Episode 2: Transgender In The Beginning

In this episode we find out how far back we have evidence of transgender and non-binary people in the historical record. Featuring Enheduanna and the cult of Inanna.




Hello, and welcome to Valentine’s Voice, the educational show for transgender people by transgender people. Hosted by me, Valentine Valcourt.

I had someone ask after the first episode, what did I mean by ‘for transgender people? So I figured it might be a good idea to give what is essentially a statement of purpose for what I’m trying to do here.

I would like for the content created here to be a resource for people in the transgender community and their allies. I am a history nerd by nature, so there will be a lot of episodes highlighting different transgender, nonbinary, and third gender people and communities in history, but there will also episodes about what it is like to transition, along with some interviews asking friends and family for their perspective, really anything that could be helpful data for the community.

So if you are considering transitioning, I want there to be helpful data here. If someone you know is transitioning and you are trying to figure out what that will look like, or how you can be supportive, I want this to be helpful for you too. The only thing that will not be here is any kind of debate or something like a video response. There are plenty of people covering that, but I want this to be a 100% safe place free of that kind of hateful vitriol. Over time, I would like for this to be a place you can point people who have questions regarding transgender issues from virtually any perspective.

To that end, episodes will continue to be on the shorter end. At some point I would love to do some deep dives, but in the main we’ll be providing just enough depth for context.

So no, this show does not have a big ‘Transgender Only’ sign at the entrance. This is for anyone.

Anyway, sorry for the long winded answer, but hopefully that covers it.

And now, on with the show!

Rather than start by telling you what year Enheduanna was born, to emphasize how remarkable it is that we have anything from this time period, we are going to walk our way back through time.

As you can probably tell from my accent, I am from the Southern portion of the United States. My country is definitely on the younger end of the spectrum, we aren’t even halfway through our third century. Despite being a baby country, we have already mythologized our founders. We call them the Founding Fathers, we tell stories that are patently false, such as the fact that George Washington never told a lie. Less than 250 years, and we have reduced these people to a series of highlights and stories that may or may not reflect reality.

The people who founded my country looked back to the Roman Republic when founding the country, it’s why one of our legislative bodies is called The Senate. The Republic essentially ended when Octavian became Rome’s first emperor. During the time he ruled, we stopped counting down the BCE years and started the CE years. We know what we do about Octavian because the writings of a half dozen men survived the intervening 2000 years.

During the time of Octavian, the Romans held the Greeks in respect due to the age of their civilization, to the point they essentially co-opted Greek culture and religion. Rather than create their own pantheon of gods and goddesses, they renamed the Greek gods.

Herodotus, who we call The Father of History, wrote his histories around 425 BCE. One of the most shocking things about his histories is that he knew about the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. According to him, one of the reasons that Babylon fell is that it had a king who was interested in archaeology.

One of the civilizations that he could have been interested in was the Akkadian civilization, which came to power under a King named Sargon in the year 2334 BCE. Which brings us all the way back to our subject, Sargon’s daughter Enheduanna.

Enheduanna is considered the first author in recorded history. She was the high priestess of Nanna in the Sumerian city of Ur. One of the reasons that she wrote her writings was as propaganda. The Akkadians had just conquered the Sumerians and were trying to assure them that their gods would still receive worship under the Akkadians.

The fact that we have her writings at all is nothing short of a miracle. There are dozens of authors that we know of who wrote much more recently whose writings did not survive the intervening time. It is amazing window into the earliest of human civilizations, and through that window, we see transgender people.

Which, sadly, means that in an episode full of diversions we have to take one more. Obviously, these people did not use the term ‘transgender’. When we are looking at other cultures, be they current or ancient, there is some amount of translation required not just for language, but also for concepts. There are a variety of established ways to handle this, and the one that I will be going with is to follow the evidence, and, as best as I can, translate that into our modern terminology.

There are some people and groups that can be interpreted in a few different ways, but, luckily for today, Enheduanna and the archaeological evidence are pretty clear. Enheduanna wrote poetry praising the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and in her writings, unequivocally, she wrote in several places that Inanna had the ability to change men into women and women into men. Just how we like it, nice and clear cut.

Before we get too far into her followers, we should introduce Inanna. Firstly, Inanna was her Sumerian name. The Akkadians called her Ishtar, many other cultures, such as the Phoenicians, the Hebrews, and the Etruscans called her some version of Astarte. Since the Sumerians named her first, we will be using Inanna through this episode. Inanna was the goddess of war, sex, justice, and civilzation. If that seems like a broad range, so did the cultures who worshipped her. They had many stories about her stealing the powers over different areas from other gods. Under the name Ishtar, she was considered the prime deity of the Akkadians and the Babylonians, so we aren’t talking about some minor deity here. Her main temple was in the city of Uruk, and it was called Eanna. It was a considerable portion of the city, and aside from being set aside for her worship, there is also evidence that it was used for commerce and manufacture.

There is a somewhat contentious issue as well, which is the concept of ritualized prostitution. Early historians loved telling how lascivious the cult was (and it was very openly sexual to be sure). Some more recent historians seem to bend over backwards to try to say that sacred prostitution never happened. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, but given the difficulties of translating ancient Sumerian and the distance of time, we will likely never have a sure answer.

Transgender and non-binary people were so established and well represented in Inanna’s cult that we are aware of several different gender categories of her followers.

We have gala priests, which were women. Some were cisgender, but the cult was well known for the transgender gala priests. These were cult singers, and regardless of whether they were cis or transgender, they all sang in a specific female dialect.

Next we have the pilipili. Referenced in the poem known as Passionate Inanna, the pilipili were known mostly as the transformed pilipili. We think that the pilipili were performed in festivals and rituals. They were assigned female at birth, but once they were handed the spear that marked them as a pilipili they were transformed and ‘as a man’.

Lastly we have the assinnu, who has been annoying translators for centuries. The assinnu were most likely non-binary. There is some confusion here, but it seems that the Sumerians saw the assinnu as a non-binary figure as seen in the Descent of Inanna, where the assinnu is said to be neither man nor woman. By the time the cult reached ancient Babylon, it sounds like the assinnu had essentially merged with the gala. There is part of a statue in the archive of the British Museum that is likely a representation of an assinnu. The direct translation is ‘person-man-woman’ of Inanna. The Museum decided to go with a translation of ‘hermaphrodite’ based on that, but I think that we are likely looking at a non-binary individual. I have a whole soapbox about how transgender people have been hidden in history through bad translations, but this has already been an episode full of digression and side-notes, so I will save that for a later episode.

At this point we will have to dodge two historical traps. The first trap, and the one we are likely more aware of, is the assumption that we are someone better, smarter, more clever, than our predecessors. We aren’t, we are humans talking about other humans. We stand on the shoulders of their achievements, but they made those achievements by being just as ingenious as we are. The second trap, is that they were somehow better than us. In studying for this, I did briefly fall into this trap. It seems like a transgender utopia. We were priests, priestesses, priestrix sacred followers of a powerful deity! But it turns out, that while transgender people were priests, priestesses, priestrix, sacred followers of a powerful deity, it is apparent that the surrounding society really didn’t know what to do with them.

On the one hand, we know that when food was short, the followers of Inanna got first pass at food. On the other hand, we know that they were also isolated by the surrounding society. In the descent of Ishtar, the assinnu Asu-shu-namir was considered attractive enough to seduce the goddess of the underworld, but was also cursed by the goddess of the underworld. This curse could be an explanation for being kept at arm’s length by people outside of the temple.

The main point here is that the gala, the pilipili, and the assinnu were all considered a sign of Inanna’s power. For someone to be transgender was the will of Inanna, not an aberation or some kind of attention seeking behavior, or some kind of moral failing.

Lastly, this was the part of my research that took the most time. Given how early Inanna rose to prominence, her influence spread all over the world. We will focus on Cybele next week, but I was able to trace Inanna’s influence throughout the Mediterranean world. Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Cybele, Atargatis, and Ashtoreth all had transgender or non-binary followers. There was also a goddess called Nanna that was definitely influenced by Inanna who was woshipped from Iran to Western China. I haven’t been able to confirm that she had transgender followers, but given how common it was throughout the connecting cultures, and the presence of transgender and 3rd gender cultures in Indian culture it is definitely possible.

But for the ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians, at least, there is no guesswork. The very first author in recorded history, in the year 2334 BCE, wrote about a thriving transgender culture, and that’s just as far back as we have it in writing. As long as there have been humans, there have been transgender humans.

Next week, we will dive into the cult of Cybele. Starting in the Anatolian peninsula and then spreading through Greece and the Roman Empire, we will have much more in the way of sources and written records. We will see that the Romans and the Christians had no idea what to do with a huge crowd of singing dancing transgender women.


The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature



The Notches Project








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