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The Beginning of Intolerance

The beginnings of anything have always fascinated me.

It is rare to be able to trace a sociological/cultural attitude to its beginning. The attitude of intolerance toward gender variant people can probably be traced to one book Physologus. This was probably based in part on the Epistle of Barnabas (now considered aprociphal) This was a collection of anecdotes about animals, some more or less accurate others wildly fanciful in which a Christian moral was extracted from various aspects of animal behavior.

Some of the original stories predate Christ particularly those related to the hyena. The hyena is somewhat hard to sex, the genitalia being very similar between male and female, the clitoris and penis being almost identical in size.

Two Aesop fables  Approximately 600BCE

A couple of fables play off the ancient myth that hyenas changed gender every year. "The Hyena and the Fox'' tells of the fox who rejects the hyena's female incarnation because he can't know "whether you would be my girlfriend or my boyfriend.'' In "The Hyenas,'' after a male hyena attempts what the fable calls an "unnatural'' act with a female hyena, she warns him to "remember that what you do to me will soon be done to you.''

You can see this was a long standing myth and long predates Christianity!

Physologus, known as the Bestiary, was first published in about the first century AD in Greek and quickly translated into Latin. The popularity of this work gave rise to dozens of different versions differing widely. In the Middle Ages it made it made it into almost every medieval language from Icelandic to Arabic and virtually every romance language. This work was on the top 10 of all time, its influence extending in to the present time.  I am going to include three Quotes one from Barnabas who is mentioned in the New Testament one from Clement 215 CE and one from Physologus. The Aberdeen Bestiary has at the top of each page in the center a discoloration these are the finger marks of those that held up the book as you would to show a class.

 

The Epistle of Barnabas

Barnabas 10:6 Moreover thou shalt not eat the hare. [Lev. 11:6]  Why so? Thou shalt not be found a corrupter of boys, nor shalt thou become like such persons; for the hare gaineth one passage (anus) in the body every year; for according to the number of years it lives it has just so many orifices.

 10:7 Again, neither shalt thou eat the hyena; thou shalt not, saith He, become an adulterer or a fornicator, neither shalt thou resemble such persons. Why so? Because this animal changeth its nature year by year, and becometh at one time male and at another female.

10:8 Moreover He hath hated the weasel also and with good reason. [cf. Lev.  I: 29].  Thou shalt not, saith He, become such as those men of whom we hear as working iniquity with their mouth for uncleanness, neither shalt thou cleave unto impure women who work iniquity with their mouth. For this animal conceiveth with its mouth

  Moses did not, of course, attribute these bizarre characteristics to the animals in question, nor did he in fact even prohibit the eating of the hyena, but few early Christians knew the text of Leviticus well enough to recognize the distortion

  The hyena is not specifically mentioned in Leviticus. In Deut. 14:8 the word used in the Septuagint to express the prohibition against eating pork resembles the word for “hyena”, and the two are etymologically related. The hyena is somewhat hard to sex, the genitalia being very similar between male and female, the clitoris and penius being almost identical in size. 

Whether or not they were partly derived from Barnabas or Clement, early Greek and Latin versions of the Physiologus made exactly the same fanciful connection between the colorful legends about animal sexuality and Mosaic Law.

The law says, “You shall not eat the weasel or anything like it.” The Physiologus has written of it that it has this trait: the female receives from the male in her mouth, becomes pregnant, and gives birth through her ears.  The law says, “You shall not eat the hyena or anything like it.” The Physiologus has written of it that it is male-female; that is, at one time male and at another female. It is therefore an unclean animal, because of this sex change. This is why Jeremiah says;

 “Never will the den of the hyena be my inheritance.”

You must not, therefore, become like the hyena, taking first the male and then the female nature; these, he says, the holy Apostle reproached when he spoke of “men with men doing that which is unseemly.” 

Prior to and during the time of Christ generally there was a greater tolerance for gender variant people. And in other cultures tolerance was generally the rule. 

I am aware of attributing such a vast change in attitude to one source, but this was at least a major contributor to a change. This work was so ubiquitous that it, like advertising told people something so many times that even though it was not true, was believed. In the interest of space I will not quote much later sources and their references to the “Bestiary”.  Suffice it to say this work had a huge impact and we are still suffering from it!

   

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Last modified: 12/24/13