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.



12 thoughts on “Copper Age Queer

  1. I do appreciate that you noted the cruelty issue regarding Premarin, but I think it’s important, especially in case someone feels a need to get in touch with an ancient practice (I’ll need to check out Taylor’s work to see what evidence he has for the use…while I have seen elsewhere evidence for transwomen among the Sauro-Sarmatian people in other works, this is the first I’ve heard of this suggestion), that Premarin is also VERY dangerous to the women, trans or post-hyst, who are prescribed it. This is one case where artificial hormones are safer, due to the greater similarity to actual human hormones (horse and human estrogens are not similar at all). You know me, I gotta say something here. ~;)

    These are, also, the areas that have given us possible women warrior graves (as always, there are issues with deciphering, but they’re suggestive and offer exciting possibilities), and other possible transwomen graves, including among those warriors. We may be looking at an acceptance that lasted for a very long time. I think that those investigating them have to be careful not to make too many assumptions about cultures where we have no other evidence but the graves…too often archeologists paint too broadly with their own bias. Bettina Arnold, who you note, is one who I have come to admire for her outspokenness on being open to letting what is found and not asserting that all cultures saw men and women, and only men and women, the same as the mainstream of our own culture does as well as her interest in better osteoarcheological techniques. Love her.

  2. I’m glad you brought that up about Premarin. Seems like it has a connection to cancer–and there are many lawsuits against the maker. I find it so disturbing that there are these huge horse farms where the mares are fitted with urine-retention devices, not given sufficient water and kept in tiny stalls for six months of the year. Biomedical ‘farming’ is just appalling.

    Taylor brings in a lot of soft evidence for his theory, ranging from the feminized appearances noted by the Greeks of the enarees, linguistic evidence, etc. and connecting that to Ovid’s writing at the time he lived in that town that was basically a trading entrepot for Greeks and Scythians about female magical practitioners distilling a mare extract, and even advising a woman in a poem to not use it as a facial cosmetic. It’s part of a wide ranging consideration of gender transformers in Eurasia. His book has a quite interesting section on Amazons and Sarmatians too.

    As far as the enarees go they seem to have been a distinct third gender–and held a distinct social position in a culture that had severe boundaries between men and women otherwise.

  3. Catharine

    Premarin’s bad all around. Bad for horses; bad for women, transgender or cisgender. It’s much better to take bio identical estrogens. I must look into that book by Taylor.

  4. And don’t forget the foals, which are a “by-product” that mostly end up spending 6 months in crowded feedlots before being slaughtered. You know, sort of a big deal for me as I got one, now not so foalish, in my front yard. ~;)

    Taylor’s book is definitely one I need to get. I think the approach of looking at multiple soft evidence is vital in these thing where we have no hard evidence. I think far too many take only one form of soft evidence and make wild claims, I think it’s better to look at many and make cautious suggestions. We may not be able to determine exactly how things were, but we might get an idea.

    1. That’s so sickening that these drug manufacturers think of the foals as a by-product. It’s really admirable what you’re doing with your horses. Photos of the foal elsewhere?

      In think it’s important to look for patterns (and be sure we’re not just projecting them.)

  5. I love your title here–wish I would have come up with it! 😉

    Excellent reflections on the issue. The Enarees are a really fascinating phenomenon, and one I’d love to be able to research more…so, thank you for connecting them in, and listing a few sources with which I can follow up!

    1. Thanks! The whole Scythian/Sarmatian complex of tribes is so fascinating from the enarees to the Amazons. Such classic barbarians in a way, but with all of these interesting social dimensions….

      1. It would be great if there were a whole book on the enarees…though there probably already is in German or Russian. 😦

        But, yes, they were one of the four “primal” (one might say) barbarian races recognized by the Greeks–the other three being Celts, Persians, and Ethiopians, if I’m not mistaken…

  6. Pingback: A Few Quick Links… « Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous

  7. I’m late but thanks for this useful post. In research of cross-sexed shamans in the steppe tradition, I was trying to track down that Ovid & mare’s milk reference… now know which book to buy (Timothy Taylor).

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