Androgyne in myth

I became intrigued in the subject of androgyny after some of our Book Club readings.

Plato, in the Symposium, reveals a myth on the origin of mankind through the speech of Aristophanes (starting at 189d). The Symposium is a series of amusing speeches on the subject of love, supposedly composed during a meal given by the young poet Agathon. Aristophanes decides to demonstrate the origin of love. In the beginning, he says, there was not only a man and a woman but also a third person, half man and half woman, called androgunos [ἀνδρόγυνος].

According to the myth, the androgyne was both male and female, in equal parts. Thus Aristophanes gives a description:

The number and features of these three sexes were owing to the fact that the male was originally the offspring of the sun, and the female of the earth; while that which partook of both sexes was born of the moon, for the moon also partakes of both…
Symposium 190b, translated by Harold N. Fowler

However the third sex, the androgyne [ἀνδρόγυνος] has disappeared; only the name remains which, according to Aristophanes, has a negative connotation. What is the origin of this myth? It is indeed difficult to find a source. However, Plato places this story in the mouth of Aristophanes, who loves comedy and originality, so is there a possibility of invention?

Plato does not use the Greek word for hermaphrodite: hermaphroditos [ἑρμαφρόδιτος].

The Greek word hermaphrodite seems to be used later. It appears, for example, in a text by Lucian and also in the writing of Diodorus Siculus. It comes from another myth: a hermaphrodite [ἑρμαφρόδιτος, ὁ] is a person who has the attributes of both sexes. This word comes from the name of the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditos. A story about him is told by Ovid based on the myth of his encounter with the nymph Salmacis. Salmacis tried to force Hermaphroditus (which is the Latin form of the name) to make love and they both suffered a transformation. Then Hermaphroditus, when he saw what had happened, was angry and asked his divine parents for a special wish:

Hermaphrodite asleep, Marble, (100-150 CE) Louvre

Now the entwined bodies of the two [Salmacis and Hermaphroditus] were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

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!” Both his parents moved by this, granted the prayer of their twin-formed son, and contaminated the pool with a damaging drug.

Ovid Metamorphoses Book IV.373–388, translated by A. S. Kline

Neither the word androgyne nor hermaphrodite is found in Homeric poetry. However a famous seer, Teiresias, appears and although the various myths concerning the transformation of Teiresias, who from a man became a woman [ἐξ ἀνδρὸς γυνή], are not evoked in the Iliad nor in the Odyssey. Certain elements of his myths appear in the Odyssey, which could indicate that they were already known. First of all, as shown in Odyssey 10 and 11, the fact that Teiresias is a great blind diviner, that he uses a special scepter, and also that he retains his ability to think [phrenes] after his death, although different versions exist, different goddesses give him this privilege. 

[490] but first you [= Odysseus] must bring to fulfillment [teleîn] another journey and travel until you enter 491 the palace of Hādēs and of the dreaded Peresephone, 492 and there you all will consult [khrē] the spirit [psūkhē] of Teiresias of Thebes, 493 the blind seer [mantis], whose thinking [phrenes] is grounded [empedoi]: 494 to him, even though he was dead, Persephone gave consciousness [noos], [495] so as to be the only one there who has the power to think [pepnusthai]. But the others [in Hādēs] just flit about, like shadows [skiai].’ …..

[90] Then came also the spirit [psūkhē] of Theban Teiresias, 91 with a golden scepter in his hand. 

Odyssey 10.490–495 and 11.90–91, Sourcebook

Pindar meanwhile, in his ode Nemean 1, refers to Teiresias as the greatest of the diviners of Zeus:

[60] And he [Amphitryon] called his neighbor, the outstanding prophet of Zeus the highest, the truthful seer Teiresias.
Pindar Nemean 1.60–61, translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien

According to Apollodorus, Hesiod mentions Teiresias and his story, but we don’t have the original text, it seems. In this version of the myth, Teiresias was changed into a woman and back again when he saw snakes copulating. One day Hera and Zeus wanted to settle an argument, but Hera was dissatisfied with his answer and blinded him.

…But Hesiod says that he beheld snakes copulating on Cyllene, and that having wounded them he was turned from a man into a woman, but that on observing the same snakes copulating again, he became a man. Hence, when Hera and Zeus disputed whether the pleasures of love are felt more by women or by men, they referred to him for a decision. He said that if the pleasures of love be reckoned at ten, men enjoy one and women nine. Wherefore Hera blinded him, but Zeus bestowed on him the art of soothsaying.
“The saying of Tiresias to Zeus and Hera.
Of ten parts a man enjoys one only;
But a woman enjoys the full ten parts in her heart.”
He also lived to a great age.

Apollodorus Library 3.6.7, translated by Frazer

There is also a footnote by Frazer to this passage, with further details about Teiresias’ change of sex:

According to Eustathius and Tzetzes, it was by killing the female snake that Tiresias became a woman, and it was by afterwards killing the male snake that he was changed back into a man. According to Ovid, the seer remained a woman for seven years, and recovered his male sex in the eighth.

Another version of the story of the blinding of Teiresias is told both in the Apollodorus’ Library, and also in the fifth Hymn by Callimachus. This time he is blinded by Athena because he has seen her taking a bath, naked. She gave him some gifts in return to ease up the pain, since his mother Chariclo was her friend and favorite attendant. He would be an excellent seer, to live for a long time, to have a great staff, and last but most important he would be the only man to keep the power to think [pepnusthai] after his death. (καὶ μόνος, εὖτε θάνῃ, πεπνυμένος ἐν νεκύεσσι )

For I will make him [Teiresias] a seer to be sung of men hereafter, yea, more excellent than any other. He shall know the birds – which is of good omen among all the countless birds that fly and what birds are of ill-omened flight. Many oracles shall he utter to the Boeotians and many unto Cadmus, and to the mighty sons of Labdacus in later days. Also will I give him a great staff which shall guide his feet as he hath need, and I will give him a long term of life. And he only, when he dies, shall walk among the dead having understanding [pepnusthai], honoured of the great Leader of Peoples.

Callimachus Hymn V On the Bath of Pallas 121–130, adapted from translation by A.W. Mair

Pausanias points out several details about Teiresias. First in Book 9.16.1 there is in Thebes a bird-observatory of Teiresias, then in 9.18.4 the tomb of Teiresias, and 9.19.3, also in Thebes, a place where Teirisias cut the head of a snake.

Finally, Plato in the Meno praises Teiresias for his great virtue, alloted to him “by a divine dispensation” [θείᾳ μοίρᾳ] that allowed him to keep his power to think in Hades.

….virtue is found to be neither natural nor taught, but is imparted to us by a divine dispensation [theia moira] without understanding in those who receive it, …. and if there should be any such, he might fairly be said to be among the living what Homer says Teiresias was among the dead—“He alone has comprehension [pepnusthai]; the rest are flitting shades.” In the same way he on earth, in respect of virtue, will be a real substance among shadows.

Plato Meno 99e–100a, adapted from translation by W.R.M. Lamb

Teiresias and Odysseus in Hades
Teiresias and Odysseus

Why do you think Plato in the Symposium left unanswered the fate of the third person, the androgyne [ἀνδρόγυνος]? Why do we find so many different myths about Teiresias? Why is his change of sex not really mentioned in Homeric poetry and by some other authors? 

Please join me in the Forum to discuss the different myths concerning the transformations and lives of people who went through a change of sex.

Related posts

Core Vocab: mantis 

Bibliography

Plato Symposium
English text: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.
Online at Perseus
Greek text: The Symposium of Plato. R. G. Bury. 1909. Cambridge. W. Heffer and Sons.
Online at Perseus

Ovid Metamorphoses
English text: translated by A.S. Kline. 2000.
Online at The University of Virginia Ovid Collection

Sourcebook:
Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor. 2019.12.12. Available online at the Center for Hellenic Studies.
https://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG_ed.Sourcebook_H24H.2013-
Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power.
Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies

Pindar. Odes. Pindar. Diane Arnson Svarlien. 1990.
Online at Perseus

Apollodorus Library.
English and Greek texts: Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes.
Online at Perseus
Footnote quoted

Callimachus Hymns,
English text: Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron. Aratus. Translated by Mair, A. W. & G. R. Loeb Classical Library Volume 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921.
Online at theoi.com

Greek text: Callimachus. Works. A.W. Mair. London: William Heinemann; New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1921.
Online at Perseus

Pausanias Description of Greece
Jones, W.H.S. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.
Online at Perseus

Plato Meno
English text: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967.
Online at Perseus
Greek text: Plato. Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet. Oxford University Press. 1903.
Online at Perseus

Texts retrieved September 2022 

Image credits

Hermaphrodite asleep, Marble, (100-150 CE) Louvre
Photo Kosmos Society

John Henry Fuseli. 1780–1785. Teiresias Foretells the Future to Odysseus
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.

Images retrieved September 2022 

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Hélène Emeriaud is a Team member at HeroesX, a MOOC on edX. She studied ancient Greek at school in France and for several years at the University of Minnesota. She holds a degree in Education from Montreal University, and a Master of Education from McGill University. She is an active participant and member of the Editorial Team in the Kosmos Society with a particular interest in ancient Greek and Latin language learning.