In my world literature class, we cover the Epic of Gilgamesh and Babylonian myth. My teacher talks about a being named Asushunamir. He uses the words “creature” and “hermaphrodite” to describe them. According to my teacher, Asushunamir was created to rescue the goddess Ishtar from the underworld. He says that because they were both male and female, they were considered “more than human” and therefore could enter the underworld safely, whereas mortal men and women could not.
After that class, I wonder what happened over thousands of years that made people stop thinking of trans and intersex people as more than human and start thinking of them as less than human instead. I have read about how many cultures worldwide have relegated gender non-conforming people to sacred roles in society. I wonder how our sacredness was assaulted over time, how we went from being priests and priestesses and rescuers of goddesses to being considered laughingstocks. We went from being beyond human to not being considered people at all. Even when my teacher talked about a myth that venerated someone like me, the closest thing to representation I’ve ever found in a myth as a non-binary person, he used words that are dehumanizing and insulting.
Years later, I see an illustration by a trans person named Car-oh portraying what their dysphoria feels like. They have drawn themselves with pink hair in a bun, a small mustache, blue skin, and six glowing green eyes, like an alien. And I feel like I’ve been slapped in the face, because I feel like an alien too. All my life there have been two boxes for people, and I don’t fit into either. And some part of me thinks that maybe that’s because I am not a person, not human, at all. Because if you don’t fit into either box, you aren’t fully human, right? I wonder where my planet is, if I will ever find my people outside of small meetings at my local LGBT Center. I’d like to be part of a gender majority for once. Maybe then I’d feel like a real person.
The drawing makes me remember Asushunamir’s story, but I can’t remember their name, much less spell it. I scour the Internet, typing words I hate into Google in order to find them: “epic of gilgamesh hermaphrodite,” “babylonian mythology hermaphrodite.” I only find them after searching “babylonian mythology underworld creature” and clicking on Ishtar’s Wikipedia page, the third result. Wikipedia thankfully describes Asushunamir as intersex but calls them “it” and has no separate page for them. They are only worth a couple of mentions in someone else’s story.
I Google their name and find next to nothing. Babylonian myth is well-researched and classes all over the United States teach it, but there are no .edu’s or .org’s detailing the story of Asushunamir. There are no “reputable sources” that talk about them in depth. But one site has typed up a translation of Asushunamir’s story, their rescue of Ishtar from the underworld. It’s a quick read.
Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth, is imprisoned in the underworld by her sister Ereshkigal, the queen of death. The earth begins dying without Ishtar. Ereshkigal decrees that no god or goddess, man or woman, will free Ishtar. So the god Enki creates a being “born from the light of the stars,” Asushunamir, who is both and neither male or female. The story refers to Asushunamir with a jumble of pronouns, “It” and “He and She” and “His-Her,” but I don’t feel insulted. Their pronouns are capitalized just like Ishtar’s and Ereshkigal’s and Enki’s, and their face is described as “brilliant, so beautiful.” They are “clothed in stars,” a “being of light,” and Ereshkigal is enamoured and throws a feast in their honor. Even after they free Ishtar and Ereshkigal curses them, Asushunamir’s beauty remains undiminished.
Despite the use of pronouns that sound insulting to me as a modern reader, I am not upset because the story clearly honors Asushunamir anyway. And again I wonder what happened over thousands of years to turn the pronoun “it” into something so horrible and dehumanizing, to make “he-she” a vicious insult. There is a reason that I am using they/them pronouns for Asushunamir. Even with the unusually respectful tone of the Its and He-Shes in this story, I can’t use them myself without feeling like I am dishonoring a sibling.
After Asushunamir sneaks away while Ereshkigal is sleeping and frees Ishtar, Ereshkigal curses them. “The food of the gutter shall be your food!” she says. “The drink of the sewer shall be your drink. In the shadows shall you abide.” Like in Sleeping Beauty, Ishtar cannot fully take away this curse, but she can soften it.
Ishtar says, “For many ages you will suffer. Those who are like you, queer ones, lovers of men, kin to my sacred women, shall be as strangers in their homes. Their families will keep them as secrets in the shadows and will leave them nothing. The drunken shall smite their faces, and the mighty shall imprison them.
“But if you will remember Me, how you were born from the light of the stars to save Me from death and rid the earth of winter, I shall harbor you and your kind. You shall be My special children, and I shall make you my priests. I shall grant you the gift of prophecy, the wisdom of the earth and moon. You shall banish illness from My children, as you have stolen Me from Ereshkigal and the Land of No Return.
“And when you adorn yourselves in My robes I shall dance in your feet and sing in your throats, and no one shall be able to resist your enchantments.”
I feel a deep sense of recognition reading these words, and I wonder if I am allowed to, because the “lovers of men, kin to my sacred women” line seems to allude to transgender women who are attracted to men, not a transmasculine and genderqueer person like me. But this is the closest thing I have to an origin story, to a reason for why people like me exist. I read lots of mythology when I was growing up. The Greek myth of Pandora’s box told me why general suffering exists in the world, but not why transgender people are still suffering when we don’t deserve to. As a child I read multiple cultures’ versions of how humans came to be, why wolves howl at the moon, why the world works the way it does, but I never saw any myths that talked about trans or gender non-conforming people. The easiest conclusion was that they just didn’t exist, that being transgender is a new thing. But Asushunamir’s story shows me that being like me is not a new thing, that people we would call “transgender” have existed since the beginning of civilization. But for some reason, Western cultures have kept our stories silent, kept us invisible.
I like the idea of being considered beautiful in my ambiguity, more powerful than human, connected to the gods. I like it better than invisibility and insults, than never hearing stories about people like me except when we are bruised and bloodied and violated, or when we are killing ourselves. But when I look in the mirror now, I don’t see a being of light. I don’t see a subhuman monstrosity or an alien either. I see acne scars brought on by testosterone, patches of hair and thick thighs, a flat chest and broad hips. And maybe that somehow makes me a mixture of male and female, but I just think it makes me myself. I just see a flawed, human body.
And I wonder if there has ever been any point in history where someone like me could just be human.