Excavated Hermaphrodite Figures from Karanis and Terenouthis


The customary male and female genders were not the only ones known in ancient Egypt; indeed, most premodern, non-Western cultures have "third genders" of some sort. Other genders were recognized and described in the ancient Mediterrranean world, often using categories based on mythological precedents. Hermaphrodites, eunuchs, androgynous and asexual beings were all examples of the kinds of permanent gender categories understood by ancient peoples. Gender categories could also be less permanent or innate: Late Antique Christian writers from Egypt warned of the dangers of male transvestism while ambivalently approving women who disguised themselves as male monks and, through ascetic practice, defeminized their bodies into a transitional gender category between male and female. Evidence for "other" gender categories in the Pharaonic period is predominantly textual and mostly ambiguous or debatable. The coming of Greek and Roman culture brought new gender categories, and the arrival of Christianity introduced still more.

The University of Michigan excavations at the Roman period Egyptian sites of Karanis and Terenouthis uncovered a number of figurines provisionally identified as representations of hermaphrodites. Biologically, hermaphrodites are born with both male and female sexual characteristics; more common are pseudo-hermaphrodites, who are biologically categorized as either male or female but have secondary characteristics of the opposite biological sex. In the ancient world the birth of hermaphrodites and pseudo-hermaphrodites was, like that of other genetic anomalies, considered unlucky. In Graeco-Roman art they were depicted with a female face, full breasts and hips, and male genitals. They occur in both comic and erotic contexts and were frequently used as decorative devices. In Egypt the iconography of hermaphrodites appears to be a Greek import.

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