“Masculinities and Third Gender” by Ilan Peled

Ilan Peled. Masculinities and Third Gender: The Origins and Nature of an Institutionalized Gender Otherness in the Ancient Near East. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 435. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2016, 333 pp., 109.00 €. 

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Ugarit-Verlag for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

In his first published monograph, Ilan Peled tracks the phenomenon of persons born male whose masculine identities were considered ambiguous. Consequently, Peled classifies these people as third gender. Through the monograph he explores several ambiguous figures: gala, kalûkulu’uassinnukurgarrû, lu-sag / ša rēši, and a few less known third gender figures. Third gender, as a byproduct of socialization, and the concept of hegemonic masculinity, and thereby subordinated masculinities, are his two primary methodological approaches. Importantly, his argument places stakes in several fields: Gender Studies, Sociology, Assyriology, Biblical Studies, and Anthropology.

Titel713Chapter One briefly examines aeteological Mesopotamian myths in order to (1) illustrate the place of third gender figures within narrative and hymnic texts, and (2) to demonstrate how the figures parallel real life, as further discussed in later chapters. Chapter Two surveys the gala, kalû, and kulu’u, highlighting the gala/kalû as having emerged originally as performers of lamentation, eventually attaining an important role in the king’s court and cultic practice, and the kulu’u primarily as effeminate males. One argument of Peled is of particular importance: the gala/kalû were not always castrated or part of a lower class.

In Chapter Three, Peled examines attestations of assinnu and kurgarrû from a variety of genres. He suggests the close relationship between the two figures, assinnu as feminine and sexual and kurgarrû as masculine and militant, represented the dual character of Ištar. One argument is particularly valuable. After discussing relationship between assinnu and prophecy, Peled notes that “The Mari texts are the only Mesopotamian records to illustrate any relation between third gender figures and prophecy, and even there this relation is slight” and “It seems that their functions were restricted in most cases to cultic performance” (Peled, 2016, pp. 174-175), converging with Ilona Zsolnay’s point that assinnu were “far from being gender-bending prophets who enter mantic states to bond with a loving form of the goddess Ištar”. In contrast, though, he does not consider the assinnu “a special class of warriors” (Zsolnay, 2013, p. 98).

In Chapter Four, Peled examines attestations of lu-sag and ša rēši from three perspectives: chronological survey of titles, attestations of castration, and a clinical perspective. For those castrated lu-sag and ša rēši, Peled distinguishes the eunuchs from other third gender figures, for they often functioned in important palace positions. Chapter Fives examines seven less known third gender figures separately because there are so few attestations of them.

Finally, Peled summarizes and concludes his work, simplifying subordinated masculinities to three categories: cult personnel, palace attendants, and general concepts. For each category, he provides a possible explanation for the origins of that particular third gender categorical figure. These subordinated masculinities, argues Peled, were institutionalized by men of hegemonic masculinity in order to maintain power and define themselves. By utilizing the concept of hegemonic masculinity, Peled suggests that those of subordinated masculinities became the third gender, boundary breaking, non-normative men. Even as boundary breaking figures, they survived as “an integral stratum within the structure of their society… which contributed a great deal to social stability” (Peled, 2016, p. 294).

Through Masculinities and Third Gender, Peled’s interpretations are minimalistic, remaining relatively close to the original text and avoiding unnecessary speculation. The result is a major re-consideration of older works as “limited and circumstantial” (Peled, 2016, p. 136). For example, unless it is clearly present, Peled argues against all third gender figures as being castrated members and of lower status. In this manner his work is extremely valuable, pushing against many tendencies when scholars interpret third gender figures.

Likewise, the depth of lexical analysis is immeasurably valuable and will be a fundamental text for future social history studies. For the “book forms a historical-philological study… more than an overall discussion of pure social history” (21). While some may find the lack of “pure social history” problematic, it is nonetheless a wonderful contribution to the greater discussion of social history in ancient Mesopotamia.

On a more critical note, there was something off about his methodology, which he acknowledges. He primarily uses two theories: third gender and hegemonic masculinity. Rather than allowing masculinities subordinated to the hegemonic masculinity to remain masculinities, he pushes these into the third gender category. Third gender as a concept, though, encompasses what is neither male or female. It is a unique category, not necessary for figures on the feminine-masculine spectrum. This lack of clarity regarding his methodological framework in this regard does not take away from the overall analysis and conclusions; however, clarifying his definitions and methodology, especially third gender, would strengthen his overall argument. Likewise, elucidating the connection between third gender and subordinate masculinities would strengthen his overall argument.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this work. In particular, those involved in the history of gender, ancient Near Eastern history, and Biblical Studies may find special significance in Peled’s work. His erudite analysis engages with a range of texts in order to elucidate the origins and role of major gender-ambiguous figures throughout a broad spectrum of ancient Near Eastern history. No doubt this is fundamental legwork to future gender studies in ancient Mesopotamia.

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“Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective” by Martti Nissinen

Martti Nissinen critically considers the role, and even definition, of sexuality in the ancient world. Originally published in Finish in 1994, and in English in 2001, Nissinen approaches homosexual relations from a historical perspective, because he recognizes how the modern person’s thoughts of sexuality differ from how the ancient world thought of sexuality. Throughout his work, he explores texts of Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and biblical origins. In analyzing concepts from a multitude of ancient texts, he clearly shows, with strong evidence, the basics of how the ancient world thought of sexuality and gender. He also demonstrates how the modern reader of the Bible, especially the Christian, must take seriously the cultural significance and meanings behind the texts, which are so rooted in another time.

His conclusions of ancient views on sexuality ultimately show how sexuality, biological sex, gender, and life all inter-relate. For example, he demonstrates the assinnu of the Assyrian and Babylonian deity Ishtar. The assinnu was a priest-like person who was neither male nor female. That said, the assinnu cannot either be a “transgender” in the most modern terms because their roles within society had nothing to do with sexual orientation, which is, in and of itself, a 19th century creation. He goes on to show how homoerotic relationships, not to be confused with homosexual relationships, existed and were viewed in classical antiquity, the Hebrew Bible, and Judaism.

Challenging the traditional view of Christianity, Nissinen challenges any interpreter of the Bible to reconsider his or her approach to the Bible, even suggesting that the modern view of homosexuality is under “the authority of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogue” rather than the Bible (124). Although his view and study pose a significant challenge to more conservative Bible readers, it is important to understand the history if any person hopes to make a reasonable, honest, and well-thought out argument for or against—or perhaps somewhere in the middle— homosexuality in the 21st century.

Though it is well-written, well-researched, and in depth (often times it is quite explicit), it is also accessible to any reader without too much use of technical language to limit the audience to be scholars. If you are a scholar, a student, or simply hope to study the history of sexuality for answers on life, this book is perfect for you. Though it is about 20 years old, the scholarship is still relevant for today and essential for understanding how same-sex relation were understood in the ancient world. And, if you’re a theologian, there is even an appendix specifically exploring the theological implication of the historical overview and practical applications for what can be done in light of them.


Click here to purchase “Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective”