Weird History Why Were Hermaphrodite Statues So Popular In Ancient Rome?  

Rachel Souerbry
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Statues of sleeping hermaphrodites have been been found in several different countries, different cultures, and different time periods but many people have no idea where the trend began and why the trend became so popular

Hermaphrodites, or people born with both male and female genitalia, have existed since the start of the human race. They were harshly criticized in the past and are still misunderstood in certain places today. Some were even listed at birth along with animals that were born with deformities in official records, which suggested that they were less than human.

When you see how many of these lovely sensual sculptures were made throughout Greek and Roman history, it'd be easy to assume that they were commissioned out of a new-found tolerance for innate differences. Unfortunately, though, that was not the case. 

Given the necessity of understanding sexual orientation in today's society, it's interesting to uncover the complicated history behind these relaxed and reclining hermaphrodites. 

Hermaphroditus Was The Child Of Hermes And Aphrodite

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Photo: Francesco Bartolozzi/Wikimedia Commons

Born male, Hermaphroditus is the son of gods Hermes and Aphrodite. According to legend, a nymph named Salmakis falls in love with him and asks the gods to unite her and the object of her affection forever. Her request is granted and the gods merge Hermaphroditus and Salmakis into one being who is both man and woman.

Hermaphroditus is usually portrayed with female legs, breasts, flowing locks, and male genitals and some historians believe that he is the inspiration for many Greek and Roman sculptors. 

The Birth Of A Hermaphrodite Was Considered To Be A Bad Omen

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Photo: Gerard Vidal/Wikimedia Commons

According to advocacy group InterAct, about 2% of the global population is intersex - an attribute meaning that a person does not have typical male-female sex characteristics. This term has become one of the modern ways to describe hermaphrodites, including babies born with both male and female genitalia.

In ancient Roman times, intersex (or hermaphrodite) babies were seen as bad omens, divine punishments, or signs of corruption. They were often killed but some parents concealed their child's gender from state officials to protect them.

It's Possible That There Were Hundreds Of Sleeping Hermaphrodite Statues

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Photo: Rodney/Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, fear turned to fascination and hermaphrodites were regularly depicted in both sculpture and paintings. Because nine known copies of the "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" have survived to this day, experts believe there may have originally been hundreds in existence.

The Dual Sex Organs Were Meant To Surprise Art Purveyors

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Photo: Carole Raddato/Flickr

Most present day admirers expect the "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" to have an atypical anatomy. But originally, the unsuspecting art viewer was meant to approach the statue from behind, where the curves and shape suggest that the figure is a woman. When viewers moved to the front of the piece expecting to see a female's genitalia, they found a male's instead.

Indeed, much of the late Hellenistic Period art that featured hermaphrodites was meant to be shocking. The ancient Romans thought this unexpected surprise was quite funny and hermaphrodites were used as artistic devices for novelty and humor.