Source: “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets”
by Barbara G. Walker [Harper & Row, 1983]
When men began to seek a share of religious and magical knowledge, formerly the property of women, their original objective was to make themselves resemble women so the spirits would find them acceptable. A common method was to put on women’s clothes.
Transvestism is found in a majority of ancient priesthoods. Tacitus said the priests of Germanic tribes were muliebri ornatu, men dressed up as women. Norse priests of sunrise and sunset rituals in honor of the Haddingjar (Heavenly Twins) were men whose office demanded that they wear the dress and hairstyles of women. Even Thor, the thunder god, received his magic hammer and was filled with power only after he put on the garments of the goddess Freya and pretended to be a bride.
At the ancient Argive “Feast of Wantonness” (Hubritska) men became women by wearing women’s dresses and veils, temporarily assuming feminine powers in violation of a specific taboo.
Greek “lechery” or “pride,” both words associated with penile erection; said to be the sin of Lucifer. Patriarchal gods especially punished hubris, the sin of any upstart who became – in both senses – “too big for his breeches.”
The original Hubritska was an Argive “Feast of Lechery” featuring orgies and transvestism. Men broke a specific taboo by wearing women’s veils and assuming women’s magic power. Christianity later condemned as devil-worship all forms of transvestism, because of its implication that men acquired power through connections with women, whether it was a sexual connection or a masquerade.
Cretan priests of Leukippe, the White-Mare Mother, always wore female dress. So did priests of Heracles, osternibly in memory of their god’s service (in female dress) to the Lydian goddess Omphale, personification of the omphalos. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said men in his day put on women’s clothing to invoke the aid of the goddess Venus.
Roman priests of the Magnus Mater dressed as women, and transvestism figured prominently in Roman rites of Lupercalia and the Ides of January. The custom was still prevalent in the time of St. Augustine, who inveighed against men who clothed themselves in women’s garments at the feast of Janus. He said such men could not attain salvation, even if they were otherwise good Christians. Before his conversion to Christianity, St. Jerome even participated in ritual transvestism, though his biographers tried to pretend that he had worn women’s clothes by mistake.
Despite Augustine and other church fathers, ritual transvestism continued. Men dressed in women’s clothes at religious festivals at Amasea in the 5th century, and again – or still – at the Kalends of January in the 10th century. Balsamon said in the 12th century even the clergy participated in pagan rites in the nave of the church, wearing masks and female dress. Gregory of Tours, bishop of Auvergne in Merovingian times, was forced to give up his church to a crowd of “demons,” their leader dressed as a woman and seated on the Episcopal throne. The inquisitor Jean Bodin asserted that male and female witches actually changed their sex by changing clothes with one another.
Men’s transvestism was rooted in the ancient desire to imitate female magic. In the Celebes, religious rituals remained in the hands of women, assisted by an order of priests who wore female dress and were called tjalabai, “imitation women.” The same word was applied in Arabia to the robe that men copied from women, djallaba. Among the northern Batak the shaman is always a woman, and the office is hereditary in the female line, because there was no transvestism. In Borneo, magicians are required to wear women’s clothes. Considered the greatest were those shamans who could “change their sex” and become female, taking husbands and living as homosexual wives.
Similarly, American Indians viewed the Berdache as a gifted medicine man. He claimed to receive an order from the Moon-goddess in a dream, to the effect that he must turn female and become one of her own. He was accepted by the tribe as the woman he wanted to be, was allowed to wear women’s clothes, joined the women’s craft guilds and dance societies. Eliade says, “Ritual and symbolic transformation into a woman is probably explained by an ideology derived from the archaic matriarchy.”
An observer in Malaysia said it was “more than likely that manangism (shamanism) was originally a profession of women, and that men were gradually admitted to it, at first only by becoming as much like women as possible.” The manang or shaman put on female clothing after initiation, and remained a transvestite for life. A Dyak manang still wears women’s dress and follows women’s occupations.
“This transvestism, with all the changes that it involved, is accepted after a supernatural command has been thrice received in dreams: to refuse would be to seek death. This combination of elements shows clear traces of a feminine magic and a matriarchal mythology, which must formerly have dominated the shamanism of the Sea Dyak; almost all the spirits are invoked by the manang under the name of Ini (Great Mother).”
The Krishna cult as currently practiced in India still demands ritual transvestism for men who adore the feminine principle by identifying themselves as Krishna’s Gopis. They wear the clothes and ornaments of women and even observe a “menstrual period” of a few days’ retirement each month. According to their theological doctrine, “all souls are feminine to God.”