This paper examines ancient literary descriptions of women who spontaneously transform into men, with a view to understanding what these stories can tell us about ancient conceptions of the gender binary. These individuals, whose transition from female to male is imposed upon them by external circumstance rather than originating from their internal gender identity, must renegotiate their place in society after they transform, with mixed results. Previous scholarly studies touching on these passages have focused on their medical (e.g. Laqueur 1990; Flemming 2000; Graumann 2013) or literary (e.g. Hansen 1996; Langlands 2002; Doroszewska 2013) significance. I build on these observations to offer a holistic view of ancient conceptions of sex change and to show that, despite the alternative to the gender binary that these stories appear to offer, they actually confirm a distinction between male and female.
Some details in our texts suggest these individuals live as men with relatively little difficulty, adopting male dress (Diodorus 32.10.7, AP 9.602.8) and names (Diodorus 32.10.8, 11.4; Pliny HN 7.36; Phlegon Mir. 8-9), marrying women (Pliny HN7.36; AP 9.602.5), and adopting masculine occupations (Diodorus 32.10.8, 11.4; Phlegon Mir. 8). Living as a man, however, is not always straightforward. Transformation usually occurs at puberty, meaning the woman becomes a man around the time of marriage (Pliny HN 7.36; AP 9.602.3-4; Diodorus 32.10.3,11.1; Phlegon Mir. 6-7, 9). For Diodorus’ character Heraïs, the transition from female to male causes conflict and tragedy. Heraïs’ husband Samiades sues Heraïs’ father in an attempt to get his wife back (Diodorus 32.10.6); ultimately he cannot cope with losing Heraïs, and commits suicide (32.10.9). Spontaneous sex change, therefore, has consequences for familial and legal relationships: when a married woman becomes a man, the societal fabric can be torn in ways too immense to overcome, reinforcing the fundamentality of the gender binary.
The texts also display a fascination with the genitalia and sexual expression of the transformed. Descriptions of medical symptoms (Diodorus 32.10.3, 11.1; AP 9.602.4; Phlegon Mir. 6) or surgical intervention (Diodorus 32.11.2-3) show that details of anatomy are considered key to gender identity. Ancient anatomical theories emphasize similarities between female and male genitalia (Diodorus 32.12.3; cf. Aristotle GA 1.728a 17-20), with the female being decidedly the inferior version (Aristotle GA 4.767b.5-9), reflected in the claim of Diodorus’ surgeon that he deserved a double fee because “he had taken a sick woman and made her into a healthy man” (32.11.3). Furthermore, because these wives do not possess vaginas, their sexual relations with their husbands are described as “unnatural” (32.11.1 παρὰ φύσιν), or as male-male intercourse (32.10.4 ἀρρενικαῖς συμπεριφοραῖς) which the wife decries as demeaning (32.10.6). Being the penetrated partner during sex, an inherently womanly act, devalues one’s masculinity, and rejecting penetration becomes crucial to casting off female identity. Thus these stories strongly reinforce the gender binary, and the ideal of female inferiority, both anatomical and social.
Negative perceptions of transformers further confirm the gender binary: those outside it are viewed with fear or prurient curiosity. Gender-nonconforming individuals arouse discomfort as harbingers of doom who must be expiated or destroyed (Pliny HN 3.36; Diodorus 32.11.4, 12.2; Phlegon Mir. 6). Even Pliny, who argues against such an interpretation, sees them as deliciae (HN 7.34), a word used to describe a pet animal (e.g. Catullus 2.1), art object (e.g. Cicero Verr. 2.4.52), or object of sexual desire (e.g. Vergil Eclogues 2.2), suggesting that these individuals were valued only for the exotic pleasure their bodies bring to the viewer. Prurient interest in the appearance of transformed bodies is confirmed by Pliny’s (HN 7.36) and Phlegon’s (Mir. 9) assertions that they have seen such individuals for themselves. Autopsy, a well-known ancient literary strategy for corroborating the occurrence of something otherwise unbelievable, here subjects the bodies of the transformed to the prying gaze of the writer. This objectification suggests that those who fall outside the gender binary are oddities not fully deserving of humanity.