On Friday I gave a talk for the lovely people at Aberration as part of their LGBTHM festival. They asked me to look for evidence of trans people among the Celtic inhabitants of Britain. This isn’t easy, and my talk was hedged around with caveats. I promised a blog post that would explain things in more detail. Here it is.
I need to start off by explaining what I mean by “Celtic”, because the Romans did not use that word to describe my ancestors. The people who lived in France were called Gauls, and the people who lived here were called Britons. Beyond that they often used local tribal names such as Brigantes, Silures and so on.
However, the Greeks used the word “Keltoi” to describe people who lived up the Danube, so north of the Balkans, including places like Hungary and Slovakia. The modern word “Celtic” is used to denote a group of Bronze/Iron Age tribal cultures that are united by a common language and culture. They spread all the way from Britain and Spain to Eastern Europe and possibly even China. Archaeologists will refer to Hallstatt Culture (named after a town in Austria) as a general term for these people. There are regions of Spain and Poland known as Galicia because the Romans knew them as home to Gauls.
This is all very simplistic, of course. The reality of the archeology is much more complex as we shall see. Also shared culture is not proof of shared ethnicity. The fact that we drive Japanese cars and watch anime does not prove that we are ethnically Japanese.
The only reference I could find regarding trans people in possibly-Celtic culture comes from Tacitus in his book, Germania. As far as the Romans were concerned, “Germany” was somewhat displaced east from our modern idea of the country. The people he was talking about were a tribe called the Nahanarvali, who were part of a larger confederation of tribes called the Lugii. Their home territory was in modern Poland, between the Oder and Vistula rivers. Tacitus wrote:
Among these last is shown a grove of immemorial sanctity. A priest in female attire has the charge of it. But the deities are described in Roman language as Castor and Pollux. Such, indeed, are the attributes of the divinity, the name being Alcis.
On the face of it, that’s pretty good. Sacred groves are things that we associate with Celts, and these people lived in an area where Hallstatt materials have been found. But were they Celts? And if so, would the same gods have been worshipped in Britain? Well, it is complicated.
Depending who you read the Lugii are described as Celtic, Germanic, or proto-Slavic. We do know that the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals lived to the north-east of Lugii territory, and that they gradually pushed westwards through the Roman era. But Tacitus says that the grove is very old, so hopefully that indicates a Celtic origin.
Then there’s the language. The Lugii sound like they are associated with the Celtic god Lugh (Irish) or Lleu (Welsh). There is an unrelated tribe with the same name in Scotland. But the name of the god, Alcis, suggests a Germanic root and an association with deer.
Also, sacred groves are not unique to Celts. I have turned up evidence of one in Sweden, and Cybele (the patron goddess of trans women) was worshipped in a sacred grove on Mount Ida in her home in Phrygia.
Then there is the nature of the gods. Tacitus says they are twin boys, and compares them to Castor & Pollux. But those gods are traditionally associated with horses, not deer. There is good evidence of a pair of twins associated with horses being worshipped by the locals in the Spanish Galicia during Roman times, but we’ve still got the wrong animal.
Of course none of this proves anything about the ancient Britons, so I turned to the Mabinogion to see what surviving Welsh legend might tell us. Somewhat to my surprise, I found something.
In the Fourth Branch, as a precursor to the tale of Blodeuwedd, we get a story about two sons of Dôn, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Gwydion goes on to have many other adventures, but Gilfaethwy is known only for his obsession with a young girl called Goewin. She’s not interested, and she’s a special virgin servant of King Math of Gwynedd so untouchable. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy therefore kick off a small war by stealing some pigs from a rival king, Pryderi of Dyfed. While Math is away dealing with the inevitable retaliation, Gilfaethwy is able to rape poor Goewin.
When Math gets home he finds out what the boys have done and is furious. He turns them first into deer (significant?), then into boar, and then into wolves. In each case one of the boys becomes a male of the species, and the other becomes a female, and they have children, whom Math adopts.
So what we have here is a tale of divine brothers who go through species and gender changes and produce offspring, which is all a bit reminiscent of Loki. Also the boys’ sister, Arianrhod, becomes the mother of Lleu.
At this point the story is so complicated that it is impossible to say anything concrete without sounding like Robert Graves or James George Frazer. You start to understand why they wrote the things that they did. My mind has been racing down rabbit holes ranging from Castor & Pollux and their sister Helen on the one hand, to Freyja and Freyr on the other. I could easily concoct a whole neo-pagan theology around this.
But I am a responsible historian, so I just have to say that we don’t know. It is all very mysterious.
In the meantime, if you have been sent here by the folks at Aberration, you can find a lot more about trans Romans in my academic writing. And the books that I mentioned on Friday are:
- Sistersong – Lucy Holland
- The Story of Silence – Alex Myers