Ovid's Hermaphroditus and the Mollis Male


Figures of intersexed individuals perhaps representing the minor Greek deity Hermaphroditus became, for reasons that are not entirely clear, strikingly popular in Roman sculpture and wall painting in the latter half of the first century CE. Depicting a fully bisexed human body, these figures have resulted in competing interpretations regarding their purpose, meaning, and effect. As it happens, we also have a text from the Augustan period that purports to explain not only the origin of the intersexed Hermaphroditus, but the production of future bisexed individuals, in Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 4. When discussing the sculptures and wall paintings of Hermaphroditus, as a result, scholars have been inevitably drawn to Ovid's narrative. The pull of Ovid is admittedly almost irresistible, and his reputation as a poet who challenges norms, conventions, and genres makes it attractive to see him as creating room for modern notions of gender fluidity. As Georgia Nugent argued more than thirty years ago, however, Ovid's narrative is, in curious ways, a reductive version of the myth, ‘a paradigmatic example of how what is sexually threatening may be textually recuperated and stabilized’. I wish to reanimate Nugent's arguments here, and to suggest that scholars’ regular invocation of Ovid when interpreting the products of Roman art is a mistake, for two reasons: first, the figure Ovid describes is, in fact, not typical of what we see in Roman sculptures and wall paintings; and second, Ovid presents a version of Hermaphroditus’ gender identity that is deliberately less challenging to the stability of sexual binarism—and to traditional gender roles—than are those material depictions. For those of us who wish to advocate for the rights of intersexed individuals, in other words, Ovid is the wrong champion.


Cambridge University Press

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Ramus-Critical Studies in Greek and Roman Literature



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