On the LGBT Trail in the British Museum

Last Friday I had a day in London which I spent mainly doing research in the British Museum. Part of that involved following up items in R.B. Parkinson’s fine book, A Little Gay History. However, I found that several of the items in it are not currently on display, and I found quite a few more than might have been featured.

This post is photo-heavy and quite long so I am putting the rest of it behind a cut.

I’m afraid I need to start with a bit of a whinge. Naturally my interest in the trail is trans history, and Parkinson correctly highlights the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar as being associated with trans people. However, the object he uses to illustrate this is something called The Queen of the Night. Here it is, lovingly restored with the original colors.


It is a beautiful piece of art, and something that the Museum is rightly proud of. But is it Ishtar? Actually no one knows who it is, because there is no writing on the object. Parkinson is an Egyptologist so may be less familiar with Mesopotamian issues. In the Museum’s book on the object, Dr. Dominique Collon, who is in charge of the Mesopotamian collection, gives three possible identifications: Ishtar, the demon Lilitu (Biblical Lilith) and Ishatr’s sister, Ereshkigal, who is the Queen of the Underworld.

Lilitu is fairly easy to rule out. The figure is shown with a crown-like headdress and holding two “rod-and-ring” symbols, clearly marking her out as a goddess. Lilitu is merely a demon.

The case for the figure being Ishtar is based primarily on her popularity and on the presence of two lions at her feet. Certainly lions are associated with Ishtar, but other representations of her generally show her clothed and bristling with weapons. She is never shown with clawed feet.

There are several good reasons for identifying the figure as Ereshkigal. Barn owls, which also feature in the carving, are generally associated with death in mythology. Downward-pointing wings in Mesopotamian iconography are generally associated with demons and the Underworld. In The Epic of Gilgamesh when Enkidu dreams a visit to the Underworld he describes Ereshkigal as being naked.

Of particular interest is the fact that the figure is shown with two rod-and-ring symbols. Generally gods only have one. In the Descent into the Underworld Ishtar visits her sister and is captured and slain. She is stripped naked as part of this, but the figure in the carving is very much alive and is brandishing two rod-and-rings in triumph. This leads me to suspect that the figure represents Ereshkigal celebrating her triumph over Ishtar.

Finally there is the color. Ishtar is fond of lapis lazuli. The Ishtar gate in Babylon was painted blue and gold. Dr. Collon points out that blue paint was unavailable at the time the carving was made, so cannot have been used. However, red and black coloring seems to me far more suggestive of a death goddess than a fertility goddess.

The Museum does have other representations of Ishtar that Parkinson could have used. This one, for example, which clearly shows her clothed with weapons and spread wings. Or my favorite, another seal, which is currently not on display. Here’s Ishtar in all of her glory.


Of course Ereshkigal’s story is closely bound up with that of Ishtar, and trans people feature in the Descent into the Underworld (they are sent by the gods to rescue Ishtar). But identifying an image of Ereshkigal as Ishtar is kind of like identifying a picture of Loki as Thor. It’s not a mistake I’d want to make.

Moving on, these odd little figures from Cyprus are known as Aphrodite-Astarte figures and they represent a syncretism between Aphrodite (famously born on the island) and the Phoenician goddess, Astarte. The Phoenicians spoke Greek and Astarte is their name for Ishtar. The figures date from before the Classical period, and perhaps help explain the origins of the mysterious cult of Hermaphroditus.


Talking of the Greeks, while they were generally very Patriarchal, they made an exception where the Amazons were concerned. Here’s a lovely little vase showing an Amazon warrior.


There’s no shortage of gay sex in the Roman collection. Here’s one of history’s most famous gay couples, Hadrian and Antinous, together in marble.


And here’s the Warren Cup, from the side that is not normally shown in photos. I guess that’s because two men actually copulating is deemed less shocking than naked penis.


Parkinson highlighted both of those items, but he missed a trick with regard to trans history. Here’s a lovely little oil lamp featuring Cybele, the patron goddess of trans women, together with her lions (because she too is Ishtar), and her consort, Attis (recognizable by his Phrygian cap).


By the way, before Cybele was Cybele she was called Kubaba and was worshiped by the Hittites. The British Museum has a really splendid carving of her.


Sadly not much material from Asia was available. The India and Pakistan galleries are closed for renovation, and the prints of Kabuki players are available on request only. On, therefore, to the Americas. This is Tlazolteotl, a goddess of the Huaxtec people who later became part of the Aztec empire. She was a goddess of sexual excess. According to Parkinson she was sometimes depicted as female and sometimes as male, sort of like a Meso-American Frank N Furter.


Not far away from Tlazolteotl I found Xochipilli, who appears to have been bisexual. He was probably originally Toltec. Under the Aztecs he was the god of gay men, but also seems to have been married to a woman called Mayahuel. It doesn’t look like it from the statue, but Xochipilli was known as the Prince of Flowers and was a very handsome young man much given to partying, and to psychotropic drugs.


Another item listed by Parkinson is one of the saddest exhibits in the Museum. It is a “Winter Count” made by the Dakota Sioux. These documents are a record of major events in the history of the tribe over the years. In 1891 the Count records the death by suicide of Grass, a Winkte person who “had troubles with his folks”. Winkte is a Dakota word meaning “wants to be a woman” and is their term for Two Spirit people.

This may seem like an example of transphobia among Native Americans. However, since the time of the Conquistadores, Europeans had used the existence of LGBT+ people as an excuse to “punish” native peoples, by which they meant kill them and steal their land. By 1891 native people were well aware of the dangers of harboring Two Spirit people among them, so it is no surprise that Grass found resistance to their identity.

Finally we move to Africa. The picture below is a mask from the N’domo initiation ceremony of the Bamana people from Mali. It is a woman’s mask. You can tell that by the fact that it has six horns at the back. If it had seven horns it would represent a non-binary person, because the Bamana recognized the existence of such people.


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8 Responses to On the LGBT Trail in the British Museum

  1. Jen Grove says:

    Fantastic post, Cheryl.

    I love the Cybele lamp.

    “And here’s the Warren Cup, from the side that is not normally shown in photos. I guess that’s because two men actually copulating is deemed less shocking than naked penis.”

    And the fact that one half of the couple appears to be incredibly young (in line with Roman/Greek sexual norms but suggests some caution in straightforwardly using this object to teach about gay relationships today, as e.g. Bettany Hughes advocates in the BM’s World in 100 Objects).

    • Cheryl says:

      I generally prefer to be open about such things than to hide them. After all, hiding them is what has been done to all LGBT+ history for ages.

      • Jen Grove says:

        Completely agree about censorship. I’m really interested in the way the cup has been/is used in all sorts of arguments about modern homosexuality and ancient Roman sexual ethics (though scholars can’t agree if its meant to show Greek or Greek-inspired Roman scenes).

        When I’ve shown young LGBT people this ‘younger’ side and asked if they would see difficulty in discussing this image in e.g. a sex ed class, some have said they’d rather have the image out there to discuss, as a non-heterosexual image, than avoid showing it because it might not fit with contemporary politics around age of consent etc.

        I’ve just been looking at the comments for the World in 100 Objects and seen this:

        “BBC is literally afraid of the Warren Cup. Notice how the side that depicts older males having sex is completely zoomable, while the side depicting the boy having sex is a small photograph and not zoomable at all; further, the video has been darkened and is difficult to see detail.”

        If you’re interested, I wrote a chapter on Warren of the cup and his relationship to it.

  2. Alix says:

    I loved this, thank you. I’m an Assyriologist and j really liked your analysis of the Lady of the Night, and I’m pretty sure I agree with your assessment of it.

    Also, I love anything with Hadrian and Antinous. Their story is beautiful and heart breaking.

    I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for all these items when I next visit.


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