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Leah DeVun on Hermaphroditism

Leah DeVun is an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, where she teaches women's and gender history. She received her PhD from Columbia University in 2004. Her first book, “Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages,” was published by Columbia University Press in 2009. She has […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
We're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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Again, the name of the show is entitled opinions and that's our calling song by the band Glass Wave,
alerting you to the fact that the feast is about to begin.
Your host Robert Harrison and producer Dylan Montinari keep it coming.
Dylan does all the hard work.
I just do the talking.
[ Music ]
Body by the crystal pond shining like a marble god.
Your locks like summer flower beds.
My pores are burning fire red.
That's Echo speaking.
She's the nymph who falls in love with a beautiful young boy named Narcissus.
Big mistake girls.
You don't want to fall in love with someone who's already in love with himself.
And you, Narcissus, tear yourself away from your Facebook page just for a minute.
Listen to Echo when she says, "Turn your eyes and look at me.
I'll save you from its vanity.
Don't give in.
Don't be a fool.
I tell you, boy.
That water's cruel."
The cruel and vain waters of virtuality.
By the way, you should be very careful about spurning nymphs when they come out of the woods
with arms all ready to fling around your neck.
Bad things tend to happen to boys.
Just when they reject the offers of woodland nayads,
we'll be discussing another boy's rejection of a nayad coming up.
So stay tuned.
Our topic today is the Hermaphrodite.
Looks so good.
It looks so cool.
Your pleasure lives in truth.
The poor, but don't give in.
Don't be a fool.
I tell you, boy, that water's cruel."
The myth of echo and narcissists in the metamorphoses is vintage ovid.
Girl sees, boy, girl wants, boy.
Boy says no, big mistake.
That story has a lot in common with another famous tale in the metamorphoses
that of Salmises and Hermaphroditis.
Hermaphroditis is a son of Hermes and Aphrodite hence his name.
Salmises like echo is a woodland nymph.
These stories call out to one another.
Two beautiful boys, one fifteen, the other sixteen.
Two spur nayads, two limped pools, and two dubious outcomes.
In the case of Narcissus, one turns into two as Narcissus becomes both subject and object of his own desire.
In the case of Hermaphroditis, two turn into one as male and female merge
into a new intersect species.
Here is Avids' description of the transformation that takes place in Hermaphroditis
once Salmises gets a hold of him as he's swimming in a cool, translucent pool.
Hermaphroditis fought and struggled, but Salmises wrapped herself around him
as a serpent cut by an eagle, born aloft, in tangles, coils around head and talons,
or as ivy winds around great oaks, or an octopus extends its prey within its tentacles.
He refused her the joy she wanted most, but still she held him, body to body.
He would not escape her, fight as he may.
"Oh, grant me this," she cried in prayer to the gods,
"may no day ever come to separate us, and they heard her prayer,
and the two bodies seem to merge together one face, one form,
as when a twig is grafted onto parent's stalk, both knit mature together,
so these two joined in close embrace, no longer two beings,
and no longer man and woman, but neither, and yet both."
This neither yet both of the intersects person is a topic of our show today.
The guest who joins me in the studio is currently working on hermaphroditis
and from a number of perspectives that range from the clinical to the cultural.
Leah Devan is a professor of history and gender studies at Rutgers University,
and she's spending this academic year as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center,
writing her new book, which has its working title,
"Entersek's Science, Hermaphrodites, and the demands of difference."
We will be posting her academic profile on the entitled opinions website,
but meanwhile, I'm looking forward to hearing her thoughts about this neither yet both
of the intersects person, otherwise known as the Hermaphroditis.
Leah, thanks for joining us on titled opinions.
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
First question for you.
Do you like that orbit story in the metamorphosis?
I do. I do. Both of those stories are really such rich passages from Ovid.
There's so many temporal shifts and reversals and inversions,
and it's so dynamic, it's so open.
It gets interpreted in so many different ways in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and beyond.
I was noticing when I was rereading it that hermaphroditis, the character, he's the boy,
but his name already seems to announce the fact that he's going to undergo this metamorphosis because he combines his mother and his father within his own name.
Right. I mean, there's some foreshadowing there, I think, but also some hints at these other legends about his origins that he was born with aspects of both sexes,
hence the joy nature of his name.
And there are a couple points of the poem where it suggests that there's already something that's a little bit not quite male about hermaphroditis, even before he merges with psalmases in the pool.
Not only is there this idea that he's the parts of his parents reflected in him, the two sexes,
but also even before he becomes in feeble or weakened or made less male by joining, he's already taking on a kind of female role
in his, the way that he's pursued by the female nymph, the way he becomes the object of desire.
She's really the sexual aggressor, the one who makes all the moves, and he's kind of the blushing naive who spurns them much to his regret.
Yeah, he's the coy one, but his coyness is not just a ploy, he actually really does not want to have much to do with the sexual encounter.
Not unlike Narcissus, because Echo also comes and aggresses him, and he is likewise very resistant.
So it's true that there's some parallels there between those two stories that I don't quite understand, because I certainly don't think that narcissism and her maphroditis have some kind of covert thing in common.
No, but in both cases, the male is playing a role that we don't quite expect, and the female nymph is the one who loves a bit too much.
We might expect her to be the one who's punished, but instead it's the male who's punished, who becomes even more feminized, even more objectified by his transition.
It's interesting, this gets interpreted in ways that are almost diametric opposites in the Middle Ages. Some people write about it as the dangers of excessive desire.
Other people write about it as what happens when you have a hard heart when you can't open yourself up to love and see her maphroditis, as not some, and it's not a tale of caution in the sense that it's a bad thing to be a joined fusion of two sexes,
but that's an ideal of heterosexual love. The male and female come together so completely that they're united in a figure that goes beyond male and female.
In fact, there's a rather romantic or idealistic interpretation of the hermaphroditis story as the ideal of heterosexual sex, if I'm not love.
In so far, there's a transcending of the limited limits of gender, of one gender versus the other in a fusion, and that ideally this reflects what should happen or take place in that version.
However, hermaphroditis in this story is not at all happy about it because he experiences it as becoming half a man and therefore he prays to the gods that they will curse this fountain. Any man who would go swimming in this fountain from that point on would suffer the same fate.
It's so notable that in going through his own fate, that his response is to curse others to the same fate when they enter into the fountain.
It taps into so many different antique legends about hermaphroditis, but it also is part of what links hermaphroditis to a whole confluence of ideas about castration, about a feminacy, about homosexuality that end up being a part of all the kind of cultural connotations that go along with hermaphroditis.
And that's the term that they use all throughout the Middle Ages as well, that really colored the idea of hermaphroditis throughout all kinds of aspects of culture.
Well, of course, we've been talking so far about the myth of the hermaphroditis, and of course it's also a condition that you have studied quite in depth in your work on the intersex people and this phenomenon of intersex.
Can you tell us a little bit about what the clinical aspects of this is all about?
Sure, and I should say that my work spans a large time period, so I talk about Romans, of course, and ancient Greeks and also about the 21st century.
And when we're talking about the 21st century, we're using different terms, usually, although the terms are very much being contested, but often people use the term intersex or sometimes disorders of sex development, and I can talk about that more.
But what we're referring to is it's an umbrella term for a set of conditions in which a person's chromosomal, anatomic, or gonadal anatomy doesn't fit with our general definitions of male and female.
I think people look at sex as being sort of a straightforward thing, right? One is either male or female and got two categories.
But all of the sex markers that we generally look to, for instance, chromosomes, as I said, gonads, hormones, but also internal genitalia, external genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics.
In all of those, there's no dichotomous line, no clear boundary that we have that separates male from female.
Just in the category of chromosomes, for instance, which might seem the most straightforward one, xx, we think of as female and xy as male, but we know that there are all kinds of other configurations.
People can have xx, y, chromosomes, or xo, or they can even have mosaic genetics in which there's xx, chromosomes, and some other cells and xy and others.
So there's really great deal of variability and sex. Even if culturally, we might have more limited set of categories to confine those variations.
And also this has a lot of different consequences for the shapes of bodies themselves, which might not fit our assumptions about the consistency of all those sex markers. For instance, somebody might have external genitalia that we might think look more female typical, but internal genitalia that look more male typical, or they might have bodies that look somewhere between male and female. Like there might be some people who have what we might call a notably large clitoris, or who might have a lack of a vaginal orifice.
There's a lot of different conditions and a lot of different ways that those sex markers can match up or not match up. And so it makes it difficult to really generalize so much over 60 conditions and intersex, but they all fit in some ways that they confound stereotypical assumptions about what makes somebody male or female.
Is there a scientific criterion for distinguishing between male and female that is relatively stable? In other words, is it chromosomal?
So for example, I remember a few years ago there was some controversy surrounding an athlete in the Olympics who competed as a woman, but that there was suspicion that she was perhaps male. And I think that she went into examinations.
What do they look for in order ultimately to assign that difference?
I think you're thinking of Casterseminia, the South African runner, it actually wasn't the Olympics, but you're right that the Olympics too are a time in which sex categories become very important. If you want to enter a competition, right now we only have male and female as the groups that we allow people to compete as.
And Casterseminia's case, she ran the race exceptionally well and some of her competitors complained that she wasn't really a woman. And so at that point, I think the general public certainly in the media said, well, you know, scientists are going to run some tests, they often call them gender texts, tests, or sex tests, and they're going to figure out what's really going on there.
And I think that it's important to stress that the problem is that it's not so easy, even with all of our technological innovations and our highly technical examinations, that we really can't come to definitive decisions about what makes somebody male or female. Those are really cultural decisions that we decide on.
So were the competitors saying that she wasn't female because of the genitalia or some other aspects body shape? And what were the testers looking for?
Sure, we have to presume that they did not see her genitalia, but they were basing it on. More secondary sex characteristics, her physique, her appearance looked to them too male to be believably female.
And there have been a number of reports about what exactly a tester salemania was subjected to in these gender tests. By the way, these are supposed to be all completely confidential.
So it speaks to another problem with a medical approaches towards intersex that the kind of standards that we expect of disclosure and informed consent and things like that often get passed by the wayside because people find intersex to be so troubling in so many different ways that it sort of flies in the face of standard medical procedure.
In any case, it's generally assumed that she had a number of tests to check her chromosomes, to check her internal structures and external genitalia. And there's just now been some academic essays written speculating on what her particular condition might be. But that's not so important.
It's more that we see the failure of scientific methods to really ascertain in a totally objective way what somebody's true sex is. Because these are really questions that I think are not going to be answered by science in the way that people might expect them to be.
And we have to look for other places to figure out what we deem important in making those kinds of definitions of what makes us male and female.
So if science isn't going to determine, do you believe that it should be the individual's choice or sense of identity that should determine gender assignment or sex assignment?
I mean, I think the people who know best what their bodily shape should be are those who can identify their own gender identity. And I should mention that intersexes become incredibly controversial because for at least the last 50 years, people who see a person who's sex doesn't fit easily with male or female are considered a problem, particularly physicians, but also sometimes appearance and communities of people who have intersex conditions.
And so often medical interventions like hormonal interventions or surgery are done, especially when children are very young, even just three months of age, to make their bodies resemble more closely what we expect from male or female typical anatomy.
For instance, a surgeon might reduce the size of a clitoris to make it a little smaller or might move the urethra on a male penis to the tip rather than someplace else on the penis. And these are all thought to make a person's life easier in that they're going to be more socially legible as male or female.
I take it that you're against these procedures when it comes to infants who don't have the power of consent.
Yeah, I'm with the many bioethicists and clinicians and activists who think that those kinds of interventions which are irreversible should be delayed until a person is able to give informed consent to things that change the shape of their body in ways that they can't really understand.
And also sexual outcomes are a very poorly understood in intersex surgery. A clitoris that's been reduced in size might be one that's insensitive and it's hard for parents to make decisions about the sexual needs of their children.
And it makes it very difficult for people to come to decisions about what's going to be best for their kids as they age.
Well, I have two questions. One is about the frequency of the intersex issue. The other that we might start with is how many of the people who have intersex characteristics suffer from that condition.
Sure. And would have gladly been relieved of it in their infancy later when they do reach the age of consent.
Well, to take the frequency question first, there are a lot of debates about how frequent the conditions are because it's so difficult to even define what makes something an intersex condition.
If you look at something like the Corioliance website, they have come up with numbers in the range of one in a hundred and this is by including a number of conditions like Hypospatius, which is pretty common. But people have questions about which is...
What is Hypospatius? Oh, sure. This is when the Euretha exits the penis someplace other than the tip like on the shaft of the penis or at the scrotum.
And depending on how severe the particular Hypospatius is considered, it may or may not be considered intersex conditions. See, there's so much that's just open to interpretation.
And so depending on which particular conditions one considers intersex, you come up with different numbers. So it could be one in one hundred. There's an older article that says one in two thousand. Some people have disputed that even.
But I think what's really key is that it's not how frequent these intersex conditions occur. Although it's important to have these numbers because people who actually have the conditions are often eager to find out that there are many other people like them. It's not that they're alone in the world with this.
But the point is that even if it's very statistically rare, it's really significant because it's an ethical issue, but also it speaks to a way in which we really need to look deeply at what kind of ideas about masculinity and feminine.
And femininity really reside in our healthcare system and beyond. So that is a little bit about frequency. And in terms of how people suffer from these conditions, another problem with intersex is that clinical studies and long term outcomes, the evidence just really isn't there. I mean, there's a number of problems with getting this kind of evidence. But it means that doctors are often basing decisions on things other than the kind of standards of evidence based medicine.
So for instance, people are often lost in follow-up. So doctors don't know how happy they are with their surgeries. They don't know if they have inability to form relationships to have happy sex lives, a happy gender identity. And oftentimes because there's so many problems with disclosure, doctors don't want to contact people later on because they don't know if this person is out, is open about their intersex.
So this is made it very difficult to find out the kind of information that we really want to know about how effective these surgeries are. Yet physicians continue to, in some cases, make these decisions based on other things besides scientific evidence. For instance, doctors often say, you know, I use my gut feeling to decide if a patient is really male or really female. And if that's the case, it's really important to see that.
The case, it's really important for us to think about what makes up that gut feeling.
Yeah. There's a number of cases where there's no physiological symptoms of intersex, but there's psychological identifications with the other gender where I mean, I know a number of women who they wanted to be boys when they were girls.
And I know less vice versa, but that's just because it may be a lot more orientation. Yeah.
So, but it's one thing to have a psychological identification with the opposite sex and have no physical ambiguity about one's own sexual identity.
And it's another to have the physical things. So they actually do not converge because you can have, I would imagine, a number of intersex people who would have a psychological identification with the other gender identity.
Right. Well, I don't think we can assume that. I mean, that's certainly the case for some people. And hence the change over to terminology for disorders of sex development, which is become a controversial debate within the intersex community. And that speaks to just what you were talking about. Some people see themselves as not having a gender identity issue, which is, of course, very, very, very important.
So they see themselves as a very closely related but distinct situation from intersex itself. They see themselves as a woman or a man who just has a medical condition. So they feel more comfortable with something that speaks to disorders.
I think what you were referring to is a transgender identity and transgender identity also was complicated. It's not always just an absolute identification with the opposite sex. There's all kinds of spectrum within gender identification.
Lots of gender queer identities. But all of these speak to a similar overarching issue, which is many people see themselves as fitting somewhere between male and female, suggesting that there might be all kinds of sex categories that are beyond our standard binary sort of system.
And in that case, intersex becomes important because it suggests all kinds of things about what sex is there are, what how they're available, how people belong to them.
And also because we see a lot of variability and historical record, it suggests that in the future we might have different sorts of options and different configurations of sex.
Well, can I ask you a philosophical question that has to do with I'm remembering a program I saw years ago. It was a Star Trek Next Generation show where they go to a planet where there's a life form that is human, but it's non-gendered.
And that everyone is her maphroditic. And this is something that was either genetically induced or maybe it was engineered, I don't remember.
But the reigning ideology in that colony is that her maphroditism is the best condition that this is here happiness because one doesn't suffer from what people since Plato have been lamenting about our being thrown into gender.
Because being a male means that you're not female, they're incomplete, and vice versa. And therefore gender is something that is divided, that we are divided into genders.
The myth of the hermaphroditic has engendered nostalgia for a lost unity and a recovery of a lost unity.
So therefore some people have read the Albed myth as highly idealizing of these two originally united principles coming into one.
We can speak about union psychology, but the Anima and Anima later. But for you, the question is, do you...
Are you wistful about a planet in which all human beings would be intersect human beings? That there would no longer be these relatively sexual identities of male and female?
Well, I think those might be kind of different things. I'm definitely excited about further possibilities for the expression of gender identity and sex.
But you've said so many things that are so interesting to comment on. First of all, science fiction. I think science fiction really has been a place where people can just let their imaginations loose with what kind of social organization, what kind of sex, sexual variation there might be out there.
And Star Trek is overflowing with these kinds of products of imagination. But I would say that that might also be a very old sort of imagination.
For instance, in the Middle Ages, these sorts of books of marvels that imagined other places.
And one of the places that they often imagined was a land of the hermaphroditics that bear so many resemblances to what you're talking about.
A place where everybody was both male and female. And to them, it did express the text-do-expressive sort of wisfulness about it.
To them, it might free people from the kind of strictures that divided social labor, right?
And then doing one thing, women doing another thing. Here, people can engage in all kinds of different pursuits.
And for people, it seemed a bit of a utopian rather than a dystopian sort of place to think about.
What about you, Leah? What do you have? Are you happy to live in a world that is for the most part divided into two genders?
Oh, no. I'm interested in all kinds of new ways of thinking about gender and sex.
Although I can't say that I would subscribe completely to a world where everyone is intersexness, necessarily.
I think that my imagination might even be limited as to what all kinds of things might be possible in the future, which I look forward to.
That's where Aristotle's symposium proposed. It's not a bad solution. You have three different kinds of beings.
The male homosexual, the female, the lesbian, and then the intersex species.
Which is the heterosexual in that case, right? Which is a heterosexual exactly that that's divided into two.
And the funny thing, just as a parenthesis in that Star Trek episode, the irony of that episode, it was a Star Trek, the next generation, is that they had been receiving the producers a lot of flack for not ever having any show dealing with homosexual orientation, with all the parables and fables that they would.
And their answer to this was to create a show about a hermaphragitic species where there was a dissenter.
There were a group of dissenter minority dissenters in their midst that really wanted to have heterosexual sex rather than just be hermaphragitic.
And these people were persecuted and claimed that they was abnormal and they had to be reformed and corrected.
Which was their answer to this? Leave it to Star Trek to turn those complaints on their head.
But I don't know. I mean, when I think about Star Trek, I'm sure we don't want to get too far-field, but there's so many cases in which people are trapped in another's body, right?
That bring up all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship between the exterior and the interior. If your body changes, do you change?
Those can lead us to think about all kinds of questions that might not be specifically about intersex, but might be about orientation and gender identity too.
For instance, one of the reasons that I became interested in this project was I was already doing some work on alchemy, which I'm sure we'll talk about.
And I was already seeing some really striking images from hermaphragites that I had a lot of questions about.
And I already had some training in History of Gender and History of Medicine, but it was a time in which my partner decided to have what's called top surgery, which is transgender surgery.
And many people began to adopt a male pronoun for my partner. And this made me think a lot about what does it really mean to belong to a sex? And what does it mean to change that sex?
What does it mean to all the people around you and how they view you when something changes like your body and how it leads to changes in pronouns and changes in the identity of one's partner?
And I found it also complicated, but also evocative and connected to the very issues that I was thinking about in my scholarship.
Sure. There is a recurrent phenomenon, even at lessons as a condition of transformation where you feel very uneasy in your body. You don't know what's happening to it.
And you're right that many of the science fiction fantasies are about being inhabiting a body or a form which is not native to your psychology as such.
So can we turn to your historical work on her maphroditic phenomenon? For example, you mentioned alchemy, but before we talk about alchemy, you wrote a very interesting article in the Journal of the History of Ideas called Jesus as her maphroditis.
And the Jesus or maphroditis.
And you refer among other things to this book about the book of the Holy Trinity, I believe a 15th century book where now when we're talking about the nature of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, we're talking about someone who has merged not to sexes, but the human and the divine into one person.
So her maphroditis used here as an analogy for this conjunction of the divine and the human.
That's right. And absolutely in alchemy, all kinds of different metaphors were used to try to describe what are really kind of complicated, chemical interactions.
People are at pains to try to understand what's going on, so alchemists want to give them some ways to think about it.
And what they think they're dealing with is, remember, this isn't a world of atoms, but a world in which the very elements themselves are gendered, right? We've got earth and fire and water and air, and those are made up of qualities that people think of as masculine and feminine.
So when you're doing something like chemistry, and obviously it's more complicated than that, but when you're doing chemistry, you're working with things that have sexes.
So thinking about the sexes coming together is a good way to talk about changes and material, but it also fits into what we were just saying about Ovid, this ideal of the male and the female coming together in this transcendent sort of love.
That union was one that was really useful for medieval people to think about the way that humans and divinity came together with Jesus and the salvation.
So this turns out to be a very apt and very fruitful metaphor.
Well, certainly there's something about the figure of Jesus, which is highly feminine from the point of view of traditional patriarchal expectations of what it means to be the man.
And those were always there, but during the time period that this Jesus Hermaphrodite image comes up, it's a time of burgeoning mysticism in medieval Europe as well.
And a lot of these mystics began looking at what they saw as the specifically, explicitly, feminine aspects of Jesus, Jesus as a lactating mother, Jesus having a kind of porosity to his body, fluids, leaking, which were all stereotypical notions of the feminine during the time period.
So this ends up being very useful and gets picked up by these people who are trying to imagine Jesus in a way that combines the female and the male.
Yeah, in fact, I'm reading from your article here where you're discussing the book of the Holy Trinity, where the author claims that Christ contains within him his mother, the Virgin Mary, who comprises this feminine principle, as well as the principle of his humanity obviously.
And you quote the author who says, "One can never see the mother of God without also seeing that God eternally hides and intermingles his mother within him. God was and is eternally his own mother and his own father, human and divine, his divinity and his humanity intermingled within."
And he depends on that which he wishes to be hidden most of all within himself, the divine and the human, the feminine and the masculine.
So if you have a monotheistic faith and if God in some ultimate way is everything and the generator of everything that is, God does have to contain within himself or herself the masculine and the feminine.
And I think that Jesus comes forth as someone who, as you mentioned, has a number of characteristics that seem to identify him as much with women as it does with men.
Certainly the gospels are full of the presence of women and even prior to the medieval traditions he were referring to, there's Christ on the cross, you know, bleeding water and blood coming from his kind of very volvable sort of wound.
There's the whole centrality of the Passion of Christ where passion really must be understood in its connection to passivity on the one hand but also in the Passion of child birth and giving birth to a new religion there on the cross.
Absolutely and those images of Christ's wound look extremely volvable and they do tap into ideas about the kind of reproductive generative nature of Christ and of Christ's blood.
And there are a number of reasons why Christ might be thought of as male and female beyond the ones that you suggest me.
For one thing, if Christ is here to save both men and women it makes sense that he would in some way encompass their traits.
But also there's gendered notions of thinking about the body and the soul or humanity and divinity because women were thought to be more fleshy, more carnal.
Christ's body gets identified as the more feminine aspect of his nature whereas his more lofty, more spiritual side is the masculine side and those are things that the alchemist tapped into when they're trying to describe their own operations.
But these were large general notions about the cosmos.
So there's a lot of complicated and intertwined ways of thinking about Jesus' male and female.
And of course the body of Christ is the place that it's a body that suffers that receives mostly it undergoes more than being a kind of active principle according to your own.
Right, it's subjective.
But also the idea of Jesus as being male and female leads to a lot of questions about God himself and what kind of feminine or androgynous aspects God has.
These are questions that come up now of course but in the middle ages too people had questions about the creation of Adam's body.
If Eve comes out of Adam's body does that mean that Adam originally held both female and male natures?
And if Adam is the creator's reflection what does that mean about God himself?
Well, people had a lot of moments, actually critical moments in Christianity where her mafordite's a rise over and over again.
You know, as Adam or her mafordite is Jesus or mafordite?
Are there her mafordites in heaven?
You know, where are their mafordites before the fall of man?
And it seems to be a really recurrent and hence important sort of question about, you know, what is the ideal shape of a human?
What is an acceptable kind of human that can belong to the community of Christianity?
And I'm convinced that the genius of Christianity which enabled it against all odds to conquer the entire entire Euro Mediterranean world, which is a conundrum, people like Augustine are answering the trying to answer the question about how is it possible that a religion adopted by children and women and slaves inherited all of the Roman Empire?
It has to have something to do with the annexation of the feminine within a monotheistic religion that was way too heavily in a singular male patriarchal direction.
Well, sure. And we know, and as you mentioned, that women were a part of early Christianity and how it was.
And how the main agents of organizing the churches and the houses and the singing and even had fully quality when it came to speaking in tongues and having the revelations of the spirit, they start cracking down on this heavily feminine participation in the second, third centuries and tortellian and people of that sort.
And I'm sure they must do it again with decanuses and double monasteries and then later again women still find ways around priestly authority to do things through some of the mysticism that I was just talking about.
So, you know, I mean, there's certainly a lot to say about that, but patriarchal is only one side or only one part of the Christian church.
And certainly when, for example, having taught a course recently on the history of three or four epics, you know, Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aniad, the Divine Comedy.
The first three are of one sort of tradition of rather typical male patriarchal hero, courage, fierce warrior, head of the household responsible.
Dante's pilgrim in the Divine Comedy is a very different kind of hero. He's Christian and therefore he's extremely timorous, fearful, and he hides behind Virgil sometimes like a mother and there is no shame at being from a point of view of the pre-Christian patriarchal ethos, a highly feminized kind of a character in his whole posture.
And this has to have something to do with the theological underpinnings of the poem, I would imagine.
Sure, and the model of Jesus as a way of being for Christians.
And by the time the pilgrim gets to the very end of his journey, the end of the poem, it's Mary, who is there in the very last canto, and she's the queen.
And it's as a co-equal to Christ, there's no doubt about it in certainly in Dante's world.
And I did a show a few years ago with a colleague of ours here at Stanford on the Virgin Mary, and it's just remarkable just what kind of near co-equality she has in the Christian imagination throughout certainly as in Middle Ages, which you know well.
Yes, certainly in that time period there's extreme interest in Mary and theology and devotion to the Virgin, and we see that come up again in that Jesus from Aphrodite in which Jesus and Mary are a king and a queen.
They are a total unity in which one can't even find the other.
Leah, how come you say something about hermaphroditeism and alchemy in the Middle Ages? More than what you have already alluded to.
So for example, you speak a lot here about the philosopher's stone.
The reminder of listeners alchemy is about transforming or transmuting one kind of matter into another kind of matter, so it can be you know bronze into gold or something of that sort.
And therefore, the whole myth of transformation metamorphosis is big, but especially the hermaphrodite myth.
So, yeah, I mean, what would the iconists trying to do?
Alchemy sounds like a very odd and a sort of thing from the 21st century, but we have to think about although you know alchemy is lots of things that it was in a sense people who are interested in understanding the the makeup of matter, they're trying to understand what the world is made out of.
And what different kind of chemicals do? I mean, in some ways it's a forerunner of chemistry in that sense, but people are interested in this idea of transformation of change.
And it's a period in which people became much more open to the idea of things really being able to change from one thing to another.
So, this is why this ovidian myth becomes a sort of a way into the minds of alchemists and they were clearly using that myth to think about their materials.
So, as you pointed out, alchemy is in one sense to turn a base metal into a precious metal, so as you said bronze or lead into gold.
So, there was the idea that there was some kind of chemical substance that when added to one of these metals was going to perfect it was going to make it into a better material.
And by extension, this could be something that one could do for the human body. One could use this substance and it would make a sick person well. A person who is going to die into a near immortal.
So, it's a kind of a fountain of youth. It's an absolutely perfecting material that can be used in all kinds of different ways.
And maybe it's no wonder that people wanted to find something that could heal all illnesses and lead people to live long.
Maybe even indefinite lives. I mean, people are still looking for those kinds of chemicals today. And it does connect to a kind of early sort of pharmacology too.
So, those are all the different things that went into doing alchemy.
Why was the church so hostile to it? Dante has a sub-circle in health for the alchemists and they seem to be particularly paranoid about what these alchemists were up to now.
Yeah, well, it's kind of a mixed story because on the one hand you're right, they're all kind of prohibitions of alchemy that go out during this time period.
People are concerned about all kinds of things, particularly counterfeiting and fraud.
But also, there were a number of people who were involved in alchemy who were stalwarts of the church.
And if you think about the papacy, not entirely unlike now, as being a bunch of elderly men, their papal court,
a lot of these people were interested in finding some substance that might make them live longer too. And so they were interested in practicing and patronizing alchemists too.
So, absolutely people were concerned about alchemy but also were fascinated by it.
And this idea that something could be changed from one thing to another or could be perfected,
of absolutely tapped into the idea of Jesus as the salvation of humankind, the one who perfects humans into the immortality of heaven.
So, all those things made this Jesus metaphor one that was attractive.
Yes, this transubstantiation of the human into the divine, which is what Jesus promises.
Or he invites the Christian to undergo a metamorphosis that is spiritual in nature.
Do you think that's why Avid was such a huge hit in the Middle Ages and that he was moralized and allegorized,
consistently, it's not only kissing the Pizam, but all the allegorists that read in his myths of transformation some kind of deep spiritual Christian meaning regarding transformation of this sort.
Well, there's definitely a tradition of Christianizing pagan literature.
We see it all through the Middle Ages.
But I think there's also a particular interest and excitement about the sort of instability of form that comes up during this time period.
People are very excited about Aristotle's coming into being and passing away people, right?
All kinds of things about it.
So, I think the idea of metamorphosis, the idea of transition, those things come into play in all kinds of debates that are happening right at that time.
And Avid is a perennial subject for thinking about those kinds of issues.
Was it at all important for this whole Protestant Reformation that took place that was centered around controversies,
the wafer, and the transubstantiation of the wafer into the body of Christ in the Mass, which of course the Protestants rejected.
They took it to be a symbol but not a true transubstantiation.
Is that a kind of highly sublimated form of alchemy that was?
Well, Martin Luther does talk about alchemy in Table Talk.
So, we can't say that there was no alchemy anywhere, but you know, I mean, transubstation, consubstantiation.
People are really trying to think about what it means for something to be one thing on the outside and another thing on the inside for something to be really something or just a symbol.
And this gives people language for thinking about these highly intellectual concepts.
Do you, how can I ask this question without it sounding a little too vague for you?
We live in an era that I find it very difficult to identify which kinds of myths predominate in our particular culture,
but I'm not sure that metamorphosis is one of them.
At least not the way it was conceived of in the Middle Ages or something.
Do you think our era could benefit from a kind of re-energization of the Ovedian ideology of transformation in a whole-sale way?
I mean, are we a civilization that is in need of some kind of profound metamorphosis holistic?
Well, I think I couldn't argue that we're not in need of some substantial change in society today, but I don't know.
I mean, there is also so much fluidity in gender, but also in life narrative, so many reversals and reinventions that maybe such a set of ideas isn't totally foreign to the way we think of things now, if not in the same kind of quasi-magical terms of Oved with people turning into trees.
That's what I was thinking of.
Oh, no, no, I mean, all of this discourse of the post-human, perhaps I'm completely wrong.
Perhaps people turning into trees is not far off in the future.
Well, that's what I had in mind because I believe that with the Christianization of Europe and Oved, you have upward metamorphoses,
a long, linear tradition of insisting on the spiritualization of matter and its transcendence into forms of spirit and salvation and mortality.
But in Oved, metamorphosis does not go in one direction, it doesn't go upwards only.
It also goes downwards where the human is usually going downwards because it's either turning into plant species or animal species.
It turns into stars, at the end of the metamorphosis.
But let's say reversal where we are now in a condition where our relationship to the earth, or the material world in general,
is one that calls for a reconsideration of a number of basic assumptions that have been part of our culture for a long time
and to try to imagine a kind of materialization of the spirit rather than only the spiritualization of matter.
Although the two, that would be a kind of hermaphroditic happy outcome where that sort of distinction would not really avail so much.
It would be a version of the same thing, the spiritualization of matter and the materialization of spirit.
I'm really not sure what to say on that one.
So, you see, Dante, for example, in from his Orthodox Christian perspective, when he reads Ovid and sees human beings being transformed into plants, he finds that horrific.
He finds it a complete degradation of the human because he believes in the great chain of being God, angels, humans, animals, plants, minerals.
And therefore, the worst punishment he could devise for the suicides is for them to be turned into trees and bushes and vegetable life.
Whereas, it could be that when I talk about the spiritualization of matter, the plant life is not just a degraded human, but just some other kind of thing.
I mean, I think that there are currently so many conversations that if we subscribe to this kind of chain of being that of course people are trying to undo that are both upwards and downwards, right?
So many people talking about the demarcation of the line between the human and the non-human is one that we should very much call into question.
So, I think that there's a human who becomes some other form, an animal or a plant is not a devolution, right? But something else.
And so many conversations about how we interface with our technology, a human who becomes part machine is that an improvement or a degradation of humanity.
There are all sorts of questions that I think really fit so much into my interest in the dichotomous line between two things, whether it's the sexes or whether the human and the non-human.
And it's absolutely true that in the middle ages, one sex, the idea of defined sex was a thing that scholastic theologians and natural philosophers look to as one of the things that defined human beings that made them different from lower creatures like animals and plants who might have more than one sex or might do things sexually that humans are.
So, these sorts of reconsiderations of the spiritual and the material might fit very much in with these conversations and not just the line between the human and the non-human, but also lines that marked communities, the line between in the middle ages to European and the non-European or between the Christian and non-Christians like Jews and Muslims who are often also talked about in terms of the ways that their sex or gender are not.
And I keep running up against the same sort of quandary for me which is how much I believe difference, what we would call multiculturalism or different strong differences between the sexes between cultures between languages between one city and the other city, how it enriches the experience of the real and it's something that has to be promoted.
On the other hand, there are hermaph for a diet as a kind of super figure for the merging of that which previously was distinct from the other has an appeal and yet sometimes in the degenerate version of that it translates for me to like El Camino Real where you go from one place to another place, you don't know where you are because all the same. It's all homogenized in the bad way, you know what I'm saying?
Right, but I think that when people are thinking of their maph for a diet they're thinking of a lot of ideas that are complicated may not even seem like they go together.
On the one hand, the hermaph for a diet is really two things that are held together in stasis, right, two countries. We have the male and the female that are both, right?
We have two things that remain distinct but are together in union. But then there's also the ways in which hermaph for diets are as you say, neither, right?
Or something beyond male and female. And this is even where the term intersects becomes helpful because inter includes the idea that there's things come together in something in the middle.
And hermaph rates in the middle ages embody a lot of those characteristics too.
So I don't know if it really becomes homogenized in a kind of formless, you know, a confusing way that is only disorienting.
Yeah, well that's the ideal if you can have both together because of it says neither and both.
And I don't think those two terms are continuous. There's the neither, I mean they do go together, you can't separate them. That's what's brilliant about the hermaph or diet myth is that it's neither and yet both.
This is the paradox of bringing together, you know, two otherwise distinct nature.
It helps us to think beyond binaries, right? That both of course includes binary thinking, but when you start thinking about the neither or the both and right someone who is both male and hermaph or diet or neither male nor female, we start getting into all kinds of numerical sex categories that become very suggestive of what kind of possibilities might be out there.
I think that that's part of what is so fascinating to people about sex difference but also frightening.
All right. Well, thank you very much. Leah, I want to remind our listeners, we've been speaking with Professor Leah Davun, who is visiting Stanford this year as a fellow at the Humanities Center.
She's a professor of history and gender studies at Rutgers University.
And I've enjoyed our conversation about the hermaph or diet with you. I'm Robert Harrison for entitled opinions. Leah, we're looking forward to your book coming out. Thanks again for coming on. Thank you. It was great.