A Third Sex Around the World
( 9 ) North Africa and the Middle East
The Middle East stands at the crossroads of three continents and has historically played a major role in the world’s social, political and religious culture. In ancient Egypt, three sexes were recognized—male (tai), intermediate (sekhet) and female (hemet). The intermediate sex, positioned as a third gender between male and female, was also known by the word hem (effeminate) and nekek (passive male partner). Hem is additionally interpreted as “coward,” “delicate man,” “close servant” and “priest.” Early European Egyptologists typically translated these words as eunuch but most scholars today do not believe male castration was an established practice of ancient Egypt, especially prior to Assyrian and Islamic influence.
The indigenous religion of Egypt was polytheistic and worshiped a wide range of gods and goddesses. The primeval god, Atum, is described as hermaphrodite and the origin of Egypt’s four predominating deities known as Osiris (male), Isis (female), Seth (intermediate male) and Nephthys (intermediate female). Seth is often depicted with the head of a jackal, symbolizing his loyal but mischievous nature, and these qualities were also attributed by the Egyptians to their royal servants, priests and the intermediate sex in general. Seth’s mischievous nature is nicely illustrated in The Contendings of Horus and Seth, a text of the early Middle Kingdom (2040-1674 B.C.) wherein he plots to overtake his divine nephew, Horus: “When it was evening a bed was spread for them and they lay down. During the night Seth made his penis stiff and placed it between the loins of Horus. Horus put his hand between his loins and caught the sperm of Seth.” Horus had been advised of Seth’s plot by his mother, Isis, who took Seth’s sperm from Horus and threw it into the Nile. Isis then obtained sperm from Horus and secretly fed it to Seth. At a divine council invoked to determine the next chief of the gods, the judges called to witness the sperm of both Seth and Horus. Seth’s sperm appeared from the Nile, much to his surprise, whereas the sperm of Horus sprung from Seth’s forehead as the moon disk and was taken by the god, Thoth. Horus was thus declared chief of the gods and Seth was disgraced having unknowingly received his seed.
Seth and Nephthys are sometimes described as a couple but share no pastimes together and produce no children. Nephthys spends all her time serving Isis and likewise Seth with Osiris and Horus. Both Seth and Nephthys stand out as barren among the many fertile gods of Egypt and are associated with the desert regions. Other Egyptian gods and goddesses were known for their bisexuality—a sign of increased virility or fertility—and included Min, a nature god depicted with a large erection, and Hapi, an obese deity in charge of the Nile floods.
One of the earliest Egyptian pharaohs associated with homosexuality is King Neferkare, who is described having an affair with his top military commander, Sasenet, during the Sixth Dynasty (2460-2200 B.C.). Three separate texts mention Sasenet amusing the king’s desires “because there was no woman or wife there with him.” In the narratives, a commoner hears rumors about Neferkare and sees him going out late at night to have intimate relations with the general at his apartment. Another example of an early Egyptian same-sex union can be found at the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara near Memphis. Discovered in 1964 and dated to about 2450 B.C., the tomb depicts two royal servants (hem) holding hands, feasting together, embracing one another and nose kissing. Both men were confidential manicurists to Pharaoh Niuserre and their desire to be entombed together is most extraordinary. Inscriptions inside the tomb describe the couple as “joined in life and joined in death.”
Sexual intercourse with either women or men was viewed as ritually defiling in ancient Egypt, particularly at temples and holy places. In The Book of the Dead, a compilation of funerary texts gathered from tombs dated 1552-945 B.C., the deceased are enjoined to promise: “I did not sexually penetrate a nekek (passive male).” Similarly, The Teaching of Vizier Ptahhotep from the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1785 B.C.) states, “one should not copulate with a hem for he will become needful in love and never calmed. Let him become satisfied through abstinence alone.” In his article, Eunuchs In Pharaonic Egypt (1954), Belgian scholar Frans Jonckheere refers to these injunctions to support his claim that the nekek and hem of ancient Egypt were eunuchs: “The eunuch,” he notes, was one “to whom antiquity readily attributed the vice against nature.”
Egypt was mostly under foreign rule from 525 B.C. forward and incorporated into the Roman Empire in 30 B.C. St. Mark introduced Christianity into Egypt in 62 A.D., after which Egyptians gradually abandoned their traditional polytheistic beliefs and practices. In the second century A.D., Clement of Alexandria warned Christians against using hem or eunuch servants to guard women. “The true eunuch,” he said, “is not unable but unwilling to have sex.” Egypt became the center of the Coptic Christian Church by the fourth century and in 641 A.D., Muslims aligned with Christians and Jews to drive out the East Romans and establish their own systems of worship. The Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed during this time and Islam quickly became prominent in Egypt and throughout North Africa. For nearly a thousand years, Muslims accommodated homosexual and transgender people in the region where they continued to serve prominently as house attendants and royal confidantes. Castration was popularized and crossdressing male dancers, known as khawalat, offered their services as passive male partners and prostitutes. French and British foreigners arriving after the eighteenth century were quick to notice the Egyptian Muslims’ lenient attitudes toward homosexuality. Even as late as the 1930s, American anthropologist Walter Cline commented about the homosexuality he found in the western oasis town of Siwa as follows: “All normal Muslim Siwan men and boys practice sodomy. Among themselves the natives are not ashamed of this; they talk about it openly as they talk about love of women.”
Various other cultures along the coast of North Africa share a similar history of accommodating homosexual and transgender behavior. As early as the tenth century B.C., Phoenicians settled much of the Mediterranean from Lebanon to Morocco and are believed to have kept third-gender priests, servants and concubines. Phoenician culture was polytheistic and worshiped a wide range of deities that included a supreme goddess, Tanit, and a supreme god, Baal. Goddess worship was especially prominent and temples dedicated to female deities such as Astarte were well known for their courtesan priestesses and crossdressing priests. The city of Carthage in what is now Tunisia began as a small Phoenician colony in the ninth century B.C. but grew to become one of the greatest civilizations in the region. The Romans completely destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C., however, and incorporated much of North Africa into the Roman Empire.
In the seventh century A.D., Muslim Arabs invaded North Africa and converted nearly all of the indigenous Berber tribes to Islam. They ruled the area for over ten centuries and, as previously described, were well known for their accommodation of homosexuality, crossdressing and male castration. In the nineteenth century, France took control of Algeria and Tunisia while Great Britain occupied Egypt. Morocco remained independent and the Turkish Ottoman Empire controlled Libya. North Africa gradually became more conservative and by the late twentieth century, Islamic fundamentalism was very prominent. Sodomy laws were established in all five countries with prescribed prison sentences of up to three years in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Egypt routinely persecuted homosexual men and transgenders under vague “contempt of religion” or “immoral behavior” laws that prescribed jail terms of up to five years.
Ancient polytheistic cultures similar to those of North Africa existed throughout the Middle East and included well-established civilizations such as the Assyrians of Mesopotamia and the Hittites of eastern Anatolia (Turkey). All of these cultures were known for their accommodation of third-gender servants, palace guards, priests, dancers and prostitutes. In the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Akkad, Sumer, Assyria and Babylonia, homosexual and transgender men were known by many different names such as assinnu, kurgarru, kalaturru, kulu’u and so on. Human slavery was common in the region and young male slaves recognized as effeminate or especially handsome were often castrated and employed as domestic servants. Most scholars believe that the systematic practice of male castration originated in Mesopotamia and spread from there throughout the ancient world via the slave trade. Middle Assyrian laws were quite harsh; The Code of Assura (1075 B.C.), for instance, prescribed castration for adulterers and armed soldiers caught engaging in passive homosexual behavior—some of the earliest known edicts for male castration in the world. A Sumerian list of dream omens from the seventh century B.C. states that if a man submits himself sexually to other men in a dream, then, like an assinnu, he would experience strong desires for men in his waking life. Sumerian cosmology describes how the assinnu were created in order to rescue the goddess, Ishtar, from the land of the dead. Since they “did not satisfy the lap of any woman,” the assinnu alone could resist the temptations of the underworld and save the goddess. The worship of Ishtar was popular in ancient Babylon and her temples were citadels for courtesans and third-gender priests alike. The Sumerians also recognized a class of women known as salzikrum or “male daughters” that were masculine and typically childless by nature. The Babylonian story of the great Atrahasis flood, attributed to overpopulation, mentions a similar class of childless women created after the deluge to help keep the population down.
Mesopotamia became predominantly Muslim in the seventh century A.D. but continued to accommodate a third-gender subculture for nearly a thousand years. It was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire up until World War I, when Britain took control of what is now Iraq and Kuwait while France governed Syria. The region was granted independence after World War II and grew increasingly conservative. By the end of the twentieth century, homosexual and transgender behavior was highly stigmatized and driven underground. Syria punished homosexuality with prison terms of up to three years and Kuwait with ten. Iraq had the most draconian laws and prescribed the death penalty.
In ancient Palestine, Judaism stood out as uniquely monotheistic in the Middle East and worshiped a supreme God similar to Zoroastrian and Vaishnava Hindu traditions. Third-gender men were known in Hebrew as saris and are mentioned throughout the Torah. The word saris is of Akkadian origin and means “he who is at the head,” referring to the chamberlains, priests, officers, guards and attendants of that time who were typically either homosexual, castrated, or both. While the word saris is loosely translated into English as “eunuch,” it more accurately refers to an administrative post wherein appointees were often homosexual or castrated but not necessarily so. The Jewish Talmud mentions two types of saris—saris adam (castrated) and saris chammah (impotent by nature or birth)—and points out that it was sometimes possible for the latter type of saris to have offspring.
The saris of the Torah had the same qualities and occupations that third-gender men of other cultures did and are often mentioned favorably. In the book of Daniel, for instance, the book’s namesake is placed under the care of Ashpenaz, a saris of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel (1:9) states: “Now God had brought Daniel into favor and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs.” In Kings I, Obadiah is a saris in charge of King Ahab’s palace; he is a devout believer in God and helps hide one hundred of the Lord’s prophets. Jeremiah is saved by Ebed-Melech, an Ethiopian saris in the royal palace of Judah. In the book of Esther, beautiful girls are placed under the care of Hegai, a eunuch in charge of the king’s harem. Isaiah (56:3-5) promises that any saris following God will be given a place in the Lord’s house and also instructs women who do not bear children to “break forth into singing”(54:1). In the Torah, ascetic women that are not inclined toward men and avoid marriage are called ‘almah. Moses’ sister, Miriam, is described as an ‘almah and the book of Proverbs (30:18-90) suggests that such women were very difficult for a man to know. King Solomon’s harem, comprised of sixty wives and eighty concubines, is said to have contained countless ‘almah. In at least one verse, the Torah glorifies same-sex over opposite-sex love. In Samuel II (1:26), David laments the death of his beloved Jonathan as follows: “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
Despite such positive portrayals of third-gender people and same-sex love, the Torah simultaneously condemns male castration (Deuteronomy 23:2), crossdressing (Deuteronomy 22.5), and prescribes the death penalty for sexual relations between men or women (Leviticus 20:13). The latter edict is the earliest known instance of capital punishment for homosexual behavior and was unique in the ancient Middle East. It would influence Christian and Islamic teachings for centuries to come and result in the future suffering of countless third-gender citizens worldwide. Orthodox Jews often quote the above verses to condemn gender-variant people and also cite the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, wherein a mob of men attempt to homosexually rape two village guests. Reform Jews, on the other hand, point out that many prohibitions listed in the Torah are no longer punished or even stigmatized in contemporary Judaism such as divorce, cutting one’s beard, getting a tattoo, eating shellfish or pork, working on the Sabbath day, etc. They also mention that the saris was not considered male or female by ancient definition and stress that the attempted rapes of Sodom cannot be compared to the affectionate relationships of modern homosexual couples.
Christianity was derived from Judaism and sustained many of the religion’s traditional teachings. Its founder, the prophet Jesus (6 B.C.-30 A.D.), said little about third-gender people except for one well-known verse from Matthew (19:12): “For there are eunuchs, who were born from their mother’s wombs; and there are eunuchs, that were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs, that made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is similar to the Talmud interpretation of saris and includes homosexuals if we take the traditionally wide definition of eunuchs as “men who are impotent with women.” As with the Torah, the New Testament often mentions eunuchs favorably. The book of Acts (8:26-39), for example, describes how the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity was a black, Ethiopian eunuch who worked as a royal treasurer for the queen of Nubia. It also mentions how an angel of God directed Phillip to meet the unnamed eunuch and baptize him.
Several verses from the New Testament condemn same-sex relations as unnatural (Romans 1:26-27), in line with ancient Jewish teachings, and fundamentalist Christians use these passages to demonize homosexuals and other gender-variant persons. Stressing a rigid, two-gender system that includes only clearly defined male and female roles, such Christians do not accept gender diversity as a part of God’s nature. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, emphasize Jesus’ message of compassion, loving one’s neighbor, and caution against oversimplifying nature or presuming to know everything about it. They also point out that most Christians today accept divorce even though it is directly condemned by Jesus and equated with adultery (Matthew19:9)—an offense punished in the Bible with death.
Christianity spread westward and greatly influenced Europe while Palestine became predominantly Muslim for over a thousand years. A series of brutal military expeditions, known as the Crusades, were launched by European Christians from the eleventh to the thirteenth century to reclaim Palestine from the Muslims but were ultimately unsuccessful. The Ottoman Turks ruled the region up until World War I, after which the British controlled Cyprus, Palestine and Jordan while the French governed Lebanon. Independence was achieved after World War II and in 1948, the Jewish people overtook Palestine and established the modern state of Israel. Sodomy laws were inherited from the British but never enforced in the new Jewish state. They were eventually repealed in 1963 and limited civil union rights were granted in 1994. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Israel had prominent gay communities and offered impressive, Western-style protections for its third-gender citizens. This new attitude of social tolerance was largely influenced by the severe persecution Jews had suffered during the Holocaust of World War II. Israel’s neighbors, Jordan and Cyprus, were also free of sodomy laws but Lebanon punished homosexuality with up to one year in prison.
On the Arabian Peninsula, polytheistic tribes existed up until the advent of Islam—a religion founded by Prophet Mohammed (570-632 A.D.) in the seventh century A.D. Islam worships a supreme God similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its teachings are presented in the holy Qur’an and hadiths (sacred accounts of the life of Mohammed). Throughout the Muslim scriptures, several references are made to third-gender men. The Qur’an (42:50) describes such men as ’aqeem or “ineffectual” as follows: “[The supreme authority of Allah] marries together the males and the females, and makes those whom it wills to be ineffectual.” It also states that some men are “without the defining skills of males” (24.31). The hadiths use similar terms to describe third-gender men such as mukhannath (effeminate man), majbub or mamsuh (castrated eunuch), and khasy—a word similar to saris that refers to ineffectual men holding favored or distinguished posts.
The Qur’an scorns both male castration (29:28-29) and “approaching other males in lust” (7:81, 26:165-166, 27:55), but only mildly and with no punishment offered. The scorn was traditionally applied only to ordinary males and not to the ‘aqeem. In a popular narrative from the hadith of Bukhari (62:8), a companion of Mohammed tells the Prophet that, as a young man, his soul is tormented and he cannot find it within himself to marry a woman. Mohammed remains silent and the youth repeats his question three times. Finally, after the fourth time, the Prophet says: “O Abu Huraira, the pen is dry regarding what is befitting for you. So be a eunuch for that reason or leave it alone.” For many centuries, this passage was used by Muslims throughout the world to support the Middle Eastern custom of castrating young men deemed ‘aqeem or ineffectual.
Several Muslim texts indicate that homosexuality was a common occurrence in early Arabia, especially among the ineffectual men and eunuchs. When Joseph is sold to the Egyptian eunuch, Potiphar, for instance, the Qur’an (12:20) assures the reader that Joseph’s slaveholders “abstained from him.” The Qur’an also contains several descriptions of paradise, mentioning “innumerable immortal boys, like hidden pearls and with dark eyes” that serve as immaculate partners in the promised gardens of heaven. In the hadith of Bukhari (62:6:9), Mohammed’s companions ask the Prophet if they can use other males “as eunuchs” to fulfill their sexual urges, since they were far from their wives. Mohammed forbids them from doing so but their familiarity with the practice is made clear. The same hadith enjoins that if a man penetrates a young boy, he is forbidden from marrying the youth’s mother (62:25). In yet another section, Mohammed evicts an imposter mukhannath when he demonstrates lust for the women he is assigned to guard (114:162). Further along in the text, the Prophet curses males who impersonate women for the purpose of gaining lustful access to them. This latter reference is sometimes used by Muslims to condemn crossdressing but is clearly out of context in regard to those who are factually mukhannath or effeminate. Other hadiths admonish crossdressing, male homosexuality and lesbianism (sihaq) more strongly and prescribe a death penalty.
Fundamentalist Muslims condemn homosexual and transgender people by referring to eighth-century Shari’a laws based upon the above-mentioned hadiths. They also stress a rigid, two-gender system that forbids not only gender diversity but also monasticism. Moderate Muslims, on the other hand, point out that Shari’a laws were not in effect during Mohammed’s time and refer to Islam’s longstanding history of tolerance for ineffectual men and eunuchs in many parts of the world. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that eunuchs were placed in charge of guarding the Prophet’s tomb in Medina since the twelfth century A.D. and possibly even before that.
In the Arabian country of Oman there is a contemporary example of an Islamic third gender known as the xanith. Studied in 1977 by Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan, the xanith are regarded by Omanis as neither man nor woman but with the characteristics of both. They excel in women’s tasks and are considered to be impotent with females, effeminate, and gentle by nature. The xanith do not practice castration but are nonetheless permitted to associate closely with women. On festive occasions they can be seen singing, dancing and eating along with them, and their facial expressions, voice, laugh, movements and gait are all feminine. The xanith wear a mixture of male and female clothing and often serve as homosexual partners or prostitutes to other men. Despite their unusual appearance and behavior as an intermediate gender, the xanith are generally well accepted among the Omani people.
The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1927 after nearly four centuries of nominal rule under the Ottoman Empire. The kingdom is the center of Islam and deeply conservative. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, countries on the Arabian Peninsula were among the world’s most draconian in terms of gay and lesbian persecution. Homosexuality was punishable by death in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen while the United Arab Emirates enforced prison terms of up to fourteen years. The countries of Bahrain, Qatar and Oman all prescribed jail sentences of ten years or less. As a consequence of the harsh laws, homosexual and transgender subcultures throughout the Arabian Peninsula remained highly secretive and underground.
(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 236-246)
[Continued in Part 10...]