Portrayals of Gender in The Metamorphoses

Arachne and Minerva Caeneus Ceres and Proserpina Dryope Diana and Actaeon Hercules and Achelous Echo and Narcissus
Hermaphroditus Jason and Medea Iphis and Ianthe Tereus and Philomela Minos and Scylla Scylla and Circe Daughters of Minyas


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The tale of this unholy passion would
perhaps, have filled Crete's hundred cities then,
if Crete had not a wonder of its own
to talk of, in the change of Iphis. Once,
there lived at Phaestus, not far from the town
of Gnossus, a man Ligdus, not well known;
in fact obscure, of humble parentage,
whose income was no greater than his birth;
but he was held trustworthy and his life
had been quite blameless. When the time drew near
his wife should give birth to a child, he warned
her and instructed her, with words we quote:—

“There are two things which I would ask of Heaven:
that you may be delivered with small pain,
and that your child may surely be a boy.
Girls are such trouble, fair strength is denied
to them.—Therefore (may Heaven refuse the thought)
if chance should cause your child to be a girl,
(gods pardon me for having said the word!)
we must agree to have her put to death.”
sp: ligdus
invo: telethusa

And all the time he spoke such dreaded words,
their faces were completely bathed in tears;
not only hers but also his while he
forced on her that unnatural command.
Ah, Telethusa ceaselessly implored
her husband to give way to fortune's cast;
but Ligdus held his resolution fixed.

And now the expected time of birth was near,
when in the middle of the night she seemed
to see the goddess Isis, standing by
her bed, in company of serious spirit forms;
Isis had crescent horns upon her forehead,
and a bright garland made of golden grain
encircled her fair brow. It was a crown
of regal beauty: and beside her stood
the dog Anubis, and Bubastis, there
the sacred, dappled Apis, and the God
of silence with pressed finger on his lips;
the sacred rattles were there, and Osiris, known
the constant object of his worshippers' desire,
and there the Egyptian serpent whose quick sting
gives long-enduring sleep. She seemed to see
them all, and even to hear the goddess say
to her, “O Telethusa, one of my
remembered worshippers, forget your grief;
your husband's orders need not be obeyed;
and when Lucina has delivered you,
save and bring up your child, if either boy
or girl. I am the goddess who brings help
to all who call upon me; and you shall
never complain of me—that you adored
a thankless deity.
sp: isis
invo: telethusa
So she advised
by vision the sad mother, and left her.

The Cretan woman joyfully arose
from her sad bed, and supplicating, raised
ecstatic hands up towards the listening stars,
and prayed to them her vision might come true.

Soon, when her pains gave birth, the mother knew
her infant was a girl (the father had
no knowledge of it, as he was not there).
Intending to deceive, the mother said,
“Feed the dear boy.”sp: telethusa
invo: ligdus
All things had favored her
deceit—no one except the trusted nurse,
knew of it. And the father paid his vows,
and named the child after its grandfather, whose
name was honored Iphis. Hearing it so called,
the mother could not but rejoice, because
her child was given a name of common gender,
and she could use it with no more deceit.

She took good care to dress it as a boy,
and either as a boy or girl, its face
must always be accounted lovable.

And so she grew,—ten years and three had gone,
and then your father found a bride for you
O Iphis—promised you should take to wife
the golden-haired Ianthe, praised by all
the women of Phaestus for the dower
of her unequalled beauty, and well known,
the daughter of a Cretan named Telestes.
Of equal age and equal loveliness,
they had received from the same teachers, all
instruction in their childish rudiments.
So unsuspected love had filled their hearts
with equal longing—but how different!

Ianthe waits in confidence and hope
the ceremonial as agreed upon,
and is quite certain she will wed a man.
But Iphis is in love without one hope
of passion's ecstasy, the thought of which
only increased her flame; and she a girl
is burnt with passion for another girl!
She hardly can hold back her tears, and says:

O what will be the awful dreaded end,
with such a monstrous love compelling me?
If the Gods should wish to save me, certainly
they should have saved me; but, if their desire
was for my ruin, still they should have given

some natural suffering of humanity.
The passion for a cow does not inflame a cow,
no mare has ever sought another mare.
The ram inflames the ewe, and every doe
follows a chosen stag; so also birds
are mated, and in all the animal world
no female ever feels love passion for
another female—why is it in me?

“Monstrosities are natural to Crete,
the daughter of the Sun there loved a bull—
it was a female's mad love for the male—
but my desire is far more mad than hers,
in strict regard of truth, for she had hope
of love's fulfillment. She secured the bull
by changing herself to a heifer's form;
and in that subtlety it was the male
deceived at last. Though all the subtleties
of all the world should be collected here;—
if Daedalus himself should fly back here
upon his waxen wings, what could he do?
What skillful art of his could change my sex,
a girl into a boy—or could he change
Ianthe? What a useless thought! Be bold
take courage Iphis, and be strong of soul.
This hopeless passion stultifies your heart;
so shake it off, and hold your memory
down to the clear fact of your birth: unless
your will provides deception for yourself:
do only what is lawful, and confine
strictly, your love within a woman's right.

“Hope of fulfillment can beget true love,
and hope keeps it alive. You are deprived
of this hope by the nature of your birth.
No guardian keeps you from her dear embrace,
no watchful jealous husband, and she has
no cruel father: she does not deny
herself to you. With all that liberty,
you can not have her for your happy wife,
though Gods and men should labor for your wish.
None of my prayers has ever been denied;
the willing Deities have granted me
whatever should be, and my father helps
me to accomplish everything I plan:
she and her father also, always help.
But Nature is more powerful than all,
and only Nature works for my distress.

“The wedding-day already is at hand;
the longed-for time is come; Ianthe soon
will be mine only—and yet, not my own:
with water all around me I shall thirst!
O why must Juno, goddess of sweet brides,
and why should Hymen also, favor us
when man with woman cannot join in wedlock,
but both are brides?” And so she closed her lips.

The other maiden flamed with equal love,
and often prayed for Hymen to appear.
But Telethusa, fearing that event,
the marriage which Ianthe keenly sought,
procrastinated, causing first delay
by some pretended illness; and then gave
pretence of omens and of visions seen,
sufficient for delay, until she had
exhausted every avenue of excuse,
and only one more day remained before
the fateful time, it was so near at hand.

Despairing then of finding other cause
which might prevent the fated wedding-day,
the mother took the circled fillets from
her own head, and her daughter's head, and prayed,
as she embraced the altar—her long hair
spread out upon the flowing breeze—and said:

“O Isis, goddess of Paraetonium,
the Mareotic fields, Pharos, and Nile
of seven horns divided—oh give help!
Goddess of nations! heal us of our fears!
I saw you, goddess, and your symbols once,
and I adored them all, the clashing sounds
of sistra and the torches of your train,
and I took careful note of your commands,
for which my daughter lives to see the sun,
and also I have so escaped from harm;—
all this is of your counsel and your gift;
oh, pity both of us—and give us aid!
sp: telethusa
invo: isis

Tears emphasized her prayer; the goddess seemed
to move—in truth it was the altar moved;
the firm doors of the temple even shook—
and her horns, crescent, flashed with gleams of light,
and her loud sistrum rattled noisily.
Although not quite free of all fear, yet pleased
by that good omen, gladly the mother left
the temple with her daughter Iphis, who
beside her walked, but with a lengthened stride.

Her face seemed of a darker hue, her strength
seemed greater, and her features were more stern.
Her hair once long, was unadorned and short.
There is more vigor in her than she showed
in her girl ways. For in the name of truth,
Iphis, who was a girl, is now a man!
Make offerings at the temple and rejoice
without a fear!—They offer at the shrines,
and add a votive tablet, on which this
inscription is engraved:

these gifts are paid
by Iphis as a man which as a maid
he vowed to give.

The morrow's dawn
revealed the wide world; on the day agreed,
Venus, Juno and Hymen, all have met
our happy lovers at the marriage fires;

and Iphis, a new man, gained his Ianthe.