1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hermaphroditus

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HERMAPHRODITUS, in Greek mythology, a being, partly male, partly female, originally worshipped as a divinity. The conception undoubtedly had its origin in the East, where deities of a similar dual nature frequently occur. The oldest traces of the cult in Greek countries are found in Cyprus. Here, according to Macrobius (Saturnalia, iii. 8) there was a bearded statue of a male aphrodite, called Aphroditos by Aristophanes (probably in his Νίοβος, a similar variant). Philochorus in his Atthis (ap. Macrobius loc. cit.) further identified this divinity, at whose sacrifices men and women exchanged garments, with the moon. This double sex also attributed to Dionysus and Priapus—the union in one being of the two principles of generation and conception—denotes extensive fertilizing and productive powers. This Cyprian Aphrodite is the same as the later Hermaphroditos, which simply means Aphroditos in the form of a herm (see Hermae), and first occurs in the Characteres (16) of Theophrastus. After its introduction at Athens (probably in the 5th century B.C.), the importance of this being seems to have declined. It appears no longer as the object of a special cult, but limited to the homage of certain sects, expressed by superstitious rites of obscure significance. The still later form of the legend, a product of the Hellenistic period, is due to a mistaken etymology of the name. In accordance with this, Hermaphroditus is the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, of whom the nymph of the fountain of Salmacis in Caria became enamoured while he was bathing. When her overtures were rejected, she embraced him and entreated the gods that she might be for ever united with him. The result was the formation of a being, half man, half woman. This story is told by Ovid (Metam. iv. 285) to explain the peculiarly enervating qualities of the water of the fountain. Strabo (xiv. p. 656) attributes its bad reputation to the attempt of the inhabitants of the country to find some excuse for the demoralization caused by their own luxurious and effeminate habits of life. There was a famous statue of Hermaphroditus by Polycles of Athens, probably the younger of the two statuaries of that name. In later Greek art he was a favourite subject.

See articles in Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités, and Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie; and for art, A. Baumeister, Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums (1884–1888).