THE PERFECT LOVE STORY
Once a son was born to Mercury and the goddess Venus, and he was brought up by the naiads in Ida’s caves. In his features, it was easy to trace resemblance to his father and to his mother. He was called after them, too, for his name was Hermaphroditus. As soon as he was fifteen, he left his native hills, and Ida where he had been brought up, and for the sheer joy of travelling visited remote places.
He went as far as the cities of Lycia, and on to the Carians, who dwelt nearby. In this region he spied a pool of water, so clear that he could see right to the bottom. The water was like crystal, and the edges of the pool were ringed with fresh turf and grass that was always green. A nymph [Salmacis] dwelt there. Often she would gather flowers, and it so happened that she was engaged in this pastime when she caught sight of the boy, Hermaphroditus.
As soon as she had seen him, she longed to possess him. She addressed him: “Fair boy, you surely deserve to be thought a god. If you are, perhaps you may be Cupid? If there is such a girl [engaged to you], let me enjoy your love in secret: but if there is not, then I pray that I may be your bride, and that we may enter upon marriage together.” The naiad said no more; but a blush stained the boy’s cheeks, for he did not know what love was. Even blushing became him: his cheeks were the color of ripe apples, hanging in a sunny orchard, like painted ivory or like the moon when, in eclipse, she shows a reddish hue beneath her brightness.
Incessantly the nymph demanded at least sisterly kisses, and tried to put her arms round his ivory neck. “Will you stop!” he cried, “or I shall run away and leave this place and you!” Salmacis was afraid: “I yield the spot to you, stranger, I shall not intrude,” she said; and, turning from him, pretended to go away. The boy, meanwhile, thinking himself unobserved and alone, strolled this way and that on the grassy sward, and dipped his toes in the lapping water—then his feet, up to the ankles. Then, tempted by the enticing coolness of the waters, he quickly stripped his young body of its soft garments. At the sight, Salmacis was spell-bound. She was on fire with passion to possess his naked beauty, and her very eyes flamed with a brilliance like that of the dazzling sun, when his bright disc is reflected in a mirror.
She longed to embrace him then, and with difficulty restrained her frenzy. Hermaphroditus, clapping his hollow palms against his body, dived quickly into the stream. As he raised first one arm and then the other, his body gleamed in the clear water, as if someone had encased an ivory statue or white lilies in transparent glass. “I have won! He is mine!” cried the nymph, and flinging aside her garments, plunged into the heart of the pool. The boy fought against her, but she held him, and snatched kisses as he struggled, placing her hands beneath him, stroking his unwilling breast, and clinging to him, now on this side, and now on that.
Finally, in spite of all his efforts to slip from her grasp, she twined around him, like a serpent when it is being carried off into the air by the king of birds: for, as it hangs from the eagle’s beak, the snake coils round his head and talons and with its tail hampers his beating wings. “You may fight, you rogue, but you will not escape. May the gods grant me this, may no time to come ever separate him from me, or me from him!”
Her prayers found favor with the gods: for, as they lay together, their bodies were united and from being two persons they became one. As when a gardener grafts a branch on to a tree, and sees the two unite as they grow, and come to maturity together, so when their limbs met in that clinging embrace the nymph and the boy were no longer two, but a single form, possessed of a dual nature, which could not be called male or female, but seemed to be at once both and neither.
— OVID, Metamorphoses, TRANSLATED BY MARY M. INNES