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The Sleeping Bro and Other Ancient Gender-Bends

One of my favorite parts of exploring fairy tales and myths is finding the gender-bent twins of every ancient story. In fact, I dare anyone reading this to find me a story that developed in oral history and challenge me to come up with a gender-bend of the same age or older.

My absolute favorite gender-bend discovery has been that of The Lad, gender-mirror of Allerleirauh (All-Fur; related to Donkey-Skin) whose story gives this blog, The Magic Nutshell, its name. Sometimes stories that seem to be about how awful and unfair it is to be a woman in the hetero-normative patriarchy take an even darker turn when the genders of the characters are reversed. If it's dangerous to be a lady in a man's world (which it certainly is sometimes), it can be even worse to be a man. Women are treated as goals (yuck), but men are treated as competition to be annihilated (yikes). Stories like "The Widow's Son" reveal that a "man's world" isn't every man's world; the power is concentrated with the man on top, the one motivated to control the women and destroy the other men.

Even within a longtime patriarchal culture, gender in folktales has not been simple or rigid (until, perhaps, the commercialized freeze-drying of sanctioned stories between the Victorian era and the middle of the twentieth century). Before Broadway, just within European folklore, there were plenty of folkloric Cinderfellas and valiant princesses who went out on quests to save their dudes in distress from naughty enchantresses. Genders and sexual orientations of characters have been somewhat fluid across peoples, times, and places. Even the stories that feel like they are about the essence of femininity and masculinity in Western culture arise from earlier times and non-Western neighbors, in contexts without the same social norms around gender and sexuality.

Even Sleeping Beauty wasn't always a tale of feminine passivity and male sexual aggression. In Eastern Mediterranean antiquity, familiar characters included pretty boys, lusty ladies, and androgynous deities. The story of the beautiful sleeper and the date-rapist was told there, just like in the North and elsewhere, but the genders of sleeper and rapist flipped and blended.

The Greeks probably first heard this story from some of their neighbors on Asia Minor, who worshiped an androgynous moon-god named Men who became infatuated with a sleeping mortal man. The Greeks, no strangers to the allures of male beauty and homosexual love, nonetheless held dear a goddess of the moon, Selene. And because the Greeks did not believe in the necessity of any particular gender of the beholder to covet perfect male beauty in a sexually aggressive manner, they simply attributed the story to their lusty goddess Selene.

The story about the moon-god Men (who was incidentally related to Mithraism, a religious ancestor of Christianity) has not survived intact. But in the Greek version of the story, Selene so loved to watch the handsome mortal Endymion sleep that she had him put into an eternal, deathless slumber so that she could watch him forever--and have her way with his unconscious body whenever she wished. And in fact, she came down from the heavens and molested Endymion more thoroughly than even the dirty creeper king did to the sleeping maiden in "Sun, Moon, and Talia" (a "Sleeping Beauty" variant published in Renaissance Italy). Furthermore, Selene kept the poor man asleep permanently, content to keep him for his body alone, like Snow White's prince planned to do when he "fell in love at first sight" with her corpse in a glass coffin. (Urgh!) Selene's union with Endymion's unconscious body resulted in the birth of 50 demi-goddesses.

And they lived happily ever after, amen alleluia!


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