“Fool, more foolish with each passing day,
Is this what we’ve come to? Ah, why not just be like
A little pigeon or a baby prince and insist on eating chopped up food
Or stop your mom from singing to you because you’re so angry?”
“o miser inque dies ultra miser, hucine rerum
venimus? a, cur non potius teneroque columbo
et similis regum pueris pappare minutum
poscis et iratus mammae lallare recusas?”
“Mercury’s form has the power to please.
And Apollo’s body sticks out especially.
Lyaeus in pictures has a shapely line,
And Cupid is still finest of the fine.
My body lacks a certain beauty, I confess
But, look, my dick’s a jewel beyond the rest.
Any girl should prefer it to the gods I named,
And if she doesn’t, then a greedy pussy’s to blame.”
Forma Mercurius potest placere,
forma conspiciendus est Apollo,
formosus quoque pingitur Lyaeus,
formosissimus omnium est Cupido.
me pulchra fateor carere forma,
verum mentula luculenta nostra est:
hanc mavult sibi quam deos priores,
si qua est non fatui puella cunni.
“Humanity waited, thunderstruck by the new light in the sky,
First grieving as it disappeared, then overjoyed at its return.
The human race was incapable of understanding the reasons
Why the sun rose so frequently once it sent the stars
In flight, why the length of days and nights was uncertain
And why the shadows changed too as the sun moved farther away.
Stubborn obsession had not yet taught humankind knowledge and skill
And the land was resting open at the hands of untrained farmers.
At that time gold was resting in untouched mountains
And the untroubled sea hid strange worlds—
For the human race did not dare to risk life
In the waves or wind—people believed that they did not know enough.
But the passage of long days sharpened mortal thought
And hard work produced invention for the miserable
Just as each person’s luck compelled him to turn to himself to make life better.
Then, they competed with each other once their interests were divided
And whatever wisdom practice found through testing,
They happily shared for the common good.”
et stupefacta novo pendebat lumine mundi,
tum velut amisso maerens, tum laeta renato,
surgentem neque enim totiens Titana fugatis
sideribus, variosque dies incertaque noctis
tempora nec similis umbras, iam sole regresso
iam propiore, suis poterat discernere causis.
necdum etiam doctas sollertia fecerat artes,
terraque sub rudibus cessabat vasta colonis;
tumque in desertis habitabat montibus aurum,
immotusque novos pontus subduxerat orbes,
nec vitam pelago nec ventis credere vota
audebant; se quisque satis novisse putabant.
sed cum longa dies acuit mortalia corda
et labor ingenium miseris dedit et sua quemque
advigilare sibi iussit fortuna premendo,
seducta in varias certarunt pectora curas
et, quodcumque sagax temptando repperit usus,
in commune bonum commentum laeta dederunt.
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.
“Gradually, then, by granting citizenship to those who had not carried arms or had put them down rather late, the population was rebuilt as Pompeius, Sulla and Marius restored the flagging and sputtering power of the Roman people.”
Paulatim deinde recipiendo in civitatem, qui arma aut non ceperant aut deposuerant maturius, vires refectae sunt, Pompeio Sullaque et Mano fluentem procumbentemque rem populi Romani restituentibus.
Any student of Roman history understands that Rome’s expansion and strength relied in part on its ability to absorb and assimilate hostile populations. Today we often forget that the Italian peninsula was far from a uniform culture. (And a tour through modern Italy will confirm the persistence of many differences). The process, of course, was not without pain and hard compromises, as Vergil echoes in Aeneid 6 during Anchises’ prophecy to Aeneas (851-3):
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.
“Roman, remember that your arts are to rule
The nations with your empire, to enforce the custom of peace,
To spare the conquered and to subjugate the proud.”
There is of course a different imperial model mentioned at the end of the Aeneid when Zeus decides the fate of the Trojans exiles
“When they make peace through joyful weddings,
(May it happen), when the laws and treaties have joined them,
Do not allow the Latins to change their ancient name
either in becoming Trojans or being called Teucrians.
Don’t let them change their language or their clothing,
may it be Latium, may there be Alban kings for generations;
may the Roman race be strong through Italian power.
It fell: let Troy perish with its name.”
Laughing, the master of man and creation responded:
“Truly you are the sister of Jove and Saturn’s other child:
Such waves of rage turn within your chest.
But come, put down your rage conceived in vain—
I grant what you want, and, overcome, I willingly give in.
The Ausonians will preserve their inherited tongue and customs,
The name will stay as it is—the Teucrians will fade into the land
Once they have shared their blood. I will provide their sacred rites
And will unite all the Latins in a single tongue.
You will see a race mixed with Ausonian blood rise up
And outpace all men, even the gods in devotion,
No other race will perform your honors the same.”
cum iam conubis pacem felicibus, esto,
component, cum iam leges et foedera iungent,
ne vetus indigenas nomen mutare Latinos
neu Troas fieri iubeas Teucrosque vocari
aut vocem mutare viros aut vertere vestem.
Sit Latium, sint Albani per saecula reges,
sit Romana potens Itala virtute propago:
occidit, occideritque sinas cum nomine Troia.”
Olli subridens hominum rerumque repertor
“Es germana Iovis Saturnique altera proles:
irarum tantos volvis sub pectore fluctus.
Verum age et inceptum frustra submitte furorem
do quod vis, et me victusque volensque remitto.
Sermonem Ausonii patrium moresque tenebunt,
utque est nomen erit; commixti corpore tantum
subsident Teucri. Morem ritusque sacrorum
adiciam faciamque omnis uno ore Latinos.
Hinc genus Ausonio mixtum quod sanguine surget,
supra homines, supra ire deos pietate videbis,
nec gens ulla tuos aeque celebrabit honores.”
I suspect that Roman conceptions of empire were also involved in the expansion of the idea of world citizenship (the recently maligned cosmopolitanism). Although the following are attractive sentiments, with the exception of Diogenes and Epictetus, the speakers claim world citizenship from a position of power.
Diogenes Laertius, 6.63, on Diogenes the Cynic (4th Century BCE)
“When asked where he was from, he said “I am a world-citizen.”
ἐρωτηθεὶς πόθεν εἴη, “κοσμοπολίτης,” ἔφη.
Cicero is one of the earliest sources attributing the sentiment to Socrates.
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.108
“Socrates, when he was asked what state was his, used to say “the world”. For he judged himself an inhabitant and citizen of the whole world.”
Socrates cum rogaretur, cujatem se esse diceret, Mundanum, inquit. Totius enim mundi se incolam et civem arbitrabatur.”
Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius articulate different versions of what becomes a central part of Stoic philosophy.
Seneca, De vita beata, 20.5
“I know that my country is the world and that the gods are guardians, those judges of my deeds and words above and beyond me.”
Patriam meam esse mundum sciam et praesides deos, hos supra circaque me stare factorum dictorumque censores.
Seneca, De Otio, 4.1
“We encounter two republics with our mind–one is great and truly public, by which gods and men are contained and in which we may not gaze upon this corner or that one, but we measure the boundaries of our state with the sun; the other we enter by the fact of being born. This will be the state of Athens or Carthage or of any other city at all. It does not extend to all people but to certain ones. Some people serve the good of both republics at the same time, the greater and the lesser, some serve only the lesser or only the greater.”
Duas res publicas animo complectamur, alteram magnam et vere publicam, qua dii atque homines continentur, in qua non ad hunc angulum respicimus aut ad illum, sed terminos civitatis nostrae cum sole metimur; alteram, cui nos adscripsit condicio nascendi. Haec aut Atheniensium erit aut Carthaginiensium,aut alterius alicuius urbis, quae non ad omnis pertineat homines sed ad certos. Quidam eodem tempore utrique rei publicae dant operam, maiori minorique, quidam tantum minori, quidam tantum maiori.
Epictetus, Dissertationes 1.9.1
“If what is said about the kinship of humans and god by the philosopher is true, what is left for all people other than that advice of Socrates never to say when someone asks where you are from that you are Athenian or Corinthian but that you are a citizen of the world?”
“Friend, you are gazing upon an image of that Famous Dido,
An icon shining with her divine beauty.
I looked like this, but I wasn’t the person you hear of,
I have fame for honorable deeds.
For I never gazed on Aeneas nor did I go
To Libya around the time that Troy was sacked.
But I was fleeing the rape of marriage to Iarbas
When I stuck the double-edged sword through my heart.
Muses, why did you station a pure Vergil against me
Who made a lie of my prudence?”