Berdache Origin Myth

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

A berdache is a man who, in conformity with social convention, assumes a woman's role in every respect. The Hočąk word for "berdache" was teją́čowįga, "blue ocean woman." A young man became a berdache if and only if during his fasting vision quest, he was blessed by Moon and ordered by this spirit to "take up the skirt." If he failed to do this, it was thought that the moon would take his life. It is an "institution which entails certain men who dress as women, take on female roles, and may marry other men. They are considered holy and highly respected for special gifts such as prophesy, healing, artistry, and excelling at women's tasks." [1] Berdaches have the reputation of being the cleverest people, the sort who would be good at gambling. [2] They were once held in high esteem, and although said to be shameless, they wanted for nothing and were often taken to wife by men. [3] In contradistinction, men who showed cowardice in battle could be forced to assume the role of women upon pain of death. These men were not considered berdaches nor were they held in any other status than contempt, since they failed as men rather than succeeding as women. [4]

Version 1. The Story of Teją́čowįga.

by S. S.

collected by J. S.

retold by Nancy Oestreich Lurie

The raconteur is identified only as S. S. who lived near Victory, Wisconsin. There exists a worak about the origins of the berdache, but its raconteur, an old man in 1947 when the story was told, said that it was a "bad story".

Variant 1. "At one time ... a band of Winnebago returned from a war expedition with several Sioux [Šąhą] captives, among them a chief. Under ordinary circumstances the Warrior (Hawk) Clan would have taken charge of the ultimate fate of the prisoners, but in this village the only members of the Warrior Clan were a very small boy and his grandmother. The grandmother was called upon to speak for the grandson because, while the decision should have rested with the male members of the clan, the only male member present was a child. What became of the chief's followers is not known, but the grandmother decreed that the leader was to remain in the village unharmed, but had to dress, act, work and generally conduct himself as a woman as long as he lived."

The following gloss was added: "This took place many years ago and no one knows why the grandmother took such a harsh stand except that possibly she had some old grudge against the Sioux. J.S. reported that the old man told him this was the 'first teją́čowįga', ... " [5]

Variant 2. Somewhat later in her article, Lurie provides us with a variant from Nebraska. "G.P., a woman about fifty years old in 1950, mentioned that her mother-in-law once told her of a case which agreed in most details with that of Teją́čowįga, but this individual was called Čoranažįga and was supposed to have lived in Wisconsin. However, G.S., a man born in 1887, ... also told of Čoranažįga ..." [6]

Version 2

by M. R.

collected by Nancy Oestreich Lurie

This story is possibly historical, but it is similar enough to version 1 to make us think that it is a myth. In any case, it serves the same purpose as a mythic exemplar. Lurie tells us, "The fact that transvestites who conducted themselves as women were not always true berdaches is illustrated in another story collected from M.R. in the winter of 1945. M.R. died in 1946 at the age of fifty years and he was never questioned as to the relationship of the following story to cases of true berdaches because the significance of the matter was not then clear to the writer."

"According to M.R., a party of Winnebago once went on the warpath and were badly beaten. One man, the only survivor according to his claim, returned to his village. There he recounted his valorous deeds at the side of his companions, and said he had escaped only because the enemy had left him for dead. He was accorded great honor until sometime later another member of the party returned and told how the first man had fled and hidden out in the woods when he saw that the battle was going against the Winnebago. The cowardly and dishonest warrior, on the decision of the Police (Bear) Clan, then had to take on the role of a woman and lived in disgrace the rest of his life." [7]

Version 3

See the berdache episode in The Chief of the Heroka. [8]

Commentary. "tejąčowįga" — this word is actually a personal name, since it ends in -ga (a specialized definite article). In the story below, it is used as a generic name for berdaches. Apparently, it functioned more like a nickname. Of the captive Sioux chief of the story, "J. S. reported that the old man [S. S.] told him this was the 'first teją́čowįga' ..." It may be analyzed as te-ją-čo-wį-ga. The penultimate syllable -wį is a suffix that denotes a woman. The word čo refers to a color that spans the spectrum from green through blue ("bleen" or "grue"). The term Te Ją is the name for the Ocean Sea, meaning "encircling". [9] The Hočągara, like the ancient Greeks (vide Ὠκεᾰνός | Okeanos) and many other peoples, conceived of the earth as an island surrounded by a sea, itself kept in containment by a ridge of mountains at the edge of the (flat) world. The word te actually means "lake". In earlier times, the Hočągara, not living by the ocean, thought of the body of water that surrounds the earth as being no different than familiar lakes. The idea that it was salt water would not have been known to them. The important point, to be developed below, is that the Ocean Sea ("Encircling Lake") was a blue lake found only and everywhere at the edge of the world.

"bad story" — contrary to what the raconteur thought, this is actually a good story. The raconteur probably felt the current, white-inspired shame about berdaches and thought the subject matter was what made the story "bad." Contemporary men who would have been berdaches in classical times, are called by the word šįąge, which nowadays translates as "fag." Since the male role is quintessentially that of a warrior, we find in the literature that it is Turtle who is addicted to calling men "womanish", especially when he is losing in gambling (a skill at which berdaches are thought to excel). It is likely that it once was the generic term for berdaches, which was traditionally used without prejudice, since the man in the moon bears the name Šiągega (-ga merely indicating a personal name).

"captives" — the Šąhą chief decides to surrender in order to save his life: this happens first when he is taken prisoner, then again when, to save himself from the tortured death of a prisoner, he elects to become a woman. This is what the berdaches do when they obey Moon out of fear of death, for a proper warrior would have elected to die rather than surrender (even to the moon).

"a chief" — the berdache is also like an alien, a chief in some sense, but not a chief among his own kind, in this case, the male sex. He is a chief of women, for no woman can match his abilities in women's work. This is how a man becomes a (war-) chief: no man can match his abilities in men's work (battle).

"a very small boy and his grandmother" — the grandmother is a Warrior (clansman), and yet in a sense she is not. She finds herself in that role not by birth (nature), but by marriage (culture), as the Hočągara have inter-moiety marriages, so that a woman marrying into the Hawk Clan of the Upper Moiety will necessarily have come from the Earth Moiety. She is, therefore, a Warrior by social convention, not by nature. So too the berdache: although born a male, he is by his nature a creature of Moon, and were he to adopt the warrior role, it would only be by social convention forced on him against nature as expressed in the will of the spirits. The toddler, although born a Warrior, is also unfit for the role by virtue of his childish and weak nature. The berdache, although born to be in the "clan" of warriors, the male sex, is unfit for the role by his nature, as if he had never crossed the divide between childhood and manhood. The grandmother is on the other side of the opposite divide. The old Hočągara used to say that women past their climacteric, "are the same as men." So the grandmother is physically a woman, but she no longer carries on the essential function of women, and in this respect, she is the same as a man. So too the berdache, albeit in mirror image form: he is physically a man, but he does not carry on the essential function of men (to fight).

"Čoranajįga" — this name means "Standing in the Blue". This is very similar to the Bird Clan name Čoraminąka, "Sits in the Blue (Sky)" (qv). However, it is even more similar in import to Tejąčowįga, "Blue Ocean Woman". They both emphasize the color blue. Normally, in the name Čoraminąka, we would interpret the blue to refer to the sky, as we do in the Bird Clan name, which makes reference to perching high off the ground or gliding against a wind. However, there are blue lakes. Such lakes have a mirror surface that reflects the sky. An image of a person standing before a blue lake stands in the blue of the sky's reflection on the surface of the water. On its clear, unmuddied surface, it reflects everything around it, only as a mirror does: all is reversed: left is right, right is left; top is bottom, bottom is top. In cultures that assign left to females and right to males, up to males and down to females, such inversion is a rich model of the condition of the berdache. Nor is it the mere outward being that is switched. A reflection has a very special and intimate status. The soul is called the nąǧirak. Gatchet gives four senses for this term, "1) dead man’s spirit, 2) soul, 3) shadow, 4) man’s reflection in the water." A soul is a person's image. The idea behind the berdache names is that the naǧirak, so plainly visible in a reflection in water, is the reverse of a person's outward appearance. It is in the berdache's soul that right has become left and top has become bottom. Such a living coincidentia oppositorum is naturally very wákąčąk ("holy"). As such, not having powers of war, nor of life in its essence (reproduction), his sacred power expresses itself in terms of prophesy. Just as right has become left, and top has become bottom, so the future has become as history, to be seen in the mind's eye as if a remembrance of things past. However, in life the moment is central, the events of the past and future are peripheral. Among the directions is usually counted a fifth, the center. The center is associated with power and with masculinity. It is where the chief dwells in the village, and where the Fire dwells in the lodge. The fire, which is the symbol of sovereignty, is especially exemplified by the sun. In contradistinction, the moon, itself associated with water, finds itself at the margins and periphery, as indeed the Ocean Sea, the greatest body of water, is at the ends of the world. The berdache is also inverted this way: he is outside as opposed to inside, and peripheral as opposed to central. He is the blue ocean at the ends of the world, and his soul stands in the blue, not of the upper and fiery world, but of the calm and deep world of inverted reflections.

Comparative Material: The Hočągara have a shell-spitter story (qv) in which the hero bears the name Šiągega, "Berdache". The story describes how he flew to the moon, where we now see him as the man in the moon. The closely related Oto have a very similar story. What is interesting about the Oto cognate is that it deals with the theme of reflection in water that lies behind the Hočąk names used for berdaches. In the Oto version, Shell Spitter is replaced by an evil chief who steals the wife of the hero, Running Antelope. When the young man demands his wife back, the chief chases after him, firing poison arrows as he goes. The hero comes to the bank of a lake, and prays for help from the Waterspirits. When he jumps into the lake, the Waterspirits shoot him to the moon atop a great geyser. He becomes the man in the moon. The chief later saw the image of the young man in the water, and thinking it real, plunged in only to be drowned by the Waterspirits. [10]

Links: Moon.

Stories: in which berdaches appear as characters: The Chief of the Heroka, Trickster Gets Pregnant; about the Hawk (Warrior) Clan: Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, The Creation Council, The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2); pertaining to the Moon: The Markings on the Moon, Black and White Moons, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, Hare Kills Wildcat, Grandfather's Two Families, Turtle and the Giant; mentioning the Sioux (Šąhą): The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, Origin of the Name "Milwaukee", Little Priest's Game, Great Walker's Warpath, Potato Magic, The Masaxe War, White Flower, The Man who Fought against Forty, First Contact (vv. 2-3), The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Love Blessing, Run for Your Life, Introduction; mentioning the Ocean Sea (Te Ją): Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 1), Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite, The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster and the Children, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Wears White Feather on His Head, White Wolf, How the Thunders Met the Nights (Mąznį’ąbᵋra), Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 2a, 3), Wolf Clan Origin Myth (v. 2), Redhorn's Sons, Grandfather's Two Families, Sun and the Big Eater, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father (sea), The Dipper (sea), The Thunderbird (a very wide river), Wojijé, The Twins Get into Hot Water (v. 1), Redhorn's Father, Trickster Concludes His Mission, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Morning Star and His Friend, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed.

Themes: a Sioux leader asks for quarter: Great Walker's Warpath; the origin of the berdache: The Chief of the Heroka; a man assumes the role of a woman: Old Man and Wears White Feather, Trickster Gets Pregnant; a male survives execution by assuming the attributes of a female: Annihilation of the Hočągara II, Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Big Stone (inverse: male/female).


[1] Nancy Oestreich Lurie and Patrick J. Jung, The Nicolet Corrigenda. New France Revisited. (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2009) 98; Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Winnebago Berdache," American Anthropologist 55, #1 (1953): 708-712. One informant said (p. 709), "Those people did women's work, and they did it real good, better than even women could."

[2] Paul Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #33, p. 52.

[3] Lurie, "Winnebago Berdache", 710; Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," 50-53.

[4] Lurie, "Winnebago Berdache," 711, 712.

[5] Lurie, "Winnebago Berdache," 710.

[6] Lurie, "Winnebago Berdache," 711.

[7] Lurie, "Winnebago Berdache," 710-711.

[8] Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," 32-53.

[9] The following literature shows that Te Ją denotes specifically the ocean: Trickster and the Children, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), How the Thunders Met the Nights (Mąznį’ąbera) (1, 2 ["to the shore of the ocean"]), The Twins Get into Hot Water, Version 1, Trickster Concludes His Mission (te tt s.), Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite (dejǫna), Morning Star and His Friend ("the sea"), Thundercloud is Blessed (dejǫ, "the sea"). In "The Thunderbird" is it described as a "very wide river".

[10] Bernice G. Anderson, Indian Sleep Man Tales: Authentic Legends of the Otoe Tribe (Caldwell, Idaho: the Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1940) 46-52.