According to rabbinic literature, the androgyne was a creature that existed at the beginning of Creation. It was both male and female and had two faces.
Two Versions of Creation
The concept of the androgyne began with the rabbinic need to reconcile the two versions of Creation that appear in the biblical book of Genesis. In the first account, which appears in Genesis 1:26-27 and is known as the Priestly version, God creates unnamed male and female beings at the end of the creation process:
"'Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the things that creep on earth.’ And God created humanity in the Divine image, in the image of God they were created, make and female God created them.”
As you can see in the passage above, in this version of Creation male and female human beings are created simultaneously. However, another timeline is presented in Genesis 2. Known as the Yahwistic account, here God creates a man and places him in the Garden of Eden to tend it. Then God notices that the man is lonely and decides to create a “fitting helper for him” (Gen. 2:18). At this point all the animals are made as possible companions for the man. When none of them are appropriate, God causes a deep sleep to fall upon him:
“So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and while he slept, God took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord fashioned the rib into a woman; and God brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:21)
Thus we have two accounts of Creation, each appearing in the book of Genesis. But while the Priestly version maintains that man and woman were created simultaneously, the Yahwistic version claims that man was created first and that woman was only created after all of the animals were presented to Adam as potential partners. This presented ancient rabbis with a problem because they believed that the Torah was the Word of God and therefore it was not possible for the text to contradict itself. As a result, they came up with a few possible explanations to reconcile the apparent contradition. One of those explanations was the androgyne.
See: Where Does the Legend of Lilith Come From? for another explanation dealing with a “first Eve.”
The Androgyne and Creation
Rabbinic discussions about the two versions of Creation and the androgyne can be found in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah, which are collections of midrashim about the books of Genesis and Leviticus. In Genesis Rabbah the rabbis wonder whether a verse from Psalms offers insight into the first version of Creation, perhaps indicating that ‘adam was actually a hermaphrodite with two faces:
“’You have formed me before and behind’ (Psalms 139:5)… R. Jeremiah b. Leazar said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first ‘adam, He created it with both male and female sexual organs, as it is written, ‘Male and female He created them, and He called their name ‘adam,’ (Genesis 5:2). R. Samuel b. Nahmani said, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first ‘adam, He created him with two faces, then split him and made him two backs – a back for each side.” (Genesis Rabbah 8:1)
According to this discussion, the Priestly account in Genesis 1 actually tells us about the creation of a hermaphrodite with two faces. Then in Genesis 2 this primal androgyne (as the creature is commonly called in scholarly texts) is split in half and two separate beings are created – a man and a woman.
Some rabbis objected to this interpretation, noting that Genesis 2 says God took one of the man’s ribs to create the woman. To this, the following explanation is given:
“’He took one of his ribs (mi-tzalotav)’… [‘One of his ribs’ means] one of his sides, as you read [in an analogy from the similar use of the same word elsewhere], ‘And for the other side wall (tzel’a) of the Tabernacle’ (Exodus 26:20).”
What the rabbis mean here is that the phrase used to describe woman's creation from man's rib – mi-tzalotav – actually means an entire side of his body because the word “tzel’a” is used in the book of Exodus to refer to one side of the holy Tabernacle. A similar discussion can be found in Leviticus Rabbah 14:1 where R. Levi states: “When man was created, he was created with two body-fronts, and He [God] sawed him in two, so that two backs resulted, one back for the male and another for the female.”
In this way the concept of the androgyne allowed the rabbis to reconcile the two accounts of Creation. Some feminist scholars also contend that the creature solved another problem for patriarchal rabbinical society: it ruled out the possibility that man and woman were created equally in Genesis 1.
- Baskin, Judith. "Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature." University Press of New England: Hanover, 2002.
- Kvam, Krisen E. etal. "Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender." Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1999.
- Sefer Ha-Aggadah.