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(N)either Men (n)or Women? The Failure of Western Binary Systems

Rachel Hart

University of Wisconsin-Madison

In his extensive account of the Scythians, Herodotus twice mentions the Enareës, male diviners who were afflicted by Aphrodite with a “female disease” (θήλεα νοῦσος, 1.105) and later described as “androgynous” (οἱ ἀνδρόγυνοι, 4.67). The nature of this disease has most often been explained as impotence (e.g., Asheri 1977, Jouanna 1999), due mainly to a comparable passage in the Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places. The Hippocratic author mentions the similarly-named Anarieis, an elite class of Scythians whose predisposition to impotence and infertility is caused by excessive riding and the wearing of trousers (22). When the Anarieis realize their lack of virility, they assume it is a punishment from Aphrodite, and thereafter they take up the appearance and social roles of women. The two accounts are thus considered to be describing the same collective, who Meuli (1935) and others (e.g., Ballabriga 1986, Asheri 1977) have concluded are analogous to transcultural traditions of transvestite shaman figures.

It is true that gender transgression is often linked to the liminality of a diviner’s role between mortals and gods, but explaining the Enareës as transvestites ignores the emphasis Herodotus places on physicality in his account. The affliction is not simply something experienced, but it is an actual disease (ἡ νοῦσος). Additionally, the related verb νοσέω (“be sick”) describes the seers’ condition as physical bodily suffering. While this could lead us to infer that the disease is impotence or sterility, I argue that the emphasis on gender in Herodotus’ account should be given greater attention. Elsewhere in his Histories, Herodotus describes in detail several physical maladies, including those affecting the genitals, but he does not do so when describing the Enareës. For this reason and others I have discussed above, I argue that their situation is anomalous within Herodotus’ corpus, and thus I propose another option for interpreting the “female disease” of the Enareës. I show that the Enareës are not simply impotent men; rather, they cannot be categorized using a modern western binary system of gender.

It is more likely that the Enareës would self-identify as intersex or perhaps even transgender individuals. Though this terminology is anachronistic, the concept of a less rigid gender system is not at all a new concept. Rabbinic tradition identifies six potential genders, one of which is androgynos, an individual who has both “male” and “female” characteristics, but does not wholly belong to either. Though the source texts attempt to operate within a binary system, the inclusion of multiple options within that scheme points to an acceptance that more than two genders actually exist, despite how they are often incorporated – or not – into Jewish societies (Kukla 2009). The androgynos is not presented as a commonly-encountered individual, but rather the rabbinic authors use this gender variant – and others – to describe individuals on the periphery of their normative culture. Herodotus does the same when describing the Enareës as a small subsection of Scythians; his Scythians are already Other, and the Enareës are further distanced by fact of their gender variance. The fact that androgynoi is the word Herodotus uses for the Enareës supports a gender-variant interpretation for their identity.

I do not apply the rabbinic analogue arbitrarily: Herodotus notes that the Enareës were originally a group of Scythian men who defiled a temple at Askalon, located in Palestine. Though Herodotus’ 5th century BCE text predates the rabbinic authors by about 600 years, the latter still correspond to the Enareës in terms of gender variance in an ancient Mediterranean context. In addition, the term androgynos maintains its Greek linguistic roots, despite being applied within a very different cultural context. Because the term originated from a Hellenic context, I show that the rabbinic descriptions of androgynoi continue the connotations from the Greek term as used by Herodotus. 

Session/Panel Title

[Tr]an[s]tiquity: Theorizing Gender Diversity in Ancient Contexts (organized by the Lambda Classical Caucus}

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