Trans Achilles Among the Maenads: Queer Movement on Skyros

Fresco from the House of the Dioscuri in Pompeii depicting Achilles between Diomedes and Odysseus on Skyros

Trans Achilles Among the Maenads: Queer Movement on Skyros

By Katherine O’Neal


Within Statius’ Achilleid, Achilles reveals his true gender twice. Both times come after an expression of gendered movement, which in the text are called “Bacchic rituals.” Gender expression is thus tied to movement in the Achilleid, but this movement is paradoxical, something that Kelly Nguyen identifies, wherein “mobility [is] both a preserver and a disruptor of heteronormative, patriarchal structures.”1 Nguyen is drawing from queer diasporic theory (the queer nature of movement across boundaries, especially borders, e.g., through immigration), but the basis of her analysis, her focus on the act of movement, reflects Statius’ treatment of Skyronian dance.2 I will be looking specifically at the second dance scene, lines 908–51, but much of my analysis rests on the importance of this passage as a parallel to Achilleid 592–653, as both purport to depict the Bacchic rituals of the Skyronian girls.3 In both scenes, the girls participate in female-only “Bacchic rituals,” Achilles experiences gender dysphoria, and Achilles reveals himself to be a man. Following the thread of movement on Skyros from the woods to the dance hall, I engage with theories of gender performativity, transgender theory, and the “queer art of failure” in order to explore how these two dance scenes demonstrate where mobility is a disruptor versus where it preserves heteronormative, patriarchal structures.

The second passage opens with an emphasis on the nature of the Skyronian girls’ performance as a “Bacchic ritual,” and this, as well as the similes used to compare the Skyronian girls to other gender-bending women, in turn queers the gender of the girls. Their dance is explicitly referred to as a Bacchic ritual: Lycomedes asks Odysseus and Diomedes if they would like “to see them in Bacchic ritual” (903), and the beginning of the passage opens with the girls “coming to perform their dances and promised rituals” (911). Vassiliki Panoussi affirms the nature of their dance as Bacchic in their instruments and movements: “The girls form a thiasos, the signal is given with the Ismenian boxwood (Ismenia buxus), that is, the Theban flute used by Bacchants, and the Maenads brandish the thyrsos as they dance.”4The girls are thus related to Maenads—women who transgressed expected female behavior.5 They are also compared to Amazons (923) and “Laconian” followers of Diana (924), the latter of which is a noteworthy association since Spartan women were known for atypical forms of femininity.6 Deidamia and Achilles are also compared to Diana and Pallas (912–6), both of whom have further relevance throughout the Achilleid, as the Skyronian girls are shown to worship them. This worship is, in turn, queered through the goddesses’ statuses as virgins associated with divergence from hetero- and chrono-normativity (the expectation that all lives follow the same timeline of activity and achievement).7Elsewhere in the passage, Statius mentions other mystery practices: “the rites of Rhea/Magna Mater, those of the Curetes, and the mysteries of Samothrace,” a combination of references that creates, as Panoussi writes, “a mosaic of exotic and transgressive behavior.”8 Their dance, then, disrupts “heteronormative, patriarchal structures” by incorporating Bacchic elements, a queer form of feminine movement that invites comparisons to other queerly-gendered/atypically feminine women.

Notably, however, this dance is only “Bacchic” on the surface level—where are the “rituals”? The dance, despite its potential for gender queerness, is fundamentally an example of mobility as “a preserver of heteronormative, patriarchal structures,” though this can only be truly understood through a comparison to the Bacchic rituals in the woods at lines 592–653.9 These rituals, which take place about 250 lines earlier, represent a freedom of expression in a queer space and establish movement as a disruptor of heteronormative, patriarchal structures. The first thing to note is the language of light and dark in the woods compared to the dance hall. Oliver Baldwin, in his essay “Rhesus—Tragic Wilderness in Queer Time,” discusses the queer space and time of night: “Rhesus’s sunlessness, daylessness, is therefore the place of death, the fleeing of life, the stagnation of action, the time that tragedy fears, expects, and laments but never explores completely. Night is tragedy’s queer time.”10 According to Baldwin, night queers time and space since it makes them boundaryless and permeable.11 The (queer) night was associated in Greek religion with Dionysus, and thus these Bacchic rituals rely on (queer) darkness: Statius writes of them taking place “in the shade” (664) under “Lady Moon” (694), in “the midnight hour when Sleep glides down” (695) amidst “the night’s thick shade” (718). The darkness of night is an important element in the queering of the Bacchic rituals in the woods, creating a liminal space for the Skyronian girls to escape from the heteronormative day through movement.

The rituals queer the time and space of the woods in a manner much akin, I would argue, to the space of the gay club. Historically, nightlife has been an important element of queer existence. On the surface, the gay club is a space for dancing designated for queer people; below the surface, it is a rare space for queer liberation and freedom, somewhere queerness is encouraged, surrounded by blaring music and strobing lights. This creates a sense of liminality, a world apart from the heteornormative one left behind at the entrance. Eleonora Colli identifies light, darkness, and shadow as forms of expression which link the classical world with that of the gay club. Drawing on Muñoz’s theories of the club as a “place that allows for performances and moments of disidentification,” Colli views the club as a heterotopia, a place that “‘expose[s]’ other real spaces that stymie or repress their sense of agency.”12 The Skyronian woods function as a heterotopia in a comparable manner, inverting the normativity of a patriarchal society to allow for the rare expression of female interiority, and combating the patriarchal gaze of perceived feminine performance in favor of a space of feminine and queer Maenaed erotics. The gay club and the Bacchic rituals reflect each other as forms and spaces of movement that disrupt heteronormativity.

Moving from the queer woods to the dance hall, it becomes clear that the dance of lines 908–51 is not a Bacchic ritual. Rather, it is a “tamed” version which inverts the disruptive nature of the true Bacchic ritual towards the preservation of heteronormative, patriarchal structures. “Dawn had scarcely risen” (908) and the liminal, queer, gender-safe space of the night is no more, as the dance now takes place in the light of day. Heteronormativity rises with the sun, and the (club-adjacent) liminal, heterotopic space of the (Dionysiac) woods is here normalized to be a designated space for (Apolline) dance.13

The rituals are “tamed” through their new status as performative, specifically for the male gaze, and an explicitly chrononormative and heteronormative gaze at that.14 The girls are now performing these rituals for Odysseus and Diomedes (men), and in response to Odysseus’ desire for female performance, Lycomedes uses the language of heteronormativity: “If only I had offspring / I could send off to war” (775–815). The girls are now constrained by this gaze to perform femininity; the gaze not only recontextualizes the dance but also transforms the act through strict choreography that enmeshes chrono- and hetero-normativity into the girls’ movement.15 There is a distinct repetition of exact number: “four times they clash Rhea’s cymbals / four times they bear the frenzied drums with their hands / four times they trace their winding dance steps back,” (917–20) emphasizing the strict choreography of the dance. Similarly, the passage makes reference to existing dance steps: “turning to face each other in an Amazonian comb, / and then forming the ring in which Diana drives / Laconian girls and twists them” (923–5). The gender of the girls is queered through references to genderqueer women (as explored in my first paragraph), but this genderqueerness is ultimately “tamed” for the male gaze by reducing the wildness of the Amazons and the cult of Diana to simple dance moves.

This “taming” of the dance is akin to the constraining of the wildness of girlhood through puberty and marriage—hetero- and chrono-normativity.16 Statius’ description of Achilles being forced into girls’ clothing epitomizes this: “It was as if one were trying / to make a horse, rambunctious with the fire / of unbridled youth, wear his first halter. Long delighting / in field and stream and exultant in his beauty, / he will not submit his neck to the collar or his mouth / to the bit, / whinnying indignantly at being forced / to obey a master, and marveling at new regimes” (277–83). Though talking about Achilles, he describes the experience of being forced to be feminine, which relies on the controlling of movement. The changing of Bacchic ritual from unbridled to strictly choreographed movement for the sake of a male/heternormative gaze thus aligns with the experience of a female coming of age. This is doubly so given Skyros is a space of puberty: the girls are “all just at the peak of tender modesty, their virginity / and swelling years ripe for the marriage bed” (331–2). Calling this dance by the same name as the Bacchic rituals draws attention to the fact that they are fundamentally different; this dance is a movement that preserves Nguyen’s “heternormative, patriarchal structures” compared to the movement in the woods that disrupts them.

If the Bacchic dance at 822–55 can be read as a metaphor for the constraining nature of puberty, this lends to a reading of a transmasculine Achilles. Being constrained by femininity, losing adolescent wildness through puberty, and being forced to perform as feminine for the sake of chrono/heteronormativity reflects Achilles’ experiences on Skyros. Trans theory can be applied here to read Achilles as a trans man—Achilles, socialized female and forced to present as such, experiences gender dysphoria—and this dance scene can be read as his “coming out” and “transitioning,” as he reveals himself to be a man. Associated with his “coming out” is imagery of sun and light, contrasting with the feminine space of the dark, shadowy, liminal woods, distancing him from femininity. He is drawn to the masculine items of war, especially the “resplendent disk” of the shield, a symbol of the sun. A few lines later, he sees his reflection “in a light that rivaled his own, saw himself as he was in that golden likeness” (959–60). Achilles, experiencing gender dysphoria, reveals himself to be a man in the light of day.

Reading Achilles as a trans man offers a critical counterweight to the traditional reading of Achilles as “doing drag” and nuances the foregoing analysis of movement as disrupting patriarchal and heteronormative structures. Scholars such as Peter Heslin have identified Achilles’ performance as “drag” because he is a man dressed as a woman and performing for an audience.17 However, as Merkley points out, this can lead to reductive stereotypes of the “man in the dress.”18 Reading Achilles as a trans man opens up queerer possibilities. Swift-footed Achilles is physically dragging his feet, failing to follow the choreography: “careless about his turns or linking arms, / scorning more than usual feminine steps and dress, / disrupting the dance-rings and causing confusion” (927–9). Sapsford’s writing on “temporal drag” in the lyrics of Sappho—a desire to remain in the past, “dragging her feet” to engage in chrononormativity (e.g., marriage)—can be applied here.19 Achilles, too, when read as trans, is temporally dragging in refusing his role as an assigned female at birth (AFAB) woman. Given Skyros’ role as a space of puberty, in delaying the choreography, Achilles is temporally dragging their coming-of-age as well. “Drag,” then, is a mobility that disrupts heteronormative structures.

Achilles’ failure to follow the dance, and his failure to stay hidden as a girl, exposes his true masculine self, aligning him with Halberstam’s theories of the “queer art of failure”—“knowledge practices that refuse both the form and the content of traditional canons [which] may lead to unbounded forms of speculation, modes of thinking that ally not with rigor and order but with inspiration and unpredictability.”20 Achilles “fails” both at following the dance steps (926–9) and in his task to stay disguised as a woman: “his mother’s mandates, his secret love meant nothing; Troy was all his heart” (950–1). However, these “failures” can be read positively. Following my discussion of the choreographed dance as a metaphor for heteronormativity and the constraints of female puberty, he fails to follow the expected steps for women, maintaining his wildness (“he yelled, and narrowed his eyes, and his hair bristled” (950) and he is compared to a lion (951–7)), and thus escaping the constraints of femininity. Viewing Achilles as a trans man, his failure to live as a girl has the productive consequence of allowing him to live as his true self—a man: “Peleus’ daughter was gone” (982). The fact that Achilles “disrupts” the dance rings, a disruption that can be read as a queer art of failure, reflects movement as a “disruptor of heteronormative, patriarchal structures.”

Much work has been done on the Achilleid that looks at Achilles as a transvestite, which can unfortunately play into harmful stereotypes of trans people, especially those of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). In choosing to read Achilles instead as a trans man struggling to express his gender, we can reclaim the narrative to be one with a more positive outcome, one of gender euphoria and expression. However, it is important not to erase Deidamia’s experience in the narrative. In his essay on Achilles as ferox, Mueller cites Achilles’ inherent wildness as a reason for his violent behavior and explores how that can be queer in itself.21 I hope that combining these two approaches, trans Achilles and ferox Achilles, can highlight the struggle of trans people while also not erasing the fact of Achilles’ violence against Deidamia, which happens because of Achilles’ nature, rather than any inherent “predatory nature” in trans people. The multiplicity of the queerness of Skyros is reflected in movement throughout the epic, namely Nguyen’s ideas of “mobility” as both disruptor and preserver of heteronormative, patriarchal structures. All at the same time movement disrupts during the Bacchic rituals, but preserves during the latter dance; it preserves for Achilles, forcing him to adhere to the feminine, but also disrupts in that his (failed) dancing exposes his true gender. Mobility, specifically dance, on Skyros exposes the island’s competing forces of queerness and heteronormativity.


Katherine O’Neal is in her third year studying Classics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Her research interests center around gender and sexuality in the ancient world.


  1. Nguyen, “Queering Feminine Movement,” 304.
  2. One can also read Achilles as a quasi-immigrant to Skyros as well, adapting his body to feminine but also Skyronian movement, which diverges from typical feminine movement.
  3. Statius, The Achilleid, Tr. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2015). All further references from this edition. (About 50 lines ahead of the Latin line numbers.)
  4. Panoussi, “Dancing in Scyros,” 304; Panoussi’s research heavily informs my first paragraph.
  5. Ibid., 336.
  6. Cf. e.g., Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.
  7. Panoussi, “Dancing,” 344–5.
  8. Ibid., 304; ibid., 349.
  9. Nguyen, “Movement,” 304.
  10. Baldwin, “Rhesus—Tragic Wilderness in Queer Time,” 37.
  11. Achilles is able to enter the female-only space because the darkness hides his true gender, cf. “but night and the lamps deceive him” of Ulysses at 848–9.
  12. Colli, “Shedding Light, Casting Shadows,” 384; ibid., 384.
  13. Ibid., 379 on Neitzche.
  14. There is also an element of public vs private performance, cf. Winkler (1981) on Sappho.
  15. Cf. the work of Butler.
  16. Cf. Merkley, “Writing trans histories with an ethics of care, while reading gender in imperial Roman literature,” 25; cf. the work of Muñoz, Freeman, etc.
  17. Heslin, Achilleid, 12.
  18. Merkley, “Writing trans histories,” 24.
  19. Sapsford, “Queer Musicality in Classical Texts,” 127.
  20. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 10.
  21. Meuller, “‘Wild’ Achilles and the Epistemology of the Ferox in Homer’s Iliad.”



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