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METAMORPHOSES (Pygmalion and Myrrha)

by Ovid, translated by A. D. Melville

In Metamorphoses the Latin poet Ovid tells “of bodies changed to other forms.” The first part of the excerpt that follows tells of the sculptor Pygmalion‘s creation of a perfectly beautiful woman, who is later brought to life for him to marry. The latter half describes the consequences of this marriage two generations later.

The excerpt opens with a description of the Propoetides, a race living in Amathus, Pygmalion’s home. The Propoetides offend Venus by their impiety. Venus, goddess of beauty and erotic love, takes revenge on them by turning them into prostitutes. Seeing the prostitutes, Pygmalion is so horrified by “the countless vices nature gives to womankind” that he avoids all women. Instead, he carves an ivory woman “more beautiful than ever woman born.” and falls in love with her.

Pygmalion treats his ivory woman not as an artist treats his creation, but as a husband treats a wife. Yet despite his attentions to her, she remains hard and unresponsive. At a festival to honor Venus, “half afraid,” Pygmalion beseech es the goddess for the ivory woman’s “living likeness.” When he returns to his statue, the woman comes to life beneath his fingers, “and shyly raise[s] her eyes to his and [sees] the world and him.” Venus blesses “the union she [has] made” and a daughter, Paphos, is born.

In the next. “terrible” tale, Paphos’ granddaughter, Myrrha, falls in love with her father, Cinyras, who is Paphos’s son. Knowing her love is forbidden by human laws, she resolves to take her own life. Her nurse, however, discovers that she is planning suicide, and learns why. To save Myrtha’s life, the nurse takes the girl to her father under cloak of darkness. When at last Cinyras brings in a lamp and learns who she is, he draws his sword.

Myrrha flees and wanders, until it is time for her to give birth to the child of her father. Then “not knowing what to wish, afraid of death and tired of life,” she asks to be “expell[led] from both realms” rather than “outrage” either one. Her prayer is answered. She is turned into a tree.

From Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated and edited by A. D. Melville (1986). Printed in, Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities ed. Leon Kass, by permission of Oxford University Press.

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