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  • A Whole Out Of Pieces:Pygmalion's Ivory Statue In Ovid's Metamorphoses
  • Patricia Salzman-Mitchell

The story of Pygmalion's love for his statue is best known from Ovid's version in Metamorphoses 10.243–97. Ovid tells how Pygmalion, an artist from Cyprus, disgusted with the licentious sexual conduct of the Propoetides, created a statue of a most beautiful woman and fell in love with it. After Venus granted his wish to bring the statue to life, Pygmalion and his maiden had a child named Paphos and lived happily. This paper discusses how Pygmalion seems to have made his statue, what it was made of, and why the artist chose ivory as his medium. Various contentions are put forward: that ivory is an appropriate material for an idealistic (rather than mimetic) work of art; that its pliability echoes the "change-ability" of forms in Metamorphoses; that Pygmalion's maiden as ideal woman is a construction made of different parts and not a whole; and that the creation of the ivory maiden "out of pieces" resembles and acts as a symbol for Metamorphoses, also a "whole" epic made out of smaller narrative segments, and for Ovid's conception of ars, and erotic ars in particular.1

Sources, Text, and Intertext

Although Ovid gave the myth of Pygmalion its literary form, the tale existed before him. The Christian authors Clement of Alexandria and Arnobius recall the story of a Cypriot named Pygmalion who fell in love with a statue of the goddess Aphrodite. Their source is Philostephanus of [End Page 291] Cyrene, a prose writer of the early Hellenistic period and author of a lost cycle of Cypriot stories (Rosati 1983.54–55). Clement says (Protrepticus 4.57.3):

Pygmalion of Cyprus fell in love with an ivory statue. It was a naked statue of Aphrodite. The man from Cyprus is captivated by its shapeliness and joins sexually with the statue.2

Similarly, Arnobius, citing Philostephanus, says that Pygmalion was a Cypriot king who fell in love with a statue of the goddess and used to join with her as if she were his wife (Adv. Nat. 6.22):

Philostephanus in Cypriacis auctor est, Pygmalionem regem Cypri simulacrum Veneris, quod sanctitatis apud Cyprios et religionis habebatur antiquae, adamasse ut feminam mente anima lumine rationis iudicioque caecatis solitumque dementem, tamquam si uxoria res esset, sublevato in lectulum numine copularier amplexibus atque ore resque alias agere libidinis vacuae imaginatione frustrabiles.

Philostephanus tells in his Cypriaca that Pygmalion, king of Cyprus, fell in love, as if she were a woman, with an image of Venus that was considered sacred and venerated by the Cyprians from old times. His mind, his soul, the light of his reason, and his judgment were blinded, and in his madness, as if it were his wife, having lifted the divinity to the couch, kissing and embracing her, he used to have intercourse with her and do other vain things, carried away by his foolish and lustful imagination. [End Page 292]

Both versions probably refer to a single original found in Philostephanus. The story is always set in Cyprus, and its likely origin is in a local cult involving a fertility goddess corresponding to the Greek and Roman Aphrodite/Venus. The very name Pygmalion is Phoenician.3 Critics have seen in this story a Cypriot legend relating to the practice of sacred prostitution. Gianpiero Rosati believes that it is possible that Ovid read Philostephanus directly and took the idea of the story from him (1983.56).4

Two other ancient stories of agalmatophilia, or the love of statues, are relevant intertexts of the Ovidian account.5 Pseudo-Lucian tells that a young man fell in love with the famous statue of Aphrodite by Praxiteles in Knidos, locked himself in the temple, and had sex with it. After this event, a mark appeared in the goddess's thigh (Ps.-Lucian Amores 13–16).6 Likewise, in Euripides' Alcestis (348–53), Admetus says that he will ask a sculptor to make an image of his dead wife in marble and that he will lie with it in their bed and hold it in his arms.

Ovid says that Pygmalion, with great...


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