Ancient History & Civilisation

Early warning signs from the gods

In Italy and surrounding lands, long-ago folks saw warning signs all around them, so many that they had to be organized into supernatural categories: portents, ostents, prodigies, and monstra. (These terms, used by soothsayers and augurs, meant tokens, acts, or events that offered clues to important or calamitous future happenings, acts so rare or extraordinary as to inspire wonder; monstra could be abnormal or simply wondrous. From ostent, we now have ostentatious; from portent we derive portentous; from prodigywe get prodigious; and from monstra, we get monster.)

These occurrences were interpreted as signals that something was amiss between heaven and earth, that something bad was about to happen. What kinds of omens seemed truly ominous two thousand years ago? The report of a shower of frogs, for instance. The sight of a statue of Jupiter sweating blood. Even the infrequent birth of triplets was an occasion for mass hysteria.

But the prodigy that really set teeth to chattering was the terrible news that a hermaphrodite had turned up somewhere. Ancient Greeks and Romans had a morbid fear of hermaphrodites, who today might be called transsexuals. They looked at sexuality as a spectrum of actions, but gender identity was different. A hermaphrodite, whose body mingled masculine and feminine equipment, or who self-identified as another gender, disturbed the social fabric. Alternatively, the neither-nor aspect of a hermaphrodite might represent divine displeasure.


The symbol for hermaphrodite, a frightening phenomenon in ancient times. Although the Greeks had a demigod named Hermaphrodite, when one appeared in human form, panic broke out.

Once an individual had been reported to the authorities and declared an official prodigy, that prompted an emergency meeting of the Decemviri, a group of ten bigwigs from the Roman senate. These old boys consulted the Sybilline prophesies, a collection of ancient oracles. These readings told Romans exactly what to do when such an unlucky creature showed up.

How had this phobia arisen in the first place? Early in Greek history, a modest cult had arisen to honor a demi-god named Hermaphrodite. As the myth went, this fifteen-year-old son of Hermes and Aphrodite (Mercury and Venus, among the Romans) was being stalked by a comely nymph named Salmacis. Although the teenager rejected her advances, she managed to wrap herself around him while bathing and persuaded a more powerful deity to grant her wish—that they would become inseparable. As the poet Ovid later put it, “Their bodies became one, no longer two, nor could you say it was a boy or a girl. They seemed neither—or both.”

The cult was not widely popular, but small images of the demi-god Hermaphrodite could be found in many households.

On a scientific level, a hermaphrodite of long ago, also called an androgyne or “man-woman” by the Greeks and Romans, could represent one of two possibilities: a woman who at some point, often explosively, turned into a man; or a person who visibly exhibited male and female sexual characteristics at the same time. (The next entry relates the fascinating case study of such a person.)

A person—even a small child—identified as a hermaphrodite often became a scapegoat. For instance, during a period in Italy that saw a stinging shower of stones occur, along with lightning bolts that scorched peoples’ clothes and struck the temple of Jupiter in Rome, a twelve-year-old hermaphrodite was discovered in Umbria. At the urging of priests and soothsayers, he/she was put to death. At other times, the putative hermaphrodite might be banished, or cast adrift in the sea.

From the Roman point of view, it seemed important to document as well as punish hermaphrodites, who showed up regularly in ancient accounts. (Any survivors unhappy with their gender kept low profiles.).

By good fortune, two of the Sybilline oracular poems about hermaphrodite appeasement have survived to our day. Given wide distribution by the Decemviri senators, these poetic commands were directed at the general public. A couple of examples from the verses: (i) Give the goddess Persephone the most beautiful thing in the world; (2) Sacrifice a black ox to Hades; (3) Make prayers to Apollo and be sure that everyone wears a garland.

Dealing with the threat of a hermaphrodite two thousand years ago has parallels to our own planetary dilemmas, as the mournful last lines of the Sybilline poem make clear: “If you perform the prescribed rites, the calamity will still come, but it will not come in your lifetime.” We would call that the “pass the problem along to your grandkids” solution.

No matter how the gods were placated, or to what degree, a number of fearsome hermaphrodite sightings did occur in Rome during the imperial centuries. Emperor Claudius—perhaps because he himself had a stammer, a limp, and other physical disabilities—displayed a more enlightened attitude toward human oddities. On one occasion, a thirteen-year-old from a distinguished family who turned from a maiden into a male on her wedding day was brought before him. Instead of banishment or worse, Claudius chose to look at the prodigy as a gift from the gods. Just to be on the safe side, however, he quickly built an altar on Capitoline Hill to a special cult dedicated to Jupiter, Averter of Evil.

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