As Ovid reaches the end of Book 9 of his Metamorphoses, and has just told us of the tragic transformation of Byblis into a spring of her own tears, he tackles one of his most remarkably insightful tales. I have to keep reminding myself that he wrote this over two thousand years ago, but the issues which he considers are thoroughly modern, and his approach is exceptionally sensitive. This is his story of Iphis and Ianthe.
Ligdus lived in Phaestos, not far from the great Knossos, in Crete. His wife, Telethusa, was pregnant with their first child. They were not rich, and as a consequence Ligdus told his wife that she had to bear him a son, as they could not afford to have a daughter. If she were to give birth to a girl, then the child had to die:
“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.”
Telethusa begged her husband to accept a daughter, but he would not budge. Late in her pregnancy, Telethusa had a vision of the Egyptian goddess Isis, with attendant deities. Isis told Telethusa to keep and rear the baby, whether it was a boy or girl, if necessary by deception. The goddess promised that she would answer prayers, and help in times of need.
Telethusa promptly went into labour that morning, and was delivered of a girl. She followed the instruction of Isis, and declared the child to be a boy. The couple raised their daughter as a son, named Iphis, which is ambivalent of gender.
Thirteen years later, Ligdus found his son a bride, Ianthe, and their match appeared a very good one, each of them falling in love with the other.
Iphis, though, knew that she was a girl, and became very upset that because of her gender, their marriage could not be. Telethusa postponed the wedding, then it was delayed further. But she ran out of excuses, and a final date had to be fixed.
The day before their marriage, Telethusa prayed to Isis, with Iphis at her side:
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.
Iphis had changed gender, and as a man married his bride Ianthe.
In this one short story, Ovid addresses the thoroughly modern issues of:
- prejudice against bearing daughters, and consequent infanticide;
- homosexual love;
- transgender marriage.
These issues must have ruled this story out of any consideration as a narrative painting, until well into the twentieth century. It has, though, been tackled by those who have illustrated this book of the Metamorphoses.
Bernard Picart’s engraving Isis Appears to Telethusa, from about 1732, dodges the real issues at stake by showing Telethusa’s vision of Isis and her entourage of Egyptian deities.
Baur was much braver in his engraving, showing Isis Changing the Sex of Iphis (c 1639) shortly before the wedding, although his composition keeps well away from any detail in the figure of Iphis.
The one artist who does seem to have shown an interest in this story is John William Godward, whose own lifestyle demonstrated that he was not afraid to shock. Sadly, his two paintings of Ianthe dodge the issues, and are only weakly narrative in any case, although they are still rather beautiful. Godward’s Ianthe (1889) (above) simply shows the bride-to-be, and I can see no hint of Ovid’s story.
His undated painting, again of Ianthe (below) is more elaborate, but I still cannot see any references to the issues or events.
There is another painting which, in recent years, had become associated with the story of Iphis and Ianthe, and on some websites has been re-titled to make it appear to be about this story.
This is Angelica Kauffmann’s The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry (1782), which has been misinterpreted as showing a pre-transformed Iphis embracing Ianthe, as if in a lesbian relationship. As its real title demonstrates, that suggestion would be a travesty of Kauffmann’s intent. I also suspect that George Bowles, for whom she painted it, would have been shocked if someone had suggested that this was actually Iphis and Ianthe.
Perhaps Latin poetry can remain subtle enough for Ovid to get away with such a remarkable story so long ago, whereas the visual explicitness of a painting could never have got away with it. We could do with some brave paintings now, to challenge some of the remaining prejudices in modern society.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.