Spherical androgynes in Plato’s Symposium (Greek and English)

Apart from Ovid’s aitiology of the Goddess Hermaphroditos the speech of Aristophanes found in Plato’s Symposium is one of the most influential literary texts on hermaphrodite/androgynous bodies. Like all speeches in the Symposium, it is a speech on the power of Eros. According to Aristophanes, humans were originally spherical being wth double bodies with three sexes: male-male, female-female and male-female (ἀνδρόγυνοι, androgynoi); only later they were split in half, and ever since, humans were longing for their other half – and this, according to Aristophanes, is the reason of love and desire (eros). This alleged mythos, which is presented a bit tongue-in-cheek and certainly not in tune with Plato’s own philosophy (as one sometimes reads) explains both homosexual and heterosexual desire, and has attracted specal attention (and sometimes censorship) for this very reason. Given that the figure of the Hermaphrodite in Western tradition is sometimes linked to deviant sexual desire (both tribadism and sodomy) it may be worth mentioning that for Aristophanes, heterosexual desire can be explained as a result of the splitting of the androgyn. As for women desiring women (here called ἑταιρίστριαι) and pederasts (παιδεραστής ), they do not descend from androgynoi but the two other sexes, female-female and male-male humans, respectively.

While it was not known in the medieval West, the Symposium (and Aristophanes’ speec in particular) were one of the key texts of learned theories of love and desire ever since its rediscovery in the 15th century. To quote only one example from around 1500 and around 1900, Leo Hebraeus and Sigmund Freud both drew on this speech (for Freud, see https://intersex.hypotheses.org/4056).

The Greek text (189c2-193d5) together with useful tools, cmment and an English translation can be found here: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0059.tlg011.perseus-grc1:189c.


Anselm Feuerbach, “Das Gastmahl” (2nd version, 1874). On the left, the drunk Alkibiades, standing in the centre, the host Agathon, on the right Socrates and Aristophanes. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/. Public domain.


For our ancient nature was not what it is now, but of another kind. In the first place, there were three sexes among men, not two as now, male and female, but a third sex in addition, being both of them in common, whose name still remains though the thing itself has vanished; for one sex was then derived in common from both male and female, androgynous both in form and name, though the name is now applied only in reproach.

Again, the form of each human being as a whole was round, with back and sides forming a circle, but it had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces exactly alike on a cylindrical neck; there was a single head for both faces, which faced in opposite directions, and four ears and two sets of pudenda, and one can imagine all the rest from this. It also traveled upright just as now, in whatever direction it wished; and whenever they took off in a swift run, they brought their legs around straight and somersaulted as tumblers do, and then, with eight limbs to support them, they rolled in a swift circle.

The reason there were three sexes of this sort was that the male originally was the off spring of the Sun, the female of the Earth, and what has a share of both of the Moon, because the Moon also has share of both. They were spherical both in themselves and in their gait because they were like their parents. Well, they were terrible in strength and force, and they had high thoughts and conspired against the gods, and what Homer told of Ephialtes and Otus[1] is told also of them: they tried to storm Heaven in order to displace the gods.

[190c-191a: The gods punish the “spherical people” for their hubris by cutting each of them in two halves.]

Now when their nature was divided in two, each half in longing rushed to the other half of itself and they threw their arms around each other and intertwined them, desiring to grow together into one, dying of hunger and inactivity too because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another. Whenever any of the halves died and the other was left, the one left sought out another and embraced it,  whether it met half of a whole woman-what we now call a woman-or of a man. And so they perished.

But Zeus took pity and provided another device, turning their pudenda to the front – for up till then they had those on the outside too, and they used to beget and bear children not in each other but in the earth, like locusts – well, he turned them to the front and so caused them to beget in each other, in the female through the male, for this reason: so that if male met female, they might in their embrace beget and their race continue to exist, while at the same time if male met male, there’d at least be satiety from their intercourse and they’d be relieved and go back to work and look after the other concerns of life. So Eros for each other is inborn in people from as long ago as that, and he unites their ancient nature, undertaking to make one from two, and to heal human nature.

Each of us then is but the token of a human being, sliced like a flatfish, two from one; each then ever seeks his matching token.[2] Men sectioned from the common sex, then called androgynous, are woman-lovers; the majority of adulterers are from this sex, while on the other hand women from this sex are man-lovers and adulteresses. Women sectioned from a woman pay scant heed to men, but are turned rather toward women, and lesbians come from this sex. Those sectioned from a male pursue the masculine; because they are slices of the male, they like men while still boys, delighting to lie with men and be embraced by them. These are the most noble boys and youths because they are by nature most manly.[3] Some say they’re most shameless, but they’re wrong: they don’t do it out of shamelessness but out of boldness and courage and masculinity, cleaving to what is like themselves. A great proof: actually, it is only men of this sort who, when they grow up, enter on political affairs. When they reach manhood they love boys, and by nature pay no heed to marriage and the getting of children except as compelled to it by custom and law; it suffices them to live out their lives unmarried, with one another. So this sort becomes wholly a lover of boys or a boy who loves having lovers, ever cleaving to what is akin.


(189d) ἡ γὰρ πάλαι ἡμῶν φύσις οὐχ αὑτὴ ἦν ἥπερ νῦν, ἀλλ’ ἀλλοία. πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ τρία ἦν τὰ γένη τὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, οὐχ ὥσπερ νῦν δύο, ἄρρεν καὶ θῆλυ, (189e) ἀλλὰ καὶ τρίτον προσῆν κοινὸν ὂν ἀμφοτέρων τούτων, οὗ νῦν ὄνομα λοιπόν, αὐτὸ δὲ ἠφάνισται· ἀνδρόγυνον γὰρ ἓν τότε μὲν ἦν καὶ εἶδος καὶ ὄνομα ἐξ ἀμφοτέρων κοινὸν τοῦ τε ἄρρενος καὶ θήλεος, νῦν δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλλ’ ἢ ἐν ὀνείδει ὄνομα κείμενον. ἔπειτα ὅλον ἦν ἑκάστου τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τὸ εἶδος στρογγύλον, νῶτον καὶ πλευρὰς κύκλῳ ἔχον, χεῖρας δὲ τέτταρας εἶχε, καὶ σκέλη τὰ ἴσα ταῖς χερσίν, καὶ πρόσωπα (190a) δύ’ ἐπ’ αὐχένι κυκλοτερεῖ, ὅμοια πάντῃ· κεφαλὴν δ’ ἐπ’ ἀμφοτέροις τοῖς προσώποις ἐναντίοις κειμένοις μίαν, καὶ ὦτα τέτταρα, καὶ αἰδοῖα δύο, καὶ τἆλλα πάντα ὡς ἀπὸ τούτων ἄν τις εἰκάσειεν. ἐπορεύετο δὲ καὶ ὀρθὸν ὥσπερ νῦν, ὁποτέρωσε βουληθείη· καὶ ὁπότε ταχὺ ὁρμήσειεν θεῖν, ὥσπερ οἱ κυβιστῶντες καὶ εἰς ὀρθὸν τὰ σκέλη περιφερόμενοι κυβιστῶσι κύκλῳ, ὀκτὼ τότε οὖσι τοῖς μέλεσιν ἀπερειδόμενοι ταχὺ ἐφέροντο κύκλῳ. ἦν δὲ διὰ ταῦτα τρία (190b) τὰ γένη καὶ τοιαῦτα, ὅτι τὸ μὲν ἄρρεν ἦν τοῦ ἡλίου τὴν ἀρχὴν ἔκγονον, τὸ δὲ θῆλυ τῆς γῆς, τὸ δὲ ἀμφοτέρων μετέχον τῆς σελήνης, ὅτι καὶ ἡ σελήνη ἀμφοτέρων μετέχει· περιφερῆ δὲ δὴ ἦν καὶ αὐτὰ καὶ ἡ πορεία αὐτῶν διὰ τὸ τοῖς γονεῦσιν ὅμοια εἶναι. ἦν οὖν τὴν ἰσχὺν δεινὰ καὶ τὴν ῥώμην, καὶ τὰ φρονήματα μεγάλα εἶχον, ἐπεχείρησαν δὲ τοῖς θεοῖς, καὶ ὃ λέγει Ὅμηρος περὶ Ἐφιάλτου τε καὶ Ὤτου, περὶ ἐκείνων λέγεται, τὸ εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνάβασιν ἐπιχειρεῖν (190c) ποιεῖν, ὡς ἐπιθησομένων τοῖς θεοῖς.


(191a) ἐπειδὴ οὖν ἡ φύσις δίχα ἐτμήθη, ποθοῦν ἕκαστον τὸ ἥμισυ τὸ αὑτοῦ συνῄει, καὶ περιβάλλοντες τὰς χεῖρας καὶ συμπλεκόμενοι ἀλλήλοις, ἐπιθυμοῦντες συμφῦναι, ἀπέθνῃσκον ὑπὸ λιμοῦ καὶ τῆς (191b) ἄλλης ἀργίας διὰ τὸ μηδὲν ἐθέλειν χωρὶς ἀλλήλων ποιεῖν. καὶ ὁπότε τι ἀποθάνοι τῶν ἡμίσεων, τὸ δὲ λειφθείη, τὸ λειφθὲν ἄλλο ἐζήτει καὶ συνεπλέκετο, εἴτε γυναικὸς τῆς ὅλης ἐντύχοι ἡμίσει–ὃ δὴ νῦν γυναῖκα καλοῦμεν–εἴτε ἀνδρός· καὶ οὕτως ἀπώλλυντο.

ἐλεήσας δὲ ὁ Ζεὺς ἄλλην μηχανὴν πορίζεται, καὶ μετατίθησιν αὐτῶν τὰ αἰδοῖα εἰς τὸ πρόσθεν – τέως γὰρ καὶ ταῦτα ἐκτὸς εἶχον, καὶ ἐγέννων (191c) καὶ ἔτικτον οὐκ εἰς ἀλλήλους ἀλλ’ εἰς γῆν, ὥσπερ οἱ τέττιγες–μετέθηκέ τε οὖν οὕτω αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ πρόσθεν καὶ διὰ τούτων τὴν γένεσιν ἐν ἀλλήλοις ἐποίησεν, διὰ τοῦ ἄρρενος ἐν τῷ θήλει, τῶνδε ἕνεκα, ἵνα ἐν τῇ συμπλοκῇ ἅμα μὲν εἰ ἀνὴρ γυναικὶ ἐντύχοι, γεννῷεν καὶ γίγνοιτο τὸ γένος, ἅμα δ’ εἰ καὶ ἄρρην ἄρρενι, πλησμονὴ γοῦν γίγνοιτο τῆς συνουσίας καὶ διαπαύοιντο καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ ἔργα τρέποιντο καὶ τοῦ ἄλλου βίου ἐπιμελοῖντο. ἔστι δὴ οὖν ἐκ τόσου (191d) ὁ ἔρως ἔμφυτος ἀλλήλων τοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ τῆς ἀρχαίας φύσεως συναγωγεὺς καὶ ἐπιχειρῶν ποιῆσαι ἓν ἐκ δυοῖν καὶ ἰάσασθαι τὴν φύσιν τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην.

ἕκαστος οὖν ἡμῶν ἐστιν ἀνθρώπου σύμβολον, ἅτε τετμημένος ὥσπερ αἱ ψῆτται, ἐξ ἑνὸς δύο· ζητεῖ δὴ ἀεὶ τὸ αὑτοῦ ἕκαστος σύμβολον. ὅσοι μὲν οὖν τῶν ἀνδρῶν τοῦ κοινοῦ τμῆμά εἰσιν, ὃ δὴ τότε ἀνδρόγυνον ἐκαλεῖτο, φιλογύναικές τέ εἰσι καὶ οἱ πολλοὶ τῶν μοιχῶν ἐκ τούτου τοῦ γένους γεγόνασιν, καὶ (191e) ὅσαι αὖ γυναῖκες φίλανδροί τε καὶ μοιχεύτριαι ἐκ τούτου τοῦ γένους γίγνονται. ὅσαι δὲ τῶν γυναικῶν γυναικὸς τμῆμά εἰσιν, οὐ πάνυ αὗται τοῖς ἀνδράσι τὸν νοῦν προσέχουσιν, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον πρὸς τὰς γυναῖκας τετραμμέναι εἰσί, καὶ αἱ ἑταιρίστριαι ἐκ τούτου τοῦ γένους γίγνονται. ὅσοι δὲ ἄρρενος τμῆμά εἰσι, τὰ ἄρρενα διώκουσι, καὶ τέως μὲν ἂν παῖδες ὦσιν, ἅτε τεμάχια ὄντα τοῦ ἄρρενος, φιλοῦσι τοὺς ἄνδρας καὶ χαίρουσι συγκατακείμενοι καὶ συμπεπλεγμένοι (192a) τοῖς ἀνδράσι, καί εἰσιν οὗτοι βέλτιστοι τῶν παίδων καὶ μειρακίων, ἅτε ἀνδρειότατοι ὄντες φύσει. φασὶ δὲ δή τινες αὐτοὺς ἀναισχύντους εἶναι, ψευδόμενοι· οὐ γὰρ ὑπ’ ἀναισχυντίας τοῦτο δρῶσιν ἀλλ’ ὑπὸ θάρρους καὶ ἀνδρείας καὶ ἀρρενωπίας, τὸ ὅμοιον αὐτοῖς ἀσπαζόμενοι. μέγα δὲ τεκμήριον· καὶ γὰρ τελεωθέντες μόνοι ἀποβαίνουσιν εἰς τὰ πολιτικὰ ἄνδρες οἱ τοιοῦτοι. ἐπειδὰν δὲ ἀνδρωθῶσι, (192b) παιδεραστοῦσι καὶ πρὸς γάμους καὶ παιδοποιίας οὐ προσέχουσι τὸν νοῦν φύσει, ἀλλ’ ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἀναγκάζονται· ἀλλ’ ἐξαρκεῖ αὐτοῖς μετ’ ἀλλήλων καταζῆν ἀγάμοις. πάντως μὲν οὖν ὁ τοιοῦτος παιδεραστής τε καὶ φιλεραστὴς γίγνεται, ἀεὶ τὸ συγγενὲς ἀσπαζόμενος.


[1] Who planned to overthrow the gods by piling Mount Ossa on Olympus and Pelion on Ossa, to climb the sky (Odyssey xi 307-320). Apollo destroyed them.

[2] σύμβολον Corresponding pieces of a knucklebone or other object which contracting parties broke between them, each party keeping one piece to match in order to have proof of the identity of the presenter of the other. The indenture, at common law, originally an irregularly torn parchment, had an equivalent use.

[3] This and what follows is ironical and sarcastic: “Since it is a taunt in Old Comedy (e.g., Aristophanes Knights 875-880, Plato Comicus, fr. 186) that eminent politicians in their youth submitted shamelessly (or for money) to homosexual importunities, and this taunt, characteristic of the cynical attitudes of comedy (cf. Dover Greek Homosexuality, p. 147f.), must have been familiar to Plato, he means Aristophanes to be speaking tongue-in-cheek.” Dover, Symposium, on this passage.


Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Spherical androgynes in Plato’s Symposium (Greek and English), in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 04/11/2016, https://intersex.hypotheses.org/4168. Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/]. Letzter Aufruf: 30/11/2023.

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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