Ovid's Metamorphoses: Pygmalion

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).




Orpheus sings: The Propoetides

But if you should ask the Cyprian city of Amathus, rich in mines, whether it would have wished to have produced those girls, the Propoetides, it would repudiate them, and equally those men, whose foreheads were once marred by two horns, from which they took their name, Cerastae. An altar, to Jove the Hospitable, used to stand in front of the gates: if any stranger, ignorant of their wickedness, had seen it, stained with blood, they would have thought that calves or sheep, from Amathus, were sacrificed there: it was their guests they killed!

Kindly Venus was preparing to abandon her cities and the Cyprian fields, outraged by their abominable rites, but ‘How,’ she said, ‘have my cities, or this dear place, sinned? What is their crime? Instead, let this impious race pay the penalty of death or exile, or some punishment between execution and banishment, and what might that be but the penalty of being transformed?’

While she is deciding how to alter them, she turns her eyes towards their horns, and this suggests that she might leave them those, and she changed them into wild bullocks.

Nevertheless, the immoral Propoetides dared to deny that Venus was the goddess. For this, because of her divine anger, they are said to have been the first to prostitute their bodies and their reputations in public, and, losing all sense of shame, they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.

Orpheus sings: Pygmalion and the statue

Pygmalion had seen the Propoetides, spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed. But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation. The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art.

He marvels: and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart. Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. He kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure. Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades’s amber tears, that drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel.

The day of Venus’s festival came, celebrated throughout Cyprus, and heifers, their curved horns gilded, fell, to the blow on their snowy neck. The incense was smoking, when Pygmalion, having made his offering, stood by the altar, and said, shyly: “If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish as a bride to have...” and not daring to say “the girl of ivory” he said “one like my ivory girl.”

Golden Venus, for she herself was present at the festival, knew what the prayer meant, and as a sign of the gods’ fondness for him, the flame flared three times, and shook its crown in the air.

When he returned, he sought out the image of his girl, and leaning over the couch, kissed her. She felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand. The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering under his fingers, as the beeswax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is moulded, under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use.

The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again. It was flesh! The pulse throbbed under his thumb.

Then the hero of Paphos was indeed overfull of words with which to thank Venus, and still pressed his mouth against a mouth that was not merely a likeness. The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky.

The goddess attended the marriage that she had brought about, and when the moon’s horns had nine times met at the full, the woman bore a son, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name.


(900 words)










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