Many cultures have gods, demi-gods, and heroes with both male and female attributes. For example, in Hindu mythology, Shiva is seduced by Vishnu’s female avatar, Mohini, giving birth to the god Shasta (Ayyappa). Shiva himself is often represented as Ardhanarishvara, an androgynous composite of Shiva and Parvati with a body that is male on the right-hand side and female on the left. Arjuna, the great warrior of the Mahabharata, spent a year as a woman, during which he took the name of Brihannala and taught song and dance to the princess Uttara.
The Mesopotamian Ishtar, the beautiful goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex, is sometimes represented with a beard to emphasize her more bellicose side. She could change a man into a woman, and the assinnu, kurgarru, and kulu’u who performed her cult had both male and female features. After Gilgamesh rejected her offer of marriage, Ishtar unleashed the Bull of Heaven, ultimately leading to the death of Enkidu, whom Gilgamesh loved more than anyone: “Hear me, great ones of Uruk/ I weep for Enkidu, my friend/ Bitterly mourning like a woman mourning.”
Hapi, the Egyptian god of the annual flooding of the Nile, brought such fertility as to be regarded by some as the father of the gods: he is generally depicted as intersex, with pendulous breasts and a ceremonial false beard. Hapi might be compared to Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of fertility and sexuality. Tlazolteotl is associated with the moon, and, like the moon in that culture, has both male and female characteristics. Tlazolteotl is nothing if not complex and paradoxical: although she inspires vice, as Tlaelcuani the ‘Eater of Filth’ she is also able, not unlike Jesus, to purify us by absorbing our sins.
To seduce the nymph Callisto, Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, took the form of the goddess Artemis. Zeus took many lovers, but, as Xenophon points out, the only one to be granted immortality was the Trojan prince Ganymede. Other instances of same-sex love in Greek myth include: Apollo and Hyacinthus, Hermes and Krokus, Dionysus and Ampelos, Poseidon and Pelops, Orpheus and Kalais, and Heracles and Abderus, Hylas, and Iolaus. The prophet Teiresias spent seven years as a woman, even giving birth to children in that time. One day, Zeus and Hera dragged him into an argument about who has more pleasure in sex: woman, as Zeus claimed; or, as Hera claimed, man. Tiresias averred, “Of ten parts a man enjoys only one.” Hera struck him blind to punish him for his impiety, but Zeus compensated him with the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven lives.
How might such gender fluidity be interpreted? The union of masculine and feminine elements shows them to be complementary, inseparable, or one and the same, while emphasizing divine attributes such as power, creativity, and boundlessness. In its completeness, the union of the sexes also represents perfection and self-sufficiency, and, by extension, peace and even ecstasy. Spiritual schools tend to look favourably upon sexlessness, especially in the priestly caste, since the attraction between man and woman—or indeed between man and man or woman and woman—gives rise to worldly attachments, such as children and a home, which can detract from spiritual work and the liberation at which it aims. In heroes, gender fluidity may mark out the hero as more than a mere mortal. It may also, like the journey into the underworld, symbolize the search for the self-knowledge that is the hallmark of the hero.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.