How a Sumerian Goddess Turned Gender on Its Head
A while back, we took a look at how Sumerian society handled homosexuality. In short: temples to the goddess Inanna featured the gala, a type of priest whose duties included 1) singing lamentations and 2) buttsex.
But the gala was not Inanna’s only queer clergy. In fact, one of Inanna’s favorite hobbies was smashing the gender binary, among other things — Inanna really liked to destroy things!
Before we go into details, it’s important to understand the difficulty of affixing modern-day labels to Sumerian culture. The Sumerians didn’t look at gender and sexuality the way we do. Their definitions don’t line up with ours perfectly. In addition, Sumerian texts don’t have a ton of detail about the specifics of many aspects of life. The texts we do have are full of gaps, quite literally: there are big-ass chunks missing from tablets and inscriptions. It’s hard to draw conclusions with any degree of certainty.
But it looks pretty clear that the goddess Inanna oversaw a ceremony referred to as the head-overturning, by which a man was transformed into a woman, and a woman transformed into a man.
A hymn to Inanna that recounts the goddess’s many powers and deeds includes the following lines (roughly translated):
the young girl in her chamber … receives heart
the woman rejects
…all the land…
…lets wander through the town square…
? in the house, the wife’s child stares
The lines are fragmentary, but the scenario isn’t too hard to parse. A person described as a young girl (ki-sikil) living in a girl’s dwelling-place has suffered some sort of humiliation or tragedy. They* are rejected by society (*Sumerian did not use gender-specific pronouns, so in the translation here I use “they” unless the person’s gender is clearly identified). They wander, homeless, stared at by strangers. In the next few lines, the goddess comes:
She takes the great crime from their body
She places a hand upon their brow, calls them pilipili
breaks the lance, gives them a weapon as for a man’s heart
Though this person lived as a girl, the goddess recognizes that they have the heart of a man. The goddess also meets a man and a woman and gives them a similar treatment, turning them into a “reed marsh man” and a “reed marsh woman”:
She does not esteem he whose name She called; upon approaching the woman She cuts the weapon, gives her a lance
reed marsh man, nisub, reed marsh woman, She punishes, groan…
lualedde, transformed pilipili, kurĝarra, saĝursaĝ
The text is unfortunately full of holes. As you can see, it’s not easy to parse.
One thing that is pretty clear, though, is the notion of transformation. The goddess finds a young person scorned by society, a young person raised as a woman but possessing the spirit of a man. The goddess places a hand of blessing upon the youth’s head and gives offers a new name: pilipili. She gives the pilipili a lance as one would a man. And she offers the pilipili a place in society.
The pilipili was just one class of clergy or cultic performers that could be found in Inanna’s temples and at Sumerian festivals, along with the lualedde, kurĝarra and saĝursaĝ.
The pilipili evidently used this lance for more than decoration. When Inanna wreaked havoc upon the countryside to seek vengeance upon the man who raped her in her sleep, she brought with her a dust storm and an entourage that included a pilipili. Here, the pilipili is no longer a scorned victim, but a warrior of fierce retribution.
In the text (and others), the pilipili is referred to as turned, or transformed. Transformed into what? It’s not entirely obvious from this hymn, but one interpretation is that the pilipili transitioned into a man. Sumerian did not have gendered pronouns, so it’s difficult from the text to say if that is the case, but the references to lances do sound a bit like phallic symbolism.
Furthermore, the pilipili in this text is accompanied by other sorts of cultic performers who do not fit comfortably into the gender binary. There’s the kurĝarra (who accompanied the gala to the Underworld to rescue Inanna), which is often suggested to be some sort of knife-wielding self-mutilating eunuch. There’s also the reed marsh man and the reed marsh woman.
A reed marsh is a place that doesn’t fit into a simple definition. It’s not dry land, but it’s not exactly a river. It’s not completely fresh water or salt water. It’s a murky, in-between place that blurs the line between the solid and the fluid — a symbolic no man’s land that defies categorization. In these myths, the reed marsh man and reed marsh woman blur the line between male and female.
The Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary defines the pilipili as homosexual lover or transvestite, but that doesn’t seem to fit the narrative described above. Though Sumerian did not employ gender-specific pronouns, the hymn did use the word ki-sikil (young woman) to describe the pilipili pre-transformation. Furthermore, this definition really doesn’t capture pilipili’s role as a bringer of righteous vengeance.
Whatever category the pilipili fits into (if such a person could or should be neatly categorized), the narrative of a young, homeless outcast sounds achingly familiar today. A disproportionately high percentage of homeless youths are LGBT. Alas, we no longer have a temple of Inanna to grant them shelter and place a lance into their hands, but we do have Cyndi Lauper and that’s pretty good I guess.