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Intersexuality, between the divine and the human

Floor 2, Room 36, Showcase 36.1. A Cosmopolitan Worl. kantharos with hermaphroditic Eros
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As we have seen, Greek society established a strong male-female dichotomy. However, even in this society there were small interstices and areas of ambiguity in the spheres of sex and gender.

On this kantharos (a vessel in the form of a cup with a ritual function) we can see the representation of a person with both male and female sexual traits; what we would nowadays describe as an intersexual person. It is an image of the god of love, Eros, in the form called 'hermaphrodite', in reference to Hermaphroditus, a mythical figure, according to some sources the son of Aphrodite and Hermes, who presented features of both sexes.

The iconography of Hermaphroditus, which embodied the union between the feminine and the masculine, was associated in Antiquity with fertility and the protection of marriage. The first images of Hermaphroditus appeared in the 5th century BC, and this iconography became very popular in the Hellenistic period, the period to which this vase belongs. It was also during this period that gods such as Eros and Dionysus began to be represented with hermaphroditic features. All these representations depicted, not a monstrous or aberrant creature, but a powerful superior being with protective and propitiatory properties.

This does not mean, however, that real intersex people received this same kind of positive consideration. Outside of myth, the perception of people with intersex traits ranged from fascination to rejection. We have little information on intersex people in Greece, but in Rome we know, for example, that babies born with dual sexual traits were abandoned. The perception of intersexuality in classical Antiquity thus presented a marked duality between the appreciation of images and the rejection of real people.

Next QR. Floor 2, Room 36, Showcase 36.11 >