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Origin of the Word "Hermaphrodite"

Updated on May 22, 2012
Sculpture of Hermaphroditus
Sculpture of Hermaphroditus | Source

On Sexuality: A Comparison between Ancient Greek and Latin

We are all familiar with the word "hermaphrodite"--a human being with bold female and male body parts. However do many people know where the word comes from?

This word is derived from the Ancient Greek Ἑρμαφρόδιτος (pronounced her-ma-fro-dee-tos), who was the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. Once breaking apart the name of the child, one can see that it's name is taken from the parents', as Ovid, a Laitn poet, describes in his book Metamorphoses:

To Hermes, runs the tale, and Aphrodite
A boy was born whom in Mount Ida's cavesd
The Naiad's nurtered; in his face he showed
Father and mother and took his name from both. (Book 4, Lines 289-232)

Reading further into the story, the transformation of Hermaphroditus unfolds. When he was 15 years old, he started to wander around and found a crystal clear pool, in which lived a nymph, Salmacis. Once seeing Hermaphroditus, she falls deeply in love with him. After begging him constantly and confessing her love, he refuses. Salmacis then goes away and hides behind a bush while Hermaphroditus slowly disrobes and dives into the pool. Salmacis dives in after and clings onto Hermaphroditus, kissing and caressing him. Hermaphroditus tries to fight back but Salmacis prays that the gods never let them part. In return, the gods merge the two bodies together as one, and thus is the transformation of Hermaphroditus from a male to a "bi-sexed son", as Ovid describes him.

It is not a mystery that sexuality was far more open in Ancient Greek culture. There exists many pieces of art that illustrate homosexuality and the transformation of Hermaphroditus shows bisexuality. There are also many accounts in Ancient Greek mythology which describe men pursuing women, women pursuing men, women pursuing women, animals pursing women, etc.

The emergence of sexuality in Roman art--especially homosexuality--was only evident in copies of sculptures produced in Ancient Greece. The statue of Hermaphoditus at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland was made by a Roman artist of a Greek subject. However, seeing homosexuality in art and literature was not very common and if so, it was due to Ancient Greek influence.

The Latin word for the English word "hermaphrodite" is androgynus in the masculine form or androgynē in the feminine. Though the word is Latin, the two roots which make up this word are both from Greek origin. "Andro" comes from the Ancient Greek ἀνδρός (pronounced ahn-dros), the genitive case of the noun ἀνήρ (pronounced ah-ner), meaning "man". The second root, "gynus", is derived from the word γυνή (pronounced gü-neh) meaning "woman".

Rome was a very patriarchal society, meaning the men ruled, as opposed to a matriarchal society in which women are more dominant. Due to this, there are Latin words that signify being dominant/male--virīlis (virile), virīpotēns (almighty), māsculīnus (masculine)--or being submissive/feminine--effēmināre (to represent as a woman, to emasculate), fēmineus (effeminate), fēminīnus (feminine), mulier (woman, wife), muliercula (little or weak woman, sissy). However, there is not a Latin word that combines both male and female attributes.

Does this language difference mean that the Romans did not accept homosexuality? Or was it only tolerated due to the influence from Ancient Greek art and literature?

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    • yoginijoy profile image

      yoginijoy 5 years ago from Mid-Atlantic, USA

      Very interesting, this mystery of yours, does language influence the culture or vice versa? The Romans did have their pagan gods of desire though, I wonder if the words fell out of use over time? especially with the Vatican's influence once they gained prominence. Voting up and interesting! Keep on writing.

    • polyglossart profile image
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      polyglossart 5 years ago from Waldorf, Maryland

      I feel it's the culture influences the language. The Romans did have the pagan gods, which were based off of the Ancient Greek gods. For example, the god Apollo(n) has the same name in Greek and Roman mythology.

      The Romans did have deities for desire (Amor, Erotes, Venus), but unlike Greek mythology, Mercury and Venus (Roman counterparts of Hermes and Aphrodite) do not have a child.

    • profile image

      Maddy 4 years ago

      Uhhh...not good. Please take this down.

      XOXO, Maddie

    • profile image

      Vajra Wolf 23 months ago

      Maddie? if you're being intolerant it's disgusting. this is beautiful truth.

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