Saturday, 3 July 2021


Though the term is outdated and can be confusing and offensive if applied to an intersex individual, it had never occurred to us question where the construction hermaphrodite came from. It is rooted in Greek mythology as illustrated uncharitably anachronistically in this 1460 woodblock tableau from Guillaume Vrelant of the encounter between the naiad Salmacis and the youth Hermaphroditus, the son of the Olympian gods Hermes and Aphrodite, a portmanteau of the parental names. Sexual predation and objectification of course abounds in the classical but Salmacis is uniquely the only female perpetrator—subject of course to double-standards, being roundly shamed for it, the cougar nymph encountering, a popular theme for early Renaissance paintings as well, the fifteen-year-old bathing in the pristine pond (sacred to her and where she was wont to gaze at her reflection like Narcissus) and lusting after him grabbed him tightly, praying to the heavens that they never be parted as Hermaphroditus struggled to get away. For reasons not explained—especially given the teen-ager’s high birth—Salmacis’ wish was granted and their bodies were fused into one. Further unaccounted for was Hermaphroditus’ request to his parents that anyone else bathing in the pool would also be transformed, unclear whether their son was capable of thinking just as himself any longer or whether he thought this new nature to be a curse or a blessing.