Two forms becoming one is Hermaphrodite. With roots in ancient Greek mythology, the tale of Hermaphrodite relates to modern discussions of gender identity and, through sculptural depictions, this figure becomes a beautiful ambiguity everyone can experience.
Greek Origins: Hermaphrodite
Born the son of Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphrodite was raised on Mount Ida by nymphs. When he turned 15, Hermaphrodite ventured away from his typical surroundings and came upon the forest of Caria. (Darn that rebellious teenage phase!) As a result, he stumbled upon a pool where he caught the eye of the nymph Salmacis.
Now, Hermaphrodite had been blessed with his parents’ beauty so much, in fact, that Salmacis became completely infatuated with Hermaphrodite. But young Hermaphrodite was having none of that! He rejected Salmacis’ constant advances. Consequently, Salmacis hid away, and Hermaphrodite, thinking she had left, undressed and entered the pool. However, Salmacis appeared and clung onto Hermaphrodite (yikes!). While he tried to get away, Salmacis prayed to the gods to become forever united with Hermaphrodite! In short, her wish was granted and Hermaphrodite and Salmacis became one – a being of two sexes.
She probably meant for them to be forever united in a committed relationship, but you know the saying, be careful what you wish for!
As told in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hermaphrodite, in anger over what happened, cursed the pool so that other men who bathed in those waters would experience the same fate.
Upon this transformation, Hermaphrodite became the deity of hermaphrodites and effeminates. They are usually portrayed with feminine breasts, hair, and legs alongside male genitalia. In addition, their name comes from their parent’s union to represent a merging of male (Hermes) and female (Aphrodite).
Viewing Hermaphrodite: Dualities & Ambiguities
Sculptors took on the Hermaphrodite figure presenting viewers with ideas of dualities and ambiguities. You’ll find versions of the Hermaphrodite in the Louvre, Met, and Uffizi. These sculptures depict the deity as they sleep. Their body is twisted in the sheets to present opposing viewpoints. As such, spectators are meant to circle the around the figure. On one side, you’ll see a feminine face (turned towards their back) and feminine curves. Walking around to the other side (the body’s front), you’ll see the figures male genitalia. The figure is female and male at the same time depending on your viewpoint. Therefore, at every Hermaphrodite sculpture’s core, gender becomes ambiguous.
In terms of dualities, the sleeping figure compels viewers to grapple with awareness and unawareness. As Hermaphrodite sleeps, they are unaware of the viewers observing them. We, on the other hand, become completely aware of this nude figure and their shifting gender. On some scale, it is like we are voyeurs studying this sleeping person.
At the Louvre
The sculpture in the Louvre dates back to 2nd century Rome. Due to some old age, it has undergone a few fixes and additions. For instance, parts of the nose and right and left feet were redone in marble by Larique during the 1620s. Additionally, the 1620s also saw the creation of the pillow and mattress by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. More importantly, the sculpture’s Roman origins prompt discussion of Roman experience with the sculpture. We know that the sculpture requires active participation for viewers need to circle it in order to get the full picture. There’s an element of surprise as we see the shift in gender. This grappling of the unexpected would be popular for Romans with its experience of surprising humor. Likewise, the sculpture offered an erotic fantasy for Romans as they get the all-in-one beautiful female and male.
At the Met
The Met’s Hermaphrodite offers interesting insight into the relationship between beauty and deception. By this, I direct you towards the inscriptions on the statue. From the more feminine side, Susini inscribes,
This emphasizes the beauty of gender ambiguities. It kind of relates to the Roman erotic fantasy. Hermaphrodite is something to be praised.
But, from the masculine side, Susini writes,
This warns of the dangers of ambiguities. For me, it brought up the origins of Hermaphrodite and the deception of Salmacis in the name of love. Or Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid which addresses love’s dual nature. Deception also appears in our experience with the sculpture, viewers are at first deceived, thinking the statue to be one gender only to learn it is both.
In a cliché, every rose has its thorn.
The Greeks weren’t the only ones to create gender ambiguous mythological figures. In Norse mythology, Loki, the god of mischief, is commonly viewed as a gender-fluid deity. In other words, his ability to shapeshift allowed for a quick transition from male to female. Furthermore, in Hindu mythologies, Ardhanarishvara, is a form of Shiva. This form combined the male figure of Shiva and the female figure of Parvati, his consort. Likewise, Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile and fertility, is often portrayed as intersex with breasts and false beard. Then, the Mesopotamian deity Ishtar also blurs gender lines.
Overall, blurring the lines of gender identity stretches all the way back to ancient societies. It is far from just a modern concept.
Can you think of any more gender-fluid figures?
What does this all mean?
The combination of female and male between mythologies emphasizes their divinity. As deities that can blur gender lines, we cannot help but associate Hermaphrodite’s state with power, creativity, and fertility. The two genders complement each other. They are inseparable. Through this completeness, there is perfection. Hermaphrodite also serves to emphasize open-mindedness about gender. For instance, the world cannot be perfectly divided into definitions of ‘male’ and ‘female.’
Unfortunately, we cannot ignore an uglier side, where this combined form is seen as a deception or punishment.
Still, Hermaphrodite, and figures like them, draws our attention.