Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Sites of Hermaphrodites: Intersex in the Greco-Roman World

“Whoever comes to these fountains as a man, 
let him leave them half a man"

The Tale of Hermaphroditus
Publius Ovidius Naso

Holy Places in the Classical World

In the Book of John Mandeville, the hermaphrodites play a memorable role in the pilgrimage narrative despite only have a handful of lines devoted to them. The intersex people are pictured in various sketches of Mandeville's travels and the pilgrim directly ties his narrative to illustrative mappa mundi that show the hermaphrodites living on islands along the margins. In a sense, while circumscribed to a small corner of the narrative and the map, the hermaphrodites evidence the wider thesis of Mandeville's second pilgrimage wherein he claims, "now wole Y telle of yles and dyverse peple and bestes" (Ln. 1378-1382). While the first pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem is a fairly conventional travel log and collection of tales on the holy land, the second pilgrimage works to instill a sense of the world on the margins and the world oriented towards the margins. In this work, the Isle of the Hermaphrodites does critical work in demonstrating the allure of alternative sites of travel outside the usual centers of the Christian world and pilgrimage. As an anti-loca sancta, the isle of hermaphrodites functions as a kind of elsewhere holy site that draws travelers from the center to the margins. The role of the hermaphrodites in the pilgrimage narrative could be dismissed as one among many monstrous races imagined on the margins but a brief consideration of the tradition of hermaphrodites in the classical literature informing later medieval thought shows how the children of the moon, the children of Hermes and Aphrodite, and the children of Adam have long functioned to disorient and reorient maps of who lives in the world.

Medieval thinkers and pilgrims inherited their world-views (literally their view of the world and the peoples in it) from classical writers. These traditions are most evident in the ways that medieval travelers continued to regard the world that contrasted with Christian biblical or clerical authorities. Indeed, numerous Christian theologians discouraged pilgrimage not only because it was dangerous and a potential waste of resources but because it encouraged the debatable notion that certain holy sites were more sacred than others. If God is omnipresent, why must we travel from one location to another encounter the divine? If Saints are now in heaven, why barter large sums over who gets to house their remains? These critiques were all the more fervent when such sites and relics were of non-Christian origin. The common habit of regarding certain wells or mountains as sacred or artifacts as imbued with magic without direct or historical ties to the Church challenged the supremacy of Christianity in geopolitics. And yet despite critics, pilgrimage was a booming practice for much of the middle ages and medieval thinkers generally did not disregard the holiness of something because it happened to predate the Christianization of the region. Not only the ruins but the world-view of Plato, Ovid, and Augustine lay foundations for late medieval thinking about sacred places and monstrous peoples.

A significant feature of the hermaphrodite tales is that they are heavily bio-cartographic as discourses of intersex tended to have a strong consideration of the relation between people and environment. Classical thinkers knew (or had heard) that intersex people existed but wanted to know where they came from and where they lived. As a result, various origin stories worked to tell how hermaphrodites were brought into the world and by unpacking these first causes to give a sense of their meaning. Among the traditions that unfolded from Plato's Symposium of Love to Augustin's City of God, the concept of hermaphrodites in the world developed from mythologically distant in time and place to evidence of Creation's diversity in the here and now. Each of these three authors, spanning the start, middle, and end of a thousand years of classical thought represent an ongoing conversation that would continue into medieval conceptions of gender. While hermaphrodites in the Greco-Roman world been examined through art history, medical texts, and archeology, these texts offer a distinct literary quality that share a disciplinary tradition with later medieval pilgrimage narratives. The medical and the artistic understanding of hermaphrodites are undoubtably in conversation but among classical tales there are peculiar literary ways of thinking. The question is not only how did intersex persons live in the classical eras but how did storytellers conceptualize hermaphroditism as a bio-cartographic mode of thinking about place and space, gender and the environment, the sacred and the human. As for some later natural scientists and philosophers, encounters with intersex bodies tells us a lot about our world-views of gender and the world we thought we knew.



The Mountain 
(Plato c. 380 BCE)

The Mountain looms large in the literary ordering of intersex in order of embodiment and space. For Plato, the mountain represented the divine locus by which the gods controlled the world and towards which we might rise together in order to claim authority over our lives. In fear of our collective power, Plato narrates, the gods on the mountain divide and conquer gender non-binary peoples, forcing them to the margins of the world. In the tale of Aristophanes from Plato's Symposium, the author addresses the forgotten power of hermaphrodites and suggests that this might be rectified if people construct sacred places devoted to hermaphroditic Love. The prompt for Aristophanes's speech is his concern that society neglects and misunderstands Love, "[f]or if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars" (Plato). For Aristophanes, the basic element of faith is the keeping of sacred places and the rituals therein. Framing the following myth of the hermaphrodites, Aristophanes establishes the goal of his narrative as the creation of loca sancta in the honor of hermaphroditic Love. By coming together at these sites, we might remember who we are as trans and intersex peoples. We might reclaim our embodiments and our collective strength so that we might scale and conquer the mountain that sets limits on our access to our bodies and public space.

Unlike binary models of gender, Aristophanes asserts a non-binary model wherein hermaphroditism is a divinely created natural state in humanity. He names three distinct genders which are not as gender is embodied today: children of the sun (a people with double masculine traits who he calls "men"), children of the earth (a people with double feminine traits who he calls "women"), and children of the moon (a people who have both masculine and feminine traits who he calls "hermaphrodites"). Aristophanes acknowledges that in his day, the word "hermaphrodite" is used, "as a term of reproach." This makes evident that just as the term has debatable meanings and connotations in modern culture, the term is no less problematic in a Classical context. Despite the dangerous significance of the word, Aristophanes insists that this disregard for the hermaphrodite was not always the norm, "[o]nce it was a distinct kind, with a bodily shape and a name of its own." Aristophanes is speculative on the current existence of hermaphrodites but sees them as a mythical, foundational, and even divine form of life.

The hermaphrodites are so powerful in Aristophanes's estimation, that they threatened to rise to locations and significance usually held by patriarchal authorities. In their divine unified state, the hermaphrodites threatened to unseat the ruling gendered hierarchies. "Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great," writes Aristophanes. This relation between the power of the body and of the mind is significance, as it ties together how confidence effects the deployment of one's body. If culture celebrates intersex bodies, they become more powerful. Alternatively, if intersex bodies are decried as shameful, they exist in a time of diminished power. And this power is related to the ability to organize the biopolitics of space. Connecting them to Homer's Titans and Giants, Aristophanes writes that they tried to mount Olympus, "to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods" (Plato). Already in Aristophanes there is a danger in the hermaphrodites power to go where they will. This resounding claim echoes in Eli Clare's mythology of the Mountain as the quintessential concept that organizes bodies and space. "The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people," writes Clare. "How many of us have struggled up the mountain, measured ourselves against it, failed up there, lived its shadow?” The Mountain is the mythical signifier of the order of nature that dictates the place of powerful bodies at the center summit and the marginalized along the borders. While the Mountain of the gods is too hard for a divided community to climb member by member, together they can rise and overthrow the signs of their oppression. 

The gods on the mountain fear the collective strength of the hermaphrodites and so decide to divide them. Together and whole, they have the ability to travel across divisions of space, even into the sacred places of the gods. In response to this disruptive movement, the gods decide to take away the hermaphrodites body and collectivity, in turn effecting their power and ability to move as they will. The gods decide to go with the plan to divide and conquer the children of the moon. "Methinks," says one god, "I have a plan which will enfeeble their strength and so extinguish their turbulence; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us." Together the hermaphrodites are a challenge to those who order the world and assert a hierarchy of embodiment. Yet when their bodies and collective community are taken from them they are weaker. As Plato notes, the work of division is not destruction but subjugation. By isolating hermaphrodites from one another, they don't have control over themselves and cannot strive together. As a result, hermaphrodites will forget who they are and will become more subservient to those on the mountain. This then is the origin of love, explains Aristophanes, and why we need holy sites to remind us to seek after love: alone and separate we are weak but by coming together we are strong enough to shake the orders of the world.


The Well
(Ovid c. 8 CE)

While named for the protagonists of the story, the focus of the "the Tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus" is the well wherein the merger of the two happens and the child of Hermes and Aphrodite earns his name. "Now you will hear where the pool of Salmacis got its bad reputation from, how its enervating waters weaken, and soften the limbs they touch," claims AlcithoĆ«, the narrator of Ovid's tale. "The cause is hidden, but the fountain’s effect is widely known" (Ovid IV. 274-316). From the onset, this site of hermaphrodites is judged as well known and dangerous. Yet within this danger is the riddle of intersex for the ancient mind: evident in existence but mysterious in cause. In this tale, Ovid works to bridge reality and myth, people and location. While Plato imagines the mountain as a site of the division of hermaphroditic embodiment and community, Ovid imagines a sacred well as a site of creating new hermaphrodites. In Ovid's Tale in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, the birth of the first hermaphrodite is narrated as a boundary crossing of gender that results in a new place and embodiment through which we can change our views of the sexed body (IV.346-388). The tale imagines the site of this gender mixing and crossing as the locus for rape and challenges to the patriarchal order of gender and sexuality. While tied up in violence, the dangerousness of the well of hermaphrodites also signs powerfulness. Ovid imagines that the existence and significance of such as well goes beyond any one story. While the first hermaphrodite's birth may have stemmed from shame and violence, the site as well as the identity of hermaphrodite might be reclaimed sources of power. People may flock to this location to stake their interest in trans or intersex embodiment and community. Through the tale of the well, the Ovidian world-view establishes intersex as grounds for travel. That the well might become a kind of holy site for trans and intersex pilgrimage is not tangential to the story but implicit in the identifying of the space and embodiment of the protagonist with the name "Hermaphroditus."

According to Ovid's tale, hermaphrodites are honored as the children of Hermes, the God of Travel and Language whose name means boundary stone, and Aphrodite, the God of Love and Sex whose name means emergence from water. "The Naiads nursed a child born of Hermes, and a goddess, Cytherean Aphrodite, in Mount Ida’s caves," writes Ovid. "His features were such that, in them, both mother and father could be seen: and from them he took his name, Hermaphroditus" (Ovid IV.274-316). In his tale, Ovid has Hermaphroditus live up to each part of his name. The story begins with a young man traveling alone until he arrives at a special well. There the traveler encounters a nymph who falls under the spell of love, "the nymph’s eyes blazed with passion." The lover assaults the traveler and by the force of her attraction the two merge. The scene is suggestive of a violent sexual encounter, where man and woman come together and produce something new from the intercourse. Brought together so completely, the love and traveler fuse and only then does Ovid name them, Hermaphroditus. The child emerges from the water, like Aphrodite, and speaks in a new voice, like Hermes. Importantly, Ovid also suggests that hermaphrodites might have the honor to make special demands of the gods that created them. “Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names," cries Hermaphroditus. The divine origin of Hermaphroditus signifies that the youth's divinity and by these natures he has authority to change the world. In Hermaphroditus's curse there is a hint of the divine world altering power of Plato's hermaphrodites. Nonetheless, it is not until after merging with a nymph that the child's body reflects the genders of both parents. Like many transgender youths, Hermaphroditus was not himself, able to speak in his own voice and authority, until the momentous gender transition. 

Beyond his own story, Hermaphroditus's emergence from the water, like Aphrodite, tells the story of the well's transformation. As a result of Hermaphroditus's birth, the well becomes a locum sanctum, a place where others may bathe and become intersex. "When he saw now that the clear waters which he had penetrated as a man, had made him a creature of both sexes, and his limbs had been softened there, Hermaphroditus, stretching out his hands, said, but not in a man’s voice, “Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names: whoever comes to these fountains as a man, let him leave them half a man, and weaken suddenly at the touch of these waters!” (IV.346-388). Divine agents like the gods have special authority to order the world. Often their acts cannot be easily unmade even by other gods. In this case, Hermes and Aphrodite are both invoked to enchant the well into a locus of gender boundary crossing and emerging reborn from the water. In a way, the gods turn the well into a shrine to Hermaphroditus. "Both his parents moved by this, granted the prayer of their twin-formed son, and contaminated the pool with a damaging drug," writes Ovid (IV.346-388).  Far from being a divergence in the divine order, Hermaphroditus and intersex bodies who would afterwards carry his name are in fact doubly affirmed by language and gender, travel and attraction. Made and remade, born and reborn under the influence of the gods, Hermaphroditus and his well become boundary stones, markers of a threshold across which lies a new intersexual horizon.Interestingly, Hermaphroditus does not ask for his body to be personally changed or changed back. Rather he asks that the well be held responsible for altering him by becoming a sacred site for other bodies to become intersex. A traveler by accident or pilgrim by intent could travel to this site to become marked in name and form as divine children. 

The boundary marker of Hermaphroditus not only mixes it creates something new. "Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both," writes Ovid, "they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either" (IV.346-388). The rape of the man by a woman that birthed Hermaphroditus signals the danger patriarchal cisgender masculinity feels towards intersexuality and the mingling with the feminine. The fear of women inspired by the tale suggests that masculinity fears female desire because it desires his power.  As became painfully evident in later Freudian theory, men fear that women envy the male penis and will attack him for it. The penis is taken the the site on the body where masculine power is concentrated. But beyond the directly phallic, the desire for male flesh also the desire for male embodiment and the power that it affords. This then is the danger of being intimate with women and sharing physical space with them, whether at work, in bathrooms, or simply out in the public sphere: the feminine will mix with the masculine and leave the patriarchal cisgender order forever changed. With women having long been associated with wetness and fluidity, fear of the feminine is located in the female space of the well. The resultant environmental message is that when a man steps into a feminine sphere he might not come out again without being affected by that feminine space.



The World
(Augustine c. 426 CE)

By the early Christian era of the Roman empire, literary discourses on intersex seem to have opened up in writers such as Augustine of Hippo so that hermaphrodites were not merely outcasts from the mountains of the past nor merely the potential future products of sacred wells but an emergent element of God's living Creation. Like Plato and Ovid, Augustine is concerned with the origin of hermaphrodites. Instead of the gods or heroes, Augustine suggests a likelihood that intersex people are descended from the line of Adam and Eden. Yet the Christian writer is not so much interested in locating a mythical past but in meditating on the diversity of God's creation in the present. Augustine gives the hermaphrodites a special locus of consideration in book sixteen of his meditation on the City of God. "As for the Androgyni, or Hermaphrodites, as they are called," writes Augustine, "though they are rare, yet from time to time there appears persons of sex so doubtful, that it remains uncertain from which sex they take their name" (XVI.viii). Calling them by the combined names of the Greco-Roman gods, Augustine demonstrates that the sacredness of hermaphrodites perpetuates in ways into the Christian era of the classical period. Augustine asserts the sacredness of intersex by locating it as part of the diversity of God's creation which imagines all things and all places together in a great mappa mundi. The worldview of Augustine's Christian God does not locate intersex in an elsewhere or eslewhen but as a dynamism and diversity arising out of human procreation and God's divine Creation. Although rare, he writes, hermaphrodites are the children of men and the children of God.

The idea that hermaphrodites are monsters that signal failures of embodiment that should be eschewed to the margins is condemned by Augustine as heretical and small-minded. Whether or not intersex is a human person on another race of people entirely, they are members of God's world. To call hermaphrodites disordered in their embodiment is to critique God their creators. Augustine writes, "what if God has seen fit to create some races in this way, that we might not suppose that the monstrous births which appear among ourselves are the failures of that wisdom whereby He fashions the human nature, as we speak of the failure of a less perfect workman?" (Augustine XVI.viii). As a Creator, God works in diverse ways to produce diverse forms of life. Yet if Christians are to believe that God creates and names all things according to a divine mappa mindi, then one must admit that the diversity of genders beyond the binary of man and woman are also a key element of God's plane. If hermaphrodites exist then they are a part of God's created world and share in that sacred co-existence with all other embodied lives. 

The seeming flaw in hermaphrodites that social discourse claims in order to compel people to push intersex bodies to the margins of the world is rather a flaw in the social discourse. The problem is not in the true lives of the hermaphrodites but in the environment that misunderstands them and fears sharing the world with them. "But He who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part," writes Augustine, "because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs" (Augustine XVI.viii). By turning from the marginalized to the marginalizers, Augustine effectively flips the script of shame back on itself. Yet even the marginalizers are not flawed because they are "blind" but are flawed insofar as they marginalize. This blindness is not a lack of sign that leads to bad information but an insistence on a certain kind of information, the gender binary, so that people cannot see the world in any other way. It is the boundary lines that inhibit our ability to see those that cross or existence between categories of gender and place. The hermaphrodites are not flawed because they fail to exist within a binary gender, rather the binary gender system is flawed because it fails to account for hermaphrodites. If people can see the world in a hermaphroditic way, they could better see the diversity of gender in creation. Space and gender turn from set defined categories in which bodies exist into a dynamic discourse that changes as the world changes.

The World that Augustine arrives at in the end of his thoughts on hermaphrodites is that the world is too big for humans to fully know in advance. This does not mean that all knowledge of the world is faulty, that there is no truth, but that the fullness of Truth is God's alone. "For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created," writes Augustine, "because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole" (XVI.viii). God's World will always exceed any map humans make of the world, there is always more diversity than any system can contain. Creatures can learn of God's mappa mundi through encounters with the world but cannot possess that knowledge beforehand. The world does not fail because of having hermaphrodites in it but a worldview without hermaphrodite fails. Gender as a form of knowing is not ended because intersex disproves the gender binary. Truth is more complex because new truths are continually added. Creation is bigger because God continues to create new and different forms of life. In a sense, God and the World is most active on the margins of existence and knowledge whereas those who remain rooted in the Mountains will daily become further from the whole Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Creation. The implicit command then is for pilgrims to travel and on the road have their conceptions of self and society, center and the margin, boundaries and crossings, place and space continually expanded and diversified. If hermaphrodites are monsters on the margins, they point in the direction pilgrims must travel to find the sites that will transform them and the world.

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