The Itch That Can’t Be Scratched: The Poor Hermaphrodite of the One-Sex Model

For my post I will be drawing from Ovid’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis as well as Thomas Laqueur’s chapter “Destiny Is Anatomy”, but in the name of good discussion I will naturally encourage you all to connect with the other texts we have read for this week as well. As I am interested in writing about pleasure for our final paper, the terrifyingly named “genital itch” that Laqueur mentions grabbed my attention (44). This itch can be described as a process of attraction, where the “sperma and catamenia generate heat in the genital regions, [and] both put pressure on the sexual organs that are prepared to respond to their stimuli…to spur coition” (44). In trying to track the buildup of sexual passion, Aristotle points to the buildup of fluids within the body that create this “itch”. He even goes so far as to say same sex relations existed because of the sheer power such an itch caused, where, naturally, “great pleasure is to be had from scratching” (44).

With this in mind, Ovid’s story becomes particularly interesting when one considers poor Hermaphroditus’ prayer to Mercurie and Venus. After emerging from the pool, he (she?) emerges a “toy of double shape” and “his limes were weakened so/ That out fro thence but halfe a man he was” (Book IV 468-9, 472-3). This does not seem a positive description, and despite his fusing with another person, he is described as less than what he was. His sexual organ is hinted at with “toy”, but in describing it as such the text seems to be demeaning its newfound “double shape”. So why then ask that “whoso commes within this Well may so be weakened there” and effectively “diminish” other men who take a swim (477)? It may be that he is cruel, but it also seems that this newly, doubly sexed individual has realized that he too will have an itch that cannot be scratched.

Before his change, there is quite a struggle between the Nymph and the beautiful boy. They “strive, struggle, wrest and writhe”, and although it may be unnecessary to say considering their nakedness, Laqueur notes that within the male-female sex act is a power struggle between the male and female seed  (Book IV 459) (Laqueur 40). The quarrel between the Nymph and the boy can be re-imagined as arousing, though for the Nymph this hardly needs to be said. When combined, this arousal, I think, remains. To be a hermaphrodite is not a condemnation in and of itself, but to exist as the only hermaphrodite is to condemn such a person to forever feel the itch. In order to satisfy both sexual organs, Hermaphroditus must ideally find another person possessing the same “double shape”. The story then seems to be trying to resolve the issue of satisfaction inherent in Hermaphroditus’ dilemma, which exists as the “desire/ The which their double shaped sonne had made” (479-80).

Perhaps, though, he merely recognizes a new emerging identity that cannot exist within his previous culture. Laqueur states that “Aristotle, who was immensely concerned about the sex of free men and women, recognized no sex among slaves” (54). Men were citizens, women were free, and slaves were slaves, beings who “are without sex because their gender does not matter politically” (54). I wonder then, if Hermaphroditus has a fear that is working in the other direction; would he/she, as a dual-sexed person, not fit into this model and therefore be genderless, even made a slave? His last act then, to create others like himself, also stands as the creation of a new society, where the traditional model is broken to accommodate the doubly-sexed. Are there other interpretations that you see within the story? How else do hermaphrodites create problems with the traditional “hammer and anvil” model of sexuality?

The Fifteen Books Of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. London: B.F., 2002. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

6 thoughts on “The Itch That Can’t Be Scratched: The Poor Hermaphrodite of the One-Sex Model

  1. This is an extension on Bob’s post of sorts. When Bob brings up the point of the “genital itch” of desire described by Laqueur, I agree that its implication is a strong buildup of sexual attraction, and one that derives great pleasure ONLY when it is scratched (44), i.e. only when one yields to their sexual desire and engages in an act can their “need” be satisfied. While I think Bob makes some excellent points on what this means for Hermaphroditus AFTER the fact, I think it would be in line from our class discussion today to see how this “itch” LEADS to the double shaped creation we find at the end of Ovid’s tale. Given my analysis, the role of desire beforehand could be used to strengthen Bob’s argument for why Hermaphroditus, with his/her unfortunate prayer, is eternally stuck with an itch that cannot be scratched. Therefore, I am not looking at the implications of desire on the new being, but how it is DUE to desire that the new being is punished the way he/she is.
    The tale of Hermaphroditus and Salamacis in itself could be a story about the uncontrollable itch of desire. First, there is the strange desire Hermaphroditus, the demi-god, has for himself, as he gazes into the haunted poole he arrives at in the tale’s start (IV.361). Then there is the central itch of the play, of the Nymph who haunts the pool, who “in beholding [Hermaphroditus] desired to have his companie” (IV. 384). Ovid then describes the Nymph viewing his naked body, the itch stirring more and more. Here, the sexual itch described in Laqueur is meticulously described through the expieriance of Salamacis. Upon seeing Hermaphroditus’ nudity, Salamcis is filled with “such strong pangs…that utterly she was astraught” (IV.428) until “most instantly” the pressures of desire are too much and she sexually attacks Hermaphroditus. The scene that is then outlined is that of a rape—she “embraces” him in her arms and claims him as her “prize” (IV.440). The desire is not felt by Hermaphroditus, who “strives, struggles, wrests, and writhes” (IV. 459) underneath the nymph’s grasps. Though no penetration is described, I think this sexual attack is in line with the idea that the genital itch has, in Bob’s own words, a “sheer power” that transcends all, gender included. A female is able to overcome and physically manhandle a demi-god because of her urges and her need to touch “his naked brest” (IV. 446) and “claspe him in on every side” (IV. 454). It is after this rape, this sexual, desire-based attack, that the transformation takes place.
    So, what is the point I’m trying to make, and how does it connect to Bob’s post? Bob points out that, with the combination of their being and the presence of two sexual organs, it is now doubly and perhaps impossibly difficult for Hermaphroditus to fulfill his/her sexual urges. While this fate can be seen as a “cruel” interpretation by the gods of a prayer, could it not also be seen as a reasonable punishment for the over ambitiousness of desire? Salmacis (a female, it is important to note) cannot control her urges; she is unable to control her itch and commits an act that is both sexual and violent. The attack was caused by desire—thus, to punish such an act, the gods play off of this “desire.” Now the nymph does not have the advantage of one sexual organ to please but instead now has two. The power caused by the desire is also negatively affected as well—“his limmes were weakened so” (IV. 474) so the power necessary to commit such an act can no longer be committed. Thus, as Bob points out, the end “[resolves] the issue of satisfaction inherent in Hermaphroditus’ dilemma, which exists as the “desire/ The which their double shaped sonne had made” (479-80) (Bob’s post), only I see it as a punishment for the over-ambitiousness of desire, especially from a female towards a male, rather than a resolution.

    Works Cited
    The Fifteen Books Of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. London: B.F., 2002. Print.
    Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

  2. Adam and Bob both discuss the unreachable genital itch that accompanies a transition from a being with one genital member to a being with both. The idea of the unreachable genital itch matches up with our discussion in class, where we identified Golding’s interpretation that the hermaphrodite status is a punishment that renders Hermphroditus as imperfect and “weakened” (Golding 472). The shift from two beings with two complimentary genitals to one being with double genitals is definitively negative. Golding’s language of the transformation is extremely interesting to me, and so I wanted to check and see if Ovid’s language is similarly negative. Golding’s discussion of Hermphroditus’ transformed genitals, “They were not any lenger two: but (as if it were) a toy/ of double shape. Ye could not say it was a perfect boy/ or a perfect wench” (Golding 467-70), is full of loaded language.
    The terms “toy” and “wench” are particularly interesting to me; did these words carry the same connotation to Golding as they do to us today? Are these terms even present in the original Latin, and how much of Golding’s text is based on Ovid’s actual Latin? Ovid’s corresponding Latin text is “nec duo sunt et forma duplex, nec femina dici
nec puer ut possit,” and my most literal translation is “neither are they two and a two-fold form, nor should it be said a woman, nor a boy.” Where did the words “toy” and “wench” come from, then? The “toy of double shape” is interesting, because in the Latin the “two” seems to refer to the two characters and the “two-fold form” to two separate forms, or bodies. The term “toy,” on the other hand, specifically conjures the concept of genitals. The shift from “forma duplex” to “two-fold toy” is a shift from the form (which I read as the general body) defining identity to the genitals defining identity. I may be reading too much into Golding’s interpretations of Ovid’s Latin, but this shift seems to signify shift in ideas of sex and gender with newfound emphasis on the importance of genital definition.
    My interpretation of the original Latin describes two bodies becoming one and does not specifically describe the welding of the genitals. This interpretation fits with later descriptions of Hermaphroditus’ transformation because Ovid does not mention genitals but describes Hermaphroditus’ limbs and voice both becoming less manly. The phrase “his limmes were weakened so” in Golding’s text corresponds to Ovid’s “mollitaque in illis membra,” or “and softened in these members.” The word “weakened” implies a lesser value than the Latin “mollio” which means simply “to soften.” This exact word substitution occurs a few lines later when Ovid describes that anyone who falls in the spring will become “tactis subito mollescat in undis,” or in my translation “suddenly softened having touched the water.” This line becomes to Golding “within this Well may be so weakened there.” This description of Hermaphroditus’ altered limbs suggests that Golding added the emphasis on genitalia, and that he also changed the softening of limbs (which suggests a transition to femininity) to a weakening of the limbs (which suggests imperfection or lesser ability). Golding makes this alteration despite the fact that “softened” and “weakened” have the same number of syllables for his meter and the fact that the plot includes a female physically overpowering a male. To Golding, becoming a hermaphrodite makes one both less perfect and physically weaker, while neither of these ideas is present in the original Latin.
    I am also interested in Golding’s use of the word “wench.” Ovid’s corresponding word “femina” is the perhaps the most neutral word for “female person” in the Latin language. The OED entries for “wench” around the mid 16th Century could refer to a maid, girl of the rustic or working class, or a wanton woman. There are several Latin words that would correspond more directly to “wench” and would fit the connotation of a lower class, less pure woman. The word wench does not contribute to a rhyme, so why did Golding deliberately change the connotation of the original Latin and chose this term? It seems that it casts a judgment on Salmacis that she is not simply a “nec femina” but now, in the 16th Century, becomes “nor a perfect wench.” Golding imagines Salmacis as a woman of lower economic status and imperfection, perhaps for her sexual transgression and perhaps for her wish to “never parted bee” from Hermaphroditus that leads to the transformation.
    While I do not have a specific argument in mind from these observations, it seems important to trace these connotations back to their original source, whether Golding in 1557 or Ovid in 8. One can observe Golding’s specific choices to emphasize the transformation of genitalia, his out-of-place equation of female-ness and weakness, and his added judgment on Salmacis as a less-than-ideal female. What do these deliberate choices say about 16th Century ideas of sex, gender, class, and sexuality?

    Work’s Cited

    The Fifteen Books Of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. London: B.F., 2002.

    Ovid. Metamorphoses. Hugo Magnus. Gotha (Germany). Friedr. Andr. Perthes. 1892. (retrieved from

    Oxfod English Dictionary, “wench”

  3. For the most part, I agree with what Bob has said, particularly on pleasure and desire. I am convinced by his argument regarding Hermaphroditus, his newly doubled genital itch, and his need for others like him in order to fully relieve it. I would thus like to take his argument and expand on it with regards to social structure and natural order. I argue that Hermaphroditus is motivated not only by physical pleasure, but also a desire to be included in the already-existing sexual hierarchy, which can then be related back to Bob’s main argument regarding pleasure.

    Bob notes that Hermaphroditus may fear being subject to slavery because he does not fit into the normative sexual model of his culture. Laqueur locates slaves at the bottom of a social hierarchy, below men and women of ancient Greece (54). Because they were so low in class, their sex did not matter, and any way in which they defied natural law posed no threat to social order. If hermaphrodites were perceived as a threat to this order, one solution would have been to reduce them to slavery, to place them in a social class below both men and women and thus render their sex insignificant; however, I argue there was an even simpler solution: to force them into the existing social structure. During the Middle Ages, hermaphrodites who adopted a single gender role and conformed to its social expectations posed no threat to social order and were thus tolerated (Nederman 502). Man’s natural role was to penetrate and woman’s was to be penetrated; those who violated these roles were labeled sick or unnatural (Laqueur 53). With his/her double-shaped genitalia, the hermaphrodite, equipped to either be penetrated by a man or to penetrate a woman, would be able to engage in some form of intercourse without violating natural law.

    By this solution, however, the hermaphrodite is effectively removed from society, pigeonholed into the category of male or female. Is there no room for the hermaphrodite in medieval culture? In the one-sex model, man and woman are defined not as two separate entities, but as two separate and opposite degrees of the same entity. The hermaphrodite seems to fit neatly into this biological model, as an entity of a degree somewhere between man and woman. Within the corresponding sexual model, there should also be a space for the hermaphrodite between man and woman, with a role involving both penetrating and being penetrated.

    I would imagine there are a number of hypothetical ways (involving some form of intercourse) for Hermaphroditus to satisfy both of his genital itches at the same time, short of creating a spring that produces others who share his/her genitalia. All these ways would, however, violate natural order in some manner: a woman whom Hermaphroditus penetrates would also have to penetrate him/her, and a man who penetrates Hermaphroditus would also have to be penetrated by him/her. The only acceptable form of intercourse that would relieve both itches simultaneously would be with another hermaphrodite. Aside from that, to adhere to the expectations of nature and society, Hermaphroditus would only be able to have intercourse with either a man or a woman at once, forced to adopt either one role or the other and unable to relieve both of his itches at once. Thus, I agree with Bob that Hermaphroditus is motivated to make his plea to the gods as a result of this genital itch, but I also see him as trying to create a space for the hermaphrodite within the natural order; he wants to satisfy his urges only in consonance with nature.

    Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

    Nederman, Cary J. and Jacqui True. “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6.4 (1996): 97-517. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

  4. I’d like to commend Bridget. Her post identifies excellent points about the meanings that can easily be lost in translation if we don’t note them. I’d like to respond to the question she posed, as well as some of the comments made by Bob and Adam.

    After first reading Bridget’s observation of the changed meanings in Golding’s Hermaphroditus and Salamacis, I first thought of Foucault and how this is a perfect example of sexuality represented in a discourse. Golding takes Ovid’s text from antiquity and projects his sixteenth century ideas of sexuality onto it. Whether or not he did this deliberately is hard to say; however, the shifting implications are extremely apparent. Golding did not escape the regulated influence of his culture. I think this is what makes reading Hermaphroditus’ transformation as a punishment more readily apparent, as Adam noted. If the story was meant to be a cruel lesson for men and women about crossing the boundaries of desire, I’d argue that is quite plausible. When Salamacis dares Hermaphroditus to “doe what thou canst thou shalt not scape[,]” she falls right in line with the powerful, but cruel, woman prototype (Golding IV.460). The only difference here is that she is the instigator, rather than the reciever; however, forceful and violent women are not completely foreign to us (The Nun of Watton). Another detail that signals that this was meant to be read negatively is the disappearance of Salamacis’ identity. Although it could be argued that Salamacis’ abrasive behavior is enough to prove a negative reading, it should be noted that the final sentence (in a sense) that she promises him is not all that violent. Hermaphroditus is not losing any limbs; he is not dying a violent, bloody death. She swears “that this same wilfull boy and I may never parted bee” (IV.461). In most other contexts, this would be considered romantic (stalking and all). The way Golding paints the picture makes Salamacis the neurotic stalker, and after this she is completely consumed by him. Of course, his limbs become weak and he becomes a lessened figure, which is probably meant to imply femininity. However, everything is described in terms of masculinity; even if it is how Hermaphroditus pales in comparison to the ideal male.

    What throws me from this extremely misogynistic reading is the fact that Hermaphroditus is able to build a community of his “weakened” kind at the end of the story. I really enjoyed Bob’s final thoughts on this piece because it complicates the narrative. If Hermaphroditus and Salamacis is read exculsively as a “look out! this is what could happen to you” narrative, then the opportunity is missed to have an excellent John Boswell or Carolyn Dinshaw moment. What is to keep intersex people from reaching back in time to touch this text as a way of forming a community across history? A punishment-oriented reading, although it is the most readily apparent, does not adequately allow for that, which is why I hesitate from it.

    The Fifteen Books Of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. London: B.F., 2002. Print.

  5. I will be extending from Bob and from Eleanor, and then going in a completely different direction.

    I agree with Eleanor that, in light of Bridget’s analysis of Golding’s translation, it seems what we have here is (mostly) an “extremely misogynistic reading” of Ovid’s story (Eleanor). I also agree that Bob’s complication (that is, the idea that the transformed Hermaphroditus’ last act is “to create others like himself,” which in turn “stands as the creation of a new society, where the traditional model is broken to accommodate the doubly-sexed”) is particularly fruitful (Bob). This complication, as Eleanor points out, allows intersex people today to reach back through history and “have an excellent John Boswell or Carolyn Dinshaw moment” (Eleanor).

    This is where I shamelessly break almost entirely from the previous discussion.

    Throughout my reading of Golding’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, our class discussions on the topic, and my attempted synthesis of everyone’s blog posts, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 musical comedy-drama film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (adapted from a 1998 musical of the same name).

    Initially, I wanted to connect Hedwig and Golding’s translation by arguing that Hedwig was one example of such a Boswell/Dinshaw-esque reaching-back. This is especially tempting because the film deals heavily with the transformation of bodies and identities (gender identities among them), as well as with the creation of community that breaks the traditional model to accommodate the queer. It’s also tempting because Hedwig really does do this sort of reaching back to find queer/trans*/intersex identity or narratives in the past.

    The trouble is that Hedwig, in talking about trans*/intersex identity, reaches right past Golding (and indeed right past Ovid) and lands on Plato—specifically, Aristophanes’ creation myth speech in Plato’s Symposium.

    Once I realized that there wasn’t really a way around this problem, I began to wonder why the problem exists in the first place. My first and most convincing conclusion is that queer people (like all people) are more likely to recognize themselves in a story (historical or otherwise) when the connections are obvious. So of course a 2001 film would reach back to Plato rather than Golding, even though Plato lived hundreds upon hundreds of years further back—the similarities in Plato are obvious and easy to use, whereas those in Golding require more work to uncover.

    Wikipedia article on the Symposium explains that Plato’s Aristophanes rationalizes love by saying that “in primal times people had doubled bodies, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. … There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the ‘androgynous,’ who was half male, half female. The males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. The creatures tried to scale the heights of heaven and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about blasting them to death with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half, in effect separating the two bodies. … Ever since that time, people run around saying they are looking for their other half because they are really trying to recover their primal nature. The women who were separated from women run after their own kind, thus creating lesbians,” the men after men, and so on. Though this myth is rather violent, one might still see how it is more appealing to queer people than Golding’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis: it is not misogynist and it does not frame queer/intersex status as lesser. It is also focused pretty recognizably on love and sexual orientation, whereas Golding is more difficult to pin down.

    All this is NOT to say that Hermaphroditus and Salmacis is worthless, or unworthy of sparking a Boswell/Dinshaw-esque moment. I think that Hermaphroditus and Salmacis absolutely is worthy of such treatment—I would love to see what sort of art might be produced with this as a sort of guiding force, the way that Plato was for Hedwig.

    I suppose my point is that whole process has helped me to understand why I hadn’t thought much about queer people and narratives in the medieval era before I took this class. After all, given the constant references to (especially male) homosexuality in ancient Greece (in history classes, art classes, films, etc.), I was fairly aware of ancient Greece in a queer timeline. I’ve also learned about Roman emperor Hadrian and his reputed lover Antinous, which (among other things) put ancient Rome on a queer timeline. …And so on and so forth—in nearly every era both before and after the medieval times, it’s been fairly easy to dig up something on the queer spectrum. And it seems to me that the medieval era has just as much source material for contemporary queer people to draw from (including Hermaphroditus and Salmacis)—it may just be less visible or obvious. This lack of obviousness leads to lack of use/references in contemporary culture, which in turn leads to the misconception that there’s nothing queer about the medieval era…when in fact, as we’ve seen throughout this class, there’s quite a lot.

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