I was introduced to Hindu mythology at a very young age by my loving grandmother who fed me stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata at bedtime. I grew up to be someone who is fascinated by mythological stories from all over the world.
Like most of us, I was raised in a heteronormative environment which is why I didn’t make any conscious effort to know about the spectrum outside of heterosexuality concerning the characters of these stories.
Most of the stories that I have come across have strong roots of patriarchy however different mythologies have different ways of portraying gender fluidity and queerness amongst its characters despite being heavily influenced by patriarchal norms.
Queer characters and their stories in Mythology
Achilles and Patrolocus
In Greek mythology, Achilles was one of the greatest Greek warriors and a hero of the Trojan war. He’s the central character in Homer’s Iliad, an Ancient Greek epic poem.
Achilles was a very close friend of Patroclus who was also a warrior. There have been no stories of them having a homoerotic relationship in the Homeric tradition however, Greek authors later have interpreted the story with the context of them being lovers.
During the Trojan war, there was one instance when Achilles refused to take the stance as a warrior. Instead, he asked Patroclus to wear his armour to impersonate Achilles. Patroclus fought bravely but couldn’t save his own life. When Achilles learned about Patroclus’ death, he was shocked and avenged the death of Patroclus by killing Hector (the one who killed Patroclus).
There’s also a story that after the death of Achilles, his ashes were buried along with the ashes of Patroclus.
Lord Shiva Turning into a Woman
In Hindu mythology, one of the stories from the Tamil Folklore is of Lord Shiva turning into a woman to help his devotee’s daughter deliver her child.
One day, the river Kaveri was not kind and the waves were overpowering every force that came across it. No boatman was ready to risk his life on the boat. A mother realised that she would not reach for the birth of her daughter’s child. Her husband asked her to pray to Lord Shiva as he was the only one that could save her.
Her prayers proved to be fruitful and Shiva got ready to climb down Mount Kailash to help his devotee’s daughter. As he was leaving, Gauri (Shiva’s wife) stopped him and told him he was covered in ash and that he would scare her away. Shiva agreed and took the form of the old mother and went to her daughter’s house.
He helped her deliver the baby and comforted her throughout labour.
Later, they realised that the old mother was none other than Lord Shiva.
Seth and Horus
In Egyptian mythology, Seth, the storm God, is associated with a lot of natural disasters. Despite being married to his own sister, he engaged in sexual activities with the other male deities including Horus, the sky God. Horus was the rival of Seth as Seth had killed his father Orisis. However, Seth seduced Horus to establish dominance over him and subsequently engaged in sexual intercourse with him.
After multiple conflicts and fights between them, Horus defeated Seth and won over his kingdom.
The Tale of Zeus and Ganymede
According to Greek Mythology, Ganymede was a divine hero. The Greek Poem ‘Iliad’ by Homer describes Ganymede to be one of the most beautiful mortals. In one version of this story, Zeus, the God of Thunder and Lightning is so mesmerised by his beauty, that he falls in love with him and abducts Ganymede by taking the form of an eagle, taking him to Olympus.
At Olympus, Zeus grants him eternal youth and immortality and makes him the cupbearer to the Gods.
Zeus may be seen as a bisexual God as he is married to several women and also there are a lot of mentions of him being sexually attracted to men.
Shikhandi from Mahabharata
According to Hindu Mythology, Shikhandi was born to the King of Panchal, Draupada and was the eldest of all his siblings. Despite being born in a female body, he was raised and was believed to be a male due to which he learnt all the skills that are necessary to become a warrior.
However, after his wife discovered that her husband had a female body, she was in a state of shock and returned to her parents’ home. Shikhandi confronted his female body for the first time and somehow felt responsible for the mishap caused. As he went to the forest to kill himself, a yaksha (a deity in a broad class of nature-spirits, usually benevolent, but sometimes mischievous or capricious, connected with water, fertility, trees, the forest, treasure and wilderness) saved his life and lent him his ‘manhood’ for one night.
After satisfying the sexual desires of his wife, he went in the forest to return the organ back to the yaksha; Kubera the King of the yakshas was impressed by Shikhandi’s integrity to return the Male organ and granted him the organ for as long as Shikhandi lived.
During the Kurukshetra war, Shikhandi was the reason for the death of Bhisma as he saw Shikhandi as a woman because it was his assigned sex at birth.
In a modern queer world, Shikhandi would be identified as a female to male transsexual i.e. a person who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex.
Mohini and Shiva
According to Hindu mythology, Mohini was a female Avatar of Lord Vishnu who was infamously known to lure the Gods who were enchanted by her beauty. During Samudra Manthan, she had brought back the ‘Amrit’ (the nectar of immortality) from the Asuras (demons) by manipulating the Asuras with her great beauty. Lord Shiva was curious to learn her allure after hearing all the stories narrated by Narad Muni.
Shiva, therefore, pleaded Vishnu to appear as Mohini and when he actually saw her, he was astonished by her beauty and engaged in sexual intercourse with her. This is what led to the birth of Lord Ayappa. Mohini did not have a womb which is why Ayappa was born out of Vishnu’s thigh.
However, people disregard the fact that Shiva and Vishnu directly engaged in intercourse because she was Lord Vishnu’s ‘Avatar’ or his reincarnation but the very fact that even a supreme God exhibits and explores varied dimensions gender fluidity is interesting to know about.
These mythological stories and characters tell us how society has always been open to the idea of non-binary and fluid sexuality.
According to me, it is important to tell these stories to young children so they familiarize themselves with concepts such as gender being a social construct, non-confinement to the idea of Male and Female and different types of sexualities that exist, etc. all in the context of their own cultural background. Listening to these stories and understanding them at a young age might help them to identify themselves in those characters’ sexuality/gender if they belong to the LGBTQA+ community, knowing that it is not absurd or new because their culture has had a place for them in its stories that have existed since ages.
Liked this piece? Also read, Societies Where Women Are in Command.