Many female figures involved in Christian history have transcended their given gender roles in varying ways, as we remember from the earlier examples of Joan of Arc, Abbess Benedetta or Pope Joan. For some female would-be saints their male guise was to prove how special and godly they were, that their divine purpose could not be contained by womanly forms; for their critics their masculine traits were a mark of shame, whorishness, the Devil’s corruption. Thus Joan of Arc was the ‘Whore of Orléans’, then a heretic, then a saint.
According to early Christian doctrine, the female body was an imperfect version of the male, a flawed vessel more open to corruption. So, if a woman was to fully commit herself to worship and adoration of God, embodying the ideals of humility and purity, she would be in effect having to take on a male guise to raise herself to the standards required. Writers such as St Jerome brought these well-evolved notions of gender into Christianity from earlier Greek and Judaic traditions.
As long as a woman is for birth and children, she is as different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she ceases to be a woman and will be called a man.St Jerome, c. 347 – 420 AD
When it comes to gods, not humans, the image is inverted. Intersex deities have been part of all mythologies the world over, pre-Christianity. They are common wherever you look for them. Tales of hermaphrodite gods often serve to answer questions about why there are gender differences, what is the nature of love. The intersex deity suggests that the perfect form is a union of male and female, and it is as some kind of punishment that the sexes have been divided in humanity.
‘Mythology may then offer the explanation that the phallus, added to the female body, was meant to signify the primal creative force of nature, and that all these hermaphrodite deities convey the idea that only the union of male and female can properly represent divine perfection.’Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood’, 1910
Dionysus, Hermaphroditus, Tiresias and Athena in Ancient Greece, Lan Caihe from China, Hapi and Mut from Ancient Egypt, and multitudes from Hindu, Norse and indigenous American mythologies show the ubiquity of pairing intersex qualities with divinity. Many ancient gods are also hybrids of human and animal body parts or qualities.
Of course, imbuing humans with animal features was most often a punishment for some kind of transgression against the gods. Medusa was transformed into a snake-haired Gorgon after being raped in a temple. Women were most often treated to the part-animal body; female monsters in mythology are universally animalistic, their patchwork bodies symbolising a literal removal of their humanity.
In some traditions there are blurred lines between god and human – Jesus Christ was God in man form but was still, pointedly, a lowly commoner. The god-infused human is more often a powerful ruler, using their divinity to justify their actions and elevate themselves above their subjects. One of the most popular examples are of course the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, who were regarded and regarded themselves as literal gods. My favourite of these, however, not just for the extremely interesting religious and political turmoil he caused, but also his patronage of a beautiful and distinctive artistic style, is Akhenaten.
Once Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten introduced a new monotheistic religion worshipping the Sun God, Aten, changing his name and the entirety of Egyptian culture. Father to Tutankhamun – who immediately upon his ascension to the throne changed his name back from Tutankhaten and restored the previous gods – and husband to Nefertiti, Akhenaten joins his wife and son as one of the most distinctive and well-recognised faces of Ancient Egypt, thanks to the wealth of art that has survived. Once thought to be lost from history, innumerable statues and representations of his form were unearthed in the 19th century from his once-capital city, Amarna, abandoned after his reign for a return to Thebes, the previous capital. This wealth of visual treasures and his close relation to Tutankhamun, and especially his unusual appearance, cements his current cultural status as one of the most well-known faces of the Ancient world.
Akhenaten’s new religion was focussed on a more abstract concept of the Sun deity, rejecting the former spectacular pantheon of human/animal hybrid gods, and therefore the richly visual references of previous mythologies were obsolete. Visually, Akhenaten himself became the sole focus of the artistic output of his new culture, using his own form to propagate his fanatical beliefs. Now, the sexes experienced a new spiritual equality, as the Aten symbolised a life force that combined masculinity and femininity. As Akhenaten represented the Aten, he also represented a divine synthesis of male and female qualities. Could this explain the sensual lips, elongated face, breasts and wide feminine hips that are included in every depiction of the Pharaoh in his personal Amarna art movement?
Unlike the normal, physically powerful pharaoh, he is shown with a slender upper body, delicate features, and a round female breast – a startling image of androgynous beauty. Some scholars see here a hermaphrodite pharaoh, and hail it as a pioneering piece of iconography, expressing the universality of Aten as both the ‘mother and father of all humankind’, a duality embodied in his earthly son. This single creator god cannot be reduced to a single gender.Neil MacGregor, ‘Living with the Gods’, 2019
However, whatever ideological reasons we can suggest, the exaggerated realism of Akhenaten’s new artistic style cannot explain away the striking physical characteristics of his form, which seem incongruous to our Western macho images of kingliness and godliness. Extended analysis of Akhenaten’s mummy and the body of his son, Tutankhamun, have raised the very real possibility that the two men were actually suffering from a hereditary condition that causes an over-production of oestrogen, such as familial gynecomastia. A host of other genetic conditions are suspected, that caused Akhenaten’s large cranium and also possibly what led to Tutankhamun’s early death. The reasons for these are of course generations of marrying close relatives, that seemed to be leading to a health crisis in Akhenaten’s time.
I think this story from 1300 years before Christ is a really interesting synthesis of belief and bodies. In these visual representations of one man, we see on the one side a philosophical stance of promoting the fertility and life force of the sun god in a symbolic fusion of the sexes; on the other we see the traces of a real body that does not fit with traditional gender binaries, an individual with a host of health complications and hormone imbalances, but with enough power to change the whole of his civilisation.