A Penis on the Screen: Playing a Bard During a Plague

Homer, Odyssey 11.333-334

“So he spoke and they were all completely silent:
they were in the grip of a spell in their shadowy rooms”

ὣς ἔφαθ’, οἱ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀκὴν ἐγένοντο σιωπῇ,
κηληθμῷ δ’ ἔσχοντο κατὰ μέγαρα σκιόεντα.

Aristophanes, Peace 870

“Everything else is complete—but we need a penis.”

καὶ τἄλλ᾿ ἁπαξάπαντα· τοῦ πέους δὲ δεῖ.

 

Halfway through my 306th performance of my one-man folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in song, something happened that had never happened in the previous 305 performances. 

An audience member drew a penis on the screen.

That’s right. An audience member drew a penis on the screen and that penis was visible to the 75 other people who had logged in to Zoom to watch my very first ever virtual Odyssey performance.

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit and contextualize this particular penis because there is a clear hazard in leaving an uncontextualized penis out there.

A (not so) quick summary of how we got here: I graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 90’s with a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. Not long after I graduated I composed a 35 minute continuous one-man musical folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey consisting of 24 first-person songs inspired by the characters and events of the epic poem.  

After years of development and long periods of hiatus, I built the program up to where by the mid-2010’s I was performing it at high schools and universities across the country.  In 2016, I wrote about my experiences as a “modern bard” for Eidolon.

Since writing that article, my reputation and calendar have grown and earlier this year I celebrated my 300th performance (which occurred in Arlington, Texas, at UTA) and performances in my 40th (Hawaii) and 41st (Wyoming) states. 

Some places to read and hear about my Odyssey performances are here, here, here, and here, and you can find a studio recording of the entire piece on YouTube.

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for me and my Classics-related music. By working really hard on booking, I started the year within shouting distance of getting shows scheduled in the remaining 9 states I needed to complete my goal of performing in all 50 states.  A month-long Odyssey tour of Europe in October and November was confirmed with dates in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Greece.

And there was also new Classics-related music to start sharing in addition to my Odyssey.

The first week of March, just before the full-on coronavirus crisis began manifesting, I premiered a new cycle of songs called “The Blues of Achilles”, a reframing of Homer’s Iliad, as part of a wonderful program called Conversations with Homer at San Francisco State University.  Samples of this performance can be viewed here, here, and here.

The rest of the spring was to include three weeks of shows in Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, and Illinois, some Odyssey shows, some Blues of Achilles shows, an artist-in-residence opportunity, and a chance to perform Blues of Achilles songs as part of a program that brings classics to the incarcerated population. 

But of course by the second week of March I could see none of these shows were going to happen.  Campuses began to shut down and move online, travel became unwise, and by the third week of March my entire spring schedule, some 20 gigs, was gone, and the rest of my year’s touring (including Europe) was in doubt. 

I should interject here that I feel extremely lucky that I do not rely entirely upon performing music for my living.  These cancellations have resulted in a sizable loss of income, but I also have a guitar teaching practice (not to mention a partner with a job) to fall back on, so while these losses hurt (many of which I do hope to reschedule and all of which were done with compassion and understanding by understandably freaked and stressed out teachers and administrators), the pain was more from a standpoint of planning and momentum than the dire financial situation that many performing musicians have suddenly found themselves in.

Then last week something interesting happened: I got a DM on Twitter from a high school Latin teacher in Pennsylvania who wondered if I might try performing my Odyssey online through Zoom for some of her students. The sudden shift to online learning had left teachers scrambling to find activities and material with which to engage students. This teacher had seen me perform at the PAJCL convention in 2017 and thought my program would make for a good online event.  

I initially recoiled: so much of what I love about my Odyssey performances is wrapped up in the magic of the interaction between me and an in-person audience.  How would this online thing work? How could I truly encounter my audience if they were hundreds of miles away watching not me but 1s and 0s that represent me, listening not to my actual voice but to my voice as compressed through their computer speakers or earbuds, taking it in not as a group in the same room but in separate isolated spaces? 

But as I gave it more thought, I saw reasons to give it a shot. 

Some were practical, as in “this is the way the world is working now so you might as well try to adapt if you want gigs” and “if this format does work what kind of additional markets and opportunities might it open up for you.”

Some were artistic and intellectual as in “can I make these songs work in a new medium?” and “what might it illuminate for me as a classicist/Homerist about oral performance?” 

So I decided to go forward with it.  My contact and I had a conference call with a very patient and generous tech support guru from her district and we settled on using Zoom as the best platform to both accommodate both my performance needs and also comply with some of the privacy issues associated with educational institutions. 

We gave Zoom a trial run with a couple of students and teachers and it seemed to work well. We could mute all the cameras and microphones of the attendees and I could share my screen which would contain a powerpoint of the lyrics of my songs so the audience could follow along as I sang (I do this in every in-person show as well). 

I was nervous as I sat in my office with my wife sitting just out of the webcam shot to advance the powerpoint. I could see the online audience grow to 75 and after an introduction from the teacher, I was off and singing.  

It began well enough. My voice felt good and the teacher was texting my wife some feedback on the sound which seemed to be coming through fine.  I was just starting to settle in when suddenly some lines started popping up on my screen. Scribbled lines as if someone was able to draw on his or her iPad. 

Clearly we hadn’t quite gotten the settings right and the audience members had the capability to write things on the shared screen for all to see.

It was a little distracting to me and (I assumed) the audience but I pushed on.  I was on song 6 of my 24 when the scribbling became written words. I stopped singing and announced that if the scribbling continued, I’d have to stop the performance.  

This seemed to work for another 6 songs but just as I finished singing the song in which Odysseus finally lands on Ithaka in book 13, there is was:

That hastily drawn penis on the screen right next to my lyrics.

Image result for ancient greek phallus

Some quick observations: First, though in the moment I was not particularly thrilled with the phantom penis, it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans loved penises and were happy to have them in their art and theatre. One need look no further than the #phallusthursday hashtag on Twitter for ample evidence of this.

Second, I feel fairly confident that this penis was drawn by an adolescent male and the reason I feel fairly confident in this conclusion is that I myself was once (and sometimes still am) an adolescent male in whose life and psyche penis-related jokes and pranks figured prominently. To wit (and I believe the statute of limitations on this crime has expired), my senior year of high school the entire bass and tenor sections of our choir conspired to, in our performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, replace the word “truth” with the word “penis.” 

How disruptive could this be? you ask. Well, at one point in the arrangement the basses and tenors sing the phrase “truth is marching” over and over, something like 12 times in a row.  Perhaps now you can imagine our confused choir director searching around the room for why things didn’t sound quite right (sorry Mr. Hayes) as a group of 15 adolescent males melodically chanted the phrase “penis is marching” over and over.

So as I promised I would, I stopped the performance.  The teacher had determined the only way to fix the problem was by ending the Zoom session, creating a new one with the correct (non-screen writing) settings, and letting everyone log back in.

So that’s what we did: for the first time in 306 performances, I took an intermission.  Almost everyone came back online to the new session and I finished the performance without further incident, singing the remaining 12 songs that chronicle Odysseus’ reintegration into his home on Ithaka. 

Afterwards, I read and responded to audience questions from a Google docs as well as questions texted to me by the teacher. And then it was over.

Very suddenly, it was over.

In a regular performance, I’m used to a much more gradual ending.  Members of the audience often make their way to the stage to chat with me while I pack up my guitar. Faculty introduce themselves. There’s almost always a meal or a drink with a host or a group to get feedback and continue discussion.

But with my virtual performance, none of that.

Until I looked at my phone and saw social media messages and emails from some of the audience members.  Videos and pictures showing students glued to their computer screens watching me perform. Notes from teachers thanking me for giving them and their students something to break up the days stuck at home. 

Suddenly the penis didn’t matter so much and I saw a number of truths about this unique moment both in history and for me as a modern bard. 

First, everyone is trying really hard to do their best in a tough situation. Teachers are trying to teach, parents are trying to parent, students are trying to be students, all in a largely new environment. There are going to be bumps and difficult moments and it’s going to take some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t but in general folks are trying so hard and succeeding.

Second, this quick change to fully virtual learning is putting incredible forced stress on the people involved but from incredible forced stress sometimes comes innovation.  I would never have even attempted a virtual performance without these extenuating circumstances and outside pressures, but now because I have I am excited to develop it as a complement to what I do with in person performances and ultimately as a chance to reach more people with my music and the experience of hearing Odysseus’ story sung by a bard. I’m thinking in particular of places and schools that don’t have the budget to bring me in for an in-person performance but might be able to facilitate an online performance.  

Third, for all my preciousness about my in-person Odyssey performances and how they recreate the original oral environment, this virtual performance embodies all the same concepts I detailed in my Eidolon article with some unique and beautiful twists.  I’m always fascinated with how performance space impacts audience perception and therefore meaning, and in this case there were actually 75 different performance spaces, all acting upon the listeners and resulting in different experiences and meanings. The teacher who initially reached out to me said that while she enjoyed my performance at PAJCL (which was for an audience of 400), she liked the online performance even more because it felt like I was singing directly to her.  For all my misgivings about the technological distance, there was actually something more intimate about my online performance.

Fourth, my online performance is yet another example of how enduring, adaptable, and resilient myths and oral tradition are.  For as different as my performance looked from Phemios’ in book 1 or Demodokos’ in book 8, it was essentially the same as what bards have been doing for three millennia or more: singing stories to groups of people.  My guess is that if you offered a Homeric bard the chance to do a performance from the comfort of his home, he would have jumped at it before you finished telling him he might have to endure interruption by phantom penis drawing. 

As Joel added in the comments when he so graciously edited this piece: “Antinoos would totally have drawn a penis on his screen if he had a screen.”

In the end, perhaps it’s best to think that my virtual performance relates to my in-person performances in the way that the text we have today relates to a Homeric performance. They are related, connected at some point, but ultimately different ways to communicate and pass on stories.  It’s not a choice of either but rather an embrace of both, and this embrace ensures that the names and stories will continue to echo through history for new audiences in new times.

You might even say that “time is marching” but that is dangerously close to the phrase “truth is marching” and… well, you remember where that road leads.

Joe Goodkin is a modern bard who performs original music based on epic poetry and other subjects.  He can by seen and heard at http://www.joesodyssey.com http://www.thebluesofachilles.coom or http://www.joegoodkin.com and emailed at joe@joesodyssey.com about bookings or anything else.

 

Pythagorean Self-Invention

Scholion to Sophocles Electra 62.2

“Pythagoras shut himself in a hole in the ground and told his mother to tell people that he was dead. After that, once he reappeared again later, he was telling fantastic tales of reincarnation and the people Hades, explaining to the living about the matters of the dead. From these stories, he created that kind of repute for himself that, before the Trojan War, he was Aithalidês the son of Hermes and then Euphorbos, and then Hermotimos of Samos, then Delian Pythios and after all of them, Pythagoras.”

…Πυθαγόρας καθείρξας ἑαυτὸν ἐν ὑπογείῳ λογοποιεῖν ἐκέλευσε τὴν μητέρα, ὡς ἄρα τεθνηκὼς εἴη. καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἐπιφανεὶς περὶ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ τῶν καθ’ ᾅδου τινὰ ἐτερατεύετο, διηγούμενος πρὸς τοὺς ζῶντας περὶ τῶν οἰκείων, οἷς ἐν ᾅδου συντετυχηκέναι ἔλεγεν. ἐξ ὧν τοιαύτην ἑαυτῷ δόξαν περιέθηκεν, ὡς πρὸ μὲν τῶν Τρωϊκῶν Αἰθαλίδης ὢν ὁ Ἑρμοῦ, εἶτα Εὔφορβος, εἶτα Ἑρμότιμος Σάμιος, εἶτα Πύθιος Δήλιος, εἶτα ἐπὶ πᾶσι Πυθαγόρας.Monday

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.

IMG_9587
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. 

Continue reading “Reclaiming the Story: Ovid’s Mythological Hermaphrodite”

Fantastic Friday 2: Some Shape Shifters

Paradoxographus Vaticanus 31-32

This is probably the briefest version of the Teiresias story I know. Here’s another paradoxographical account.

31 “Teiresias the son of Euêros, after he witnessed two snakes having sex, killed them and immediately turned into a woman. After not much time he was a man and was selected as a judge of the pleasure of a man and woman in sex before Zeus and Hera. He said that a woman has more.”

Τειρεσίας <ὁ> Εὐήρους δύο δράκοντας μιγνυμένους θεασάμενος κτείνει αὐτοὺς καὶ παραυτίκα γυνὴ ‘κγίνεται, μετ’ οὐ πολὺ δὲ ἀνήρ, καὶ δικαστὴς ἡδονῆς γυναικὸς καὶ ἀνδρὸς τῆς ἐν τῆ μίξει παραλαμβάνεται πρὸς Διὸς καὶ ῞Ηρας· καὶ πλείονα λέγει τὴν τῆς γυναικός.

32 “In Homer, Proteus changes into every kind of shape just as Thetis does in Pindar, Nereus does in Stesikhoros and Mêstra does in Hesiod.”

Παρ’ ῾Ομήρῳ Πρωτεὺς εἰς πάντα μετεμορφοῦτο, καθὰ Θέτις παρὰ Πινδάρῳ καὶ Νηρεὺς παρὰ Στησιχόρῳ καὶ Μήστρα <παρ’ ῾Ησιόδῳ>.

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der Höllisher Protheus (hellish proteus) Erasmus Finx 1694