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

Abstract

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.

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Contributions

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.

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Correspondence to Neoklis A. Georgopoulos.

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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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42000-022-00388-5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42000-022-00388-5

Keywords

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