lecture

Beyond binaries.

1. Plato, Symposium (4th c. BCE), 189c-e. On the “third sex.” 

[189c] “It is indeed my intention, Eryximachus,” said Aristophanes, “to speak in somewhat different strain from you and Pausanias. For in my opinion humanity has entirely failed to perceive the power of Love: if men did perceive it, they would have provided him with splendid temples and altars, and would splendidly honor him with sacrifice; whereas we see none of these things done for him, though they are especially his due. [189d] He of all gods is most friendly to men; he helps mankind and heals those ills whose cure must be the highest happiness of the human race. Hence I shall try and introduce you to his power, that you may transmit this teaching to the world at large. You must begin your lesson with the nature of man and its development. For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, [189e] not merely the two sexes, male and female, as at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two, and whose name survives though, the thing itself has vanished. For ‘man-woman’ [= ἀνδρόγυνος] was then a unity in form no less than name, composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female; whereas now it has come to be merely a name of reproach. 

2a. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (1st c. BCE) 4.6.5: 

A birth like that of Priapus is ascribed by some writers of myths to Hermaphroditus, as he has been called, who was born of Hermes and Aphrodite and received a name which is a combination of those of both his parents. Some say that this Hermaphroditus is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man. But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good. But let this be enough for us on such matters.

2b. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (1st c. BCE) 32.10.2-5:

[2] There was dwelling at Abae in Arabia a certain man named Diophantus, a Macedonian by descent. He married an Arabian woman of that region and begot a son, named for himself, and a daughter called Heraïs. Now the son he saw dead before his prime, but when the daughter was of an age to be married he gave her a dowry and bestowed her upon a man named Samiades. [3] He, after living in wedlock with his wife for the space of a year, went off on a  long journey. Heraïs, it is said, fell ill of a strange and altogether incredible infirmity. A severe tumour appeared at the base of her abdomen, and as the region became more and more swollen and high fevers supervened her physicians suspected that an ulceration had taken place at the mouth of the uterus. They applied such remedies as they thought would reduce the inflammation, but notwithstanding, on the seventh day, the surface of the tumour burst, and projecting from her groin there appeared a male genital organ with testicles attached.

Now when the rupture occurred, with its sequel, neither her physician nor any other visitors were present, but only her mother and two female slaves. [4] Dumbfounded at this extraordinary event they tended Heraïs as best they could, and said nothing of what had occurred. She, on recovering from her illness, wore feminine attire and continued to conduct herself as a homebody and as one subject to her husband. It was assumed, however, by those who were privy to the strange secret that she was an hermaphrodite, and as to her past life with her husband, since natural intercourse did not fit their theory, she was thought to have consorted with him homosexually.

[5] Now while her condition was still undisclosed, Samiades returned and, as was fitting, for very shame, could not bear to appear in his presence, he, they say, grew angry. As he continually pressed the point and claimed his wife, her father meanwhile denying his plea but feeling too embarrassed to disclose the reason, their disagreement soon grew into a quarrel. As a result Samiades  brought suit for his own wife against her father, for Fortune did in real life what she commonly does in plays and made the strange alteration lead to an accusation. After the judges took their seats and all the arguments had been presented, the person in dispute appeared before the tribunal, and the jurors debated whether the husband should have jurisdiction over his wife or the father over his daughter. [6] When, however, the court found that it was the wife’s duty to attend upon her husband, she at last revealed the truth. Screwing up her courage she unloosed the dress that disguised her, displayed her masculinity to them all, and burst out in bitter protest that anyone should require a man to cohabit with a man….

[8] Heraïs, changing her name to Diophantus, was enrolled in the cavalry, and after fighting in the king’s forces accompanied him in his withdrawal to Abae. Thus  it was that the oracle, which previously had not been understood, now became clear when the king was assassinated at Abae, the birthplace of the “two-formed one.” [9] As for Samiades, they say that he, a thrall still to his love and its old associations, but constrained by shame for his unnatural marriage, designated Diophantus in his will as heir to his property, and made his departure from life. Thus she who was born a woman took on man’s courage and renown, while the man proved to be less strong-minded than a woman.

3a. Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c. CE) 4.368-388. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986).* Hermaphroditus. 

The youth fought back, denied the nymph [Salmacis] her joy;
She strained the more; her clinging body seemed
Fixed fast to his. “Fool, fight me as you will”,
She cried, “You’ll not escape! Ye Gods ordain
No day shall ever dawn to part us twain!”
Her prayer found gods to hear; both bodies merged
In one, both blended in one form and face.
As when a gardener sets a graft and sees
Growth seal the join and both mature together,
Thus, when in fast embrace their limbs were knit,
They two were two no more, nor man, nor woman —
One body then that neither seemed and both.
So when  he saw the waters of the pool,
Where he had dived a man, had rendered him
Half woman and his limbs now weak and soft,
Raising his hands, Hermaphroditus cried,
His voice unmanned, “Dear father and dear mother,
Both of those whose names I bear, grant me, your child,
That whoso in these waters bathes a man
Emerge half woman, weakened instantly.”
Both parents heard; both, moved to gratify
Their bi-sexed son, his purpose to ensure,
Drugged the bright water with that power impure.”

*Note: a new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is currently being prepared by Stephanie McCarter (@samccart1). Read this transcription of a discussion between Stephanie McCarter and Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino), moderated by Joanna Stalnaker: “The Brutality of Ovid: A conversation on sex, violence, and power in the Metamorphoses.”

3b. “Alone Together” Steven Universe (2017). Stevonnie. 

4. Statue of Hermaphroditus (c. 20 BCE – 40 CE). Half-sized statue with “Egyptian”-style haircloth; cloak over the right shoulder revealing female breasts; display of male genitalia; Eros in left hand. Image: MFA Boston.

5a. Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c. CE) 9.705-735. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986). Iphis and Ianthe. 

…a girl was born (unknown to Ligdus),
And Telethusa bade them tend the boy.
Trust hid the truth, and no one knew the trick
Except the nurse. The father paid his vows
And named the child after its grandfather,
Iphis, a name that gave its mother joy:
It meant no fraud — it could be a girl or boy.
So the long lie that love began lay hid.
She dressed her as a boy, and, whether judged
As boy or girl, the child was beautiful.
Time rolled apace and thirteen years passed by,
and then her father found Iphis a bride,
Teles’ charming daughter, golden-haired
Ianthe, highest praised of all the girls
Of Phaestos for her dower of loveliness.
Equal in age they were, equal in looks,
And both from the same masters had received
The first instruction of their early years;
And so it was that both their simple hearts
Love visited alike and both alike
Were smitten — but their hopes how different!
Ianthe longed to fix the wedding day,
To be a wife and take to be her man
Her Iphis, whom she took to be a man.
Poor Iphis loved a girl, girl loving girl,
And knew her love was doomed and loved the more.
Almost in tears, “What will become of me?”
She said, “possessed by love unheard of, love
So monstrous, so unique? If the gods mean
To spare me, they should spare me. If they mean
To ruin me, at least they should have sent
Some natural ill, some normal malady.
Cows never yearn for cows, nor mares for mares;
The ewe follows the ram, the hind her hart;
So the birds mate, so every animal;
A female never fires a female’s love.
Would I were not a girl!

5b. Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c. CE) 9.786-791 Translated by A. D. Melville (1986).* Iphis and Ianthe. 

…At her side
Walked Iphis, as she went, with longer strides
Than usual, her cheeks of darker hue,
Her features firmer, limbs more powerful,
Her hanging tresses shorter and her strength
Greater than woman’s wont. She who had been
A girl a moment past was now a boy.

5c. Lisa Franklin (@lrfranks), “Life as an Iphis: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on Your Hopeless Gay Crush.” Eidolon, July 19th 2018.

At first, my thoughts on the Iphis myth focused on a few translations I’d found after reading the original text at school: in them, for some reason, the authors had written that Iphis called her own feelings “monstrous” (prodigiosa) in between the sobs and cattle comparisons. I’m a stickler for details, so perhaps I was more offended by the inaccuracy than the judgment evident in that word choice. These translations seemed to project an assumption that Ovid, and Iphis, would call Iphis a monster, but that’s not what prodigiosa means. Lewis & Short (for the uninformed: a Latin dictionary, not a little pair of colonizers) defines the adjective as “unnatural, strange, wonderful, marvelous, prodigious” — anything that you would never expect to see while canoeing along the Missouri River. The word shows up one other time in the Metamorphoses to describe a witch’s lavish palace. To render prodigiosa and Iphis’s other descriptions of her crush in those lines (cognita nulli, novaeque Veneris) as “monstrous” would require an embarrassing and vicious lack of intuition about the female experience. “Unknown, prodigious, and of a new kind of love.” Unfamiliar to nature — even unfamiliar to Venus! These words are clearly ancient girl-speak for our most prized and self-pitying retort: You wouldn’t understand.

5d. Sasha Barish, “Iphis’ Hair, Io’s Reflection, and the Gender Dysphoria of the Metamorphoses.” Eidolon, July 16th 2018.

So maybe stories like this are not proof that my people existed in ancient Rome; in a way, they’re proof that my people were so silent that we were confined to fantasy stories, existing only to symbolize the epitome of impossibility. The fact that Iphis is fictional — that her words are really Ovid’s — also prompted my reevaluation of her identity. After all, it’s easy to be sympathetic to Iphis’ speech if you imagine that she’s a real person, who is transgender or gay and feels isolation and self-loathing because of it. But a sentence like “nowhere in nature does a female experience love for a female” takes on a different meaning when someone says it about another person rather than about oneself. Ovid is not in Iphis’ situation or mine, most obviously because he is not female. It’s one thing for me to say about my own experience, “I feel different and unnatural,” and it’s quite another thing for Ovid to say, as it were, “If I were like you, I would feel different and unnatural.” When I think about it that way, Iphis’ speech feels alienating and a little insulting.

English translations: Plato’s Symposium, Harold N. Fowler (1925); Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, C. H. Oldfather (1935); Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A. D. Meville (1986).

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