The ancient Greeks have provided the world with some of the most entertaining and fascinating myths – they have even given us the name by which we refer to these incredible stories of god, heroes, men, monsters and divine creatures. Even today, some of our contemporary scientific terminology comes from the myths of ancient Greece.
One of these is hermaphrodite, which derives from the myth of Hermaphroditos. According to mythology, Hermaphroditos was the offspring of the two Olympian gods, Hermes and Aphrodite. A nymph of a fountain in the town of Halikarnassos in Karia (modern day Turkey) named Salmacis fell in love with him. She tried desperately to gain his favour, but the young man ignored her attentions.
She prayed to the gods that they may be together for all eternity and her wish was granted. However, it was not what she expected. When Hermaphroditos bathed in her fountain the next time, both Salmacis and Hermaphroditos merged together. In other versions of the myth, the two made love so passionately that their bodies merged together. In both versions, the result was a ‘female boy’ – the body of a woman with male genitals – the original hermaphrodite.
Diodorus implicates that Hermaphroditos was actually born this way, as a female figure with male genitalia. He wrote, “Some writers of myths say that the so-called Hermaphroditus had a birth similar to that of Priapus, and being the son of Hermes and Aphrodite he acquired a name derived from both of his parents. Some say that this Hermaphroditus is a god and appears at certain times among men, and is born with a body made up of a mixture of male and female”.
Despite the fact that he was the son of two major Olympians, Hermaphroditos himself is very rarely mentioned in ancient Greek literature and he has not been indentified on pot paintings, which is very unusual. However, he is very well attested on sculptures. The earliest evidence, both epigraphically and literary, suggests that Hermaphroditos was originally worshipped as some kind of deity, perhaps as a god of sexual union due to his parentage and myth.
Cotterell, Arthur & Storm, Rachel (1999) The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hermes House, Anness Publishing House.
Robinson, M. (1999) Salmacis and Hermaphroditos: When Two Become One (Ovid, Met. 4.285 – 388), The Classical Quarterly, Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Classical Association