Diodor and Ovid on Hermaphroditus (English)


Fresco of Hermaphroditus from Herculaneum, first century AD (today in the Naples National Archaeological Museum). Source: WikiCommons; public domain.

For centuries, indeed for milennia, any discourse on bodies ‘between’ the sexes drew on the vocabulary of ‘hermaphroditism’ ultimately referring to the god Hermaphroditos. While there is evidence for a Greek cult of the god Hermaphroditos, literary sources are remarkably sparse. Diodor (first century BC) is the first author to provide at least basic information, but only with Ovid (d. 17 AD) there is a full narrative of Hermaphroditus’ aitiology. This account, unique as it is, became widely known as the Metamorphoses became very influential in the course of time. Inevitably, therefore, the present blog dealing with a longue durée history of bodies beyond the male/female binary will address how Ovid’s narrative was read, used, changed, interpreted, represented over the course of time, and as a start, I simply give both Diodor’s and Ovid’s accounts. If you want to read up on Ovid’s influence, the Ovid renewd is a good kick-starter, and Aurnhammer’s monograph (in German) remains the best account of the motif of androgyny in the Western tradition. More to follow soon!


Primary sources

Diodorus of Sicily in twelve volumes, vol. 2: Books II (cont.) – IV, 58, with an English translation by C.H. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library 303), Cambridge, Mass. 1967, at 360–361 [https://archive.org/stream/diodorusofsicily02dioduoft#page/360/mode/2up].

Ovid, Metamorphoses in two volumes, vol. 1. With an English translation by Frank Justus Miller (Loeb Classical Library 42), Cambridge, Mass. 1951, at 198–205 [https://archive.org/stream/metamorphoses01oviduoft#page/198/mode/2up].

Secondary literature

Achim Aurnhammer, Androgynie. Studien zu einem Motiv in der europäischen Literatur (Literatur und Leben N.F. 30,  Cologne, 1986).  Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge, 1990).



1. Diodor, Bibliotheke IV, 6, 5-6

Diodor_GriechischA birth like that of Priapus is ascribed by some writers of myths to 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 Hermaphroditus 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.Diodor_Fußnote


2. Ovid, Met. IV, 274-388

„How the fountain of Salmacis is of ill-repute, how it enervates with its enfeebling waters and renders soft and weak all men who bathe therein, you shall now hear. The cause is hidden; but the enfeebling power of the fountain is well known. A little son of Hermes and of the goddess of Cythera the naiads nursed within Ida’s caves. In his fair face mother and father could be clearly seen; his name also he took from them. When fifteen years had passed, he left his native mountains and abandoned his foster-mother, Ida, delighting to wander in unknown lands and to see strange rivers, his eagerness making light of toil. He came even to the Lycian cities and to the Carians, who dwell hard by the land of Lycia. Here he saw a pool of water crystal clear to the very bottom. No marshy reeds grew there, no unfruitful swamp-grass, nor spiky rushes; it is clear water. But the edges of the pool are bordered with fresh grass, and herbage ever green. A nymph dwells in only of the naiads follows not in swift Diana’s train. Often, ‘tis said, her sisters would chide her: ‘Salmacis, take now either hunting-spear of painted quiver, and vary your ease with the hardships of the hunt.’ But she takes no hunting-spear, no painted quiver, nor does she vary her ease with the hardships of the hunt; but at times she bathes her shapely limbs in her own pool; often combs her hair with a boxwood comb, often looks in the mirror-like waters to see what best becomes her. Now, wrapped in a transparent robe, she lies down to rest on the soft grass or the soft herbage. Often she gathers flowers; an on this occasion, too, she chanced to be gathering flowers when she saw the boy and longed to possess what she saw.

“Not yet, however, did she approach him, though she was eager to do so, until she had calmed herself, until she had arranged her robes and composed her countenance, and taken all pains to appear beautiful. Then did she speak: ‘O youth, most worthy to be believed a god, if thou art indeed a god, thou must be Cupid; or if thou art mortal, happy are they who gave thee birth, blest is thy brother, fortunate indeed any sister of thine and thy nurse who gave thee suck. But far, oh, far happier than they all is she, if any be thy promised bride, if thou shalt deem any worthy to be thy wife. If there be any such, let mine be stolen joy; if not, may I be thine, thy bride, and may we be joined in wedlock.’ The maiden said no more. But the boy blushed rosy red; for he knew not what love is. But still the blush became him well. Such colour have apples hanging in sunny orchards, or painted ivory; such has the moon, eclipsed, red under white, when brazen vessels clash vainly for her relief. When the nymph begged and prayed for at least a sister’s kiss, and was in act to throw her arms round his snowy neck, he cried: ‘Have done, or I must flee and leave this spot – and you.’ Salmacis trembled at this threat and said: ‘I yield the place to you, fair stranger’, and turning away, pretended to depart. But even so she often looked back, and deep in a neighbouring thicket she hid herself, crouching on bended knees. But the boy, freely as if unwatched and alone, walks up and down on the grass, dips his toes in the lapping waters, and his feet. Then quickly, charmed with the coolness of the soothing stream, he threw aside the thin garments from his slender form. Then was the nymph as one spellbound, and her love kindled as she gazed at the naked form. Her eyes shone bright as when the sun’s dazzling face is reflected from the surface of a glass held opposite his rays. Scarce can she endure delay, scarce bear her joy postponed, so eager to hold him in her arms, so madly incontinent. He, elapping his body with hollow palms, dives into the pool, and swimming with alternate strokes flashes with gleaming body through the transparent flood, as if one should encase ivory figures or white lilies in translucent glass. ‘I win, and he is mine!’ cries the naiad, and casting off all her garments dives also into the waters: she holds him fast though he strives against her, steals reluctant kisses, fondles him, touches his unwilling breast, clings to him on this side and on that. At length, as he tries his best to break away from her, she wraps him round with her embrace, as a serpent when he king of birds has caught her and is bearing her on high: which, hanging from his claws, wraps her folds around his head and feet and entangles his flapping wings with her tail: or as the ivy oft-times embraces great trunks of trees, or as the sea-polyp holds its enemy caught beneath the sea, its entacles embracing him on every side. The son of Atlas resists as best he may and denies he nymph the joy she craves; but she holds on, and clings as if grown fast to him. ‘Strive as you may, wicked boy’, she cries, ‘still shall you not escape me. Grant me this, ye gods, and may no day ever come that shall separate him from me or me from him.’ The gods heard her prayer. For their two bodies, joined together as they were, were merged in one, with one face and form for both. As when one grafts a twig on some tree, he sees the branches grow one, and with common life come to maturity, so were these two bodies knit in close embrace: they were no longer two, nor such as to be called, one, woman, and one, man. They seemed neither and yet both.

“When now he saw that the waters into which he had plunged had made him but half-man, and that his limbs hat become enfeebled there, stretching out his hands and speaking, though not with manly tones. Hermaphroditus cried: ‘Oh, grant this boon, my father and my mother, to your son who bears the names of both: whoever comes into this pool as man may he go forth half-man, and may he weaken at touch of the water.’ His parents heard the prayer of their two-formed son and charged the waters with that uncanny power.”

Alcithoe was done […].


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Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Christof Rolker (2015, 11. Dezember). Diodor and Ovid on Hermaphroditus (English). Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/qdjt

Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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