Reclaiming the Story: Ovid’s Mythological Hermaphrodite

[Note: Hilary Ilkay (@hilsgotilk) reached out to us after Cassie Garison’s post on Callon with a post about Hermaphroditus. Given the topic, the quality of the post and current events, we are happy to be able to share this.]

The daughters of Minyas narrate the first half of book 4 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, regaling each other with tales of violent, destructive desire to help pass the time as they weave. When it is Alcithoe’s turn to spin a story, she highlights the charming novelty of her subject matter, referring to it as “dulci…novitate” (Ovid Met. 4.284). Her assertion of the narrative’s novelty is justified not only in the context of the stories shared by her sisters, but of Ovid’s text as a whole. The Metamorphoses is replete with gender ambiguity, and some characters even transform from one sex into another (the most noteworthy examples are Tiresias in book 3, Iphis in book 9, and Caeneus/Caens in book 12). Alcithoe’s story, however, is unique in that it features a figure who unites both sexes into one form – namely, the hermaphrodite.

This is new territory in more ways than one. Ovid was the first, as far as we know, to narrativize the relationship between Salmacis, the nymph whose name is given to the infamous spring she inhabits, and Hermaphroditus, the young son of Hermes and Aphrodite. A Greek inscription at Halicarnassus, referred to as the “Salmakis inscription,” celebrates Hermaphroditus as the inventor of marriage, though there is no explicit mention of his intersex nature. He is called a boy, κου̑ρος, and Salmacis is referred to as his nursing mother, κουροτρόφος. Robert Groves observes that “the logic that makes [Hermaphroditus] a god of marriage is predicated on a special ability to unite male and female” (2016, 323). As we shall see, Ovid departs greatly from the tradition that preceded him in his articulation of the tale. Like Alcithoe, he aims to enchant the reader’s mind with a new sort of story, to weave the known figure of Hermaphroditus into the mythical framework of his poem.

Alcithoe proposes to recount an etiological account of the ill-reputed spring of Salmacis, whose waters render its bathers effeminate and soften their limbs (“Salmacis enervet tactosque remolliat artus,” Ovid Met. 4.286). The statement that the cause of the spring’s powers lies hidden (“causa latet,” 4.287) is layered with meaning: it provides a framework for the story Alcithoe is about to tell, and it foreshadows the moment when the predatory Salmacis lies in wait as the youth prepares to bathe in the spring. More generally, it also gestures toward the lack of knowledge regarding the generation and nature of intersex beings, a seemingly inexplicable phenomenon to the Romans. Rather than attempting a medical explanation, Ovid turns to narrative to uncover the hidden causa, creating an origin story that identifies the hermaphrodite with a particular topos of transformation.

When Ovid introduces the puer (youth), he conceals his name, saying only that he is the child of Mercury (the Greek Hermes) and “the Cytherean goddess” (the Greek Aphrodite), and that his name derives from theirs. This indirect invocation of the boy’s parentage delays the revelation of his identity until the end of the episode: his name “lies hidden” much like the causa behind the mystery of the spring. As the god who is ubiquitously depicted with an erect phallus on ancient herms, Hermes is a hyper-masculine divine figure, while Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual desire who is typically depicted nude or semi-nude, is a hyper-feminine immortal. Together, they produce a son “whose face was one in which mother and father could be recognized” (“cuius erat facies, in qua materque paterque cognosci possent,” 4.290-1). The striking use of the passive voice renders the youth an object of a hypothetical gaze. At this early point in the story, it is unclear in what sense both parents are discernible in the boy’s appearance, though the literal truth of this seemingly innocuous statement – – for surely all parents are reflected in their children —  will become actualized in the conclusion of the tale.

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Francesco Albani, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, ca. 1645–1650. Oil on canvas, 60 × 74 cm. Turino, Galleria Sabauda 89  (Naples; Photo Credit: H. Ilkay)

As is customary for Ovidian teenagers, the boy embarks on a series of rural wanderings, eventually coming upon a “a pool of water clear all the way to the bottom” (“stagnum lucentis ad imum usque solum lymphae,” 4.297-8). This is a classic Ovidian locus that may be amoenus (pleasant) on the shimmering surface, but that conceals a sinister threat. Narcissus’s fatal encounter with an almost identical transparent pool in the previous book triggers a red flag in the imagination of the reader. The fact that the spring is inhabited by a nymph further evokes the unhappy fate of Actaeon (also in book 3), who comes upon the goddess Diana attended by her nymphs while she is bathing. Ovid mentions earlier in the story that the roving puer was, in fact, reared by a community of female naiads, so there is a great deal of suspense in this moment of encounter with the nymph/pool.

The tension builds when we learn that the nymph in question is of an atypical sort. She exempts herself from the retinue of Diana’s hunting, swiftly running maidens, making herself an outsider to her community. We learn her name, Salmacis, when the narrator speaks in the voice of her sisters, who chastise her for spurning the spear and quiver. Salmacis’s aberrance is underscored in her ceaseless devotion to otium (leisure) and to her personal beauty regimen. Ovid describes the crux of her transgressive behavior in a stunning passage: “she bathes her beautiful limbs in her own spring…and she consults the waters to behold what becomes her” (“fonte suo formosos perluit artus…et, quid se deceat, spectatas consulit undas,” 4.310, 312).

The reflexivity of fonte suo, and the fact that Salmacis enfolds herself in a diaphanous robe (“perlucenti…amictu,” 4.313), reveal the slippage between Salmacis as nymph and as watery pool, which will become crucial as the story progresses. Unlike Narcissus, who was destroyed by his inability to know himself as both the subject and object of his desire, Salmacis exerts control over her act of self-looking, consciously making herself the recipient of a projected “male gaze.”

Salmacis therefore possesses a sort of hybrid double vision, a merging of female and male that gestures at her impending transformation. When she first spots the puer, she not only sees him through the eyes of a desiring woman, but also envisions him seeing her. It is no accident that the nymph is “deflowering” the landscape when she sets eyes on the youth. Another instance of gender reversal occurs once Salmacis makes herself worthy to be seen by the boy and addresses him in a speech that recalls the language employed by the swarthy Odysseus to charm Nausicaa. While Odysseus only alludes to Nausicaa’s future marriage, Salmacis offers herself as a bride. In response, the youth blushes like a virginal girl, “since he does not know what love is” (nescit, enim, quid amor,” 4.330) —  an unexpected reaction from the person who is supposed to have invented marriage.

As the nymph’s propositions become more physical, the puer rebuffs her with harsh words, threatening to flee the scene. Salmacis pretends to cede the pool to him but crouches in a nearby thicket, watching as he strips naked and dives into the water. Her desire to embrace the boy is flamed to a fever pitch at the sight of his body: Ovid describes her as “out of her mind” (amens, 4.351) in this moment. Proclaiming victory over her erotic conquest, she exclaims, “We have won and he is mine” (“vicimus et meus est,” 4.357), dives naked into the water, and begins to cling feverishly to the boy. Her use of the plural verbal form foreshadows the imminent transfiguration. In describing their struggle – a chaotic tangle of limbs and unwanted sexual advances – Ovid deploys a masterful tripartite simile (4.362-367):

She enfolds him like a serpent, whom a kingly bird [eagle] clutches and snatches aloft: hanging down, she binds herself fast around its head and feet and entwines his spreading wings with her tail; or like tendrils of ivy tend to interlace lofty tree trunks; or like a polypus [octopus/cuttlefish] encompasses its enemy, caught under the sea, its tentacles casting around it on every side.

inplicat ut serpens, quam regia sustinet ales
sublimemque rapit: pendens caput illa pedesque
adligat et cauda spatiantes inplicat alas;
utve solent hederae longos intexere truncos,
utque sub aequoribus deprensum polypus hostem
continet ex omni dimissis parte flagellis.

The transition from one image to another is dizzying. We begin in the sky, which is the domain of Hermes, the god with winged sandals; we then come crashing down to earth with an image drawn from nature of a parasitic plant; finally, we are submerged in the sea, from which Aphrodite is said to have been born and where the struggle between boy and nymph is currently taking place. In her desperation to possess the youth, Salmacis utters a prayer to the gods, that “no day separate that one of yours from me or me from that one of yours” (“istum/nulla dies a me nec me deducat ab isto,” 4.371-2). Her repetition of pronouns emphasizes the inextricable and permanent nature of the bond she desires. Moreover, the marked use of iste implies a connection between the youth and the gods she is addressing: perhaps even a familial connection. The particular divinities she supplicates are never explicitly revealed.

Now comes the fateful moment of transformation enacted by the gods, who take Salmacis at her word and fuse the two beings together (4.373-9):

The intermingled bodies of the two are joined together, and one form is brought upon them. Just as if someone grafts a branch onto a tree sees that they are joined in growth and mature equally, so whenever their limbs come together in a tenacious embrace they are not two and their form is double, so that it is able to be called neither woman nor man, and they seem simultaneously neither and both.

…mixta duorum
corpora iunguntur, faciesque inducitur illis
una. velut, si quis conducat cortice ramos,
crescendo iungi pariterque adolescere cernit,
sic ubi conplexu coierunt membra tenaci,
nec duo sunt et forma duplex, nec femina dici
nec puer ut possit, neutrumque et utrumque videntur.

The transformation is sudden and chaotic, leaving a mess of ambiguity in its wake. Ovid uses another arboreal simile, and the fruitful, cooperative union of the grafted branch and tree contrasts sharply with the sterility of the hermaphrodite. The sexually charged verb coierunt drives this contrast home, since procreation is now an impossibility. Wordplay abounds in the final lines of the passage. They are not two, but twofold. Conventional categories of “woman” and “man” become inadequate to the radical doubleness that has been created. The hermaphrodite resists interpretation, concealing its true nature behind a cloak of ambiguity.

At this stage, Ovid retains the plural verbal form to describe the merged couple. The episode ends, however, with a singular entity (4.380-386):

When he sees that the clear waters, into which he descended as a man, have made him half-man and that his limbs have been softened in them, Hermaphroditus, stretching out his hands, says the following, but in a voice no longer manly: ‘Both father and mother, grant this favor to your child, who bears the name of both: whoever enters this pool as a man, may he leave it a half-man and may he immediately weaken at the water’s touch.’

…ubi se liquidas, quo vir descenderat, undas
semimarem fecisse videt mollitaque in illis
membra, manus tendens, sed iam non voce virili
Hermaphroditus ait: ‘nato date munera vestro,
et pater et genetrix, amborum nomen habenti:
quisquis in hos fontes vir venerit, exeat inde
semivir et tactis subito mollescat in undis!’

Finally, the truth of the youth’s name, Hermaphroditus, is revealed. Ovid is the first to use the Latin word semimas in this context, revealing that the hermaphrodite necessitates a transformation of language itself. Upon seeing his metamorphosis and confronting a body that has become monstrously other, Hermaphroditus’s immediate impulse is to issue his own prayer. The vengeful curse is, significantly, intended only for men: he desires that others who are seduced by the stream share his bitter fate. His parents all too happily oblige the wish of their “two-formed” (biformis) child and imbue the water with an “impure drug” (“incesto medicamine,” 4.388). With this final act of transformation, Alcithoe’s promised origin story of Salmacis’s pool is complete.

Although the gender of the newly formed hermaphrodite is syntactically indeterminate, it is psychologically masculine. Hermaphroditus may not speak in the voice of a man (non voce virili), but he certainly thinks as one. Aside from the female features of the intersex body, Salmacis seems to be preserved merely in the feminine tone of the voice, recalling the incorporeal presence of another vanishing nymph, Echo, in book 3, for whom “only the voice remains” (“vox tantum…manet,” Ovid Met. 3.398-9). While Salmacis originally enjoyed a split existence as both nymph and spring, her entire being is now submerged in the infamous pool, whereas the youth’s name is imprinted upon the new being that has been produced.

Ovid does not reproduce the globular hermaphrodites described by the playwright Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. In Aristophanes’s account, the two selves of the beings in question are distinct even in their physical union, and when they are cut in half they cling to each other in an attempt to recreate their primordial oneness. By contrast, the two individuals in Ovid’s tale are collapsed into a single body and a single consciousness. Salmacis gets her wish, but at a price.  

The hermaphrodite in the Metamorphoses is the result of a gendered process of emasculation, an imposition of the aggressive, hyper-sexualized female onto the unsuspecting, sexless male. It is clear, therefore, that in Ovid’s universe, one is not born, but rather becomes, a hermaphrodite (to riff on Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking statement about women); and to become a hermaphrodite is not to become doubled – both man and woman — but to become halved — an effeminate, weakened, softened semivir. That the hermaphrodite is not “born this way,” like the Minotaur, for example, is a crucial detail. It highlights the experience of feeling helplessly trapped in a body that is at once familiar and foreign. A number of questions about Hermaphroditus’s future are raised at the end of Alcithoe’s story. How will they live in the world? Will they try to “pass” as either a woman or a man? What are their desires, their fears? How will they experience themselves? How will others experience them?

In his entry on the hermaphrodite in Diderot and d’Alembert’s multi-volume Encyclopédie (1751-77), Louis de Jaucourt suggests that this “prodigy of nature” was not viewed favorably by many ancients, if the story told by Alexander ab Alexandro is true: namely, that the Greeks and Romans viewed hermaphrodites as monsters. According to Jaucourt’s source, they were thrown into the sea at Athens and into the Tiber in Rome – turning the element that engendered them into a watery grave. Since antiquity, people who slip into the gaps between binaries have been misunderstood, misrepresented, and mistreated. It is one thing to gaze upon aestheticized hermaphrodites in sculpture, which were, in fact, popular in antiquity, but quite another to encounter a real intersex being in one’s midst. We can only imagine how Hermaphroditus’s story might have ended. His intersex form would have been a mark of shame and transgression not only to himself, but to the larger human community.

Ovid is clear, however, to make his hermaphrodite not something nefandum (unspeakable), but rather a figure that requires a new sort of story. Today, We find ourselves in a similar position, as we try to transform our language, write new narratives, and challenge constructed binaries in order to make room for new modes of living in the world. Identities that are genderfluid/genderqueer/non-binary embrace a hermaphroditic approach to gender, using self-presentation as a form of embodied resistance against the oppressive structures that dictate how we experience ourselves and the world. In the world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hermaphroditus becomes loathsome to himself. Today, we can reclaim the figure of the hermaphrodite to help us continue to challenge and dissolve entrenched understandings about gender and sexuality, until they become as fluid as the waters of Salmacis’s spring.

 

Hilary Ilkay completed a BA in Classics in Halifax, NS and an MA in Liberal Studies in New York City. She is currently an independent researcher, a freelance editor and writer, and a full-time teaching assistant at her alma mater, the University of King’s College. The closest she has come to Twitter fame is when she posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend dressed as Loeb Classical Library texts (she was Ovid) two Halloweens ago and it went viral among Classics nerds. 

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