Hermaphrodites are born rarely, and it is far from clear why their mythology achieved such prominence in Antiquity. Reference to cross-dressing during certain marriage rites does not go far, but the cult of Hermaphroditus is a fact, and Ovid’s tale of the union in one body of the son of Hermes and Aphrodite is well-known. Perhaps this myth reflects the eternal desire to be sexually self-sufficient and thus never bother about a lover, faithlessness, and divorce. In art, Hermaphroditus was portrayed as a youth with developed breasts or as the goddess Aphrodite with male genitals. It is even less clear what the oldest speakers of the Germanic languages knew about hermaphrodites. Characteristically, the modern word (hermaphrodite) is unabashedly Greek with an obvious mythological tinge. But this is so in present day English.
In Frisian, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages, the main (and sometimes the only) word for hermaphrodite has the inner form that can be rendered as “of two sexes” or “with two tools.” German has Zwitter, from earlier zwitarn. Zwi- is related to zwei “two”; the meaning of -tarn or -arn is obscure (a suffix or a remnant of a longer noun?). Medieval Germanic scribes occasionally ran into Latin hermaphroditus, which they had to gloss, that is, to translate into their languages. When we are able to decipher the words they used, we come up with “castrated man,” “effeminate person,” “bad creature” (the adjective bad seems to be the root of such a noun) and even “devil” (for instance, Old Engl. scritta), rather than “a person with two sets of reproductive organs.” Some glosses were probably nonce words, formations coined on the spur of the moment, like Modern Engl. willgill ~ willjill. Most scribes had a vague idea that something was wrong with a hermaphrodite and knew that the flaw pertained to the sexual sphere, but were at a loss to find an exact equivalent. On the other hand, they could know the exact term from dealing with the natural world. Thus, in a Low (= northern) German dialect the word helferling occurs; it is a term used in pigeon breeding, and its affinity with Engl. half is not in doubt. Such formations could have existed a millennium and even two ago. Perhaps zwitarn is one of them.
A brave effort was once made to detect a term for “hermaphrodite” in a 14th-century German legal code titled Sachsenspiegel (-spiegel “mirror”). The term is altvile (plural). Dwarves, cripples, and altvile were not allowed to inherit movable property or fief. The disenfranchised were the people who could not defend themselves, and this explains the exclusion of the handicapped and dwarves, the more so as stunted growth was looked upon as a mental disease rather than a physical, bodily deficiency. But hermaphrodites? How many hermaphrodites could there be in medieval Germany, to justify a special clause? Altvil, analyzed as al-tvil, appears to contain a cognate of two. Or we could be dealing with alt-vil, which resembles the phrase all zu viel “too many” (presumably of organs). Those who copied the Sachsenspiegel in the 14th century did not know more about this matter than we do, for the word turns up in numerous forms, a sure sign of scribes’ perplexity. The Sachsenspiegel was several times translated into Latin, and the original manuscript has splendid illustrations. However, neither the Latin glosses of the German words nor the pictures make it clear what altvile means. More likely, the division is al-tvile, and the word has nothing to do with hermaphrodites. It may have meant “madmen,” with -twil being related to Dutch dwaes “foolish” and its Old Engl. cognate. Defending this interpretation will take me too far afield and is not relevant (not germane, as one of my colleagues likes to say) to the present discussion. A certain Markwart Altfil is known to have lived in 1180. I think he was Markwart dolt. Medieval soubriquets, some of them used about royalty, were unbelievably offensive, and few topics are more intriguing than the attitudes of a society in which one could kill and be acquitted for a scurrilous allusion but would tolerate the most demeaning nickname.
A legitimate question is whether Germanic mythology preserved tales of hermaphrodites. The answer is not really. The Roman historian Tacitus, who in the second half of the 1st century C.E. left an all-important description of the southern ancestors of Rome’s Germanic neighbors, mentioned Tuisto, or Tuisco, the spouseless father of the god Mannus, but nothing is known about his appearance. Only his name suggests “two of something.” The 13th-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson tells a story of how Ymir, the primordial giant of the Scandinavian creation myth, fell into a sweat while he slept, whereupon a man and a woman grew under his arm. Also, one of his legs got a son with the other. In such myths, children are usually born to a great spouseless progenitor, but this does not mean that he was a hermaphrodite. Ymir has been compared with Latin gemini “twins.” More likely, it means “howler,” a typical name for a giant. In Scandinavian myths, giants were not particularly huge, and dwarves were not small. They were distinguished by their function: the gods maintained law and order, the dwarves provided them with the treasures that assured their ability to govern (a hammer, a sword, a magic ship, and so forth), and the giants were the forces of chaos. For that reason, giants and dwarves often had the same names. One of them was Billingr, which appears to have meant either “twin” or, less likely, “hermaphrodite” (in regional Swedish and Nynorsk, billing means “twin”). But this is a piece of speculative etymology, not a myth, for we know nothing about either the giant or the dwarf called Billingr: all that has come down to us are their identical names.
Roman and Germanic mythology share numerous tales, but there is no Germanic counterpart of the story told by Ovid or statuettes resembling the pictures on ancient vases. Although the ancestors of the modern speakers of the Germanic languages were apparently not ignorant of hermaphrodites, all our insights come from linguistic forms (glosses and names), poor substitutes for narrative and visual art.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”