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6 - Intersex and Intertext: Ovid’s Hermaphroditus and the Early Universe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

This chapter examines the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from book 4 (285–388) of Ovid's Metamorphoses, whose two bodies are merged into one. A series of connections can be drawn between the transformation of Hermaphroditus and the representation of the primordial universe at the beginning of the Metamorphoses, and specifically the representation of cosmological chaos, where basic elemental oppositions such as the hot and the cold and the wet and the dry are confounded and mixed together. Likewise the Hermaphroditus narrative may be seen to undermine the ontological stability of gendered corporeal form, while the presentation of Hermaphroditus as protohuman also serves to destabilise the concept of cosmological and human evolution, or more specifically the assumption that the world moves from a state of chaos and unity to one of stability, multiplicity and division.

Ovid therefore uses the Hermaphroditus narrative not only to collapse the distinction between apparent gender categories, but also to question the notion that it is possible to hold a fixed and stable view of both the cosmos and the literary text purporting to depict it. On the one hand, Ovid's Hermaphroditus narrative stands alongside the other stories of corporeal transformation which occupy the largely ‘mythological’ section of the text; on the other, Ovid uses various features of this narrative to link this specific transformation with the ‘scientific’ opening and the description of the primordial universe. The Hermaphroditus narrative thus also highlights how the apparent boundaries and distinctions which exist in terms of textual genre are as fluid and unstable as those which are perceived to exist between genders. Ovid conveys this through the use of multiple allusions to ‘scientific’ discourses and specifically to accounts of ‘intersex’ beings in Empedocles, Plato's Symposium and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. In this way Ovid's portrayal of Hermaphroditus performs an ontological and interacting epistemological role, as it expresses the breakdown of corporeal distinction and stability through blurring the divisions between truth and falsehood. Ovid also extends this idea to human social structures by subverting the use of opposition as a basic organising principle across the cultural spectrum.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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