The modest size and crisp white colour make this cast of Satyr and Hermaphrodite stand out in the display on the western side of the Cast Gallery. The sculpture depicts a struggle between the two naked figures, though it is not entirely clear who is the attacker and who is the victim. At first glance it looks as if the Satyr extends his legs around his opponent's thighs in his attempt to grasp the Hermaphrodite from behind to satisfy his own sexual appetite while the Hermaphrodite fights for release and grabs the Satyr's face and right foot to push him away. In the struggle their garment has slipped off and lies partly on the ground, partly on the rock upon the Satyr is seated.
An alternative viewing of the pair identifies the Hermaphrodite as the aggressor: they have locked the left foot of the Satyr with their right leg and with their hands is trying to bring the Satyr closer. In this case the reluctance of the Satyr would be justified by his surprise on the discovery that his opponent is not a a female Nymph buy the ambiguous Hermaphrodite. The uncomfortable posture of the Hermaphrodite with strenuously twisted waist and the unstable position of the legs are perhaps in favour of the first reading. One cannot completely excluse the second reading however, and it is exactly this ambiguity the theme intends to evoke as a playful trick on its audience. This effect would have been further enhanced by the two principal views of the group with the 'front' presenting the Hermaphrodite's back and the 'back' showing its chest and the genitalia visible only from the closer intermediary view.
What is beyond doubt is the popularity of this sculptural type in the Roman period, as 28 marble and two bronze versions of it have been discovered. They date to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, are all smaller than life-size and are thought to have relief on an earlier Hellenistic original. The cast in the Ashmolean replicates the most complete version in marble, which is the group of the State Collection of Art in Dresden. The exact provenance and original context is known only for five of the surviving versions. Two come from Roman villas and three from theatres, which indicate that the group was used to embellish both private and public spaces. The type is also depicted in two-dimensional media, such as mosaic floors, frescoes and gemstones.
The norm in Classical art was to present the Hermaphrodite alone and asleep, while satyrs were usually depicted attempting to seduce Nymphs or Maenads. The pairing, therefore, of the two figures was unique and, as the versions in different media show, highly admired. Seen either as 'erotic art', or as a theme from the world of Dionysus, or simply admired for the vigorous postures and the complex interaction between the two figures, the group today still engages, amuses, and charms the viewer.
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