The myth of Pygmalion has fascinated writers through history and has been retold many times. It tells of an artist called Pygmalion who sculpts an ivory statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He kisses her, worships her and prays to find a girl like her. The goddess of love Aphrodite answers his prayer, and Pygmalion returns home to find his statue brought to life.
The story comes from Ovid’s Metamophoses, a long poem telling lots of stories of mythological metamorphosis. One of the things it is famous for is giving a voice to silent, or silenced, female characters. He explores how women who have been silenced can overcome this and communicate in other ways, finding their voice.
In the story of Pygmalion the silent woman is of course the statue. She does not even have a name, she is defined by the man who made her and his lust for her. However, in this extract, which comes from the end of the myth, the point of view switches from Pygmalion’s to that of the statue. She feels Pygmalion’s kisses, she opens her eyes and she sees the sky. Pygmalion’s statue is the ultimately passive woman, in that she was created by a man for the sole purpose of loving him, but in Ovid are given a very brief glimpse into her world. She has her own consciousness that is separate from the man who made her.
He is amazed; but stands rejoicing in his doubt;
while fearful there is some mistake, again
and yet again, gives trial to his hopes
by touching with his hand. It must be flesh!
The veins pulsate beneath the careful test
of his directed finger. Then, indeed,
the astonished hero poured out lavish thanks
to Venus; pressing with his raptured lips
his statue’s lips. Now real, true to life—
the maiden felt the kisses given to her,
and blushing, lifted up her timid eyes,
so that she saw the light and sky above,
as well as her rapt lover while he leaned
gazing beside her—and all this at once—
the goddess graced the marriage she had willed,
and when nine times a crescent moon had changed,
increasing to the full, the statue-bride
gave birth to her dear daughter Paphos. From
which famed event the island takes its name.
The setting of this story is a misogynistic one. Pygmalion is disgusted by what he perceives as the depravedness of women-kind and so he builds his own ideal, a statue that passively receives his attentions. His ideal however is a contradiction. Pygmalion worships her modesty and purity, but to act upon his desire would take these away.
The girl is made of ivory. To a modern audience this suggests whiteness, which suggests sexual purity. To an ancient audience however there is a another meaning. Ivory is associated with deception. In the first half of the myth there is an obvious reading for this: the statue is so life-like that she deceives Pygmalion into thinking she is real.
But is she deceiving him in another way? The scholar Liveley thinks so. She points to Book 3 of another of Ovid’s poems called ‘The Art of Love’. Here Ovid teaches Roman women how to pick up guys. He looks at ‘art’ and ‘nature’, exploring how women must use art in order to hide their true nature when seducing men. Is Pygmalion’s statue a reference to this? She literally is art, so is she concealing a nature that Pygmalion does not suspect? In ‘The Art of Love’ Ovid instructs women to take inspiration from statues in regards to their looks and behaviour. He says girls should feign modesty and fake a blush. So at first Pygmalion’s statue is unresponsive to his attentions. But as his obsession grows he half believes that she is real, that she is relenting to him. Eventually he returns home to her one day and she welcomes him. She raises a blush, but she does not reject the lover she sees.
So has the statue in fact seduced Pygmalion? Is he deceived about her supposed purity? By this reading she is the one who transforms Pygmalion, using art to make him her lover. At first she is cold and unyielding, but she slowly responds to him and finally, she comes to life for him.
Further reading: Lively, G. Reading Resistance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1999).
(Trans. Brookes More, 1922)