Phlegon’s Believe It or Not: Man undergoes sex change only to reverse it

Previously I’ve commented on ancient descriptions of far away peoples and their customs (ethnography), which sometimes had a penchant for describing others in bizarre and often negative terms. (For a bibliography on ancient ethnography, go here). Somewhat related to ethnography with its attention to the “astonishing” practices of foreign peoples are the writings that catalogued various “wonders” or “marvels”, commonly called paradoxography by modern scholars. You might call these writings the Greco-Roman National Enquirer (tabloid).

Among these ancient Ripleys is Phlegon of Tralles (c. 117-138), whose Book of Marvels collects together a series of items that were considered astonishing or grotesque, including reports of ghost appearances, sex changes, monstrous or multiple births, and discoveries of giant bones. Among the unusual births reported by Phlegon, for instance, is one which involves an Egyptian deity: “The wife of Cornelius Gallicanus gave birth near Rome to a child having the head of Anubis” (23; trans. Hansen), namely, the head of a dog.

Among the sex-changes is the myth of Teiresias, who, it is said, changed from a man to a woman after injuring a snake that was mating. The god Apollo’s oracular advice was that Teiresias should once again injure the other snake while they were mating in order to change back into a man, which s/he succeeded in doing. The story goes that “Zeus and Hera had a quarrel, he claiming that in sexual intercourse the woman had a larger share of the pleasure than the man did, and she claiming the opposite” (4). Teiresis, of course, was brought in as the expert in this situation. When his answer was not in favour of Hera (women enjoyed 9/10ths of the pleasure while the men 1/10th), Teiresis’ eyes were gouged out, but Zeus at least gave him the gift of prophecy.

Less “sexist” and a little less unbelievable is Phlegon’s report of an Alexandrian “woman who gave birth to twenty children in the course of four deliveries. . . most of them were reared” (28).

See William Hansen’s Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1996), which is the source of the translations used here.

UPDATE: Over on Rogueclassicism, David Meadows points to an online review of Hansen’s work which deals with the nature of paradoxography, as well as a website with some other excerpts from Phlegon.