Reflections on Identity and Ethnicity in the Ancient World
Lauren E. Talalay
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
University of Michigan
Identity is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. Variously and
not always clearly defined across disciplines, the subject of identity
witnessed a surge of interest after World War II. The political and
social changes that emerged in the wake of the War fostered heated
discussions of national character, ethnicity, and personality (Erikson
1950, 1958; Herdt 1994:45). Today, despite what must total hundreds of
thousands of pages on the concepts of collective and individual
identities, there is no agreement about the precise functions that
identity serves at both the personal and social levels or on how
identity is formed, maintained, dissolved, and recreated.
The complexity and elusiveness of the topic, however, seems to
create an irresistible challenge to scholars who feed in a variety of
academic habitats, and, as this conference shows, provides a rich
environment for discussions of ethnicities and the relationships of
individual and collective identities to material culture.
A prolegomenon to All for One or One for All? (Re)constructing
Identity in the Ancient World, this brief introduction aims to
problematize the concept of identity and offer perspectives that,
hopefully, will prove useful to archaeologists, art historians, and
others who study the past through texts, literary evidence, and/or
material culture. Reflecting some of the issues raised by the presenters
in this conference, I begin with some theorizing, move to an exploration
of group and negotiated identity, then to a discussion of archaeology
and the construction of modern political identities, and finally to a
consideration of gendered identity.
As current scholarship attests, contemplating identity is a
convoluted enterprise. At the individual level, identity answers the
question, "Who am I in relation to other people?" On the social level,
it answers the query "Who are we in relation to other human groups?"
(Mach 1993:4). Neither question is easy to answer and in both cases,
issues of integration, adaptation, conflict and the symbolic nature of
human communication must be considered (Mach 1993:4). Given the dynamic
aspects of identity, it is not surprising that attempts to find an
objective set of criteria that can serve as a definition, particularly
for ethnic and collective identities, prove frustrating (Hall 1997:19).
It is, however, heuristically beneficial to tackle the subject by
isolating several questions, all of which are either implicitly or
explicitly addressed by the presenters in this conference: What kinds
of artifacts and literary evidence are constitutive of what kinds of
identity? How do they reflect and participate in negotiated dispositions
over time? Under what conditions will societies encourage individual,
self-determined or personal rather than collective and social
indentities? And, how politicized is the relationship between
archaeology and the construction of modern identities? In order to
answer these questions, we need to design a basic vocabulary and
formulate some theoretical guidelines.
The difficulties inherent in defining identity notwithstanding, we
can productively start with a baseline. Identity usually refers to one
of several related but distinct notions: 1) the collective set of
characteristics by which something is recognized; 2) the set of personal
or behavioral characteristics by which an individual is known as a
member of a group; 3) the quality or condition of being the same as
something else; and 4) the distinct personality of an individual
regarded as a persisting entity (American Hertitage Dictionary: Second
Cleary not a monolithic concept, identity entails a set of
interrelated conditions or characteristics, which for the purpose of
this introduction, are conceived as a helical construction. The plaits
in this DNA-type model include one strand for the concept of essences,
one for the idea of sameness or likeness, and one for the notion of
difference. Any attempt to understand identity in the ancient world must
take these fundamental properties into account.
If, for example, we want to recover something of the identity of a
hypothetical third century AD male living in the town of Frascati,
Italy, we would need to gather first, some essential "facts" about him
(e.g., social status, age, profession, life history) and second, the
ways in which he is similar and different from contemporary individuals
of similar and different statuses, ages, genders and professions. It is
also critical to know whether the final attributes we arrive at are
those which are self-perceived and self-defined (by our third century
male) or externally arbitrated and externally defined--by his
contemporaries or by the archaeologist or philologist who has undertaken
On the surface, this "fact-finding" expedition appears straight-
forward. At the heart of this process, however, is a more complex
debate, or what has been labelled the identity thesis versus the
difference thesis (Sampson 1993:84-93).
The identity thesis adopts an essentialist view: objects and
people have an essential nature, an inherent property that gives them a
recognizable identity. Individuals who collectively share that essence
partake, on some level, of the same identity. The coherence of that
identity is guaranteed through time, regardless of the multiple guises
in which it may appear (Sampson 1993:85). For example, in the identity
thesis model an essential definition of male, female, homosexual, or
heterosexual identities would be viewed as immutable through time.
The difference thesis is positioned elsewhere at the starting
gate. Differences rather than essences render the identities we
currently experience or study. Whatever something is cannot be fathomed
without understanding the nexus of comparisons that construct its
qualities (Sampson 1993:86). All things are defined in comparison with
something else. Moreover, those comparisons can shift over time. Rather
than assume, for example, that a unified core identity or definition
exists for male, female, homosexual or heterosexual, the difference
thesis would consider these identities as composite, variable, and
plastic. What might be construed as a core identity or essence is
actually a changing social accomplishment: certain identities simply
become dominant over time as they are continually reaffirmed by social
institutions and cultural practices (Sampson 1993:86,112-113).
Despite what may seem like so much rhetoric in these opposing
theoretical stances, the debate raises an important question for the
study of identity in the ancient world. When we look for group or
individual identity in the archaeological record or in the literary
evidence, are we searching for an enduring phenomenon-- a stable,
intrinsic, and independent property of a person or a group-- or for a
dynamic and processual phenomenon that is culturally and historically
contingent (Mach 1993:5-6)?
Current wisdom does not favor the idea that identities, past or
present, entail an enduring phenomenon. Ethnic identity in particular is
more often described as socially constructed and subjectively perceived
(Hall 1997:19). Although there is much to recommend this view and I
agree that identity is largely a social phenomenon, we should not loose
sight of the possible enduring aspects of any given identity. We would
perhaps do best to don stereoscopic lenses, focusing on both the
enduring and the situated aspects of personal and social identity.
While definitions of self, others, and groups in both the ancient and
modern worlds are surely based on shifting, situational, and subjective
identifications that are rooted in daily and historical experiences
(Jones 1997:13), these identifications also have tap roots that extend
to an unchanging bedrock which define an essence. It is arguable, for
example, that a Neolith from Franchthi, a Minoan from Knossos, a
Mycenaean from Tiryns, a Roman from Frascati, and a Greek from Athens
had well-defined understandings of his or her individual or collective
identity but those identities were variously (re)defined depending on
who was (re)configuring the definition and what socio-cultural,
economic, or political ends that construction was intended to serve.
The ambiguous and changing nature of identity also allows us to
consider the extent to which identities are self-constructed. In
societies where there are avenues for such self-determinations,
identities can serve as effective means of negotiating social and power
relations at various levels. Gender is particularly susceptible to such
self-constructions and, as is evident in our modern society, the choice
of gender or the degree of ambiguity in one's gender can serve as
validation of or resistance to cultural norms.
If we accept the scenario that identities, past and present, are
largely contingent, that culture, language, and politics continually
mediate essential identities, we confront the Herculean task of
deciphering how to sort out these relationships. It is productive to begin with small steps, starting with the question of how artifacts can be employed as
emblematic indices marking group and/or ethnic boundaries.
GROUP AND NEGOTIATED IDENTITY
Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars of
archaeology were particularly intrigued by the subject of collective and
ethnic identities. Focusing on geographical variations in material
assemblages, they argued that ethnicity was passively reflected in
material culture. Researchers correlated ethnicity with homogeneous and
bounded clusters of artifacts, suggesting that typologically similar
objects found within a given spatial and temporal domain indicated
shared ethnicity or close interaction among unified ethnic groups. Given
that framework, ethnicity could be "mapped" by plotting, for example,
similarities in pottery styles, stone tool types, architectural forms,
mortuary choices, and even floral and faunal remains that might reflect
dietary preferences (Hall 1997:111; Jones 1997).
Doubts concerning these kinds of assumptions were raised as early
as the 1920s and 30s (Jones 1997:106) but debate focused largely on the
meaning of archaeological types. Did typologies reflect artificial and
"etic" categories imposed by archaeologists or the cognitive and
"emic" categories of the makers (Jones 1997:107)?
In the 1960s a more fundamental question was raised by the so-
called new archaeologists. The equation of ethnic identity with
homogeneous and bounded artifact (or other) clusters only made sense if
one assumed that culture was "normative". Normative views implied that
practices, beliefs, and behaviors within a given group conformed to
prescriptive rules and that every member of the group learned and
participated in those rules or norms (Jones 1997:24). Binford was the
first archaeologist to argue cogently that this view was dangerously
simplistic, since culture was participated in differentially by
different groups of individuals. Cultural systems integrated individuals
and social units, by means of various institutions, into broader units
that had different levels of corporate inclusiveness (Binford 1965:
Ethnic systems and other forms of group identities are no longer
seen as static, homogeneous, impermeable, and normative. Rather, they
are defined as "untidy," heterogeneous, fluid, and transient (Jones
1997:131). Group identity is a dynamic process, involving inclusion and
exclusion and active maintenance of cultural boundaries in the process
of social interaction (Jones 1997:28).
In his recent book, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, Hall has
gone so far as to argue that any quest for an objective definition of an
ethnic group is doomed to failure. According to Hall, ethnic groups (as
opposed to other social and associative groups) are defined by
associations with a specific territory and a shared myth of descent
(Hall 1997:32). The critical criteria of group membership are not based
on attributes such as physical features, language, and religion but are
"...socially constructed and renegotiated, primarily through written
and spoken discourse" (Hall 1997:24). Genetic, linguistic, religious,
and common cultural features therefore become symbols that are
manipulated according to subjectively constructed boundaries (Hall
1997:32). Equally important, Hall observes that ethnic (and other
collective identities) are more likely to be salient in multi-ethnic
situations, particularly where one group perceives itself to be
threatened or is seeking to advance itself (Hall 1997:131).
The challenge for archaeologists, art historians, and Classicists,
then is to determine how language and material culture are related to
the dynamic nature of ethnic and other group identities. As several
writers have observed, ethnic behavior and other collective group
identities do not affect the totality of a society's material culture,
only those categories that are consciously selected to carry social or
political meaning under specified circumstances (Weissner 1984, 1989;
Morgan 1991:134; Hall 1997:135)
In the last decade a number of archaeologists and anthropologists
have wrestled with these issues, with instructive work emerging from
individuals such as Ian Hodder (1982, 1986), Maureen MacKenzie (1991)
Robert Larick (1986), and Polly Wiessner (1983, 1984, 1989, 1990). Time
permits me to discuss only the work of Hodder and MacKenzie.
Hodder's ethno-archaeological studies in Zambia, Kenya, and the
Sudan were among the first to show that differences and similarities in
the material culture of various groups do not passively reflect separate
or shared ethnicities or group affinities. The situation is far more
complex, with ethnic and group identities variously expressed by and
negotiated through an array of objects, ranging from the mundane to the
decorative. Moreover, not all objects need be highly visible.
For example, in the Baringo district of north central Africa the
geographic distribution of very visible spear types and rather
inconspicuous calabashes mediate very specific aspects of group
identity. Employed for both within-group and inter-tribal contacts, the
spears are the possessions of young, unmarried, and in many ways
unempowered men. These spears, however, do not serve as the primary
weapon of warfare--the bow and poison arrow being the weapon of choice.
Nor is the spear often used for hunting. Despite the fact that these
spears are not employed much in any "practical" sense, young men in
the district are rarely seen without them. A young Tugen or Pokot leaves
his spear outside a compound when he enters, but otherwise almost always
carries one, whether herding, dancing or participating in other
The importance of the spear lies in its symbolic power to signal a
young man's virility and strength; it is directed toward both young
available women and older men. In the Baringo area, men are prevented
from marrying until their age-grade matures (which for some may be 30
years old). Older married men, who rarely carry a spear but use instead
a wooden staff, maintain a monopoly over wives and cattle. The spear is
seen as part of the mechanism by which young men demonstrate their unity
and strength in the face of dominant elders. Members of the younger
cohort from one tribe often copy types and decorations of other tribal
groups who might be well known as feared raiders and warriors (Hodder
To read the similarities in spear types that cross-cut tribal
boundaries in the Baringo district as an indicator of, for example,
ethnic affinities, would be incorrect. The coincidence in spear types
over the area reflect and participate in very specific kinds of
collective identities for men.
By the same token, the Baringo district calabashes, which are
employed mainly for storing milk, are the domain of women who decorate
them in a kind of silent discourse. Women design their own calabashes;
some designs exhibit widespread distribution, although marked
localizations in decoration are more common. Men pay little attention to
these modest pieces and consider them of marginal importance. For the
women, however, they provide a source of local independence. Unlike
female attire, which is strictly controlled and tends to reinforce
tribal conformities, women can freely select their calabash designs and
disrupt certain social boundaries (Hodder 1982:68-73).
Equally instructive is the study by Maureen MacKenzie of the
Telefol string bag, or bilum, found in central Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Like the spears and calabashes described by Hodder, these bags mediate
and justify roles within and between men and women, select age grades,
and certain kin. Bilums of all sizes are characteristic accessories of
men, women and children, as well as mythical spirit-women who carry
potent substances in these net containers. The bags contain, carry, and
store everything from infants and food to utilitarian objects and sacred
human relics. At the most obvious level the bilum is used to construct
and reinforce the opposition of the sexes: men and women carry very
different types of bags for gender-specific activities. Invariably, men
carry the bilum on their back, women from their heads. The bags reflect
the oppositional qualities of each sex, placing men and women firmly in
their differentiated and separated realms of activity (MacKenzie
On another level, however, the bags express the overlapping and
mutually supportive roles of the sexes, which are constantly under
negotiation. Some bags, like the elaborate bird-feather bilum used in
male cults, are the product of "multiple authorship" (MacKenzie
1991:192). The finely worked loops of evenly spun string, which are
created by the women, provide the framework onto which iridescent
feathers are selected and attached by the men. The productive
contribution of each sex underscores the reciprocal partnership of men
and women (MacKenzie 1991:192).
For the Telefol, then, the bilum is one of the most important
signifiers of identity, a complex product used in varying social and
ritual realms that reflect and participate in the ongoing negotiations
between the sexes (MacKenzie 1991:29). It is worth noting that the bilum
has recently become an important national symbol in PNG. As diverse
cultural groups combine into one viable nation, the string bag is
emerging as a symbol of PNG's unity. Used extensively as a visual symbol
on murals, architectural facades and street sculpture, the bilum serves
to validate the role of women and reinforce PNG's claim to be a modern
state with traditional roots (MacKenzie 1991:19-21).
These ethnographic investigations provide valuable analogues for
the study of identity in past societies. On the one hand, they help
sustain the view that various levels and aspects of individual and group
identity are indeed "sutured" into material culture, from the humble
string bag to the finely wrought metal spear. On the other hand, as the
authors repeatedly observe, artifacts do not passively reflect
identities but actively participate in the on-going crafting of self and
group definition. They can act to classify, confront, justify, limit,
and redefine personal and social identities. Although it may seem
obvious from the perspective of our fast-moving society, individuals and
groups constantly redefine, realign, and recraft themselves. We should
not dismiss the fluid nature of identity as a modern phenomenon.
Continual redefinition and recrafting of people and groups were surely
part of all ancient cultures.
The ethnographic studies also serve as cautionary tales, warning
us not to assume that stylistic and formal similarities in the material
culture of a large geographic area necessarily reflect ethnic
affinities. While stylistic similarities in the material culture of
sites almost invariably indicate some kind of on-going communication or
contact, the strategies that give rise to those similarities can be
variable and complex.
Like Hodder and MacKenzie, the presenters at this conference
consider the subject of group boundaries and the ways in which
collective identities are negotiated in various social and political
contexts (see Sessions One, Two, and Three). The papers accommodate a
wide range of topics, geographical and chronological foci, as well as
various methodological approaches.
Although the three papers in the first session are classed under
"Individual Identity"," the presenters, Andrew Keetley, W. Marshall
Johnston, and William Hafford, ultimately reinsert the individual into
larger social and political contexts. In fact, each one of these authors
suggests that the most complete way to understand individual identity is
to contextualize it into the collective consciousness of the times.
The topics of perceived identity, discourses of boundaries, and
the "us versus them" dichotomy form the focus of the remaining papers
on group and negotiated identities.
Both Yelena Rakic and Sarah J. Kielt examine aspects of Near
Eastern glyptic art. Using seals and sealings from greater Mesopotamia
of the third millennium, Rakic investigates how these small but highly
significant works of art signal collective identification, and by
extension, possible ethnic identities among different groups that are
usually classed linguistically (e.g., Sumerians, Akkadian, Elamites).
Kielt considers the same type of data, namely seals and sealings, using
the evidence to examine Uruk expansion in fourth millennium Syro-
Anatolia. She analyzes material from the site of Arslantepe, searching
for clues to the relationship between local and Uruk-related
"intrusions" into the local administrative systems of the site.
E. Kent Webb's concern with group boundaries is quite different.
He revisits the Athenian Tyrannicide narrative, recasting it as part of
the on-going and all-important discourse on privileged citizenry in the
ancient polis. Unlike previous scholars, Webb mines ideological
expressions, not legal, political, or territorial aspects, to recover
the designation of class, gender, and group boundaries in classical
Matthew Trundle also places his study in the Classical Age.
Trundle looks at the unusual and layered nature of identity among Greeks
in military service overseas. Greek mercenary soldiers, who comprise a
kind of moving polis, are communities unto themselves. Their identities
are shifting and artificially manufactured--outsiders who label
themselves as Greeks despite the fact that they often fight fellow
Greeks in the employ of another paymaster. Like other Greeks, they also
define themselves by the city-states from which they hail.
The complexities of self-defined and other-defined identity raise
the important issue of dominant and weaker identities--the tensions that
often exist between an "us" and a "them." That topic is explicitly
considered by both Anthony Leonardis and Lauren Hackworth Peterson.
Using a variety of archaeological and literary sources, Leonardis
examines the conflicts between the native Sabellian population of south
Italy and the long-established and dominant Greek presence in Magna
Graecia. To better understand the possible interplay between these two
populations, he employs an anthropological model generated by work on
the Metis, a term meaning "half-breed" that was given to the Native
peoples who intermarried with European fur-traders in the northwestern
plains and parklands of North America.
Peterson also looks at the issue of identity in the Italic
peninsula, attempting to reinstate the voice of a Roman libertinus or
former slave. She works not through the stereotypical images presented
in texts such as the Satyricon, but through the house decoration of one
former slave whose domus was uncovered at Pompeii. The picture that
emerges from her research stands in stark contrast to the one
perpetuated by the texts.
Tying all of these papers on group and negotiated identity
together is an emphasis on the discursive and contingent nature of
ethnic and group identities. The creation and maintenance of collective
identities requires strategies--a conscious effort to define and bolster
ones distinctiveness (Hall 1997:3). Each one of the presenters tries to
define those strategies more closely in a particular setting of the
The four papers in the last session raise a very different kind of
question: How do the politics of modern identity affect definitions of
identity in the ancient world? As many postmodern scholars and post-
processual archaeologists have observed, all interpretations of the past
are politicized, some more transparently than others. The topic of
archaeology as a contemporary political practice and the ways in which
it intersects with the construction of cultural identity has been the
source of debate for more than a decade (e.g., Ucko, 1983, 1987, 1995;
Trigger 1984, 1989; Gathercole and Lowenthal 1990; Stone and MacKenzie
1990; Shanks and Tilley 1992; Jones 1997:6). The most famous case of
nationalistic appropriation, of course, is the political manipulation of
the past in Nazi Germany (Veit 1990). The papers in the last session
urge us to observe the observer, and in the process re-evaluate the
enterprise of interpreting the past.
Taking Kenneth Dover's path-breaking book Greek Homosexuality as
her model, Minna Duchovnay asks how the interests and cultural
dispositions of a scholar affect his or her theories and how students
can develop the ability to evaluate work that may be both covertly and
overtly politicized. Sarah Lepinski broaches the subject of modern
reconstructions of past identities from a slightly different angle. She
questions the validity of current understandings of Neo-Assyrian
identity, arguing that modern conceptions are based on paradigms
popularized by eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars and on the
force of ancient myths. Equally important, she suggests that current
scholarship has not critically taken into account the attributes of
identity that the Neo-Assyrians consciously choose to perpetuate in
their material culture.
Katharine Woodhouse-Beyer transports us to a very different part
of the world, looking at the material remains from an early nineteenth
century Russian American provisioning Company in the Kodiak archipelago.
Attempting to understand the process of creolization on the archipelago,
she explores material correlates of change in gender and sociocultural
Finally, Diana Loren and Emily Stovel discuss a critical problem
between archaeologists and indigenous populations. As archaeologists
move to embrace more fluid models of a multi-ethnic past, indigenous
populations in North and South America are fighting to recover
archaeological evidence that supports their enduring heritage and
autochthonous presence. The conundrum, as stated by these authors, is "
How do we as archaeologists, explore ethnic plurality in the recent and
distant past without denying indigenous groups the power to define their
While these papers in the last session provide us with a mixed bag
geographically and chronologically, they are all concerned with the
affects that modern cultural filters have on interpretations of past
societies and with the question of who can or should legitimately
"own" or appropriate the past. Who can or should arbitrate between
multiple and competing interpretations of the past (Jones 1997:10)? As
conflicts within and between groups continue to erupt on the global
stage, these kinds of questions will become ever more critical. We are
not likely to find satisfactory answers soon, but the dialogues amongst
all involved will continue to provide food for thought.
GENDER AND ANDROGYNY IN NEOLITHIC GREECE
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. 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
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
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
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
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.
The issues raised in this conference touch upon a myriad of topics
that hold importance not just for the ancient world but for the modern
world as well. Today, ethnic conflicts, cultural patrimony, and gender
clashes have moved front and center onto the global stage. Struggles for
group self-definition and empowerment are played out daily. Since the
1960s conflicts have flared up between gay/lesbian and heterosexual
groups in various parts of the world, between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims
in Bosnia, Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus,
Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Christian Armenians and Muslim
Azerbaijanis in the former Soviet Union, and Native Americans and local
populations, to name just a few (Hall 1997:1). At the core of these
conflicts is the concept of identity. Who are we as individual people
and how do we define ourselves as associative groups? How do we
negotiate and communicate those identities over time? What features of
individual definition allow us to move in and out of varying collective
Complex social systems allow for a multiplicity of social roles.
As one writer has observed, the topic of identity is always
multifaceted: "It is like trying to make sense of the reflections on a
prism, each side offering new and different possibilities" (Fitzgerald
1993:15). The papers presented at this conference permit us to turn the
prism around in several lights and gain new insights into various
identities that structured the ancient world.
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