Last week I discussed the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus and I promised more discussion of the naiad.
Naiad is another word for nymph and we learned in an earlier posting that a nymph was a female divinity that inhabited and expressed different aspects of nature.
Salmacis is associated with one particular fountain. We learn from Ovid that she is unique because she is “the only naiad that does not follow behind Diana’s train.” The other nymphs implore her to “take now hunting spear or painted quiver, and vary your ease with the hardships of the hunt.” She, however, refuses to hunt. Instead, she lies around the pool, where “she bathes her shapely limbs in her own pool; often combs her hair with a boxwood comb, often looks in the mirror-like waters to see what best becomes her.” (Ovid, Metamorposes, trans. F.J. Miller (Loeb Library, Heinemann: London, 1916).
Salmacis is vain and self-absorbed. When she sees the fifteen-year-old Hermaphroditus, Ovid writes that she “longed to possess what she saw.”
She does not really see the boy; instead, she confuses his beauty with the reflection of her own face in the pool.
In Jungian terms, she has mistaken her own animus, her internal male, as the boy. Her internal male resides in her psyche but because of a lack of consciousness she looks outside herself to find her animus. She anthropomorphizes her internal attributes onto the other.
Salmacis has to retire and calm down before she is able to approach the boy.
Remember she has not yet spoken to Hermaphroditus, she has simply seen him. The French call this experience a coup de foudre, a mad love that strikes us and controls us.
When she finally is ready to talk to him, she says: O god, thou must be Cupid; or, thou art mortal, fortunate indeed they who gave thee birth.”
She wants to hug and kiss him but he pushes her away. She moves away and hides. With her gone, he is drawn to the water, removes his clothes and then dives in. She, watching, is ”as one spell-bound, and her love kindled as she gazed at the naked form.”
She is so overcome with love or desire that she rushes toward him and “holds him fast.” She desires to become one with the boy and the gods grant her wish.
Her love or desire transforms them: “they were no longer two, nor such as be called, one, woman, and one, man.”
What are we to make of this union? The Greeks and Ovid obviously are not repulsed by the image. Instead, something new is created by the amalgamation. When the two elements, male and female join, they mediate one another and form something different and unique.
When Hermaphroditus prays to his parents he asks that "whoever comes into this pool as man may he go forth half man, and may he weaken at the touch of the water.”
Rafael Lopez-Pedraza writes of the legend: “When the Hermaphrodite appears in psychotherapy, it is accompanied by a feeling of weakness in opposition to the illusion of strength of the male and female polarities, with the ingredient of ‘machismus’ they carry.” (Hermes and his Children, Daimon Verlag, 2003.)
On a symbolic level, the marriage of the two “polarities” takes place in the “uncanny pool,” in the unconscious mind. The union begun in weakness mediates the two polarities to create a new being.
On another level, how many times have men and women played out the coup de foudre, only to be repulsed and rejected. In those instances, the love or desire often turns violent and angry or corrosive and subversive.