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With special thanks to Ilaeira.
‘It’s cultural’, people have often said to me. The tenacity of multiple systems of oppression – patriarchy, heteronormativity, racism – suggests they are and always have been endemic in Cypriot culture. As a member of the Cypriot diaspora, it has certainly felt that way. The number of times I heard anecdotes glorifying misogynistic or homophobic behaviour ‘back in the village’ as a child, and the reactionary worldviews espoused by swathes of the diaspora make for an unsafe environment for too many in the community today. It is why I have seldom protested when (white) non-Cypriots have told me this is how they perceive Cypriot culture to be. Where is the proof to suggest otherwise?
During an interview I recently gave to the Cypriot podcast, ‘From Root To Vine’, I found myself discussing these very systems of subjugation in the community. Young Cypriot activists are constantly talking about these problems – so surely it’s fair game to attribute them to one’s cultural history?
A comment made by Cypriot activist and Instagram friend, Ilaeira, reminded Cypriots that, despite the sometimes disheartening rhetoric that surrounds us, we should avoid essentialist conclusions on Cypriot culture. The loudest bigots within the community often like to use national(ist) identity as a pillar of their intolerant agendas. Suggesting non-binary expressions of gender and sexuality are ‘un-Cypriot’ or ‘un-Greek’ is a familiar refrain among the far right. How curious, then, that a foray into Cyprus’ folk music and art suggests non-binary expression to be a very Cypriot affair?
Androniki – celebrating the masculine woman
A certain folk song called ‘Androniki’, which many members of the Cypriot diaspora will have grown up hearing in their homes, may be a good start in examining the celebration of non-binary gender expression in Cypriot culture.
The song laments the tale of a woman called Androniki, who was murdered by her brother for dressing in men’s trousers and playing cards, whilst smoking nargile (shisha) with a male lover.
Εμάθετε τι 'γίνην σε μέρη ελληνικά 'ντύθην η Αντρονίκη ρούχα 'βρωπαϊκά. Φορεί τα πατταλόνια τζαι πα' στον καβενέν του καβετζή προστάζει καβέν τζαι ναρκιλλέν. Did you hear what happened in a Greek[-speaking] corner of the world? Androniki got dressed in European clothing. She wore trousers and went to the cafe and ordered coffee and shisha from the bartender.
Androniki’s gender expression is notably subversive not just because she wears trousers, which in sectors of Cypriot society and in other countries of the region were reserved for men, but also due to her very ‘un-feminine’ smoking of shisha at the kafenen (cafe). Androniki is neither dressed nor behaving in accordance with the gender norms expected of her as a member of the female gendered group.
Upon first reading, the murdering of a woman who refuses to comply with gender norms is hardly uplifting, admittedly. The song goes into some detail about her murder. Interestingly, in some versions of the song it is her female breast – βυζίν – that is wounded by her brother’s bullet. Is Androniki being re-feminised by her oppressive brother’s pistol? Can we interpret the wounding of this female anatomical indicator as a symbolic homage to Androniki’s androgynous expressions? Perhaps both.
Yet the story does not end on Androniki’s murder. It is at this point that the bigots within the diaspora (and beyond) will stop rejoicing. For though her non-binary gender expression got her killed, the song tells us that Androniki’s Cypriot compatriots are horrified at the death of their cross-dressing neighbour.
Ποτζεί που την ερέσσαν ούλλοι εκλαίασιν κρίμαν στην ομορκιάν της ούλλοι ελέασιν. There where her dead body passed by they cried; “What a waste of her beauty,” they said.
Not only does Cypriot society mourn the beauty of the cross-dressing woman, but in some versions of the song the man responsible for her death does not go unpunished.
Τζαι πιάσαν τον Βαντζέλην τζαι τον δικάσασιν Πα’στο δεντρό τον βάλουν τζαι τον κρεμάσασιν And they took Vaggeli [Androniki’s brother] and they sentenced him They tied him to the tree and they hanged him.
There is an added layer of irony in the fact that the brother who sought to defend gender norms is hanged. As Eva Cantarella explores in her essay, ‘Dangling Virgins: Myth, Ritual and the Place of Women in Ancient Greece’, in Greek mythology hanging was a method of dying (or killing) reserved for women. Hanging separated the woman-mother figure from the fertile earth with which her sex was associated. This Cypriot folk song sees that gendered motif, and subverts it in one line. Bad news for our Hellenist brethren.
It is important to note that Androniki exists in different forms beyond Cyprus. Across various islands of Greece, in parts of Greece proper, and in Asia Minor there are variations of the song. Available evidence suggests that only the Cypriot version(s) include a) the ‘crime’ of Androniki wearing trousers and b) the sentencing to death of her brother. As with most things, Cyprus has walked its own path. In this case, one that celebrates gender benders.
Prehistoric Cyprus and sexually ambiguous bodies
Panicked bigots may wish to stress that Androniki is but a single aberration from an otherwise seamless cultural history of binary gender expression. So let’s go right to where it all began, and take a look at prehistoric Cyprus.
Modern conceptions of the prehistoric world still tend to assume that the gender binary was the norm. After all, neanderthal men with big spears and domesticated wives remain patriarchy’s unspoken dream.
Representations of sex and gender in prehistoric Cyprus, according to its pottery, appear to have been anything but binary. It is well-documented that pottery from Cyprus’ prehistoric period regularly depicted bodies that were sexually dimorphic, hermaphrodite or otherwise sexually ambiguous.
Zoologist and collector of Cypriot antiquities, Desmond Morris, pointed out in 1985 that the majority of plank figurines from Cyprus’ Bronze Age gave ‘no hint of gender’ in their anthropomorphic depictions. As Lauren E. Talalay (University of Michigan) and Tracey Cullen (American School of Classical Studies, Athens) explore in their essay, figurines from Cyprus’ Neolithic and Chalcolithic eras regularly depicted sexually dimorphic bodies. At least two well-known examples from excavations at Sotira-Arkolies and Lemba-Lakkous (the ‘Lemba Lady’ figurine below) depict phallic heads with female bodily features.
Even sex was not always depicted as binary in Cypriot prehistoric pottery. In Morris’ book, fig. 233 depicts a figurine with small breasts, a penis, and an infant in hand. Canadian archeologist and specialist in Cypriot and Syrian artefacts, Edgar Peltenburg, confirms that in the Lemba excavation many artefacts were found depicting ‘naturalistic females with outspread arms and phalluses’. So much for binary caregivers.
As Dr. Diane Bolger (ceramics specialist of prehistoric Cyprus, co-editor of Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus ) points out, how representations of gendered bodies in prehistoric art are interpreted has persistently evoked a priori concepts of early religion and women’s role in ancient society. The breadth of archeological excavations and research on the island strongly suggests that ancient Cypriot communities were based on ‘relatively egalitarian’ relations between the sexes; an abundance of artistic depictions have been found, for example, of male and female bodies ‘laboring harmoniously’, with the sexual division of labour only intensifying after the Agricultural Revolution.
Perhaps most interestingly, archeological excavation work on prehistoric ceramics and figurines indicate that pre-pubescent bodies were deliberately depicted as unsexed and un-gendered. Elinor C. Ribeiro from the University of Reading discusses the cultural significance of these non-binary artistic depictions. Early and Middle Cypriot society most likely considered pre-pubescent children as neither male nor female, waiting for them to reach sexual maturity before grouping them.
Anyone who thinks Ancient Cyprus was a cradle of binarism would do well to consider these realities.
Examples of non-binary gender expression can be found throughout Cypriot history and culture. The cross-dressing gallae eunuchs of the Neo-Babylonian Cult of Cebele who, originating from Anatolia, introduced their orgiastic worship to Cyprus and Mesopotamia; the transgendered body of Saint Mary of Egypt in a Byzantine fresco at the Panagia Asinou Church (Troodos Mountains); the transgender depictions of the island’s patron god.dess Aphrodite.
The systematic oppression and erasure of non-binary identity in Cyprus was a byproduct of British colonialist rule and (Greek-)Cypriot nation-building. Eagerly assisting this process has been the island’s powerful Orthodox Church which, through its dissemination of ‘Hellenorthodox ideals and national values’, continues to enjoy a significant role in deciding how Cypriot children are educated on issues including LGBTQ+ identity. As a result, Cypriots have been made to feel that heteronormativity and a rigid gender binary are rooted in their culture.
Though, admittedly, there is much-needed research on non-binary expression in Cyprus’ early modern period, there are already shoots of a contemporary queer renaissance across Cypriot communities. Lesbian artist, Charitini Kyriakou and Queer Cyprus‘ ‘Mega-Zine of Literary and Artistic Responses to Postcolonialism & Partition’ (University of Kent) are two of many inspiring examples.
Most importantly, the evidence explored in this essay shows that even the most fervent anti-queer policies cannot erase the mosaic of gender expressions that permeate, to varying degrees, Cyprus’ cultural history. Those who wish to reconnect with their Cypriot roots, indeed those who wish to laud themselves as the ultimate ‘patriot’, will first have to embrace Cyprus’ culture of non-binary gender expression.
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
Article Image Source: Wikimedia Commons