Ancient Mesopotamian Transgender and Non-Binary Identities - by Morg Daniels

The most highly venerated deity in Ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna, who was also known as Ishtar after the two were merged. She was known as the Queen of Heaven and was the goddess of sex, war and justice. She also was believed to have the ability to change a person’s gender. This power of Inanna’s, the ability to change a man into a woman and vice versa, is well accounted for in multiple poetry fragments and is indicative of the existence of people living outside the gender binary in ancient Mesopotamia. The words of Enheduanna, Inanna’s High Priestess in the city of Ur in the 23rd Century BCE, attest to this. In her Passionate Inanna she writes: ‘To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna. / To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.’ (115-131). The exact meanings of the original Sumerian cannot be known for sure; the passage could instead relate simply to gender stereotypes, but this is not the only instance of ancient references to people living outside the gender binary.

Seal of Inanna, 2350-2150 BCE
Seal of Inanna, 2350-2150 BCE

Ancient Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna resting her foot on the back of a lion while Ninshubur stands in front of her paying obeisance, c. 2334 – c. 2154 BC. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago


In fact, individuals living outside of the gender binary were heavily involved and associated with the cult of Inanna, and her cult members and priests were known for their androgyny and blurring or destroying the gender binary. The gender-blurring members of her cult have often been included in poems and dedications written for her, often with Inanna personally transforming the gender of her devotees. One such example is the pilipili, a group of cultic performers in Inanna’s Sumerian festivals. The name pilipili is referenced within Passionate Inanna (80-90) in relation to an individual named pilipili who is transformed by Inanna. They are raised as a woman, the Sumerian for young woman (ki-sikil) being used to describe them, and Inanna blesses them, handing them a spear ‘as if she were a man’ and renames them ‘pilipili’. From this point forward they are referred to as ‘the transformed pilipili’. We cannot know for sure what the word ‘transformation’ means in this context, and especially since Sumerian did not use gendered pronouns it is difficult to reconstruct the exact meaning, but one interpretation is that through the blessings of Inanna, the pilipili transitioned into a man. Even if Sumerian did not use gendered pronouns, the possible phallic connotations of the word ‘spear’ add more weight to this theory.


In Sumerian times, priests for Inanna known as the gala were said to have been created by the god Enki to sing laments for her, one of their central roles in her temple. From the beginning of the Old Babylonian Period, their role was heavily expanded, and mourning rites originally sung by women replaced over time by members of the gala. Men who joined the priesthood in devotion for Inanna became women for all intents and purposes, adopting female names and singing in the Sumerian eme-sal dialect, reserved for feminine speakers to render the speech of female gods. The gala were heavily involved in her temples, performing elegies and lamentations, presiding over religious rites and healed and looked after the sick and poor. They were respected members of the community, closely related to the care of their community. The possibility of the gala undertaking ritual castration has been suggested frequently, but there is little evidence to support this – and regardless it would not be confirmation or validation of anyone’s gender identity. We cannot make assumptions about the gender identity of all of the gala, of course. There were gala who were cisgender women and others who were married to men or women with children. This could be due to gala priests being associated with multiple gods and only the gala of Inanna were living possible trans lives, or perhaps the gala were a group with a huge range of sexualities and gender identities, much like our own society today.


Other ancient texts offer further insights into the blurring of gender by the followers of Inanna. In the Sumerian version of Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, Enki sends two emissaries to rescue the goddess Inanna from her sister Ereshkigal’s underworld, called the kurgarra and a galatar. Both are names for members of the cult of Inanna. The galatur is simply a junior gala. For further clarification on the role and identity of the kurgarra we must turn to a text of Enheduanna’s detailing a religious festival in honour of Inanna, in which it is said that ‘the ascending kurgarra priests raise their swords before [Inanna]’. The gender identity of the kurgarra is not clear, but if we equate the symbolism of a spear with masculine energy it runs true that the same could be suggested in relation to the swords of the kurgarra, perhaps as a representation of the warlike side of Inanna.


In later, Assyrian versions of Inanna’s Descent the inclusion of the kugarra is replaced by the assinnu, another member of Inanna’s cult, who Dalley avoids gendering by translating this as ‘Good-looks the playboy’ and suggests that they may have been a boy castrated in a ritual castration – but again this would simply be an assumption. The assinnu was another feminine member of Inanna’s gender-blurring cult; in the Babylonian poem The Epic of Erra of the assinnu the poet says: “Whose maleness Ishtar turned female, for the awe of the people”. It has been suggested by Peled that within the cult the assinnu and kurgarru, represented the combined feminine and masculine aspects of Inanna and the complete spectrum of gender that she encompassed.


Trans and non-binary individuals were not restricted solely to the cult of Inanna. A well-known statuette found in the Sumerian city of Mari depicts a singer with a dedication to Inanna. The individual is named Ur-Nanshe, a male name, yet the gender of the figure has been identified as a woman or eunuch. The gender of Ur-Nanshe is ambiguous; despite their masculine name, their face is soft with a trace of makeup and suggestion of breasts. The dedicatory inscription to Inanna may make it tempting to assume that this individual is a gala, but it is specified that Ur-Nanshe is a naru. Regardless, the dedication to Inanna makes the possibility that this is a gender-nonconforming individual more likely. The fact that such a statuette of a gender-ambiguous individual is an indication of the recognition of gender non-conforming individuals in ancient Sumer, and perhaps even acceptance.


A fragment of a statue in the archive of the British Museum further suggests this recognition of people who are neither man nor woman and is translated as “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna”. The use of the word ‘hermaphrodite’ is questionable. It is a word which we would now ascribe a more biological meaning, but as this is an older translation by a cisgender man, we can make allowances for terminology. Cheryl Morgan has offered a more literal, but more accurate, translation of “person-man-woman”, a term that has been used in relation to trans people in many cultures. We cannot know or make assumptions about the gender identity of Silimabzuta, but it is evident that their gender outside of the traditional binary was recognised – and perhaps accepted – in ancient Sumer.


Even if we cannot know for sure the exact gender identities of these individuals and temple members, it is clear that people have been living outside of the gender binary for thousands of years. Throughout ancient Mesopotamia, it is evident that people lived a wide range of gender identities. They may have even been widely known and respected, and perhaps even considered important members and contributors to their communities.


Further Reading

Dalley, Stephanie. (2008), Myths from Mesopotamia.

Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998- .

Cale, Jessica. (2020), ‘Trans and Non-binary Identities from Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome: Inanna, Cybele, and the Gallai’: https://dirtysexyhistory.com/2020/09/03/trans-and-non-binary-identities-from-mesopotamia-to-ancient-rome-inanna-cybele-and-the-gallai/

Morgan, Cheryl. (2017), ‘Evidence for Trans Lives in Sumer’: https://notchesblog.com/2017/05/02/evidence-for-trans-lives-in-sumer/

Peled, Ilan (2014), ‘assinnu and kurgarrû Revisited’, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 73(2), 283-297.

Peled, Illan. (2016), ‘Visualizing Masculinities: The Gala, Hegemony, and Mesopotamian Iconography’, in Near Eastern Archaeology 79(3) Special Issue: Gender, 158-165.

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