Copper Age Queer

The latest Copper Age discovery of a queer burial in Prague adds to our understanding that multiple genders/sexualities go way back into the deep past. The individual in question was a member of what archeologists refer to as the Corded Ware, or Battle Axe culture, or more accurately archeological horizon, who lived in the third millennium BCE in a wide swath of what is now Europe. In this Copper Age culture men were buried facing west with weapons, including those battle axes, and women facing east with household articles; this male skeleton was buried with head to the east and surrounded by jugs.

Anthropologists have long shown that many indigenous cultures, especially those of the Americas but also of Oceania and Asia, have perceived humans as having more than two genders, some as many as seven. In North America the word berdache was once used, (as in Walter Williams’ groundbreaking work, The Spirit and the Flesh, but the term, which came from French explorers, and can be traced back to ancient Persia, and originally referred to eunuchs, has held a derogatory tone for many Native Americans. The preferred word used for the last twenty years or so is Two Spirits. Two Spirit people march in many LGBT pride parades and have been marshals for the San Francisco parade (Randy Burns, Paiute) and also in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul.. Mahu is a similar identity for gay and transgendered Hawaiians (and similar terms exist in other Polynesian languages). An intriguing bit of United States history is that in 1886, an American president, Grover Cleveland, met and conversed with a two-spirit person named We’wha, who was a Zuni (a Pueblo tribe) who lived from 1849-96. We’wha spent some time in Washington D.C. with Matilda Coxe Steven, the first American woman anthropologist, but was mistaken there for a biological woman and called a Zuni princess by the press. Will Roscoe, a historian of sexuality and gender, wrote a fascinating biography of We’Wha, The Zuni Man-Woman.

Archeologists and prehistorians have found much to suggest that similar roles obtained in European prehistory (or early historical societies). Timothy Taylor’s The Prehistory of Sex provides many intriguing and surprising examples, including that of the golden phallus of Varna—a glans penis sheath of gold sheet with perforations apparently to be sewn onto a sheath of animal membrane. It was found in the excavations of the Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria, dating to the Neolithic (from 4700 to 4200 BCE). Taylor theorizes it may have been worn in a rite, where it could have been quite dramatic, and while usually thought to have been ritual wear of a priest could have been operated by a female, as the skeleton of Grave 43 was labeled male, but this is actually uncertain.. The phallus is small and is designed so liquid could shoot from a hole in its tip. Taylor also makes a case for transgendered Anglo-Saxon priests, riding mares in dresses. As is known from Tacitus some of the Germanic tribes had gender variant priests like those of the Naharvali. The Enarees, third gender persons of the Scythian tribes (pastoralist Iranian speaking peoples of the Iron Age who entered the historical record at an early date because they traded with the Greeks) were diviners and prophets according to Herodotus. Ovid, whom Augustus exiled to the trading port of Tomis on the Black Sea shores of Scythia (the site today is in Romania) in the 1st century of the common era, wrote about a witch’s knowledge of distilling the extract of a mare in heat. The Scythians had long been known as mare milkers, and it seems probable that they also used mare’s urine, as Taylor argues. Pregnant mare’s urine contains complex conjugated estriols. Today these are used in Premarin*, a ‘feminizing’ hormone therapy prescribed for male-to-female transsexuals, as well as for women who have had hysterectomies. Taylor brings up the ‘Sarmatian priestess’ burial from the Sokolova barrow on the southern Bug River, which dates from the time of Ovid’s exile, as an example of a person who might have used mare’s urine as a gender technology. S/he was identified as female, but facial soft tissue reconstruction shows a masculine face. Many interesting burial goods include a cowry shell, a phallus, and a bronze mirror with handle depicting a bearded man sitting in lotus posture, wearing a long dress.

Photo by Yelkrokoyade. According to Taylor the grave finds are on a plastic skeleton) in Varna Archaeological Museum).

The media has had a field day with the Prague story, calling the find that of a ‘gay caveman’. Caveman is a cartoonish descriptor to start with, but they could get away with it if it were a Paleolithic find, when some humans did shelter regularly in caves, or at least in their entrances. But the find is from somewhere between 2800 and 2500 BCE, and from a small farming community. ‘Gay’ is a simplistic adjective here too with all its modern western psychological baggage, to say nothing of jumping to conclusions. However, archaeologist Bettina Arnold, regarding those she calls ‘gender transformers” states, “This is not an uncommon phenomenon in prehistoric cemetery populations…It’s always there, but in small percentages” (ABC News).

While much remains to be learned about this burial, with some scientists questioning its sexing (which is a huge problem with skeletons) this unusual burial, which if it does strictly reverse the Corded Ware culture’s usual gendered graves, could represent a trans person, rather than a gender variant/homosexual male. It reveals again how complex gender/sexuality realities actually were in prehistoric cultures, as well as in historical ones. That is something that this grave whispers, even if we can’t fully decode the language.


* Animal and horse activists have found that the farms dedicated to raising pregnant mares for urine production have very cruel practices, and recommend people find alternatives to Premarin.


Revisiting the R Word: Toward an Experimental Reconstructionism

Reconstructionism has become a box to tick off (or not) on the pagan questionnaire, an either/or proposition for many. I have had a complicated relationship with this term over the years. My first impression of the word was that it was a bit clunky and then when reduced to the now ubiquitous recon seemed like a children’s toy. And there’s that hint of association of the word with Christian reconstructionism, which although, a foundationless historical fantasy, is a repellant movement associated with the furthermost reaches of evangelical fundamentalism. Yet, of course, the term does suggest that there really is something worth rebuilding from the past, something worth researching as much as we are capable of. So I ardently identified as a Reconstructionist. But over the years I was increasingly put off by those who can well be called textual literalists who used the term in such a narrow sense, with their claiming a nearly fundamentalist authority for medieval texts and academic books about them.  So for a while I started calling myself a post-reconstructionist, but a friend asked me what that really meant, and I had to acknowledge that that could mean so many things, and that after all I am a person who has been using reconstructionist methodology for well over fifteen years.

My main engagement with the word has been within the Celtic pagan community (I am also involved in Hellenic practices), among those who were really trying to excavate, and then operate a polytheistic Celtic spirituality, as opposed to Celtic wallpaper or decals to be stuck on the vehicle of one’s choice. In the mid-90s there were heated debates on terminology—was what people were doing reconstruction? revival? restoration? Some of this had to do with just how much the person in question felt had to be rebuilt and put back together. Those preferring ‘revival’ may have felt the folk tradition was still going, and had sufficient to offer, but really this was a spectrum. This debate was embedded within a greater one of what to call ourselves: shouldn’t we have a Celtic word for our name? Many were offered up, like Sensitrognata, Aurrad, and others. The Imbas organization even voted on this issue with the difficult Senistrognata winning out; though, it seldom seems to be used these days.

But reconstruction became a kind of default. Other communities started using it (or had already been using it) and so there was common ground. It also came to be seen as something of an opposition to Wicca and its claims of somehow being Celtic, or at least  involved with taking a stance against Wicca’s perceived nebulousness, and ceaseless appropriations. For many Celtic Reconstructionists that simply felt a justified response to so many Wiccans claiming that their religion was Celtic (something less frequent today, but still not unusual).

However, for some of us it came to be more appropriate as an adjective that said something significant about our methodologies, but failed to describe an actual religion. Some of my practices are reconstructionist, some are not. Often enough we start from what is scholarly known but the trail—if experientially followed—often becomes indiscernible among trackless wilds. Surely as an experiential path (yes, a path), this is to be expected. By contrast freeways have controlled exits and entries and only so much can be encountered on them; the landscape will often be a blur. Gnosis occurs when one exits and starts to encounter Those that are out there, not just read about Them.

Erynn Rowan Laurie years ago called out for aisling (visionary inspiration) and archaeology! But our dominant western culture is highly dualistic, and there are those who vociferously protest against working with ‘both’ sides of what they see dualistically. Such claims seem particularly odd in a Celtic context; the emphasis on and triads and third terms is something I have long found especially inspiring about Celtic cultural perception. Yet some reconstructionists say only archeological records or historical texts are valid, or at least that which is written in an academic book. There is a problem of epistemology in that attitude, but that I plan to explore in a further essay. Since I’m focusing on Celtic matters here primarily, how does this view correlate with a cultural worldview that prized the mythic, the storyteller’s art, the romantic entangling of knotwork art, and the journey into the mists, the immran? As various classical writers noted, the ancient Celts had a penchant for the ‘irrational’. At the heart of the tradition one finds the pursuit of imbas, the centrality of poetic vision. The filidh worked in liminal zones. One also finds outsiders who are paradoxically of great importance to the society, bands of people like the fianna who are said to have frequently strayed back and forth between this world and the otherworld. Finn’s ability to access supernatural knowledge lies at the core of the Fenian tradition, his easy crossing between this world and the otherworld, his easy intercourse with the aes sidhe and other beings. Finn is a master of ‘threshold’ experiences; in one tale he achieves gnosis (which has a specific bodily location in his thumb) by getting his hand stuck in the door of a sid mound as it is being thrust shut by an otherworldly woman, who had been distributing food in a vessel—stuck in that liminal spot, his finger or thumb is half-squashed; extricating his wounded extremity, he puts it in his mouth and the imbas flows over him and he begins to chant (Nagy)! More familiar are the variants where he is cooking Fintan’s salmon and burns his thumb, and similarly in sucking it experiences a rush of imbas. Even on this ‘side’ the Fianna lived in the wild forests interacting with the non-human. On their forays into wilderness and otherworld they brought back mystical knowledge. In much more recent folk culture much could be said about practices like meeting fairies and obtaining healing powers from them, and other such boons; this is hardly a tradition locked into dry rationalizing and bound in the fundamentalist zeal of printed, fixed texts.

Disirdottir has written cogently about mystic reconstructionism at

I am a practitioner of filidecht, which by its nature is a mystical practice. Therefore, I am a mystical reconstructionist. The lowercase r is intentional. There’s a constant back and forth between trying things that we know about from scholarship and then exploring them, bringing them to life. It sounds like some people using the Reconstructionist rubric today are like collectors who want to put artifacts behind glass cases or on pedestals but would never think to actually use them and see how they work and what may result. Or to use another metaphor they are interested in reading ancient recipes but would never want to get their kitchens messy by actually trying some of these things out and tasting the outcome.

Perhaps this is because when we do try them out we may be taken in unexpected directions. If we take the deities and spirits seriously we are likely to be given things to do, actions that will occur in our own contemporary surrounds. There is a gnosis involved in this approach, this experimental reconstructionism. Often enough when we communicate with our peers we find we have shared gnosis. And often enough we end up moving through shifting territories—and end up in ambiguous states between what scholarship has stated and what we experience. In any case, on a huge amount of issues scholarship proposes various theories; scholarship about anything significant is almost always contested. This is something that textual literalists seem unable to acknowledge. To give one example: Is Danu a primal goddess found in Gaelic tradition and cognate with a range of other Indo-European goddesses of very similar names, perhaps even lying behind Brittany’s St. Anne?* Or is she a backformation of the genitive Danaan and strictly relates to the mother of the Three Gods variously listed as Triall, Brian, and Cet, sons of Bres; or alternatively begotten in incestuous union with her own father Delbaeth, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, by the medieval Irish monks who composed the Lebor Gebala (Book of  Invasions) from conflicting local traditions (O hOgain, Kondratiev))? So often an experiential approach will lead to a lot of tramping about and then going back to the maps, and then cross-referencing, and then back again: Primal Moist Earth or an agricultural goddess of Munster? There really aren’t easy black and white answers.  Reflexive relationship shuttles back and forth between experience and scholarship. Both are vital to reconstructionist practice.

If reconstructed traditions are to flourish, people will take an experiential attitude. The medieval literature, in my opinion often misnamed ‘lore’, was written by Christian religious. We are not Peoples of the Book; unlike the Muslims and Christians our ‘lore’ is not authorized in revealed texts—in Celtic tradition at any rate. The Book of Invasions should not be read that way. The pieces we have need to be tried out, played with, and experimented with to see what effects result. We need aisling and imbas with the scholarship more than ever.

*Danu references:

Kondratiev, Alexei, “Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents?” An Trbhis Mhor. Vol.1, No. 4 .

Nagy, Joseph Falaky, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition.

O’ hOgain, Daithi. Myth,, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition.