Hermaphroditus: Story & Facts

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

In this lesson, we will take a look at the Roman and Greek god Hermaphroditus, and how he became the god of hermaphrodites and a symbol of the marital union between a man and woman.

Hermaphroditism

The term hermaphrodite has long been the accepted term for a person who has both male and female parts. However, hermaphroditism is when an organism has both male and female reproductive organs, not just parts. In other words, they can produce both egg and sperm for reproduction. This is common in snails, worms, and other invertebrates.

The correct term for a person who just has external male and female parts is actually intersex. Don't feel bad, however, if you have been using the word hermaphrodite incorrectly. We have the Greeks' and Romans' mythical tale of Hermaphroditus to blame for that.

The Tale of Hermaphroditus

Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love had a beautiful son. Combining their names together, they decided to name him Hermaphroditus. They didn't raise their son, however. Instead, he was sent to Mount Ida, a mountain of Asia Minor, where he was raised by nymphs.

Hermaphroditus was extremely handsome, and he knew it. His ego even convinced him that he could conquer the world with his looks alone. So, when he turned fifteen, he set out to try to do just that.

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis

One of the places he visited was Caria. One day, he ventured out to explore some woods near Halicarnassus and came upon a nymph name Salmacis sitting near a fountain. This nymph must have agreed with the current assessment of his beauty because she was immediately filled with lust for him.

Salmacis's urge to have the boy was so strong, she tried desperately to seduce him. But her love was one-sided, as Hermaphroditus wanted nothing to do with her and rejected every advance.

Finally, Salmacis gave up and left, or so Hermaphroditus thought. The nymph was actually hiding behind a tree, watching as the god undressed and began to bathe in the pool.

Just when she knew his guard was down, Salmacis jumped into the water and entangled her body tightly around Hermaphroditus. Although he struggled to get away, the nymph kissed him and kept him in her clutches.

As Hermaphroditus tried to fight her off, Salmacis cried out to the gods and begged them to join the two together forever. What she probably meant was to be joined in a committed relationship. What the gods did, however, was physically join the two.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus
Salmacis

The New Hermaphroditus

Hermaphroditus's skin began to soften, his face and legs became more feminine, and he grew breasts; however, his male genitalia remained. He was devastated! He knew he could no longer conquer the world with his looks, because he would be rejected by the world.

As told by the Roman poet, Ovid, in Metamorphoses, a distraught and vengeful Hermaphroditus went to his parents and asked them to curse the fountain so that anyone who used it would also become like him. Some versions of the tale say that anyone who drank from the pool would also grow weak. His parents granted his request.

Symbolism and Appearance

Thanks to the lustful Salmacis and the events of that day, Hermaphroditus became the god of hermaphrodites and effeminates and the symbol of androgyny. He also physically represented the union of a man and woman in marriage.

Hermaphroditus statue
Hermaphroditus

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