Many cultures have had religions and beliefs that feature human-like gods and goddesses, most of them being specifically male or female. However, for some, creation and fertility was not always a female feature, and many concepts of nature and the universe could only be explained from a dipole perspective. Sometimes, being intersex was a result of magical or mysterious events.
This list shows intersex deities from different mythologies, their significance and stories. The use of “she” or “he” goes in accordance with texts and legends, which often use the pronouns based on the predominant or more perceivable gender.
1. Hermaphroditus (Greek)
Hermaphroditus was an incredibly attractive man who was raised by nymphs. The myth tells that one day he totally undressed and jumped into a lake. There lived Salmacis, a nymph who had fallen in love with him, but who suffered after being blatantly friendzoned. When she saw him, she embraced him tightly and prayed to the gods that they become one eternally. From then on, every man who bathed in that lake became effeminate. Alternative stories say that he was “born that way.” As we might tell, this where the term “hermaphrodite” comes from, referring to organisms with both female and male reproductive organs.
2. Agdistis (Phrygian, Greek, Roman)
Yet another mind-blowing story originated because Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants! As a result of him raping Great Mother (Gaia) while she slept on the rock Agdo, a creature was born with both female and male genitals. (S)he was named Agdistis. The gods were scared of this superhuman of double gender, and plotted to make Agdistis auto-castrate. Dionysus secretly tied Agdistis’ feet to his/her penis during sleep, so it would be pulled at the moment (s)he got up. Her blood fertilized the earth, and the penis became an almond tree. Sometime later, the daughter of the god Sangarius would get pregnant at the moment she put some almonds from that tree on her lap; and Agdistis would fall in love with her own son, Attis.
3. Hapi (Egyptian)
Hapi was the god of the Nile River. Although male, Hapi was related to fertility and to the ability to provide food to Egypt. He was considered responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile, which kept the lands from becoming a desert and made farming possible. Since fertility and nourishing were typical female traits, he presents physical features of both sexes: big breasts, a fake beard, a large belly, and aquatic plants on his head (!). Interestingly, there were two Hapi: one in upper Egypt and one in lower Egypt, and both of them had a wife… We can bet they were happy!
4. Ardhanarishvara (Hindu)
Literally named “the Lord who is half woman.” Ardhanarishvara is a god composed of half Shiva (god of destruction and regeneration) and the god Parvati (a form of Shakti, wife of Shiva). Other of Ardhanarishvara’s names mean “man-woman,” “mother-father,” and “the Lord whose half is the fair one.” It symbolizes the inseparability of female and male energies in the universe, the integrity of marital union, and the power of fertility of nature. Though there are several episodes in the Puranas about the origin of this form of Shiva, one stands out. In one instance, Lord Brahma created the universe and male humans, but needed to make human copulation possible. Soon Ardhanarishvara manifested, and Lord Brahma deemed “half and half” perfect.
5. Lan Caihe (China)
One of the Eight Immortals in Daoism, Lan Caihe was a human of unknown sex and unknown age. According to the legend, (s)he was an eccentric beggar and drunkard who gained immortality by an act of charity. (S)he is the patron saint of the poor, and is usually depicted wearing only one shoe, holding a flute, or carrying a basket of flowers, fruits or bamboo. Lan is portrayed either as a man, a woman, or an effeminate man. In Chinese theater, (s)he wears female clothes, but sounds like a male.
6. Ymir (Norse)
The tales of the Origin of the Cosmos of Norse mythology tell about the rising flames from Muspelheim that encountered the frost from Niflheim, creating a splatter of mass and energy in the abyss of Ginnungagap. As the ice melted, Ymir, a hermaphrodite, was born. Later, a cow named Auðumbla emerged from the drops, and fed him. The earth was created out of Ymir’s flesh and bones when he was killed by the god Odin: of his blood the sea/ of his bones the hills/ of his hair trees and plants/ of his skull the heaven… So says the Poetic Edda. It is thought that the name “Ymir” comes from the Norse “um,” which means “whole.”
7. Ometeotl (Aztec)
In Nahuatl, the language spoken by Aztecs in Mexico, “Ome” means “two,” and “teotl” means “cosmic energy.” Ometeotl was therefore considered the “Lord of Duality,” being simultaneously male (Ometecuhtli) and female (Omecihuatl), and also carrying light and darkness, order and chaos, nearness and closeness… This very first god represented the belief that the universe was formed by opposite poles. Constituting a two-in-one abstract god, “they” resided in the 13th heaven Omeyocan (meaning “Two Place”). There, four sons were born, each with qualities that complemented the others: Xipe Totec (east, red, dawn), Quetzalcoatl (west, white, sunset), Tezcatlipoca (north, black, midnight), and Huitzilopochtli (south, blue, noon).
8. Jehovah (Hermetic Kabbalah)
According to the Kabbalah, Adam was not a male, but both a male and a female. Instead of simply possessing organs of both sexes, he was vertically divided, one face forward, one face behind. This challenges the Christian story telling that Eve was made from one of Adam’s ribs: it is said that the Hebrew word tzela was misinterpreted as “rib,” but actually means “side,” and that after God created the so-called Primordial Adam, he cut his body in half. Let our imaginations handle that. Anyway, since Adam was made in resemblance of God, it is deduced that the latter is a hermaphrodite.
9. Phanes (Greek)
Before the world was created, there was an egg world. That egg world was becoming so full and there was so much friction inside of it, that eventually Kronos (god of time) and Ananke (god of inevitability) broke it. Phanes was born at that moment, and had two faces, two sexes, golden wings, bulls’ heads growing from the sides, and snakes embracing his body. This primal god represented the ability to reproduce, and was therefore the one to initiate life. Some say that Zeus ate him, incorporating into his body all powers, forms of nature and immortals that Phanes contained, which made it possible to bring them out at Mount Olympus.
10. Ahsonnutli (Navaho)
As the Navaho people migrated to find a habitable place, they got to this world, which was in complete darkness. They talked to Ahsonnutli, the “Turquoise Hermaphrodite” who lived in the Ure Mountains. Ahsonnutli was at the same time a male creator god; in consequence, it is thought that her sexual partner was, so to say, her other self. She carried turquoise beads in her left breast, and white beads in her right breast. After much struggle, with help from the carriers of the “Chanteen” (sun rays) and twelve men living at each of the cardinal points, she managed to make the sun rise. She then appointed the forty-eight men to stay at the cardinal points and hold the heavens up.