Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 17 – Salmacis and Hermaphroditus

François-Joseph Navez (1787–1869), The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829), oil on canvas, 197 x 147 cm, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Once the second daughter of Minyas has completed her story of Leucothoe and Clytie’s love for the Sun, the third daughter starts her speech.

As with the first daughter, she tantalises us by mentioning five stories which she will not tell, of:

  • Daphnis, who was turned to stone by a rival in love,
  • Sithon, whose sex was ambiguous, switching from man to woman and back,
  • Celmis, closest friend of the infant Jupiter, and now turned to stone,
  • the Curetes, who grew from a shower of rain,
  • Crocus and his lover Smilax, who were turned into the crocus flower and bindweed.

She follows that with one of Ovid’s most unusual stories. On the face of it, it is a strange myth which ‘explains’ how hermaphrodites might arise. Delve a bit deeper into its words and ideas, and Ovid shares some remarkably progressive insights about human sexuality.

He rounds off this section of the book by revealing the transformation which the daughters of Minyas underwent in retribution for their failure to worship Bacchus.

The Story

Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, hence his portmanteau name. Raised by Naiads on Mount Ida, when he was fifteen he left that area and roamed distant rivers, until he reached a pool. Living there was a nymph, Salmacis, who was unusual in not following Diana. Instead of hunting, she spent her time bathing and maintaining her beauty.

When Salmacis saw Hermaphroditus, she was filled with desire for him, and immediately proposed marriage. He blushed, and rejected her attempt to kiss him, so she hid in the undergrowth. When he started to bathe in the pool and undressed, her passion was inflamed. She stripped off, and plunged into the water, to kiss, caress, and fondle his body.

Entwining his body with hers, she struggled to embrace him against his will. She cried out to the gods, asking them to join the couple together forever:
Propitious deities accord her prayers:
the mingled bodies of the pair unite
and fashion in a single human form.
So one might see two branches underneath
a single rind uniting grow as one:
so, these two bodies in a firm embrace
no more are twain, but with a two-fold form
nor man nor woman may be called — Though both
in seeming they are neither one of twain.

Thus the two were transformed into a single body, which was both man and woman.

With the last of the daughters’ stories, they work on, scorning the festivities of Bacchus, and dishonouring the god. As the sounds of drums and cymbals grow loud, their weaving becomes overgrown with ivy, and the sisters themselves are transformed into bats:
Full of affright amid the smoking halls
the sisters vainly hide, and wheresoever
they deem security from flaming fires,
fearfully flit. And while they seek to hide,
a membrane stretches over every limb,
and light wings open from their slender arms.
In the weird darkness they are unaware
what measure wrought to change their wonted shape.
No plumous vans avail to lift their flight,
yet fair they balance on membraneous wing.
Whenever they would speak a tiny voice,
diminutive, apportioned to their size,
in squeaking note complains. Adread the light,
their haunts avoid by day the leafy woods,
for sombre attics, where secure they rest
till forth the dun obscure their wings may stretch
at hour of Vesper; — this accords their name.

The Paintings

Although the fate of the daughters of Minyas seems not to have inspired painters or their patrons, the opportunity to show a couple of beautiful young nudes has had lasting appeal.

Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis (1580-82), oil on canvas, 110 × 81 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Bartholomeus Spranger’s Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis (1580-82) shows Salmacis undressing, ready to jump in after the bathing Hermaphroditus, but closer examination reveals one very important difference from Ovid’s text: in his story, the poet has Salmacis strip off quickly in her haste to make love to the young man.

Spranger’s Salmacis is not making haste in the slightest, but performing a sensuous striptease. Her right hand reaches back to untie the lace on her sandal, and her left hand is drawing back her robe to reveal her body. She is attempting a smouldering seduction, trying to lure him to turn his head towards her, rather than going to grab him.

Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619) (attr), Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (date not known), oil on canvas, 114.3 x 151.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Two of the Carracci family are thought to have painted this story: this painting of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from around 1600 has been attributed to Ludovico Carracci, cousin of Annibale, and shows a more static scene which is perhaps more consistent with Ovid’s account.

Francesco Albani (1578–1660), Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (1630-40), oil on copper mounted on panel, 14 × 31 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In Francesco Albani’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (1630-40), the nymph has cast back her clothes and is on the point of launching into the water, in her pursuit of Hermaphroditus. The couple are set almost as far apart as his panoramic copper plate permits.

Louis Finson (1580/1585–1617), Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (c 1600), oil on panel, 50.5 × 71 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Louis Finson’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (c 1600), Salmacis has almost thrown her body onto the young man. Although their bodies are anatomically conventional, Finson has given them faces which already appear to be converging on a single ungendered form. His splash and ripple effects are particularly realistic too.

Jan Gossaert (1478–1532), The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis (c 1517), oil on panel, 32.8 × 21.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Gossaert’s The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis (c 1517) shows the couple further into their final battle, Salmacis with a steely, almost angry, look of determination. He also uses multiplex narrative, in showing the union of their bodies taking place on the bank at the far left: at that stage they appear like Siamese twins, with two legs and two heads.

François-Joseph Navez (1787–1869), The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829), oil on canvas, 197 x 147 cm, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

François-Joseph Navez prefers Salmacis in the role of seductress in his The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829). With both her arms clasped around the body of Hermaphroditus, the nymph is looking straight at his eyes. He is pushing her away with the heel of his right hand, and looking askance, avoiding any eye contact.

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (date not known), fresco medallion on ceiling, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Annibale Carracci’s fresco medallion on the ceiling of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome shows Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from about 1595, with the couple seen in a firm mutual embrace, and about to kiss. This deviates from Ovid’s account of the resistance of Hermaphroditus to the end, when their bodies became one.

Giovanni Carnovali (1804–1873), Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1856), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Giovanni Carnovali remains more true to the text in his Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1856): the nymph is intertwining her limbs around Hermaphroditus, who is still fighting her advances. Carnovali’s wonderful painterly style gives this a very dynamic feel which is in keeping with Ovid’s account, and like Finson he has already started to transform the face of Hermaphroditus.

These eight superb paintings each show an individual interpretation of this unusual myth. Although only Gossaert attempts an explicit depiction of the outcome of the transformation, on reflection I think that there is narrative strength in leaving the result to the imagination of the viewer.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.