The movement that challenges the dominant models of sexuality and relationships demanding the rights of LGBTQI* people has become a truly hot topic. The bearded face of Conchita Wurst, the transgender woman who won the Eurovision singing contest, still haunts the mind of people around Europe. The request for the acceptance of same-sex marriages is heard again and again in Greece, as well as in other countries.
Moreover, we recently witnessed three massive Pride Festivals. On the island of Cyprus, where this event was organized for the very first time, there was a surprising turnout of 4,000-5,000 people. The city of Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, holding its own festival on the day of the Summer Solstice, followed suit. Athens Pride celebrated its tenth birthday with an estimated 20,000 participants—quite an impressive number.
As a human rights activist, I wouldn’t miss this festival for anything in the world. It presented a wonderful opportunity to speak out against sexism and sexual oppression of any kind. This is something we particularly need in a country dominated by the Church and struggling with the dangerous rise of the Neo-Nazis, who already have blood on their hands.
The Pride Festival is certainly a modern invention, yet it evokes ancient memories. Walking in the streets of Athens among with the colorful crowd that danced, waved flags, and chanted slogans, I felt a palpable Dionysian energy in the air. Yes, the spirit of Bacchus and the Maenads was there with us, demonstrating its power to break taboos. It can pull us out from the shackles of everyday life and lead us to a newfound, ecstatic sense of freedom. It is no coincidence that Dionysus was also called Eleuthereus in Greek and Liber in Latin, meaning “Liberator.”
A deeply erotic god, he appears both in a masculine and an effeminate form. He is often depicted as a mature, bearded man and is associated with the phallus. Yet, he also frequently appears as a beardless youth with rather feminine features. Roman-era authors, such as Seneca, Nonnus and Pseudo-Apollodorus, narrate that Bacchus grew up disguised as a girl to escape the wrath of Hera. The Suda Lexicon ascribes to him the titles Androgynous, Unmanly (Anandros in Greek) and Hermaphrodite.
Yet, Dionysus was not the only deity that had features of both sexes. The motif of androgyny**, or gynandry as I prefer to call it to emphasize the feminine, appears again and again in Hellenic mythology, as well as in different traditions around the world. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. The Neolithic inhabitants of Greece, for example, created a host of female figurines whose necks and heads take a phallic form.
Sometimes the combination of genders becomes blatantly obvious. The Vinča culture, developed in Southeastern Europe along the Danube River from the 6th to the 3rd millennium BCE, created figurines that have male genitals and female breasts, also possessing beaks and protruding buttocks. Furthermore, two female statuettes with male members have been found in the Neolithic settlement of Makri in Thrace, in Northern Greece. We often come across similar figures on the island of Cyprus too.
Although there is no consensus about the meaning of these images, it makes sense to interpret them as goddesses—perhaps as the Great Goddess of Nature, the one addressed as “father and mother of all” in the much later Orphic Hymn in her honor. Yet, today such depictions seem shocking. It is ironic that our society claims to be liberated and yet tries to stereotype gender in a million ways, imposing all sorts of rules on what is acceptable or not. Thus, the “correct” types of appearance, behavior and sexuality are determined based on socially defined standards.
Violators are often punished. For example, an effeminate man or a masculine woman can easily be derided, discriminated against, and even attacked. Transgender people face rejection, marginalization, and not infrequently violence. In addition, intersex children, born with genitals of both sexes, are usually subjected to painful surgeries without even being given the chance to decide about their own bodies.
However, in times past, it was considered a sign of strength to have traits of both sexes, at least on a mythological level. According to the Orphic Hymns, Athena is “masculine and feminine,” Artemis is “male-like,” and Adonis is at once “girl and boy.” In Cyprus, in the city of Amathous, an unusual figure was honored: a statue of the Bearded Aphrodite (Venus Barbata in Latin), who was also named Aphroditos, the masculine form of her name. This worship came to Athens too, where both women and men celebrated by cross-dressing.
Let’s not forget that myths speak the language of the soul as they carry us to the archetypal realm of our collective unconscious. According to Carl Jung, the “masculine” and the “feminine” co-exist in each person, taking the form of the animus and anima. One could easily argue, of course, that Jung’s theories belong to an older era and have rightly been criticized for their sometimes sexist overtones. Yet many people feel empowered when they realize that they are able to combine elements of both sexes.
Perhaps the LGBTQI movement and its unconventional approaches to gender can help us bring to light hidden sides of ourselves. It may encourage us to discover exactly what we need: our own special nature, which can never really fit in the oppressive standards that society is trying to force on us. Wouldn’t that be a true blessing?
This blog was first posted in a slightly different form on PaganSquare, http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-culture-blogs/mythic-wisdom/dionysus-the-bearded-goddess-and-the-pride-festival.html.
“Dionysos, God of Homosexuality and Effeminacy”, Theoi Project, http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/DionysosGod.html#Homosexuality.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. London: Thames & Hudson, 1982.
Meenee, Harita. “Orphic Mysteries and Goddess(es) of Nature: Greek Hymns Honoring the Divine Feminine,” Magoism, the Way of S/HE, http://magoism.net/2013/04/08/essay-orphic-mysteries-and-goddesses-of-nature-greek-hymns-honoring-the-divine-feminine-by-harita-meenee/.
Winbladh, Marie-Louise. The Bearded Goddess: Androgynes, Goddesses and Monsters in Ancient Cyprus. Cypern (Cyprus): Armida, 2012.
*LGBTQI: Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex
**The term androgyny is of Greek origin. It is a compound noun combining the words andro– (from aner: man) and gyne: woman. I have coined the word gynandry by reversing their order.