Heterosexual hermaphrodites: Aneau’s Picta poesis

If Pliny provided naturalists, philosophers and ethnographic writers with a prose account of ‚hermaphrodites‘, Ovid was the perennial source of the lyrical variation of the theme. Given the popularity of his Metamorphoses, one could cite new variants of his account of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from almost every century (see e.g. Aurnhammer 1986 for an excellent study of this kind). Today, I will concentrate on Barthélémy Aneau (c.1510–1561) who in 1552 published a collection of emblems, or rather, two of them, as he did both a Latin and a French version.

Here, the figure of the hermaphrodite occurs three times. First, the hermaphrodite is used as a symbol of marriage. Just as the two spouses are ‚one flesh‘ (una caro, Gen. 2.28), the hermaphrodite is the married couple. The poem that comes with the emblem goes at some length to further explain the imagery of the hermaphrodite, and also the other elements of the emblem, but to make a long story short, the hermaphrodite is an unambigiously positive figure here, symbolizing the union of the sexes in marriage.

As for the second case, Aneau takes and essentially re-writes a medieval poem which he, like many other scholars, attributes to a spurious classical poet called Pulex (see Alton 1931 on this attribution, and here for the poem itself). The lyric persona is an hermaphrodite quoting the (seemingly) impossible prophecies his_her was told by the Gods when pregnant. First, his mother was told that she would have a boy, a girl, or neither; this was fulfilled as the child was hermaphrodite. The Gods also predicted that the child would die three different deaths, and this also came true by an utterly bizarre accident by which the hermaphrodite was killed at the same time by drowning, hanging and his own weapon.

For Aneau, the point seems to be is that the seemingly impossible and contradictory prophecies came true, as the heading suggests (Les divines parolles ne se contrarient/Divina verba secum non pugnant). This can easily be read as a Christianizing interpretation, as both the French and the Latin version may easily be applied to Christian revelation. The hermaphrodite, while a the literal level dying a tragic death, conveys a reassuring message that the words of divine revelation ultimately do not contradict each other.

Coming to the third case, things are somewhat more complicated. One the one hand, Aneau here directly engages with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in doing so he concentrates on Salmacis rather than Hermaphroditus. Also, his account differs significantly from Ovid’s – not so much in content but in tone. I quote the translation of the French Emblems project:

In the thick-shaded lap of a shaded valley lies a fountain muddy with turbid water. Whoever washes himself in the fountain to quench the torrid heat, whoever dares immerse himself in the swampy water – he leaps out androgynous, of uncertain sex, not half the man he used to be. The poets fancy that the fountain of Salmacis was like this, the place where Hermaphroditus became both man and woman. But, dear Reader, this fountain here is nothing other than the cunt, sweet icebox of our raging lust. He who submerges himself in that obscene bog loses his hard man’s manhood and his natural heat; moist lust makes him effeminate, his strength into foetid weakness, and he becomes a male eunuch.

[Source: http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/emblem.php?id=FANa024]

Ovid may have depicted Salmacis as transgressing certain gender norms (in playing the active, male role), but he certainly described the whole scenery as very beautiful, a true locus amoenus. Aneau from the outset sets the tome by stressing darkness and dirt (in Latin: obscura, umbrosus, turbidulis, lutulentus – and that’s just the first two lines).

There can be little doubt as to what is described as so dirty: Aneau very directly addresses the male reader, and even more directly spells out the danger of (heterosexual) intercourse. The title in this respect is quite clear, even if the two version are slightly different whether the stress is more on ‚lascicity‘ (paillardise) or ‚desire‘ (libido):

Fontaine de Salmacis, paillardise effeminant / Fons salmacidos: libido effoeminans

It is a male voice warning the male reader to preserve his manliness – by staying away from women, and by avoiding not so much intercourse but specifically lust. This also may explain why Salmacis on the one hand is at the centre of the emblem but on the other hand is oddly absent as an acting person in Aneau’s text. Rather than being an activity (let alone a relation), sexual intercourse is something men fall, drop, sink into.

The link between (heterosexual) intercourse and effeminacy may be surprinsing to a modern reader, but it is entirely in tune with classical concepts of effeminacy: sexual lust, and indeed pleasure in general, directly threatens male self-control. As David Halperin put it very nicely:

The once fashionable American ideal of the Big Man on Campus, the football jock who gets to indulge limitlessly his love of hot showers, cold beer, fast cars, and faster women, would appear in this context not as an emblem of masculinity but of its degraded opposite, as a monster of effeminacy.

Halperin 2000, 93

If the hermaphrodite in other contexts was associates with ambiguity, here everything is quite straightforward. Indeed, Aneau left little room how to interpret his poem – but, interestingly, the images to his two editions add a certain twist.

First of all, what does one see? In the French edition, from which the above picture is taken, we see Salmacis (mostly Salmacis) and Hermaphroditus in the act; very clearly, and quite in tune with Ovid’s narrative (and also male fears of effeminacy), the nymp is clearly the active part here. Her being on top itself was offesive enough for many premodern (male) readers (see Natalie Zemon Davis‘ classic ‚Women on top‘). In the background, one would expect to see the double-sexed Hermaphroditus, the result of the fusion depicted so prominently. If so, the effeminacy went quite far – the figure is very clearly female but his_her male attributes are less visible.

If the French version therefore has much more female nudity than male this is even more true of the Latin version. Here, the pre-coital Hermaphroditus has disappeared from the picture altogether (see left). Even more so than in the French version, the male reader is left with a very full view of Salmacis, apparently to incite the very lascivity the poem describes as so dangerous.




Primary sources

Barthélémy Aneau, Picta poesis. Vt pictura poesis erit (Lyon, 1552). [http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/books.php?id=FANa&o=]

Barthélémy Aneau, Imagination poétique (Lyon, 1552). [http://www.emblems.arts.gla.ac.uk/french/books.php?id=FANb&o=]


Secondary literature

E. H. Alton, ‚Who wrote the „Hermaphroditus“?‘, Hermathena, 21 (1931), 136-148. [http://www.jstor.org/stable/23037262]

Achim Aurnhammer, Androgynie: Studien zu einem Motiv in der europäischen Literatur (Literatur und Leben N.F. 30,  Cologne, 1986).

Natalie Zemon Davis, ‚Women on top. Symbolic sexual inversion and political disorder in early modern Europe‘, in  Society and culture in early modern France: eight essays (Stanford, 1975), 124–151.

Alison Saunders, ‚The Influence of Ovid on a Sixteenth-Century Emblem Book: Barthelemy Aneau’s Imagination poétique‘, Nottingham French Studies, 16 (1977), 1-18.

Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Heterosexual hermaphrodites: Aneau’s Picta poesis, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 14/12/2015, https://intersex.hypotheses.org/1665. Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/]. Letzter Aufruf: 25/10/2020.


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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