo-Americans and the institution of reservations in the late nineteenth century the practice of cross-dressing by such individuals was repressed.
Today a revival of this tradition is flourishing again among younger generations of Native Americans who see these figures as their forebears.
Transforming gender and same-sex erotica in Japanese theatre
Japanese theatre has a tradition of transforming sexual identities in performance. An audience at a Kabuki performance might watch an 80-year-old male actor playing the part of a young woman. There is also the all-female Takarazuka troupe, with women in male roles.
In this scene in a theatre teahouse, all the elegant figures are actually men, since all actors were male. The younger actors also sometimes worked as prostitutes for men, and teahouses were a venue for meeting patrons.
Two male lovers
A modern drag queen deck of cards
A Pakistani ‘transvestite’ quilt
This quilt was bought in Karachi (Sindh, Pakistan) in 1985 by textile expert John Gillow and acquired by the Museum. Although hewas told it was made by (or for) itinerant transvestites, he is not certain this is true.
But even if the person he bought it from was inventing a story, this in itself links the quilt (ralli) with the hijra culture, which is one of the very few exceptions to the strict gender roles that are considered socially acceptable.
Hijras are men who sometimes have undergone gential modifications and who usually live as women, earning money through dancing and singing at weddings. They are often devotees of a mother goddess.
More information about the objects featured here:
- Figure of the Hindu deity Lakshminarayan
- Native American winter count
- Pakistani transvestite quilt