François Joseph Navez: The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus

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The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829), oil painting by François-Joseph Navez

The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1829), oil on canvas painting by the Belgian neoclassical painter François-Joseph Navez (1787-1869) at Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium

In Greek mythology, the extremely handsome young boy Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes (Mercury) and Aphrodite (Venus), after being bored with his native caves of Mount Ida in Phrygia (in Turkey), traveled to Lycia and Caria. In the forests of Caria near Halicarnassus (now Bodrum in Turkey), the 15-year-old boy met the water nymph Salmacis in her fountain (pool/ pond). Salmacis became lustful and tried to seduce him. But he rejected advances.

After a while, when she was not seen around Hermaphroditus took off his cloths and entered the pool. But Salmacis was hiding behind a tree, watching the boy. She jumped into the pool, wrapped herself around him and tried to satisfy her lust. When he tried to free himself from her, she prayed to the gods that they should never be separated. The gods granted her wish, and their bodies metamorphosed into a single physique with the sex organs of both the male and female.

Horrified with what happened to him, Hermaphroditus prayed to his parents, Hermes (Roman god Mercury) and Aphrodite (Roman goddess Venus) that all those who used the pool (the Salmacis Fountain) be transformed to hermaphrodites. His wish too was granted.

There is a cult around the legend of Hermaphroditus, with variations as Aphroditos, an Aphrodite (Venus) having male organs also. The legends of Aphroditos/ Hermaphroditus can be traced back to the 7th century BC in art/ sculpture, literature, folklore, etc. And these legends have been a favorite subject of not only artists including sculptors and painters, but for all those in the fields of creative and artistic endeavors, for over 2500 years.

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