PRINT November 1975

The Myth of the Androgyne

THE TERM ANDROGYNE, TAKEN FROM the Greek words for male and female, literally means a combining of the sexes, or at least attributes of both sexes, in one figure. Though it can represent the purely physical bisexuality of the hermaphrodite so popular with the decadent writers of the 19th century, this is a very limited and often misunderstood usage of the term. In Classical times the lines of separation between the spiritual concept and the physical concept were clearly drawn. As an idea manifested by myth, or in initiation rites of transference, it was pure, a unifying principle; as a physical reality it was a monstrosity—something to be abhorred. Because the androgyne is a myth, it is constantly reinterpreted to agree with the widely varying concerns of different cultures and different times. The universality of its structure (the unification of opposites) enables it to carry meanings of great variety, from the most obvious to the most profound of human experience.

Looking for examples of references to the androgyne myth in European art of the 1930s, one sees how the artists go beyond the more “limited” hermaphrodite image of the late 19th century to one which carries a far more inclusive meaning of the coincidence of opposites so fundamental to the thought of the Surrealists. Indeed André Breton talked specifically of “. . . the necessity for the reconstitution of the primordial Androgyne.” And André Masson wrote an entire essay on this subject. We don’t have to go far to find sources for these interests in the myth of androgyny. A look at such art periodicals from the ’30s as Cahiers d’Art or Minotaure shows articles on primitive ethnology, Eastern religions, psychoanalysis, alchemy—all important sources for the theme of androgyny. For example, during the early ’30s, an entire issue of Minotaure was devoted to an expedition taken from Dakar to Djibouti across the heart of Africa by a number of French ethnologists. This group included the writer Michel Lieris, who was so closely associated with the Surrealists. His report on the people of the Dogon is of particular interest, because in their culture the primordial ancestor figures are often thought of as androgynous. In a sculptural example the single figure represents both sexes and is considered as a contraction of the Primordial Couple, symbolizing the Dogon belief in the reciprocity of male and female, earth and sky, the living and those who have lived before.

More pertinent is a lengthy article in Minotaure by Albert Beguin called “L’Androgyne,” which traces the historical significance of the myth.1 Beginning with the myth as it appears in Plato’s Symposium, he moves to Gnostic mysticism, where we find such statements as “For the Lord himself being asked by someone when his kingdom should come said: ‘When the two should be one, and the outside as the inside and the male with the female neither male or female.’” He then mentions the 17th-century philosopher Jacob Boehme who, following the writings of the Cabala, stresses the fact that the division of the sexes represents the fall of man as a complete being. Alchemical references in drawings of Adam before the Fall and Reunification, from a Rosacrucian text, illustrate this idea in the Beguin article. In all of these variations on the myth of androgyny there is a particular emphasis on the importance of separation before there can be true unity. And this is an idea which must be considered if one wants to understand the full range of meanings in the myth of the androgyne, the myth of primordial unity.

Themes of unity are related to themes of separation. No matter where we find these two ideas, from the religious rites of primitive or archaic societies to modern psychoanalytical case studies, the interdependence of the two themes is always evident. Countless fertility myths employ violent dismemberment as an essential function of achieving renewed unity. We find constant references to an original totality which was divided or broken in order that the world or humanity could be born. The violent sacrifice corresponds to the myth of separation or dismemberment of the primordial unity.

In psychoanalysis we find a similar theme—before there can be unity there must be separation. We must know what the psychic pieces are in order to put them back together again. There are numerous case studies, many contemporary, in which we find such statements as: “It breaks me into pieces . . . I am completely in pieces . . . it is as if something bursts me asunder. Everything pulls me apart.”2 One patient dreamed repeatedly of finding her parents in pools of blood—torn limb from limb. We constantly hear the expression, “I just went to pieces.” It was psychoanalysis that gave focus to these phrases so familiar to us—and a particular awareness in the ’30s, due to the Surrealist influence, enabled many artists to give specific visual representation to these ideas. In Paul Klee’s painting Outburst of Fear, done the year before he died, the body has been so fragmented that the only recognizable elements are the hand and the face, suggesting the violence of dismemberment by its anguished expression. There are, of course, personal factors such as Klee’s illness which influence the work, but such paintings rise above the level of the purely personal and must be considered in broader terms.

At least one theme common to the mythically based rituals is that creation of new life can take place only from this violent separation. Violent death is creative in that it brings about a new unified form on a different plane of existence. John 12:24 states, “But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. . . . The body is made whole by being broken.” An awareness of these ideas can help us to get beyond purely formal analysis when looking at such works as Henry Moore’s Four Piece Composition. In the element which Moore himself has described as the head, there is an incised eye and a sliced-out portion which represents the mouth. The upturned head with open mouth has been used by other artists and has become a symbol of terror—the most famous example, of course, being Picasso’s use of it in Guernica. Would not this image fit our pattern of the violent dismembering of the human body? If this “violent death is creative,” however, where is the germ of creation? In his description of the piece Moore says, “. . . there is the head part, the leg part, the body part, and the small round form which is the umbilicus and which makes a connection,” implying a regenerative birth.3

The circle or spherical form has been seen as a sign of creation. Human perfection is imagined as an unbroken unity, a reflection of the divine perfection, the All in One. In Western philosophy we have Plato’s conception of primeval man as a bisexual being spherical in form. And there are numerous visual examples of this interest in a conceptualized image of original unity, as for example in Brancusi’s The Beginning of the World, the Cosmogonic Egg of primal totality seen in so many civilizations. Or we can find it in Ernst’s sculptures from the granite boulders of the Forno Glacier. Ernst says in a letter from 1935, “They are wonderfully polished by time, frost and weather. They are in themselves fantastically beautiful. No human can do that. So we confine ourselves to scratching on them the runes of our own mystery.”4

The fascination with stones! These smoothly polished stones have magical properties. As Arp has said, “They babble on and on and the sculptor is only too willing to believe what they say. To enlarge a stone is difficult work.”5 Containers of divine powers—in India they are passed on from father to son. From the Tantra religion we see stones representing the Original Unity, the Cosmic Egg. It is the male lingam, but the natural red flashes of the stone represent the female separating energy, so it is thought of as androgynous in nature. Then too the alchemical stone, or Philosopher’s stone, also symbolizes something androgynous and is sometimes called Rebis, ”the double being" born of the union of sun and moon.

There are many varieties of the image of androgyny in the art of the ’30s, often carrying the reference specifically in the title, such as Masson’s Hourglass Androgyne or Magritte’s Dream of the Androgyne. What I shall concentrate on here, however, consists basically of two distinct images, one which shows the single figure split into the two sexes and the other which shows two figures coming together to make one totally unified being.

An early example of the split image is Chagall’s Hommage à Apollinaire. A dual-natured being stands under the tree of knowledge inside a circular form holding an apple. An earlier version shows the serpent, implying that the division of sexes is linked with the Fall of Man—an idea we have seen in the writings of Jacob Boehme. Or perhaps for Chagall this came more directly from the mystic doctrine of the Cabala. According to the doctrines of Hassidism, which gave a new psychological interpretation to the Cabala, the believer aspires after the lost unity of fundamental forces in the Divine Being. As Franz Meyer has suggested, “The ‘Unity in Duality’ they represent is the basis of all the pictures of couples Chagall painted later for they are all concerned with the reunion of the parted, the victory of love over separation.”6 Visually the painting is closely related to such alchemical images as a 15th-century example from the Codex Rhenevacencis. In alchemical symbolism, the act of love, in transcending the sexes, reproduces the birth of the cosmos. The chaos of birds and serpents below is the “prima materia.” The androgyne pair carries the bat (night, air) and hare (day, earth). The eagle represents the sublimation and etherealization of a superior union.

In the lingam stone of Tantra we saw a symbolic reference to the unifying principle of androgyny—but the art of Tantra also gives us much more explicit representations of this theme. In Tantra the creation equals the explosion of primal unity and separation of two contrary principles incarnate in Shiva and Shakti. The final goal of the Tantracist is to reunite the two contrary principles, and this is represented by the actual physical or sexual union of the two. The union of the divine pair transforms the yogin into a kind of androgyne—the coming into being of wholeness, a new unified condition.

In the important alchemical source for the idea of androgyny the imagery can again become the quite explicit sexual union—the mysterium conjunctionis, the fusion of sulfur and mercury, the sun and moon, mind and soul. In this connection let us look at a work by William Blake. In his Jerusalem we read, “Sexes must vanish and cease to be when Albion arises from his dread repose”7 We know of Blake’s interest in alchemy at least as seen through the Cabala and Boehme, and in these two versions of an illustration for Jerusalem, we find strong implications of the androgynous image. In the trial proof from the Pierpont Morgan Library, two figures on a lily copulate beneath a net or stamen—fruitful consummation, perhaps that of Albion and Vala. In the final version, from the Paul Mellon collection, the figures no longer copulate. It has been suggested that they are both female here, and may portray the ideal union of Vala and Jerusalem, the physical and spiritual female form, that takes place in Havilah.8 ”He found Jerusalem . . . soft repos’d/ in the arms of Vala, assimilating in one with Vala."

Almost as if in anticipation of Picasso, the women’s faces blend into a single full-faced portrait, thus emphasizing their perfect unity. The fact that both figures may be female does not detract from the androgynous possibility, at least as we know it in Western philosophy from its source in Plato’s Symposium. In this myth, Aristophanes speaks of primeval beings of androgynous nature who were round. Because they were a threat to the gods Zeus diminished their strength by cutting them in two. But ". . . after the division the two parts of man each desiring his other half came together and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embrace, longing to grow into one.”9 Indeed Plato allowed for these figures to be either male and female, male and male, or female and female.

If we look at Picasso’s Figure of 1931 we find a striking example of the theme of reunification. The breasts in the center would indicate that at least one of the figures is female, but they are not attached to anything, and seem rather to be just one more item in this jumble of forms. The limbs and torsos of the figures are stacked upon one another like a pile of bones, making it difficult to tell which parts belong to which figure. Paul Eluard echoed this idea in a passage from his poem “Ombres.”

In grief and in joy we were but one
Same color and same odor same taste
Same passions, same rest, same equilibrium (. . .)
I embraced you you embraced me I embraced myself
You embraced yourself without even knowing who we were

As Plato said in the Symposium, the most important message brought to us in this myth is “. . . that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.” In terms of physical love it is explained in the same way, “. . . so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature making one of two and healing the state of man.”11 Two people in the act of making love on the beach. Comical figures because of their discombobulation. Menacing figures because of their sharp pointed tongues and nonhuman heads. Two bodies seeking to unite in a love embrace. One body, two heads, longing to grow into one—a self-love. One body fragmented, trying to pull itself back together again.

Jacques Lipchitz clearly had in mind the idea of sexual union as something more than purely biological fact, something which has the ability to transform to a purer state of unity and renewal as in The Couple, also called significantly The Cry, of 1929. Lipchitz said, "I changed the name to The Cry since the heads of the two figures combine in the effect of a single screaming head.”12 Once again we see two figures in the act of making love, but here the figures in their overall shape actually become one animallike creature—a single unified primordial being, both animal and human, both male and female, the reconciliation of opposites, unity in duality, all things in one. Lipchitz said that the idea for this piece arose from his despondency over the death of his sister and father, as a kind of release to show that “. . . in the midst of tragedy life must continue. In the midst of death there is love procreation and birth.”13 For Lipchitz then, this piece represented essentially the same theme that I have been discussing. As in the sacrificial rites in all societies, with the violence of death (The Cry) there is the promise of rebirth or regeneration. Out of loss or separation there comes a new, more completely unified condition.

If we look at one more example of this theme we can see how Brancusi, over a period of years, turned these “lovers” into one of the purest of all expressions of symbolic unity. His famous work The Kiss shows evidence of his interest in this idea as early as 1908. As these two figures lock in embrace they become one monolithic form. Indeed, they become one being with one central eye formed by the meeting of their eyes. The Kiss can be seen in many variations, but it was only after a period of over 20 years that Brancusi came back to this theme and presented it in a much more simplified and highly symbolic form entitled The Column of the Kiss, 1933.

In this version, all indications of representational form have been eliminated. The two figures have been reduced to a simple symbolic expression carved on all four sides of a rectangular column. As the two heads come together in the kiss they form a circle—the most universal expression of unity. This column then, raised on a pedestal of powerful carved forms almost primitive in their crude simplicity, becomes an idolistic image of unity—the unified being formed by the bringing together or reuniting of male and female. This theme receives its most powerful expression in the Gate of the Kiss, 1937, almost 30 years after the original version. In this massive stone gate the stylized form of The Kiss has perhaps even further symbolic significance, for this form as viewed here, a view which, because of the giant scale of the gate, would be normal for the close-up viewer, can be read as a vagina with great legs stretching below it. The concentric circle is rich in symbolic meaning and can stand for both vagina and navel or womb, so this gate is perhaps symbolic of the “unified being” in the form of the Great Mother, the primordial ancestor from whose womb all living things emanate. Indeed, in a recent article, Sidney Geist has pointed out how Brancusi altered this section of the gate so that it would represent both male and female genitalia. In an enlightened discussion he further demonstrates how the entire gate merges the symbolism of its companion pieces, the “female” Table and the “male” Endless Column, and represents just the theme I have been discussing—unity in duality.14

Robert Knott teaches art history at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem; this article is a revised version of a paper presented at the College Art Association, January 1975.



1. Albert Beguin, “L’Androgyne,” Minotaure, No. 11, 1938, pp. 10 ff.

2. From a case study quoted by Paul Schilder in The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, London, 1935, p. 159.

3. John Hedgecoe and Henry Moore, Henry Moore, New York, 1968, p. 34.

4. Max Ernst in a letter written from Maloja in 1935. C. Gideon-Welcker, Contemporary Sculpture, New York, 1955.

5. C. Gideon-Welcker, Jean Arp, New York, 1957, p. XXVIII.

6. Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall, New York, 1965, p. 154.

7. Joseph Wicksteed, William Blake’s Jerusalem, New York, 1955.

8. Anne Kostelanetz Mellor, Blake’s Human Form Divine, Berkeley, 1974, p. 302.

9. Plato, Symposium, New York, Modern Library edition, 1928, p. 354.

10. Paul Eluard, “Ombres,” Une Leçon de Morale, Paris, 1953, p. 51.

11. Plato, Symposium, p. 354.

12. Jacques Lipchiu, My Life in Sculpture, with H. H. Arnason, New York, 1972, p. 99.

13. Ibid.

14. Sidney Geist, “Brancusi: The Centrality of the Gate,” Artforum, October, 1973, p. 77.