“I will not be so bold as to defend my lying ways
or to lift false weapons for the sake of my sins.
I admit it—if there’s any advantage to confessing;
Insane now I confront the crimes I’ve confessed:
I hate, and though I want to, I can’t stop being what I hate.
Alas, how it hurts to carry something you long to drop!”
Non ego mendosos ausim defendere mores
falsaque pro vitiis arma movere meis.
confiteor—siquid prodest delicta fateri;
in mea nunc demens crimina fassus eo.
odi, nec possum, cupiens, non esse quod odi;
heu, quam quae studeas ponere ferre grave est!
I cannot read this poem without thinking of this one (Carm. 85):
“I hate and I love: you might ask why I do this–
I don’t know, but I see it happen and it’s killing me.
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
Anacreon, Fr. 428 (Hephaestion, Handbook on Meters)
“I love and again do not love
I am insane and yet sane too”
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.
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.
This is a much needed companion piece to our post on the same topic in Greek. Note that many of lexical metaphors for masturbation are shared by the two languages. Much of the following material is drawn from J.N. Adams. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. 1982. Note, however, that many of the examples are not truly masturbatory.
As an important prefatory note, the Latin word masturbor (whence modern “masturbate”) has unclear and irregular use in Latin (discussed by Adams 209-211 with some rather strong attacks on J. P. Hallet’s 1976 “Masturbator, Mascarpio.” Glotta, vol. 54: 292–308.) The word occurs most prominently in an agentive form in Martial (translated here with considerable license):
Martial, 14.203 Puella Gaditana
“She sways with such curves and oozes sex so deep
That she’d turn Hippolytus himself into a masturbating creep.”
Tam tremulum crisat, tam blandum prurit, ut ipsum
masturbatorem fecerit Hippolytum.
Other words and terms
Frico, “to rub, chafe”, cf. cont. vulg: “rub one out”
“it is that much more advantageous to rub your groin rather than your genius”
tanto magis expedit inguina quam ingenia fricare
Sollicito, “to shake, stir, rouse, agitate, excite, urge” etc.
Despite Adam’s assertion, the primary examples he cites are about the manipulation of genitals by another party.
Ovid, Amores 3.7.73-4
“Despite this, my girl was not reluctant
To stroke me gently once she moved her hand down…”
Hanc etiam non est mea dedignata puella
molliter admota sollicitare manu;
“Who denies this? This is too much. But let it be enough
Stop urging on their groins with that fucker of a hand.”
quis negat?—hoc nimium est. sed sit satis; inguina saltem
parce fututrici sollicitare manu.
“She stirred up my groin which was cold already because of a thousand deaths.”
Sollicitavit inguina mea mille iam mortibus frigida
Cf. Maximianus 5.58 “she began to handle my dirty parts with her hand / and to excite me too with her fingers.” contrectare manu coepit flagrantia membra / meque etiam digitis sollicitare suis
“I don’t need a finger: handle me like this, Phyllis”
nil opus est digitis: sic mihi, Phylli, frica
“But this limp dick is not long enough nor does it stand up strong enough,
Even if you play with it, do you think it can grow?”
At non longa bene est, non stat bene mentula crassa
et quam si tractes, crescere posse putes?
Adams 1982, 208:
(de)glubo: “to skin, flay, peel” cf. “skin off”
Ausonius, Epigram 79 “Inscribed Beneath the Picture of a Lusty Lady”
Beyond the genial joining of authorized sex
Sinful lust has discovered unnatural modes of love:
What the Lemnian lack posited to the heir of Herakles,
Or what the plays of Afranius in Roman garb presented
Or the total depravity that marked the Nolan people.
Somehow, in a single body, Crispa practices all three!
She masturbates, fellates, and rides with either hole—
So that she might not die frustrated, leaving anything untried.
LXXIX.—Subscriptum Picturae Mulieris impudicae
Praeter legitimi genialia foedera coetus
repperit obscenas veneres vitiosa libido:
Herculis heredi quam Lemnia suasit egestas,
quam toga facundi scaenis agitavit Afrani
et quam Nolanis capitalis luxus inussit.
Crispa tamen cunctas exercet corpore in uno:
deglubit, fellat, molitur per utramque cavernam,
ne quid inexpertum frustra moritura relinquat.
“The charge of participation in that conspiracy was defended by the very man who was part of it, who investigated it, and was a partner in your plans and your fear.”
Ergo istius coniurationis crimen defensum ab eo est qui interfuit, qui cognovit, qui particeps et consili vestri fuit et timoris;
Pseudo-Sallust, Against Cicero 3
“[A man who] counts the pain of the state as his own glory; as if, indeed, your consulate were not the reason for that conspiracy and through which the republic was torn apart when it possessed you as its protector.”
qui civitatis incommodum in gloriam suam ponit. quasi vero non illius coniurationis causa fuerit consulatus tuus et idcirco res publica disiecta eo tempore quo6 te custodem habebat.
Yesterday evening, I asked friends on Facebook to suggest passages to help frame the firing of FBI Director Comey
Tacitus, Annales 1.2 (Suggested by S. A. Guerriero )
“After the public was disarmed by the murders of Brutus and Cassius, when Pompey had been defeated in Sicily, Lepidus discarded, and Antony had been killed, even the Julian party had Caesar as the remaining leader. Once he gave up the name of triumvir and was declaring himself a consul, happy to safeguard the common people with tribunal powers, he won over the army with payments, the people with food grants, and everyone else with pleasing peace. Then, bit by bit, he began to arrogate to himself the duties of the senate, the executive offices, and the law because there was no one opposing him since the boldest men had died either in battle or by proscription. The remaining nobles discovered themselves increased by honors and wealth as soon as they accepted servitude: they preferred the present safety to ancient dangers. The provinces too were not opposed to this state of affairs because the rule of the Senate and People there had been undermined by the struggles of the powerful and avarice of the officers against which there was the weak defense of laws which were corrupted by force, by nepotism and, finally, bribery.”
Postquam Bruto et Cassio caesis nulla iam publica arma, Pompeius apud Siciliam oppressus, exutoque Lepido, interfecto Antonio, ne Iulianis quidem partibus nisi Caesar dux reliquus, posito triumviri nomine, consulem se ferens et ad tuendam plebem tribunicio iure contentum, ubi militem donis, populum annona, cunctos dulcedine otii pellexit, insurgere paulatim, munia senatus, magistratuum, legum in se trahere, nullo adversante, cum ferocissimi per acies aut proscriptione cecidissent, ceteri nobilium, quanto quis servitio promptior, opibus et honoribus extollerentur ac novis ex rebus aucti, tuta et praesentia quam vetera et periculosa mallent. Neque provinciae illum rerum statum abnuebant, suspecto senatus populique imperio ob certamina potentium et avaritiam magistratuum, invalido legum auxilio, quae vi, ambitu, postremo pecunia turbabantur.
Some lighter fare Horace Satire 1.9. 75-79 (Suggested by L. Manning)
“By chance I met up with my opponent
And he shouted loudly “Where are you going, criminal?
And also “May I call you to testify?” Then I
Incline my little ear and he rushes the man to court.
There is shouting and running about. And that’s how Apollo saved me.”
casu venit obvius illi
adversarius et ‘quo tu, turpissime?’ magna
inclamat voce, et ‘licet antestari?’ ego vero
oppono auriculam. rapit in ius; clamor utrimque,
undique concursus. sic me servavit Apollo.
Ovid, Tristia 2. 207-210 (Suggested by K. Durkin)
“Though two crimes—a song and a mistake—have destroyed me
I must be silent of my responsibility in the second
Since I am not worth enough to renew your wounds, Caesar,
And it is already too much that you’ve been hurt once,”
perdiderint cum me duo crimina, carmen et error,
alterius facti culpa silenda mihi:
nam non sum tanti, renovem ut tua vulnera, Caesar,
quem nimio plus est indoluisse semel.
“Ovid rarely gave declamations on controversies, and those always of the ethical (character) variety. He was happier to declaim suasoriae (persuasion speeches). He hated to adduce proofs of any kind. In oratory, he did not choose his words with the same careless lack of restraint which he used in his poems, the faults of which he was not ignorant of – nay, he loved them! The surest proof of this is the fact that once, when he was asked by his friends if he would remove three verses from his poems, he asked in turn that he could make an exception for three verses, against which their request would not stand.
The proposal seemed fair, so they wrote in secret the three which they wanted to see removed, and he wrote down the ones which he wished preserved. In both pieces of paper there were the same three verses, of which the first was (as told by Albinovanus Pedo, who was among the judges):
et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum. (Cold Boreas, and not-cold Notus.)
From which it is clear that this man of remarkable talent was not lacking the judgment to hold back the licentiousness of his poems, but rather, he lacked the will to do so. He would occasionally remark that that face was prettier which had a mole upon it.”
Declamabat autem Naso raro controversias et non nisi ethicas. libentius dicebat suasorias. molesta illi erat omnis argumentatio. verbis minime licenter usus est, non (ut) in carminibus, in quibus non ignoravit vitia sua sed amavit. manifestum potest esse (ex eo), quod rogatus aliquando ab amicis suis, ut tolleret tres versus, invicem petit, ut ipse tres exciperet, in quos nihil illis liceret. aequa lex visa est: scripserunt illi quos tolli vellent secreto, hic quos tutos esse vellet. in utrisque codicillis idem versus erant, ex quibus primum fuisse narrabat Albinovanus Pedo, qui inter arbitros fuit:
semibovemque virum semivirumque bovem;
et gelidum Borean egelidumque Notum.
ex quo apparet summi ingenii viro non iudicium defuisse ad compescendam licentiam carminum suorum sed animum. aiebat interim decentiorem faciem esse, in qua aliquis naevus fuisset.
“I don’t beg you not to mess around because you’re pretty,
But to spare miserable me the need of knowing about it.
I am not some censor who orders you to be a prude,
But only someone who asks you to try to be discreet.
Whoever can deny her mistakes, hasn’t messed up at all.
Only the admitted fault brings dishonor.
What madness it is to confess in light things done at night?
And to report openly deeds performed in secret?”
Non ego, ne pecces, cum sis formosa, recuso,
sed ne sit misero scire necesse mihi;
nec te nostra iubet fieri censura pudicam,
sed tamen, ut temptes dissimulare, rogat.
non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.
quis furor est, quae nocte latent, in luce fateri,
et quae clam facias facta referre palam?