Ancient History & Civilisation

Herais, aka Diophantos:
Close-up of a gender change

These days, it’s thought that many of those accused of being hermaphroditic in ancient times suffered from a medical condition called hypospadias or male pseudo-hermaphroditism. Initially identified as females, their true gender was male, often coming to light at puberty. Greco-Roman literature is littered with tabloid-style reports of newly married women who suddenly developed male organs, to the dismay of their bridegrooms.

Here is the real-life story of Herais, as told by Greek historian Diodoros of Sicily, whose invaluable account relied more on medical and social details than superstition.

She was born the daughter of an Arab woman and a Macedonian military man named Diophantos; after her dad retired, the family settled in a Greek-founded town called Abae on the Arabian peninsula.

At that time, a weak king called Alexander Balas ran their part of the world; he’d been handed Arabia and the throne of Syria, but his political strings were pulled by Egypt and Rome. Like everyone else, Balas liked to drop by his favorite oracle from time to time. At the one in Cilicia he was told, “Beware of the place that bore the two-formed one.” Just like fortune cookies today, oracles specialized in enigmatic phraseology, so Balas simply stored the ominous message away for future reference.

Meanwhile, Herais grew into womanhood. Her father did the expected, giving her a dowry and her hand in marriage to a gent named Samiades. About a year after they wed, her husband took an extended journey, while Herais remained at home.

While her husband was away, Herais fell ill with a disease no one could diagnose. A painful tumor developed in her lower abdomen. The feverish young wife got sicker and sicker until the darn thing burst open—whereupon a fully formed set of male genitalia emerged from her body. Instantly Herais felt better, aside from being horrified at her gender transformation.

Her parents were equally dumbfounded. And frightened. After Herais recovered, she (or rather, he) began wearing her normal women’s clothing again and went on being a housewife, for lack of a better idea.

Her anxious parents worried about their daughter; they knew that surprises like this were invariably unwelcome. Prior to this development, what kind of conjugal relations had she and her husband had? What on earth would they do now? Could this marriage be saved?

When Samiades returned, the situation grew even more tense. Herais refused to have intercourse and avoided him like the plague; so did Herais’s father whenever Samiades tried to talk to him about the weird female troubles he was having with his wife.

The in-the-dark husband finally got so enraged that he sued his father-in-law, which meant that Herais had to appear in court as well. When the jury or judge convicted Herais of failing to meet her marital obligations, the dual-gender witness had had enough. Lifting her gown in full frontal nudity, Herais spoke directly to those present, demanding, “Which of you would compel a man to have sex with another man?”

This display brought down the house, and Herais and her father were acquitted. Samiades was staggered. (He would later find that he greatly missed her; eventually he killed himself, naming Herais as his heir.)

Meanwhile, due to the traumatic nature of her transformation, Herais’s groin was frankly a mess. Surgery was undertaken, and as author Diodoros reported, “The male organ had been concealed in an egg-shaped portion of the female organ. Since a membrane had abnormally encased the organ, an aperture had formed, through which bodily secretions were discharged. In consequence, they [the doctors] found it necessary to scarify the perforated area and induce cicatrization [scarring]. Having thus brought the male organ into decent shape, they gained credit for applying such treatment as the case allowed.”

Now that Herais was well and truly outed as a male, she began dressing as a man, officially changing her name to Diophantos, like her dad’s. Not only that, she decided to pursue a more active career by joining the army of King Alexander Balas as a cavalry officer.

Remember the ominous “fortune cookie” message that Balas received at the oracle? While in his service, the newly male Diophantos may have even witnessed Balas’s demise. He was assassinated by supposed friends in Abae, the town that had indeed seen the birth of a “two-formed one”: Herais.

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