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  • Writer's pictureTOM HENDY


When you sit down and watch the fluffy and lighthearted 'Finding Nemo' you don't realise the complex balance of the clownfish 'harem' that is involved in the reproductive process of these jolly-named fish. I'm not expecting Disney to explore the gender bending nature of these fish but did you know the confusing life of a male clownfish?

All clownfish are born male. Each 'harem' of clownfish includes the larger female, a reproductive male and several non-reproductive males all living in harmony with the Anemones. Should anything happen to the female clownfish, the male clownfish undergoes a process called protandry whereby he becomes a she. The reproductive male replaces the female fish to accommodate the loss of the female making way for one of the other males to get activated as reproductive.

This is just one of many unusual gender-bending animal quirks but this post is focusing on what happens with Humans and is going to look at the representations of hermaphroditism and androgyny in the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic art.

I actually wrote this blog backwards. Unlike most posts, I started where I normally end up, with the literary context for the PRBs paintings. I re-discovered the tale that explains where the term hermaphroditism comes from and upon re-reading this I realised that Salmacis is one of the most powerful femme fatales that existed given she went beyond simple seduction and literally emasculated her target. I was then pleased to discover that Burne-Jones himself had represented this tale.

The Pre-Raphaelites were known for characterising gender within their paintings, but their aims for their representation shifted from the early polarised depictions of the weak and fragile beauties (Ophelia) and the chivalrous knights (The wedding Of Saint George And The Princess Sabra) to the damsels in distress (The Lady of Shalott) and in these latter stages of the movement the powerful women of mythologies (Pandora, Persephone). The Aesthetes namely Beardsley, the master of monochrome took this one stage further and really sought to portray the wicked power of the females in their representation of femme fatale creating strong images of Salome. We can even see that Beardsley chose to represent hermaphroditism within his more riske version "Mirror of Love" (above).


Although concerned with conventional gender ideals such as the female beauty and 'damsel in distress' and the male counterpart of the chivalrous hero, the figures of the Pre-Raphaelites were often depicted in unconventional ways. The idealised 'stunner' with her thick neck, long jaw, broad strong shoulders and masculine features was to be found in a number of Rossetti's muses namely Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris. We can see from the picture here of "Pandora" that Jane Morris has been displayed in such a way that only her voluminous hair, facial features and breasts belie her gender in an obviously feminine way. The strong muscly shoulders, thick neck and her tensed posture belong to the characteristics of the masculine, at the other end of the spectrum to the soft feminine facial features and long hair. Rossetti has employed the extremes of each gender to create a sense of power for the feminine. The PRBs who in the early days spent so long polarising these genders into very opposing archetypes were now combining these characteristics to create the new creatures that they became famed for. It is this interplay with the masculine and feminine which holds so much interest for me when looking at the portrayal of the femme fatale.


Known for his portrayal of androgynous figures, Solomon played with the boundaries of gender characteristics. As Mckenzie states, it was this trademark androgyny that he was to become known for ("By the mid 1860s, the homoerotic and androgynous figures are unmistakably his own" - Mckenzie).

Solomon - "The Sleepers and the One Who Watcheth"

The above painting is very serene. The soft palette and technique used gives a dream-like feeling and the figures certainly are true to the trademark Solomon androgyny. I have stared at this picture a long time and yet I still always question the hand placement. I just cannot figure out if there are too many hands, which hands belong to whom or if there is even someone below the picture reaching up to grab the red-head's chest. Artistically, it does add a certain mystique to the picture and a surreal element and it definitely caught my interest but honestly, i think it’s a little disturbing, there's something not quite right about an unknown hand.

His transgressive portrayals of his subjects may have stemmed from his own personal sexual orientation conflicting with the mores of society. Solomon despite being raised in a strictly religious household was a known homosexual and was convicted of buggery in 1873. Perhaps as an outlet for his feelings which due to the times, were clandestine, his art told the story of the subversive underworld of non-normative genders and sexualities often favouring depictions of same-sex love or homoeroticism. Despite sometimes choosing to starkly homoeroticise as in "Bacchus" (1866 - right), many of Solomon's characters were sexless, aimed to confound the viewer to assign or label the gender of the subjects, for this I believe Solomon must be applauded. He deconstructed gender, perhaps unknowingly, decades before the birth of postmodernism. as you can image, post-modernism wasn't really recognised in the Victorian era and he was chastised for this:

"These faces are without sex; they have brooded among ghosts of passions till they have become the ghosts of themselves. The energy of virtue or of sin has gone out of them and they hang in space, dry, rattling in the husks of desire."


This quote must have struck home for Solomon, since it is almost certainly an attack on his own personal life, conjuring images of eternal punishment of limbo ("they hang in space") for the sins they have enjoyed.


Although, I'm neither Solomon's greatest proponent or critic, I feel strongly that Solomon more than all the other Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes reflects and expresses his personal life throughout his life's work. Scanning through his images chronologically, you really do get the sense of his anguish and the rocky, tumultuous life that he endured from his piety, Moses in his Mother's Arms (1860) to his homoeroticism, Bacchus (1866) to the despair he felt towards the end of his life, Tormented Soul (1894). Something really profound transmits through to the viewer about his life experiences in this way, Solomon is able to combine the attributes of a great narrative teller and expressor within his paintings, choosing the narratives that inspire and evoke his emotions at the time. Bacchus placed homoerotic narrative within his art, placing his pieces within a political commentary, not just for his own personal aesthetic pleasure, as you can see from "Sappho" he made artistic representation of Lesbians in the period where homosexuality was criminalised under the Labouchere Amendment and Queen Victoria famously exclaimed "Women do not do such things" when an amendment to criminalise Lesbianism was placed before her (Sadly, I found out recently that this is a complete myth). For biographical information about his life, I'd recommend this.


So much of the Pre-raphaelite influence derives from another passion of mine, the greek mythologies. When browsing my repertoires of these old tales I came across one I had forgotten . The tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis.

Hermaphroditus was a beautiful young man who a nymph called Salmacis fell in love with. He rejected her advances and then believing himself alone again decided to go for a swim in a pool. Salmacis fell even more in love when she saw his naked body and wrapping her arms round him in the pool she prayed to the gods that they might never be parted. The gods granted her prayers by making them one composite being, both male and female -- hence our word hermaphrodite.

I think this is a wonderful tale. Ever more wonderfully recanted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem which is among my favourite poetry if not the favourite and I can't recommend it highly enough, some of the lines are so beautifully crafted:

HOW Salmacis with weak enfeebling streams

Softens the body, and unnerves the limbs,

And what the secret cause shall here be shown;

The cause is secret, but the effect is known.

The Naiads nurst an infant heretofore,

That Cytherea once to Hermes bore;

From both the illustrious authors of his race

The child was named; nor was it hard to trace

Both the bright parents through the infant's face;

When fifteen years, in Ida's cool retreat,

The boy had told, he left his native seat,

And sought fresh fountains in a foreign soil;

The pleasure lessened the attending toil.

With eager steps the Lycian fields he crossed,

And fields that border on the Lycian coast;

A River here he viewed so lovely bright,

It showed the bottom in a fairer light,

Nor kept a sand concealed from human sight.

The stream produced, nor slimy ooze, nor weeds,

Nor miry rushes nor the spiky reeds:

But dealt encircling moisture all around,

The fruitful banks with cheerful verdure crowned,

And kept the spring eternal on the ground

A nymph presides, nor practised in the chase,

Nor skilful at the bow, nor at the race;

Of all the blue-eyed daughters of the main.

The only stranger to Diana's train;

Her sisters, often, as 'tis said, would cry,

"Fie, Salmacis, what, always idle! Fie!

Or take thy quiver or thy arrows seize,

And mix the toils of hunting with thy ease."

But oft would bathe her in the crystal tide,

Oft with a comb her dewy locks divide;

Now in the limpid streams she viewed her face,

And drest her image in the floating glass:

On beds of leaves she now reposed her limbs,

Now gathered flowers that grew about her streams;

And then by chance was gathering, as she stood

To view the boy, and longed for what she viewed.

Fain would she meet the youth with hasty feet,

She fain would meet him, but refused to meet

Before her looks were set with nicest care,

And well deserved to be reputed fair.

"Bright youth," she cries, "whom all thy features prove

A God, and, if a God, the God of Love;

But if a mortal, blest thy nurse's breast,

Blest are thy parents, and thy sisters blest:

But, oh! how blest! how more than blest thy bride,

Allied in bliss, if any get allied:

If so, let mine the stolen enjoyment be;

If not, behold a willing bride to me."

The boy knew nought of love, and, touched with shame,

He strove, and blushed, but still the blush became;

In rising blushes still fresh beauties rose;

The sunny side of fruit such blushes shows,

And such the moon, when all her silver white

Turns in eclipses to a ruddy light.

The Nymph still begs, if not a nobler bliss,

A cold salute at least, a sister's kiss;

And now prepares to take the lovely boy

Between her arms. He, innocently coy,

Replies, "Oh leave me to myself alone,

You rude, uncivil nymph, or I'll begone."

"Fair stranger then," says she; "it shall be so";

And, for she feared his threats, she feigned to go;

But hid within a covert's neighboring green,

She kept him still in sight, herself unseen.

The boy now fancies all the danger o'er,

And innocently sports about the shore,

Playful and wanton to the stream he trips,

And dips his foot, and shivers as he dips,

The coolness pleases him, and with eager haste

His airy garments on the banks he cast;

His godlike features and his heavenly hue,

And all his beauties were exposed to view.

His naked limbs the nymph with rapture spies,

While hotter passions in her bosom rise,

Flush in her cheeks, and sparkle in her eyes.

She longs, she burns to clasp him in her arms,

And loves, and sighs, and kindles at his charms.

Now all undrest upon the banks he stood,

And clapt his sides and leapt into the flood:

His lovely limbs the silver waves divide,

His limbs appear more lovely through the tide;

As lilies shut within a crystal case,

Receive a glossy lustre from the glass.

"He's mine, he's all my own," the Naiad cries,

And flings off all, and after him she flies.

And now she fastens on him as he swims,

And holds him close, and wraps about his limbs.

The more the boy resisted and was coy,

The more she kissed and clipt the strippling boy.

So when the wriggling snake is hatched on high

In eagle's claws, and hisses in the sky,

Around the foe his twirling tail he flings,

And twists her legs, and writhes about her wings.

The restless boy still obstinately strove

To free himself and still refused her love.

Amidst his limbs she kept her limbs entwined,

"And why, coy youth," she cries, "why thus unkind!

Oh, may the Gods thus keep us ever joined!

Oh, may we never, never part again!"

So prayed the nymph, nor did she pray in vain:

For now she finds him, as his limbs she prest,

Grow nearer still, and nearer to her breast;

Till, piercing each the other's flesh, they run

Together, and incorporate in one:

Last in one face are both their faces joined,

As when the stock and grafter twig combined

Shoot up the same, and wear a common mind:

Both bodies in a single body mix,

A single body with a double sex.

The boy, thus lost in woman, now surveyed

The river's guilty stream, and thus he prayed.

(He prayed, but wondered at his softer tone,

Surprised to hear a voice but half his own.)

You parent gods, whose heavenly names I bear,

Hear your Hermaphrodite, and grant my prayer;

Oh, grant that--whom so'er these streams contain,

If man he entered, he may rise again

Supple, unsinewed, and but half a man!

The heavenly parents answered, from on high

Their two-shaped son, the double votary;

Then gave a secret virtue to the flood,

And tinged its source to make his wishes good.


There are several references in the Metamorphose poems which refer to the zoomorphic (attributing animalistic characteristics to humans) qualities of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus:

“So when the wriggling snake is hatched on high,

In Eagle’s claws, and hisses around the sky,

Around the foe his twirling tail he flings

And twists her legs and wittles about her wings"

Firstly, the fact that the eagle clearly a powerful bird of prey who catches and eats snakes is rendered incapacitated by this particular snake in this metaphor. This emphasises the unwitting strength and power of the snake i.e. Salmacis. The snake is so unassuming at first, so easily targeted by the brute force of the eagle which says a great deal about the usual interactions (or Ovid’s perceptions of the interactions) between male and female power and the dominance that men display toward women. Hinting perhaps that men both see and treat their female conquests as prey. In this tale, the depiction of the snake is in line with the characteristics of the femme fatale. Warnings to beware of the unknown female because she may be deceiving you and indeed Salmacis like the snake has placed herself in a position whereby Hermaphroditus (the eagle) is vulnerable and when the time comes the femme fatale “flings off all and after him she flies.” The snake itself is a motif of the femme fatale that sadly cannot be explored here, but the ideas of binding , writhing and suffocating links nicely to the Salmacis entangling herself irrevocably around Hermaphroditus. The final point to make about this passage is the use of gendered pronouns. The eagle is clearly distinguished as female and the snake male. This is an interesting choice since the snake in the metaphor clearly refers to Salmacis (female) and the eagle is Hermaphroditus (male prior to fusing). The author has clearly assigned these gendered pronoun to indicate the qualities and characteristics of their representative counterparts. Salmacis displaying the masculine being predatory, domineering and strong and Hermaphroditus is submissive, passive and the object of desire.


In the animal kingdom, Banana slugs are hermaphroditic. During copulation Banana Slugs can become stuck together. When this happens the acting female will bite off/sever the male’s genitals from the acting male Banana Slug. This banana slug will then continue to be able to mate but only as a female. Yikes. Remind me not to come back as a male Banana Slug in my next life.

The fear of a ‘literal emasculation’ by a femme fatale and by this I mean castration is something that has plagued men's minds since the Ancient Greeks. Fears of ‘Vagina Dentata’ have even been realised in the comedy horror film ‘Teeth’. Castration is the most extreme form of emasculation which places Salmacis’s breach as the most powerful femme fatale attack. The rape of Hermaphroditus shows the transition for Hermaphroditus as a potentially virile male into an epicene something demasculinised and by the standards of greek thinking – weakened. Hermaphroditus is consistently referred to as a boy and yet Salmacis views him sexually. “To view the boy, she longed for what she viewed” Hermaphroditus is depicted as naïve and is objectified in this statement. At the moment of the fusing the language becomes violent and explicit.

“For now she finds him, as his limbs prest,

Grow nearer still, and nearer to her breast

Till piercing each other’s flesh”

This violent action of piercing flesh represents the penetration of Hermaphroditus by Salmacis, forcing her way into him she becomes one with him. Hermaphroditus is victimised and helpless to prevent this invasion. In an unheard of version of events the woman has been the rapist and has extended her emasculation to actually deforming his own masculinity in a parallel to castration. The femme fatale archetype portrayed by Salmacis serves as the stronger warning to men of this creature who will rob them of their virility and manhood. Men are well-warned from this tale to beware of the femme fatale's deceptive ways and to fear for what may be at stake – their very gender. Applying this to their real lives in greek/victorian society, the suffocating controlling woman is emasculating and deceptive and must be prevented from truly rendering their masculine dominance destroyed.


Notably Salmacis is observed as unusual by her fellow nymphs and despite their pleading they are unable to convince her to join the hunt.

“A nymph presides, nor practised in the chase,

nor skilful at the bow, nor at the race;

of all the blue-eyed daughters of the main.

The only stranger to Diana’s train.”

Jan Van Eyck - "Hermaphroditus and Salmacis"

Salmacis is from the offset, distinguished as the other, defining the norms of her kind and inviting criticism from the other nymphs “Fie Salmacis, what, always idle! Fie!”. Though Salmacis is taunted for her idleness though Ovid explains the reason for her sloth. Salmacis is more concerned with historically, feminine pursuits. She is in the feminine mind.

“But oft would bathe her in the crystal tide,

Oft with a comb her dewy locks divide,

Now in the limpid streams she viewed her face,

And dressed her image in the floating glass:

On beds of leaves she now reposed her limbs,

Now gathered flowers that grew about her streams.”

Firstly, the references to the mirror fit nicely with my previous post “Mirror mirror on the wall”. The preening and checking to ensure she looks her best seems to be the trap for men. We can see parallels with Rossetti’s ‘Lady Lilith’ and the use of her beauty and femininity to ensnare victims. Ovid clearly markers Salmacis as the feminine in this passage. His juxtaposition between Salmacis and the other nymphs only serves to reinforce this. The flowers, the combing of her long locks all point to the feminine mind.

The metamorphoses more generally is thematically about the transition from one state to another. In Narcissus, from man to flower, Daphne from goddess to tree and in this tale from man to hermaphrodite. We can also see Salmacis transition from the feminine mind as in this passage to the masculine referring to the rape of Hermaphroditus. This relates strongly to the femme fatale. The exterior, the initial mind or perception is a feminine one, the beauty and aesthetic of the feminine to draw men in (e.g. the sirens) and yet the reveal of the femme fatale is aggressive, corruptive and fatal to men which displays a masculine mind, the femme fatale itself itself is linked to this idea of transference from feminine to masculine which is illustrated clearly in this tale.

The final point to make about this passage is the way in which Salmacis seems to objectify herself. She adorns herself, bathing and combing to make her more alluring. She then lays herself down on a platter of leaves and reposes. The language used here seems to suggest to suggest the objectification of herself as though she is laid as bait to tempt and ensnare men. She leaves this state of object to pursue Hermaphroditus. She becomes the subject at this time and Hermaphroditus as the prey is desired and therefore objectified in her eyes. Once again highlighting the metamorphoses from object to subject, subject to object.


Probably reading too much into it but I just can't help noticing that in all the paintings that depict the event where Salmacis and Hermaphroditus are fused as one, Hermaphroditus is unsteady on his feet, he's unbalanced. Now this could quite simply be because he is caught unawares but the positioning of the right leg is so similar to these pictures that it almost seems to be a motif for a characteristic of Hermaphroditus himself.

If we look at the actual construction of Hermaphroditus's name it is an amalgamation of both his father's name (Hermes) and his mother's (Aphrodite), his name is a combination of the male and the female. Perhaps something that even at birth foreshadows the merging with Salmacis.

Hermaphroditus goes adventuring perhaps unsatisfied with his life before and looking for change (little did he know he was in for a sex change). He remains unbalanced prior to the fusing with Salmacis. Hermaphroditus is 15 at the time of the event, this is the time that a boy would show sign of hermaphroditic qualities as he transitioned through puberty. We see the meek, unsure and unsteady poses of Hermaphroditus prior to the change and then the proud, assured and at ease displays of his hermaphroditic gender after the merging. This is very expressly conveyed in statues like the one to the left where the apparently female statue lifts the skirt to reveal the male genitalia underneath or by simply showing his relaxed demeanour by laying down in the famous statue by Borghese which is found in the Louvre.


Drifting back to the artworld and that of Burne-Jones, I was overjoyed to discover that he had depicted this tale beautifully, in a work that I was actually unaware of until I researched this post. I think this picture is mesmerising, what strikes me immediately is the palette of the painting. The delicate tones of the yellows, creams and browns contrasts starkly with the deep red of Salmacis's hair. A colour so singularly particular to the Pre-Raphaelites.

This picture reeks so wonderfully of Burne-Jones and illustrates his particular aesthetic clearly and once again is a supreme example of the brilliant skill of the pre-raphaelites to convey narrative beautifully.

Salmacis is woven around Hermaphroditus and despite being smaller in stature entagles herself with such force that we see a clear grip in her hands around Hermaphroditus's ribs. Hermaphroditus despite being literally built like a greek god seems oddly contorted in this picture, especially noted by the upturned placement of his hand which makes me feel a certain helplessness from him. His shoulder is jutting toward Salamacis as he turns from her, cowering. And yet, most importantly, he does not look away, one might imagine that someone repulsed by her may turn to face the other way, but he looks at her directly, pleading to be set free, helpless at her hand to escape. She gazes not romantically, but fervently, infatuated with her unreciprocated lover. Let's not forget that she has forced herself upon Hermaphroditus in what has been called the only rape by a nymph.

Burne-jones has strayed slightly from Ovid's tale to enable the viewer to understand the mythological context of this painting. Not longer is Salamacis springing upon Hermaphroditus in the spring, she is unleashed from the trunk of the tree itself. This signifies to the viewer her status as a nymph and is suggestive that this was a surprise attack upon Hermaphroditus since she has already wound herself around him before fully leaving the tree. Her connection with nature is clear, her hair is woven into the blossom of the tree and her lower legs are still within the confines of the tree.

One theme that has been mentioned above is the emasculation of Hermaphroditus in this tale, we know the fate that results from this picture. We know that the sequential picture would depict one figue not two. Burne-Jones has chosen to cleverly foreshadow this union by his use of colour, note the similarity in skin tone, in body position and the contact between these characters, they are already almost as one. Also, whether chosen to reflect the modesty of the Victorian era, I cannot help but feeling that the covering of Hermaphroditus's genitalia is suggestive of the upcoming emasculation, You will note that in every single depiction of this attack, Hermaphroditus's privates, remain private.

The femme fatale certainly strikes again, and with such fervor, the fear in Hermaphroditus eyes conveys the power of Salmacis. Though one may argue that Salmacis is no more after this fusing of two bodies, she has literally emasculated Hermaphroditus, robbed him of his masculinity, of his manhood and has forced herself in, penetrating his very being whilst he remains helpless in resisting. Burne-Jones, focuses on the beauty of these characters and yet leaves a haunting impression upon the viewer to anticipate the inevitable.


Let’s get a little high brow and bring it back to Plato, not an author, despite recommendation, I am familiar with. When looking into this idea of the Hermaphrodite or the adjoining of the two sexes, it appears that Plato had considered this as well in "The Symposium" under the speech of Aristophanes called The Origin of Love.

Brace yourselves for a bit o' multimedia (my first embedded video in my blog) I have to say, this video explains this story in a lovely way, the song is actually from a film called "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" which is actually about a transsexual woman who gets pissed off when her ex-lover steals her songs and makes money off them - worth a look.

Long ago, humans were composed of two people stuck back-to-back, with two faces and eight limbs. Male-male humans came from the Sun, female-female humans from the Earth and male-female humans from the Moon. The gods, out of jealousy and fear of their actions, split them in half. Now, throughout our lives, we are always trying to find our "other half", and sexual intercourse is the only means we have to put the two halves back together; this desire to be one person again is what we call "love". However, it is impossible to fully rejoin two people because it is our souls and not our bodies that most desire to be reunited. This is why we often say things like "I've found my other half" or "what till you meet my better half" or if you're feeling soppy "you complete me".

What a lovely tale


The political ramifications of an androgynous figure in art or the combined aspect of the male and female in turn, demanded the equality of women. In terms of the femme fatale, it certainly indicated their power and strength. By combining the features reflecting the feminine ideals of luminous beauty and seduction with the more typically physical masculine features of broad strength and power made the unmistakable conclusion that the femme fatale was ever more threatening to their counterparts. This idea of combination, to take the more powerful elements of each gendered characteristic, the beauty and the strength, fabricated an androgynous being which was more domineering that either sex. By uniting together these attributes the PRBs and Aesthetes created creatures of overwhelming seduction and power, not to be challenged by any man or woman. No longer do we conceive androgyny as a weakening of the sexes, as sexless or emasculation; we see the power of this combination, the best of both sexes and the terror that they can inflict..

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