Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity

Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity

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This fascinating book collects and translates most of the extant written Graeco-Roman material on human beings, divinities, animals, and other creatures who were said to have been both female and male. Luc Brisson provides a commentary that situates this rich source material within its historical and intellectual contexts. These selections—from mythological, philosophical, historical, and anecdotal sources—describe cases of either simultaneous dual sexuality, as in androgyny and in hermaphroditism, or successive dual sexuality, as in the case of Tiresias (the blind Theban prophet), which are found through the whole span of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Sexual Ambivalence is an invaluable sourcebook that gathers this suggestive, yet hard to find, material in one convenient place.

This book presents some very obscure but wonderfully strange material. There is the ghost story about a father who returns from the dead to devour his dual-sexed son in the public square, leaving behind only the head, which proceeds to deliver a prophecy from its position on the ground. In addition to including such familiar sources as the myths of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Aristophanes' myth of the origins of the sexes and sexuality in Plato's Symposium, Brisson also discusses cosmogonic mythology in Hesiodic poetry, the Orphic Rhapsodies, Gnosticism, the Hermetic Corpus, and the so-called Chaldean Oracles. He presents the manifold variants of the myth of Tiresias, as well as many other sources.

Brisson quotes this material at length and discusses its significance in Graeco-Roman myth and philosophy. These ancient stories open a window onto a world without the sexual oppositions of male and female, a paradise of unity and self-containment, as well as onto the peculiar world of go-betweens like the prophet Tiresias. They deepen our awareness of the extent to which the polarity of sexuality colors our entire perception of the world, as it did in antiquity, and as it does for us now. This provocative material is profoundly relevant to our thinking today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520223912
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/28/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 209
Sales rank: 1,082,498
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Luc Brisson is Researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research and is the author of many books on Greek philosophy and religion, including Plato the Myth Maker, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Gerard Naddaf (1999).

Read an Excerpt

Sexual Ambivalence

Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity
By Luc Brisson

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22391-8

Chapter One


In both Greek and Roman antiquity, people seem to have scanned their newborn children anxiously for signs that might indicate that the human race was no longer as it should be and was on the way to extinction. And no mutation was more radical than dual sexuality. For the possession of both sexes at once rendered all sexual reproduction impossible and undermined all life as a couple and a family-and even all social organization since, at the time, the latter rested upon a strict division of roles and functions that was, in the last analysis, founded upon the sexual difference.

Even if the fate reserved for beings endowed with both sexes became less cruel as time passed, there can be no doubt that, in antiquity, dual sexuality was, in truth, only marginally tolerated. This marginalization explains why the terms "androgyne" and "hermaphrodite" were considered shameful and were associated with the names of those in society who refused to play the traditional role of a man or a woman. It also explains why dual sexuality acquired an essential place in mythology.


The story of Polycritus must be situated at the origin of that development. It was recorded by Phlegon of Tralles, and Proclus summarizes it as follows:

For his part, Naumachius of Epirus, who lived at the time of my grandparents, recounts the following: Polycritus of Aetolia, one of the most distinguished of the Aetolians and who had been appointed Aetolarch, died, then returned to life nine months after his death and attended the federal assembly of the Aetolians, where he made very wise recommendations relating to the affairs under deliberation. Hiero of Ephesus and other observers witnessed this event and wrote to tell King Antigonus and other friends of theirs, who had not been present at the event.

Phlegon of Tralles, who also claimed a mysterious Hiero (of Alexandria or Ephesus) as his source, produced a full version of the story. It possesses a dramatic intensity as powerful as any fantastical tale, whether modern or contemporary:

Hiero of Alexandria or of Ephesus also relates that a ghost also appeared in Aetolia.

One of the citizens, a certain Polycritus, was voted Aetolarch for a term of three years by the people, who deemed him worthy among the citizens because of his and his ancestors' nobility. While in office, he took a Locrian woman as wife, lived with her for three days, and departed from life on the fourth night. The woman remained at home as a widow. When the time for childbirth came she delivered a child with two sets of genitals, male and female, which constituted an extraordinary deviation from nature. The upper portion of the genitals was hard and manly, whereas the part around the thighs was womanish and softer.

Struck with astonishment, the child's relatives took it to the agora where they called an assembly, summoned sacrificers and diviners and deliberated about the child. Of these, some declared that a breach would come about between the Aetolians and the Locrians, for the infant was different from its mother, who was Locrian, and also from its father, an Aetolian. Others thought that they should take the child and the mother away to the countryside beyond the frontiers, and burn them.

As they were deliberating, Polycritus, the man who had previously died, appeared in the assembly near the child and wearing black clothing. The citizens were stricken with amazement at the apparition and many had begun to flee, when he called on them to take courage and not be thrown into confusion at the presence of a ghost.

After he had put a stop to most of the commotion and confusion, he spoke in a weak voice, as follows: "Citizens, my body is dead, but in the goodwill and kindness I feel towards you, I am alive. I am here with you now for your benefit, having appealed to those who are masters of things beneath the earth. And so I call on you now, since you are fellow citizens, not to be frightened or repulsed by the unexpected presence of a ghost. I beg all of you, praying by the salvation of each one of you, to hand over to me the child I begot, in order that no violence take place as a result of your reaching some other decision and that your hostility towards me not be the beginning of difficult and harsh troubles. For it is not permitted to me to let the child be burnt by you, just because of the madness of the seers who have made proclamations to you.

"Now, I excuse you because as you behold so strange a sight you are at a loss as to what is the right course of action for you to take. If, moreover, you will obey me without fear, you will be released from your present fear as well as the impending catastrophe. But if you come to some other opinion, I fear that because of your distrust of me you will fall into an irremediable calamity. Now because of the goodwill I had when I was alive, I have also now in this my present unexpected appearance foretold what is beneficial to you. So I ask you not to put me off any longer but to deliberate correctly and, obeying what I have said, to give me the child in an auspicious manner. For it is not permitted to me to linger long on account of those who rule beneath the earth."

After saying this he was quiet for a while, expectantly awaiting whatever resolution they would bring forth concerning his request. Now, some thought they should hand over the child and make atonement for both the prodigy and the supernatural being that was standing by, but most disagreed, saying that they ought not to deliberate rashly, since the matter was of great importance and the problem was not an ordinary one.

Seeing that they were not heeding him, but instead were hindering his desire, he spoke again: "At all events, citizens, if trouble befalls you on account of your irresolution, blame not me but the fate that thus leads you down the wrong path, a fate that, opposing me also, forces me to act unlawfully against my own child."

The people had clustered together and were arguing about the portent when the ghost took hold of the child, forced back most of the men, hastily tore the child limb from limb, and began to devour him. People began to shout and throw stones at him in an attempt to drive him away. Unharmed by the stones, he consumed the entire body of the child except his head, and then suddenly disappeared.

The people, vexed at these happenings and in a state of extraordinary perplexity, wanted to send a delegation to Delphi, but the head of the child that was lying on the ground began to speak, foretelling the future in an oracle.

"O countless folk inhabiting a land famed in song, Do not go to the sanctuary of Phoebus, to the temple with its incense, For the hands you hold in the air are unclean from blood, The journey before your feet is defiled. Renounce the journey to the tripod, and consider instead what I say, For I will recount the entire behest of the oracle. On this day in the course of a year Death has been ordained for all, but by the will of Athena The souls of Locrians and Aetolians shall live mixed together. Nor will there be respite from evil, not even briefly, For a bloody drizzle is poured on your heads, Night keeps everything hidden, and a dark sky has spread over it. At once night causes a darkness to move over the entire earth, At home all the bereaved move their limbs at the threshold, The women will not leave off grieving, and the children Shall no longer grow in the houses where their fathers are mourned. Such has been the scourge that has crashed down upon everyone from above. Alas, alas, without cease I bewail the terrible sufferings of my land, And my most dread mother, whom death eventually carried away. All the gods will render inglorious the birth Of whatever there remains of Aetolian and Locrian seed, Because death has not touched my head, nor has it done away With all the indistinguishable limbs of my body, but has left me on the earth. Come and expose my head to the rising dawn, and Do not hide it below within the dusky earth. As for you yourselves, abandon the land and Go to another land, to a people of Athena, If you choose an escape from death in accordance withfate.

When the Aetolians heard the oracle they brought their wives, infant children, and the very elderly to such places of safety as each man was able to arrange. They themselves remained behind, awaiting what would occur, and it happened in the following year that the Aetolians and Acarnanians joined battle, with great destruction on both sides.

By situating his tale, which he too claimed to have learned from Hiero of Ephesus, in a very specific historical and geographical context, Phlegon hoped to win his readers' trust.

His version of the Polycritus story comprises three episodes: the birth of the androgynous child, the apparition of the ghost, and the pronouncement made by the child's head. The first episode contains three parts: the prodigy constituted by the androgynous birth, its interpretation, and the expected purification.

Polycritus, an Aetolian, is elected Aetolarch for three years and while in office marries a Locrian woman, sleeps with her for three nights, and dies on the fourth. His wife, who is pregnant, remains with her husband's family. After nine months, she "delivered a child with two sets of genitals, male and female, which constituted an extraordinary deviation from nature. The upper portion of the genitals was hard and manly, whereas the part around the thighs was womanish and softer." This description makes it possible to draw up the following table of opposites:

male female

upper lower

hard soft

Aetolia Western Locris

The first three pairs mentioned by Phlegon of Tralles, which are to be found in the Greek tradition, may by simple deduction be completed by a fourth: the father of the child is Aetolian, the mother a Western Locrian.

Because this child has two sexes, it is a "monster" (teras), according to Aristotle's definition of the term in a biological context: "Anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these cases Nature has in a way strayed from the generic type" (Aristotle, Generation of Animals IV 2, 767b). Indeed, the diviners, consulted for an interpretation of the prodigy, declare, precisely, that Polycritus's child is different from both its Locrian mother and its Aetolian father. It is different because it has two sexes, and this constitutes an extraordinary deviation from nature.

Because it is a monster (teras, in the strict sense), Polycritus's child is a prodigy (teras, in the wider sense). But this prodigy is not, as might be expected, considered a private prodigy, that is, a prodigy to which the state pays no attention as it was produced in a private home (in loco privato) and purification for it falls to the proprietor of the place concerned (Livy, Roman History, XLIII 13, 6). This is a public prodigy (prodigium publicum) (Livy, Roman History, I 56, 5), as is proved by the reaction of Polycritus's family: "Struck with astonishment, the child's relatives took it to the agora (eis ten agoran) where they called an assembly (ekklesian), ... and deliberated about the child." A public prodigy concerned the state, in that it constituted a sign sent by the gods to the community represented by that state. Thus, responsibility for purification fell to the state. In any case, Polycritus's family, struck with astonishment at the sight of the androgynous child, has taken it to the public square. At this point extispices and diviners specializing in the interpretation of prodigies are sent for. The diviners' interpretation of the prodigy is that there will be a clash between the Locrians and the Aetolians because the child is different from its Locrian mother and also from its Aetolian father. They then pronounce upon the type of purification to be carried out.

A whole series of Greek and Roman laws ordered parents to expose abnormal children. In antiquity, the father, or in his absence the mother, had the right to expose a newborn child. Generally, they would be wanting to get rid of the child but would hope that it survived, so they would expose it in a much-frequented place, protecting it as much as possible. This type of exposure was also lawful when it was prompted by social causes: when a girl had been seduced, a poor family had too many children already, or a more or less well-to-do family wanted only one son. Exposure by the state was a different matter and was essentially explained by religious reasons. Abnormal children, such as Polycritus's, were regarded as ominous signs, and the state had to get rid of them by ejecting them from the city territory, once the meaning of their appearance had been interpreted. However, although the city territory had to be carefully purified, it was important not to kill such abnormal children directly or to bury them. If they were killed they might turn into angry, harmful biaiothanatoi or aoroi; and if they were buried the children's bodies would be restored intact to the earth, which was kourotrophos, so they might be reborn in the same form. Accordingly, they were exposed, submitted to the will of the gods, who could do as they wished with them. But in the case we are considering, the circumstances are different. The diviners decide that "they should take the child and the mother away to the countryside beyond the frontiers, and burn them." This way of proceeding presented two "advantages": it made it possible both to purify the Aetolians' territory and at the same time to avoid burying the monster. But two anomalies complicated the situation. To burn Polycritus's child would be to kill it with violence, and as a result the will of the gods would be thwarted. Furthermore, Polycritus's wife was condemned to the same fate as her child. These two anomalies appear to account for the apparition of Polycritus.

In the second episode, which tells of the ghost's apparition, three sequences may be distinguished: the description of the ghost, his demands, and his sarcophagy.

The ghost is characterized by two features: he is clad in black garments and he speaks in a weak voice.


Excerpted from Sexual Ambivalence by Luc Brisson Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface to the English Edition

1. Monsters
An Ominous Prodigy
An Error of Nature
A Phenomenon
2. Dual Sexuality and Homosexuality
The Myth of Hermaphroditus, as told by Ovid
Masculinity and Femininity in Ancient Greece and Rome
Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome
3. Archetypes
The Myth of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium
The Chaldean Oracles
The Hermetic Corpus
The Phoenix
4. Mediators
The Myth of Tiresias
A Brief Bestiary Associated with the Myth of Tiresias


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