Probably the Only Rock Song Based on Plato's Symposium
"When the earth was still flat and the clouds made of fire
and the mountains stretched up to the sky, sometimes higher..."—(from the Origin of Love)
The rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch deals with, among other things, gender identity. The titular Hedwig is a survivor of a sex change operation gone horribly awry, stranding her* in a limbo between the sexes. Hedwig is a brilliant songwriter and quite a mythology buff. She uses an obscure section out of Plato's Symposium to create the Origin of Love, a lovely, poignant and hilarious examination of the genesis of human sexuality.
"The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two..."—Plato
In Symposium, Plato writes of a bunch of Greek intelligentsia sitting around, getting loaded and telling stories. The great playwright Aristophanes regales them with a curious tale about the origin of sex—it is a weird myth never recorded before that point and a lot of historians feel that this story was created as an allegorical tale, a sort of 'just-so story,' so to speak, rather than being one that people were expected to believe as literal truth.
It seems that in the earliest times, there were three types of people, each with four legs, four arms and two faces.
"Well there were three sexes then
One that looked like two men glued on back to back
They were the children of the sun
And similar in shape and girth were the children of the earth
They looked like two girls rolled up in one"—Hedwig
The third variety was part man and part woman. Aristophanes says:
"...the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth..."—Plato
As so often happens in such tales, we humans became too powerful and disobedient. The gods were not happy about this! The god of the Israelites and the gods of Sumer had been similarly ticked off at humanity—in both of those stories, the deities sent floods. In Aristophanes' story, the astute king of Olympus thinks of a clever punishment not involving nearly so much property damage.
Hedwig, like so many of us modern lovers of mythology, intentionally mixes up her world mythologies as if the deities of every pantheon were hanging out together:
"Well the gods grew quite scared of our strength and defiance
And Thor said I'm gonna kill them all with my hammer
like I killed the giants
But Zeus said no
You'd better let me use my lightning like scissors
Like I cut the legs off the whales
Dinosaurs into lizards."—Hedwig
Slicing the humans in twain accomplished several things: it divided our power in half, doubled our number (more worshippers for big Z and the Olympian bunch) and infected us with this lonely longing for reconnecting with our other half in order to be complete. We would never be so sassy again! Plato has Aristophanes quote Zeus:
"...men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg."—Plato
With the humans thus cut down to size, our scars were repaired by Apollo, but Hedwig has a more fanciful idea for the healing:
"And some Indian god sewed the wound up to a hole
Turned it 'round to our bellies to remind us the price we paid."—Hedwig
This myth neatly explains the origin not only of the sexes, but also of sexual preference. Some of us were part of the Children of the Sun, those men prefer men, some women were Children of the Earth and they thus wish to re-unite with their female other half. Those who were once Children of the Moon desire the opposite sex.
"Men who are a section of [the Children of the Moon] are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the [the Children of the Earth] do not care for men, but have female attachments...They who are a section of the [the Children of the Sun] follow the male..."—Plato
Hedwig takes this further to put the sadness of a failed relationship into context of the story of the Origin of Love. Her own lover fled when he could not cope with Hedwig's unusual gender identity. Much of Hedwig's story deals with how she copes with that loss, what she is and what she will become.
"That's the pain
That cuts a straight line down through the heart
We call it love
We wrapped our arms around each other
Tried to shove ourselves back together
We were making love, making love
It was a cold dark evening such a long time ago
When by the mighty hand of Jove
It was a sad story how we became lonely two-legged creatures
The story, the origin of love"—Hedwig
* A transgendered friend of mine once explained that "you always use the pronoun appropriate to what someone APPEARS to be, even if you know better." I follow her advice when talking about Hedwig.
Special thanks to Lometa for assistance for looking this over for copyright purposes and to Jennifer V. Chartier, Permissions Administrator at Hal Leonard Corporation, the copyright holder, for her help
Hedwig and the Angry Inch by Phyllis Stein
Adam Kotsko's weblog: http://www.adamkotsko.com/weblog/2004_01_04_archive.html
Aristophanes quotations from Professor Alan Soble (U.N.O.) webpage: http://www.uno.edu/~asoble/pages/symp.htm
Also notes and memories from Dr. Nancy Tuana's superb courses Love and Sex and Women in Western Thought University of Texas at Dallas, 1985-86.