At the heart of symbolism

The double meaning of the Androgyne

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The Androgyne, alpha and omega of the manifested being

In the “Symposium” of Plato, Aristophanes builds up his speech about love on a myth. In bygone days, only androgynes used to exist. They were composed of two beings of opposite sex, placed side by side. Boosted by their double nature, they wanted to challenge the Gods and therefore Zeus decided to punish the androgynes by splitting them in two. They gave birth to human beings looking just like us. According to Aristophanes, love would be nothing else but a feeling of nostalgia towards our ancient nature and a desperate quest for our lost unity. The union of beings or opposites would portray an attempt to re-find the missing link through the search for soul mate.

It follows from the myth that the Androgyne represents, at the same time, both united aspects of the being. Either the opposites are merged within the potential state of the not yet manifested being or the manifested being has realized their re-integration and rejoined the primeval Unit.

Originally, the Being stood beyond the polarities merged into the Unity. He was neither masculine nor feminine and far away from the physical features of the hermaphrodite. In reality, he was standing outside of any physical level, at a proper spiritual level.

The Androgyne is neither masculine nor feminine, It is neuter. It is at once the symbol of the not yet manifested being whose polarities are still merged within the Unity and the manifested being who has realized their re-integration within the primeval Unity

Splitting of the Being symbolizes the polarization of the primeval Unit, at the source of the manifestation of any thing. A polarization between light and darkness, day and night, Heaven and Earth, hot and cold, fire and water, yang and yin, masculine and feminine as well as between opposites feelings: happiness and misfortune, fear and aggressiveness, sadness and anger, doubt and credo etc.

Within many traditions, the primeval Unit used to be represented as a “Cosmic Egg” of “spherical” form, the less differentiated as it does not give any preference to any direction coming out from the centre. The differentiation of the primeval Unit, under its manifested aspects, has to go through duality, which is associated with the fall. The original Adam was an androgyne; he became male when Eve was born from one of his sides (and not ribs).

During its manifestation, the human becomes male or female and goes through successive cycles of death in an existence state and re-birth into another state until being liberated from the duality perception proper to the manifested world. Life is a whole and living it fully brings you to transcendence. Then, Heaven meets Earth, opposed polarities disappear and antagonisms are transformed into complements merged within the primeval Unit. Opposites such as doubt and credo are overcome by trust. Similarly, the resolution of the antagonisms like sadness and anger is accomplished by compassion. As for the dilemma between fear and aggressiveness, it can only be solved by love and sharing. Restoring the primeval state is the matter, for instance, of the “Yoga” which means union (of opposites).

Both reverse movements may be found in Androgyne representations within different traditional forms.

The Androgyne is often depicted either as a dyad or a bisexual entity.

The Androgyne representations

The dyadic representation

Sculpture of Khajuraho's Temple in IndiaDiverse traditions offer plenty of examples of representations taking the dyad appearance:

In Hindu tradition, for instance, Shiva is an androgyny God tenderly embracing Shakti, his own energy depicted as a female Goddess (see the picture). The erotic sculptures of Khajuraho Temple show such “couples”, the real meaning of which has sometimes been forgotten.

In the Chinese tradition, the brother and sister “couple”, Fu hi and Niu koua, is represented unified by their snake tails, symbol of the cosmic force and its twin currents. One of them allows the manifestation of the primeval Unit into its dual form, particularly feminine and masculine. The other corresponds to the return of the manifested being to its original and unified form. This representation evokes the Caduceus, another androgyny symbol.

Originally merged within the Cosmic Egg, Izanagi and his young sister, Izanami, play a similar role in the Creation myth of Japan. Reaching down from Heaven alongside the rainbow, Izanagi thrust his jewelled spear into the sea and lifted it; a brine dripping from it, thus creating the first island of the archipelago. The couple built up the August Heavenly Pillar and a shelter. To celebrate their sacred union, they circled around the Pillar, Izanmi to the left and Izanagi to the right, as both snakes of the Caduceus.

The God Ptah of Pharaonic Egypt, the womb where the primordial energy spreads, was both “father” and “mother” of all Gods. Each of them symbolized certain aspects of the original God.

The Dioscuri, sons of Zeus, encompass the same meaning. Born from the love of Zeus transformed into a swan and Leda, Castor and Pollux emerge from two eggs. One gave birth to Castor and Clytemnestra, the other to Pollux and Helena. The symbolism is obvious. Moreover, most of ancient Greece deities were androgynes.

Representations of bisexual entities

The opposite picture, not identified, offer a good example of such an entity.

The cloudy belt symbolizes the Cosmic Egg. Its division into two halves portrays the polarization of the primeval Unit. The egg contains a character potentialized according to masculine and feminine aspects and distinguished alongside a vertical axis. The Zodiac signs, outside the egg and representing the Cosmos, let us know that this axis links both equinoxes, probably a reference to the time when the annual cycle started with Spring.

The male side is associated with the Spring-Autumn semester and the female to the complementary semester, Autumn-Spring. The midpoints of both semesters stand on a horizontal axis linking Winter and Summer solstices. Summer solstice represents the start of the descent phase of the sun towards the South Celestial Pole whereas Winter solstice corresponds to the beginning of the ascent phase of the sun in direction of the North Celestial Pole.

The meaning attached to both character attitudes is derived from this celestial vision. The feminine and right hand holds a vase turned “downwards” from which a bird emerges in the direction of the sun descent phase. This bird is connected to the descent current from Heaven to Earth. The masculine and left hand grasps a vase oriented “upwards” from which a bird flies away in the direction of the sun ascent phase. It corresponds to the ascent current from Earth to Heaven.

The meeting of both currents can only produce a neutral non polarized element, the result of the combining action of two complementary principles. Consequently, this image represents, at the same time, the primordial Androgyne as well as the way back of the manifested being to its primeval non differentiated state.

Expressed in other words, both descent and ascent currents depict respectively the active or sulphured and passive or mercurial principles of the Hermetic tradition.

The hermetic Rebis (from “res bina” or double matter) is composed of a body crowned by two heads, one masculine, the other feminine, as on the picture below dating from the beginning of the 17th century.

A bird, representing the immutable Principle in comparison with the moving manifestation, sits motionless on the right hand. The left hand holds a vase from which three snakes are emerging. The central snake symbolizes the vertical axis or “World Axis” around which winds both cosmic force currents in reverse directions. As the former picture, the last one represents, at the same time, the primordial Androgyne and the return path to this state. This last aspect is reinforced by the presence of the tree on the right, which depicts the seven degrees of the hermetic initiation. The first six are represented by couples of faces symmetrically located on each side of the trunk as they still refer to the manifested or dualistic world. The last one, symbolized by the Sun situated at the treetop, identifies the being who has re-integrated the primeval Unit. The Moon, taking the shape of a boat on which the Androgyne is standing, indicates that the latest dominates the inferior waters characterizing the dualistic world. It corresponds to the walk on waters common to various traditions, notably Christian.

The “Emerald Table”, body of the Hermetic doctrine, describes the Rebis as generated by the Sun and Moon. However, Moon is always subordinated to Sun as she is only reflecting his light. Therefore, she represents the passive or feminine principle whereas the Sun portrays the active or masculine principle. This seems to contradict the meaning drawn from the first picture where the feminine and masculine aspects were respectively associated with the active and passive principles.

In fact, the second picture personifies a terrestrial vision, mainly characterized by the initiation degrees linked to the way back to the primeval state or to the passage from Earth to Heaven. The first picture, on the contrary, starts from a vision centred on the North Celestial Pole symbolizing the fixed point or the immutable Principle around which the manifested world is turning. It rather points out the passage from Heaven to Earth. Moreover, the character of the first picture represents the One (split) in two when the second is more about the two (re-unified) into One. Celestial and terrestrial approaches are reversed just like the vision in a mirror where right and left swap places. This is the meaning given by the Emerald Table formula: “what is up (in celestial order) is like what is down (in terrestrial order)” and conversely. In other words and according to the selected vision, the feminine principle, which is passive at the terrestrial level, may become active at the celestial level.

Notice that the bisexual representation of the Androgyne extended its domain beyond the animate beings. In the Latin tradition, for instance, an alloy such as brass, composed of copper (female) and tin (male), was treated as androgyne. Brass objects were used within purification rites in order to restore a lost harmony.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The symbolism de la cross”, Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
  • Particularly, chapter 6 on the union of complements.
  • “Insights into Christian esoterism”, Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001;
  • More specifically, chapter 5 on Dante's secret language.