"Hen Ek Duoin": One Out of Two

Aristophanes' Speech from Plato's Symposium
as translated by Connell O'Donovan

This creation myth places humans of all three genders (androgynous, male, and female) in a primeval state of eternal bliss. However, we grew insolent in our blissful state and refused to properly honor the gods (and even tried to pursue them in their mountainous home). As punishment, we were split in two. Those with a "male" nature (the Children of the Sun) became homosexual men; those with a "female" nature (the Children of the Earth) became Lesbians; and the androgynes (Children of the Moon) became heterosexuals. Navels are the souvenirs of the operation we all went through in being divided from our beloved other half. The myth warns humanity to be careful in always honoring the gods (especially Eros) or we will be hewn in two once more, leaving us to hop around on just one leg. Part of properly honoring Eros is to search for and find our lost half, to be restored to our natural state of bliss. This myth was made into an excellent rock song, "The Origin of Love" for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by Stephen Trask and recorded by John Cameron Mitchell (a Radical Faerie). Click here for the lyrics.


'Now indeed, O Eryximachus,' said Aristophanes. 'I must speak something different from what you and Pausanias said. For to me, humans completely misunderstand the dynamics of Eros [Love]; if they perceived Him, they would build the greatest temples and altars, and would make the greatest sacrifices, just as now none of these things happen for Him, although most assuredly it is fitting that they all happen. For of all the gods, He [Eros] is the philanthropist, being an ally to humanity, and a healer in those things needing healing, bringing the greatest happiness to the human race. Therefore, I shall try to initiate you into the mysteries of His dynamics, and you will become teachers of others.

First, you all will learn about the nature of humanity and its experiences. For long ago its nature was not as it is now - one became the other. For at first there were three species [or sexes] of humans, not two, just as now: male and female, as well as another third one [androgyne], sharing things in common with both of these (of which its name remains although it has disappeared). For the androgyne back then was distinct in shape and name, out of having in common both male and female, but now its name survives only in reproach.

Second, each human was in the shape of a rounded whole, its back and sides making a circle having four hands, and legs the same number as hands, and two faces upon a circular neck (identical in all ways), and a head for the faces (each one facing the opposite way), and four ears, and two genitals, and everything else likewise. They stood upright (just as now) whichever of the two ways they walked. But when they started to run quickly, the eight limbs would revolve in a circular handcart, just like tumblers, fixing the limbs to complete the circle and return upright.(2) I have said there are three species and such things because the male was originally a descendant of the Sun, and the female of the Earth, and the species sharing both is of the Moon, because the Moon shares both [the Sun and the Earth]. Both their [planetary] roundness and their revolving were passed on to their offspring [making them do circular handcarts when moving rapidly].

I have also said that their awesome strength, force, and pride made them formidable, so they attacked the gods, which Homer tells about Ephialtes and Otus,(3) saying about them that they went mountain climbing to make an attack on the heavens and to pursue the gods. So Zeus and the other gods counseled together because it was necessary to do something and retaliate. But neither could they slay them like they had thunder-bolted the Giants, and thus annihilate them (and forever end the honor and sacrifices due them from humanity) nor could they let them become uncharmed. With toil, Zeus devised a plan. "In my opinion," He said, "I have the means to both let the humans continue to be, as well as put an end to their 'unpruned' state, by making them weak. Now here is what I do to them," He said. "I slice each of them in two, and thus they will be weak, but at the same time more useful to us through being a greater number. And they will walk upright upon two legs. If there is a sign of them still being uncharmed and my spell makes them unquiet, then once more," He said, "I hew them in two and they can walk by dancing on one leg." Upon saying these things, He hewed the humans in two just as one cuts fruit for preservation, or just as an egg [is sliced] with a hair. As He was hewing them, He asked Apollo to turn their faces and necks around to the side that was hewn, as well as to heal their wounds, thus making of them well-behaved humans. And He [Apollo] turned their faces around and gathered their skin together upon what is now called the abdomen, just as a sack with draw-strings, tying it tightly in the middle of the abdomen around one opening [i.e. the navel]. And He smoothed out the many wrinkles and molded the chest with a tool that shoemakers use to smooth out wrinkles in leather, but leaving a few around the navel, to remind them of how they were in their ancient state.

After that, with their natures hewn in two, each one missed(4) the union with its other half. They threw their arms about each other and were woven together with one another, desiring to grow together, so that they died off from hunger and laziness, for they were willing to do nothing apart from the other. And when one half died, and one was left, the one left would seek out and weave together with another, either from half of a female whole (who is now called a woman), or a man. And they went on dying. Then Zeus pitied them and provided another way, and moved their genitals to the front. For hitherto they were in back and thus they had procreated and given birth, not one with another in sex, but just as cicadas. By moving them up front, He made them procreate with each other, through males being in females. If men and women interwove at the same time, then they procreated and the race continued; or if men [interwove] with men at the same time, then they satiated desire for intercourse, and they ceased [desire for intercourse] and turned their energies to work and took care of the other things of life.

It is from that time that the innate Love [Eros] of humans for each other came to be, and draws us to that primeval nature, and as a consequence(5) makes one out of two ["hen ek duoin"] and heals humanity's nature. Each of us then is a symbol(6) of humanity inasmuch as we are hewn like a flat fish - out of one, two ["ex henos duo"]. So they each seek their [other] symbol. All those men who are sliced from the most common [sex], which was called androgynous, are lovers of women and many of the unfaithful [or adulterers] come from this species, as all women who love men and are unfaithful do come from this species. Women who were hewn from a woman pay no attention whatsoever to men; however, they turn exclusively to women, and the hetairistriai(7) come from this species. All those men who are hewn from a man, chase after men, and are like that from boyhood; being slices of a man, they love males and delight in lying down together and being smitten with men, and are therefore the best boys and young men, being of such manly natures. Some think that they are shameless, but they lie. For it is not shamelessness which they do that gives them courage, manliness, and virility, but their embracing of those identical to themselves. Great is the proof [of this]. For only such kind, upon becoming men, go into politics. As soon as pederasts(8) are reared to manhood, by nature they do not turn to marriage and procreation, but are only forced to, by custom. Otherwise, they are satisfied go through life together, unmarried. At least such "pederasts" become "philerasts"(9), embracing what they are akin to.

Whenever one of these encounters the other half, whether a pederast or any other, then he is astounded by wondrous love, friendship, and erotic feelings, and is not willing, according to maxim, to be seperated from the other for even the shortest time. Although they pass through life with each other, they find it difficult to say what they wish to happen between them. For no one believes their union to be aphrodisiacal, since each one rejoices differently for the sake of the other, for their finding union with such great zeal. It is clear that each of the two is longing for something else, which they are unable to say, but can only surmise and hit at what they want. If Hephaestus, with his tools, went to them while they were lying together, and were to ask, "What is it, humans, that you want by being together?" And, at a loss, He asks again, "Is it your desire to be with each other always, and not be seperated from each other both night and day? If that is your desire, I am willing to fuse and 'synphysize' you together so that the two become one and as long as you live you will be one, sharing a common life until death approaches, and then you will also be one in Hades (not two), having a common death. Would such things yet satisfy your desire for such a fate?"

We know the answer; neither could we strongly refuse it, nor would it appear that we want anything else, other than the unskilled response to what has been erstwhile desired - cooperation and fusion with one's lover - becoming one out of two. For this is the basis; this is our primeval nature, described as being whole. Eros is the name for desire and pursuit of the "whole". Before that, as I say, we were one ["hen"] until our injustice brought dispersion from the gods, like the Arcadians by the Lachedaimians [i.e.Spartans] (10). There is a fear that if we do not honor the gods, we may be split in two [again], surviving just as those who are outlined on stelae [i.e. carved in relief], sawn in half down the nose, becoming like half-dice [i.e. dominoes].

Otherwise, on account of such things, every man must exhort everyone else to pay reverence to the gods, in order that we escape that fate which we deserve, according only Eros as a guide and a general for us. Let none act in opposition; acting in opposition is hateful to the gods. For in being friends with and reconciled to the God [Eros], we search for and encounter our [same-sex] lover ["paidika"], who is now almost made ours.

And Eryximachus interrupts me, treating my speech as comic, for speaking thus to Pausanias and Agathon. Perhaps they really are of this class, and both are of the male nature! But especially, I am not speaking only for my part, but about all men and women, that happiness for each of our race comes from the opposite- and same-sex lovers(11) fulfilling their fate, returning to their primeval nature. Since such [a state] was once best, it is necessary now to draw closer to being the best in the present. Such things are done by casting your fate with a [same-sex] lover ["paidikon"],(12) congenial to the individual himself. If we are to sing worthy hymns to a god responsible [for this] then we should sing hymns to Eros, since it is possible for us to gather great domestic benefits and then be furnished with great hope. If we show reverence to the gods, He [Eros] will restore us to the primeval nature, and heal us to bliss and make us happy.

That, I say, O Eryximachus, is my speech on Eros, quite different from yours. Just as you promised, do not make fun of it, but let us hear what each of the others will say - or rather the other two, for only Agathon and Socrates are left.'


Note 1 was deleted.

2. According to John Boswell, Empedocles is the only other Greek to postulate an era of double-humans, but only Aristophanes expands on this idea.

3. In the Odyssey, Homer states that Ephialtes and Otus were the "tallest men on earth" and planned to overthrow the gods by piling Mt. Ossa on top of Mt. Olympus, and then Mt. Pelion on Ossa, but Zeus destroyed them before they could accomplish their plan.

4. This verb literally means "desired", but it is a strong desire for something once possessed and now lost.

5. The noun used here actually means either a reward or a punishment, depending upon the perspective of the recipient.

6. The Greek word "sumbalon" (or symbol) can means a token or tally. Anciently, if an object was cut into two "symbols" and half given to "A" in one part of the world, and the other half to "B" in another part, then A and B could prove their identity to one another for any personal, political, commercial (or in this case, erotic) purpose.

7. This apparently corresponds somewhat to our modern term "Lesbian", and is closely related to the Greek word for courtesan ("hetaira") but otherwise is rather obscure etymologically. Courtesans generally were the only women in classical Greece accorded a public life; being well-educated in politics, philosophy, history, art, drama and other such matters, they were often encouraged to participate with men in debates on those topics. According to the classicist Kenneth Dover, "this is the only surviving passage from classical Attic literature which acknowledges the existence of female homosexuality".

8. "Paiderasteis" is apparently a term for young Athenian men (ages 12-18?) who are erotically involved with older male citizens.

9. "Philerasteis" is apparently a term for older Athenian men who are erotically involved with other, ideally younger, males.

10. The Spartans attacked the Arcadian city-state of Mantinea, demolishing its walls, and dispersing its population into four different settlements.

11. I use two anachronistic terms here for the Greek "erota" and "paidikon", but I believe that this best conveys to us what Plato must have originally meant.

12. Here, lovers of the opposite-sex are conspicuously but inexplicably absent.

Copyright 1996 by Connell O'Donovan. Do not copy without my express, written approval. For the Greek text of Plato's Symposium I have used the one edited by Kenneth Dover, Cambridge University Press, 1980, 189C-193E.

Return to Connell's Home Page or return to more Radical Essays