In Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus or Hermaphroditos was the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. According to Ovid, born a remarkably handsome boy, he was transformed into an androgynous being by union with the water nymph Salmacis. His name is the basis for the word hermaphrodite.
Hermaphroditos (The Sleeping Hermaphrodite), Roman, A.D. 100–200. Marble, 59 1/16 in. long. Museo Nazionale Romano.
Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed child of Aphrodite and Hermes (Venus and Mercury) had long been a symbol of androgyny or effeminacy, and was portrayed in Greco-Roman art as a female figure with male genitals.
Theophrastus’s account also suggests a link between Hermaphroditus and the institution of marriage. The reference to the fourth day of the month is telling: this is the luckiest day to have a wedding. Hermaphroditus’s association with marriage seems to have been that, by embodying both masculine and feminine qualities, he symbolized the coming together of men and women in sacred union. Another factor linking Hermaphroditus to weddings was his parents’ role in protecting and blessing brides.
Hermaphroditus’s name is derived from those of his parents Hermes and Aphrodite. All three of these gods figure largely among erotic and fertility figures, and all possess distinctly sexual overtones. Sometimes, Hermaphroditus is referred to as Aphroditus. The phallic god Priapus was the son of Hermes in some accounts, and the youthful god of desire Eros of Hermes and Aphrodite.
phroditus lady lever
Ovid’s account relates that Hermaphroditus was nursed by naiads in the caves of Mount Ida, a sacred mountain in Phrygia (present day Turkey). At the age of fifteen, he grew bored with his surroundings and traveled to the cities of Lycia and Caria. It was in the woods of Caria, near Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey) that he encountered the nymph, Salmacis, in her pool. She was overcome by lust for the boy, who was very handsome but still young, and tried to seduce him, but was rejected. When he thought her to be gone, Hermaphroditus undressed and entered the waters of the empty pool. Salmacis sprang out from behind a tree and jumped into the pool. She wrapped herself around the boy, forcibly kissing him and touching his breast. While he struggled, she called out to the gods that they should never part. Her wish was granted, and their bodies blended into one form, “a creature of both sexes”. Hermaphroditus prayed to Hermes and Aphrodite that anyone else who bathed in the pool would be similarly transformed, and his wish was granted. “In this form the story was certainly not ancient,” Karl Kerenyi noted. He compared the myth of the beautiful ephebe with Narcissus and Hyacinthus, who had an archaic hero-cult, and Hymenaios.
Cult and worship
Hermaphroditus statue from Pergamum, Hellenistic, 3rd century BC (Istanbul).
The oldest traces of the cult in Greek countries are found in Cyprus. Here, according to Macrobius there was a bearded statue of a male Aphrodite, called Aphroditos by Aristophanes. Philochorus in his Atthis(ap. Macrobius loc. cit.) further identified this divinity, at whose sacrifices men and women exchanged garments, with the Moon. A terracotta plaque from the 7th century BC depicting Aphroditos was found in Perachora, which suggests it was an archaic cult.
The deification and the origins of the cult of hermaphrodite beings stem from Eastern religions, where the hermaphrodite nature expressed the idea of a primitive being that united both genders. This double sex also attributed to Dionysus and Priapus – the union in one being of the two principles of generation and conception – denotes extensive fertilizing and productive powers.
This Cyprian Aphrodite is the same as the later Hermaphroditos, which simply means Aphroditos in the form of a herm and first occurs in the Characters (16) of Theophrastus. After its introduction at Athens (probably in the 5th century BC), the importance of this deity seems to have declined. It appears no longer as the object of a special cult, but limited to the homage of certain sects, expressed by superstitious rites of obscure significance.
We find in Alciphron that there was at Athens a temple of Hermaphroditus. The passage proposes that he might be considered as the deity who presided over married people; the strict union between husband and wife being aptly represented by a deity, who was male and female inseparably blended together.
The earliest mention of Hermaphroditus in Greek literature is by the philosopher Theophrastus (3rd century BC), in his book The Characters, XVI The Superstitious Man, in which he portrays various types of eccentric people.
The first mention of Hermes and Aphrodite as Hermaphroditus’s parents was by the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), in his book Bibliotheca historica, book IV, 4.6.5.
Hermaphroditus, as he has been called, who was born of Hermes and Aphrodite and received a name which is a combination of those of both his parents. Some say that this Hermaphroditus is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man. But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do they have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good.
The only full narration of his myth is that of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, (8 AD), where the emphasis is on the feminine snares of the lascivious water-nymph Salmacis and her compromising of Hermaphroditus’ erstwhile budding manly strength, detailing his bashfulness and the engrafting of their bodies.
Roberto Ferri, Salmacis and Hermaphrodite
A rendering of the story into an epyllion, published anonymously in 1602, was later (1640) attributed by some to Francis Beaumont.
In the Palatine Anthology, IX.783 (980 AD), there is a reference to a sculpture of Hermaphroditus which was placed in a bath for both sexes. The passage IX.317 is in dialogue form, based on the dialogue between Hermaphroditus and Silenus. The latter claims that he has had sexual intercourse with Hermaphroditus three times. Hermaphroditus complains and objects to the fact by invoking Hermes in an oath, while Silenus invokes Pan for the reliability of his allegations.
Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem “Hermaphroditus” is subscribed Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863, leaving no doubt that it was the Borghese Hermaphroditus that had inspired his ode.
Borghese Hermaphroditus, Roman copy of the 2nd century AD (Louvre).
• In Greek vase painting Hermaphroditus was depicted as a winged youth (erotes) with male and female attributes.
• Roman frescos found at Pompeii and Herculaneum show Hermaphroditus in various styles, alone and interacting with satyrs, Pan and Silenus.
• The most famous sculpture of this figure is the Borghese Hermaphroditus.
• A life size sculpture of Hermaphroditus from Pergamon is one of the largest found standing 186.5cm tall at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.
• A statue by John Henry Foley was shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition and later donated to the Bancroft Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon where it now stands.
John Henry Foley (1818-1874), ‘Hermaphrodites’, bronze,