Hidden, Defaced, Obscured: Taboos in Classical Art

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

On a postcard above my bed, Hermaphroditus sleeps soundly. Body twisted away from the viewer, the figure seductively extends their left foot from a sheet draped over their calf.

“This statue is meant to be approached from the back,” writes Max Strassfeld in his book Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature. “Only by walking around the statue would the viewer discover Hermaphroditus’s genitalia… [which] becomes a spectacle for the titillation of the viewer.” From the angle of the photograph on my wall, however, this “spectacle” is not apparent; at the giftshop of the Villa Borghese in Rome, where I saw the 2nd-century statue this summer, all of the postcards depict the statue from the right side. Nor is the circumambulation Strassfeld suggests possible within the gallery space—Sleeping Hermaphroditus is awkwardly placed against the wall, preventing visitors from seeing any evidence of sexual ambiguity. In postcards and in person, Hermaphroditus’ “secret” remains out of sight.

One of the earliest written records of the myth of Hermaphroditus is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “His features were such that, in them, both mother [Aphrodite] and father [Hermes] could be seen, and from them he took his name, Hermaphroditus.” As a young man, Hermaphroditus is accosted by a smitten nymph while he is bathing in a lake. As she “entwines herself face to face with his beauty,” she prays that the gods might unite them forever. The bodies of lover and beloved, perpetrator and victim, man and woman, are “joined together, and one form covered both… they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.”


One sunny February afternoon, I met friend-of-a-friend and senior History of Art major Cam Chacon (BK ’23) at the Yale University Art Gallery to discuss some of the questions I’d been left with after seeing Sleeping Hermaphroditus over the summer. Arriving a few minutes early, I admired a set of vases arranged in the front of the Classical Art gallery room as light flooded in from the Chapel Street windows.

Arriving shortly after, Cam explained what made these works especially interesting to him: “This material was taken for so long as an authoritative source on Westernness that when it’s found to contain taboos, it is often hidden or censored.” While illicit actions and bodies in African and Asian art have historically been dismissed by European art historians as examples of exotic otherness, Greek and Roman depictions have forced them to confront these taboos head-on—or else hide or mutilate the artifacts they so admired. Citing examples of the reception of “controversial” Classical art, Chacon referred me to an ancient sculpture of Hermaphroditus and three suckling infants. Acquired by eighteenth-century British art collector Henry Blundell, the sculpture was, according to the British Museum archives, “transformed into a sleeping Venus” by Blundell, who “[removed] the figure’s penis and the three infants.” 

“Sometimes, the record of Greece had to be edited, some part of it rejected, to recreate a staged form of Greece that can uphold its own inviolability,” Cam explained to me. I thought back to the Hermaphroditus statue turned towards the wall—was it shielding itself from this same fate?


I met with Cam not only to discuss the Hermaphroditus sculptures of the Villa Borghese and the Blundell collection, but also to hear about his own academic research, based on the collection of vases I had coincidentally been looking at before he came in.

Cam’s academic work focuses on Ancient Greek vases used in symposia, intimate social gatherings where men ritually drank wine. Pointing out the various devices used for mixing, pouring, storing, and sharing wine, Cam ran me through the relevant terminology—kylikes were broad vases used for drinking wine; tondi, circular paintings, decorated the round inside of each kylix. By virtue of their location, Cam explained to me, the tondi were only visible to the drinker. The subjects depicted here were, in his words, “more playful, only to be revealed when the wine within was finished. This is where we sometimes see homoerotic and pederastic images.”

Cam took me to a tondo in which a young nude boy plays a twin set of flutes. On the neighboring kylix, another set of flutes is held by a nude woman reclining against her lover and clutching his face, confirming the phallic nature of the symbol. The sexual nature of the first tondo was confirmed by a faintly-visible Greek description: ho pais kalos, “the beautiful boy.”

“Other kylikes have similar inscriptions addressed to specific named boys,” Cam explained. These declarations of affection do not seem to be invocations to a muselike representation of beauty; they are references to specific sexual relationships. 


Cam’s research about the kylikes brought me back to the two obscured Hermaphroditus statues. All three stories reveal that Classical artists did not shy away from depicting bodies and actions that are or were “taboo.” Moreover, a common thread of ‘passing’ runs through these histories. The Sleeping Hermaphroditus passes as a cisgender female body when placed against the wall; Blundell’s Hermaphroditus passes as a “sleeping Venus” when the ambiguous appendages are removed; the YUAG’s Greek vase passes as erotic rather than explicitly sexual because the inscription is obscured (and is not mentioned or translated on the museum label). This allows observers to ignore the sexual deviance at play in these works. 

Of course, these examples of ‘taboos’—two depictions of a body now reclaimed as intersex, the last of a pederastic relationship now generally regarded as pedophilia—are viewed in modern times as so different from one another that to compare them seems offensive. In an email, Classics graduate student Jennifer Moss (GRD ’19) explained, “Many of the cultural categories underlying taboos have changed… when the taboo against homosexuality started to loosen its grip in the mid-20th century, scholars began to look more closely at vase paintings featuring erotic images of men with other men, leading to Kenneth Dover’s influential conclusion that the Greeks themselves didn’t have the same taboo because they did not organize sexual behavior based on the gender of the participants. Rather, the Greeks (and to some extent the Romans) were more concerned with the role of a partner, and stigmatized passivity, especially in men.” The imposition of modern conceptions of gender and sexuality on ancient erotic artwork, then, becomes “almost as problematic as excluding them altogether.”

But these challenges are also exactly what makes this kind of research so exhilarating. Classics and History of Art Professor Milette Gaifman told me that, when looking at ancient art, “so much feels familiar and alien at the same time… we must be aware of the distance of time and that naturally we can’t help seeing earlier works through the lens of our time.” 

The key to understanding ancient artifacts, Gaifman suggested, is to consider them in the context of antiquity: “What did the ancients experience when they picked up a cup and drank from it? What did they see at different points in the action? What would others see?” To make sense of these artworks, we must accept them for all that they are, examining each work from all sides.

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