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An intersex manifesto: Naming the non-binary constructions of the ancient world

Chris Mowat

Newcastle University

In the modern Anglophone world, the term ‘hermaphrodite’ has long since been laid to rest in favour of more appropriate words (and phrases) to define those whose bodies do not conform biologically to our traditional notions of male and female. Yet it is still almost unanimously used within Classics and Ancient History to talk about these individuals in the ancient world.

Since the 1990’s, ‘intersexuality’ has been used to encapsulate the identity, as well as the medical condition, gaining traction both within the LGBT community and beyond. Alternatively, ‘Disorder (or Divergence) of Sex Development’ is sometimes utilised (for an analysis of terminology within queer and intersex activism, see Reis 2007). In this paper, I argue that contemporary terminology can and should be applied, in this instance at least, to studies of the ancient world, from the discussions of Greek statues (such as the ‘sleeping hermaphrodite’ model, as outlined in Ajootian 1997) to those of Roman prodigy expiations (as outlined, for example, in Corbeill 2015).

One of the main reasons for using the term ‘hermaphrodite’ lies closely with one of the questions posed by the panel abstract, namely whether contemporary concepts can be usefully transposed into ancient constructions, or whether classicists should stick to the object language of the ancient terminology. Indeed, ἑρμαφρόδιτος/hermaphroditus and ἀνδρόγυνος/androgynus are terms found in the Greek and Latin texts respectively, but, as I argue in this paper, ‘hermaphrodite’ (or its counterpart ‘androgyne’) are not – and, importantly, should not be treated as – direct transpositions into Anglophone discourse of the ancient words. Through a closer look at both the ancient and modern etymologies and terminologies, in this paper I look at what we are really saying when we speak of ‘hermaphrodites’.

This paper also makes comparative use of feminist and queer theory, in particular drawing a parallel to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (originally published 1985), from which this paper’s own title is derived. Although this theory is grounded in socialist feminism of the 1980’s, there is mileage in a comparative look at the construction of Haraway’s cyborg and the construction of the classical hermaphrodite. Namely, this theoretical standpoint underscores the linguistic construction and the way the dual reality of the intersexed body, in both the Greco-Roman and the contemporary worlds, is caught between fact and fiction. This is also not unlike other approaches to gender and the body in both classical and sociological discussions (for example, Butler 1990 and 1993; Holmes 2012; Foxhall 2013).

A close look at ancient sources that discuss (and construct) intersexuality also reveals the cultural construction of the intersexed body, as we see a strong disparity between the ideas across the period. Diodorus Siculus (32.10-12), for example, constructs intersexuality as a medical condition – a view not unlike early modern European definitions of hermaphroditism (see Dreger 1998 and Long 2006), but very different from that of the Roman Republic, which saw them as dangerous portents to be expunged (Schultz 2010, Corbeill 2015). Particular attention is also paid to the Elder Pliny’s enigmatic mention that the intersex, once considered prodigia, are now considered deliciae (NH 7.34). This range of views across the ancient world serves to show that the “hermaphrodite” was not a singular construction, a “monster” in the ancient world. More nuanced terminology – if it is possible to call “intersexuality” such – is then necessary in order to create a clearer linguistic lens through which we can understand and contest the overlap of ancient views and modern constructions.

The conclusion of this paper is not to argue that “intersexuality” and its derivatives are perfect terminology – and their own shortcomings will be analysed – but to posit the idea that they can and do create a more nuanced understanding of non-binary bodies in the ancient world and thus, perhaps, go some way to strengthen, and perhaps even challenge our own ideas, constructions and assumptions of intersexuality, hermaphroditism and non-binary identities.

Session/Panel Title

[Tr]an[s]tiquity: Theorizing Gender Diversity in Ancient Contexts (organized by the Lambda Classical Caucus}

Session/Paper Number


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