NOTE: This is a page in progress and badly needs to be updated. It addresses lesbian and transgendered male roles which I encountered during my research about eunuchs.
The understanding of male and female exemplified by Aristotle's definitions did not always distinguish lesbians and transgendered males as a separate category of women. As Aristotle stated, femaleness was defined as the capacity to reproduce within one's own body.1 Lesbians and transgendered males are physically just as able to do this as other women. Even if they are not excited by a man, a sexual encounter can still take place, which can lead to pregnancy. This is in contrast to the case with gay men, who must obtain an erection and therefore must be aroused to some degree in order to fulfill the male role with respect to reproduction.
Still, some women are identified in ancient cultures
as having a "male" nature. Based on evidence from the Code of Hammurabi,
the Sumerian culture recognized a separate type of woman called a salzikrum,2 a compound word meaning "male daughter." A salzikrum
was entitled to greater rights of inheritance than an ordinary woman. Like
a priestess, she could inherit a full share of her father's estate to use
during her lifetime, after which it reverted to her brothers' heirs, while
an ordinary woman was not entitled to a share in the paternal estate at
all. If the father made a written stipulation to her, a salzikrum
could also dispose of her inheritance in any way she wanted, creating the possibility for her to start a family of her own, with a wife or wives
of her own. By law, if a salzikrum had
any children that she put up for adoption, she could not reclaim them,
and the children were punished if they sought out their biological mother. Thus
I believe that she, like the eunuch, was generally expected to remain childless.
Perhaps she was also a temple servant or priestess like the other priestesses
and the eunuchs.
The Babylonian flood myth Atrahasis mentions nonprocreating women who were created after the flood in order to help keep the human population down.3 Overpopulation was the reason for the flood in this myth.
In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Nephthys and her twin brother Seth may have been intended as the gay, nonprocreative counterparts to the straight Isis and Osiris. Nephthys is usually thought of in the company of Isis, and is generally childless,4 until she eventually has a child by Osiris. She exposes the child Anubis, but Isis finds him and raises him.5 Plutarch says Nephthys's pregnancy symbolizes the flowering of the dry desert whenever the Nile exceeds its normal flood limits.6
The Indian Laws of Manu, Book VIII 364-370, has some strange provisions about sex with "willing" and "unwilling virgins." I believe that research into this "virgin" type would yield some good results. Nos. 369 and 370 are particularly suggestive (translation by Doniger):
If a virgin does it to another virgin, she should be fined two hundred
made to pay double (the girl's) bride price, and receive ten whip (lashes). But if a
(mature) woman does it to a virgin, her head should be shaved immediately or two
of her fingers should be cut off, and she should be made to ride on a donkey.
Removing Doniger's parenthetical interpretations, the distinction here
is between "virgins" and "women." This distinction could be equivalent
to one between women not interested in men sexually and women who do desire men. In this way, women who are interested in men are punished more severely
for indulging in homosexual sex, while a woman who is not interested in
men is made to suffer a punishment that, while terrible, may be an ordeal
of toughness and a test of committment and capacity to bear the burden
of being a husband to her partner. The virgin is expected to do right financially
by the family of her beloved, like a potential husband. Of course, the
ten whip lashes are probably not a feature of most heterosexual weddings,
and their inclusion as punishment for the "virgin" seducer of virgins may
simply show a disapproval of homosexual relationships even between women
of homosexual identity.
Rev. Nancy Wilson has already interpreted the "barren woman" in Isaiah 54 and the eunuchs in Isaiah 56 as "our gay, lesbian, and bisexual antecedents."7 The Talmud mentions a female counterpart to the eunuch called an aionolit. Her identifying marks, according to the rabbis, are: lateness or absence of pubic hair growth, lack of breasts, pain during copulation, lack of a mons veneris, and finally, the fact that her voice is so deep that one cannot distinguish whether it is that of a man or a woman. (See Section 1, Note 37 for citation.)
I also found that in the Hebrew scriptures, a certain kind of unmarried woman or virgin ['almah] is mentioned who is distinguished from the ordinary virgin with an intact hymen [bethulah].8 Bethulah occurs 50 times in the Bible, and bethulim for virginity occurs 10 more times, while 'almah is used only 7 times. The word exists in modern Hebrew in a masculine gender form 'elem, meaning a youth or a lad, but the feminine form is absent from my Hebrew English dictionary.9 The meaning of 'almah could be a "female lad" or what we call a tomboy. In any case, Proverbs 30:18-19 gives a riddle about the 'almah that may help to determine who she is:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I
The way of an eagle into the sky, the way of a snake into a rock, the way of a ship
into the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with an 'almah.
To my mind this riddle is very suggestive of a list of impenetrable barriers. In each of the similes, the first item is unable to penetrate the second item -- the speaker says these "ways" lie outside his sphere of knowledge. An eagle can never pierce the sky, a snake can never penetrate a rock, and ship can never descend to the heart of the sea (perhaps as wreckage, but not as a ship), and so, the writer implies, a man cannot have sexual intercourse with a lesbian.
In Psalms 68:25, 'alamoth
(the plural of 'almah) play timbrels in the
sanctuary. This recalls the Sumerian priests and priestesses who play instruments
in the temple.
In Song of Solomon 1:3, the love of the 'almat for Solomon is given as evidence of the exceptionally sweet flavor of his kisses and of his "ointments." Song of Solomon 6:8 says that, along with sixty queens and eighty concubines, Solomon's harem included "innumerable 'alamoth." This could be a hyperbolic praise of Solomon along the lines of "even the lesbians love him," or some such, or it may be a male sexual fantasy to be with lesbians.
The remaining three occurrences of the word 'almah include some of the Bible's most prominent young women. Moses's sister Miriam, "the prophetess", was called an 'almah.10 She was the one who watched over him while he floated down the river as a baby, and arranged for Pharaoh's daughter to let Moses's mother nurse him. Later she was stricken with leprosy. Miriam never married.
When Isaac's servant went to find a wife for him, he predicted that when an 'almah came to fetch water from the well,11 and responded in a particular way to his request for water, she would be the woman for Isaac to marry. The woman who fulfilled his prediction was Rebekkah, who may have seemed tomboyish. In a patriarchal culture in which men have rights over their wives, a lesbian might be the ideal wife -- the husband knows she won't go chasing other men!
The last, and perhaps most significant occurrence of 'almah in the Hebrew scriptures, is in Isaiah 7:14:
Behold, an 'almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Thus it is quite possible that the Messiah was to be born, not of a virgin as the King James version translates it, but of a lesbian -- a woman who is not turned on by sex with men. In fact, the Qur'an also seems to indicate that Mary was not an ordinary female. It says that Mary's mother declared at her birth: "Behold, I have brought it forth a female -- and Allah knew best what she brought forth -- and the male is not like the female." To ancient cultural thinking, only men had the heat necessary to give form to semen and create a child. The fact that Mary was blessed with a child without the contribution of a man, may have in itself made her seem in some way "male."
Latin uses the word virago for manly, warlike women and the word would also be used by the Romans for women who aggressively and exclusively pursued women as sexual partners and it was also used for virgins. There is more than a passing relationship between virago and virgo, the word for virgin, and the concepts seem related, since a woman who refused men, no matter if she were sexually active with women, would remain a virgin in the eyes of the ancient world.
2 Code of Hammurabi § 172 and following, and § 184 and following.
3 See end of myth of Atrahasis, Tablet III 7, in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, tr. by Stephanie Dalley, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 35.
4 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 38. See translation in Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, edited with translation and commentary by J. Gwyn Griffiths, University of Wales Press, 1970.
5 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 14.
6 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 38.
7 Rev. Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
8 This use of bethulah is found in Genesis 24:16.
9 The Meridian Hebrew-English/English-Hebrew Dictionary, edited by Dov Ben-Abba, New York: Meridian, 1994. Find 'elem on page 255, col. 2 of the Hebrew-English section. Arabic has a corresponding word ghulam meaning "boy, lad, youth," from a verb ghalima meaning "to be excited by lust, in heat." In ancient times, heat was considered an attribute of males.
10 Exodus 2:8.
11 Genesis 24:43.