Chechnya is a focus of so much angst for queer people the world over, time we knew that it was once the centre of a culture that held queer shamanic priest/esses in high esteem
The murderous homophobia running rife in Chechnya since 2017 was in the news again recently. After the horrific tales of torturous treatment of gay men, this time we found out more about the situation for lesbians and trans women, as a woman who escaped the purge told her story to a news agency: https://www.gaystarnews.com/article/lesbians-are-also-being-killed-in-chechnya-and-no-one-seems-to-care/#gs.lahdzc
I wanted to know why Chechnya, which is a pretty small area of the former Russian superstate, has become such a global focus in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality – and here is what I found in the history that I believe gives insight into the roots of the violent homophobia being enacted today:
Chechnya is located between the Black and Caspian Seas surrounded by Russia on 3 sides and Georgia on one, with Armenia and Azerbaijan close by: this area was once the central zone of the massive and long lived Scythian empire, which was founded by migrants from the Persian region as early as the 9th century BCE and lasted until the 2nd BCE. The Scythians had a complex, developed culture and became over time a very fierce, patriarchal tribe, but retained the ancient transgender enarees serving as the priest/esses of the Great Goddess, who had been around even longer. 5th century BCE Greek writer Herodotus described the enaree priest/esses as androgynous and recorded their skill in divination, saying they considered that to be a gift of Aphrodite. Hippocrates recorded that the Scythians considered the effeminacy of the enarees to be a divine blessing (though he tried to argue it was because of too much horse riding leading to impotence.)
The term enaree is said to mean ‘unmanly’ and came from the Greeks and Romans who disapproved of the queer shamanic and ecstatic ways, much like ‘berdache‘ was an abusive term (meaning the ‘bottom’ in the act of buggery) that was given to the Native American shamans by the shocked and disapproving Christian Europeans in the 16th century. We do not know what the Scythian transgender shamans called themselves, but we do know that they engaged in ritualistic same-sex eroticism, wore feminine clothes, undertook tasks traditionally assigned to women, performed divination and led ecstatic worship – as did transgender and gay/queer priest/esses of the Goddess throughout the ancient world, such as the Gallae servants of Cybele, the kelabim of Astarte and the megabyzoi of Artemis.
The homo and transphobia that is having devastating effects in the world today, such as for the queers of Chechnya, has roots in the rise of aggressive patriarchal masculinity, and is also intimately tied in with the arrival of a male deity on the religious scene who pushed out the Great Goddess and would stand no competition. The Christian and Muslim religions set out to distance themselves from the often wildly lustful and ecstatic Goddess worshippers by attacking homosexual practices and wiping out the widespread and ancient view that transexuals were closer to the divine. This is what queers of the world today need to grasp – not simply the history, but also to work out how this knowledge might inform how we act in the world.
But the enaree spirit never disappeared completely – a spiritual rebellion in 17th century Russia of the ‘Old Believers‘ saw pagan-christian cults the Khlysty (Flagellants) and Skoptsy (Castrators/Eunuchs) enacting ecstatic dance (radeniia ‘joyful whirling’) and sexual (including homosexual) rituals to attain altered states of consciousness, in which they would channel the prophecies of the Great Mother or Christ (whom they saw as her consort). These cults rejected marriage and revered women; the castration rituals, which men underwent to further their spiritual growth by becoming closer to the Goddess, connect them back in time to the Gallae priests of Cybele, the Magna Mater of the Roman Empire, whose roots go back to 6000 BCE in Anatolia, Turkey. These cults, and the practice of ritual castration, were still active in 20th century, pre-revolutionary Russia.
Historians point out that the militaristic Scythians both respected/feared and at the same time ridiculed the enarees. Much the same happened to the ergi – queer/trans practitioners of the Seidr magic of the Germanic and Norse people. As patriarchy strengthened its grip, effeminacy in men became an issue in European cultures, but in earlier times transgender people were in many places highly regarded for their magical and spiritual qualities, an association that in fact took centuries to eradicate.
It seems to me the old battle between the macho, controlling male culture and that of the effeminate/genderqueer people of the Goddess is still raging today (even if it is presented differently and the goddess forgotten), with Chechnya a central battleground holding a long history of homophobia, but an even longer one of association between same-sexuality, transsexuality and the sacred. The gay men, lesbians and transexuals of the area today probably do not even know this history, yet it seems their recent ancestors were keeping this strand of queer magical culture alive up until only a century ago – so perhaps this awareness, this experience, this memory, is just beneath the surface, waiting to reemerge, as part of a global surge of queer spirit as LGBTQ+ people the world claim our human rights and reclaim the powers in us that connect the worlds of spirit and humanity.