Hello, my name is Lucian, and I am a volunteer tour guide for the Bridging Binaries tours at the Museum of Classical Archaeology.
A content note for our listeners: this piece contains mention of sexual violence. This is near the beginning of the story.
The Bassae frieze hangs overhead, extending several metres down the gallery wall. It depicts a cavalcade of centaurs, locked in riotous combat with some brave human warriors. One warrior appears to be up to his chest in earth, being pressed into a hole by several centaurs. This is Caenius.
Caenius’s story is part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a collection of poems that present transformation as a common theme. Unlike the other tales, Caenius’s transformation is only the beginning of his story.
Caenius began his life as a woman. One day, Poseidon, god of the sea, as fierce and uncontrollable as the ocean itself, visited upon Caenius a severe sexual assault. After tormenting Caenius thus, he offered to grant him a wish. Caenius wished to be transformed into a man, so that he may never suffer the same fate again. Poseidon granted this wish literally, and when transforming Caenius, granted him the added bonus on inviolable skin - skin that could never be wounded.
Delighted with his new body and powers, Caenius lived his life contentedly, handsome and strong, and well versed in the art of combat. One day, his friend and neighbour Pirithous was getting married, and found himself in the unfortunate position of having to invite centaurs. Centaurs were cultured and wise, but unpredictable around alcohol. Pirithous decided to risk it, and the centaurs came to the party. When the wine was handed around, the centaurs went uniformly beserk, and started trampling the guests and carrying off the women. Caenius, having trained for this his entire life, fought back the centaurs, killing several, which was an incredible feat for a human. Threatened, the leader of the centaurs took on Caenius, mocking him for having previously been a woman. Caenius killed him.
Sensing that Caenius might single handedly slice up all the centaurs, the centaurs ganged together to bury Caenius in the earth, thus circumnavigating his immunity to weaponry.
This is one of the only transmasculine narratives in Greek myth. While Caenius’s transmasculinity is originally framed in the context of sexual assault, the story then goes on to detail his life outside of trauma, as one of a hero. When we see figures with similar lived experiences to us in folklore, it gives us personal, shared heritage and mythology. This gives us a great power.