Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Iphis and Ianthe": Commentary

The story appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. I paraphrased it in my last post, based on Mary M. Innes' skillful translation (London: Penguin, 1955). Ovid was a contemporary of Jesus, and this classic collection of pagan myths and stories reflecting on "changes" in all their manifold splendor, is well worth reading for their sheer poetry and beauty alone. They will be of special interest to anyone interested in the spiritual dimensions of change and transformation. But this story of Iphis and Ianthe in particular electrified me when I first read it this past winter.

This seemingly fanciful tale begins with an account of the all-too-real practice of female infanticide. In the ancient world, "exposing" unwanted children was a not uncommon practice. "Exposing" was the polite word for abandoning infants in the wilderness or on a mountainside where they would die of the harsh elements or starvation, or be eaten by wild animals. Girl children were less valued because they would not carry on the family name and because they were considered less of an economic asset, so girls were the usual victims of infanticide. This practice is still common in rural India and China. While we are not sure how many girl children in these countries are being murdered today, demographic analysis of the gender ratios in India and China has led to estimates of at least several hundreds of thousands, and maybe as many as a million each year.

In the story of "Iphis and Ianthe" we see two contrasting models of parental love: one conditional, the other unconditional. The father, Ligdus, views his child's worth primarily in terms of what economic assets or social status the child will provide him, while Telethusa, the mother, views the child as having infinite worth inherent in itself and independent of how its economic or social worth might be calculated. With the appearance of the goddess Io in the story, we learn that it is the mother Telethusa's method of estimating the worth of her child that is in alignment with that of the gods. "Do not hesitate to rear your child," says Io, "whatever it may be." The goddess further makes it clear that Telethusa is justified in using whatever deception is necessary with her husband, in order to preserve the life of her child.

Gay men and lesbians are all too well acquainted with forms of parental love in which their worth is calculated in terms of familial social status. I have known personally of gay and lesbian youth who were kicked out of their homes when it was discovered that they were gay. Studies of homeless youth in New York City found that 25-40% of teens living on the streets were gay or lesbian. In Salt Lake City, Utah, where increasing numbers of youth are coming out to their parents at an increasingly early age, the problem of homeless gay teens appears to be a growing problem. Even when familial non-acceptance of gay kids doesn't rise to this extreme, most of us still know of far too many gay men and lesbians who live completely estranged from their families.

But the tale of Iphis and Ianthe is not only a story of unconditional love, it is also a tale of faith. Telethusa, in preserving the life of her daughter, is not only obeying a commandment of the gods, she is walking in faith that the gods will help her accomplish a very difficult and dangerous task: raising her daughter as a son, without her husband ever finding out about it. Telethusa has in fact entered into a compact or a covenant with the gods, whereby she promises to do everything in her power to "rear the child, whatever it may be" and the gods promise in turn to assist her and to preserve the child's life. The emotional climax of the story arrives on the eve of Iphis' wedding, when Telethusa realizes that further deceptions will be humanly impossible, and she demands that the gods themselves directly intervene as they promised they would in order to save her daughter.

This in itself would make a very interesting story, but this tale becomes much more interesting still by taking us into the internal, emotional world of Iphis, the daughter herself. Iphis loves Ianthe from the moment she sets eyes on her, and her love is reciprocated. This causes her deep confusion because of her conviction that romantic love of a woman for a woman is "unnatural." Her feelings of love for Ianthe provoke another feeling which many gay and lesbian people relate to as well. She feels isolated and alien. She believes that she is the only person ever to have experienced such feelings in the history of the planet, and this fills her with despair. "I am [caught] in the snare of a strange and unnatural kind of love, which none has known before"! So many of us, as we first come to terms with our feelings of same-sex attraction experience this sense of isolation, a natural response, I think, when most of us grow up surrounded by peers who seem automatically attracted to members of the other sex.

And yet, her love for Ianthe is genuine. In fact, it would not be nearly as disturbing to her if it were not genuine.

What is even more fascinating here is the fact that Iphis feels cursed by the gods. She says "if [the gods] wished to destroy me, they might at least have visited me with some ordinary misfortune! How I wish that I had never been born!" She feels almost as if the gods have some sort of vendetta against her, as if they have inflicted upon her the worst possible punishment, when in fact she finds herself in this situation because of the gods' love for her, and their desire for her good and protection.

The gods might have spared her life in any number of ways. They might have appeared directly to her father Ligdus, and commanded him to let her live. Or they might have intervened in any number of other ways that might have allowed Iphis to live and be raised normally as a girl. But had they done so, Iphis almost surely would not have been introduced to Ianthe as a potential mate. By commanding Iphis' mother Telethusa to raise Iphis as a boy and to deceive the father, it was the gods themselves who set in train the series of events that would bring these two women together.

Far from forbidding the love between these two, the gods honor their love, and the transformation they send to Iphis is a transformation that will allow them to consecrate their love in the temple of the gods, and consummate and enjoy their love without further risk to their lives or condemnation by their families or peers. And again, it is the faith and the covenant of Iphis' mother, Telethusa, and her tears of love poured out upon the altar of the gods, that makes the final transformation possible.

Why did this tale electrify me and touch me so deeply? Though I believe that every religion in the world possesses inspired truths, I realize that this is a pagan myth, not considered doctrinal in any way in the community I claim to be a part of. Yet, the story contains profound messages about love and faith that resonate with the faith heritage I claim. I also found it so moving partly because of my own very powerful experience with the Holy Spirit, the messenger of the Gods, instructing me to be faithful to my partner and to honor my love for him. Just as Telethusa received her instructions without ultimate understanding of where they would lead, or how they fit into the larger plan, so I have not been given a clear or precise understanding of how my love for Göran fits into the eternal scheme of things.

I understand and have a testimony of Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and I believe Church leaders when they insist that marriage between a man and a woman plays a very important role in God's eternal plan of happiness. Beyond that I have no knowledge, so I must trust.

More importantly, I find this story comforting to all of us who find ourselves in relationships founded upon a genuine bond of love, but that are problematic either because of social stigmas or religious ordinances or because our love doesn't seem to align with our attractions. For those gay men and lesbians in loving marriages with members of the opposite sex, I see their heartfelt prayers for transformation, or at least for a muting of the desires that threaten to erode the love they feel for their spouses. For those of us in same-sex marriages or partnerships, I see heartfelt prayers for social and spiritual transformations that will allow us to honor our love. Whose desires are more righteous?

Even without the kinds of mythic transformation described in this story of Iphis and Ianthe, I find myself transformed in powerful ways as a result of my loving relationship with God. I pray to keep growing and transforming, according to God's will.


Beck said...

I don't know that this is relevant or very pertinent, but from a very personal point of view, I have been affected by the practice of female babies being abandoned in India. This practice is rampant. Orphanages are filled with female babies. When expecting mothers find they are carrying a female fetus, they go into clinics and request induced labor to abort their baby. Sometimes, these abortions actually survive the ordeal! If such "live abortions" occur, and the baby has enough natural will to live (even at a pre-mature weight and development and with no modern equipment and technologies to help them survive) they are handed over to orphanages to care for. Live abortions of female babies! And you know what? Such babies, with such fight and determination to live, become amazingly beautiful young women! (I wish I could capture some of their determination!)

J G-W said...

When I first read this story, I think I was aware of the practice of female infanticide, but I didn't make the connection to the story itself. It seemed like a very bizarre plot element to me. But later, because of my interest in the story, I did a little research on female infanticide both in the ancient world and in modern day India and China, and it became much more real to me.

I had no idea how prevalent this practice still is today! I understand the Indian government has begun a program of actually paying families to raise girls, to help stem the practice. In China part of the problem is that the government limits the number of children you can have, and many families feel like they don't want to waste their "quota" on girls. Now with technologies that allow you to predict the gender of a child, aborting girl fetuses has also become a common practice.

But now, as science begins to uncover more information about the biological basis for homosexuality, there's been some speculation that it may be possible to predict whether a fetus will be born gay, and fear that some people might actually engage in a form of gay infanticide by aborting "gay fetuses." This was actually the subject of proposed legislation in the state of Maine a couple of years ago.