The Legend of Salmacis & Hermaphroditus

On this website you will find a copy of Ovid's story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, along with a collection of artworks concerning Hermaphroditus and the modern conception of hermaphrodites. One out of every 50 people born in our modern society is born a hermaphrodite. Sometimes the doctors notice them at birth and perform surgery to make them one specific sex, or sometimes the "boy" doesn't find out until he starts growing breasts during puberty. Some societies kill them when they are discovered to be hermaphrodites. Rare societies, like an island in the South Pacific where hermaphrodites are common actually welcome them as a third official sex.



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Synopsis of the Hermaphroditus Legend:

Aphrodite and Hermes had a son together. He grew up to become an incredibly beautiful and masculine man. One day while he was in the woods, a nymph named Salmacis saw him and became so infatuated with him that she grabbed hold of him and refused to let go. She made a prayer to the gods to make them never part, and POOF! VOILA! A hermaphrodite! A man with breasts, or alternative a woman with a penis. Either way it was the Greek way of explaining why one out of every fifty people was a hermaphrodite. Hermaphroditus later became friends with Dionysius and the two gods are considered to be the patron gods of all hermaphrodites.

Many artists like to portray Hermaphroditus as a woman raising up her skirts/robes to reveil a penis. Others like to portray the actual scene in which Salmacis sees and tackles Hermaphroditus, in a narrative format. The most famous however is a sleeping Hermaphroditus.

The Story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus 


How Salmacis, with weak enfeebling streams 
Softens the body, and unnerves the limbs, 
And what the secret cause, shall here be shown; 
The cause is secret, but th' effect is known. 


The Naids nurst an infant heretofore, 
That Cytherea once to Hermes bore: 
From both th' illustrious authors of his race 
The child was nam'd, nor was it hard to trace 
Both the bright parents thro' the infant's face. 
When fifteen years in Ida's cool retreat 
The boy had told, he left his native seat, 
And sought fresh fountains in a foreign soil: 
The pleasure lessen'd the attending toil, 
With eager steps the Lycian fields he crost, 
A river here he view'd so lovely bright, 
It shew'd the bottom in a fairer light, 
Nor kept a sand conceal'd from human sight. 
The stream produc'd nor slimy ooze, nor weeds, 
Nor miry rushes, nor the spiky reeds; 
But dealt enriching moisture all around, 
The fruitful banks with chearful verdure crown'd, 
And kept the spring eternal on the ground. 
A nymph presides, not practis'd in the chace, 
Nor skilful at the bow, nor at the race; 
Of all the blue-ey'd daughters of the main, 
The only stranger to Diana's train: 
Her sisters often, as 'tis said, wou'd cry, 
"Fie Salmacis: what, always idle! fie. 
Or take thy quiver, or thy arrows seize, 
And mix the toils of hunting with thy ease." 
Nor quiver she nor arrows e'er wou'd seize, 
Nor mix the toils of hunting with her ease. 
But oft would bathe her in the chrystal tide, 
Oft with a comb her dewy locks divide; 
Now in the limpid streams she views her face, 
And drest her image in the floating glass: 
On beds of leaves she now repos'd her limbs, 
Now gather'd flow'rs that grew about her streams, 
And then by chance was gathering, as he stood 
To view the boy, and long'd for what she view'd. 


Fain wou'd she meet the youth with hasty feet, 
She fain wou'd meet him, but refus'd to meet 
Before her looks were set with nicest care, 
And well deserv'd to be reputed fair. 
"Bright youth," she cries, "whom all thy features prove 
A God, and, if a God, the God of love; 
But if a mortal, blest thy nurse's breast, 
Blest are thy parents, and thy sisters blest: 
But oh how blest! how more than blest thy bride, 
Ally'd in bliss, if any yet ally'd. 
If so, let mine the stoln enjoyments be; 
If not, behold a willing bride in me." 


The boy knew nought of love, and toucht with shame, 
He strove, and blusht, but still the blush became: 
In rising blushes still fresh beauties rose; 
The sunny side of fruit such blushes shows, 
And such the moon, when all her silver white 
Turns in eclipses to a ruddy light. 
The nymph still begs, if not a nobler bliss, 
A cold salute at least, a sister's kiss: 
And now prepares to take the lovely boy 
Between her arms. He, innocently coy, 
Replies, "Or leave me to my self alone, 
You rude uncivil nymph, or I'll be gone." 
"Fair stranger then," says she, "it shall be so"; 
And, for she fear'd his threats, she feign'd to go: 
But hid within a covert's neighbouring green, 
She kept him still in sight, herself unseen. 
The boy now fancies all the danger o'er, 
And innocently sports about the shore, 
Playful and wanton to the stream he trips, 
And dips his foot, and shivers as he dips. 
The coolness pleas'd him, and with eager haste 
His airy garments on the banks he cast; 
His godlike features, and his heav'nly hue, 
And all his beauties were expos'd to view. 
His naked limbs the nymph with rapture spies, 
While hotter passions in her bosom rise, 
Flush in her cheeks, and sparkle in her eyes. 
She longs, she burns to clasp him in her arms, 
And looks, and sighs, and kindles at his charms. 


Now all undrest upon the banks he stood, 
And clapt his sides, and leapt into the flood: 
His lovely limbs the silver waves divide, 
His limbs appear more lovely through the tide; 
As lillies shut within a chrystal case, 
Receive a glossy lustre from the glass. 
He's mine, he's all my own, the Naid cries, 
And flings off all, and after him she flies. 
And now she fastens on him as he swims, 
And holds him close, and wraps about his limbs. 
The more the boy resisted, and was coy, 
The more she clipt, and kist the strugling boy. 
So when the wrigling snake is snatcht on high 
In Eagle's claws, and hisses in the sky, 
Around the foe his twirling tail he flings, 
And twists her legs, and wriths about her wings. 


The restless boy still obstinately strove 
To free himself, and still refus'd her love. 
Amidst his limbs she kept her limbs intwin'd, 
"And why, coy youth," she cries, "why thus unkind! 
Oh may the Gods thus keep us ever join'd! 
Oh may we never, never part again!" 


So pray'd the nymph, nor did she pray in vain: 
For now she finds him, as his limbs she prest, 
Grow nearer still, and nearer to her breast; 
'Till, piercing each the other's flesh, they run 
Together, and incorporate in one: 
Last in one face are both their faces join'd, 
As when the stock and grafted twig combin'd 
Shoot up the same, and wear a common rind: 
Both bodies in a single body mix, 
A single body with a double sex. 


The boy, thus lost in woman, now survey'd 
The river's guilty stream, and thus he pray'd. 
(He pray'd, but wonder'd at his softer tone, 
Surpriz'd to hear a voice but half his own.) 
You parent-Gods, whose heav'nly names I bear, 
Hear your Hermaphrodite, and grant my pray'r; 
Oh grant, that whomsoe'er these streams contain, 
If man he enter'd, he may rise again 
Supple, unsinew'd, and but half a man! 


The heav'nly parents answer'd from on high, 
Their two-shap'd son, the double votary 
Then gave a secret virtue to the flood, 
And ting'd its source to make his wishes good. 


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