1. Literary sources and myth
Hermaphroditus is depicted in Greek and Roman mythology and art as the creature which simultaneously bears the characteristics of both genders. The earliest reference to him is the one made by Theophrastus, in the 4th century BC.1 We also have knowledge of the writing of a homonymous tragedy by the Greek comedy writer Poseidippus, who lived in the first half of the 3rd century BC, but the play has unfortunately not survived our days.2 All the other literary sources which refer to him are later. Diodorus of Sicily, in the middle of the 1st century BC, informs us on Hermaphroditus’ descent and the meaning of his name. More specifically, he states that he was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, and that his name is a combination of his parents’ names.3
More extensively, the myth of Hermaphroditus was perpetuated by Ovid, the Latin poet who lived in the 1st century BC.4 Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, whom the nymphs raised in the caves of mount Ide of Phrygia. His expression projected the grace and beauty of both his parents, from whom he took his name. When he turned fifteen, he abandoned the mountain where he grew up, in order to wander around Asia Minor and become acquainted with new places. He passed by the towns of Lycia, as well as Caria, where he stopped to rest at a fountain called Salmacis, whose water formed a lake.5 The homonymous nymph of the lake, the skittish Salmacis, was enraptured by the youth’s beauty and fell deeply in love with him. Yet, Hermaphroditus remained unmoved and indifferent to her passion. When she realized that all her efforts to seduce him were unavailing, she made a feint of being indifferent and moved away from the fountain. Hermaphroditus, thinking that he was left alone, jumped into the water. Salmacis, however, hidden behind a nearby bush and watching all of his moves – defenseless as he was in her kingdom’s territories – sprang out from behind the bush and jumped into the water. Hermaphroditus, despite all of his efforts, did not manage to escape the nymph’s embraces, as she was blinded with passion and implored the gods to never separate them. The gods made her wish come true and united the two bodies in one, by creating a new type of living being, which had a double nature, neither female nor male. Hermaphroditus, as he felt his body being united with the female one, cursed the fountain, and implored his parents to transform any man who would fall in the same pool into an effeminate creature. Hermes and Aphrodite heard their son’s request and granted the fountain this mysterious power.6
The myth that was delivered by Ovid is explanatory and probably of Greek origin. The poet begins his mythical narration by trying to justify the bad reputation that the fountain Salmacis had acquired, to which Strabo7 as well as Vitruvius8 make mention. At the same time, Ovid justifies the peculiar physiology and the unusual name of Hermaphroditus.9 His paradoxical double hypostasis provoked the interest of many writers of the later period, like that of Lucian,10 Martialis11 and Ausonius.12 A reference to Hermaphroditus is also made in the Palatine Anthology, and is associated with the tradition of possible sexual intercourse with Silenus, also encountered in art.13
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 and possessed the power of self fertilization. In Greece and Asia Minor, hermaphrodite features appear in cases of well-known deities, such as Dionysus, Zeus Stratius, Eros, Cybele, Agdistis and Aphrodite, the latter being worshipped as ‘Aphroditos’ in Cyprus and depicted as a female figure with a beard and a phallus.14
In the Greek world, the cult of Hermaphroditus must have been introduced in the early 4th century BC, yet our knowledge on it remains scant. No information exists on whether he was one of the most significant deities in the Greek pantheon, or on his particular properties. A view has been expressed that, as Hermaphroditus embodied the full unity and harmony of the two genders, he was probably a deity directly linked to fertility and reproduction, and was worshipped as a protector of marriage and sexual union.
At the same time, Hermaphroditus’ depictions in the Hellenistic and Roman periods in private houses, theatres, baths and gymnasia led to the conclusion that he was probably assigned an apotropaic character. Moreover, Hermaphroditus’ terracotta figures were found in Hellenistic graves in Greece and his depictions on Roman grave monuments perhaps revealed a chthonic substance. It is notable that Greek and Latin writers did not appear to associate him with people who possessed ambiguous sexual characteristics upon birth and were considered inauspicious and miasmatic creatures, thus were killed for this reason.15 From Theophrastus’ sayings it is evident that Hermaphroditus accepted ritual honours, while Alciphron16 makes mention of the presence of a sanctuary devoted to the deity, in the deme of Alopeke in Attica. Unfortunately, there is no evidence on sanctuaries devoted to Hermaphroditus in Asia Minor.
Hermaphroditus is often portrayed in sculpture, wall-paintings and mosaics of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Literary and epigraphic evidence cites sculpture with his figure. Pliny’s mention to a bronze statue referred to as Hermaphroditus nobilis and created by the sculptor Polycles is notable.17
Hermaphroditus is depicted nude or half-nude in works of art, either having the body of a teenager with female breasts and male genitals, or with a flexible, well-shaped female body and male genitals. In the field of sculpture, a most popular type was the one of the ‘anasyromenos ('revealing type') Hermaphroditus’, who exhibits his genitals by raising his cloak. However, the figure of the so called ‘sleeping Hermaphroditus’ was also popular, which is a piece of art that belongs to the Hellenistic period and has survived in many Roman copies. Hermaphroditus is often encountered in statue groups, either together with Aphrodite or together with the Cupids or Pan, and even with figures from the dionysian thiasus. On the wall paintings of Pompey he is depicted with Silenus, a fact that most likely echoes the tradition that links these two mythical figures. We do not know of any works of art in Antiquity that portray the myth of Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis, as cited by Ovid. On the contrary, in the Renaissance and during the later periods this myth became a source of inspiration for many artists.18In Asia Minor a small number of sculptures were found in the form of Hermaphroditus. There is a statue of the revealing type which comes from Smyrna, while two marble Hermaic stelai in the form of Hermaphroditus were discovered in Pergamon. A marble statue of him was also found there, which is dated to the 2nd century BC. It depicts Hermaphroditus standing half-nude with a cloak thrown on his left arm and his body bent backwards, thus showing his genitals. This position reminds of the statue types of Aphrodite, Dionysus and Apollo. Some parts of statue groups of the Roman era that depicted Hermaphroditus together with a satyr were found in Side, Smyrna, and in Antioch (Syria), whence fragments of mosaics originated, also depicting Hermaphroditus with a satyr.19
1. Thphr., Char. 16.10. According to Theophrastus, garlands were offered to Hermaphroditus on the fourth and seventh days of each month. It has been claimed, though, that Theophrastus does not only refer to the deity, but also to Hermaic stelai of Aphrodite, LIMC 5.1 (1990), p. 269, see entry ‘Hermaphroditos’ (A. Ajootian)· Ussher, R.G., The Characters of Theophrastus (London 1960), pp. 149-151. Also, epigraphic evidence from the 4th century BC survives, which proves Hermaphroditus’ worship in Greece, as – for example – the statue base from Vari in Attica, which bore a votive inscription to Hermaphroditus and dates to the beginning of the 4th century BC, see Kirchner, J. – Dow, S., “Inschriften vom Athenischen Lande”, AM 62 (1937), pp. 7-8.
2. CAF III, 338-339, fr. 11.
5. The name ‘Salmacis’ was also used to refer to an ancient site close to Halicarnassus, as mentioned by Stephanus of Byzantium, see Zgusta, L., Kleinasiatische Ortsnamen (Heidelberg 1984), p. 529· Blümel, W., “Einheimische Ortsnamen in Karien”, EA 30 (1998), p. 178.
6. Ov. Met. 4.285-4.388· Kakridis, I. Th. (ed.), Ελληνική Μυθολογία 3: οι Ήρωες (Athens 1986), pp. 339-341· Grimal, P., Dictionary of Greek Mythology (edited by Β. Άτσαλος, Thessaloniki 1991), pp. 211-212· LIMC 5.1 (1990), pp. 268-269, see entry ‘Hermaphroditos’ (A. Ajootian).
7. Strabo 14.2.16. Strabo mentions the following; “The fountain of Salmacis has the bad reputation, I do not know the reason why, of making those who drink from its waters milder. It seems, however, that the tendency towards well-being makes humans find the reasons in climate or water. The reasons behind softness, though, are not the above; these are wealth and self-indulgent life”.
8. Vitr., De arch. 2.8.11-2.8.12. Vitruvius specifically claims that the reputation of the fountain involving people in an abnormal and aphrodisiac behaviour, and rendering those who drink from its water effeminate and obscene, is false and groundless.
9. Ajootian, A., “Mostrum or Daimon. Hermaphrodites in Ancient Art and Culture”, in Berggreen, B. – Marinatos, N. (ed.), Greece and Gender (Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens 2, Bergen 1995), pp. 93-108· Kakridis, I. T. (ed.), Ελληνική Μυθολογία 3: οι Ήρωες (Athens 1986), pp. 339-341.
10. Lucian, Dial. D. 3.1, 17.2. Lucian mainly refers to Hermaphroditus’ descent.
12. Aus., Epigrams 102, 103.
13. Palatine Anthology 9.783. There is a reference to a piece of sculpture by Hermaphroditus which was placed in a bath. The passage 9.317 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.
14. Kakridis, I. T. (ed.), Ελληνική Μυθολογία 3: οι Ήρωες (Athens 1986), pp. 339-341· Ajootian, A., “Mostrum or Daimon. Hermaphrodites in Ancient Art and Culture”, in Berggreen, B. – Marinatos, N. (ed.), Greece and Gender (Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens 2, Bergen 1995), pp. 93-108· Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie II (1886-1890), columns 2314-2342, see entry “Hermaphroditos” (P. Hermann)· RE VIII.1 (1912), columns 714-721, see entry “Hermaphroditos” (J. Jessen). Reallexikon fur Antike und Christentum 14 (1988), columns 650-682, see entry “Hermaphrodit” (M. Delcourt – K. Hoheisel). It has been formerly claimed that Aphroditus was identified with Hermaphroditus, and particularly that the name ‘Aphroditus’ changed when his cult was introduced in Greece because of the Hermaic stelai that were constructed depicting his figure, which were called Hermaphrodits. This view is not met in recent bibliography.
15. Kakridis, I. T. (ed.), Ελληνική Μυθολογία 3: οι Ήρωες (Athens 1986), pp. 339-341· Ajootian, A., “Mostrum or Daimon. Hermaphrodites in Ancient Art and Culture”, in Berggreen, B. – Marinatos, N. (ed.), Greece and Gender (Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens 2, Bergen 1995), pp. 93-108· LIMC 5.1 (1990), pp. 268-285, see entry “Hermaphroditos” (A. Ajootian).
16. Alciph., Epist. 2.35.
17. Plin., HN 34.80. According to Politt, J.J., Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge 1986), p. 149, the word ‘nobilis’ here probably means ‘very well-known’ rather than ‘noble’. Unfortunately, it remains unknown to which one of the three sculptors of Antiquity who bore this name Pliny refers to. See LIMC 5.1 (1990), p. 270, entry “Hermaphroditos” (A. Ajootian).
18. Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie II (1886-1890), columns 2314-2342, see entry “Hermaphroditos” (P. Hermann)· LIMC 5.1 (1990), PP. 268-285, see entry “Hermaphroditos” (A. Ajootian)· LIMC 5.2 (1990), pp. 190-8· Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 14 (1988), columns 650-682, see entry “Hermaphrodit” (M. Delcourt – K. Hoheisel)· Smith, R.R.R., Hellenistic Sculpture (London) 1991), pp. 130, 140, 156· Ajootian, A., “Ex Utroque Sexu: The Sleeping Hermaphrodite and the Myth of Agdistis”, AJA 92 (1987), PP. 275-6. The statue groups of Hermaphroditus with satyrs are considered to be based on the aesthetic principles of the works of art of the sculptor Cephisodotus, son of Praxiteles, who, according to Pliny, created statue groups in Pergamon. Plin., HN 36.24· Dickins, G., Hellenistic Sculpture (Oxford 1920), pp. 4-5.
19. LIMC 5.1 (1990), pp. 268-285, see entry “Hermaphroditos” (A. Ajootian)· LIMC 5.2 (1990), PP. 190-8· Winter, F., Pergamon VII.1 (1903), pp. 132-3, 220-1· Ohnlemutz, E., Die Kulte und Heiligtümer der Götter in Pergamon (Darmstadt 1968), p. 266· Smith, R.R.R., Hellenistic Sculpture (London 1991), pp. 130, 140, 156. The statue of Hermaphroditus that was found in Pergamon was claimed to remind of works by Praxiteles, see Bieber, M., The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age (New York 1954), pp. 124-5. Moreover, the Palatine Anthology (2.102-2.107) informs of the existence of a bronze statue of Hermaphroditus, which used to decorate the Baths of Zeuxippus in Constantinople, and was burned down in 532 AD. On the topic see Stupperich, R., “Das Statuenprogramm in den Zeuxippos- Thermen”, IstMitt 32 (1982), pp. 210-235.