Sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Abstract)
“Sexuelle Zwischenstufen” in Early Greek Medicine and Philosophy
Scholars such as Marie Delcourt and Luc Brisson have explored the paradox that Greek myth and cult treat figures of ambiguous gender as symbols of fertility or wisdom, whereas actual intersex infants were considered portentious monstrosities and were usually destroyed soon after birth. However, they do not investigate ancient Greek philosophical and medical speculation about the etiology of gender variance, which is objective and remarkably free of pejorative language.
The Hippocratic On Regimen 1.28-29 posits a continuum of six gender positions from most masculine to most feminine, depending on the particular combination of gender-determinant seed from the father and mother. One finds precedents for this theory of genetic determination in the embryological doctrines of the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras. Indeed, Anaxagoras’ theory of “homeomeres” and “panspermia” suggests that a human body is composed of elements drawn from each organ of both the father and mother, creating the potential for a virtually infinite variety of gender positions, as we are all composed of both male and female.
Parmenides , fr. 17 DK says that embryos become male when conceived on the right side, female when on the left side. However, some testimonia (listed in A53-54 DK) suggest a more complex interaction of both father’s and mother’s seed, to the effect that if male seed from the father becomes deposited in the left part of the mother’s womb, the result will be an effeminate male, whereas if female seed from the father becomes deposited on the right side of the womb, the result will be a masculinized female.
However, some scholars are puzzled that fr. 18, preserved in a Latin translation by the late medical writer Caelius Aurelianus, implies a different process of gender determination: when mother’s and father’s seed are properly mingled, a “normal” boy or girl results, but when their qualities (virtutes) fight (pugnent) and do not properly unify, they will “trouble” (vexabunt) the “developing sex” (nascentem sexum) with twin seed.
The language of mixture and conflict between male and female seeds is suspiciously close to Empedocles’ dialectic of Love (often called Aphrodite) and Strife among elements. Empedocles, generally credited as the founder of the Sicilian school of medicine, was also intimately concerned with the processes of generation and birth, as we see from the abundant testimonia in A79-83 DK, as well as some fragments that directly concern bi-sexed and sterile animals.
Could it be that fr. 18 was really from Empedocles’ poem and falsely attributed to Parmenides by Caelius Aurelianus? Some aspects of Caelius’ citation are suspect: he refers to this fragment as an epigramma from Parmenides’ libri de natura. Diogenes Laertius 1.16 is clear that Parmenides’ poem was one continuous book, whereas he attributes (8.77) no less than 5000 lines to Empedocles, necessitating multiple books, as well as a collection of epigrams (likely a sylloge). The doxographical tradition includes numerous passages comparing the sayings of Parmenides, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras on similar topics, such that an excerptor or incautious reader might easily confuse an attribution.