TGF Rerun — Transgenderism in Greek Mythology, Part 2

| Dec 26, 2011
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This is a TGForum Rerun. It first appeared in TGF in 1997. Part 1


Graves and Hamilton each devote many pages to the career of Theseus, the legendary ruler and hero of Athens (a career that Mary Renault needed two best-selling novels to relate). The Theseus myths contain two crossdressing episodes, one of which is woven into the tale of Theseus’s encounter with the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of King Minos’ wife and a bull. For reasons related to the not-uncommon myth-driving themes of death and vengeance, the Athenians were required to provide Minos with a tribute of seven maidens and seven youths every nine years, to satiate the Minotaur’s appetite for Athenian teenagers.

Theseus decided to bring this practice to an end.

Offering himself as one of the sacrificial youths, Theseus took charge of a victim-delivery expedition to Knossos. Before sailing, he replaced two of the maidens with a pair of (in Graves’ words) “effeminate youths” who were “possessed of unusual courage and presence of mind.”

These young men were instructed to “take warm baths, avoid the rays of the sun, perfume their hair and bodies with unguent oils, and practice how to talk, gesture, and walk like women.” Theseus’ strategy deceived Minos, who accepted the two youths as part of the consignment of maidens. Theseus was the first of his batch of Athenian victims to enter the Labyrinth, the maze that was the Minotaur’s lair and prison. As advised by the king’s daughter Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him, Theseus took a ball of magic thread with him.

After he tied the loose end of the thread to the Labyrinth’s entrance, he followed the ball as it rolled along the twisting and turning route to the heart of the maze.

There he encountered and killed the monster and then retraced the trail of thread to make his escape from the maze.

When he emerged, Ariadne embraced him and guided the entire Athenian party to the harbor — for the two crossdressed youths had killed the unsuspecting guards of the women’s quarters and released the sacrificial maidens.

The other crossdressing story comes from an earlier period in Theseus’s life. After a purification ceremony, young Theseus entered Athens clad in an ankle-length garment, with his hair neatly plaited. A group of masons working on the roof of a temple mistook him for a girl and called down to him, asking him why he was wandering around the city unescorted. Not bothering to reply, Theseus unhitched the oxen from the masons’ cart and hurled one of them into the air, higher than the temple roof. Graves says that this story is a mistaken interpretation of an ancient icon, and the person identified as Theseus is really a priestess. I prefer to think that Theseus, realizing that he’d been read, cheerfully acknowledged that yes, he really was a guy, by throwing a little bull.

Hercules (Heracles)

Hercules, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, was one of the most prominent characters in Greek mythology. As the curtain rises on our drastically condensed tale, Hercules has murdered a man who was his guest, thus violating the code of manners of his time and earning Zeus’s great anger (Zeus was no morality role model, but he had some standards and he was rough on those who didn’t meet them). An oracle advised Hercules that there was only one way to cleanse himself of guilt and get back in Zeus’s good graces: he would have to allow himself to be sold into slavery for a year, contributing his purchase price to the children of the man he’d killed.

Hercules agreed to this and was quickly purchased by Queen Omphale of Lydia (a kingdom in what is now western Turkey). Although he performed a number of heroic deeds–both military triumphs and feats of strength–during his period of slavery, Omphale had purchased him as a lover rather than a fighter, and she bore him several sons over a period that came to exceed the original year.

Omphale liked to amuse herself with Hercules, sometimes requiring him to wear women’s clothing and do women’s work (an early version of the familiar forced-crossdressing tale). According to reports that got back to Greece, Hercules had cheerfully exchanged his trademark lion pelt for a yellow petticoat, a purple shawl, a girdle (a belt-like outer garment rather than a foundation), jewelled necklaces, golden bracelets, and a woman’s turban. In the midst of Omphale’s serving girls, he spun wool into yarn while his mistress wore his lion skin and brandished his weapons.

Just vicious rumors, Graves assures us. The real story is more complex. It seems that Hercules accompanied Omphale on a visit to one of her vineyards. She was regally dressed in a purple gown with gold embroidery–a dazzling sight–and the god Pan, seeing her from a distant hilltop, fell in love with her and followed the couple on their journey.

When they reached their destination that night, Omphale and Hercules amused themselves by exchanging clothes. She dressed him in her purple silk gown and her girdle and sandals–much too small for the mighty Hercules. After dinner, they retired to separate couches, as they had planned a dawn sacrifice to the wine-god Dionysus, who required some minimal degree of purity from his devotees.

This story more or less telegraphs itself. The lamps went out and Pan sneaked in, fumbling about in the dark. Identifying his beloved’s couch by the silks worn by its occupant, he untucked the bedclothes at the bottom and eased himself in. Hercules, awaking, drew up one foot and, with a mighty kick, sent Pan hurtling across the room. Omphale called for lights, and when the servants brought them, she and Hercules found Pan crumpled in a corner, bruised and confused. They laughed uproariously, but Pan failed to see the humor in all this, and he was the source of the report that went back to Greece, outing Hercules as a habitual and perverse crossdresser.

If Hercules’ career had featured only one crossdressing incident, his TG credentials might be in doubt–but there was another event. After completing his service as a slave, and following a series of additional adventures, Hercules was caught in a fierce storm at sea and was shipwrecked on the island of Cos. He and his shipmates soon found themselves in a fierce battle with a group of locals. Exhausted by the storm and badly outnumbered, Hercules broke off the fight, fled to the house of a “stout Thracian matron,” and made his escape disguised in her clothes (we can speculate that she and Hercules were both 20s, whereas Omphale was more like a 10).

Later that same day, refreshed by food and sleep, Hercules returned to battle against the men of Cos and defeated them handily. Then, still in stout matronly garb, he married Chalciope, daughter of the just-deceased king of Cos. According to Graves, this explains why the bridegrooms of Cos thereafter wore women’s clothes when they welcomed their brides to their homes.

This is all that the myths have to say about Hercules’ public appearances en femme. We can only speculate on what he may have done in private (or on other occasions when he wasn’t read).

Iphis and Ianthe cower before the goddess Isis.


The story of Iphis, like the second tale of Hercules, falls into the category of crossdressing to escape deadly danger. Before Iphis was born, her father told her mother, Telethusa, that they should pray for a son, for they were poor and couldn’t afford to raise a daughter. Indeed, if the child proved to be a girl, she would have to be put to death.

Ovid, who told this story, described the father’s anguish over this decision; nevertheless, nothing Telethusa could say could make him change his mind. A few nights later, the goddess Io appeared to Telethusa in a dream. She instructed Telethusa to raise her child, whatever it might be, as a boy. When, soon after, a female child was born, Telethusa announced that it was male. No one doubted her word, and her husband named the child Iphis (a name used for both boys and girls) after his grandfather.

Telethusa dressed Iphis as a boy and raised her as a son, and her husband never suspected the deceit. When Iphis reached the age of thirteen, her father arranged for his “son” to be married to Ianthe, the beautiful daughter of a neighboring family. The two children were the same age; they had been educated together, and they had already fallen in love. Ianthe was happily looking forward to marriage to the handsome Iphis — but Iphis was in despair. Fully aware that she was really a girl, she found herself in the passionate throes of what she considered to be an unnatural love, a love that she would never be able to consummate.

Telethusa, fearing the consequences that would inevitably follow Iphis’ marriage, found various reasons to postpone the ceremony, but a time came when she could no longer put it off. We, however, can delay the denouement of Iphis’ story for a later time-and we will.


If, as Edith Hamilton suggested, myths are “the result of men’s first trying to explain what they saw around them,” what are the myths outlined in this article attempting to explain?

Perhaps more importantly from our viewpoint, what do they tell us about crossdressing in classical times? First, it seems apparent that crossdressing existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The myths may have been attempts to explain this behavior. I think it’s noteworthy that no one in these stories was ostracized or punished for crossdressing. The male crossdressers can all be said to have been treated positively by the storytellers who developed their myths. To the extent that we are told about their later lives, all went on to success and glory. Poor Procris didn’t do as well, but there’s no suggestion in her story that her early death was a punishment for disguising herself.

Possibly, then, there was no guilt associated with crossdressing — but in most cases, as in modern CD fiction, the storyteller has taken pains to show that the protagonist was not “at fault” for his or her behavior.

We have three cases of forced transgenderism, with children raised as the opposite sex to save their lives — Achilles to avoid his predicted death in the Trojan War, Dionysus to escape the wrath of Hera, and Iphis to keep her from being put to death by her father.

In other cases, crossdressing was voluntary but done (as in modern fiction) for some greater good, some otherwise unachievable goal, rather than for the pleasure of crossdressing itself. Heracles wore the Thracian matron’s clothes to escape from danger, Theseus had the two effeminate youths dress as maidens to help defeat an enemy (and thus escape from danger), and Procris dressed as a boy to be near her beloved. Otherwise, we have two humorous stories, probably told to entertain rather than to explain. In one, Theseus was mistaken for a girl; in the other, Heracles was said to have frequently exchanged clothing with his mistress, Queen Omphale — the one example of crossdressing for pleasure, though we are told that Omphale usually instigated this and that Heracles was her slave at the time.

As a final point, note that these mythical crossdressers tended to present themselves as heterosexuals. Achilles, Dionysus, Heracles, and Theseus all married and/or fathered children. Procris was clearly heterosexual, and Iphis?

We’ll see

More mythological gender shifting next month with Part 3 of Transgenderism in Greek Mythology.

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Category: Transgender History


About the Author ()

One of TGF's longest running authors, Hebe has been writing for TGF since the 1990s. With a focus on TG fiction she also has covered mythic crossdressing and recently has reported on TG events.

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