A small piece from the world of art.
Perhaps Hermaphroditus was doomed from the start. His name, a conflation of those of his parents Hermes and Aphrodite, may well have presaged his fate. The beautiful youth resisted the charms of the water nymph Salmacis who, after spying him bathing, had rushed into the water and clung to him. The naiad implored the gods to keep them forever joined. Her prayer was answered, and the two were melded into a single body with a double sex. Since the cult of the god-goddess gained popularity in 4th-century BC Greece, the idea of the hermaphrodite – always portrayed in Graeco-Roman art as a female with male genitalia – appears to have intrigued us. Horace Walpole’s aunt, Lady Townshend, even quipped that the hermaphrodite was ‘the only happy couple she ever saw’.