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Visual representations of Hermaphroditus play with the ways in which the god's genders subvert and confuse generic expectations. Satyrs chasing this “nymph” get more than they bargain for. The statue we believe is a woman turns out to be more complicated. This paper will argue that Ovid's treatment of Hermaphroditus in the Metamorphoses reproduces this feature of visual representations of the god and thereby recreates in text the experience of viewing a statue or a painting of the god. While most other work on this passage has focused on its important role in Ovid's characterization of gender (Murgatroyd, Nugent, Robinson, Viarre), this paper will instead comment on the relationship between the Metamorphoses and visual arts.

Artistic representations of Hermaphroditus antedate literary descriptions and bloomed in the Hellenistic period (Ajootian 1981, 1997). The often copied “Sleeping Hermaphrodite” type encourages the viewer to circle the statue, first identifying it as woman, then as Hermaphrodite, and finally to reflect on how the artist first fooled him. Both sculptures and paintings depict scenes of satyrs sneaking up on what they believe is a sleeping nymph only to be comically threatened by the often erect penis of the god. These visual depictions constantly make use of generic types and play with the problems of recognition and reassessment.

Ovidian poetry likewise plays with recognition and reassessment. Barchiesi has outlined a ubiquitous feature of Ovid's writing: a “perpetual alternative” by which the reader can either be a duped but participatory reader “who is seized by the narrative unawares” or a “detached but self-conscious reader.” When Ovid first introduces Hermaphroditus, he introduces him as Mercurio puerum diva Cythereide natum (4.288). This line presents the reader with two paths: stop and decipher this mythological heritage and thereby discover the name Hermaphroditus buried within it (the detached reader's path), or assume this information is merely an insignificant bit of ancestral trivia and proceed without giving it full thought (the duped reader's path). Ovid's stroke of brilliance is to ensure that both types of reader are equally duped.

As the duped reader proceeds, he finds what appears to be an inversion of a typical Metamorphoses scene: nymph loves god, god flees nymph, nymph pursues. He may notice the god's effeminate appearance, but attribute this to the god's tender age. When the god is joined to Salmacis, saddled with his double form, and described as a semimas, the suspicion of this god's identity builds until finally he is named at 4.383. When Hermaphroditus cries nato date munera vestro,/ et pater et genetrix, amborum nomen habenti (4.384-5), the reader is reminded of the seemingly insignificant parental identification that began the story and encouraged to return and retrace his steps.

The detached reader, who works out Hermaphroditus' identity from Ovid's riddling parentage, is no less surprised, however. Once he recognizes the god, his knowledge of the visual informs his reading. He (thinks he) knows why the god is androgynous, why he is modest. Furthermore, this reader has seen paintings where a satyr finds Hermaphroditus by a pool. Even in this gender-inverted scenario, the reader anticipates the dismay Salmacis will feel when Hermaphroditus disrobes. Yet, she is actually excited: tum vero placuit, nudaeque cupidine formae/ Salmacis exarsit (4.345-6). When Hermaphroditus finally becomes hermaphrodite, the detached reader must realize he, and not Salmacis, has been duped. The androgyny and modesty were not yet marks of the dual-sexed god, but simply of a pubescent god.

Ovid's story, like artistic depictions of Hermaphroditus, demands that it be misread. Before Alcithoe tells the story, she passes in praeteritio stories of men turning to stone, becoming statues. Instead, she and Ovid transform statue into character and story, thereby transforming the experience of viewing into reading."


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