Sleeping Hermaphroditos, the enigmatic sculpture combining the essence of feminine and masculine forms in one figure, is a classic example of artistic collaborations across centuries. It is an Imperial Roman copy of an early Hellenistic creation by Polycles (155 BC). In 1620, Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpted a cushion for Hermaphroditos to recline on.
Hermaphroditos was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. He rejected the advances of nymph Salmacis. Unable to bear with this rejection, Salmacis requested Zeus to merge their two bodies. Out of this strange union this intriguing figure of Hermaphroditos originated.
A simulacrum could be drawn between Hermaphroditos and Ardhanariswara (half–man–woman). Ardhanariswara merges the feminine and masculine energies of Parvati and Shiva in a single form. Vedic literature also has references to Yama & Yami – Purusha (masculine) and Prakriti (feminine) energies united in a single figure.
Poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (5th April, 1837 – 10th April, 1909) dedicated the following eponymous poem to Hermaphroditus.
Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.
Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
With love like gold bound round about the head,
Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
Yet from them something like as fire is shed
That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
A pleasure–house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
And on the other a woman sat like sin.
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
Love turned himself and would not enter in.
Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night’s dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
To thee that art a thing of barren hours?
Yea, love, I see; it is not love but fear.
Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
Or wherefore should thy body’s blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never made a tear—
Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what swift wise
Beneath the woman’s and the water’s kiss
Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy’s breath softened into sighs;
But Love being blind, how should he know of this?