BMCR 2003.01.15

Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd

, Sexual ambivalence : androgyny and hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman antiquity. Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xiv, 195 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0520231481 $16.95 (pb).

Luc Brisson (henceforth B.) presents his brief, thoughtful study Le sexe incertain: androgynie et hermaphroditisme dans l’ Antiquité gréco-romaine (Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1997) to an even wider audience with this English version. In Sexual Ambivalence B. consolidates and develops his earlier explorations of sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean.1 He describes Sexual Ambivalence as a “working aid to the study for all those interested in the question of dual sexuality, whether in the domains of psychoanalysis, gay or gender studies, the history of medicine or zoology, the history of ideas, or even the history of art” (p. xiii).

B.’s term “dual sexuality” describes the “simultaneous or successive possession of both sexes by a single individual” and refers to three aspects of this phenomenon: androgynos, Hermaphroditus, and arrenothelus (p. 1). B. divides his study into four chapters, focusing in each on a specific text or issue as a way of entering the broader discussion and then wraps up with a brief concluding section.

Chapter I Monsters: B. explores a critical ancient — and modern — area of human dual sexuality, the evidence for humans born with ambiguous sexual attributes and the cultural response to this physical abnormality. He introduces this chapter with a discussion of an episode from Phlegon of Tralles, Mirabilia.2 Set in Greece, the narrative involves not only a baby born with male and female genitals, but also ghosts, anthropophagy, talking heads, oracles, and political strife.3 This late tale contains the ingredients of a much earlier tradition, the dual-sexed, oracular infant, whose physical anomalies were perceived as dangerous and portentous.

B. then turns to the sources of this tradition, the birth of sinister infant portents in Rome, recorded by Livy, later excerpted by Julius Obsequens ( Liber prodigiorum). The so-called androgynous prodigies, infants whose sex could not be securely recognized at birth, were interpreted as dangerous omens coinciding with times when Rome was threaten by invasion. A series of such births in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, the earliest recorded example occurring in 209 B.C.E., the last in 92 B.C.E. required extraordinary steps taken by a singular collaboration of Roman decemviri and Etruscan haruspices.4

Social marginalization and fear of humans displaying both male and female genitalia were the rule in the ancient Mediterranean. But Diodorus Siculus, active 30 years after the last reported Roman androgyne, distinguished humans exhibiting dual sexual features from a divinity embodying both sexes. He further asserted that people with both male and female sex features suffered from physical abnormalities and were not dangerous monsters. Using Phlegon’s Mirabilia as his starting point, B. demonstrates in this chapter the enduring power of the androgyne tradition as it survives amid compressed strata of myth and fable. By the time of Pliny the Elder (NH 11.262), however, individuals — human and animal — identified as hermaphrodites no longer were perceived as danger omens, but as aberrations in nature and even as curiosities. So this later response to dual sexuality in the natural world must also be factored into Phlegon’s mirabile. Chapter 2 Dual Sexuality and Homosexuality: B. considers another type of simultaneous dual sexuality in humans, displayed by persons with the physical attributes of one sex and gender characteristics of the other, specifically, passive male homosexuals who assumed women’s costume, behavior, and submissive sexual role, along with females who acted out aggressive male personas in their relationships with (passive) female partners. B. touches briefly on several related issues that have received much recent scrutiny. Current scholarship on the ancient Greek and Roman perceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality indicates that they were not the same as our own Western ones. The polarized categories of homosexual and heterosexual themselves are relatively modern. The contemporary inflexible male/female, male/male, female/female alignments considered essential markers of sexual identity today in fact do not appear to have been the primary ones applied in antiquity.5 What one did as a sexual being trumped what one was according to genital configuration. The acculturated distinctions between man/woman, active/passive, penetrator/penetrated, powerful/powerless were not determined primarily by the partner’s sex.

This fluid relationship between sex and gender is explored by Ovid in his narrative of Hermaphroditos and Salmacis ( Metamorphoses 4.285-399), which B. interprets as an aetiological myth illuminating the origins of passive male sexuality. Ovid’s narrator bracketed her story with its purported intent, to explain the enervating, emasculating effect of the spring Salmacis on men who drank its waters. B. sees this framing myth as an important aspect of the inner tale. Neither the boy Hermaphroditos, child of Hermes and Aphrodite, nor Salmacis the nymph, displays a conventional gendered persona. Hermaphroditos, male child of divinities responsible for ushering immature mortals across important sexual thresholds, encountered a water nymph and her spring, both named Salmacis, the name of an actual site near Halicarnassus in Caria. The nymph, nominally a follower of Diana, did not adhere to the virginal behavior of her sisters but was more like Venus, lounging by the spring, combing her hair, using its waters as a mirror. She aggressively pursued Hermaphroditos, who fled her advances, and finally plunging into the water after him, prayed that they would never be parted. And her prayer was answered: boy and nymph merged, creating a new, dual-sexed personage. But Hermaphroditos’ own prayer reflected his dismay as a male at the way things turned out, bringing the tale back to its beginning, the emasculating effects of Salmacis’ waters.

Chapter 3 (Archetypes): B. turns to divine paradigms and precedents for simultaneous dual sexuality, considering mythological prototypes, entities not viewed as monsters but as essential contributors to the generation of the universe, gods and mortals. He begins with Aristophanes’ myth of Eros and the androgynes in the Symposium, considers possible links with Orphic traditions, and then examines related phenomena in Gnosticism, the Chaldean Oracles, and the Hermetic Corpus. B.’s full, interpretive discussion provides useful background for an analysis of Aristophanes’ vision in the Symposium. The Orphic cosmography, with its double-sexed progenitor Phanes, called by a variety of other names, has been considered a parallel for Aristophanes’ globe-shaped ur-humans. The connection of Aristophanes’ fable with the Orphic tradition of a bisexual proto-being is problematic. Dover has suggested that the Symposium may have influenced later versions of the Orphic material and that Aristophanes’ androgynes were the inspiration for the subsequent Orphic fragment in which Phanes’ genitals are described as projecting from the rear of his body.6

Chapter 4 (Mediators): Personages whose double sex is progressive, according to B., having had experience as male and female successively, take on the role of mythological mediators and diviners, epitomized in this chapter by the Theban prophet Tiresias, whom the author has treated extensively elsewhere (Brisson 1976).

The subtitle of this work, and those of other recent studies7 reveal one of the challenges presented by the ancient literary and archaeological evidence dealing with the multifaceted and interconnected themes of bisexuality, dual sexuality, androgyny in humans and gods, the physical condition of hermaphroditism in humans and animals, evidence for a god called Hermaphroditos, abundant ancient images of a double-sexed personage, sex changes experienced by mortals and divinities, mythological and ritual cross-dressing and transvestitism, and gender inversions. Should all these phenomena, as they survive in ancient literary and cultural traditions, be treated under the symbolic rubric of the hermaphrodite? The answer here appears to be yes, to judge from the cover of the English edition of B.’s study, where the title is underscored by the frequently reproduced image of the Roman Sleeping Hermaphrodite sculpture in the Louvre.

Much semiotic reliance is placed on this three-dimensional representation of sexual duality, but nowhere does B. make a verbal connection between this statue, or any other Greek or Roman sculptural type, and the ancient literary evidence. The figure of the so-called Sleeping Hermaphrodite Borghese dominating the cover of Sexual Ambivalence is the single, wordless allusion to the archaeological facet of this complex topic. B. does not address the possible ancient function and origins of this sculptural type, or of many other large Hellenistic and Roman statues in the round, terracotta figurines, Roman frescoes, mosaics, and gems.

In fact, the concept of dual sexuality was expressed in Greek art by the end of the fourth century B.C.E. in clay and stone representations of beings whose double sex was expressed through the lateral bifurcation of female breasts and male genitals. Modern scholars identify such figures as visualizations of a personage called Hermaphroditos, although as yet no inscribed example corroborates this identification. Possibly Diodorus Siculus had these images and the metaphysical entity they represented in mind when he distinguished a powerful daimon called Hermaphroditos from humans with physical abnormalities.

The absence of all archaeological material here is not a flaw; it reflects B.’s methodological focus on ancient literature, language, and history. Readers investigating the ancient phenomenon of dual sexuality can complement B.’s conclusions with several recent discussions of the physical remains.8 B. does mention in a footnote two very important artifacts, votive inscriptions naming Hermaphroditos as recipient (p. 169 n. 35). The earlier of these objects, a small base bearing a private dedication to Hermaphroditos, has been dated by letter forms to the early fourth century B.C.E.9 It is the earliest surviving epigraphical evidence for a personage with this name as the recipient of an offering. The other monument is a marble altar (ca third century B.C.E.) found on the island of Kos, all four faces bearing inscribed dedications to various gods and mythological entities, including Hermaphroditos.10 These dedications provide evidence for the existence of Hermaphroditos as divine personage.

One example must suffice to demonstrate how interdisciplinary evaluation of the ancient literary and material evidence can produce useful results. Between 192 B.C.E. and 92 B.C.E., when infants of uncertain sex were considered dangerous prodigies and treated by extraordinary joint action of Roman and Etruscan priests, as we have seen, images of a dual sexed personage (always with female breasts and male genitals) were widely produced, used, and dedicated at various sanctuaries and sites in Greece and Italy. The physical aspect of dual sexuality was formalized in art through these figures at the very time when human sexual ambivalence was interpreted as a significant threat to the Roman state. As B. shows, the special Roman expiations required to dispel the danger of the androgyne prodigies frequently involved offerings and sacrifices to Demeter, Kore, Ceres, and Persephone (p. 28). MacBain has suggested that special attention to Demeter/Ceres may be connected with the Sicilian slave revolt of 135-132 B.C.E. and the delegation of Roman decemviri who visited the venerable Ceres sanctuary at Henna in Sicily in 133 B.C.E. (pp. 38-39).

In fact, archaeological evidence supports a link between representations of dual-sexed beings and the goddess Demeter in the Hellenistic period. Terracotta figurines of Hermaphroditos appeared in second century B.C.E. votive deposits in the sanctuary of Demeter at Paestum and also at Mytilene on Lesbos. A still earlier connection between Demeter and Hermaphroditos may have existed in Athens and possibly at Eleusis. The fragmentary terracotta mould for a Hermaphroditos figurine turned up in the late fourth-century B.C.E. coroplasts’ dump in the Agora, a deposit connected with the production of pottery and figurines for the nearby Eleusinion sanctuary.11 While it is not yet clear what the relationship between these Hellenistic votives and the androgyne prodigies may have been, we can at least observe that Ceres and Demeter, recipients of thesauroi and other offerings as part of the expiation ritual dispelling the danger of dual sexed humans, were also receiving images of individuals whose sexual ambivalence was clearly, formally expressed.

Readers will also notice the absence of comprehensive bibliography on any of the topics B. treats. Many recent, useful studies in German, English, Italian and Spanish are not cited, although B. refers to earlier, important work on gender, ancient sexuality, religion, creation myths, and hermaphrodites by M. Delcourt. M. L. West’s seminal works on many aspects of Greek and Eastern religion are not cited, for example.12 Nevertheless, B.’s compilation of pertinent ancient sources and his discursive and thoughtful analyses serve as a useful starting place for students of dual sexuality in ancient Mediterranean culture.


Brisson, L. 2000. “Bisexualité et médiation en Grèce ancienne,” in Bisexualité et differénce des sexes. Paris, pp. 33-64.

idem. 1990. “Neutrum utrumque. La bisexualité dans l’antiquité gréco-romaine,” in F. Monneyron, ed., L’Androgyne dans la littérature. Paris, pp. 24-37

idem. 1978. “Aspects politiques de la bisexualité. L’histoire de Polycrite (Phlegon, De mirab., ch. 2; Proclus, In Remp., II, 115.7-15 Kroll),” in M. B. de Boer and T. A. Edridge, Hommages à Maarten J. Vermaseren (EPRO 68). Leiden, pp. 80-122.

idem. 1976. Le mythe de Tirésias. Essai d’analyse structurale. Leiden.

Crawford, M. 2000. “Mirabilia and Personal Names,” in S. Hornblower, ed., Greek Personal Names: Their Value as Evidence. Oxford, pp. 145-48.

Crifò, G. 1999. “Prodigium e diritto: il caso dell’ermafrodita,” Index. Quaderni camerti di studi romanistici 27: pp. 113- 120.

Dover, K. J. 1965. “The Date of Plato’s Symposium,” Phronesis 10: 2-20.

Fillieres, D., G. Harbottle, and E. V. Sayre. 1983. “Neutron- Activation Study of Figurines, Pottery and Workshop Material from the Athenian Agora,” JFA 10: pp. 55-69.

Gilbert, R. 2000. “Strange Notions: Treatments of Early Modern Hermaphrodites,” in J. Hubert, ed., Madness, Disability, and Social Exclusion: the Archaeology of Anthropology of Difference, London, pp. 144-58.

Häuber, C. 1999. “Vier Fragmente der Gruppe Satyr und Hermaphrodit vom Typus ‘Dresdner Symplegma’ des Museo Nuovo Capitolino in Rom, in Hellenistische Gruppen: Gedenkschrift für Andreas Linfert. Mainz, pp. 157-180.

Heinze, T. 1998. Der Neue Pauly, eds. H. Cancik und H. Schneider, vol 5. Stuttgart, pp. 418-419, s.v. “Hermaphroditos, androgyne Gestalt,”

Laks, A. and G. W. Most, eds. 1997. Studies on the Derveni Papyrus. Oxford.

MacBain, B. 1982. Prodigy and Expiation: A Study in Religion and Politics in Republican Rome. Brussels.

Parker, H. N. 1997. “The Teratogenic Grid,” in J. P. Hallett and M. B. Skinner, eds., Roman Sexualities. Princeton, pp. 47-65.

Perea, S. 1999. El Sexo divino dioses hermafrodites en la antiquidad clássica. Madrid.

Raehs, A. 1990. Zur Ikonographie des Hermophrodites: Begriff und Problem von Hermaphroditism und Androgynie in der Kunst. Frankfurt.

Stupperich, R. 1990. Die Antiken der Sammlung Werner Peek (Boreas Beih. 67). Münster.

West, M. L. 1997. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford.

idem. 1983. The Orphic Poems. Oxford.

idem. 1971. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford.

Williams, C. A. 1999. Roman Homosexuality. New York.


1. Brisson, 2000.

2. Portions of this study have appeared elsewhere: L. Brisson. 1978. “Aspects politiques de la bisexualité. L’histoire de Polycrite (Phlegon, De mirab., ch. 2; Proclus, In Remp., II, 115.7-15 Kroll),” in M. B. de Boer and T. A. Edridge, Hommages à Maarten J. Vermaseren (EPRO 68), Leiden, pp. 80-122.

3. For a recent discussion of the underlying historical framework in Phlegon’s Mirabilia see Crawford 2000, pp. 145-48.

4. See Crifò 1999, pp. 113-20.

5. The important studies of Dover and Canterella have been supplemented by a host of recent studies. Specifically on the ancient perception of homo/heterosexuality see Williams 1999, pp. 218-24; Thornton 1997, pp. 110-15; for a forceful argument against any ancient recognition of homo/heterosexual distinctions see Parker 1997, pp. 47-49.

6. Dover 1965, pp. 2-20.

7. For example Perea 1999; Heinze 1998, pp. 418-19; Raehs 1990.

8. See Häuber 1999, pp. 157-80, with much general bibliography.

9. SEG XL.196 bis; now in Münster: Stupperich 1990, no. 67, pp. 75-76.

10. SEG XLIII.549;.

11. Athens Agora T1808: Fillieres, Harbottle, and Sayre 1983, p. 64.

12. Some pertinent studies by M.L. West: West 1997, West 1983, West 1971.