Jerz: Media Aesthetics


27 Jan 2005
Pygmalion Anthology

Examine several versions of the Pygmalion legend, and consider the discussion prompts that follow.

Text 1

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Bk X:243-297 Orpheus sings: Pygmalion and the statue(trans. Kline)

Pygmalion had seen them, spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings
that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife
or partner for his bed. But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly,
out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation.
The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished
to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art. He marvels:
and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart. Often, he runs his
hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting
it to be ivory. he kisses it and thinks his kisses
are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers
press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure.
Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls,
shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured
flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades’s amber tears, that
drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings
on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the
ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no
less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with
Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and
rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel.

The day of Venus’s festival came, celebrated throughout Cyprus,
and heifers, their curved horns gilded, fell, to the blow on their snowy neck.
The incense was smoking, when Pygmalion, having made his offering, stood by
the altar, and said, shyly: “If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish
as a bride to have...” and not daring to say “the girl of ivory” he said “one
like my ivory girl.” Golden Venus, for she herself was present at the festival,
knew what the prayer meant, and as a sign of the gods’ fondness for him, the
flame flared three times, and shook its crown in the air. When he returned,
he sought out the image of his girl, and leaning over the couch, kissed her.
She felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast
with his hand. The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering
under his fingers, as the bees’ wax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is moulded,
under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use. The lover is stupefied,
and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again.

It was flesh! The pulse throbbed under his thumb.
Then the hero, of Paphos, was indeed overfull of words with which to thank
Venus, and still pressed his mouth against a mouth that was not merely a likeness.
The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to
the light, saw both her lover and the sky. The goddess attended the marriage
that she had brought about, and when the moon’s horns had nine times met at
the full, the woman bore a son, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name.

Text 2

Download this very different verse translation of the same source text.

Images and Commentary

On the U.Va.site for Ovid's Metamorphoses I found a link to Pygmalion Design,a huge collection of links exploring the Pygmalion legend in all its forms. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in Latin around 1AD, is a collection of short mythological tales that feature strange and miraculous changes (singular metamorphosis, plural metamorphoses). A god make take the form of an animal, or turn a human into a tree. Sometimes, as in Pygmalion’s story, the change is a kindness offered by a god to a mortal. Sometimes the change is a punishment. Other times, the changes are torments brought about by the whims of the gods.

Greek gods typically represented magnified versions of human strengths and weaknesses; thus the gods would sometimes fight over the favor of particular mortals, like children tussling over a toy – one of them may hurl the toy just to get it away from the other, even if the toy is broken in the process.

Since the Greek legends were oral tales, there is no such thing as a definitive version of the Pygmalion legend. Bulfinch's Mythology is a good source of the main plot details.
This legend about an artist has long been popular with artists; a sequence of four paintings by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones presents


1. a solitary artist ignoring real women and contemporary statues,
2. attracted to the creation that sits on the pedestal where he carved it,
3. embracing the newly living statue, and finally
4. kneeling before her.

I notice that only the third and fourth images in the series seem to be readily available online in poster form. (The images are from ABC Gallery, which unfortunately inverts the order of the third and fourth images.)
By contrast, a picture by Jean-Léon Gérome has Pygmalion embracing Galatea's upper body while the rest of her is still stone. What seems to be another angle on the same scene shows Pygmalion lunging forward, his cloak trailing out behind him, while most of her body is still stone.

The cynical and brilliant George Bernard Shaw took on the pretensions of the upperclass with his play Pygmalion, which, stripped of its rather bleak and realistic ending (Higgins is insufferably smug, and really does deserve his solitude) was later the inspiration for the high school musical standard My Fair Lady. The artwork for the original show features Higgins as a puppeteer, pulling the strings on Eliza, and up in the clouds a twinkly-eyed God is pulling strings on Higgins.

Discussion Prompts

Re-read the basic summary of the Pygmalion legend in Bulfinch's Mythology. Now consider how the pictures by Burne-Jones and the pictures by Gérome differ in their presentation.

Look at the differences between the 17thC verse translation and the 20thC prose translation. How have the authors adapted the basic legend to fit the different needs of their genres? What has each author added, emphasized, de-emphasized, or cut?

How does the author of this feminist retelling of Pygmalion adapt the legend to suit her needs? How would you assess the result in terms of political effect? Aesthetic effect?

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