The Transformation of Iphis
Metamorphoses, by Ovid (Book 9.666-93)

Byblis’ metamorphosis might have stunned the hundred cities of Crete, had another marvel not occurred at the same time, closer to home: the transformation of Iphis.

In the countryside of Phaestos, close to the kingdom of Cnosus, there lived a humble, freeborn commoner, name of Ligdus, who was neither rich nor noble, but who lived a plain and blameless life. When his wife was about to give birth, he said to her, “I have two prayers, Telethusa: that you have a painless birth, and that you deliver a boy child. A girl is too heavy a burden for our resources. So I have to insist, though it appalls me to do so, that if the baby is born a girl—may the gods forgive this hateful deed!—we must put her to death.” As he spoke, tears sprang to his eyes, and they appeared as well on the cheeks of his wife. Telethusa begged her husband not to destroy hope before it was born, but she spoke in vain: Ligdus’ mind was made up.

When Telethusa was so heavy with child that she could scarcely carry her belly’s weight, a midnight dream came to her, and she saw—or seemed to see—the Egyptian goddess Isis in the guise of Io, standing in regal splendor at her bedside, surrounded by a retinue of sacred beings. She wore a luminous yellow headdress in the shape of the crescent moon, woven through with golden shafts of wheat. Standing beside her were Anubis, the god who barks, and the sacred cat-headed Bast, and the dappled cow-god Apis, and Harpocrates, urging silence with a thumb pressed to his lips. Sistra rattled, and Osiris appeared, the one whom Isis constantly seeks, and Isis’ serpent, swollen with sleep-inducing venom, who poisoned the sun-god Ra. Finally, the goddess spoke to her, so clearly that Telethusa thought she must be awake, saying, “Telethusa… faithful worshipper… lay your fears aside and disobey your husband’s orders. When Lucina, goddess of childbirth, has safely delivered your child, I bid you raise it, whether it’s a boy or a girl. It is I, Isis—the goddess who brings consolation and succor to all of my followers—and I vow, you shan’t call me an ungrateful deity… I reward my devotees.”

With these words, Isis faded from the chamber. Telethusa, shedding tears of joy, raised a supplicant’s hands to heaven, and prayed for her vision to come true. The pains came, and soon the time of the birth was upon her, and she delivered a girl child. Only the wet-nurse knew the truth, for Telethusa told Ligdus their child was male. Ligdus loved the baby, and gave her his grandfather’s name, Iphis. The name delighted Telethusa, for it was appropriate for either sex—at least, she thought, there was no fraud in the name! From that time on, this lie of sacred provenance went undetected, and Iphis, dressed in a boy’s attire, grew into a beauty, with looks that become any child, girl or boy.

Thirteen years passed, Iphis, and your father found a bride for you. He promised you to golden-haired Ianthe, daughter of Telestes of Dicte, the girl most praised in Phaestos for her dowry of beauty. Iphis and Ianthe were the same age, equal in beauty and talent. As children they’d shared a tutor. From the very beginning, love touched them both equally, making an equal wound in each of their innocent hearts—but giving them unequal hopes. When Ianthe thought of their wedding night, she looked forward to the moment when her lover, whom she thought was a man, would become her man. Iphis, on the other hand, loved without hope of fulfillment, which made her burn more ardently—a girl on fire for another girl.

Hardly able to hold back tears, Iphis despaired, “Ah me! What will become of me? I’m gripped by a freakish, monstrous love, the likes of which the world has never seen! If the gods wanted to save me, they would have already saved me. If they wanted to destroy me, wouldn’t they at least have destroyed me through natural means? Mares don’t burn with love for mares. Heifers don’t yearn for other heifers. A ewe naturally loves a ram, and a hind follows only her stag. Birds mate thusly, and in the whole animal kingdom, not a single female animal lusts for another female. So why do I feel this desire? Crete witnessed another perversion when the sun’s daughter Pasiphaë fell in love with a bull, but at least the bull was male! Truthfully, my love is wilder than hers. Pasiphaë got to consummate with her lover, even if she had to seduce him through trickery, disguising herself as a female cow. He was still a male adulterer. If all the world’s genius came together here—if Daedalus returned on waxen wings—what would be the use? His cunning still couldn’t make a boy out of a girl. Even his art could never transform you, Ianthe.

“Take heart, Iphis—have courage. Banish this foolish, useless passion from your heart. Remember that you were born a girl—lest you should deceive yourself along with the others! Love what nature permits a girl to love. Love grows on the promise of consummation, and the hope of consummation nourishes it. Nature has robbed this hope from you. No guardian keeps you from Ianthe’s dear arms… nor the watchfulness of a jealous husband… nor a father’s cruelty…  and the girl herself wants you to take her. Still, Iphis, you can never have her. Whatever the actions of gods or men, you’re barred from this happiness. Even now, all my prayers have been answered. The kindly gods gave Ianthe to me. Ianthe, her father and my father want the same thing I do. But nature prevents it—and nature, it seems, is more powerful than any of us. Look: the wedding day is upon me; the wedding torch is almost in my hand. Ianthe will soon be mine—and yet not mine. I’ll die of thirst in all this water. Hymen, why come to this wedding? Why come, Juno, goddess of matrimony, to a wedding with no groom and too many brides?”

Iphis fell silent. Meanwhile, Ianthe was afire, and prayed to Hymen that he come quickly. Telethusa, terrified of Ianthe’s prayers, found reason after reason to postpone the wedding. First she changed the date because of a feigned illness; then she used dreams and omens as excuses. Finally, all pretexts exhausted, the delayed wedding loomed, until a single day remained. Telethusa tore the ribbons from around her head and from her daughter’s head, so that their hair streamed down their backs. She gripped the altar of Isis’ temple, crying, “Isis! I pray to you who guards Paraetonium, Pharos, the Mareotic countryside, and the seven-horned Nile—bring help! Ease our fears! Goddess, I once saw you and all the signs of your power. I recognized them, I heard the bronze sistra jangling, and I took your command to heart. Behold: my daughter has seen daylight, and I’ve not been punished for it. That was your doing—and her life is my tribute to you. Have pity on the two of us: come to our aid—lighten our worried hearts!”

She wept as she spoke. It seemed to her that the goddess caused the altar to tremble—it did tremble!—and the doors of the temple shook. Moon-shaped horns glimmered, and a strident sistrum rattled. Telethusa, still scared, but gladdened by the favorable omen, left the temple. Iphis followed her mother. Was her stride longer than it had been—her face less pale? She seemed to have greater bodily strength and sharper features. Her hair was shorter and less elegant. Her steps had more vigor than one associates with a woman. Where there had been a girl, there was now a boy! Iphis, bring gifts to the temple, and celebrate with joy, not fear!

Telethusa and Iphis did bequeath a gift to the temple, inscribed with these words:


The next day the sun’s light touched the wide world with its rays. Venus, Juno and Hymen came down from on high to witness the wedding, where the boy Iphis finally took possession of his Ianthe.

Original Latin Text

Fama novi centum Cretaeas forsitan urbes
implesset monstri, si non miracula nuper
Iphide mutata Crete propiora tulisset.
proxima Cnosiaco nam quondam Phaestia regno
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.
?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."
dixerat, et lacrimis vultum 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
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
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.

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 quicquid erit. dea sum auxiliaris opemque
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
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,
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:
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.
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
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,
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.
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
passa bovem est, et erat, qui deciperetur, adulter.                
huc licet ex toto sollertia confluat orbe,
ipse licet revolet ceratis Daedalus alis,
quid faciet? num me puerum de virgine doctis
artibus efficiet? num te mutabit, Ianthe?

"Quin animum firmas, teque ipsa recolligis, Iphi,              
consiliique inopes et stultos excutis ignes?
quid sis nata, vide, nisi te quoque decipis ipsam,
et pete quod fas est, et ama quod femina debes!
spes est, quae faciat, spes est, quae pascat amorem.
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 potiunda tibi, nec, ut omnia fiant,
esse potes felix, ut dique hominesque laborent.
nunc quoque votorum nulla est pars vana meorum,               
dique mihi faciles, quicquid 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,
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
aestuat, utque celer venias, Hymenaee, precatur.                  
quae 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
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:
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
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.
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,
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.
postera lux radiis latum patefecerat orbem,                         
cum Venus et Iuno sociosque Hymenaeus ad ignes
conveniunt, potiturque sua puer Iphis Ianthe.