As a trans historian who specialises in the ancient world, I occasionally get asked whether there is any evidence for the existence of trans people in ancient Britain. That isn’t an easy question to answer because our ancestors did not have much in the way of a written culture. Most of what we know about them comes from people like the Romans, who tended to view the British as primitive savages. Nevertheless, there is evidence that we can examine, especially if we can look at the wider cultural background of northern European people in the Iron Age: the people we know as Celts.
I need to start off by talking about the term, “Celts”. The Romans did not generally use that word to describe our ancestors, though Julius Caesar did so once. The people who lived in France were called Gauls, and the people who lived here were called Britons. Beyond that the Romans often used local tribal names such as Brigantes, Silures and so on. The Romans also had separate names for the people of Ireland (Hibernia), and for the people in the far north of Britain, both of which they failed to conquer. They called the free area of northern Britain Caledonia, and its people were known as Picts.
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.
The modern use of “Celtic” dates back to a 17th Century Welsh clergyman, Edward Llwyd, who was researching ancient languages. He divided the languages he called Celtic into two main groups. There was Gaelic (in Irish, Manx and Scottish varieties), and another group made up of Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
Archaeologists have been uncertain what language was spoken by the Picts, but the current consensus was that it was similar to Welsh. However, by the time the Romans left, the Irish had established a colony on the west coast of Scotland. This was called Dál Riata, and the people who lived there were known as Scots. To further complicate matters, the Pictish half of Scotland was later conquered by the Vikings, adding a new culture to the mix.
What we have in northern Europe, therefore, is a possible group of Celtic people, who stretch from the Black Sea to Ireland and may have some common cultural elements. Plus, there are Germanic and Norse people, whom we know have common cultural elements because their gods have very similar names and characters: Wotan amongst the Saxons and Odin amongst the Norse, for example.
The reality of the archaeology is much more complex. Also, shared culture is not always proof of shared ethnicity. The fact that we drive Japanese cars and watch anime does not prove that we are ethnically Japanese.
I know of only one reference in Roman literature to trans-like people amongst the northern barbarians. It comes from the historian, 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 perhaps 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 western Turkey.
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.
There’s also the matter that a cross-dressing priest is by no means clear evidence of anyone we might understand as trans. However, we do know that there were priests among the Scythian people of the Russian steppes who did cross-dress and were regarded as a third gender. Several Greek sources attest to their existence.
Gender fluid shamen are a common feature in many other tribal cultures around the world, so there is a possibility that there were trans people among the druids. Author, Lucy Holland, has taken this idea and run with it in her Arthurian novel, SisterSong which imagines Merlin as genderfluid.
There is little evidence of gender diversity in the ancient legends of these isles. The Mabinogion does have one story in which two young men guilty of rape are punished by being turned into female animals and having to bear young in that state. However, that isn’t really about identity.
Ireland’s legends were written down by Christian monks long after they were composed, and any obvious queer content is likely to have been removed. But the Irish do have an interesting view of Scottish women. Most women in Irish myth are stereotypically feminine, but among the Scots there where two ferocious warrior women, Scáthach and Aífe. They were such good warriors that Irish boys were sent to study with Scáthach on the Isle of Skye to learn fighting skills.
Norse myth, in contrast, is chock full of queer stories. Loki spent a significant part of his life as a mare, giving birth to several children in that time. Then there is the wonderful tale of Thrym’s Wedding. The giant, Thrym, has stolen Thor’s hammer, and has demanded the goddess, Freya, as his bride for ransom. Thor and Loki dress up as Freya and a bridesmaid and travel to Thrym’s home to trick him into giving back the hammer.
Finally, we have Arthurian legends, which were popular among speakers of Welsh-like languages all the way from Brittany to Edinburgh. These are not as relentlessly heteronormative as modern versions would have us believe. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, has a definite homoerotic charge to it, which the recent film sadly played down. Queerest of the lot is Silence, a 13th Century story attributed to Heldris of Cornwall. It features a young person called Silence who is assigned female at birth but raised as a boy. They spend the entire story wrestling with their gender identity in a way that is very familiar to modern trans people. A modern interpretation of the story is available in The Story of Silence by an American trans man, Alex Myers.
It is impossible to draw any firm evidence from this that trans people existed amongst the ancient Britons. We know that they could be found amongst the Romans, because we have plenty of written evidence for it. What we do have for the Celts, and for the Norse, is lots of circumstantial evidence that their attitudes to sexuality and gender were far more complex and sophisticated than 19th and 20th Century historians have led us to believe. Given that trans people have been found in tribal cultures all around the world, it seems highly likely that they would have existed in our islands too.
Cheryl Morgan is a Senior Trainer and Consultant in Trans Awareness for the Diversity Trust.
Image credit: Lou Abercrombie