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.