Myth of the androgynes

The myth of the androgynes

A myth that strangely resonates with the way we conceive tango...

Plato's Symposium, 190b-193e: The Myth of the Androgynes

Anyway, Eryximachus, I intend to speak differently than you and Pausanias did. It seems to me that until now, men have entirely ignored the power of Love; for if they knew it, they would erect magnificent temples and altars to it and offer sumptuous sacrifices, which is not in practice, although nothing could be more suitable; for Love is the god who bestows the most benefits upon men, he is their protector and physician, and heals them of the ills that prevent mankind from being fully happy. So I will try to make you aware of the power of Love, and you will teach others what you have learned from me. But we must start by saying what the nature of man is and the modifications it has undergone.
Once upon a time, human nature was very different from what it is today. Firstly, there were three kinds of humans: the two sexes that still exist, and a third composed of those two; it has been destroyed, and the only thing left of it is the name. This animal formed a particular species and was called androgynous because it combined the male and female sexes; but it no longer exists, and its name is considered infamous.

Secondly, all men presented a round shape; they had their backs and ribs arranged in a circle, four arms, four legs, two faces attached to a round neck, and perfectly alike; a single head that united these two opposite faces to each other; four ears, two sexes, and the rest in the same proportion. They walked adopting an upright position, like us, and without the need to turn to take any path they wanted. When they wanted to go faster, they leaned successively on their eight limbs, and advanced rapidly in a circular movement, like those who, with their feet in the air, do a cartwheel.

The difference that exists between these three species of men comes from the difference in their principles. The male sex is produced by the sun, the female by the earth; and the one composed of the other two by the moon, which partakes of the earth and the sun. They derived from these principles their form and manner of moving, which is spherical. Their bodies were robust and vigorous, and their spirits elevated; which inspired them with the audacity to ascend to heaven and fight against the gods, as Homer writes of Ephialtes and Otus.
It was then that Zeus consulted with the gods on what to do. The matter was not without difficulty: the gods did not want to destroy men, as they had once done to the giants, by striking them with lightning, for then the worship and sacrifices that men offered them would have disappeared; but, on the other hand, they could not bear such insolence. Finally, after much reflection, Zeus spoke as follows: "I believe I have found a way to preserve men and make them more restrained, which is to diminish their strength. I will separate them in two: by this means, they will become weak; and we will have another advantage, which will be to increase the number of those who serve us: they will walk straight, supported by only two legs; and if, after this punishment, they maintain their impious audacity and do not want to remain quiet, I will separate them again, and they will be reduced to walking on one foot, like those who dance on wine skins at the feast of Bacchus."
After this declaration, the god made the separation that he had just resolved; and he did it in the way that one cuts eggs when one wants to salt them, or that with a hair one divides them into two equal parts. He then commanded Apollo to heal the wounds and place the face and half of the neck on the side where the separation had been made, so that the sight of this punishment would make them more modest. Apollo placed the face on the indicated side, and gathering the cut skins on what is now called the belly, he joined them together like a purse that is closed, leaving only an opening in the middle that is called the navel. As for the other folds, which were very numerous, he smoothed them out and shaped the chest with an instrument similar to the one cobblers use to polish leather, leaving only a few folds on the belly and navel as reminders of the ancient punishment. Once this division was made, each half sought to reunite with the one from which it had been separated. When they found each other, they embraced each other passionately, desiring to merge into one being again, until they died of hunger and inaction, unwilling to do anything without the other. When one of the two halves perished, the surviving one sought another, with which it reunited, whether it was the half of a complete woman, what we now call a woman, or the half of a man, and thus the species became extinct.

But Zeus, taking pity, devised another plan: he moved the genitals to the front, for previously they were at the back; the seed was conceived and shed not in each other, but on the ground, like cicadas. Thus Zeus placed the genitals in front, and in this way made mutual procreation possible, with the male organ able to penetrate the female. If a man joined with a woman in sexual intercourse, children were the result, and the species perpetuated. However, if the male joined with the male, satiety would soon separate them, and, calming down, they would turn to action and think about other things in life.

From this comes the natural love we have for one another: it brings us back to our primitive nature, it does everything to reunite the two halves and restore us to our former perfection, to heal our human nature. Each of us is therefore only a half-man who has been separated from his whole in the same way that a sole is cut in two. These halves always seek their counterparts. Men who are the result of the separation of these composite beings called androgynes love women; and most men who cheat on their wives belong to this species, as do women who love men and cheat on their husbands. But women who are the result of the separation of primitive women pay little attention to men, and are more inclined toward women: lesbians belong to this species. Likewise, men who are the result of the separation of primitive men seek out male sex. As long as they are young, they love men: they enjoy sleeping with them and being in their arms: they are the first among adolescents and adults, being much more male in nature. They are wrongly accused of being without shame, for it is not lack of shame that makes them act this way; it is because they have a strong soul, a male courage, and a masculine character that they seek out their counterparts; and what proves this is that as they age, they show themselves more capable than others of serving the State. As men, they in turn love young men; and if they marry, if they have children, it is not that nature impels them, but that the law compels them. What they love is to spend their lives with each other in celibacy. Whether men of this character love or are loved, their sole aim is to be reunited with those who resemble them.

When one who loves young men or anyone else meets his counterpart, a wonderful sympathy, a friendship, and an intimacy are born between them that are so wonderful that they do not want to separate in any way, even for a moment. These same men, who spend their entire lives together, cannot say what they want from each other; for if they find so much sweetness in living this way, it does not seem that the pleasures of the senses are the cause.

Obviously their soul desires something else that it cannot express, but which it senses and implies. And when they lie in each other's arms, if Hephaestus were to appear to them with the tools of his craft and say, "Oh, men, what do you ask of each other?" and, seeing them hesitate, continued to question them thus: "What you want, is it not to be so united together that neither day nor night are you ever without each other? If that is what you desire, I will melt and blend you in such a way that you will no longer be two people, but one, and that, as long as you live, you will live a common life, like one person, and that, when you die, you will be united in death so as not to be two people, but one. See again then whether this is what you desire and what can make you perfectly happy?" Yes, if Vulcan were to address them in these terms, there is no doubt that none of them would refuse or reply that they desire something else, convinced that they have just heard what has always been at the bottom of their soul: the desire to be united and merged with the beloved object so as to no longer form anything but one single being with them.

The reason for this is that our primitive nature was one, and we were a complete whole. Love is the name given to the desire and will to regain this ancient state. Originally, as I have already said, we were one; but since then, as punishment for our iniquity, we have been separated by Zeus, like the Arcadians by the Spartans. We must therefore take care not to commit any fault against the gods, lest we be exposed to a second division and become like those figures represented in profile in bas-reliefs, which have only half a face, or like dice cut in two.

Therefore, all of us must exhort one another to honor the gods, so as to avoid a new punishment and return to our primitive unity, under the auspices and guidance of Love. Let no one go to war with Love; for to provoke the hatred of the gods is to go to war with Love. Let us therefore try to deserve the goodwill and favor of this god, and he will help us find the other half of ourselves, a happiness that today only comes to very few people. Let Eryximachus not criticize these last words as if they referred to Pausanias and Agathon; for perhaps they are among that small number, and both belong to the masculine nature. Be that as it may, I am certain that we will all be happy, men and women, if, thanks to Love, we each find our other half, and if we return to the unity of our primitive nature. Now, if this ancient state is the best, then necessarily the one who approaches it the most is, in this world, the best: to possess a beloved according to one's desires. Therefore, if we must praise the god who gives us this happiness, let us praise Eros, the god of love, who not only serves us greatly in this life by leading us to what corresponds to us, but also gives us the most powerful reasons to hope that, if we faithfully render to the gods what is due to them, he will restore us to our first nature after this life, heal our infirmities, and give us complete happiness. This is my speech on love, Eryximachus. It differs from yours, but I implore you once again not to make fun of it, so that we may hear the others, or rather the two others, for Agathon and Socrates are the only ones who have not yet spoken."

Source: PLATO, The Symposium, 190 b - 193 e.

Mythe of the androgynes in argentine tango