|Ardhanarisvara, a deity is that half Shiva/half Shakti, represents the inseparable|
masculine and feminine energies that are the roots of creation. The river Ganges
flows from Shiva's head, and he carries a trident and a drum, while she carries a
sword and a rosary. Beside them are their respective vahanas, or vehicles - the
bull and lion. Image courtesy of the British Museum.
Joseph Campbell once famously said, "Myth is what we call other people's religions." Considered true and explanatory in the cultures they were created in, myths are dismissed as mere stories in other cultures. But myths serve as a way to explain things and educate people on various things, including social institutions.
|From the Seleucid era, Mesopotamia, |
circa 1st century BCE.
Many cultures have myths that address gender identity. In polytheistic cultures it is common to see entities that are male and female simultaneously, especially in creation myths. This unity of opposites is the central category of dialectics and can be viewed as a philosophical, metaphysical, or scientific concept. It describes a state of affairs where the existence or identity of something depends on two opposites coexisting and dependent on one another.
|From Anatolia, circa 300-100 BCE.|
Androgynous god figures have their basis in truth. According to the Intersex Society of North America, one percent of live births exhibit some degree of sexual ambiguity, although true hermaphroditism (having both testes and ovarian tissue) is very rare. Researchers at UCLA, however, published findings of a zebra finch whose entire body was split down the middle, female on one side and male on the other, hence a testicle on the right side, and an ovary on the left. (The study focused on the sexual phenotype of the brain.)
|Anasyromeno statue from the late 4th century BCE.|
"Anasyromenos" refers to a style where the female
lifts up her dress to reveal male genitals.
The ancient Greeks had a legend that later Ovid recorded as the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Aphrodite and Hermes had a son who was incredibly good-looking and masculine (as Greek gods are wont to be). The nymph Salmacis saw him and latched on to him and wouldn't let him go, praying to the gods to make it that they would never be apart. The gods fused them. Hermaphroditus became the patron god of hermaphrodites, along with Dionysus.
|Hermaphroditus Anasyromenos, a herm of|
a female figure revealing an erect phallus.
Aphroditus was an androgynous form of Aphrodite from Cyprus. S/he may have originally come from Astarte, who was known throughout the eastern Mediterranean since the bronze age, and was also known as Ashtaret, Ishtar, and Atargatis. S/he had a female shape and wore women's clothing, but also had a phallus, hence the male name ending. It is estimated that s/he arrived in Athens in the late fourth century BCE, since there are hermae from the fifth century. It could be that s/he later became Hermaphroditus, or Aphroditus in a herm.
|Another Hermaphroditis Anasyromenos from Erythrai, Asia Minor|
of white marble dated to late Hellenistic to early Imperial period.
Agdistis was the child of Zeus and Hera, born with both male and female sexual organs. The gods were afraid of her/him, and so s/he was castrated by them. Agdistis is associated with the Phrygian worship of Attis and Cybele, and according to Hesychius and Strabo was the same as Cybele. This cult is estimated to have reached Attica by the third or fourth century BCE, and by 250 BCE had spread to Egypt. Some scholars postulate that Agdistis is one in a continuum of androgynous Anatolian deities that goes back to the 2nd millennium BCE in the area of Cilicia when it was known as Kizzuwatna. Interestingly, later on in Rome the priests of Agdistis, known as Galli, were eunuchs.
|From Ephesus, 2nd century CE.|
In ancient Egypt the iconography of the Nile deities - Hapy, god of the Nile river, and Wadj-wer, god of the Nile delta, or sometimes the Mediterranean Sea - were sometimes depicted as androgynous. Tatenen/Tanen/Tannu was the androgynous protector of nature from Memphis, then known as "Men-nefer".
|Hapy shown with female breast, symbolic |
of the nurturing role of the Nile.
The various Indic religions that comprise Hinduism have clear examples of androgynous divinities, which may have come from the Vedic composite Yama-Yami, the lord of death and his twin sister consort, or the fire god, Agni, a bull who is also a cow. The concept seems to have originated iconographically in the Kushan and Greek cultures simultaneously. The earliest images in India date to the Kushan era (30- 375 CE, roughly), but were perfected in the Gupta era (320-600 CE).
|Kushan bust of Ardhanarishvara, |
circa 1st century from Mathura Museum.
Ardhanarishvara is the fusion of Shiva and his consort Shakti/Parvati/Uma/Devi, with usually the right half being Shiva. The name means "lord who is half woman", and their union is the root of all creation. There are many other names for the god/ess, some of which can be found in the Puranas and Samhitas. In book XIII of the Mahabharata, Upamanyu states that the universe rose from the union of the sexes, which this god/ess represents. Ardhanarishvara is referred to by the Macedonian compiler of extracts from Greek authors, Joannes Stobaeus (circa 500 CE), who quoted that Bardasanes had learned of it. (Bardasanes, or Bardaisan, was a Syriac gnostic, scholar, philosopher, and poet who was renowned for his now lost book on India. He lived 154-222 CE.)
|Chola bronze sculpture from the 11th century of Ardhanarishvara.|
Jumadi is another combined form of Shiva and Parvati, worshipped primarily in the Tulu Nadu region between Karnataka and Kerala. As the story goes, there was a demon who ate humans and made whole civilizations vanish. He had been granted a boon whereby he could be killed only by someone who was male and female at the same time. Shiva and Parvati were appealed to for help. On their way to avenge the humans, Parvati became ravenous, and nothing could sate her. Shiva finally told her to eat him to appease her hunger, but she was unable to swallow him. They were then merged into Jumadi, who has the face of Shiva and from the throat down, the body of Parvati. In this form they vanquished the demon.
|Jumadi drawn by Moodubelle for Wikipedia.|
There is a similar syncretism of the gods Shiva and Vishnu, called Harihara, symbolizing their unity as different aspects of the same divine concept.
|Harihara - the blue side is Vishnu, the other Shiva.|
In Japanese folklore Inari is the kami, or spirit, of agriculture and rice. She has been portrayed as either male or female, or sometimes as an androgynous bodhisattva. She began to be worshipped in the late fifth century CE, and her gender differs according to regional beliefs and traditions. She has also been identified with Dakinten, a Buddhist deity who is occasionally represented as an androgynous boddhisattva riding a white fox.
|Dakinten, shown here as a woman, circa mid-1300s.|
This figure is a unique blend of Buddhism, Hindu
Tantrism, Shinto Kami worship, and Taoism.
Image courtesy of the Met.
In Dahomey mythology, Nanan Buluku is the androgynous supreme deity of the Fon. The Shona people of Zimbabwe have Mwari, an androgynous creator deity.
|Nana Buruku as depicted in Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion |
that is a synthesis of related African religions, bits of Islam,
and Roman Catholicism. Image by Davi Nascimento/Wikipedia.
Australian aborigines have an androgynous deity called Ungud. There are also Labarindja, blue-skinned demon women that are sometimes shown with both penis and vagina. Pre-Christian Philippines had the hermaphroditic Bathala and Malyari. The Ngaju Dayak of Borneo worship Mahatala-Jata, an androgynous god/ess, and the Iban Dayao people have the androgynous Menjaya Raja Manag.
|Ungud is also a snake deity, associated with rainbows and the fertility|
of shamans. Here s/he is shown with neither male nor female attributes.
Image courtesy of this site.
The Inuit worship Sedna, sometimes depicted through some myths as hermaphroditic. In the Navajo tribe, Ahsonnutli is a hermaphrodite whose name means "turquoise hermaphrodite".
Thus around the world there are examples of this unity of opposites in religion, er, myth. Also the integration of gender roles, to my mind stressing their equality. The classic icon, which is probably understood the world over, is the one not personified above: The yin yang, complementary opposites that interact within a great whole, part of a dynamic system.
Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.