Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-vpsfw Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-23T02:36:44.472Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

4 - Life after Transition: Spontaneous Sex Change and Its Aftermath in Ancient Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Get access

Summary

There are several well-known characters in classical mythology who experience a change of sex, such as Tiresias (see Brisson 1976; Ugolini 1995) and Hermaphroditus (Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.285–388, with Robinson 1999). But there are also reports of girls and women who spontaneously acquire anatomical markers of maleness, not in myth but in real life, at specific times and places (Doroszewska 2013a: 224–5). It is these accounts of ‘real-life’ change of sex, particularly as related by authors active between the first century BC and the second century ad, that will be my focus in this essay. Their stories differ not only from mythical accounts of sexual transformation, but also from accounts of intersex children found in Roman historians’ reports of prodigies (e.g. Livy 27.11.4–5, 27.37.5–7, 31.12.6–10; Julius Obsequens 46, 81, 92, 94, 96, 107, 108, 110; see Krauss 1930: 130–3). Whereas the birth of intersex children inspired fear in a Roman population that viewed them as signs of severe divine displeasure (MacBain 1982: 127–35; Allély 2003), the reports of sexual transformation I consider are different. Intersex people – born with genitals that appear to combine masculine and feminine characteristics – display ‘simultaneous dual sexuality‘; people born with one set of genitalia that change to the opposite exhibit ‘successive dual sexuality’ (Brisson 2002: 2). Unlike the intersex infants drowned at sea during the Roman Republic, the people I will discuss were born as and assigned female at birth but transitioned across the gender boundary, lived to tell the tale, and even lived openly as men after transformation.

Reports of spontaneous sexual transformation are relatively rare in ancient literature. The most detailed narratives appear in the fragments of book 32 of Diodorus Siculus (32.10–12), written in the first century BC and preserved in the Bibliotheca of Photius, written in the ninth century ad (on Photius as a reader of Diodorus, see Botteri 1992: 28B9; Wirth 2008: 9B10; Rathmann 2016: 152). There are also shorter reports in Pliny the Elder's Natural History (7.36), a massive first-century ad work on aspects of the natural world, and the Περὶ θαυμασίων (On Marvels) by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of Hadrian active in the mid-second century AD.

Type
Chapter
Information
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure coreplatform@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats
×

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats
×