HERMAPHRODITOS (Hermaphroditus) was the god of hermaphrodites and of effeminates. He was numbered amongst the winged love-gods known as Erotes.
Hermaphroditos was a son of Hermes and Aphrodite, the gods of male and female sexuality.
According to some he was once a handsome youth who attracted the love of a Naiad nymphe Salmakis (Salmacis). She prayed to to be united with him forever and the gods, answering her prayer, merged their two forms into one. At the same time her spring acquired the property of making men who bathed in its waters soft and effeminate.
Hermaphroditos was depicted as a winged youth with both male and female features--usually female thighs, breasts, and style of hair, and male genitalia.
FAMILY OF HERMAPHRODITUS
HERMAPHRODI′TUS (Hermaphroditos). The name is compounded of Hermes and Aphrodite, and is synonymous with androgunês, gunandros, hêmiandros, &c. He was originally a male Aphrodite (Aphroditus), and represented as a Hermes with the phallus, the symbol of fertility (Paus. i. 19. § 2), but afterwards as a divine being combining the two sexes, and usually with the head, breasts, and body of a female, but with the sexual parts of a man. According to a tradition in Ovid (Met. iv. 285, &c.), he was a son of Hermes and Aphrodite, and consequently a great-grandson of Atlas, whence he is called Atlantiades or Atlantius. (Ov. Met. iv. 368; Hygin. Fab. 271.) He had inherited the beauty of both his parents, and was brought up by the nymphs of Mount Ida. In his fifteenth year he went to Caria; in the neighbourhood of Halicarnassus he laid down by the well Salmacis. The nymph of the well fell in love with him, and tried to win his affections, but in vain Once when he was bathing in the well, she embraced him, and prayed to the gods that they might permit her to remain united with him for ever. The gods granted the request, and the bodies of the youth and the nymph became united in such a manner that the two together could not be called either a man or a woman, but were both. Hermaphroditus, on becoming aware of the change, prayed that in future every one who bathed in the well should be metamorphosed into an hermaphrodite. (Ov. l.c.; Diod. iv. 6; Lucian, Dial. Deor. 15. 2; Vitruv. ii. 8; Fest. s. v. Salmacis.) In this, as in other mythological stories, we must not suppose that the idea is based on a fact, but the idea gave rise to the tale, and thus received, as it were, a concrete body. The idea itself was probably derived from the worship of nature in the East, where we find not only monstrous compounds of animals, but also that peculiar kind of dualism which manifests itself in the combination of the male and female. Others, however, conceive that the hermaphrodites were subjects of artistic representation rather than of religious worship. The ancient artists frequently represented hermaphrodites, either in groups or separately, and either in a reclining or a standing attitude. The first celebrated statue of an hermaphrodite was that by Polycles. (Plin. H. N. xxiv. 19, 20; comp. Heinrich, Commentatio qua Hermaphroditorum Artis antiquae Operibus insignium Origines et Causae explicantur, Hamburg, 1805; Welcker, in Creuzer and Daub's Studien, iv. p. 169, &c.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 6. 5 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"Hermaphroditos (Hermaphroditus), as he has been called, who was born of Hermes and Aphrodite and received a name which is a combination of those of both his parents. Some say that this Hermaphroditos is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man. But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do they have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 271 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Youths who were most handsome . . . Atlantius, son of Mercurius [Hermes] and Venus [Aphrodite], who is called Hermaphroditus."
Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3. 21 - 23 (trans. Rackham) (Roman rhetorician C1st B.C.) :
"Engendered form the sea-foam, we are told she [Aphrodite] became the mother by Mercurius [Hermes] of the second Cupidus [i.e. Eros but Cicero is referring to Hermaphroditos]."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 28 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Hear how the magic pool of Salmacis found its ill fame, and why its strengthless waters soften and enervate the limbs they touch. All know its famous power but few the cause. To Mercurius (Mercury) [Hermes], runs the tale, and Cythereia [Venus-Aphrodite] a boy [Hermaphroditos] was born whom in Mount Ida's caves the Naides nurtured; in his face he showed father and mother and took his name from both. When thrice five years had passed, the youth forsook Ida, his fostering home, his mountain haunts, eager to roam strange lands afar, to see strange rivers, hardships softened by delight. The towns of Lycia he reached at last and Carae's marching provinces; and there he saw a pool, a limpid shining pool, clear to its very bottom; no marsh reed, no barren sedge grew there, no spiky rush; the water crystal clear, its margin ringed with living tuft and verdure always green. A Nympha dwelt there, not one to bend the bow or join the hunt or run to win the race; she was the only of the Naides unknown to swift Diana [Artemis]. Many a time her sisters chide her: ‘Come, Salmacis, get out your spear or painted quiver; vary your hours of ease with hardships of the chase.’
Yet never spear she took nor painted quiver, nor would vary her hours of ease with hardships of the chase; but in her pool would bathe her lovely limbs, and with a comb of boxwood dress her hair, and, gazing long, take counsel of the waters what style were best. Now on the soft green grass or on soft leaves in gauzy dress she lay; now gathered flowers--and, gathering, chanced to see the boy and seeing, saw her heart's desire, Yet though her heart would haste she paused awhile till, dress inspected, all in order placed, charm in her eyes set shining, she deserved to look so lovely, then began to speak: ‘Fair boy you seem--how worthily you seem!--a god, and, if a god, Cupido (Love) [Eros] himself, or if a mortal, happy pair are they who gave you birth; blest is your brother, blest indeed is your sister, if you have one, and the nurse who suckled you, but far, of far, more blest she, your betrothed, found worthy of your love! If there is one, let stolen joy be mine; if none, let me be her, make me your bride!’
This said, she held her peace. A rosy blush dyed the boy's cheeks; he knew not what love was; but blushes well became him; like the bloom of rosy apples hanging in the sun, or painted ivory, or when the moon glows red beneath her pallor and the gongs resound in vain to rescue her eclipse. Then the Nympha pleaded, begged, besought at least a sister's kiss, and made to throw her arms around his ivory neck. ‘Enough!’ he cried ‘Have done! Or I shall quit this place--and you.’
Fear struck her heart; ‘I yield the place,’ she said, ‘Stranger, to you’ and turned away as if to leave him, then, with many a backward glance, she vanished in the leafy undergrowth and crouched in hiding there. The boy, alone (he thought) on the empty sward unobserved, strolled to and fro and in the rippling water dipped first his toes, then ankle deep, and soon, charmed by the soothing coolness of the pool, stripped his light garments from his slender limbs. Then Salmacis gazed spellbound, and desire flamed for his naked beauty and her eyes blazes bright as when the sun's unclouded orb shines dazzling in a mirror. She scarce could bare to wait, hardly postpone her joy, she longed to embrace him, scarce contained her frenzied heart. He clapped his hollow palms against his sides and dived into the pool and, as he swam arm over arm, gleamed in the limpid water like, in a guarding dome of crystal glass, white lilies or a figure of ivory. ‘I've won, he's mine!’ she cried, and flung aside her clothes and plunged far out into the pool and grappled him and, as he struggled, forced her kisses, willy-nilly fondled him, caressed him; now on one side, now the other clung to him as he fought to escape her hold; and so at last entwined him, like a snake seized by the king of birds and borne aloft, which, as it hangs, coils round his head and claws and with its tail entwines his spreading wings; or ivy wrapping round tall forest trees; or, in the sea, a squid whose whipping arm seize and from every side surround their prey.
Atlantiades [Hermaphroditos] fought back, denied the Nympha her joy; she strained the more; her clinging body seemed fixed fast to his. ‘Fool, fight me as you will,’ she cried, ‘You'll not escape! Ye Gods ordain no day shall ever dawn to part us twain!’ Her prayer found gods to hear; both bodies merged in one, both blended in one form and face. As when a gardener sets a graft and sees growth seal the join and both mature together, thus, when in the fast embrace their limbs were knit, they two were two no more, nor man, nor woman--one body then that neither seemed and both.
So when he saw the waters of the pool, where he had dived a man, had rendered him half woman and his limbs now weak and soft, raising his hands, Hermaphroditus cried, his voice unmanned, ‘Dear father [Hermes] and dear mother [Aphrodite], both of whose names I bear, grant me, your child, that whoso in these waters bathes a man emerge half woman, weakened instantly.’
Both parents hears; both, moved to gratify their bi-sexed son, his purpose to ensure, drugged the bright water with that power impure."
ANCIENT GREEK & ROMAN ART
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Cicero, De Natura Deorum - Latin Rhetoric C1st B.C.
Other references not currently quoted here: Lucian Dialogues of the Gods 15.2.