Trans women in ancient poetry


A funerary epigram by Philodemus (Greek Anthology 7.222)

Here the femme’s¹ soft body, here is laid
The Little Dove,² the pride³ of the Salmacid⁴ dolls,⁵
Whose room and company were famous, whose banter
Was playful, and whom the Gods’ Mother loved,
Who only enjoyed the mysteries of Cypris⁶
With women,⁷ and who equalled the charms of Laïs.⁸
Now, let no bramble grow for this friend of Bacchus,⁹ o sacred dust
Around the tomb, but white violets’ tender flower-cups!

The poem may be on a fictional subject, but there is no reason to think it does not reflect how people might have talked about real trans women in antiquity. The translation is based on the edition of H. Beckby
1: Trypherós means ‘soft, effeminate’, but since it is gendered feminine (trypherḗ), something more than ‘effeminate man’ is meant; the reference is very clearly to a trans femme.
2: A chosen or nickname, as indicated by the diminutive ending –ion (grammatically neuter, like German Täubchen of the same meaning, not to be confused with the masculine ending –iōn).
3: Literally ‘flower’.
4: Salmacis is a fountain which supposedly makes men who bathe in it ‘soft’. Again, something more than effeminacy is meant, as the lake was connected to Hermaphroditus, or an intersex nymph called Salmacis.
5: ‘Dolls’ is a loose translation, but the only other translation of sabakaí that I can think of is ‘femmes’, and I do not want to repeat myself in the translation, when Philodemus does not in the original.
6: The mysteries (órgia) of Aphrodite, the Cyprian goddess, are nothing more or less than sex.
7: The phrase is very ambiguous, and my translation is only a stab at the meaning, but I find it more straightforward than the alternatives, which simply take for granted that she would have sex with men. Although perhaps what is meant that she only has sex as a woman.
8: Laïs was the name of two hetairas (a kind of sex workers) whose beauty was legendary. The word translated ‘charms’, phíltra, more literally designates something like ‘love spells’.
9: Philobákkhos (where –os is gender-neutral), which may also mean ‘lover of Bacchus’, that is, not only of the god but also of wine and parties.

A funerary epigram by Thÿillus (Greek Anthology 7.223)

The castanet dancer Aristion (‘Best Girl’)—who round the pines
Was used to toss her hair for Cybele,
Carried away by the horned flute¹—who was able to finish
Three chalices of unmixed wine in a row—
She rests here now below the elms, delighting in love no more,
No more in the fatigue of all-night festivals.
Parties and bouts of madness,² fare-very-well! Here lies
The one who used to cover herself in the flowers of garlands.

1: Castanets and flutes, dances where the hair is tossed around, and pinetrees are all elements of the worship of the Mother-of-Gods (here called by her Phrygian name Cybele).
2: Madness is the state of mind attributed to inspired dancers. It was sometimes said to be induced by the sound of flutes.

A dedicatory epigram by Myrinus (Greek Anthology 6.254)

When time was about to drag Paphia’s¹ queer² old oak,³
The trans woman⁴ Statyllion, down to Hades,
She dedicated light summer garments dyed scarlet and crimson,
And alien locks⁵ luxuriant with oil,
The shoe that used to smile on her delicate ankles,
And her tchotchke box of cottons,
As well as the flutes that breathed sweetly in amorous⁶ revels,
As gifts upon the porch of the Priapus⁷ temple.

1: The Paphian goddess is Aphrodite.
2: Much like the words I translated ‘femme’ and ‘doll’ in Greek Anthology 7.222, malakós means ‘effeminate, soft’, sometimes in the sense of a man who sleeps with men (especially a bottom), but here the word is gendered feminine, malakḗ, and so refers quite clearly to a trans woman.
3: Drŷs, ‘tree, oak’, is being used as a metaphor for an old person, but of course not for a ‘worn-out old man’, as the LSJ dictionary would have it.
4: Greek andrógynos, literally ‘man-womanly’, but here the sense is not so much ‘androgynous’ as ‘male-to-female’.
5: A wig.
6: Hetaireîos can be what pertains to a hetaira, a kind of sex worker; but it also referred to companionship in a broader sense, and it seems germane to mention that hetairístria means ‘lesbian’.
7: Priapus seems to have been commonly worshipped by sex workers, as endowing their clientele with sexual desire.

An anonymous dedicatory epigram (Greek Anthology 6.51)

My Mother, Earth, rearer of Phrygian lions,¹
Whose initiates do not leave Mount Dindymus untrodden,²
To you, the fem³ Alexis⁴ dedicated their⁵ stings of madness,
Having ceased from the madness inflicted by bronze,⁶
The shrill-sounding cymbals and the noise of the deep-sounding
Flutes, to which a young bull’s curved horn gave crooked shape,⁷
The echoing tambourines, the swords stained with blood,
And the golden locks that they used to shake.⁸
Be propitious, o Lady, to one who was mad in his youth,
But in old age put an end to his former wildness.⁹

This is a detransition poem, but also an indirect celebration of the transition, and certainly not a repudiation of fem identity.
1: Ancient writers often call the Earth ‘Mother’, but here it is also an abbreviation for the Mother-of-Gods or Phrygian Mother, to whom lions are sacred.
2: Mount Dindymus was one of the many Anatolian mountains sacred to the ‘Mountain Mother’, where her priests and worshippers would celebrate in the wilderness.
3: The word thêlys means ‘female’ – not merely ‘womanish’, but ‘a woman’. However, it is grammatically masculine. I attempt to capture this by writing ‘fem’ (not ‘femme’).
4: The name Alexis is gender neutral.
5: I use ‘their’ because the possessive pronoun is gender neutral. I take it as an intentional choice that only the last two lines overtly gender Alexis as male.
6: The ‘madness’ (not necessarily in a negative sense) is the divine enthusiasm caused by the Mother, which induced devotees to castration using bronze clamps. Here, the act of castration in turn is described as causing further ‘madness’, as are the items Alexis is now dedicating.
7: Since they were made from the horns.
8: This recalls the locks offered by young men, as a sign of entering into manhood.
9: The LSJ dictionary translates this as ‘clownishness’, which is simply wrong (both in current and older senses of ‘clown’).