Skip to main content

Endocrine disruptors in ancient times and Greek mythology: the spring of Salmacis and the curse of Hermaphroditus


According to Greek mythology, the spring waters of Salmacis (or Salmakis) feminized the god Hermaphroditus (or Hermaphroditos) and transformed his nature from male to half-male and half-female. The mythical properties of these waters are described in the writings of authors and philosophers of the Hellenistic period. It is evident that the spring of Salmacis and lake actually existed (located in Halicarnassus, today Bodrum, Turkey) and are not the product of poetic imagination. Hence, it could be hypothesized that there were certain natural elements in the waters that had a feminizing effect on the male reproductive axis. We now know, in fact, that naturally occurring environmental agents, also known as endocrine disruptors, can affect the endocrine and reproductive function of both males and females. However, since most endocrine disruptors today are manmade products of the modern industrial lifestyle, the presence and effect of naturally occurring disruptors in times preceding the Industrial Revolution are not widely discussed. It is thus against this background that we seek to formulate a differential diagnosis of male feminization attributable to the effect of natural environmental factors in the form of endocrine disruptors that will have existed in environments round the globe since time immemorial. We conclude that if there had been an accumulation of the mycotoxin zearalenone (ZEA) in the waters of Salmacis, chronic exposure to the lake’s water could have resulted in the phenotypic changes described in the Salmacis myth.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Data availability

Not applicable.

Code availability

Not applicable.


  1. Szepessy V (2014) The Marriage Maker. The Pergamon Hermaphrodite as the God Hermaphroditos, divine ideal and erotic object. Master of Arts Thesis in Art History Faculty of Humanities, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo.

  2. Kline AS (2000) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A complete English translation and mythological index. Book IV:346–388,

  3. Isager S (1998) The Pride of Halikarnassos. editio princeps of an inscription from Salmakis, ZPE 123:1–23 (reprint in Isager & Pedersen, eds., 2004, 217–237).

  4. Jones HL (1930) The Geography of Strabo, Volume VI: Books XIII-XIV Loeb Classical Library 223). Harvard University Press (Eds.), Cambridge, MA

  5. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: de Architectura, Book II, Chapter 8, 11–12,*.html. Accessed 8 September 2021.

  6. Akurgal E (1978) The proceedings of the Xth International Congress of Classical Archaeology. Ankara - Izmir 23 - 30/IX/1973. Türk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara.

  7. Jeppesen K, Zahle J (1973) The site of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus Reexcavated. AJA 77:336–338

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Apostle Paul. To Ephesians 5:31. Accessed 8 September 2021

  9. Kiyama R, Wada-Kiyama Y (2015) Estrogenic endocrine disruptors: molecular mechanisms of action. Environ Int 83:11–40

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Basak S, Das MK, Duttaroy AK (2020) Plastics derived endocrine-disrupting compounds and their effects on early development. Birth Defects Res 112:1308–1325

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Jarosova B, Javurek J, Adamovsky O, Hilscherova K (2015) Phytoestrogens and mycoestrogens in surface waters–their sources, occurrence, and potential contribution to estrogenic activity. Environ Int 81:26–44

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Peraica M, Radic B, Lucic A, Pavlovic M (1999) Toxic effects of mycotoxins in humans. Bull World Health Organ 77:754–766

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Gajecka M, Zielonka L, Dabrowski M, Gajecki M (2011) Threats resulting from the presence of zearalenone in water*). Medycyna Wet 67:643–646

    Google Scholar 

  14. Sneideris D, Ivanauskas A, Prakas P, Butkauskas D, Treikale O, Kadziene G, Rasiukeviciute N, Kelpsiene J, Suproniene S (2020) Population structure of fusarium graminearum isolated from different sources in one area over the course of three years. Phytopathology 110:1312–1318

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Ropejko K, Twaruzek M (2021) Zearalenone and its metabolites-general overview, occurrence, and toxicity. Toxins (Basel) 13:35

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Lorenz N, Dänicke S, Edler L, Gottschalk C, Lassek E, Marko D, Rychlik M, Mally A (2019) A critical evaluation of health risk assessment of modified mycotoxins with a special focus on zearalenone. Mycotoxin Res 35:27–46

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Kowalska K, Habrowska-Gorczynska DE, Piastowska-Ciesielska AW (2016) Zearalenone as an endocrine disruptor in humans. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol 48:141–149

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Russell R, Paterson M (2007) Zearalenone production and growth in drinking water inoculated with Fusarium graminearum. Mycol Progress 6:109–113

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. CAST (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology) (2003) A Mycotoxins: risks in plant, animal, and human systems. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Ames, Iowa, USA

  20. Minervini F, Dell’Aquila ME (2008) Zearalenone and reproductive function in farm animals. Int J Mol Sci 9:2570–2584

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Schwartz P, Bucheli TD, Wettstein FE, Burkhardt-Holm P (2013) Life-cycle exposure to the estrogenic mycotoxin zearalenone affects zebrafish (Danio rerio) development and reproduction. Environ Toxicol 28:276–289

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Schwartz P, Thorpe KL, Bucheli TD, Wettstein FE, Burkhardt-Holm P (2010) Shortterm exposure to the environmentally relevant estrogenic mycotoxin zearalenone impairs reproduction in fish. Sci Total Environ 409:326–333

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Rogowska A, Pomastowski P, Sagandykova G, Buszewski B (2019) Zearalenone and its metabolites: effect on human health, metabolism and neutralisation methods. Toxicon 162:46–56

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Bandera EV, Chandran U, Buckley B, Lin Y, Isukapalli S, Marshall I, King M, Zarbl H (2011) Urinary mycoestrogens, body size and breast development in New Jersey girls. Sci Total Environ 409:5221–5227

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Waśkiewicz AGK, Bocianowski J, Pluta P, Goliński P (2012) Zearalenone contamination of the aquatic environment as a result of its presence in crops. Arh Hig Rada Toksiko 63:429–435

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Erbs M, Hoerger CC, Hartmann N, Bucheli TD (2007) Quantification of six phytoestrogens at the nanogram per liter level in aqueous environmental samples using 13C3-labeled internal standards. J Agric Food Chem 55:8339–8345

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Vasiliki Vasileiou: critical revision and editing of the manuscript.

Georgios K. Markantes: writing of the manuscript.

Maria I. Stamou: writing of the manuscript.

Neoklis A. Georgopoulos: conceptualization and writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neoklis A. Georgopoulos.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval

Not applicable.

Consent to participate

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher's note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Vasileiou, V., Markantes, G.K., Stamou, M.I. et al. Endocrine disruptors in ancient times and Greek mythology: the spring of Salmacis and the curse of Hermaphroditus. Hormones (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI:


  • Endocrine disruptors
  • Hermaphroditus
  • Mycoestrogens
  • Zearalenone (ZEA)