Hermaphroditus in Greek Mythology: Origins, Depictions, Powers, & Symbols
Born to Greek deities Aphrodite and Hermes, Hermaphroditus was a minor ancient Greek god with very handsome features. Hermpahroditus’ name is a combination of both is parents’ names – Hermes and Aphrodite. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans mostly associated him with sexuality and marriage. He was also a member of the Erotes, a group of winged Greek deities that were associated with sexuality and love.
Fast Facts about Hermphroditus
God of: Sexuality, marriage, hermaphrodites, effeminates
Consort: Salmacis (Salmakis)
Abode: Mount Ida; Mount Olympus
Symbols: Thyrus, Kantharos
Other names: Atlantiades (Atlantius)
Cult and worship: Cyprus
Powers: Similar to the ones possessed by the Erotes in Greek mythology – ability to influence people’s feelings of love
Origins and Role
Hermaphroditus was indeed a minor ancient Greek god who also appeared in the Roman pantheon. In addition to being a deity of sacred union and beautiful associations, Hermaphroditus was revered by both Greek and Roman pantheons as the god of effeminates and hermaphrodites.
Appearance and depictions of Hermaphroditus
As a two-sexed deity, the ancient Greeks and Romans often depicted him as a female with the genitals of a male. Owing to this, he was also seen as a deity of marriage. Who better to oversee marriage than a deity that was both a man and woman?
Hermaphroditus represented the union of a man and woman. This feature and role of his were perhaps derived from his parents. Thus he inherited all the beautiful characteristics of both his parents. His father, Hermes, was a god of contracts and business dealings. His mother, Aphrodite, was a goddess of love, wedding and marriage. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the ancient world linked Hermaphroditus to weddings.
According to the myth, Hermaphroditus sometimes revealed himself in all his full glory to men. On other occasions, he chose not to show himself because of how hideous some of his features were.
As a member of the Erotes – i.e. the winged Greek deities associated with sexuality – Hermaphroditus was often depicted as a winged, young god with both female and male features.
Hermaphroditus’ parents Hermes and Aphrodite were the deities of male and female sexuality respectively. Both parents were also members of the twelve Olympian gods that lived on Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods.
His great-grandfather was the titan Atlas. This was because his father’s mother, Maia, was the daughter of Atlas. As a result of this, Hermaphroditus was sometimes referred to as Atlantiades.
According the Roman poet Ovid (also known as Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō), Hermaphroditus was born with undoubtedly very handsome features that he most likely derived from his parents Aphrodite and Hermes.
Shortly after his birth, Hermaphroditus was taken in by the naiads and nursed at Mount Ida in Phrygia (modern-day northwestern Turkey). Hermaphroditus’ nurses were female spirits/nymph that often resided in and around streams or other bodies of fresh water.
Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis
Bored of spending his life locked up in the caves of Mount Ida, Hermaphroditus decided to venture out, making his way to cities such as Caria (present-day Bodrum, Turkey) and Lycia.
In the deep woods of Caria, while Hermaphroditus was bathing in the fountain of Salmakida he came into contact with a nymph called Slamacis. Head over hills for Hermaphrodites, the nymph Salmacis found Hermaphroditus an extremely handsome boy. And in spite of her hard efforts to seduce him, she found her advances constantly rejected by Hermaphroditus.
One day, while Hermaphroditus was taking a bath in an empty pool, Salmacis leaped into the pool and forcibly groped the god. She then went ahead to proclaim her love for him, begging the gods to unite them forever. In a twinkle of an eye, the two beings were conjoined and became one being, having both male and female genitals.
The myth goes on to say that Hermaphroditus implored both his parents to forever transform any man that took a bath in that pool into a hermphrodite.
More on Hermaphroditus
Theophrastus, the 3rd century BC Greek philosopher and Aristotle’s successor at the Peripatetic school, was one of the first people to have the name Hermpahroditus in literature.
It has been noted that much of the idea and myth of Hermaphroditus originated from worship practices in the East, where inhabitants of those places saw nature as a combination of the female and male.
In Biology, hermaphrodite refers to an organism that has female and male genitalia. Also most plants are hermaphrodites.
Some of the most renowned cult centers of Hermaphroditus were in Cyprus. Similarly, there was a temple of Hermaphroditus at Athens, Greece, according to the ancient Greek sophist Alciphron.
The famous Greek comic playwright Aritophanes termed the bearded figure of a male Aphrodite as Aphroditus.
Venetian artist and engraver Antonio Maria Zenetti’s relief depiction of Hermaphroditus is considered by many as one of the most popular depictions of Hermaphroditus. Other popular paintings and depictions of Hermaphroditus and Slamacis include the ones done by French engraver Jean Daullé and Italian painter Ludovico Carracci.
Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods; translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1905.
Ovid. Metamorphoses, Volume I: Books 1-8. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library No. 42. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977, first published 1916.
Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, 1998
Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Wiley-Blackwell, 1996
Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hudson, 1951
Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. London: S. Sonnenschein and Co.; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1894