The ninth plate of the Splendor Solis shows a well-dressed double-headed figure. The head on the left is male and has a red wing attached to his side of the body; in his hand he holds a circular plate or shield. The shield consists of a central circular landscape, surrounded by a black, white, then yellow frame. The head on the right side is female; the wing attached to her side is white and in her hand she holds an egg. This figure is known as the Hermaphrodite, half man and half woman.
The word hermaphrodite comes directly from Greek mythology: Hermaphroditus was born a normal child to the gods Hermes and Aphrodite, and left to be raised by nymphs. He was still barely a man when he came upon the pool belonging to the nymph Salmacis. Salmacis desired his youth and beauty and fell in love with him, but Hermaphroditus spurned all her advances. Thinking she had left the pool after his rejection, Hermaphroditus then entered into the waters to bathe. Salmacis had only been hiding, and she swam to him and wound herself tightly around his body as she begged for the gods to never tear them apart. Her wish was granted, and Hermaphroditus and Salmacis became the co-joined male and female figure called Hermaphrodite.
It is worth noting that notion of the Hermaphrodite is not only found in the mythology of the Greeks. The Hindu god Ardanareshwara translates to the “Lord who is half woman” and is a combination of Siva and Shakti. Ardanareshwara is the embodiment of the union of male and female energies in the universe, as well as the sacredness of marriage and copulation. In a similar vein, the Aztec’s have the Creator Ometecuhtli who was a lord of duality, a god who was also a goddess; the Navajo have Ahsonnutli, the turquoise hermaphrodite, and while not embodied, the Chinese have the concept of Yin and Yang. In the Hermetic tradition God was also seen as a union of male and female as described in the Corpus Hermeticum: “And God-the-Mind, being male and female both, as Light and Life subsisting, brought forth another Mind to give things form”.
If we return now to the Splendor Solis and analyze the masculine side of the figure, there is a recurrence of solar symbolism, his radiant shield, his red wing, his golden halo. Likewise, the feminine side of this figure is lunar symbolism, her white wing, her silver halo, the egg she holds in her hand. The fifth element is life; that is an alchemical tradition, sometimes drawn symbolically, and sometimes visualized as an egg. Menstrual cycles are lunar; life is lunar. The egg is an apt metaphor.
The appearance of the Hermaphrodite comes after what Jung called the Conjunctio, metaphorically the marriage of Solar and Lunar, or the physical marriage of alchemical sulfur and mercury. While the imagery of plate 9 is quite explicit in its depiction of the hermaphrodite, it is subtle in comparison to another illuminated medieval text: the Rosarium Philosophorum:
Of the 20 plates that make up the Rosarium, ten are clearly hermaphroditic, while another five make allusions to physical union. It is safe to say that the notion of two beings, united as one, was definitely on the minds of alchemists during the 1500s.
Can this be read purely as an allegory?
Can this be taken as a coded chemistry text?
Yes, it can, and it most likely was.
Either way, something magical happens when the right two ingredients are brought together. An oft forgotten part of Hermaphroditus story is that once he became Hermaphrodite, he prayed to his parents that anyone entering the pool would be blessed with the same transformation.
Until next time, keep shaking your ingredients, and we’ll keep shaking ours.