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The Splitting of Male and Female

from the Symposium by Plato – 360 BC

based on a translation by Benjamin Jowett c. 14-16

Aristophanes’ speech in which he praises especially gay love between men

Aristophanes professed to open another vein of discourse; he had a mind to praise Love [= Eros] in another way, unlike that either of Pausanias or Eryximachus. Mankind; he said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honour; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race.

[the following text is modernised and edited for the sake of clarity]

§ 1. I will try to describe Love’s power to you, and you shall teach the rest of the world what I am teaching you. In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was

  • man,
  • woman,
  • and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “androgynous” (man-woman) is only preserved as a term of reproach.
The androgynous human, who is part male, part female, is considered an aberration.
§ 2. In the second place, the primeval human [in each of the three sexes] was round, his/her back and sides forming a circle; and he/she had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two genital members, and the remainder to correspond. He/she could walk upright as people now do, backwards or forwards as he/she pleased, and he/she could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his/her four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he/she wanted to run fast. androgyne2illustration by Dr. Tom Stockmann

§ 3. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three;-and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which humans offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.

§ 4. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; humans shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”
At this he cut humans [each of the three sexes] in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide a (boiled) egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the human might contemplate the side of himself/herself [that had been cut off]: he/she would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So Apollo gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre [of the belly] which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few wrinkles, however, in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state.

§ 5. After the division, the two parts of [each] human, each desiring his/her other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces. Longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, being the halves of entire men or women, and clung to that. They were being destroyed, but Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan.

§ 6. Zeus turned the genital parts of humans round to the front, for this had not always been their position. And humans sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of a man and a woman they might breed, and the race might continue.

Or if a [gay] man united to another man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: 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 the human being.

In other words: formerly there had been no sex. The seed was sown into the soil. But after the separation of the male and female half, the female half became as it were the new ‘soil’ into which the seed was sown.
§ 7. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the half of a human being, and he/she is always looking for his/her other half.

  • Men who are a ‘half’ of that [original] double human which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men.
  • The women who are a ‘half’ of the [original] woman do not care for men, but have female attachments [= they are lesbians]; their female companions are of the same sort.
  • But they who are a ‘half’ of the [original] male follow the male [= they are gay men], and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saving. When they reach manhood they are lovers of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children, – if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him. And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.

Note how the sexual union of a male and a female are described as somehow reprehensible: as tainted with lust.

But the love of gay men is extolled as pure and truly manly.