[Article revised on 4 May 2020.]
Plato’s Symposium contains a myth about the origins of human love, the Myth of Aristophanes.
Once upon a time, there were three kinds of people: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and hermaphrodite, with both male and female parts, descended from the moon.
These early people were completely round, each with four arms and four legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards, and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets. They were wild and unruly and threatened to scale the heavens. So Zeus, the father of the gods, cut each one of them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling’—and even threatened to cut them into two again so that they might hop on one leg.
Apollo, the god of light, then turned their heads to make them face towards their wound, pulled their skin around to cover up the wound, and tied it together at the navel like a purse. He made sure to leave a few wrinkles on what became known as the abdomen so that they might be reminded of their punishment.
After that, people searched all over for their other half. When they finally found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go.
As a result, they started dying from hunger and self-neglect, and Zeus took pity on them, and moved their genitals to the front so that those who were previously androgynous could procreate, and those who were previously male could obtain satisfaction and move on.
This is the origin of our desire for others: those of us who desire members of the opposite sex used to be hermaphrodites, whereas men who desire men used to be male, and women who desire women used to be female.
When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by mere lust, but by the need to be whole again, to be restored to our original nature.
Our greatest wish, if only we could have it, would then be for Hephaestus, the god of fire, to melt us into one another so that our souls could be at one and share in a common fate.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
Plato, Symposium, The Myth of Aristophanes