Gender-bending among the Ancient Gods


Cycladic figurine, 2400-2300 b.c.e.

The figurine to the right, made in the Cyclades around 2400 to 2300 BCE, is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has, obviously, a penis as well as pronounced breasts (because of the angle of the lighting, the left breast isn’t clearly visible in my photo). The museum’s description says, “It is conceivable that the sculptor began making a woman and modified the statuette because of a change in his commission.”

I suppose that’s conceivable. I am in no way an expert in Cycladic art, but I’m having some trouble buying that explanation entirely.

There’s nothing about the figurine that looks unfinished or haphazard. It has perfect little toes. The hair is perfectly combed back.

And even though I’m not an expert in Cycladic art or in art of any kind, for that matter, if I were making a female figurine (with breasts), and then the person who was paying me to make the thing said, “Actually, make the figurine a dude,” and then I took the trouble to give the figurine a penis, would it be really be that much more trouble to do a kind of breast-reduction move on it to make it more dude-like?

The vast majority of Cycladic figurines are female (having breasts, usually what Cycladic art historians call a “pubic triangle” or a “pubic V,” and sometimes a camel toe, and no penis). And there are some Cycladic dudes with no breasts whatsoever. There is also a small group of figurines, like this one, that have both a penis and breasts or breast-like chesty things. Some of these “breasts” are quite small and could be explained as simple male nipples. Others, like on our figurine above, are a bit more obviously breastlike.

We have no explanation. All these statuettes (of any gender) are a bit of a mystery. We don’t know what they meant. They were found in graves—graves of both men and women—but what does that tell us? It’s likely they were not acquired only to be buried with a loved one, but were owned in life (some of them show signs of repair—suggesting they were broken and then fixed long before they were buried with their owner). We have no clue what they meant to the people who made them and owned them.

Some figurines are pretty clearly pregnant, and some have incised horizontal lines across the belly, which are interpreted as indicating recent childbirth. Some figurines have a baldric or a belt with a codpiece of some sort and occasionally a weapon. They are usually considered male, even if a figurine is damaged and has no genitals whatsoever; they are often called hunter/warrior figurines. Some figurines are musicians (some male, some unspecified); one figurine is seated and raising a cup, as if making a toast. Those figurines are all considered male, because they are “active.” Take, for example, the museum description for cup bearer figurine: “Although the gender is not indicated, it is considered to represent a male figure because it is shown ‘in action.’” Though there is one fragmentary female figurine that is holding a holding a square object, and one figurine (assumed to be female) that is holding a baby. I guess that’s not “active” enough to break the men=active, women=passive interpretation.

So what are the possibilities for the figurines with both male and female characteristics? The traditional explanation is simple: “they’re male; ignore the breasts.”

Neither the sculptors nor their customers seem to have been very particular about their figures at this late date. There are examples in which quite ordinary female folded-arm figurines seem to have been perfunctorily transformed into males by the simple addition of a hastily incised penis and, more noticeably, an incised or merely scratched diagonal line on the chest and back to indicate the baldric. Apparently, it did not matter that the baldric was added as an afterthought and cuts across the arms.1

That scholar, Pat Getz-Gentle, an authority on Cycladic art, is mostly describing this figurine, which does match her description. But other male figurines with breasts, like the Met figurine above, don’t seem to have had their “transformation” done in a hasty or perfunctory manner. And Getz-Gentle says a few pages later:

The sheer labor involved in the production of any but the simplest small figurines must have precluded a haphazard or spontaneous approach.

And yet after all that work, they’d just slap a penis or a baldric on a figurine and call it a dude? Perhaps.

One grad school professor of mine once jokingly called some interpretations of ancient art Urdummheit, “ancient stupidity.” The ancients were so simplistic, the modern scholar says, that if it had a penis, it was clearly male, and you didn’t have to tone down the prominent ta-tas it was carrying around.

This argument—that a figurine is 100% male even if it has quite female-like breasts—is complicated by several figurines attributed to the Doumas Sculptor, which show a person with breasts, a slightly swollen belly that is marked with horizontal lines (usually attributed to childbirth), and unmistakably male genitals. The image below (from a 2001 study by Getz-Gentle) shows one of those, next to a female figurine attributed to the same sculptor, which has a similar swollen belly (though without the horizontal lines).2

Cycladic figurines attributed to the Doumas Sculptor, c. 3000–2800 BCE

Cycladic figurines attributed to the Doumas Sculptor, c. 3000–2800 BCE

The “male” figure on the left has smaller breasts than the one on the right, but other female figurines attributed to Doumas have similarly small breasts. Another image in the book, which shows these two figurines from the side, shows that their bellies are swollen to about the same degree. Getz-Gentle discusses these figurines, several of which were newly available for study, and speculates that portraying men with childbearing attributes might be an expression of couvade, a sympathetic pregnancy. She notes that the only “pregnant male” figurines found so far are all attributed to the Doumas Sculptor. No other sculptor created this type of figurine. She also comments, “I expect that we are today more concerned with making clear distinctions of gender and more bothered by seemingly ambiguous or dualistic representations than prehistoric people were.”3

Statuette of Aphroditus, fourth century BCE

Statuette of Aphroditus, from Locri, fourth century BCE

Given that we don’t have a clue what any of these figurines mean, and since this is my blog, I’d like to propose a further possibility: that these figurines were intended to have both male and female attributes. Perhaps it was simply a way of encompassing in one figurine both male and female aspects of fertility and/or sexuality. Perhaps they can be seen as a manifestation of a dual-gendered fertility figure similar to the much later Cypriot/Greek god Aphroditus (a.k.a. Hermaphroditus). Statuettes of Aphroditus are mostly a regular Aphrodite, but are lifting up their clothing to reveal male genitals. Aphroditus was originally from Cyprus (where Aphrodite was from). The historian Philochorus (third century BCE) says Aphroditus was worshiped in Athens at festivals at which men dressed in women’s clothing and women in men’s.

The major problem with this suggestion is that we know very little of Cycladic religion or culture, and inferring something like this from a handful of figurines is risky, to say the least. But given that there are only a total of about 35 Cycladic figurines that are identified as male, inferring anything about such a small and varied sample is probably a little risky.

And Aphroditus is not the only gender-bending god around. In the ancient near east, Ishtar and Astarte, who (like Aphrodite) presided over the realm of sexual love, were ambiguous at times. Ishtar was sometimes shown with a beard; there was a male version of Astarte, Ashtar. Ishtar was associated with war as well as sex, just as Aphrodite at times appeared armed. So there were precedents for dual-gendered or ambiguously gendered figures at the time. And there is some evidence of near eastern influence in the Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age at the time when the Met figurine above was made. In fact, it has been suggested that the imagery on some Cycladic pottery of the time might be related to a Levantine version of Astarte who is associated with the ocean (the sea/sexuality/fertility).4

I think the greatest danger in interpreting these figurines is in the tendency to want to find definitive answers, to come to a satisfying conclusion. Labeling any “active” figurine “male” complicates things in those inevitable times when clearly female figurines are doing something. Disregarding the breasts on an otherwise male figurine makes it easier to fit the figurine into the “hunter/warrior” category, but what if that category is more complicated than you’d like it to be? Getz-Gentle is right, however—some people find ambiguity frightening.


  1. Pat Getz-Preziosi, Early Cycladic Sculpture: An Introduction (Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994), 43–46. [Note: most of her work is published under the name Getz-Gentle. A pdf of her early article "The Male Figurine in Early Cycladic Sculpture," Metropolitan Museum Journal 15 (1980): 5–33, can be found here, which describes the gynacomastia in some detail.]
  2. Pat Getz-Gentle, Personal Styles in Early Cycladic Sculpture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), plate 53.
  3. Ibid., p. 62.
  4. E.S. Sherratt suggests this in The Captive Spirit: A Catalogue of Cycladica in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford University Press). I haven’t read Sherratt’s discussion of it; I read a brief mention of the suggestion in another book.

About eteokretan

Interests include: books, art, movies, history, mythology, wandering around, people watching, being a bit weird, running, soccer.
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3 Responses to Gender-bending among the Ancient Gods

  1. We visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last week and there were numerous examples (and relatively modern works as well) of multi-gendered subjects in sculpture and painting. Some were unintended, I think, but others were what they were supposed to be – open, subject to interpretation or representative of an idea.

  2. I’m teaching an art class on this piece next week – a fresco retrieved from Pompeii of the Roman deity Lars; Let’s see how many questions I get from 1st graders! I’m hoping we skip massive gender discussions and end up talking about Vesuvius instead!

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