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‘Neither and Both’: the Gender-Queer Body in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Image by Carole Radiate through Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Gender-queer bodies, while seeming like a hot topic among politicians in recent weeks, have never been a modern invention. Although the term itself originated in the 1990s, humans that fit under the wide gender-queer or transgender umbrella have existed for a millennia. A 5000-year-old biologically male skeleton found dressed in feminine clothing surrounded by traditionally feminine grave-goods in Prague, the 4000 year history of Eunuchs (sometimes referred to as a third gender according to Wang Yude) in China, and the accounts of Roman Emperor Elagabalus (d.222 AD) preferring to be called a lady rather than a lord are just a few examples. Roman writer Ovid approaches this topic of the fluidity of human gender in book 4 of his narrative poem the Metamorphoses. He attempts to explain the queer body, while also expressing views reflected in the archaic opinions of today’s politicians, which he does through the story-telling daughters of Minyas.

Following her sister’s stories, Alcithoë narrates the aftermath of the rape of Hermaphroditus, a ‘two-sexed’ figure portrayed in Greco-Roman art as a traditionally female figure with male genitals. While it’s not the first tale the daughters of Minyas share, Alcithoë's twisted tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (argued to date back to the 7th century BCE) is undoubtedly their most powerful tale of sexual fluidity. Hermaphroditus, the ‘softened and weakened’ (4.286) son of Venus and Mercury, is presented in the text as an atypical man even before his mythical transformation. The ‘andrygone son’ (4.388) is distanced from traditional Roman masculinity; he is, by name, an expression of the fluid dichotomy of his gender expression. Taking both his parents’ names, he is both man and woman following both the Greek and Roman tradition of honouring masculine and feminine family names through sons and daughters... His skin is the colour of ‘ivory’ (4.335) and ‘covered in blushes’ (4.354), his lack of sexual experience is greatly emphasised, all of which are attributes given by Ovid to women such as Daphne in the first book of the Metamorphoses (following the classical convention of pale women juxtaposing men with darker complexions seen in both vase painting and the work of Homer).

This aspect of the narrative gives the reader an insight into the perceptions of physical sex and gender expression in Rome under the age of Augustus as Hermaphroditus’ femininity, although clearly atypical, isn’t explicitly referred to negatively until he is physically ‘softened’ [mollescat] (4.386): it is his physical change of sex that makes him ‘odd’ to the Augustan reader, rather than his previous gender expression. As Tim Dean writes in his piece ‘Lacan and Queer Theory’, reproductive genital heterosexuality [within Roman works] represents a deviation from perversion. Simply, it is Hermaphroditus’ inherently queer form that pushes him further into the perversion Ovid deems worthy of criticism. This deviation from the sexual status quo following his rape by Salmacis, a hyperfeminine parody of an archetypal Roman woman, is what leads Hermaphroditus to lose both his masculinity and his humanity.

Referred to as semivir (4.386), he is quite literally a ‘half-man’, a term used by Ovid in a later work to refer to the centaur Chiron (Ov. Fast. 5.380), and Vergil to depict men that do not fit into the ideal of Roman masculinity (Verg. Aeneid. 4.215). Ovid’s use of the term semivir therefore shows that Hermaphroditus’ new ‘softened’ form threatens not only his masculinity, but also his humanity; Hermaphroditus’ gender-queer metamorphosis turns him into a monster.

I believe that it is possible to read into the character of Hermaphroditus as an ancient explanation for intersex individuals. Ovid’s uncertain narrative of ‘neutrumque et utrumque’ [neither and both] (4.379) tries to render the scientifically complex intersex body as intelligible, yet he only succeeds in presenting a figure that opens a further labyrinth of gender expression. The body of Hermaphroditus is a conundrum, ‘neither and both’ is broad, and allows for the assumption that both and neither are possibilities, further expanding out of the binary Ovid attempts to create. This doubtfulness reflects the period’s attitudes towards queer bodies, children who were deemed ‘ambiguous’ were often put to death. An example of this is a Sabine child reported by Livy to have been ‘flung into the sea’ (Livy 31.12.6). It is uncertainty that defines Hermaphroditus’ character. As Alcithoë finishes her story, Ovid does not grant the reader the knowledge of the sisters’ reactions as he does after the stories of Mars and Venus, and Leucothoë and Clytië, the sisters simply ‘[keep] at their weaving’ (4.388), there is no lesson learnt from the story; they end their discussion as they start it, weaving. This insight into ancient intersexuality does not impact their lives as there is no set conclusion to take from it; the lack of response from the book’s internal audience leaves the story of Hermaphroditus almost incomplete.

I read Alcithoë’s account of the androgynous Hermaphroditus as one that removes him from his humanity; the fluidity of both his sex and gender has emasculated him to the point of being a half-man. Consistently re-shaping and questioning preconceived notions, Ovid expresses the fluidity of both gender and sex through a faux-gynocentric sphere, thus allowing for these notions to be questioned in an environment in which no set response is necessary; the exploration of fluidity of gender for the sake of exploration.

This faux-gynocentric sphere manifested itself in Manchester in the beginning of October; ultimately in the interests of cisgender men, conservative politicians have dehumanised a group that takes up under 1% of the national population. Rishi Sunak, who had previously said that he would “stand up for our women” actively prevents the mobilisation of women against patriarchal power structures by mythologisation; a transgender person becomes a concept, rather than a human being with basic human needs. The fearmongering targeted at cisgender women of the second wave feminist movement serves to benefit men and men only.

“A man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense”

But what is common sense? It is the ideological framework in which we live; learned behaviour rather than logic. Sunak is utilising this so-called ‘common sense’ to legitimise an archaic ideological position that allows some people to become expendable. He is monstering gender-queer individuals by undermining their ability to self-identify; they are ‘neither and both’, they become anomalies within society.


Edited by Natalie Cheung, Essays Editor


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