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date: 22 June 2021



  • Katharine T. von Stackelberg


A physical condition whereby a living organism has both male and female reproductive parts, hermaphroditism is a well-established phenomenon in the ancient world. In Greek and Roman literature and art, hermaphroditism in humans had cultural significance as divine portent, erotic subject, mediating or transgressive condition, and symbol of marital union. The most significant literary accounts of human hermaphroditism are found in Plato’s Symposium and Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the greatest concentration of visual evidence is to be found in the environs of Pompeii and Herculaneum.


  • Gender Studies

Sources and Evidence

Hermaphroditism is not acknowledged in Greek texts before the 4th century bce, when it is identified in three distinct ways: as a mythical and philosophical concept in Plato’s Symposium (189d–190c); as a natural phenomenon in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals (770b, 30–35); and as an eponymous figure in the title of a lost play by Posidippus of Pella. The earliest physical evidence also dates from the same period as an Athenian terracotta figurine, probably a cult votive, raising the hem of hir skirt in a ritual gesture (see representation). Although classical hermaphroditism is often signalled by androgynous appearance, it should not be conflated with transvestitism and bisexuality, with which it shares the same rhetorical and visual markers.

Biology and Medicine

In the natural world, certain animals were commonly believed to be hermaphrodite by default: the badger and hyena (Arist. GA III.6, 757a2–14), mongoose (Aelian, NA 10.47), phoenix (Pliny, HN 10.2.3), and hare (Pliny, HN 8.81.217–219). Propagation of the species occurred either by self-impregnation (badger, mongoose, phoenix) or by changing sex in alternate years (hyena, hare). Since nature provided this precedent, debate arose as to whether cases of human hermaphroditism were supernatural in origin or pathological, arising from a defect in male and female semen, and therefore potentially treatable (Arist. GA IV 772b, 26–33, 30–35; Diod. Sic. 32.12). Outside this general discourse attested cases of hermaphroditism are difficult to establish. The most-cited example is Favorinus of Arelate (c. 80–160 ce), usually identified as a eunuch but described in the Sudaas “androgynous (or so-called hermaphrodite from birth)” (Suda phi 4), beardless, and lacking testicles (Philostr. VS 489; Luc. Demon. 13, Eun. 7). However, a conclusive medical diagnosis cannot be made as it is also possible that Favorinus was a cryptorchid male. The case of Favorinus demonstrates how difficult it is to identify instances of biological hermaphroditism in the ancient world. Favorinus was under unusually close scrutiny because of his fame, but most ancient cases of hermaphroditism are not well-documented, usually relying on the term androgynos, a term that covered a wide spectrum of sexual orientation and gender presentation (see androgyny). Only a minority of infant cases clearly record the presence of both male and female genitalia (Phlegon 2; Livy 27.11.4 & 37.6, 31.12.6). Cases that present in adolescence are ambiguous, usually signalled by the sudden growth of a girl’s beard but reticent as to genital specifics (Pliny, HN 7.3.34). Two exceptions to this are the cases of Herais of Abae and Callo of Epidaurus, two adult women who developed tumours on their abdomens that, upon surgery, were revealed to be male genitalia (Diod. Sic. 32.10.2 & 32.11). Yet cases of hermaphroditism arose often enough to eventually warrant legal ruling, with the hermaphrodite person taking on the legal rights (or lack thereof) of the gender to which s/he most conformed (Decretum Gratiani 4.2.3).

Mythic Accounts

Classical myth presents two types of physically human hermaphroditism, both the result of supernatural intervention. Neither type of mythic hermaphroditism can be considered to correspond to the modern biological definition since they describe a full sexual transition from male to female, female to male, or a sexual transition that combines male genitalia with female secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, beardlessness) but omits direct reference to the presence of female genitalia. Full sexual transition occurs in the legends of Tiresias and Caenis. The seer Tiresias was transformed from a man into a woman when he saw snakes mating on Mt. Cyllene and struck them with his staff; seven years later, he came across the same sight and was transformed back into a man. His experience of living as both a man and a woman allowed him to rule in a dispute between Zeus and Hera as to which gender experienced greater pleasure during sexual intercourse. Upon claiming that women experienced more pleasure, he was blinded by Hera in a fit of pique but compensated by Zeus with the gift of prophecy (Hesiod, fr. 275 M–W; Apollod. 3.6.7; Ovid, Met. 3.316–338). The tale of Caenis’ transformation is similarly compensatory; raped by Poseidon (or in some accounts coerced into transactional sex) she asked that she be made invulnerable, whereupon the god made her a man with impenetrable skin. Now named Caeneus, the warrior participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt and died in the war between the Lapiths and the centaurs (Ovid, Met. 12.146–210). It is notable that both Tiresias and Caenis are presented as returning to their original sex in the underworld, suggesting that this type of hermaphroditism was perceived as being an essentially transient state (Hom. Od. 10. 490–495, 11.90–99; Vir. Aen 6.455).

In contrast, the second type of mythic hermaphroditism, represented by Hermaphroditus, does constitute an ontological transformation. In Ovid’s seminal account (Met. 4. 274–388) Hermaphroditus is the eponymous son of Hermes and Aphrodite. The naiad Salmacis becomes infatuated with his beauty and attempts to seduce him when he comes to bathe in her. As he struggles to escape, she prays that they never be parted, and the gods respond by merging their bodies together into a dual-sexed body (nec duo sunt et forma duplex, nec femina dici/nec puer ut posit, neutrumque et utrumque videntur Met. 4.375–379). Hermaphroditus, perceiving his metamorphosis into a semimas (half-male) body, issues his own prayer that any man who bathes in the same waters be made “half a man” (semivir). From this point, the waters of Salmacis’s pool become notorious for encouraging mollitia (softness, effeminacy) in men (no effect is claimed for women).

Ovid’s account focuses on subverting gender boundaries and ideals of masculinity (Salmacis is aggressively sexual, Hermaphroditus chaste to the point of asexuality), but the 1995 discovery of the Salmakis Inscription from Halicarnassus offers another perspective on Hermaphroditus. Dating from the late 2nd to mid-1st century bce, this epideictic epigram presents Hermaphroditus as hermaphrodite from birth and Salmakis as his nursemaid. In contrast to Ovid’s unmasculine mollitia, the Salmakis Inscription ascribes Hermaphroditus’s “softening” to his civilising role as the inventor and bringer of matrimony to humanity (ll. 15–22).

There is a third form of hermaphroditism recorded in Plato’s Symposium (189d–190c), but it is not clear whether it refers to a genuine but lost religious myth, burlesques existing orphic and gnostic traditions, or is an entire work of fiction.1 As part of a wider debate on the nature of eros, Aristophanes recounts a fable that human beings originally had three sexes: male, female, and hermaphroditic. These hermaphrodites, described as spherical beings with four arms, four legs, two faces, and both sets of genitalia, demonstrated such strength and vigour that Zeus, in fear, bisected them. Human beings who experience same-sex desire or are driven to sexual excess are the descendants (physically or spiritually) of the maimed hermaphrodites who seek their sundered halves.

Despite their disparate physical forms, all these examples of hermaphroditism are consistent on two points. The first is that hermaphrodites are associated with the supernatural and/or the divine. The second is that their bodily union of male and female can be read as having erotic and/or matrimonial significance. Both meanings are expressed in religious cult and representation.

Religious Significance

Though credited by the Salmakis Inscription as the god who brought marriage to mankind, there is no direct evidence for a cult of Hermaphroditus. However, indirect evidence is provided by Theophrastus, who states that the superstitious man will spend the fourth and seventh day of each month crowning hermaphrodites with myrtle (the context suggests cult images) (Thphr. Char. 16.28). Excavations of the Coroplasts’ Dump at the Athenian Areopagus also discovered a 4th century bce mold for mass production of hermaphrodite figurines, suggesting that they were used as votive images.

In contrast to the respect accorded to the divine hermaphrodite, actual cases of hermaphroditic births were considered portents of ill-omen that could only be averted through religious expiation. Classed as “monstrous births” dual-sexed infants in ancient Italy were ritually drowned in the river or the sea, accompanied by hymns, sacrifices, and prayers. The majority of recorded expiations occurred up to the early 1st century bce. The appearance of adult hermaphrodites in the works of Diodorus Siculus and Pliny the Elder suggests that people subsequently revised their opinions, classing hermaphroditic births as oddities not omens (Diod. Sic. 32.12.1; Pliny, HN 7. 36 & 11. 262; Gell. NA 9.4.16).


The earliest visual representations on terracotta votives show hermaphrodites in a full-frontal pose lifting the hem of their garment to reveal male genitalia. This pose (anasyrma) was thought to elicit apotropaic laughter, warding away the evil eye. Many later representations present variations of this unveiling. Hellenistic sculpture produced three types of hermaphrodite figures. The standing type, best represented by an example from Pergamum, has the closest connection to the earlier anasyrma representations. Dating from the mid-2nd century bce, it presents a figure with a feminine hairstyle and naked breasts who stands facing the viewer displaying male genitalia framed by drapery. An alternative form of revelation was provided by the sleeping type (the Borghese Hermaphrodite), where a prone hermaphrodite body reveals itself to the viewer by degrees, either by circulating the gaze from the back to the front, or from the head downward. As with the standing type, the figure is initially supposed to read as female. The third, late-Hellenistic, symplegma type presents a struggle between hermaphrodite and satyr. These are usually understood to be read as presenting a rear view that suggests that the struggle is between the satyr and a nymph or maenad; only by circulating around the statue does a frontal view simultaneously reveal the breast and penis of the hermaphrodite. Although satyrs are usually presented as sexual aggressors, the physical agency demonstrated by hermaphrodite can offer viewers alternative readings of the erotic power dynamics on display.

Roman fresco takes its cue from sculpture, with hermaphrodite scenes divided into two broad compositional groups: discovery/awakening scenes and adornment/admiration tableaux. Discovery scenes present a conflation of the sleeping and wrestling sculptural types discussed earlier, with a recumbent hermaphrodite awakening to, or in the process of grappling with, a satyr, Pan, or Silenus. The adornment/admiration scenes depict a hermaphrodite at hir toilette or raising a fold of garment in a visual metonym of anasyrma, surrounded by an admiring retinue. The prevalence of satyrs and other Dionysiac attendants may be attributed to the fact that these scenes most often take place in a landscape of mythological wilderness.

Curiously, there is little overlap between the representation of hermaphrodites in literature and visual art (see medicine). There are no references to hermaphrodites participating in a Dionysiac thiasos in literature and no visual representations of Ovid’s account. One point of congruence however, is the perception of hermaphroditic maleness. In visual art, the most potent aspect of the hermaphrodite’s appearance is hir penis. Whether openly visible or deferred, the composition will draw the viewer’s eye to focus on the penis. Similarly, the Greek ἀνδρόγυνος‎ and Latin androgynus are masculine declensions, never neuter, as are ἑρμαφπόδιτος‎ and hermaphroditus. Visual convention thus reflects grammatical gender.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on hermaphroditism and hermaphrodites in the ancient world is wide-ranging. Originally perceived as obscene and not suitable for public display, hermaphrodite images are now understood to have been used as fertility icons, symbols of marital union, and apotropaic representations of comic sexuality.2 Evidence for the spatial arrangement and distribution of hermaphrodite images indicates that they were concentrated in areas associated with thresholds and liminality, combined with a high possibility of male/female encounters, such as theatres and baths, and gardens.3 Following seminal works by Grosz and Laqueur, studies have explored the role hermaphroditism played in classical culture in exploring gender boundaries and as an exemplar of queer semiotics.4 Textual analyses focus primarily on Ovid’s account of the myth of Hermaphroditus in the Metamorphoses, with additional archaeological and historical context supplied by the Salmakis Inscription.5 More recently, attention has turned to the legal and medical position of hermaphroditic persons.6 In view of the difficulties posed by the disjunction between mixed-sex body and male-gendered language, researchers are currently adopting contemporary transgender or gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze” or “s/he,” and “hir.”7


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