In Greek mythology Pygmalion was a wonderfully gifted sculptor who created a marvelous statue of a beautiful woman. The statue was so flawless and lifelike he becomes obsessed with his own sculpture falling in love with it.
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
The myth was passed to us by Ovid, a Roman poet who included it in a long poem called Metamorphoses. This poem had 12,000 lines of hexameter verse in fifteen books. Its narrative tells of the creation of the world up to the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus, making it of great value to the modern scholar.
Within this long poem are many mythical and legendary stories. A key theme though out is transformation which can be great or small but significant in effect. This transformation often takes place through the intervention of the gods.
It may be a reward for obedience and devotion to the gods or punishment for being unfaithful and disobedient. Passion is a theme that is central through out the work.
Pygmalion lived on the island of Cyprus where the goddess Aphrodite was widely revered and he was devoted to her. Not everyone shared this devotion. The daughters of Propoetus of Amathus, who were known as known as the Propoetides, did not worship Aphrodite or pay her due respect.
As a punishment Aphrodite filled them with an immoral passion causing them to act as wanton prostitutes. Pygmalion abhorred their behaviour and grew to loathe them so much that he swore never to marry. For many years he separated himself from such behaviour concentrating on his work.
Pygmalion Creates a Beautiful Statue
During this time of isolation he created a statue of a woman of the most perfect beauty that was amazingly lifelike. He saw in the statue everything he believed a woman should be and all that the Propoetides were not. Indeed the statue was so flawless and its beauty surpassed that of any living woman. As he gazed upon it in admiration of his own skill and its beauty he fell in love with it.
Pygmalion became obsessed, touching and caressing it, as if it was a real woman. He put fine necklaces around its neck and dressed it in beautiful clothes and came to believe that it was indeed a real woman. He would give it beautiful presents such as he thought a real woman would take pleasure in. He would recline it on a couch and with it dressed in fine clothes and jewelery he began to believe it was his wife.
Aphrodite Grants his Heart’s Desire
In Pygmalion’s time the festival of Aphrodite was an important event on Cyprus. Being dedicated to her he went to her alter and performed sacred rites to honour her. In his prayers he asked Aphrodite for a wife similar to his statue, but what he really desired more than anything was for the statue to be his wife, but did not say so as he thought it inappropriate.
Aphrodite was pleased with his dedication to her and reading his mind new his heart’s desire. She caused the alter flames to flare three times as a sign of her approval.
On his return home Pygmalion immediately went to the statue where he had left it reclining on the couch, dressed in finery. He began to kiss and caress it… To his utter amazement the statue’s face felt soft and warm. To his surprise and delight the statue began responding to his kisses and caresses returning them.
Pygmalion gets Married
Overjoyed, he realised Aphrodite had caused the statue to come to life. Pygmalion thanked Aphrodite with all his heart and she looked down and blessed the couple. From their marriage came a son named Paphos who gave his name to the city on Cyprus where the cult of Aphrodite was centred. In later versions of the myth his wife is named as Galatea.
The punishment of the Propoetides by Aphrodite who filled them with an immoral passion, Pygmalion’s devotion and dedication to the goddess and passion for his statue, Aphrodite’s transformation of the statue into a real woman are examples of how the gods may intervene in the lives of humans.