NEOLITHIC GREECE
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GENDER AND ANDROGYNY IN NEOLITHIC GREECE

I know this sounds boring but there is quite a bit here that is interesting. This was part of a paper to a conference,

Sandra

As the final topic, I turn to a brief discussion of sexual and gendered identity, focusing on the appearance of sexual ambiguity in the Greek Neolithic (late stone age approximately 4000 to 3000 BCE). Although few of the papers in this conference consider gender and identity explicitly, the subject has been the focus of various publications during the last few decades (for anthropological and archaeological discussions see, Ortner and Whitehead 1981; Moore 1988; Gero and Conkey 1991). Like the other aspects of identity explored at this conference, sexual and gendered identity are the product of dialogues--dialogues between the modern researcher and the evidence he or she interprets, dialogues between men and women who live in the society under study, dialogues about boundaries and definitions between the empowered and the unempowered, and dialogues about self-construct and self-determined individuality.

Although it is extremely difficult to extract information about sex and gender from prehistoric contexts, the corpus of figurines from Neolithic Greece provide us with tantalizing glimpses. The Greek Neolithic has produced approximately 3600 figurines: 2300 in private collections in northern Greece, largely from surface collecting by private individuals, another 1200 in northern Greece from sites excavated during the earlier part of this century and approximately 120 examples from southern Greek excavations and surveys (for discussions on various aspects of the Greek Neolithic, see Halstead 1981, 1993; Torrence 1986; Cullen 1985; Runnels and van Andel 1988; Hansen 1991; Perles 1992; Talalay 1993, in press; Vitelli 1993; Demoule and Perles 1993; Papathanassopoulos 1996; for figurines see Wace and Thompson 1912; Ucko 1968; Hourmouziadis 1973; Gimbutas 1986; Gimbutas et al. 1989; Talalay 1993, in press; Gallis and Orphanidis 1996; Kokkinidou and Nikolaidou 1997).

Although no one has yet determined the percentage of sexed figures in the corpus, I suspect that only a small percentage of the 3600 figures can be reliably defined as male or female. Many of the pieces are uninformative fragments (e.g.,legs, arms) and a fair number, though nearly complete, give no indication of sex.

Traditional interpretations of Neolithic figurines in Greece have stressed the large percentage of female figurines and the relative dearth of male images. While this observation is by and large correct, it ignores the important "fact" that portrayals of sexless or sexually ambiguous examples (at least to our modern eye) are plentiful. Equally significant are the handful of dual-sexed images--images having both male and female sexual attributes--, and what I term "visual puns"-- figures that can be defined as male or female, depending on which way they are viewed. These representations of "other" genders, long dismissed by scholars, force us to pursue a very different avenue in our thinking about ancient gender identity.

The androgyne pieces are particularly intriguing. Three recently published examples come from private collections (Gallis and Orphanidis 1996:180,186,187). Each one shows a seated individual in a posture almost invariably reserved for males. The figures all have female breasts and male genitals. As far as I know these dual sexed images are very rare in prehistoric contexts (see however, a well-known piece from the Tisza culture in Hungary, Korek 1987:55).

Very different in form from these androgynes, though conceptually similar are three pieces that can be read as either male or female, depending on how they are viewed. Held one way, they portray a male phallus and testicles, held at another angle, they depict female breasts and a neck and head. The three are virtually identical, two coming from Late Neolithic levels at Tharrounia and one from Late or Final Neolithic Kitsos. As a point of interest, it is worth mentioning that comparable pieces have been recovered in Upper Palaeolithic levels of France (Kehoe 1991).

The existence of dual-sexed and dual- or crossed-dressed individuals in the myth, art, and rituals of various cultures is a global phenomenon. The ancient Mediterranean provides us with several examples. In the Classical world, the most famous "intersexed" individual was Hermaphroditus, who is mentioned by a several ancient writers including Theophrastus (Char. 16. 10) and Ovid (Met. 4. 285-388) and not infrequently depicted in later Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman art. Other references to gender transformations in the Graeco-Roman literature can be found in the myth of Teiresias, who was metamorphosed into a woman and then back to a woman (Ovid, Met. Bk. 3), the story of Iphis, who was originally a girl and then transformed into a boy (Ovid, Met. Bk. 9), and several references by Pliny in his Natural History (Bk. 7.36). Pliny tells us of girl changed into a boy at Casinum, a man transformed into a woman at Argos, and, oddest of all an African women transformed into a man on his/her wedding day.

The concept of dual-sexed individuals or the inversion of gender roles is also embedded in several Greek rituals which involve the exchange of cloths between men and women (see Canterella 1992: 212 ff.). Every year in Argos, for example, at the hybristika, men wore women's clothing and vice versa (Plutarch, De mult. virt. 245 E). In Sparta, wives received their husbands on the first night of marriage in men's clothing and shoes and with heads shaven (Plutarch, Lyc. 15, 5).In Cos, the reverse was practiced: husbands dressed as women to receive their wives.(Plutarch, Quaest. Graec. 304 E).

Comparable rituals are reported in the ancient Near East as well. We know from one Mesopotamian text of a New Years' festival in which specially dressed individuals approach the goddess Inanna with their right side covered in male clothing and their left in women's dress. The New Year's procession also includes women carrying male weapons and men carrying hoops, which are usually emblematic of females. The precise meaning of this ritual is not known, but it is interesting to note that Inanna is sometimes referred to as the goddess who can change man into woman and woman into man (Leick 1994:157-159).

Old Babylonian texts also refer to an enigmatic Sal-Zikrum, or what appears to be a class of priestess that has both male and female attributes (Driver and Miles 1939).

These provocative textual references as well as the sexless and androgynous images from Greece raise intriguing questions regarding the notion of gender and the portrayal of sex in the Greek Neolithic. Were the sexless images viewed as truly 'neuter', transcending sexual classification altogether? Or, were they seen as somehow subsuming both male and female sexes? Do the androgynes reflect some kind of biological phenomenon that acquired meaning over time or were they entirely symbolic? (To my knowledge, true hermaphrodites (XXY) are rare in the gene pool). What does the melding of sexes in the visual repertoire of the Greek Neolithic tell us about sexual identity -- were shifting genders somehow related to negotiations of power and social relations?

Let us consider some possibilities. If the sexless figures were considered truly neuter and devoid of any sex or gender, they might have been employed as signifiers for concepts that were without sexual or gender connotations. The 'nikisi' figurines of west equatorial Africa seem to represent just such neuter images. They appear to be intentionally designed as asexual protective spirits which are employed in a variety of rituals, including initiation rites and medical curing ceremonies (Greub 1988:38 ff.).

On the other hand, the sexless pieces could have been viewed not as devoid of sexual referents but rather as capable of moving in and out of various sexual categories (e.g., male, female or dual). The explicit lack of sexual attributes would have presented the users with a choice whereby the designation of sex might be determined by the image's particular use at a given time or by temporary clothing or ornamentation (A comparable signaling of sex by distinct cultural, not biological, markers is known from the ethnographic record).

The dual-sexed images, which admittedly are quite rare in Greece, may have embodied a different concept of sex or gender identity. In these androgynous pieces, care is taken to represent the primary sexual characteristics of both males and females, underscoring rather than suppressing biological traits. Unlike the sexless images, which may subsume both sexes by avoiding the notation of sexual traits, these images portray both sexes by explicitly depicting breasts and genitals.

Taken in aggregate, the corpus of Neolithic figurines urges us to contemplate gender ascriptions that include more than the traditional male/female, either/or dichotomies. If we jettison the conventional binary opposition we are left with the possibility that the early preliterate communities of Neolithic Greece employed multiple or even fluid gender categories, at least in their visual repertoire. Such categories would include male, female, neuter, dual-sexed, and possibly a dynamic classification that moved in and out of sexual/gender identities. In some ways, this conclusion should not come as a surprise: the existence of several genders, gender-crossing and shifting categories is known from a variety of cultures and there is no reason to doubt that such melding of identities were part of life in the distant past.

The mere existence of these multiple categories suggests that gendered identities were not uncomplicated choices in Neolithic Greece. Some levels or realms of Neolithic Greek society, be they sacred or profane, may have encouraged a conscious and self-constructed determination of gender that remained open to alteration during one's lifetime.

While such suggestions are clearly speculative, it is important to keep in mind that, as many feminists have observed, the presumption of a universal binary gender system exerts a hegemonic force in research. These kind of "mind-forg'd manacles", to use William Blake's term, have often limited investigation of gender configurations within cultures. Not all cultures form beliefs about the sexes based on "logical oppositions...; the sexes appear more as gradations on a scale" (Ortner and Whitehead 1981:6-7). If we situate gender under the rubric of "identity" and all the dynamic aspects that characterize identity, we will be better able to accept that gender in the ancient world may have been very fluid.

Last modified: 12/24/13