Some Preliminary thoughts on the Hermaphrodite

In honor of the establishment of the lovely Digital Herm website this past week, I thought I might offer some of my initial thoughts on the interesting and complex relationship between Aphrodite and Hermes, with a focus on the destiny of their mythical progeny.

Although I personally do not do a lot of what one would call “priestessing” with Hermes, he is definitely a consort figure to me, and in many ways is probably the patron deity of our home, given that most of our income sources and recreational pursuits are in under the direct purview of his influence.  I frequently say I am not his priestess, I just do his Work.

Unlike Aphrodite’s relationship with Ares, we don’t seem to have a significant body of lore, cult or iconography that suggests in any depth what the dynamic between these two deities might have been.  We can fit the relationship between Aphrodite and Ares, or Adonis, or even Hephaestus into a fairly tidy little box (if that is something you want to do), but the relationship between Hermes and Aphrodite seems rather more complex and nuanced.  Perhaps this is because if we are trying to extrapolate anything about their relationship from their children, we are going down the wrong road.

The God/ess Hermaphroditus has come to be emblematic of the merging of what we might consider to be classically male and classically female elements into one new being combining both-an androgynous being.   That might suggest that Hermes and Aphrodite both contributed highly gendered traits to create a new being.  While certainly Aphrodite pretty much always appears as a high femme, Hermes isn’t the most stereotypically masculine kind of god.  Although he was certainly known for being, ahem, rather priapic, he appeared to be a queer god, enjoying the company of both men and women, and in terms of what we might stereotypically masculine qualities, it’s not like he was known for throwing his weight around, not like those other guys anyway.  He’s more about brains than brawn.  To me this suggests that Hermes is not quite the polar opposite of Aphrodite on the gender spectrum (if you buy that concept), although this notion is probably a pretty modern one anyway and culturally bounded.  I expect ancient cultures had a very different sense of gender, and their spectrum may have had wildly different details.  As such, I don’t really see Hermaphroditus as the result of the “union of opposites”, it is more like the refinement of an idea.

Trying to understand the nature of the child by explaining the parents isn’t really fair anyway, and denies the agency of the new being.  Hermaphroditus asks us to reject essence and origin, and it’s quite likely that the pairing of Aphrodite and Hermes has other lessons to teach us that may not be this one in any case. Historically, we can extrapolate that the story of the union of the deities itself was probably a retrofit to explain the prior existence of a male Aphrodite, Aphroditus, who presided over cross dressing festivals and who symbolized possibly fertility, but also quite likely lusty sex. She was a beautiful Goddess with a beard and penis, who like Aphrodite herself, emerged early from Cyprus in about the 4th century BCE and may have also had historical links with practices related to Innana. When the image of the God/ess became Aphroditus of the Herm embodied in a 4 sided pillar, an origin story emerged which became embedded in a literary and later an iconic and visual tradition.

But magical stories take on a life of their own, and through the ages they themselves generate all sorts of teaching.  Thus, the idea of the Hermaphrodite as the “union of gendered opposites” has become a very important notion magically, certainly in the context of alchemy, in some forms of modern sex magic and also in ceremonial magic, which suggests that we think about the nature of the forces being combined and /or overcome.  This is going to be a very simplistic overview, but in the alchemical symbolism of the Hierosgamos, conjunction, sacred union or chemical marriage, we see the union of the gendered polar opposites (a concept with which I am in no way comfortable) as a symbol of synthesis and potentially of the non dual.  The Hermaphrodite as symbolized in the alchemical literature of the early modern period  then evolves into the idea of an inner unity that one must achieve so that one is no longer associated with, or bound up in a specific gendered identity.  In this case, the union of opposites becomes an entirely undifferentiated new being, not restricted by gender or physical sex.  Although this union may be represented by a child, it is also represented not by a third, but a one. Obviously this is a very short, completely oversimplified summary of this symbol set and warrants a much longer discussion which would address theories of physical and spiritual alchemy and how they develop when incorporated into the modern occult movement and get all Jungified.  Maybe I will put that on my to do list.

But the Classical God/ess Hermaphroditus, in my view, has a more social function that becomes more articulated and evident  as he/she emerges into a mythic and literary tradition. She/he is not about achieving the non dual in a contemplative sense in quite the same way, she/he also represents social agitation, and urges us to change our expectations of what is right, “normal”, or beautiful. Hermaphroditus allows us to confront other ways of being, other ways of attracting and being attracted, and the cultural challenge to the gender binary.  One represents the inner process, and the other is the outward social manifestation of the same struggle.  Both I believe to be useful projects, but I approach the first with a particular caveat: In my much younger days I found the idea of the integration and union of opposites within oneself to be a compelling idea.  But now I realize that this idea itself may well be a trap. It reinforces ideas of essentialized gender polarities and traits even as we are directed to reject them. Wouldn’t it be easier and more liberating not to buy into them in the first place?



On Aphrodite and War

In the past several years a number of significant academic works on Aphrodite have emerged which shed a great deal of light on the ways she was and was not worshiped in the ancient world. Some of these revelations, such as the recent thesis that the idea of sacred prostitution in the ancient world has been greatly overstated and/or misunderstood, may shift or impact the ways in which some people today direct their Aphrodite devotions.  As far as I’m concerned, there is a new Aphrodite for each era, and this means what she stands for and how people work with her in their own lives is going to change.  For me, if there are relevant and useful transmutations of her impact in the modern world, then what would be the point of abandoning that current because it was not “authentically” done in the ancient world? The authentic Aphrodite is the one you know.

But what I do quite enjoy about digging into recent scholarship about the ancient Gods is that good scholarship into ancient minds and discourses can bring about such great and truly unusual insight.  I know I am frequently inspired to make connections between different ideas and states in a way I might not have stumbled upon on my own.

One good example of how I have encountered this of late is a recent reconsideration of Aphrodite as a war goddess.  Of course we know our lady had quite the thing for Ares and that early iconography had her fitted out in battle gear.  But while in later literary depictions she was known to cause a fair share of trouble, such as that little incident with the golden apple and that Trojan war kerfuffle, in most of the Homerian texts, she is frequently told to get off the battlefield because war and battle really isn’t her strong suit. So what happened?  Was she a war deity earlier imported from the Near East and then patterns of worship changed over time as she became more associated with romantic and sexual love?  And what about Ares?  Most interpretations of that relationship are again drawn from more literary rather than cultic interpretations that assume the nature of the attraction was situated in their opposite nature, and the tensions between love and war.

But while opposites do sometimes attract, there may be more to the story than this. Monica Cyrino in her Aphrodite from the Routledge series Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World (2010) suggests that Aphrodite’s association with war may have been as a result of her domain over mixis, or the passionate mingling of bodies. Mostly, this term referred to sex, but it can also refer to the coming together of bodies such as you might find in battle. Mixis or mingling, is derived from the term mignumi also meaning to mix, which can refer to either sex or war.

In Sparta, well known as a warrior focused culture, she was worshiped as Aphrodite Areia with reference to her consort Ares and also the general notion of bloodlust.  In Greece and Crete there were surprisingly late joint cults of Aphrodite and Ares, which suggest that this aspect of her nature was not only present in her earliest forms, it was something that continued to be relevant in her worship in the ancient world. Yet the nature of this dimension is not clear and does seem somewhat at odds with her general domain, certain to modern eyes. And although she was portrayed bearing arms, was she a full blown warrior? Good question! But here is one possible interpretation: War for many ancient peoples was a very intimate act.  It was often hand to hand combat, and the bodies of warriors were admired.  It may well be that Aphrodite’s role in war was to inspire the wild, uncontrolled passion in the combatant that would propel them onto the battlefield to engage in mixis with another warrior. Here we see the potential eroticization of war and combat, once again treading that line between sex and death.

I’m not suggesting that Aphrodite didn’t get out there on the field to kick some ass, maybe she did. But I admit that in my own work, I have enjoyed thinking about the different potential contexts for mixis (sports and competition may be another place where this happens) and also considering the different ways in which passion can be experienced and focused, sometimes for good, and sometimes not so good.  Heated love and heated conflict can sometimes come from the same space.  If you are turning up the passion in one area in your life, might you have unintended impacts in another?  Just something to think about.

Look at how beautiful everyone is!

Today’s offering will be a bit shorter, as I’ll simply share a practice that I often do.

One of the ways in which I am inspired by Aphrodite is to cultivate an awareness of beauty and aesthetics.  Now this doesn’t mean that I am only acknowledging or trying to recreate that which conforms to what we consider in the West to be traditional forms of beauty. Everything is beautiful and has a unique form that blesses the world.  Actions and motivations can be ugly, but forms are forms. I feel that when I train myself to appreciate the variety of forms in this world that contribute to the robustness and diversity of life on this planet that I will actually behave toward others in a kinder way that acknowledges their beauty and light. I’m not sure it always works, but it’s what I strive toward in any case.

So try this: Next time you are in a public place, in a restaurant, park, on a bus or plane, without being creepy, take a moment to look at as many people in your space as you can and notice one physically beautiful thing about them. It may be their eyes, their hair, their style.  Do this regardless of gender, age or any other factor.  I have noticed that since I started doing this, I am constantly delighted when I go out that I am surrounded by beautiful people.  Then I smile at having that realization, and smiles are contagious. That, to me, is doing her work in the world.

Beginning Right Relationship with Aphrodite

One time I attended an event where each of us was asked to introduce ourselves and then say who our patron deity was.  A couple of things stood out to me about this exercise:  One was that the room was generally pretty traditionally gendered in choice of deities, as far as I could observe.  The other was that most of the women seemed to be attracted to the edgy, “darker” (although I find that term problematic) Goddesses: Inanna, The Morrigan, Hecate.  When I said that Aphrodite was my Goddess there was an audible set of gasps in the room. I thought that was pretty funny, and also pretty telling.

Aphrodite has an interesting reputation as a Goddess that doesn’t go very deep. I suspect many people just don’t bother to explore the depths with her and as far as I’m concerned, that’s perfectly fine.  Not everyone needs to go down that path, and you can be called by or to a deity for all sorts of reasons.  In her initial guise she frequently (although not exclusively) appears to the lovelorn, or those seeking and celebrating pleasures of the senses. This tends to be the Aphrodite that we encounter in the literary and later artistic traditions, those that focus on her youthful beauty, her abilities to make matches and to create uncontrollable desire in human and deity alike.  Because this is the first entry point into her sphere of influence for many, this is a good starting place for discussion: When you are in need, how do you start building a relationship with a deity?

There are many aspects to Aphrodite’s cultus historically.  She had a great variety of epithets and was worshipped in many ways for many reasons.  Although I want to get into some of these things over time, I frequently see that many people initially approach Aphrodite with a true sense of urgency.  They are in crisis. They are hurting.  Intellectual approaches to her history and worship are great and I love them, but first ask yourself: Why are you here? We mostly come to her through our heart and body. The application of mind can eventually add new depth, but it isn’t where many people start.

Aphrodite inspires people who want to give or receive healing from the most sensitive of traumas, so that they can feel good about loving others and themselves wholly.  These needs are immediate and pressing.  She is there to answer the crisis and to show you that you are completely lovable.   She will smile at you, caress you, adorn you with flowers, and will tell you that you are shining and golden. These are her gifts. But you will also need to do the work.   You can’t get the blessings until you can come to fully see her in yourself and that means you need to have an active role in the relationship.  This might sound like a completely ridiculous feel good platitude, and of course it is on some level, but let’s look at this in the context of working with a deity and trying to make actual change happen.  How does that actually work?  How do you get results?  How can you take that relationship with you out into the world?

Most people I know begin a relationship with a deity by building an altar and working with images of the deity and things that represent her or him, stones, colors, images, candles, etc.    So when you build your altar, what do you do with it?  How does it serve you?  For me, my altar reminds me that I have to do the work, every time I look at it.  If you are petitioning the Goddess for something, for love, for sex, are you simply asking for her favor, or do you have a plan to get there?  When you ask for a gift from her, what do you give her in return?

Building an altar is in essence making a space for someone in your home.  You want it to be beautiful, comfortable, and you want to offer hospitality.  Much has been written about ways to make offerings to the Gods, and certainly Aphrodite has fine tastes, appreciating among other things honey, apples, jewels, and champagne (once she has one of my necklaces it is hard to get it back).   It seems only proper, if you are asking for a favor, to give something in return, so in thinking about the nature of your offerings remember that you are building a relationship here.  Do you like it when your friends come and dump all their problems on you and never reciprocate with a kind shoulder or warm heart? Do you become frustrated when your friends have the same behavioral patterns and issues that never seem to change, that never seem to get their real attention? As I’ve noted, people frequently come to Aphrodite in crisis, and because she IS Love and has her arms open wide, she will give and give, but is this the dynamic you want?  When you invite a deity into your life and make a space for her or him, you are generally inviting change. So what commitment can you make to change as your offering to the deity? What is your commitment to this new relationship?  What can you actually give back? If you are new to working with Aphrodite, may I suggest that you think about what your needs are with the relationship, and be very concrete about what you plan to do to bring about what it is you want.  State your committment, and make it sacred.