Monday, 26 October 2020

The Two-Formed One

Can anyone ever be sure of the identity of the first real-life intersex individual in recorded history? Someone who wasn’t a legend, myth or deity? It may be possible by referring to a manuscript that was written over 2,000 years ago called “Bibliotheca Historia” by Diodorus Siculus (c.80 BC-c.20 BC). Diodorus is a reasonably reliable historian.

Diodorus writes an account of the reign of King Alexander I Balas of the Seleucid Empire, the region corresponding roughly to modern Iran, Iraq and Syria. After chronicling Balas’s life, reign and death Diodorus gives an anecdotal tale which may or may nor be true.

Alexander Balas gained his throne by overthrowing King Demetrius I Soter. Balas wasn’t a particularly competent ruler and he lost his throne to Demetrius’s son five years later. Diodorus writes that Balas consulted the oracle at Apollo’s sanctuary in Cicilia in southern Turkey. The oracle issued a grave warning – to beware of the place that bore the “two-formed one”. Balas was puzzled and didn’t understand what it meant (oracles were always a bit vague).

Balas had done little of significance during his reign, apart from making a marriage alliance with Egypt. It wasn’t long before his predecessor’s son, Demetrius II, fought to regain the throne. The big show-down came after Egypt switched sides to Demetrius. The decisive battle came in August 145 BC. Balas met Demetrius and the Egyptians near what is now called the Afrin River in northeast Syria. Balas’s forces were overwhelmed and he fled south to Abae, a city on the northern edge of the Syrian desert. There he was killed, possibly by some of his own generals who decided it was better to support Demetrius.

So, who was this “two-formed one” that the oracle had warned Balas about? The tale recounted by Diodorus Siculus names him as a soldier in Balas’s army called Diophantes. According to a study of ancient literature by Dr. Lutz Alexander Graumann, Diophantes is the first historical intersex person whose name is recorded, or at least Dr. Graumann believed he was.

Diophantes was raised as girl, the only child of another Diophantes and an Arabian mother. He was originally named Heraïs. Diophantes senior was Macedonian and lived in Abae, which appears to have had a large Greek military presence.

Diophantes senior also had a son, Diophantes junior, who died young, so Diophantes senior was able to provide a large dowry for his daughter Heraïs on her marriage to a man called Samiades. One year into the marriage Samiades had to go away on a journey.

Not long after he departed Heraïs became ill. A swelling developed on the bottom of the abdomen and she developed high fevers. The physicians diagnosed it as an ulcer on her uterus and treated as such.

A week later, when Heraïs was visiting her mother, the swelling burst and out of it emerged a full set of male genitalia. The mother and her servants tended Heraïs as best they could but all of them were too shocked and didn’t understand what was going on. They all agreed that no-one, including her physician, must know of it. Heraïs gradually recovered.

Eventually, Samiades returned home. Heraïs was too afraid to meet him and this made Samiades angry. Time and time again he demanded that his wife should meet him. By now Heraïs’s father had learnt the truth and he too was afraid to reveal the truth to Samiades. In the end Samiades took Diophantes senior to court, claiming he was deliberately preventing Heraïs from performing her lawful duties as a wife.

The jury agreed and Heraïs was summoned to the court. Feeling there was no other choice but to reveal the truth Heraïs undid her dress and revealed her new gender status to the whole court. At the same time she insisted that no man should cohabit with another man.

There was nothing Samiades or the court could do to force her into going back to her husband when she appeared to be a man. From then on Heraïs lived and dressed as a man and adopted the name of his father and dead brother, Diophantes. Physicians examined him and decided to surgically stabilize his genitals to prevent any internal pain.

Diophantes enrolled into the Greek army and fought at Abae where King Alexander I Balas was killed. Thus the oracle’s prophecy was fulfilled.

But is it a true story? Did Diophantes really? We’ll never know for sure. But is it possible for male genitalia to suddenly appear like that? There are known cases of intersex females not showing any visible signs of male genitalia. There are also cases of females whose male genitalia don’t become apparent until puberty. Some intersexuals enter puberty later than the usual age, and putting these all together we can understand how the female Heraïs became the intersex Diodorus.

The age at which a female could marry in ancient Greece was 12. In his written account Diodorus Siculus states that Diophantes senior provided a dowry as soon as Heraïs came of age. A year after the marriage her husband goes off on a journey and Heraïs undergoes her changes. This could have been during a late puberty, so Heraïs-Diophantes may have been 15 or 16. This is also a reasonable age for a Greek youth like Diophantes to join the army. So, on the medical evidence alone, it is very possible that the story could have been based on fact.

So, there we have it. Probably the earliest recorded name of an intersex person, the “two-formed one” mentioned by an oracle in a warning to King Alexander I Balas between 150 and 145 BC – Diophantes of Abae.

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