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date: 06 December 2023



  • Luc Brisson


In the modern use, “bisexuality” refers to sexual object choice, whereas “androgyny” refers to sexual identity. In ancient Greece and Rome, however, these terms sometimes refer to human beings born with characteristics of both sexes, and more frequently to an adult male who plays the role of a woman, or to a woman who has the appearance of a man, both physically and morally. In mythology, having both sexes simultaneously or successively characterises, on the one hand, the first human beings, animals, or even plants from which arose male and female, and on the other, mediators between human beings and gods, the living and the dead, men and women, past and future, and human generations. Thus androgyny and bisexuality were used as a tools to cope with one’s biological, social, and even fictitious environment.


  • Gender Studies
  • Greek Myth and Religion
  • Roman Myth and Religion

The term “androgyne” comes from the Greek andrógunos,1 a compound formed from the terms anér/andrós (“man”) and guné/gunaikós (“woman”); an androgyne is thus a being that possesses both genders. The Greek adjective that describes such a being is arrenóthelus or arsenóthelus, derived from árren/árrenos or ársen/ársenos (“male”) and thêlus (“female”). In Greek mythology, the character who illustrates this state is Hermaphoditus, whose name associates a male divinity, Hermes, with a female divinity, Aphrodite, its parents. In order to consider all the facets of this complex phenomenon, this article makes use of a synonym, “bisexuality.”2

As a synonym for “androgyny,” “bisexuality” is everywhere and nowhere. It leaves no room for beings endowed with two genders, who are considered from the outset as monstrous, and therefore condemned either to disappear or to be considered “wonders.” Men or women who were described as androgynes because of their sexual behaviour, moreover, were objects of social blame. In myth, by contrast, bisexuality, whether simultaneous or successive, is found everywhere. Every living being considered as an archetype must feature a coincidence of opposites within itself. Finally, in all the pairs of opposites that structure reality, the possibility must be left open for certain human beings to shift from one pole to another, albeit temporarily.

In the Real World

In ancient Greece and in Rome down to the Republic, children who were born endowed with both sexes,3 or who were considered as such, were killed, for they were regarded as monsters—fateful signs sent to human beings by the gods to manifest their anger and to announce the destruction of the human species.4 It was in order to combat the superstition leading to such acts of cruelty that Diodorus Siculus mentions cases in which a sex change was attempted by means of a rather primitive surgical operation5. This struggle against a cruel religious superstition was to bear fruit, for under the Roman Empire human beings or animals endowed with both genders were considered a pleasing sport of nature, and were exhibited to inspire amazement.6

Rejected as monsters or kept on the margins of society as mistakes of nature or as freaks, bisexual beings did not, as such, participate in human population. In social behaviour, however, androgyny played a determinant role.

In antiquity, one rule governed social relations in every area. To be a man meant to hold a dominant role, while to be a woman meant having a subordinate role. Hence the assimilation to the class of androgyne, either of a man who played the part of a woman or of a woman who behaved like a man.

The Greek world and the Roman world considered erotic relations between men as an integral part of a sexuality that did not, however, exclude relations with women. Relations between women, for their part, were considered if not condemnable then at least rather disreputable.7 More generally, the choice of a sexual object was not necessarily related to sexual identity, which ultimately depended on the social role played by a man or by a woman.

Greek men had to undergo their homosexual experiences8 at the right time of life, with specific individuals, and while respecting certain rules.9 At first, a boy played the part of the beloved. Yet the relation between an adult and a boy was not merely sexual, although it remained erotic. It was linked to sociability, convivial rituals, and opportunities for encounters in which the beloved was also a companion, who learned with and from the lover to enjoy the correct use and right measure of life’s pleasures. For a boy, being loved was a term of honour, the proof of his excellence, the confirmation of his virtues—as long as he did not accept his lover’s offer too quickly.10 When they reached a certain age, however, Greek youths had to marry, although they could play the role of lovers with boys. Only when he did not respect this rule could a boy’s sexuality be condemned. Described as malthakós, “soft” (Sympos. 179d4), or kínaidos “lewd” (Gorgias 494e4) in the sense of “effeminate,” he was mocked, especially in comedy. An adult male whose behaviour and clothing were those of a woman inspired deep contempt. In the Thesmophoriazusae, for instance, Aristophanes portrays the tragic poet Agathon, who celebrates his victory in Plato’s Symposium, in feminine costume, wearing a bra (stróphion) and holding a mirror (v. 191, 216–248), a lyre, and a sword (v. 130 f.). All indications are that the highest comic effects were achieved with the staged depiction of transvestites, costumed so as to appear neither men nor women.

In Rome, a Roman citizen always had to have a dominant role in a sexual relationship, while the subordinate role was in all circumstances reserved for those who were not a citizen (i.e., slaves or foreigners).11. In his Controversies (4, pref. 10), Seneca tells how a freedman accused of having granted his favours to his master was defended as follows by his advocate: “Losing one’s virtue” [impudicitia = sexual subordination, in the case under consideration] is a crime in the free-born, a necessity in a slave, and a duty for the freedman.12 Several examples in literature show that masters often made use of this right, and that social conscience accepted this without difficulty. In contrast, the citizen who played a subordinate role in a sexual relationship was, as in the Roman world, qualified as mollis, “soft” (Cicero, De orat. 2, 277) in the sense of being effeminate; he was mocked for his lack of virility.

The myth of *Hermaphroditus*, told by Ovid in Book IV (285–388) of the Metamorphoses, seeks to explain the origin of this state. Much scholarship mentions Hermaphroditus, but the hundred verses that recount the misadventures of the young god are rarely read. The interest of this story in the Metamorphoses resides in its absolute originality. Ovid is the first writer known to recount the myth of Hermaphroditus, and the only one to establish an explicit link between bisexuality and lack of virility.

At the age of fifteen, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite leaves mount Ida (Troad), his birthplace. He arrives in Caria, near a lake of wonderful beauty. Salmacis, the nymph of the spring that feeds this lake, who never devotes herself to the harsh pursuit of hunting and spends her time in strictly feminine occupations, falls in love and makes advances to him. Hermaphroditus, who does not yet know what love is, shies away. Yet while he is bathing in the lake, Salmacis13 dives in and clings to him, imploring the gods to bring it about that their two bodies might never be separated. The gods grant this wish, so that both henceforth form only one body, which seems “to have no sex and to have them both.”

Ovid goes further in describing Hermaphoditus, who, having lost part of his virility, begs his father (Hermes) and mother (Aphrodite) to cause that every male should become effeminate upon contact with the water of the spring, becoming a passive homosexual. In this way, Ovid accounts for the existence at Halicarnassus, near a temple devoted to Hermes and to Aphrodite conjointly, of a spring whose water was said to have the power to make men effeminate. Contrary to Strabo (Geog. XIV 2, 16) and Vitruvius (De arch. II 8, 11–12), Ovid does not contradict this rumour, for he claims to know the cause of the maleficent power of the waters of Salmacis.

On the level of sexual behaviour, “bisexuality” does not denote enjoying sexual pleasure with both sexes, but indicates that a man takes the place of a woman in social life in general and in a sexual relationship in particular, and that a woman takes the place of a man. An adult male who played the part of a woman, or a woman who had the appearance of a man, physically and morally, became subject to blame and was characterised as an “androgyne.”

At the beginning of the Christian era, for instance, the poet Myrinos, probably making fun of a colleague, perhaps Statilius Flaccus, devotes the following epigram to him: “When Time was about to drag down to Hades the androgyne Statilius, the effeminate old stump14 of Aphrodite, he dedicated in the porch of Priapus his light summer dresses dyed in scarlet and crimson, his false hair greasy with spikenard, his white shoes that shone on his shapely ankles, the chest in which reposed his bombazine frippery, and his flute that breathed sweet music in the revels of the harlot tribe” (Greek Anthology VI 254).15 The allusion to Priapus, a son of Aphrodite like Hermaphroditus, is significant, although the allusion to an alleged temple supposedly devoted to him announces the artificial character of the epigram. Priapus is the god who, along with the birds, keeps thieves away from gardens. What weapon does he threaten them with? With his erect phallus; and the threat is the same as the one proffered in the Priapea carmina against Furius and Aurelius: “You thief, I will bugger you the first time, and if you try again you will find yourself with a mouthful. And if you come a third time, looking for both punishments, I shall put it in your arse and in your mouth” (Carmina priapea 35).16 Catullus insists on reminding the reader that these are not empty threats. Sodomy is the basic penalty. For repeat offenders, there is fellatio, the most shameful act to which a man can be subjected. It is clear, however, that the person undergoing the punishment is not to experience any pleasure.

Whether in ancient Greece or in Rome, love between women was treated even worse, perhaps because the writers who mention it are men.17 The only example one can point to in ancient Greece that is not negative is that of *Sappho*. Her poems evoke a context in which young girls could cultivate themselves and maintain amorous relations in the context of thiases, which were soon to disappear, leaving women only one choice: that of relations with men, as prostitutes or as wives. We can therefore understand why in antiquity, the reputation of the girls of Lesbos was due to a “specialisation”: oral sex, supposed to have been invented on the island, and which the Greeks designated by the verb lesbiázein “to practice fellatio.” Most often, however, they are described as tribádes (“rubbers”), since the Greek noun tribás comes from the verb tríbein “to rub.”

In the 2nd century ce, Lucian, in his Dialogues of Courtesans, depicts two prostitutes, Clonarion and Leaina, exchanging confidences. Clonarion has heard that Leaina is the lover of Megilla, a rich woman of Lesbos, who loves as a man would (hósper ándra). Leaina admits this, but also confesses to being ashamed, because it is not normal (allókotos). Clonarion finds this confession insufficient. She asks what kind of woman Megilla is: “awfully male (andriké),” Leaina replies. Yielding to her friend’s requests, Leaina tells how the affair began.

Together with her friend Demonassa, Megilla had organised a celebration known as a Corinthian, and had hired Leaina to play the cithara. The party ended very late, and Leaina was invited to sleep with Megilla and Demonassa, who began by kissing her and then moved on to more audacious maneuvers. It was then that Megilla, highly excited, removed her wig, revealing a skull shaved bald, like the most masculine athlete, and had claimed to be really a man who lived with Demonassa as if she were his wife. Yet Megilla was not a man in the physical sense: when Leaina asked her, she admitted that she did not have “the thing that men have (tò andreîon),” a male sexual organ. She specified that she did not have both sexes like Hermaphoditus, nor had she changed sex like Tiresias. But she did not need it, for she had a very personal way, much more pleasant, of playing the husband: “I was born a woman, like all of you,” Megilla said, “but my state of mind (gnóme), my desires (epithumíai), and everything else are those of a man.” Then she asked Leaina to let her demonstrate that “she was worth no less than a man” (oudén endéousa mè tòn ándron). Leaina accepted. Despite the insistence of her friend Clonarion, Leaina refuses to go into the details of the story, because she considers them shameful (aiskhrá).

The dialogue is significant from two viewpoints. Women who love women lose the natural characteristics of their sex; they are a kind of caricature of males, and appear as a phenomenon of nature. In fact, they are described as transvestites. In addition, even a prostitute considered that making love to another woman constituted shameful and hence blameworthy behaviour. Leaina blushes when talking about her adventure, and remains discreet.

In Rome, love between women was first of all contrary to nature, and then criminal. Although no law considered the matter, it was held to be an offence. A married woman who had a homosexual relationship was, moreover, considered adulterous (Martial, Epigr. I 90). The same perception of love between women is expressed by Juvenal in his Satires (VI, 225–235, 240-264, 305f).

In the more general framework of Greek society, dominant behaviour was reserved for adult males, who were defined especially by war, whereas subordinate behaviour fell both to women, whose social role was reduced to reproduction in the context of marriage, and to young boys. Thus, a man who displayed cowardice in combat was described as an androgyne, while a woman who challenged the institution of marriage was projected toward the domain of war, and hence toward the masculine sex.

In 4th-century bce Athens, the term “androgyne” already described men who displayed cowardice. The comedy of Eupolis entitled Astráteutoi (i.e., men who have not done their military service) also bore the title the Andrógunoi. In addition, a certain Cleonymus, ridiculed by Aristophanes for his size and gluttony, was said to have abandoned his shield on the battlefield in order to escape more quickly. Aristophanes was to allude to this act of cowardice for more than a decade. In the course of a discussion on the declension of nouns in The Clouds, “Kleónymos,” which is masculine in ancient Greek, becomes “Kleonúme” when Aristophanes makes it feminine. It is, moreover, to the term “androgyne” that Aristophanes wishes to allude when, in Plato’s Symposium, he says that this name is now “considered defamatory.” Plato takes up the same idea, but in another context. In Book XII of the Laws (944d6), he considers that the only penalty appropriate to inflict on a man who abandons his arms on the battlefield in order to flee would be the contrary metamorphosis to the one that transformed “Kainís” (a feminine proper name in ancient Greece) into “Kaineús” (its masculine equivalent).

Kainis, a daughter of the king of the Lapiths who rejected all men, has been raped by Poseidon, who, in payment for the pleasure he has received, promises to grant the girl’s wish. She asks him to make her a man, so as not to undergo any more such outrages, and, according to Acousilaus (FGrH 2 F 22), to avoid having to give birth. Poseidon then transforms her into Kaineus, a man, whose body cannot indeed be “penetrated.” As an invulnerable warrior, Kaineus plants his spear in the middle of the agora, ordering that the people grant him the honours due to the gods, and swear by him. To punish him for this impiety, Zeus stirs up the Centaurs against Kaineus, who bury him under tree trunks. Some think that Kaineus, defeated but still invulnerable, disappeared beneath the earth; others tell how a marvellous and unique bird, emerged from this pile of logs: the Phoenix.

The myth of Kaineus (also related by Ovid, Met. 12) depicts a metamorphosis that appears as the inverse of the one Plato calls for to punish the man who shows himself to be weak in combat. In both cases, the social rule that in ancient Greece allowed the status of men to be defined by war, and that of women by marriage, was challenged. For a girl, refusal to marry was equivalent to renouncing femininity, and hence to being relegated to the purview of war; this is illustrated by the examples of Athena and the Amazons who, beneath their martial equipment, are still women. With Kaineus, the modification is radical: it is the body itself that changes sex. Conversely, a man who refused to bear arms or showed himself to be cowardly in combat contradicted the virility associated with his sex, and consequently went over to the women’s side.18

In this context, transvestitism constitutes a formidable military stratagem, with warriors disguising themselves as women who, in principle, have nothing to do with war. This complementarity between war and marriage, which allows human beings of the opposite sex to be situated on a social level as a function of their role, is also manifested in certain institutional practices, including fictitious combats and initiations.

Initiations (*rituals*), which enable individuals of each sex to make their definitive entry into their true nature as man or woman, include, by means of transvestitism, momentary participation in the nature of the other sex. Warriors’ initiations usually have recourse to feminine disguises.19 In Sparta, in contrast, young brides wore men’s clothing on the first day of their wedding (Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 15, 5). In Argo, the woman had to wear a false beard to sleep with her husband on her wedding night (Plutarch, The Virtue of Women, Moralia 245e–f). Mutatis mutandis, before becoming warriors, young boys were kept with the women; thus Achilles was raised as a girl (Apollodorus III 13, 8; Hyginus, Fabulae 96; cf. Statius, Achilleid).

More generally, fictitious combats, in the course of which adolescent females of the same age group confronted one another as warriors, featured a twofold aspect. Their goal was to make these girls available to the group with a view to marriage. Yet they also had the value of a test of virginity. Near Lake Tritonis in Libya, where Greek tradition located the birth of Athena Tritogeneia (Aesch. Eumenides 292; Pausanias I 14, 6), an annual festival was celebrated in the course of which the most beautiful girl was dressed in the hoplite panoply, like the warrior goddess. Ensconced in a war chariot, she circled the lake. Then the company of young girls, divided into two groups, fought with stones and sticks; those who succumbed to their wounds were described as “false virgins” (Herod. IV 180, 189). In contrast, whereas the false virgins were revealed by the test of war, the authentically warrior-like nature of a young man could be revealed by his virginal appearance. This was true for Achilles, raised as a girl, among girls, and in girls’ clothing; it was also true of Parthenopaeus (lit. “he who resembles a virgin”), a fierce warrior who adored his spear (Aesch. Seven against Thebes 526 f).

In Myth

Evacuated from reality and viewed with disapproval in society, androgyny nevertheless plays a positive role in myth. In myth, androgyny can be simultaneous or successive; its meaning is very different the two cases. If it is simultaneous, bisexual beings have the role of archetypes, in which contraries coincide, first and foremost the masculine and the feminine sexes. This is why, at the origin, all living beings, gods, men, and animals, who must therefore be considered archetypes, are endowed with both sexes, masculine and feminine, as we can observe in Plato and in Platonism, in Orphism, in the *Chaldaean Oracles*, in Hermetism and Gnosticism; the figure of the Phoenix—in relation with Kaineus—should also be mentioned in this inventory.

Simultaneous Bisexuality

The starting point of any investigation into the bisexuality that characterises archetypes in Graeco-Roman antiquity is scarcely open to discussion: it is the myth told by *Aristophanes* in the Symposium (189d–193e).

In this dialogue by Plato, six characters speak in praise of Eros, following the rules of the literary genre as defined by Aristotle (Rhet. I 9, 1267b28–36). Phaedrus, Agathon, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Socrates describe the nature of Eros; then they consider the benefits that should result from this nature. These six speeches in praise of Eros can be grouped into three couples: Phaedrus/Agathon, Pausanias/Eryximachus, and Aristophanes/Socrates (Diotima), within each of which one can discern a major opposition that stands out against the background of a fundamental agreement.

At the origin, humanity is made up of dual beings, if one takes the current state of things as one’s reference point. This is why these beings are endowed with two sexual organs of the same type as those that human beings now possess—male (M)/female (F)—but grouped into couples in which these basic elements M and F are distributed as follows: original male {M, M}, original female {F, F}, and androgyne {(M, F) or (F, M)}. It should be noted that these beings, each of which possesses a couple of sexes located at the top of the buttocks, reproduce not by uniting with one another but by emerging from the earth like cicadas. Sexual union, indissociable from the separation of the sexes, will not become possible until after the bisection of these twofold beings by Zeus. To have both sexes amounts to not having either, at least if one considers things from the viewpoint of the reproduction of the species.

Thus constituted, these twofold beings maintain, moreover, a privileged relationship with the circle, both in their bodies and in their movement. In this way, one can go from the field of anthropology to that of cosmology. Aristophanes justifies by their origin the privileged relation of these twofold beings with the circle: the original male was an offspring of the sun, the original woman of earth, and the androgyne of the moon, which participates in both sexes. On the level of astronomy, as Empedocles had already remarked, the moon, which is between the earth and the sun, receives its light from the sun, and, like the sun, illuminates the earth. This intermediary position, and the succession of its phases, make the moon a locus of the reconciliation of contraries; hence its ambivalent character in the field of sexuality as well, as attested by Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride 368c–d), who identifies the Egyptian goddess Isis with the moon.

All this brings to light a troublesome aspect of the unity of which bisexuality is a manifestation. To reject division and separation is to maintain oneself in chaos, or to return to it. Consequently, the separation between heaven and earth, the distinction between gods and men, and the difference between the sexes are integrally connected to one another and ensure the maintenance of an anthropological, cosmological, and even theological order that is challenged by the twofold beings of the myth told by Aristophanes, in their wish to abolish all distance between heaven and earth, gods and men. For these beings attack the gods, like Otos and Ephialtes, who, after holding Ares prisoner in a jar for thirteen months, had plotted to mount an assault on heaven, where all the gods reside, by piling Mount Ossa on top of Mount Olympus, and Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa. By punishing these twofold beings, Zeus sought above all to establish the right distance between the sexes, between heaven and earth, and between gods and men.

The problem that confronted Zeus in this revolt of the first men is the following: How could he punish them without exterminating them? At first, he decides to weaken them by cutting them in two. At the same time, as Aristophanes remarks ironically, Zeus doubles the number of human beings who render homage to the gods and make offerings to them. After Zeus’s intervention, Apollo, the healer god, turns around the face and half the neck of each of the new beings thus constituted, and closes the wound made by the bisection by closing the skin of the belly at the place that is now called the navel, a scar that attests to that operation.

The state resulting from the cut made by Zeus is not viable. Each half of the original being sighs after its other half, tries to join up with it again, and once it has found it, embraces it so as to be a single being with it once again, with both halves then dying of hunger. (This nostalgia for fusion seems to be expressed in the myth of Hermaphroditus told by Ovid, albeit partially, in that it concerns only the man/woman couple.) Thus, Zeus is obliged to intervene once again to save the human beings his intervention has just produced. This new arrangement of the sexual organs allows one half to couple with its complementary half, but intermittently, the rest of the time being devoted to the other occupations that make possible life in family and in society, as necessary to the survival of the human species as is reproduction. Hence, we have this typology of sexual behaviour:

Each of us, then, is a matching half (súmbolon) of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one and each of us always seeking the half that matches him. That’s why a man who is split from the double sort—which used to be called ‘androgyne’—runs after women. Many lecherous men have come from this class, and so do the lecherous women, who run after men. Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented towards women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented. While they are boys, because they are chips off the male block, they love men and enjoy lying with men and being embraced by men; they are the best of boys and lads, because they are the most manly in their nature. (Symposium 191d–192a)20

This typology of sexual behaviours accounts for masculine and feminine homosexuality without reducing homosexuality to a deviance from heterosexuality. It is worth emphasising that androgyny appears as the kind from which heterosexuals derive, both men and women. In the context of this myth, masculine or feminine homosexuality cannot be considered as deviances from heterosexuality, for the two couples man/man and woman/woman are as original as the couples man/woman or woman/man. In such a context, then, heterosexuality cannot be opposed to homosexuality.

The explanation Freud suggested for the various sexual behaviours is based, in a sense, on an original lack of distinction of sexual tendencies that are subsequently differentiated. As we read in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: “The popular view of the sexual instinct is beautifully reflected in the poetic fable which tells how the original human beings were cut up into two halves—man and woman—and how they are always striving to unite again in love. It comes at a great surprise therefore to learn that there are men whose sexual object is a man and not a woman and women whose sexual object is a woman and not a man.”21 In this passage, it is undeniable that Freud is alluding to the myth of Aristophanes. However—and this is highly significant—he retains only one of the original kinds enumerated by Aristophanes: the androgyne. This reduction allows Freud to make the myth of Aristophanes agree with the story of Genesis 21–24, in which Eve is taken from Adam’s rib. Hence it follows that heterosexuality is prior, and that masculine or feminine homosexuality is merely a later perversion, one sex seeking out not what is different but what is identical.

The fact of attaching the sexual behaviour of individuals, men or women, who form a couple to three original twofold beings who are cut in two by the intervention of Zeus, also permits an explanation of why intermittent sexual union remains imbued with a yearning for permanence, total fusion, which at first calls into question the very survival of the human species. In human beings, the memory of this primordial state inspires a nostalgia that is expressed with deep emotion in the myth told by Aristophanes. Whatever kind of amorous relation it implies, masculine or feminine heterosexuality or homosexuality, each couple, in the most intense moments of their intermittent unions, desire to realise an impossible permanent fusion that would return them to that state in which human beings were double. Since the desire for this permanent fusion can only lead to defeat on the level of bodies, one wants, as Diotima suggests in the Symposium and as was sought by the partisans of the philosophical-religious trends that abounded in late antiquity, to substitute a spiritual entity for a concrete individual as the object of love, with the mystical impetus enabling the achievement of a true coincidence of contraries. Thus, the concern for biological immortality sought through sexual union yields to the concern for the relative immortality of the soul, which is realised through contemplation of intelligible reality. Several of the gods of Orphism, and particularly of Gnosticism, pertain to this kind of simultaneous bisexuality.

The best-known version of the Orphic theology (*Orphism*) begins with Chronos, or Time. From Chronos, Ether and Chaos are born. In Ether, Chronos fashions an egg, which splits into two, allowing Phanes, firstborn of the gods, to emerge. Marvellously beautiful and shining with light, he bears the heads of various animals atop his neck, and golden wings take root in his shoulders. He is endowed with both sexes. Since he bears the seed of all the other gods, he is called Phanes, Metis, Protogonos, Erikepaios, Eros, and even Dionysus. Night, a feminine entity, corresponds to Phanes; she is at the same time his mother, wife, and daughter. Phanes transmits power to Night, who gives him two children, Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), who in their turn engender the Titans and the Titanides in particular, and therefore Cronos and Rhea. As Hesiod recounts in the Theogony, Cronos mutilates his father, who, by his excessive embraces, had prevented the children Gaia gave him from seeing the light. Rhea then uses a ruse to save Zeus from being swallowed by Cronos; he then frees his brothers and sisters and seizes power. At this stage the process of generation stops, to set out from a new beginning: theogony proper gives way to cosmogony. Following the advice of Night, Zeus swallows Phanes. From the unity reconstituted within him in this way, he becomes the beginning, middle, and end of all things, and he creates the universe. Like Phanes, Zeus possesses both sexes, and he has as his consort a feminine divinity who is at the same time his mother, sister, daughter, and above all his wife, under the names of Rhea, Demeter, and Korê. Suddenly, however, Zeus transmits power to Dionysus, who is still a child. With Dionysus, cosmology is replaced by anthropogony. Lured into an ambush, the child is killed by the Titans, who cut his body into pieces and then eat it, after having prepared it according to a recipe that reverses that of the traditional sacrifice of the Promethean type. Only his heart is saved by Athena, who brings it to Zeus so that he can resuscitate Dionysus. To avenge the death of Dionysus, Zeus strikes the Titans with lightning, burning them. From the ashes deposited by the smoke given off by this combustion, mankind is born, with a twofold constitution: one part of their being comes from Dionysus, and another from the Titans who had eaten his body.22

Bisexuality plays a constant and determinant role in Orphism. Whether before the egg, Chronos, or after the egg, Phanes, who is at the origin of all the gods, Zeus, who is at the origin of all things, and Dionysus, who is at the origin of all human beings, each of these principles realises within itself that coincidence of contraries—and particularly that of the sexes—from which there begins the movement of division, ever more elaborate, in which all “creation” consists, and which is to end in the establishment of the proper distance between the elements of each group, in which union and division balance one another. The Orphic theogony, unlike the one found in Hesiod, is affected by a triple pulsation. With Phanes, Zeus, and Dionysus, one moves from unity to multiplicity, from confusion to distinction, from fusion to division. What is more, everything leads one to believe that this movement could happen again. The bisexuality that characterises Phanes, Zeus, and Dionysus is simultaneous, insofar as it is situated beyond all sexual differentiation. It thus represents a state of chaos, in which, since marriage is impossible, generation is akin to fission, and in which incest, or rather self-incest, becomes inevitable at every level, the same feminine divinity maintaining the relations of mother, wife, and daughter with the masculine part of herself. In this perspective, marriage eventually enables the establishment of a proper distance between male and female. The first marriage, however—that of Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), a marriage between brother and sister—constitutes a defeat, for it establishes too close a proximity between the male and the female element, which can be resolved only by a violent act: that of Cronos, who castrates Ouranos and frees Earth from the permanent embrace of Sky, thus allowing generation to resume.

Historical “*Gnosticism*,” combining Greek mythology with the Judeo-Christian tradition, developed between the 1st and 5th centuries ce, both in the east (Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Mesopotamia) and the west (Italy, Rhone Valley), among anti-legalistic authors or trends, in the name of an interpretive knowledge (gnôsis) that was largely of Platonic origin. In this perspective, faith and rational knowledge constitute an unstable amalgam. This knowledge was supposed to come from secret traditions that were initially unwritten, then written in the form of Apocalypses, that is, “Revelations,” in which the influence of Greek myths is constant; it was supposed to provide, immediately and effectively, eternal salvation or “election” directly from this world.

Let us take the example of the Untitled Work, which from a paleographical viewpoint dates from the years 330–340 ce, but whose contents go back essentially to the second half of the 2nd century. The Untitled Work develops a theo-cosmo-anthropogony that appears as an attempt at a synthesis between Judaism and the popular religion of an Egypt in which Greek influence was dominant. As Michel Tardieu, who translated and commented on this work, explains:

The three periods of dogmatic constructions of Judeo-Christianity, or of Judeo-Hellenism, are quite pronounced in it. Cosmogonic time, in which gods, men, and beasts live together and the gods fight for sovereignty, is succeeded by the present time, intermediate and mixed, in which mankind, separated both from gods and beasts, elaborates the system of exchanges and communications. These two times are succeeded by a third time, the eschatological time or meta-history, in the course of which the mixture of the present world comes to an end. Human beings then return to their starting point, in the primordial sphere, recuperated either by the divine (successful salvation) or by infernal savagery (damnation), in both cases by non-humanity. The establishment of these three times constitutes the framework of the dogmatic myth contained in the 5th treatise.23

Quite naturally, it is in “cosmogonic” time, scene of a theogony and an anthropogony, that the simultaneous bisexuality that characterises beings that are archetypes— that is, primordial beings—is manifested.

Since as it is from these primordial beings that the gods, human beings, and animals that constitute our world derive, all of which are endowed with a single sex, male or female, these beings must be endowed with both sexes simultaneously, for they are prior to the “sexion,” the fundamental cut that results in sex, understood as a sexual distinction based on the possession of one sex or the other, but inducing a role and above all a status in society. To possess two sexes means not to possess any. At this stage, therefore, generation cannot require sexual union. In addition, all “family” relations become confused, because the masculine part of a dual-sexed being maintains all possible incestuous relations with its feminine parts, uniting with its mother, sister, and daughter, as if they were its wife.

The Chaldaean Oracles24 and the Hermetic treatises25 present a number of striking resemblances to the Gnostic treatises. This is explained not by direct borrowing but rather by dependence on a similar desire to ensure one’s personal salvation in a definite and quasi-automatic fashion, through knowledge of esoteric doctrines and by reference to one and the same intellectual base, characterised by an expansive syncretism within which Greek thought, while remaining predominant, absorbed a number of foreign influences, mainly Egyptian, Iranian, and Jewish. Behind the myth of the Phoenix—which plays an important role in the Roman imperial period and in which simultaneous sexuality plays a primordial role—we can detect a whole pagan mystique.26

Successive Bisexuality

Compared to simultaneous bisexuality, successive bisexuality assumes a very different significance. Those who have both sexes successively are mediators and essentially “shamans,” or seers. The most significant example in this regard remains *Tiresias*.27 As a seer, he establishes a relation between the world of the gods and that of mankind. Because he retains his mind in Hades, he remains alive among the dead. Because he lives for seven generations, he establishes a link between youth and old age. The fact that he is first a man, then a woman, before becoming a man once again, allows him to establish a relation between the world of men and that of women. It is as though a being that transcends the oppositions around which actual reality is articulated had to symbolise that transcendence in the most important opposition for human beings: the opposition between man and woman. Nevertheless, a third version of the myth of Tiresias, which ends with his transformation into a mouse, adds the transgression of a new opposition: the one between human and animal. In addition, it introduces us to a bestiary of bisexuality and divination, which includes animals that all maintain an obvious relation with bisexuality.

The possession of one or another sex thus transcends, by far, the notions of utility and even of pleasure. It enables an individual to affirm his or her identity, to organise reality by introducing classifications in it that are articulated around oppositions, of which the masculine/feminine couple seems to constitute the most common paradigm. In this way, androgyny—which, although it raises the problem of the meaning and origin of the opposition on the basis of which the whole of reality is organised, envisages the possibility of going beyond them by mediation—turns out to be closely related to metaphysics.

Sexual difference thus constitutes an essential criterion for establishing a map of the animal world, for organising group relations that ensure the survival of the human species in particular, and of the other living species in general. In the depth of this difference, however, the desire for fusion never ceases to manifest itself, casting a shadow which reveals the defeat inscribed at the heart of every amorous relation, and proposes an escape toward something else.

Whereas the vegetal, animal, and human world can only be apprehended by reason if it is susceptible to a classification that involves couples of opposites, and above all a distinction between the sexes, one can succeed in thinking of the origin of his reality only by imagining a coincidence of those couples of opposites that is placed before or beyond all distinction, all separation. This is what is suggested by the myths that describe the origins of the gods, the universe, and mankind. This is the same scheme that the myth of the Phoenix projects into the future, by representing survival in terms of a resurrection conceived as self-generation. In order to think of an opposition, however, one must reserve the possibility of relations between the poles that constitute it, and form inseparable couples. And in order to think about these relations, one must suppose the existence of intermediaries that can be present sometimes on one side, and sometimes on the other. Hence the association of divination with bisexuality in the figure of Tiresias, for instance, who changes sex in the course of his existence.

In all these myths, then, androgyny or bisexuality allows us to ask ourselves about the organisation of reality as it is now, about its origins, and about its extension into the future, and even beyond. Thus, one can represent separation only by evoking a state of indistinction, of which androgyny constitutes, as it were, the paradigm.


  • Boehringer, Sandra. L’homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007.
  • Brisson, Luc. Le mythe de Tirésias: Essai d’analyse structurale. Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans l’Empire Romain 55. Leiden: Brill, 1976.
  • Brisson, Luc. Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Brisson, Luc. “Agathon, Pausanias, and Diotima in Plato’s Symposium: Paiderastia and Philosophia.” In Plato’s Symposium: Issues, Interpretation and Reception. Edited by J. H. Lesher, Debra Nails, and Frisbee C. C. Sheffield, 229–251. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006.
  • Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. Translated by Cormac O Cuileanáin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. London: Duckworth, 1978.
  • Delcourt, Marie. Hermaphrodite: Mythes et rites de la bisexualité dans l’Antiquité classique. Paris: PUF, 1958.
  • Delcourt, Marie. Hermaphrodite: Myths and Rites of the Bisexual Figure in Classical Antiquity. Translated by Jennifer Nicholson. London: Studio Books, 1961.
  • Delcourt, Marie. Hermaphroditea: Recherches sur l’être double promoteur de fertilité dans le monde classique. Collection Latomus 86. Brussels: Latomus, 1966.
  • Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years Of Homosexuality, And Other Essays On Greek Love. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexuality. Blackwell Companions to Ancient World Literature and Culture. Malden, MA, and Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).
  • King, Helen. The One-sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013.
  • Ludwig, Paul. Eros and Polis: Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Rabinowitz, Nancy, Mark Masterson, and John E. Robson, eds. Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World. London: Routledge, 2014.


  • 1. This article employs a system of transliteration as follows: η = e; ω = o; ζ = z; θ = th; ξ = x; φ = ph; χ = kh; ψ = ps‎. Rough breathings are written as h, and smooth breathings are not noted. All accents are noted

  • 2. Luc Brisson, Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, trans. Janet Lloyd (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

  • 3. Helen King, The One-sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013).

  • 4. Phlegon Trallianus, Opuscula de rebus mirabilibus et de longaevis, ed. Antonio Stramaglia (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2011); Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana 2008; Phlegon of Tralles, Book of Marvels, translated with introduction and commentary by William Hansen (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).

  • 5. Diodorus Siculus, Library XXXII 11–12, after Photius, Biblioteca, codex 244, 379a–b.

  • 6. Pliny the Elder, Historia naturalis XI 262; VII 34.

  • 7. Thomas K. Hubbard, ed., Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Thomas K. Hubbard, ed., A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexuality (Malden, MA, and Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014); and Nancy Rabinowitz, Mark Masterson, and John E. Robson, eds. Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 2014).

  • 8. David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years Of Homosexuality, And Other Essays On Greek Love (New York and London: Routledge, 1990).

  • 9. Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London: Duckworth, 1978).

  • 10. Luc Brisson, “Agathon, Pausanias, and Diotima in Plato’s Symposium. Paiderastia and Philosophia,” in Plato’s Symposium: Issues, Interpretation and Reception, eds. J. D. Lesher, Debra Nails, and Frisbee C. C. Sheffield (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006), 229–251.

  • 11. Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, trans. Cormac O Cuileanáin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991).

  • 12. Translation by M. Winterbottom (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

  • 13. See now the famous “Pride of Halicarnassus” inscription from Salmakis: editio princeps in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 123 (1998): 1–23.

  • 14. In Ancient Greek, drûs (“acorn”) often referred to the anus.

  • 15. Translation by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916).

  • 16. Translation by Janet Lloyd.

  • 17. Sandra Boehringer, L’homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007).

  • 18. Jean-Pierre Vernant, “The War of the Cities,” in Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone, 1988), 29–54, especially 34.

  • 19. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian Ephebia,” in The Black Hunter, trans. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), especially 114–117.

  • 20. Translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, in Plato, Complete Works, eds. by John Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis and Cambridge, U.K.: Hackett, 1997).

  • 21. Sigmund Freud, Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, vol. 3 (London: Hogarth, 1981), 136.

  • 22. M. L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), especially chap. 7; Luc Brisson, Orphée et l’Orphisme dans l’Antiquité Gréco-romaine (Aldershot, U.K.: Variorum, 1995).

  • 23. Michel Tardieu, Trois mythes Gnostiques : Adam, Eros et les animaux d’Égypte dans un écrit de Nag-Hammadi (II 5) (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1974), 49–50. Translation by Michael Chase.

  • 24. Hans Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1956), new edition by Michel Tardieu (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1978, 2011); Ruth Majercik, ed. and trans., The Chaldaean Oracles (Studies in Greek and Roman Religion 5; Leiden: Brill, 1989).

  • 25. A. D. Nauck, ed., and A. J. Festugière, trans., Corpus Hermeticum, (4 vols.; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1945–1954).

  • 26. Roelof van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix According to Classical and Early Christian Tradition (EPRO 24; Leiden: Brill, 1972).

  • 27. Luc Brisson, Le mythe de Tirésias: Essai d’analyse structurale (EPRO 55; Leiden: Brill, 1976).