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5 - Neutrumque et Utrumque Videntur: Reappraising the Gender Role(s) of Hermaphroditus in Ancient Art

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

INTRODUCTION AND PROBLEM

As an embodied challenge to gender binarism, Hermaphroditus has fascinated since Hellenistic times. Compared to the scarcity of literary sources, this child of Hermes and Aphrodite has primarily survived through images. With no known exceptions, these present an idealised androgynous youngster with breasts and a penis; usually long-haired, always en déshabillé. Although these images were being produced from the Hellenistic era into the third century AD, throughout the Mediterranean regions, Hermaphroditus’ iconography remains remarkably consistent. The one notable change is the figure's inclusion into mythological group scenes set in the sphere of Aphrodite and Dionysus (Oehmke 2004: 15; Berg 2007: 68–70). This expansion of Hermaphroditus‘ iconographic repertoire occurs from the first century BC onwards and coincides with the start of the heyday of Hermaphroditus imagery, the period from the first century BC to the second century AD.

Ancient images of Hermaphroditus should not be understood as portrayals of atypically sexed humans, such as those listed by Livy as prodigia or ill omens (e.g. 27.11.4–6, 31.12.6 see Corbeill 2015: 151–68). What is portrayed is an imaginary body, akin to that of the satyrs, and set in the same uncivilised, mythical landscapes. Literary sources offer few clues as to how contemporary audiences related to these images, as the texts only deal with the origin of Hermaphroditus‘ mixed sexual characteristics. Diodorus Siculus (4.6.5–6), the Salmakis Inscription (15–22, see Isager 2004), Martial (14.174) and two epigrams (Anth. Pal. 2.102; 9.783) describe these as the result of Hermaphroditus inheriting the traits of both hir parents. The best known literary account of Hermaphroditus – the tale of metamorphosis from puer or young boy to semimas or ‘semi-man’ through an unwanted merging with the nymph Salmacis (Met. 4.285–388; on this passage see Kelly in this volume) – is exclusive to Ovid, and not reflected in any surviving images (Berg 2007: 67; Cadario 2012: 241–4). In the most recent article to treat Hermaphroditus, Robert Groves formulates a strong case for Ovid's having taken inspiration from the artworks with which he must have been familiar, and constructing a narrative which plays with his audiences’ expectations based on the same (Groves 2016: 322–6, 344–56).

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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