Trojan War Wednesday: LGBTQ Representation in Greek Mythology

Disrupting the Trojan War: Part 4 - "Ancient myths would have been useful tools for people to work through gender, orientation, and other identity issues in a safe space."

You Are Here…

…at the fourth in a planned series of five essays on disrupting ancient texts. These essays present my own understanding as I continue to evolve the approach I’m using to write stories set in the world of Greek mythology. And while each essay represents nothing more than my own personal opinions and a chance to offer readers a glimpse into my writing process, I hope other authors may find them useful in their own efforts as well.

The first essay explored issues of gender and agency.

The second essay dealt with ethnic and racial diversity.

This third essay proposed that seers represent an ancient understanding of neurodiversity.

This is part four, on the subject of LGBTQ Characters and Relationships. We’ll start by considering some of the stories from Greek mythology in general.

Tiresias

Assigned male at birth, young Tiresias came upon a pair of snakes in the road, hit them with a stick, and was instantly transitioned to female.

As a woman, Tiresias married a man, bore children, and lived a normal life for years until they encountered those same snakes again. With another strike from the stick, Tiresias detransitioned.

The first time, Tiresias may have been unfamiliar with the magical power of gender-changing snakes, but the second time? That would have been a deliberate choice by Tiresias to alter their gender expression to match their gender identity.

In some versions of the story, Tiresias transitioned between male and female up to seven times through this method, implying a fluid sense of gender identity, and providing the ancient Greeks with a story that explored the concept of gender-fluidity.

Incidentally, two snakes wrapped around a stick form a caduceus, the symbol of Hermes. Among other things, Hermes was a god of boundaries and transitions. With the ability to move from heaven to earth, and from earth to the underworld, Hermes brought messages from gods to mortals and souls from life to death.

Could there have once been a tradition in which Hermes also served as the mediator of gender transitions? We have no way of knowing for sure.

Heracles

Also incidentally, two snakes once found their way into the cradle of baby Heracles, who was born in Thebes, the home city of Tiresias, where it was known that magical gender-changing snakes were always encountered in pairs.

The most common version of the Heracles myth is that this matched set of serpents were baby-killing snakes sent by the goddess Hera. Out of all the examples we have of Hera tormenting her husband’s favorite bastard child with degradation, inconvenience, or personal tragedy, this would have been the one and only time she ever attempted to straight-up murder him.

Maybe Hera was acting wildly out-of-character on a whim. Maybe Hera sent a pair of snakes so the two could provide each other with moral support. Or maybe there’s another version of the story that’s been suppressed, which would have included a transgender Heracles.

See that figure on the right in this 3rd Century Roman mosaic? The lady with the club and the Nemean Lion hide? That’s not actually a transgender Hercules. Her name is Omphale, and she’s the Queen of Lydia. Transgender Hercules is the figure on the left, wearing women’s clothing, holding up a skein of wool, and doing all the housework.

It’s wild to think that somebody once chose this story, out of all possible stories, to decorate their country villa.

Atalanta

Atalanta is Greek mythology’s quintessential huntress, athlete, and runaway bride. Whether as the only woman in the Caledonian Boar hunt, or as the only female applicant to sail with Jason on the Argo, Atalanta refused to conform to the gender norms of her society.

Her ultimate fate was one of transformation.

Here’s Atalanta as depicted on the Fountain of Cybele in Madrid, Spain. She’s not the woman driving the chariot—that would be the goddess Cybele. Actually, Atalanta is one of the lions!

After a tryst in a sacred place (details vary as to where), Atalanta and her husband were transformed by a deity (details vary as to who) into a pair of lions (details vary as to why). Details vary in this story even more than most, but versions do exist in which Atalanta was transformed into a female lion—not a lioness, but an otherwise male lion with female parts.

Could this be a vestige of a tradition in which Atalanta identified or was perceived as non-binary?

Version Control

These are versions of myth that we have, or which are hinted at in the sources we have, or which can be reasonably speculated about given the vast amount of source material known to be missing.

Ancient myths would have been useful tools for people to work through gender, orientation, and other identity issues in a safe space. But the resultant stories come to us through the centuries-deep filter of gatekeeping as norms have varied over time. Rhapsodes, editors, transcribers, archivists, translators, or the fashion of the day, on any given day in the past three thousand years, could have erased or altered any of these myths as they were transmitted from more ancient to more modern times. And so, what were once flexible tools with room for everyone became rigid canon for the select few.

Achilles and Patroclus

The gatekeeping continues even today, as some modern translators of Homer’s Iliad choose to depict Achilles and Patroclus as buddies, pals, comrades, or close friends, while other translators choose to depict them as lovers. The original text is ambiguous, leading some scholars to believe that even Homer made a deliberate choice to avoid picking between two competing traditions.

From the hints left behind, we can reconstruct some of what may have been commonly understood, including the contours and context of the Achilles/Patroclus relationship. In any adaptation, retelling, or translation of the story, choices must be made, and so we become the gatekeepers of today.

In recognizing the power that the gatekeepers have always had, we must recognize our own duty to empower traditionally marginalized voices, to restore what was once erased, and to pass along more inclusive versions than the versions we received.

—Greg R. Fishbone, Mythoversal Author-in-Residence

Nine years into the siege of Troy, the greatest Achaean warrior, Achilles, is sidelined by rage and resentment following a conflict with his commander, Agamemnon. This short but intense phase of warfare leads to devastating losses on both sides, conflict among the gods, and great tragedy on a human level.

Rage! is a disruptive retelling of Homer’s Iliad, restoring diversity, inclusion, and equity to a three-thousand-year-old tradition.

This week’s Rage centers Hera, Queen of the Gods, as she and Athena return to Mount Olympus. A nostos is a story of return after a successful adventure or victory in war. The term is usually reserved for heroes, but there’s no reason it can’t also apply to goddesses returning to the heavens after a successful intervention on Earth.

RAGE! Overview

Through retold myths, informational articles, and educational resources, Mythoversal seeks to foster a deeper understanding of traditional cultures, their impact on each other, and on the modern world.

Our entry point into the Mythoverse is the land of Mythoversal Hellas, where we disrupt and deconstruct Greek, Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine sources to create a mythic environment that's inclusive, inviting, relevant, and welcoming. The result is both a setting and a lens for modern readers.

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