In 1974, I took a graduate seminar on the works of D. H. Lawrence. I believed at that time and I still do that Women in Love is Lawrence’s greatest novel.
Recently, during my meditation on Hermes, I remembered the novel and returned to it. Where is Hermes in the Lawrence text, where is he hiding? His son Pan is obviously there running amuck but who else is there.
Then I remembered the scene of the party at the pond after the marriage of Gerald’s sister and her subsequent drowning.
In the novel Gerald’s sister and her husband decide to go swimming in the pond after dark. In the dark waters, she panics and grabs hold of her husband pulling them both under.
When they drain the pond to find their bodies, they discover her wrapped tightly around her husband, pinning his arms, causing him and her both to drown.
The outline of this scene complies almost exactly with the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, trans. F.J. Miller (Loeb Library, Heinemann: London 1916).
Salmacis, a naiad, possesses a fountain that was in ill repute “because its waters enervate, and renders soft and weak all men that bathe there.”
Hermaphroditus, Hermes’ son, arrives at the pool and when he gazes into the water, it appears clear and clean all the way to the bottom.
Salmacis lies wrapped in a transparent robe in the grasses on the bank of her pool. She spies the young man and is immediately smitten and longs to possess him.
Salmacis tries to seduce the young boy but he does not surrender to her stratagems. She pretends to depart. Thinking that she is gone, he dives naked into the pool. Whereupon she cries, “I win and he is mine.” She wraps her arms and legs around him and “embraces him on every side.”
The boy struggles against her but she is too strong and the cursed waters are draining him of his strength.
Then Salmacis prays to the gods: “Grant me this, ye gods, and may no day ever come that shall separate him from me or me from him.”
Ovid then writes: “The gods heard her prayer. For the two bodies, joined together as they were, were merged in one, with one face and form for both.”
This myth in the hands of Lawrence illustrates the corrosive will of woman who symbolically drowns man. However, in Ovid, the myth is less dangerous, less repulsive and the union of the male and female is therapeutic and life generating.
In the Greek myth the hermaphrodite illustrates a completion, a unity. In Alchemy, the hermaphrodite represents the “chemical wedding of Sol and Luna, sun and moon, king and queen.” (A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Lyndy Abraham, Cambridge University Press, 2005)
In Lawrence’s modernist novel, the hermaphroditic images call forth repulsion and a fear of drowning. There is no submission or incorporation of the two sides into one psyche because the male fights the female to the death.
In the myth, Hermaphroditus succumbs and is weakened; however, from this weakness comes wisdom. The male element is mediated against the female and a blending occurs. In the modern’s mind, this is repulsive and an abomination; however, to the Greek it adds two perspectives-a marriage of two powers-an integration of male and female energies.
When Hermaphroditus realizes what he has become, he prays to his mother and father: “Oh grant this boon, my mother and father, to your son who bears the name of both: whoever comes into this pool as man may he go forth half-man, and may he weaken at the touch of the water.”