The Myth of the Androgyne
An Excerpt from Plato’s Symposium
Original text translated by Benjamin Jowett
Edited, annotated, and compiled by Rhonda L. Kelley
Adapted by Alexanthros Vrykolakas
Anselm Feuerbach, The Symposium (Second Version), 1873. Alcibiades (far left, drunk); Pausanias (behind Agathon); Agathon (center); Socrates (bent head); Aristophanes (facing Socrates, black beard); Aristodemus (figure against wall behind Socrates).
We of Athens know the power of Athena Polias, Athena Parthenos, and Athena Promachos, she who protects our city, whom no man has had, and who is first on the field of battle. But elsewhere, it is not so. There are those who do not know her, or how in her wisdom, she has brought forth a group of humans unhindered by the distractions of the sex or romance. Some years ago, on my travels, I met a Spartan who had never worshiped Athena, and saw no reason to do so, for he considered her powers mere pale imitations of Ares. I told this man, ‘I will try to describe her power to you, and you shall teach the rest of the world what I am teaching you.’
“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of mankind and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally many in number; there was man and woman and neuter and too many others to count. The people were of two or more bodies, joined as I will describe. There was man-man, woman-woman, man-woman, man-neuter, and as many other combinations as might be imagined. The names of these combinations are now lost, but might be conceived as a combination of the component parts, such as is for the word ‘Androgynous’ formed of ‘ándras’ for male and ‘gynaíka’ for female. In the place of man-woman, the primeval person was round, their back and sides forming a circle; and they had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. They could walk upright as humans now do, backwards or forwards as they pleased, and they could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on their four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when they wanted to run fast. The others were as I have described them, but in infinite combinations and with bodily parts in proportion, because the stars of Uranus are infinite, and Prometheus sculpted us in the image of his father. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otus and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should the gods kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which humans offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.
At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said, ‘Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; humans shall continue to exist, but we will cut them in two, and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue to be insolent and will not be quiet, we will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’ He spoke and sent the others out to cut humans apart, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair. The gods dispersed over the world and set about in their work; and as the gods cut them one after another, they bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that man might contemplate the bisected side of themself; they would thus learn a lesson in humility. As the gods went about, doing their work, Wise Athena discovered some humans who bore no scars, yet had no second body. They were physically weaker than the others, having only one body, and had been forced to do more than their share of the work; they pleaded with her to shield them from the other gods, for fear that Zeus would cut them and they would have to live with only one leg, forever weaker and forced to do the labor of others. They promised to hold her and any who aided them above all the other gods and to make extra sacrifices to her, would she but aid them. And so, with aid from Artemis and Hestia, Athena hid them from the other’s sight. As the others split humans, Apollo was bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So, while he gave a turn to the face, he pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one opening at the center, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also molded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather; he left a few wrinkles, however, in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state.
When this was done, the gods feasted and celebrated their cleverness; while they were drinking, Artemis came to her brother, and bade him to make the same healing changes to the humans she hid that they might go out and be hidden from those who would do them harm. Apollo Iatromantis, the Healer-Prophet saw these humans had great potential for not only the crafts of Athena, but for the healing arts and for music, and did as his sister bade. However, he had drunk greatly from the jars Dionysos had brought forth, and in his inebriated state, remade the genitals of some of these humans, and some who had been split, in a manner unlike the true gender of the person, though the gods did not notice this at the time, drunk as they were on wine.
After the division, the many parts of the humans, each desiring their other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one. They were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; when one of the fractions died and the others survived, the survivors sought another mate, being the section of the missing gender, and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus for pity of them invented a new plan. Some that Apollo had reformed yearned stronger for their missing parts, and called out in an agony to the gods and so Zeus took pity and sent Apollo, aided by his child Asklepios and grandchildren Akeso and Aegle reunited the two bodies as one, but in the same form as the others so that they might still be of the same use; these sorts are, to this day, among us, outwardly of one body but still of the two or more genders they once had. After this was done, Zeus turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of two they might breed, and the race might continue and in new combinations of gender and whom we love; or otherwise they might at least be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life, so ancient is the desire for one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two or three, and healing the state of humans. Each of us who were separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a human being, and we are always looking for our other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; lesbians are of this sort; peoples who were originally of two or more parts are of the sort we call ‘amphiphylóphilos’, ‘lovers of both’, and they are especially favored by Eros.
Some indeed assert that these various ones I have described are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and beautiful, and have a strong countenance, and they embrace those which are suited to them when they desire for pleasure or for the creation of children. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, our teachers, our generals, and our great artisans which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saying. When they reach adulthood, they are equally involved in all manners expected of good citizens; but they are unsatisfied if they may not be allowed to live with one another and wed; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is suited to them. And when one of them meets with their other parts, the actual half of themself, whatever gender they be, they are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which many of them has towards the others does not always appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ Most would find it hard to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said, ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live, live a common life as if you were a single person, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two, I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’ With the exception of those I have described who were whole from their creation, there is not a one of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need, and the same goes should those two be three or more, even should they already be female and male or some other combination of genders in one body, for those are the ones who were of three or more parts originally. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. There was a time, I say, when we were one, but now because of the wickedness of mankind the gods have dispersed us, as the Arcadians were dispersed into villages by the Lacedaemonians. And if we are not obedient to the gods, there is a danger that we shall be split up again and go about like outline-carvings on the tombs, with our noses sawn down the middle, and may thus become like tokens of split dice. Wherefore let us exhort all men to piety, that we may avoid evil, and obtain the good, of which Eros is to us the lord and minister; and let no one oppose him. For if we are friends of the gods and at peace with them, we shall find our own true loves, which rarely happens in this world at present.
But they who were never a section of two, being already whole and needing no counterpart to fulfill either their physical or romantic needs, need only go about their lives in contentment to please the gods, pursuing their crafts and their logic in worship of Athena, or in the hunt or contemplation of prophecy for worship of the Twins of Leto, or in maintenance of their homes, to honor Hestia, all who once shielded them.”
This story comes from one of Plato’s more famous works, in which he recalls a discussion had between some of the more prominent men of the city of Athens, in a party which must have occurred c. 416 BCE. The various party attendees each take turns praising the Greek god Eros, personification of sexual and romantic love (the ancient Greeks considered them one and the same), describing various aspects of the god and tales of his powers (by one interpretation, he is the reason why 90% of Greek myth involves Zeus being incapable of keeping it in his pants).
This story, by the playwright Aristophanes (author of a number of plays, including Lysistrata) touches on subjects of sexuality and gender in a way that I find very interesting, and I decided there was something buried in the story that resonated with me as an aromantic asexual. I’ve pulled from a number of other Greek myths in this retelling, so this is not true to the original, but rather uses it as a jumping off point.
The translated version I drew from can be found here, and was compiled by Dr. Rhonda Kelly, who was gracious enough to allow me to use her work. I hope that all of you, especially my aspec friends, will enjoy this. –AGV
Compilation, Commentaries, and Translations:
Kelly, R. L. Symposium. South Georgia State College: Dr. Rhonda L. Kelly Faculty Page (http://faculty.sgc.edu/rkelley/SYMPOSIUM.pdf).
Bury, R. G. The Symposium of Plato. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons (1909). Perseus Digital Library.
Fowler, Harold N., trans. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1925). Perseus Digital Library.
Jowett, Benjamin, trans. The Symposium by Plato. (1871). Project Gutenberg.
Feuerbach, Anselm. The Symposium (Second Version). 1871–1874. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 12 Sept. 2014.