The Metamorphoses

Detail of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis from an engraving showing the stories in Book IV

Ovid’s collection of re-mythologized Greek and Roman stories within the pages of Metamorphoses is intensely rich with stories of transformations of all kinds. It should hardly come as a surprise then, that the collection includes stories of characters whose entire physical sex is transformed, for one reason or another. Within the Metamorphoses three stories stand out as being of particular interest when considering potentialities for trans interpretations. Within Books Four, Nine, and Twelve we read the accounts of Hermaphroditus, Iphis, and Caeneus. Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is assaulted by a nymph named Salmacis who wishes to be bound to him forever, resulting in a permanently intersexed nature. Then there is Iphis, who is born a girl but raised a boy, and after her engagement to the lovely Ianthe, the goddess Isis blesses Iphis by transforming her into a man so he can fulfill his matrimonial vows.

Lastly, Caeneus—born Caenis—who appears in Book Eight, but whose origin is only explained in the twelfth book. After Caenis’s rape at the hands of Neptune, or Poseidon in Greek mythology, she is granted a wish by the satisfied sea god and wishes to become a man. Neptune not only grants her this wish, but also gifts the new man with invulnerable skin, so he may never be stabbed. Fascinatingly, Caeneus goes on to become a hero, appearing in the account of the hunt for the Calydonian Boar, and plays a central role in the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs. One might even dare to call Caeneus and Iphis some of the earliest depictions of gender affirming transition.

Caeneus stands out from the other two accounts for a few reasons. First, he is positioned primarily as a hero and champion, a man to be emulated for his virtues and strengths. More interestingly, within the story itself, Caeneus gets to play a very active role and the details of his battle with the centaurs are recounted. During the battle one of the centaur warriors calls Caeneus out specifically, mocking him with words that ring familiar to most trans people today:

Shall I endure thee Caenis? Still to me
Thou art a woman, and shalt Caenis be.
Thou has forgotten thy births original,
And for what fact rewarded; by what fall
Advanced to this man-counterfeiting shape.
Think of thy birth; think of thy easy rape
Go, take a spindle and distaff; twine
The carded wool; and arms to men resign (225).

Caeneus’s response is, of course, to soundly defeat the centaur in battle, ultimately killing him and drawing the ire of the rest of the centaurs. However, their weapons fall uselessly against Caeneus’s invulnerable skin, and the centaurs are forced to admit that he’s more of a man than they are. Unable to defeat him in honorable combat, they resort to piling logs atop him until he cannot escape. From here, his fate is unclear. The weight of the logs upon him is said to be so much that it could send him straight to Tartarus, but a seer, Mopsus, claims to have seen a yellow-winged bird emerge from beneath the logs and take flight.

Sadly, both Greco-Roman misogynistic tendencies and 1630s English sexism from the translator George Sandys, who provided notes and references in the margins of the edition as well as following each chapter. Sandys’s notes limit positive depictions of male characters who are transformed into women, or “half women” in the case of intersex characters like Hermaphroditus. Intriguingly, this disdain towards women and femininity, does not seem to fully extend to people who are born female, but adopt masculinity. Sandys himself puts this transmisogynistic view quite plainly in his notes following the account of Iphis: “it is without example that a man at any time became a woman. From whence we may derive this moral, that as it is preposterous in Nature, which ever aims at perfection, when men degenerate into effeminacy; so contrarily commendable, when women aspire to manly wisdom and fortitude” (Sandys 184). Sandys likewise skips over Caenis/Caeneus’s origin and transition in his commentary, focusing on the actions of Caeneus in book 12

Despite this particular prejudice, Sandys’s scholarly notes offer a startling amount of enlightenment about the information about intersex and transgender individuals known to premodern readers. Accompanying his notes on the story of Iphis, Sandys lists a notable number of accounts from scholars, starting with the work of Pliny and working its way forward in time to the essays of Montaigne, each of which document the case of a woman who turned into a man. While the exact cause or nature of these transformations are the subject of medical journals and speculation, they shed a fascinating light on the historicity of trans-masculine identities and their recognition.

The notes alongside Sandys’s translation of Hermaphroditus offer another view. Sandys’s not only writes about the legal parameters imposed upon anyone born obviously intersex, but also lists a series of groups and cultures known for their “hermaphrodites”. One of these cultures, startlingly, is a group of natives in Florida, though Sandys’ notes about them are likely based on accounts written by other Europeans and, as such, horribly mischaracterize the roles of this third gender group. After some careful research, it is likely a safe assumption that the natives Sandys is referencing are the Timucua people, who lived in Northeast and North Central Florida, on the very land the University of Florida now stands on. Unfortunately, because of European colonization, the Timucuan people are no longer here to speak for themselves and there is little accurate documentation of their third gender—or two-spirit—cultural gender roles.Even filtered through the lens of colonial prejudice, these accounts and records leave themselves open to potential study and further discovery.