Natural History Museum of Bern, Switzerland is currently running an exhilarating, colourful exhibition called “Queer – Diversity is in our Nature.” The thesis of the curators seems to be that the animal kingdom is rich and diverse with numerous examples of gender bending and gender fluidity. The exhibition’s ambition is to demonstrate the analogy between the biological and the social aspect of being human. The extreme male and female ends of the spectrum are divided by the whole rainbow bridge of glorious and multifaceted variety of phenomena. There is a clownfish, which can change its gender; there are also “gay” male sheep which are not interested in sexual relationships with females. There are no males among Caucasian rock lizards, whose females reproduce through parthenogenesis, which is not that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Albatrosses often relish “lesbian” relationships. The examples are endless. Animals challenge the conservative ideas of what gender or reproduction are. The human cultural labels are used tongue-in-cheek here and in the exhibition but nevertheless there is an air of ultimate liberation in the whole endeavor.
Since this is a natural history museum, naturally the spiritual aspect of queerness was omitted. Nothing was mentioned about religion and what effect it had on the collective judgement on any queerness. The exhibition is focused more on the celebratory, carnivalesque aspect of the diversity and the joy it brings to the world. This reminded me of the ancient and pagan approach to gender fluidity. After all, Greek myths abound in non-binary examples, such as Dionysos or even Athena:
“While Athena identifies as male, Dionysus vacillates between male and female gender performances and roles … His gender fluidity is unique to him amongst the gods, but it is not his only fluid quality; he is very much a liminal figure with continually shifting identities across a variety of traditionally power-saturated realms. He is both male and female, young and old. He is Greek and non-Greek, a god thoroughly embedded in the Greek pantheon, but with mythologies describing him, and his cult, as being newly introduced to the Greek world. He blends the divine, mortal and bestial worlds through his human/animal hybrid followers, the male satyrs and female maenads, while Dionysus walks the line between mortal and immortal. As one of the Olympians, he is unquestionably divine, yet he alone of the Olympians had a mortal mother. And in this liminal space of divine and mortal, he crosses the boundaries between life and death as the twice-born god, having been torn from his dead mother’s womb to be born again from the immortal thigh of Zeus.” (1)
I particularly resonated with the following conclusion of the author:
“Athena and Dionysus are not merely symbolic of how those who may not fit so well into the social structures can still be recognised, but rather they represent the fluidity that lies under the pretense of stability that is continually celebrated and must be continually reaffirmed as divine, natural, ideal and normal. Indeed, one possible conclusion is that if binary sex and gender were any of these things, they would not require such constant upkeep.“ (2)
Dionysos may be the first god who stood for the profound question of identity and its ever-shifting nature. The authors of the book view the question of identity from the perspective of quantum physics with its subatomic participles bearing multiple identities:
“All existence is entangled and unstable, as in undergoing continual, co-dependent transformations.” (3)
One of the most ambiguous and fascinating figures from the Greek myth is Hermaphroditus – a child of Hermes and Aphrodite. In Book Four of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he/she enters a spring, which is under the magic spell of the naiad Salmacis. Salmacis has fallen desperately in love with Hermaphroditus and wants to merge with him/her. As Ovid puts it, when Hermaphroditus emerged from the spring he/she was “a dual form that could be said to be neither woman nor boy, but seemed to be neither and both.” (4)
The author of the book draws an interesting analogy between the newly emerged Hermaphroditus and the primordial chaos, which in Greek myth preceded creation of the manifest world. Hermaphroditus thus embodies the primordial and protohuman forces of chaos. He/she has access to the source of existence with its inherent multiplicity and pre-duality. Erotic desire to merge with the loved one results in nothing less but “a cosmic shift,” concludes the author. (5) The boundaries our mind creates are permeable and unstable:
“Gender in this context is not only fluid and indefinable, but ultimately ceases to exist.” (6)
Plato’s text Symposium contains a famous myth about the nature of love and primordial humans. There were three genders at the beginning: the male one descended from the sun, the female descended from the earth and the hermaphrodite descended from the moon. The hermaphrodites were threatening the gods with their unlimited powers. Therefore Zeus decided to cut the round beings in two, thus implanting the desire to reunite with the lost half in each of them. I thought about that ancient myth while visiting the exhibition. In the exhilarating multiplicity, fluidity and blurred boundaries there is a desire for love and wholeness, which characterizes absolutely all expressions and facets of love.
(1) Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World, edited by Allison Surtees and Jennifer Dyer, Edinburgh University Press, 2020, p. 10
(2) Ibid., p. 13
(3) Ibid., p. 83
(4) Ibid., p. 93
(5) Ibid., p. 99
(6) Ibid., p. 105
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