Thursday 26 October 2017

Intersex Awareness at a Crossroads

Despite the increased awareness of lgbt issues in society, and to some extent the understanding of the issues we face, there are still sections of our community who feel neglected and misunderstood. The intersex community is one such section.

On this Intersex Awareness Day I want to take a look at the early records of intersex people and the different attitudes they faced, and just how their physicality was explained in ancient Greece and Rome.

Like other attitudes towards sexuality intersex people were treated differently in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The Greek god Hermaphroditus was the son of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite and his name entered the English language as the name for intersex people – hermaphrodite.

The actual name Hermaphroditus doesn’t appear until the 4th century BC, and even then it is only a brief reference. The poem “The Characters”, which was probably written by Theophrastus, lists thirty character types, including “The Flatterer”, “The Gossip” and “The Oligarch”. One character, “The Superstitious Man”, is described as someone who does his best to avoid “unlucky” omens. He is the sort of person who would not walk under a ladder or do anything on Friday 13th. One action Theophrastus gives to this man is to crown a statute of Hermaphroditus with a myrtle wreath on specific days of the month.

The name and deity of Hermaphroditus was clearly well-known by Theophrastus’s time but it wasn’t until the 1st century BC when the poet Diodorus wrote down the origin of his name and parentage. Later still, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a legend telling how Hermaphroditus became intersex. There’s no real evidence that the legend was known before Ovid wrote it down so perhaps he made it up. This would make sense in view of the different attitude towards intersex people the Romans displayed.

Ovid’s legend begins with the Fountain of Salmacis. This fountain had a widely-known reputation as bestowing intersexuality and effeminacy on men who bathed there. The fountain was named after a nymph called Salmacis who, one day, fell in love with a gorgeous youth who had come to the waters. This youth, Hermaphroditus was not yet intersex but physically male. He refused Salmacis’s amorous advances and eventually the nymph gave up. Or so Hermaphroditus thought. Once he had disrobed and entered the fountain to bathe Salmacis rushed out of hiding and flung herself at him. As Hermaphroditus struggled to free himself Salmacis called to the gods to ensure that they are never parted. Their bodies merge, and Hermaphroditus steps from the waters to discover that he is now intersex with both male and female sexual organs. He calls upon his divine parents to bestow intersexuality upon all men who bathe at the fountain.

We need to distinguish here between Ovid’s attitude towards sexuality and the earlier Greek one. Ovid was Roman and by his time the Romans saw intersexuality as a bad omen. They saw any human born with physical differences as a corruption of nature. They were seen as punishment from the gods and their sacrifice was needed to appease them.

The earlier Greeks had a different attitude, even Hermaphroditus has a different name. The deity was originally known simply as Aphroditus. This deity was first worshipped on Cyprus before the 7th century BC. The cult may have been based on a much earlier Mother Goddess cult from the ancient Middle East. What distinguishes the early depiction of the Aphroditus from the later Hermaphroditus is that she was original regarded as a female goddess with male sexual organs. The more ancient the cult the more androgynous and non-binary the deity. Early creation myths in the area emphasise the fertility attributes of non-binary gods.

It was probably the Ancient Greeks who, after arriving on Cyprus, began to equate the Cyprian mother goddess with their own Aphrodite and gave her a male gender identity as Aphroditus, the male Aphrodite. So why and when did Aphroditus become Hermaphroditus? The clue is in the name.

“Herm” is a word deriving from the Greek word meaning “boundary”. The word then became attributed to stones placed at crossroads and road junctions which became sacred. In time these piles of stones became called herms and developed into quadrangular pillars with male head and sex organs carved onto them. These statues became the personification of a new deity that was named after the herm statues and presided over the safe passage of travellers – Hermes. After the cult of Aphroditus arrived in Greece from Cyprus his statues evolved into herm statues with male sex organs. The top half was usually depicted as an adult woman lifting her robe to reveal male sex organs. These herms of Aphroditus were possibly the origin of the name and deity Hermaphroditus, after which the legends of his parentage and origin developed.

From being the subject of Greek veneration to being the subject of Roman sacrifice intersex people have been seen as “other” beings. Well into modern times society has dealt with intersexuality as a physical condition to be “rectified” (i.e. surgically altered to comply with a binary gender identity).

With more people coming out as intersexual it is to be hoped that the ancient attitudes that being intersex as “other” disappears and that they can be accepted as no different, as human being, to anyone else. To use the analogy of the crossroads of the herm statues, are we approaching a crossroads on intersex acceptance? Will intersex awareness take the right road?

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