11 Feb 2012

Lasa and the transgendered deity

The consensus on the Etruscan term lasa is that it may be equivalent to the Greek concept of 'nymph'. "It might be possible someday to establish some kind of correspondence between Lasa and the Greek concept of nymph," states Roman and European Mythologies by Yves Bonnefoy under the heading Etruscan Daemonology on page 41. However the Bonfantes have cautioned in The Etruscan language: An introduction (2002), "Lasa Sitmica, however, is a male winged figure." At times like this, I find myself briefly chagrining, "Why does everything have to be so complicated?" But then I realize that life wouldn't be so interesting if there wasn't a new puzzle to solve.

First off, I'm toying with the idea that lasa isn't referring to some specific deity or kind of deity but instead might be translated simply as 'lady, woman'. This has benefits. For one thing, back in Anatolia, it's curiously similar to the Lycian word lada with an identical meaning. Second, rather than apply an over-specified meaning without established reasons, applying a more generalized value such as 'lady' can at once explain its use with Venus-like characters on mirrors, its use with some nymphs, and... as I will get to in a moment... possibly the problematic male lasa aforementioned.

This is where the tale of the transgendered deity comes in. Before any of you scough and giggle, there really were transsexual deities in existence in classical times, popular ones. Across Anatolia, there was a particular cult revolving around Attis, Cybele and Agdistis. In one tradition it is said that the handsome vegetation god Attis, who cyclically died every year to be reborn for the benefit of humankind (long before Jesus was invented), was esteemed greatly by Cybele, goddess of fertility. Yet he was also desired by Agdistis, the hermaphroditic deity associated with (of all things) walnuts. This created quite a mythical love triangle. Agdistis, having lost his "walnuts" one fateful day when the fearful gods of Olympus felt the need to "correct" this alternative biology, was magically transformed into a woman for all intents and purposes. Cult worshipers of this tradition were even inspired to become eunuchs in the service of this deity and this must have been one path in ancient society for many naturally transgendered people.

So coming to the mirror in question (ES 115) with the "boy" Lasa Sitmica who appears next to Atunis (= Attis) and Turan (= Cybele), I can only suspect that Lasa Sitmica might be performing the role of Agdistis. I'd be surer if I could nab a photo of that mirror but the available facsimile shown above still gives me the impression that, indeed, lasa might in this very special case be referring to transgendered Agdistis who, upon losing his male genitals, or at the very least his testicles, was considered a lady in the mindset of Etruscan culture, either as a hermaphrodite, or as in the illustration of this mirror where male features are unmistakable, as a possible eunuch.

What then is sitmica in the epithet? No specialists seem to have piped up about it, leaving me to ponder on my own. One guess I thought of is that Lasa Sitmica may mean "The Lady in Sidon". Taking away the phrase-final article -calasa would be 'lady' and Sitmi then could be the locative of *Situm 'Sidon'(?). Sidon was an important Phoenician city where such eastern cults might be easily imported. No guarantees though. It's better than nothing for now and it would be one way of explaining away the curious gender conflicts inherent in the attestation of this term.

(2012 Feb 13) Gazing at and thinking over the mirror some more, I consider a new possibility. How are we entirely sure whether Lasa Sitmica is attributable to her male attendant or whether it is referring back to Turan? Perhaps Turan is described twice, both with her direct name and by the title Lasa Sitmi-ca 'The Lady in Sidon'. Afterall this phrase seems more in line with the historic fame of Sidon as a destination for the worship of the equivalent fertility goddess Ashtarte more than anything. The attendant then would be an unmarked feature of the background, merely a servant aiding Turan (still possibly a eunuch attendant as many chamberlains were and as many men in devotion to the Asian Cybele were).


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