Maya Deane’s childhood obsession with the Iliad led her to the secret history of trans-feminine people in the ancient world and, ultimately, to reimagining Achilles in her debut, Wrath Goddess Sing.
I have not always been drawn to the Iliad—only since I was 6 years old. I asked my father to read me something that wasn’t for children, and he, a linguist with a classical bent, picked the Iliad, because I might as well start at the beginning.
I now know, of course, that the Iliad is not the beginning (neither is Gilgamesh), but I fell headlong into the epic, obsessed with Athena and thus obsessed with Achilles, whom Athena protects from herself—that is, from Achilles’ own rash behavior and emotional decisions—at every turn.
You’ll notice I call Homer’s Achilles “herself,” too. Achilles was the first question mark for me, the first sign that something about the story of the Iliad didn’t quite add up.
As I grew older, I learned the myth of Achilles on Skyros, also called Achilles among the maidens. The outlines of the story are simple: Thetis hides Achilles on Skyros, disguised as a girl; Odysseus and Diomedes go to find the warrior and instead find young women; they find the true Achilles by offering all the girls swords, and only the disguised boy wants one.
This story struck me as ridiculous. First, as I suspected at the time and have since confirmed, everybody likes swords. Second, who would actually fall for that ruse?
In spite of these questions, the myth would not leave my mind. But every version of it I encountered seemed wrong, from first-century poet Statius’ unfinished Achilleid onward. In Statius’ version, Achilles literally changes into a woman to “invade women’s spaces” and rape the Skyrian princess—a grotesquely transmisogynist version of the story.
Despite being little-known to the general public, the story of Achilles among the maidens has been so popular in art that, for the last 2,000 years, the character has frequently been portrayed as a woman in paintings and sculptures. From mosaic floors in classical Greece to oil paintings from the Italian Renaissance to the statue gardens of Versailles, Achilles is a woman warrior, beautiful and armed to the teeth.
Haunted by the myths, I learned more and more of the deep and scattered history of trans women, a palimpsest erased and whitewashed over and over again by colonizers from the conquistadors to the Victorians. Trans-feminine people existed in every society and culture and time, from the lamentation singers of Inanna in ancient Sumer to the priestesses of Athirat in Canaan to the gallae of Kybele and the castrated worshippers of Diana of Ephesus to the mystery cults of Aphrodite Ourania and the enarees of the ancient Scythian steppe. Everywhere, women like me had been buried under layers of history. Victorian museums literally kept collections of nude statues of trans women hidden from sight, loath to destroy antiquities but unwilling to reveal us to the world.
All of this distilled into a single question: What if Achilles were like me?
And when I asked that question, a long-buried possibility was at last revealed. If you want to read that history, you’ll find it in Wrath Goddess Sing.
Photo of Maya Deane by nlcrosta.