Greek MythologyMythology

LGBTQIA+ Themes in Mythology: Iphis

Iphis was born female but raised male because his mother was afraid his father would kill a daughter. Eventually, he is able to transition fully into a man and live his life, with some help from an Egyptian goddess.

Table of Contents

Text and Translation

Text

Book 9.

Fama novi centum Cretaeas forsitan urbes
implesset monstri, si non miracula nuper
Iphide mutata Crete propiora tulisset.
Proxima Cnosiaco nam quondam Phaestia regno 670
progenuit tellus ignotum nomine Ligdum,
ingenua de plebe virum. Nec census in illo
nobilitate sua maior, sed vita fidesque
inculpata fuit. Gravidae qui coniugis aures
vocibus his monuit, cum iam prope partus adesset: 675
“Quae voveam, duo sunt; minimo ut relevere dolore,
utque marem parias; onerosior altera sors est,
et vires fortuna negat. Quod abominor, ergo
edita forte tuo fuerit si femina partu,
(invitus mando: pietas, ignosce!) necetur.” 680
Dixerat, et lacrimis vultus lavere profusis,
tam qui mandabat, quam cui mandata dabantur.
Sed tamen usque suum vanis Telethusa maritum
sollicitat precibus, ne spem sibi ponat in arto.
Certa sua est Ligdo sententia. Iamque ferendo 685
vix erat illa gravem maturo pondere ventrem,
cum medio noctis spatio sub imagine somni
Inachis ante torum, pompa comitata sacrorum,
aut stetit aut visa est. Inerant lunaria fronti
cornua cum spicis nitido flaventibus auro 690
et regale decus. Cum qua latrator Anubis
sanctaque Bubastis variusque coloribus Apis,
quique premit vocem digitoque silentia suadet,
sistraque erant numquamque satis quaesitus Osiris
plenaque somniferis serpens peregrina venenis. 695
Tum velut excussam somno et manifesta videntem
sic adfata dea est: “Pars o Telethusa mearum,
pone graves curas mandataque falle mariti.
Nec dubita, cum te partu Lucina levarit,
tollere quidquid erit. Dea sum auxiliaris opemque 700
exorata fero, nec te coluisse quereris
ingratum numen.” Monuit thalamoque recessit.
Laeta toro surgit purasque ad sidera supplex
Cressa manus tollens, rata sint sua visa, precatur.
Ut dolor increvit, seque ipsum pondus in auras 705
expulit et nata est ignaro femina patre,
iussit ali mater puerum mentita: fidemque
res habuit, neque erat ficti nisi conscia nutrix.
Vota pater solvit nomenque inponit avitum:
Iphis avus fuerat. Gavisa est nomine mater, 710
quod commune foret nec quemquam falleret illo.
Inde incepta pia mendacia fraude latebant:
cultus erat pueri, facies, quam sive puellae,
sive dares puero, fuerat formosus uterque.
Tertius interea decimo successerat annus, 715
cum pater, Iphi, tibi flavam despondet Ianthen,
inter Phaestiadas quae laudatissima formae
dote fuit virgo, Dictaeo nata Teleste.
Par aetas, par forma fuit, primasque magistris
accepere artes, elementa aetatis, ab isdem. 720
Hinc amor ambarum tetigit rude pectus et aequum
vulnus utrique dedit. Sed erat fiducia dispar:
coniugium pactaeque exspectat tempora taedae
quamque virum putat esse, virum fore credit Ianthe;
Iphis amat, qua posse frui desperat, et auget 725
hoc ipsum flammas, ardetque in virgine virgo;
vixque tenens lacrimas “quis me manet exitus” inquit,
“cognita quam nulli, quam prodigiosa novaeque
cura tenet Veneris? Si di mihi parcere vellent,
parcere debuerant; si non, et perdere vellent, 730
naturale malum saltem et de more dedissent.
Nec vaccam vaccae, nec equas amor urit equarum:
urit oves aries, sequitur sua femina cervum.
Sic et aves coeunt, interque animalia cuncta
femina femineo conrepta cupidine nulla est. 735
Vellem nulla forem! Ne non tamen omnia Crete
monstra ferat, taurum dilexit filia Solis,
femina nempe marem: meus est furiosior illo,
si verum profitemur, amor! Tamen illa secuta est
spem Veneris, tamen illa dolis et imagine vaccae 740
passa bovem est, et erat, qui deciperetur adulter!
Huc licet e toto sollertia confluat orbe,
ipse licet revolet ceratis Daedalus alis,
quid faciet? Num me puerum de virgine doctis
artibus efficiet? num te mutabit, Ianthe? 745
Quin animum firmas, teque ipsa reconligis, Iphi,
consiliique inopes et stultos excutis ignes?
Quid sis nata, vide, nisi te quoque decipis ipsa,
et pete quod fas est, et ama quod femina debes!
Spes est, quae capiat, spes est, quae pascit amorem: 750
hanc tibi res adimit. Non te custodia caro
arcet ab amplexu nec cauti cura mariti,
non patris asperitas, non se negat ipsa roganti:
nec tamen est potienda tibi, nec, ut omnia fiant,
esse potes felix, ut dique hominesque laborent. 755 
Nunc quoque votorum nulla est pars vana meorum,
dique mihi faciles, quidquid valuere, dederunt;
quodque ego, vult genitor, vult ipsa socerque futurus.
At non vult natura, potentior omnibus istis,
quae mihi sola nocet. Venit ecce optabile tempus, 760 
luxque iugalis adest, et iam mea fiet Ianthe—
nec mihi continget: mediis sitiemus in undis.
Pronuba quid Iuno, quid ad haec, Hymenaee, venitis
sacra, quibus qui ducat abest, ubi nubimus ambae?”
Pressit ab his vocem. Nec lenius altera virgo 765
aestuat, utque celer venias, Hymenaee, precatur.
Quod petit haec, Telethusa timens modo tempora differt,
nunc ficto languore moram trahit, omina saepe
visaque causatur. Sed iam consumpserat omnem
materiam ficti, dilataque tempora taedae 770
institerant, unusque dies restabat. At illa
crinalem capiti vittam nataeque sibique
detrahit et passis aram complexa capillis
“Isi, Paraetonium Mareoticaque arva Pharonque
quae colis et septem digestum in cornua Nilum: 775
fer, precor” inquit “opem nostroque medere timori!
Te, dea, te quondam tuaque haec insignia vidi
cunctaque cognovi, sonitum comitantiaque aera
sistrorum, memorique animo tua iussa notavi.
Quod videt haec lucem, quod non ego punior, ecce 780
consilium munusque tuum est. Miserere duarum
auxilioque iuva!” Lacrimae sunt verba secutae.
Visa dea est movisse suas (et moverat) aras,
et templi tremuere fores, imitataque lunam
cornua fulserunt, crepuitque sonabile sistrum. 785
Non secura quidem, fausto tamen omine laeta
mater abit templo: sequitur comes Iphis euntem,
quam solita est, maiore gradu, nec candor in ore
permanet, et vires augentur, et acrior ipse est
vultus, et incomptis brevior mensura capillis, 790
plusque vigoris adest, habuit quam femina. Nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es. Date munera templis
nec timida gaudete fide! Dant munera templis,
addunt et titulum; titulus breve carmen habebat:
DONA·PUER·SOLVIT·QUAE·FEMINA . VOVERAT . IPHIS 795
Postera lux radiis latum patefecerat orbem,
cum Venus et Iuno sociosque Hymenaeus ad ignes
conveniunt, potiturque sua puer Iphis Ianthe.


Rough Prose Translation*

*because I’m lazy and poetry is hard…

The fame of this new omen would have perhaps covered 100 Cretan cities, if a miracle had not recently been brought forth of Ophis being changed. For near Gnossus at one time in the region of Phaestia was an unknown farmer named Ligdus, born of common people, though blameless in life. 

His wife was pregnant and when her delivery was near at hand, he warned her: “I wish two things for you, that you deliver with minimal pain and that you have a boy. A girl is more burdensome and the fortunes of a  man are denied to them. If by chance you have a girl (gods forbid!), she will be killed.”

As he said this, tears bathed both of their faces profusely. She begged her husband, to no avail. Ligdus did not waver.

In the middle of the night, Isis appeared before her bed, with a procession of sacred beings. There was a moon on her forehead, the crown of which was shining with golden spikes and regal glory. 

With her, the barking Anubis and sacred Bubastic and Apis mottled with color and one who urged silence with their finger against their lips, and and foreign serpents with sleep-inducing venom.

As sleep was benign shaken off, the goddess spokes” My Thelusa, put down heavy cares and ignore what your husband has said. Do not doubt but when Lucina brings you the child, raise it regardless. I am the goddess of help and I bear those asking for aid, that you will never complain that I am an ungrateful deity.”

She said this and retreated from the room. 

Happiness swelled up in Telethusa and she kneeled, rasinging hands to the stars and praying.

When she gave birth to a daughter, unknown to Ligdus, she lied, the truth known only to a witnessing nurse.

Ligdus gave offerings and named the child after his own father and Telethusa was pleased because “Iphis” worked for both boys and girls. She raised the child as a boy who was handsome in appearance whether boy or girl.

Meanwhile 13 years passed and Ligdus pledged him in marriage to Ianthe, a most attractive daughter of Teleste of Crete. 

They were both of similar appearance, taught by the same teachers and love had shot both of them in the breast with the same wound.

But Iphis wasn’t assured. Ianthe was waiting for the wedding to the one whom she held to be a man. Iphis loved her but was hopeless and unable to delight in it and this augmented the flames and girl burned in desire for a girl. 

Scarcely holding tears, Iphis said. “What conclusion remains for me? Why did the gods do this? Do they hate me?  For a cow doesn’t love a cow, nor does a mare burn for love with a mare: rams burn for sheep, and stags for does Among no animals does a girl desire a girl.

I would wish that I did not exist. Such ill-omens are not uncommon in Crete, for here the daughter of the sun loved a bull. Mine is more insane than hers if I tell the truth. Hers was fulfilled by the hope of Venus and with a device giving her the appearance of a cow, she deceived the bull. But if all the skill of the world flowed here, if Daedalus came back, what could he do? Could he change me to a boy from a girl with some device? Or would he change Ianthe?

The only problem is me. There’s no guardian and no harsh father-in-law, nor does she deny herself to me. I should be happy, as if gods and men had labored to make this happen. None of my prayers had been in vain, the gods are easy on me, whatever I ask, they have given.

I want this, my father wants it, and my father-in-law. Only nature does not. The wedding day is coming and Ianthe can’t be mine. I thirst in the midst of water. “

He was silent.

The day was fast approaching and Telethusa, fearing, delayed with false illnesses. But she had exhausted all excuses and only one day was remaining. She took her head covering and took Iphis’ and hugged the altar, praying:

“Isis, goddess of Paratonium and Mareotica and arable Pharonque and the Nile, with seven divided horns, help us please and ease our fear. You, goddess, I saw your sign and I know the sound of your accompanying sistrums and mindful soul.  I saw this light because by your counsel I was not punished for my deception. Pity the two of us and give help.”

Tears followed her words. 

The goddess seemed to move and the altar moved. The temple doors shook and the horns flashed, imitating the moon and a sistrum resounded. 

Not secure, but calmed by the omen, Telethusa left the temple, Iphis moving behind her, with bigger steps than normal, lips darkening, and face sharpening. His hair became short and messy and more vigor was present in his body than when he had been female. For he who was recently female had become male. Give offerings at the temple and rejoice with no fear. They gave offerings and the temple and added a votive, which had this inscription

GIVEN BY A BOY WHO PROMISED AS A WOMAN TO GIVE THIS OFFERING. IPHIS.

The next morning when Venus and Juno and Hymen, came together to the marriage fires, the boy Iphis received his Ianthe.

Conclusion

So…that was long and I admit my translation is a bit messy (Ovid is…hard). We need to discuss a few things.

While the story does give the characters a happy ending, and is sympathetic to Iphis throughout, it really shouldn’t be read as portraying Roman or Greek society as having a liberal view of sex and gender. Iphis’ feelings are referred to as ‘unatural’, even ‘monstrous’ and it took divine intervention to help (though only Iphis’ own words condemn it. The rest of the story is silent.)

All that being said, it does show the idea of gender as being something largely socially constructed and sex as something that can be changed, and that this is not a modern invention. It’s been a concept in human society for hundred of years. Iphis is a boy. He was raised as a boy. Though the original Latin refers to him as female before the bodily change, it also never draws a distinction between him and other males. The changes that came with the goddess were all largely cosmetic. Nothing else about him changed.

Overall we have an oddly mixed bag. It is positive in terms of gender and malleability but more negative or ambivalent about same-sex relationships. In the end, it’s one story and we’re several cultures removed. It’s a Greek story told through a Roman lens being read by a modern mind in English.

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