18 Ovid: The Metamorphoses : Book IX: lines 666 – 797
The English: Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved
Bk IX:666-713 The birth of Iphis
Perhaps, the story of this new marvel would have filled Crete’s hundred cities, if Crete had not recently known a miracle nearer home, in the metamorphosis of Iphis. In the Phaestos region, near royal Cnossos, there once lived a man named Ligdus, undistinguished, a native of the place, his wealth no greater than his fame, but living a blameless and honourable life. When his pregnant wife, Telethusa, was near to her time, he spoke these words of warning in her ear: ‘There are two things I wish for: that you are delivered with the least pain, and that you produce a male child. A girl is a heavier burden, and misfortune denies them strength. So, though I hate this, if, by chance, you give birth to a female infant, reluctantly, I order – let my impiety be forgiven! – that it be put to death.’ He spoke, and tears flooded their cheeks, he who commanded, and she to whom the command was given. Nevertheless, Telethusa, urged her husband, with vain prayers, not to confine hope itself. Ligdus remained fixed in his determination.
Now, her pregnant belly could scarcely bear to carry her fully-grown burden, when Io, the daughter of Inachus, at midnight, in sleep’s imagining, stood, or seemed to stand, by her bed: Isis, accompanied by her holy procession. The moon’s crescent horns were on her forehead, and the shining gold of yellow ears of corn, and royal splendour belonged to her. With her were the jackal-headed Anubis, the hallowed cat-headed Bast, the dappled bull Apis, and Harpocrates, the god who holds his tongue, and urges silence, thumb in mouth. The sacred rattle, the sistrum, was there; and Osiris, for whom her search never ends; and the strange serpent she fashioned, swollen with sleep-inducing venom, that poisoned the sun-god Ra. Then, as if Telethusa had shaken off sleep, and was seeing clearly, the goddess spoke to her, saying: ‘O, you who belong to me, forget your heavy cares, and do not obey your husband. When Lucina has eased the birth, whatever sex the child has, do not hesitate to raise it. I am the goddess, who, when prevailed upon, brings help and strength: you will have no cause to complain, that the divinity, you worshipped, lacks gratitude.’ Having given her command, she left the room. Joyfully, the Cretan woman rose, and, lifting her innocent hands to the stars, she prayed, in all humility, that her dream might prove true.
When the pains grew, and her burden pushed its own way into the world, and a girl was born, the mother ordered it to be reared, deceitfully, as a boy, without the father realising. She had all that she needed, and no one but the nurse knew of the fraud. The father made good his vows, and gave it the name of the grandfather: he was Iphis. The mother was delighted with the name, since it was appropriate for either gender, and no one was cheated by it. From that moment, the deception, begun with a sacred lie, went undetected. The child was dressed as a boy, and its features would have been beautiful whether they were given to a girl or a boy.
Bk IX:714-763 Iphis and Ianthe
Thirteen years passed by, meanwhile, and then, Iphis, your father betrothed you to golden-haired Ianthe, whose dowry was her beauty, the girl most praised amongst the women of Phaestos, the daughter of Telestes of Dicte. The two were equal in age, and equal in looks, and had received their first instruction, in the knowledge of life, from the same teachers. From this beginning, love had touched both their innocent hearts, and wounded them equally, but with unequal expectations. Ianthe anticipated her wedding day, and the promised marriage, believing he, whom she thought to be a man, would be her man. Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.
Hardly restraining her tears, she said ‘What way out is there left, for me, possessed by the pain of a strange and monstrous love, that no one ever knew before? If the gods wanted to spare me they should have spared me, but if they wanted to destroy me, they might at least have visited on me a natural, and normal, misfortune. Mares do not burn with love for mares, or heifers for heifers: the ram inflames the ewe: its hind follows the stag. So, birds mate, and among all animals, not one female is attacked by lust for a female. I wish I were not one! Yet that Crete might not fail to bear every monstrosity, Pasiphaë, Sol’s daughter, loved a bull, though still that was a female and a male. My love, truth be told, is more extreme than that. She at least chased after the hope of fulfilment, though the bull had her because of her deceit, and in the likeness of a cow, and the one who was deceived was a male adulterer. Though all of the world’s cleverness were concentrated here, though Daedalus were to return on waxen wings, what use would it be? Surely even his cunning arts could not make a boy out of a girl? Surely even he could not transform you, Ianthe?
Rather be firm-minded, Iphis, and pull yourself together, and, with wisdom, shake off this foolish, useless passion. Look at what you have been, from birth, if you don’t want to cheat yourself, and seek out what is right for you, and love as a woman should! It is hope that creates love, and hope that nourishes it. Everything robs you of that. No guardian keeps you from her dear arms, no wary husband’s care, no cruel father, nor does she deny your wooing herself. Yet you can never have her, or be happy, whatever is accomplished, whatever men or gods attempt.
Even now, no part of my prayers has been denied. The gods have readily given whatever they were able, and my father, her father, and she herself, want what I want to happen. But Nature does not want it, the only one who harms me, more powerful than them all. See, the longed-for time has come, the wedding torch is at hand, and Ianthe will become mine – yet not be had by me. I will thirst in the midst of the waters. Juno, goddess of brides, and Hymen, why do you come to these marriage rites, where the bridegroom is absent, and both are brides?’
Bk IX:764-797 Isis transforms Iphis
With these words, she stopped speaking. The other girl was no less on fire, and prayed, Hymen, that you would come quickly. Telethusa, afraid of what she sought, merely put off the day: now lengthening the delay through pretended illness, now, frequently, using omens and dreams as an excuse. But eventually every pretext was exhausted, the date for the delayed marriage ceremony was set, and only a day remained. Then Telethusa took the sacred ribbons from her own and her daughter Iphis’s head, so that their hair streamed down, and clinging to the altar, cried: ‘Isis, you who protect Paraetonium, Pharos, the Mareotic fields, and Nile, divided in its seven streams, I pray you, bring help, and relieve our fears! Goddess, I saw you once, you, and those symbols of you, and I knew them all, accompanied by the jingling bronze of the sistrum, and imprinted your commands on my remembering mind. That my daughter looks on the light, that I have not been punished, behold, it was your purpose, and your gift. Gladden us with your aid. Have pity on us both!’
Tears followed words. The goddess seemed to make the altar tremble (it did tremble), and the doors of the temple shook, her horns, shaped like the moon’s crescents, shone, and the sistrum rattled loudly. Not yet reassured, but gladdened by the auspicious omen, the mother left the temple. Iphis, her companion, followed, taking larger paces than before; with no whiteness left in her complexion; with additional strength, and sharper features, and shorter, less elegant hair; showing more vigour than women have. Take your gifts to the temple, Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!
They take their gifts to the temple, and add a votive tablet: the tablet has this brief line:
IPHIS PERFORMS AS A BOY, WHAT HE PROMISED, AS A GIRL.