Classical Mythology in English Literature: A Critical Anthology

By Geoffrey Miles | Go to book overview

6

PYGMALION

INTRODUCTION

From Ovid to Caxton

Pygmalion, according to Ovid (P1), was a sculptor of Cyprus who turned away in disgust from the local women because of their sexual immorality. Instead he fell in love with a statue of a beautiful woman that he had himself carved from ivory. He courted it as if it were a woman, dressing it in fine clothes, bringing it gifts, even placing it in his bed. Finally in despair he prayed to Venus, and Venus granted his prayer: as he embraced the statue, it softened from stone into flesh and turned into a living woman. Pygmalion married his statue-wife, and they founded a royal dynasty; their grandson was Cinyras, the unfortunate father/ grandfather of Adonis. In passing it should be noted that in Ovid the statue is nameless; her now-traditional name 'Galatea' is an eighteenth-century invention (Reinhold 1971:316-19). 1

Ovid is the inevitable starting-point for any discussion of Pygmalion. This is perhaps the main difference between this legend and those of Orpheus and Adonis, which have roots much older and deeper and darker than Ovid's elegant retellings. For Pygmalion, Ovid's is the oldest version we have, the only substantial ancient version, and the source of all subsequent versions. Indeed, the story as we have it may be essentially his invention-a literary creation rather than a genuine myth.

Two later writers give us an intriguing glimpse of what may be an earlier version of the story. The early Christian writers Clement of Alexandria (P2) and Arnobius of Sicca (P3) both refer to Pygmalion in the course of polemics against pagan idolatry, both citing as their source the third-century BC scholar Philostephanus. According to them, Pygmalion was not a sculptor, but a young Cypriot-king of Cyprus, according to Arnobius-who blasphemously fell in love with the sacred statue of Aphrodite in her temple, and tried to make love to it. Arnobius's identification of Pygmalion as king suggests to modern scholars that this may be a distorted version of an ancient ritual, a sacred marriage or hierogamy between the island's king and its patron goddess, represented by her

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Classical Mythology in English Literature: A Critical Anthology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xii
  • Part 1 1
  • 1 - The Myth-Kitty 3
  • Notes 19
  • 2 - A Rough Guide to the Gods 20
  • 3 - A Mythical History of the World in One Chapter 35
  • Notes 58
  • Part 2 59
  • 4 - Orpheus 61
  • Notes 74
  • 5 - Venus and Adonis 196
  • Other Versions of Venus and Adonis 329
  • 6 - Pygmalion 332
  • Notes 345
  • Bibliography 450
  • Index of Mythological Names 453
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