Monday, August 27, 2007

On the Subject of Change

In his classic work, Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Ligdus and Telethusa, who were good, decent folk, not landless slaves, but not wealthy either. Because they lived on the verge of slavery, when Telethusa announced to her husband that she was pregnant, Ligdus swore that, since a daughter was more financially burdensome than a son, unless the child was born a boy, he would have to put it to death. Telethusa's most heartfelt entreaties could not move him. If the child was a girl, he swore, she would be killed.

On the eve of the child's birth, the goddess Io appeared to Telethusa, and informed her that, in fact, her child was to be a girl. Telethusa was beside herself with grief, but the goddess promised her that all would be well. "Forget your bitter anxiety," the radiant messenger of the gods reassured her, "and deceive your husband. Do not hesitate to rear your child, whatever it may be. Do not fear, I will bring my aid whenever you ask it in prayer." So when the child was born, Telethusa made sure to conceal its gender from the father. She pretended that it was a boy, and named it Iphis, after the child's grandfather.

With the help of the goddess, she was able to raise Iphis as a boy, successfully concealing her gender from her father. But inevitably Iphis reached marriageable age. The father, Ligdus, arranged for Iphis to be married to Telestes' daughter Ianthe, a maiden graced by the gods with extraordinary beauty. The moment Iphis gazed upon Ianthe, she fell in love with her, and longed to be united with her in marriage. And Iphis' love was reciprocated by Ianthe.

And yet, Iphis' feelings for Ianthe provoked bitter conflict within her soul, and she cried out to the gods, "What is to be the end of this for me, caught as I am in the snare of a strange and unnatural kind of love, which none has known before? If the gods wished to spare my life, they should have spared it: if not, if they wished to destroy me, they might at least have visited me with some ordinary misfortune! How I wish that I had never been born!"

The mother Telethusa did what she could to delay the marriage, first pretending illness, then putting forward bad omens or dreams as an excuse to put it off. But finally the day came when she ran out of pretexts, and could delay the marriage no longer. In desperation, Telethusa tore the garlands out of her hair, dressed in sackcloth, and brought her daughter Iphis to the altar of Io. She bowed down and cried out to the goddess: "Bring me your aid, and heal my distress! I listened to your behests, and the fact that my daughter lives is due to your counsel. Now pity us both and grant us your help!" The mother's tears flowed over the altar as she prayed.

The goddess made her presence known with an earthquake that caused the doors of the temple to tremble. Not entirely reassured, but her hope bolstered by this sign, the mother stood up, took her daughter by the hand, and left the temple. As they walked in the moonlight, Iphis' stride grew longer than usual. Her face lost its fair complexion, her hair grew shorter and her features sharpened and her strength increased. She moved with more energy than she had as a woman, for Lo! She was a man.

Hearts overflowing with happiness, Iphis and Ianthe carried their gifts to the temple, confident and unafraid. Iphis set up an inscription with this verse:

The tributes Iphis promised, as a maid,
By Iphis, now a man, are duly paid.

Not just Io, but Venus, Juno, and Hymen too looked on with rejoicing, sending down the golden rays of dawn as a blessing upon the wedding assembly, and the man Iphis gained his own Ianthe.

1 comment:

playasinmar said...

Wow. As if the whole thing wasn't awkward enough... but Venus, Juno, and Hymen had to get involved.