Iphis, Metamorphoses and the History of Gender Fluidity
Iphis, Metamorphoses and the History of Gender Fluidity

Iphis, Metamorphoses and the History of Gender Fluidity

Jiaying Geng

Though many people think that the debate on gender diversity and rights is exclusively a modern issue, this could not be further from the truth. Instead, many discussions on gender fluidity and identity are found throughout history and they can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greek mythology, one can find Iphis, a man with a woman’s body; Caenis, a woman turned man; and Hermaphrodite, the androgynous teenage offspring of two gods. Evidently, Ancient Greco-Roman writers pondered over the concept of gender fluidity before the emergence of contemporary equal rights movements, even before gender minorities were given a name. This essay aims to show that gender fluidity is embedded deep in the Western tradition by analyzing the tale of Iphis in the Ancient Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Contemporary society has seen a boom in the discussion of gender. From around the 1950s, the concept of breaking free from the male-female binary and establishing a diverse culture of genders has made its way into western popular culture, and captivated the public mind1.Yet as numbers of outspoken genderqueer population increased, opposing forces of such movements begin to question the validity of these individuals’ perceptions of themselves. They have labeled the movement of gender diversity as a short-lived, faux-scientific trend invented by misguided younger populations as a misdiagnosis of mental issues. I wish to argue against this assertion. As scholars have extensively established, the western notion of gender fluidity can find its roots in mainstream Greco-Roman culture.2 Mythologies frequently introduced characters of ambiguous gender, and Ancient Rome has even seen the transgender emperor, Elegabalus. Of these numerous gender-related pieces and figures in ancient history, I believe the tale of Iphis in Ovid’s poetry anthology, the Metamorphoses, most saliently supports the widespread recognition of gender fluidity.   

Before launching into my argument, I wish to clarify a few details in my recounting of the tale. I will refer to Iphis using she/her pronouns prior to his transformation, and use he/him pronouns after. However, I would like to note that the pronouns are indicative of his sex only, and not his gender. (This will be elaborated in Section 2). Additionally, this essay’s general structure follows the chronological order of Iphis’s story as recounted in the metamorpheses. I will deliver each section of my argument with analysis of quotes extracted from the portion of the story I am currently recounting.

For the readers’ better understanding, I will also include a summary the story of Iphis. Set in Ancient Greece, this tale follows Iphis, a girl born in a poor family and subsequently raised as a boy by her mother. At the age of thirteen, Iphis becomes betrothed to another girl, Ianthe, and the couple fall in love. But as while Ianthe is unaware of Iphis’s real sex, Iphis becomes anxious and worries her secret will be revealed. As the wedding day approaches, a desperate Iphis, accompanied by her mother, prays at the goddess Isis’s altar for her divine aid. Their wishes are fulfilled— as the pair leave the altar, Iphis gains a male body. He then lives happily ever after with Ianthe. 

Section 1

The tale of Iphis starts in the humble Greek town of Gnossus, with a humble husband, Ligdus, and his pregnant wife Telethusa. Ligdus warns Telethusa that they could only afford to raise a boy, and tells Telethusa if the baby were to be female, she would be killed. However, the night before the child’s birth, Telethusa was graced by the Egyptian goddess Iphis in a dream and told to raise the infant no matter the cost. So when Iphis, a female, was born, Telethusa deceives everyone else on the real sex of the child, and raises Iphis as a boy. 

This grand lie continued smoothly until Iphis reached the age of thirteen — time has come for her to step into marriage, and she is betrothed to Ianthe, a girl from a neighboring family. The girls fall madly in love. Ianthe is elated to step into marriage with a man she loves, but Iphis is tortured by anxiety and turmoil. After falling in love with Ianthe, Iphis, plagued by the guilt of deception and the heavy burden of self-doubt, delivers her famous long monologue. Through Ovid’s narration, the troubled protagonist despairs over her unorthodox love. In times where lesbianism was scorned by the public, Iphis regards her passion for Ianthe as “monstrous” and “dreaded”:

O what will be the awful dreaded end, with such a monstrous love compelling me?… In all the animal world no female ever feels love passion for another female — why is in me?3

Iphis continues on, even declaring her love as more appalling than that of Pasiphae’s for the bull:

Monstrosities are natural to Crete, the daughter of the sun there loved a bull — it was a female’s mad love for the male — but my desire is far more mad than hers…4

Towards the end of this emotional oration, Iphis voices her final wish: for her to be a man, and to love Ianthe “naturally”. 

Reading into the condemning tone in which Iphis views her own sexuality and gender, it is not surprising many have interpreted this as Ovid’s own projection of his homophobia.5 However, I wish to argue for the contrary — By giving the female character of Iphis complexity, vulnerability, and emotional depth, Ovid sets an unprecedented example in Roman literature by crafting a queer female protagonist, and urges us as readers to view her hardships with sympathy and compassion.

Ovid’s portrayal of Iphis is unparalleled in literature of his time. Other Roman writers relay the tale of female characters in a superficial tone. In typical tales, females rarely have any kind of personality or mind of their own, but instead serve as a frivolous, often attractive object for the reader (often male) to project their feminine ideals onto.6 Predictably, the objectification of females in tales of female same-sex desire intensifies — Roman writers (still mostly male) mold the females into roles of a heterosexual cisgender relationship, insisting one woman, called a tribas, to be active in the partnership and the other to be passive and enduring.7 As a result, these exaggerated, stereotypical imaginings of queer females are rightfully interpreted as mocking pieces that reflect the writer’s own misogyny and homophobia.

By contrast, this hyper-sexualized trope of lesbianism is completely subverted in Ovid’s retelling of Iphis.9 A large portion of this short tale is dedicated to narrating Iphis’s internal dialogue of her troubles; we follow her as she laments her unconventional, heartfelt desire of another woman. The existence of her lengthy monologue itself already strays from the mindless and docile qualities typical of female characters. Iphis’s confession humanizes her — provided with an insight into her head, readers no longer indifferently imagine Iphis as a flat, archetypical figure. Now, Iphis’s display of her vulnerabilities makes her appear more complex, and much more relatable. Her anxiety and worries mirror our own doubts of value and self worth, and her internalized hatred of her sexuality is particularly identifiable with queer youth. I believe this heightened feeling of empathy and connection towards Iphis was Ovid’s intention: By employing a deprecating tone to narrate Iphis in the scene before her transformation, Ovid is not denouncing her feelings and her sexuality, instead, he sought to validate Iphis’s identity and treat her distress as a queer female with considerable compassion.  

Section 2

Although I have established the impact of Ovid’s narration style on the reader’s perception of Iphis, the significance of her monologue does not end there. Upon closer inspection, many scholars have brought light to a peculiarity in the linguistic nature of Ovid’s writing: Iphis is, strangely, referred to as a male. In the latter half of Iphis’s monologue, she admonishes her own passions, saying:

“Will you not gird your spirit and get a hold of yourself, Iphis, and put out these stupid fires… ”

The original Latin text for the translation above is as follows:

“quin animus firmas teque pisa reconligis, Iphi… con-siliique inopes et stultos excutis ignes?”

Though partially lost in english translation, the original text linguistically employs a distinctly masculine tone— Despite still being biologically female at this point in the story, Iphis frames herself as an amator: a male lover traditional in Roman elegiac fashion.10 Like a typical roman amator, Iphis is lost in her passions and unable to “put out these stupid fires” that has ignited for Ianthe, and curb her passions for her lover. Scholars have noted that this way of describing passion is incredibly “male.”11 In traditional Roman literature, only a masculine character will describe themselves as having a passion wild and uncontrollable like fire, for the reason that it is fitting with the outspoken male archetype. As opposed to masculine desire, feminine desire is melancholic, more subdued, and often softer spoken. A prime example can be quoted from Catullus, a neoteric poet narrating a female character:

“Why don’t you make firm your heart and lead yourself out of this?”12

The difference is apparent. The quote’s subtle ‘feminine’ proclamation of love and anxiety starkly contrasts the ardent, display of emotion we see from Iphis.

The juxtaposition of Iphis’s sex and perceived gender continues. In a state of desperation, she muses later in the text:

If Daedalus himself should fly back here upon his waxen wings, what could he do?

What skillful art of his could change my sex, a girl into a boy…?

This is a blunt statement, in which she directly addresses the crux of her issue: her inability to be a man. Though there is a fleeting moment where she considers the possibility of Ianthe changing her gender, it is still clear Iphis views herself as the masculine role in the relationship. Ovid’s careful narration constructs a contradiction in Iphis’s body and her psyche. She longs to become masculine, and linguistically, is already intrinsically a man; But her body is still that of a woman’s. This deliberate narration has raised many doubts among scholars: why bother to create an intricate, evidently male persona of Iphis before she is physically transformed? What is the use of this curious struggle between Iphis’s sex and gender?

Analyzing the tale from a contemporary perspective could provide some clues. The literary descriptions of Iphis’s internal masculine state as contrasted to his biologically feminine body is nearly identical to the modern binary definition of gender and sex widely accepted by gender scholars— the term “sex” refers to one’s physical state of possessing a certain set of genitals, while the term “gender” is one’s intrinsic perception of identity. To cement this parallel, Iphis is a textbook example of what is considered a transgender man. Throughout the tale, Iphis expresses extreme confusion and anxiety regarding his biologically feminine sex, and the masculine figure she wishes to be, going as far to regard himself as “monstrous,” and to wish she had “never been born.” This is an almost perfect example of gender dysphoria, which is defined as “a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.” Additionally, individuals with symptoms of gender dysphoria may outwardly express their biological sex, suppressing the urge to reveal their true gender. Iphis illustrates this feature amply in his monologue, condemning himself and curbing his true passions to become masculine.13

It is tricky to determine whether Ovid was fully aware of Iphis’s representation of these contemporary definitions of gender. It must be admitted that in Ancient Rome, the environment for such conversations of gender fluidity had not been fully developed. On the other hand, Ovid’s conflicting portrayal of Iphis’s identities is not an accident. By deliberately choosing masculine linguistic and behavioral descriptions for a physically female character strikingly similar to the modern genderqueer youth, I believe that Ovid did not think of Iphis as a lesbian, or even a woman, but instead as, in modern terms, a transgender man. This fairly encouraging acknowledgement of the discrepancy between the protagonist’s biological characteristics and perceived gender seems to indicate that Ovid was, in fact, supportive of the concept of gender diversity defined today.14

Section 3

As the days draw nearer to Iphis wedding, her mother, Telethusa, becomes restless. Desperate to cover up Iphis’s secret, Telethusa makes excuse upon excuse to delay the date. But eventually, she had exhausted every story, and only one more day remained before the fateful wedding. Telethusa, now in despair, recalls her encounter with Isis the day before Iphis’s birth. So Telethusa and Iphis approach Isis’s altar and she prays for the aid of the goddess. As Telethusa utters her prayer, the statue of Isis gleams with rays of light, shaking with divine power. Encouraged by the good omen, Telethusa leads Iphis out of the temple.

As Iphis and her mother leave the temple, Iphis’s physical characteristics begin to change: 

Iphis… walked, but with a lengthened stride. Her face seemed of a darker hue, her strength seemed greater, and her features were more stern. Her hair once long, was unadorned and short… Iphis, who was a girl, is now a man!

It seemed that she had, by some divine power, become a man! The goddess Isis had granted her with the body of the masculine gender. And so, with her new body, Iphis marries Ianthe and secured the young lovebird’s blissful matrimony. 

The significance of this fortunate ending has traditionally been overlooked by scholars: many attribute this ending to Ovid’s attempt to conform to the hegemony of heterosexual, cisgender relationships prevalent in Ancient Rome.15 I wish to provide an alternative interpretation to this common argument: by transforming Iphis into a cisgendered man under the pretense of a divine blessing, Ovid provides convincing validation of Iphis’s real gender. Not only does Ovid believe it is fitting to grant Iphis a unambiguously happy ending, Ovid does it with a respectable plot device — a godly blessing. This seems to be very telling of Ovid’s stance towards the validity of Iphis, and broadly, towards the wider demographic gender minorities. 

A favorable outcome of Ovid’s narrated tales is strongly indicative of his own opinion on the protagonist’s values in the myth. Among all the compilations in the Metamorpheses, the celebratory finale Iphis received is an extreme rarity. Among others, both tales of Hermaphroditus and Caenus — other examples of special genderqueer characters in the Metamorpheses— end in tragedy. Hermaphroditus was raped and forcefully fused with another deity, while Caenus dies grotesquely in a duel against his foes. While ending a tale in tragedy does not necessarily denounce the message spread by such a story, an optimal outcome, not to mention a divine outcome, is most definitely meant to lift up the core values of the story. As applied to Iphis, Ovid’s acceptance and approval of genderqueer youth is implied.

conclusion

From linguistic and description choices employed by the author, to the significant parallel of the tale to modern works of sexuality and gender, the tale of Iphis evidently appears as Ovid’s novel ode to gender fluidity and diversity. From a modern perspective, Ovid’s perception of gender fluidity is still clearly imperfect: his references to Iphis’s gender are subtle and ambiguous, and the flat characterization of Iphis’s lover, Ianthe, still somewhat reflects the conformity of  his misogynistic Ancient Roman culture. Despite this, the tale still remains significant as an exceptional acknowledgment of gender diversity — Ovid produces a fictional case of a transgender individual that strays from the derogatory archetypes of his time, and expresses awareness of the sex-gender separation core to the concept of gender diversity. Thus, we are able to conclusively define Ovid’s attitudes towards genderqueer minorities as knowing and supportive. 

On a wider scale, Ovid’s acceptance towards the concept of gender fluidity in Metamorpheses, to some extent, reflects the attitudes of the general public in Ancient Rome. Ovid’s Metamorpheses shaped the Ancient world’s literary history — countless pieces of literature, sculptures, and artworks have been made in tribute to stories in this epic anthology. In particular, the tale of Iphis has sparked a public consciousness of the ambiguity of gender, and many sculptures have depicted the plight of this iconic couple. These works demonstrate the awareness and widespread acknowledgement of gender fluidity throughout the diverse audience that Ovid’s works had reached, and by itself, is sufficient proof of the long-lived discussion of gender. 

Footnotes and Citation

 1 McGuire, Laura. “It’s Not in Your Head: The History and Science of Gender Fluidity.” Spectrum South – The Voice of the Queer South, July 4, 2018. https://www.spectrumsouth.com/history-science-gender-fluidity/. 

 2 Surtees, Allison, and Jennifer Dyer. Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022. 

3 Ovid. “Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.” OVID, METAMORPHOSES 9 – Theoi Classical Texts Library. Accessed September 22, 2022. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses9.html#7. 

4 Ormand, Kirk, and Ellen Greene. “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphesis.” Essay. In Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, 79–110. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 

5 Makowski, John F. “Article Makowski – Pederasty & Parody in Ovid – CJ 92 (1996).” Scribd. Scribd, 1996. https://www.scribd.com/document/495536807/Article-MAKOWSKI-Pederasty-Parody-in-Ovid-CJ-92-1996. 

6 Goetting, Cody. “A Comparison of Ancient Roman and Greek Norms Regarding Sexuality and Gender.” ScholarWorks@BGSU, 2017. https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/honorsprojects/221/. 

7 Ormand, Kirk, and Ellen Greene. “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphesis.” Essay. In Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, 79–110. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005; Corbeill, Anthony, Catharine Edwards, David Fredrick, Pamela Gordon, Judith P. Hallett, and Judith P. Hallett. “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature.” Essay. In Roman Sexualities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021. 

9 Begum-Lees, Rebecca. “Que(e)r(Y)Ing Iphis’ Transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Chapter 7) – Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World.” Cambridge Core. Edinburgh University Press, 2010. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/exploring-gender-diversity-in-the-ancient-world/queerying-iphis-transformation-in-ovids-metamorphoses/6DEDAFEB8F7236AF2691C2FD25C3CF38. 

10 Moore, Ken. “The Iphis Incident: Ovid’s Accidental Discovery of Gender Dysphoria.” ATHENS JOURNAL OF HISTORY7, no. 2 (2021): 95–116. https://doi.org/10.30958/ajhis.7-2-1. 

11 Ormand, Kirk, and Ellen Greene. “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphesis.” Essay. In Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, 79–110. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 

12 Catullus, Quin tu animo affirmas atque istinc teque reducis

13 Stickley, Quentin A. “Gender Transformation and Ontology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Philomantes, 2013. https://www.apsu.edu/philomathes/StickleyPhilomathe2020Online.pdf.

14 Ibid.

15 Ormand, Kirk, and Ellen Greene. “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphesis.” Essay. In Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, 79–110. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 

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