on iphis

i'm gonna start writing my posts like this bc it makes me frustrated when they're like misread--and it's my fault for tip-toeing around making more explicit points. so, the myth of iphis (ovid, met 9.666-end).

also, since i'm not writing in a more responsible capacity as a student in the classical field, i'm more at liberty to say controversial things about the met itself. so let's get this out of the way: most of the met is made up. although of course it pulled from existing myths and beliefs, it was largely rearranged or totally fabricated by ovid to satirize the social and political climate of early imperial (augustan) rome. some examples:

  • narcissus meeting echo was unattested before ovid, and it has been argued by janan and gildenhard & zissos to be a reimagining of oedipus rex
  • that phaethon fucking dies when he rides apollo's chariot is unattested, to the extent that loos argues that ovid secretly has phaeton transform anyway (because to think he actually dies in ovid's rendition is unthinkable to him). boyd argues along the same lines of janan that phaethon is actually more structured on telemachus in the odyssey that he is on euripedes' version, and then that ovid's icarus is more structured on euripedes' phaethon. crazy!

i hope we all get the point.

anyway, back to iphis. here is the point-by-point of the story as ovid tells it:

  • telethusa is pregnant and about to give birth. her husband ligdus tells her that if she gives birth to a girl, they should put the baby to death because a girl is more work
  • telethusa gives birth to a girl named iphis, but raises the baby as a boy
  • iphis grows up to be beautiful, regardless of whether she/he would be a girl or boy
  • ligdus betroths iphis to ianthe, the most beautiful girl in phaestos (a city on crete)
  • iphis realizes that she/he is in trouble because she/he has a female body
  • iphis mourns that female-female relations are (held to be) more unnatural than bestiality
  • the egyptian goddess iris transforms iphis into a man
  • iphis and telethusa thank iris by means of a votive tablet that reads: "Iphis fulfilled gifts which he had promised as a woman" (dona puer solvit quae femina voverat iphis 9.794)
this story sometimes gets thrown around as trans representation in ancient literature and like i don't wanna shit on that, but i hope thinking critically we can look at the story and see why that sucks. the premise of the story is literally that homosexuality is more unnatural than any other sexual taboo, and the only way to overcome this boundary is to transform one of the women into a man and to thereby preserve the heterosexual order of things. this isn't a "being trans is great!" story, it's a "being gay sucks!" story.

although ovid is notably one of the few thoroughly heterosexual poets in rome (citation needed, but i've read this in one of the countless articles i read), i don't think this story should be taken as an anti-gay polemic or anything. the met sometimes takes cues from didactic poetry, but usually it's to take those things (usually social issues etc) in jest. on the flip side, though, resinski argues that the story has parallels to the myrrha episode in book 10 where myrrha is led by her maid to have sex with her father. so, you know, who knows what ovid is doing with this.

whatever it is, this is not a positive story!

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