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The evolution of the Hermaphrodite in Greek culture

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  1. Introduction.
  2. The nature of the hermaphrodite.
  3. The Hermaphrodite in Greek Mythology.
    1. The role of the hermaphrodite in Greek mythology.
    2. Antagonism to the fusion of two separate sexual beings.
    3. The precedent for the appearance of androgynous archetypes in Eastern religions.
  4. Outside of the realm of myth and story.
    1. Greek fear of hermaphrodites.
    2. Human hermaphrodites separated from stories and legends.
    3. The Neolithic and Archaic prejudices.
  5. Rise of the Oikoumene.
    1. The reason for early fear or uneasiness about the physical hermaphrodite.
    2. The Hellenistic period.
    3. The new amiability between men and women.
  6. Conclusion.

The nature of the hermaphrodite was a source of conflicting emotions in the Classical World. On one hand, the androgynous being represented a kind of natural deformity and was treated with fear; on the other hand, the hermaphrodite was the embodiment of physical, emotional, and mental harmony. While this paradox has almost always existed in mythology, one side or the other tended to predominate during a given cultural atmosphere. It is not until the late Classical/early Hellenistic period that we see the hermaphrodite become the object of veneration, the new ideal of beauty for a bisexual culture. By studying the shifting attitudes of mythology, the rise of the oikoumene culture, and evolution of gender, I hope to show that the hermaphrodite became a symbol of Hellenistic identity, community, and changing erotic sensibilities, no longer a subject for fear. In a paper of this nature, definitions are vital for clarity; unfortunately, the Greek conception of hermaphrodite is much less clear than the modern medical sense. While in some cases a hermaphrodite refers to any creature born with male and female genitalia, the meaning was stretched to enclose any sort of dual-sexuality.

[...] As women became more visible in Greek society, their estrangement from men lessoned, and they once more became the subject of erotic desire. Although it was no longer vital for the preservation of the government, pederasty was still practiced, and as a result, the Hellenistic Greeks developed a system of erotic bisexuality. While this had existed in the Classical period, if not before, the Hellenistic bisexuality differed in the type of attraction. Previously, bisexuality referred to the practice of sexual relationships with both women and men, while erotic love was reserved mostly for men. [...]


[...] Hermaphroditism was a sign, often, of pre-civilized beings: Ekindu in the Gilgamesh Epic has the hair of a woman when he is wild, and the androgynous war goddesses were bloodthirsty, often depicted wearing a necklace of skulls. It is no surprise, then, that this fear of the androgyne would spill over into the writing of Hesiod.[7] While the Orphics were a relatively closed, mysterious cult, Plato still had enough knowledge of them to show their influence in the Symposium.[8] Both Aristophanes's and Diotema's discussion of the nature of art show a tendency to try and resolve the dualities of nature, without resorting to the Eastern, chaotic answer of androgyne. [...]


[...] Rise of the Oikoumene While superstition and philosophy helped contribute a great deal to the changing role of the hermaphrodite in Greek culture and myth, nothing did more to change that role than the sociopolitical changes that were occurring during the Hellenistic period. The decline of the polis and the rise of the cosmopolitan, Mediterranean oikoumene helped to bring about changes in the social structure that not only rendered the androgyne less frightening, but also attractive. Part of the reason for early fear or uneasiness about the physical hermaphrodite, in the Classical period especially, was the dire importance of gender roles in Greek society. [...]

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