The Hermaphrodite in Ovid

Ovidius, Metamorphoseon libri XV (traduction anonyme), Belgique, Flandre, XVe siècle ou le Mysterium Conjunctionis. Creative Commons Wikimedia

In many spiritual traditions we find images of gods and goddess in union. Jung calls these unity symbols the syzygy. They are images of wholeness appearing in art, religious arcana, dreams and imagination. In archetypal psychology they signify the union of opposites. In particular, they signify the union of the conscious and unconscious elements of the psyche, and thus are an image of the wholeness of the Self.

Carl Jung says, “A syzygy or coniunctio symbolizes the essence of wholeness (as also does the Platonic hermaphrodite, who later became the symbol of perfected wholeness in alchemical philosophy).” (CW 9i, para. 326)4

Hermaphroditos was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. With the birth of Hermaphroditos, we have the union of Hermes and Aphrodite. According to Ovid, Hermaphroditos becomes androgynous through his union with a water nymph named Salmacis. In the story Salmacis sees Hermaphroditus near a pond and falls in love with him. Hermaphroditus denies her love, and so she clings to him. As she clings, she prays to the Gods to be forever united with him. Then the two become one in the watery depths of the pond, and Hermaphroditos becomes a ‘creature of both sexes.’

What follows is the mythological story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis from Metamorphoses Book IV found in the Ovid Collection on the University of Virginia website.

 ‘Now you will hear where the pool of Salmacis got its bad reputation from, how its enervating waters weaken, and soften the limbs they touch. The cause is hidden, but the fountain’s effect is widely known. The Naiads nursed a child born of Hermes, and a goddess, Cytherean Aphrodite, in Mount Ida’s caves. His features were such that, in them, both mother and father could be seen: and from them he took his name, Hermaphroditus.

‘When he was fifteen years old, he left his native mountains and Ida, his nursery, delighted to wander in unknown lands, and gaze at unknown rivers, his enthusiasm making light of travel. He even reached the Lycian cities, and the Carians by Lycia. Here he saw a pool of water, clear to its very depths. There were no marsh reeds round it, no sterile sedge, no spikes of rushes: it is crystal liquid. The edges of the pool are bordered by fresh turf, and the grass is always green. A nymph lives there, but she is not skilled for the chase, or used to flexing the bow, or the effort of running, the only Naiad not known by swift-footed Diana.

‘Often, it’s said, her sisters would tell her “Salmacis, take up the hunting-spear or the painted quiver and vary your idleness with some hard work, hunting!”  But she takes up neither the hunting spear nor the painted quiver, and will not vary her idleness with the hardship of hunting. She only bathes her shapely limbs in the pool, often combs out her hair, with a comb that is made of boxwood from Cytorus, and looks in the water to see what suits it best. Then draped in a translucent robe, she lies down on the soft leaves, or in the soft grass. Often she gathers flowers. And she was also busy gathering them, then, when she saw the boy, and what she saw she longed to have.’

‘She did not go near him yet, though she was quick to go to him, waiting until she had calmed herself, checked her appearance, composed her expression, and merited being seen as beautiful. Then she began to say  “Youth, O most worthy to be thought a god, if you are a god, you must be Cupid, or, if you are mortal, whoever engendered you is blessed, and any brother of yours is happy, any sister fortunate, if you have sisters, and even the nurse who suckled you at her breast. But far beyond them, and far more blessed is she, if there is a she, promised to you, whom you think worthy of marriage.  If there is someone, let mine be a stolen pleasure, if not, I will be the one, and let us enter into marriage together.”

‘After this the naiad was silent. A red flush branded the boy’s face. He did not know what love was: though the blush was very becoming. Apples are tinged with this colour, hanging in a sunlit tree, or ivory painted with red, or the moon, eclipsed, blushing in her brightness, while the bronze shields clash, in vain, to rescue her. The nymph begged endlessly, at least a sister’s kiss, and, about to throw her arms round his ivory-white neck, he said “Stop this, or shall I go, and leave this place, and you?” Salmacis, afraid, turning away, pretended to go, saying, “I freely surrender this place to you, be my guest.” But she still looked back, and hid herself among bushes in the secluded woods, on her bended knees. But he, obviously at leisure, as if unobserved, walks here and there on the grass and playfully, at the end of his walk, dips his feet and ankles in the pool. Then, quickly captured by the coolness of the enticing water, he stripped the soft clothes from his slender body.

‘Then she was truly pleased. And Salmacis was inflamed with desire for his naked form. The nymph’s eyes blazed with passion, as when Phoebus’s likeness is reflected from a mirror, that opposes his brightest unclouded orb. She can scarcely wait, scarcely contain her delight, now longing to hold him, now unable to keep her love to herself. He, clapping his open palms to his side, dives into the pool, and leading with one arm and then the other, he gleams through the pure water, as if one sheathed an ivory statue, or bright lilies behind clear glass. “I have won, he is mine”, the naiad cries, and flinging aside all her garments, she throws herself into the midst of the water.

‘She held him to her, struggling, snatching kisses from the fight, putting her hands beneath him, touching his unwilling breast, overwhelming the youth from this side and that. At last, she entwines herself face to face with his beauty, like a snake, lifted by the king of birds and caught up into the air, as Hermaphroditus tries to slip away. Hanging there she twines round his head and feet and entangles his spreading wings in her coils. Or as ivy often interlaces tall tree trunks. Or as the cuttlefish holds the prey, it has surprised, underwater, wrapping its tentacles everywhere.

‘The descendant of Atlas holds out, denying the nymph’s wished-for pleasure: she hugs him, and clings, as though she is joined to his whole body. “It is right to struggle, perverse one,” she says, “but you will still not escape. Grant this, you gods, that no day comes to part me from him, or him from me.” Her prayer reached the gods. Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

‘When he saw now that the clear waters which he had penetrated as a man, had made him a creature of both sexes, and his limbs had been softened there, Hermaphroditus, stretching out his hands, said, but not in a man’s voice, “Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names: whoever comes to these fountains as a man, let him leave them half a man, and weaken suddenly at the touch of these waters!” Both his parents moved by this, granted the prayer of their twin-formed son, and contaminated the pool with a damaging drug.’


  1. Hermaphroditus and Salmacis from Metamorphoses Book IV found in the Ovid Collection
  2. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)

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