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  • Naturalized Desires and the Metamorphosis of Iphis
  • Deborah Kamen (bio)


The story of Iphis and Ianthe is the sole mythological account of female same-sex desire, not only in Ovid but in all of classical literature.1 In the Metamorphoses (9.666–797), Ovid tells the tale of Iphis, a girl raised as a boy. At marriageable age, Iphis is betrothed to a girl, Ianthe, with whom she falls madly in love. All would be well, except that she realizes, with great sadness, that her desire is ‘unnatural’ and cannot be consummated. However, on the day before the wedding, the goddess Isis intervenes, transforms Iphis into a young man, and the marriage proceeds as planned. In this article, I integrate two of the main scholarly approaches to the Iphis story—namely, closely reading the myth itself, and exploring its relationship to its neighboring stories—in order to see what the surrounding narrative (Met. 9.450–10.739) reveals about Roman sexuality more broadly.2

Early scholarship on Iphis tried to deduce a pattern underlying the types of desire catalogued within this narrative set. The framing of this story is in fact significant, as I argue below. The Iphis myth (9.666–797) is preceded by a story in which a girl named Byblis tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce her brother (9.450–665), and is followed by the tale of Orpheus, who turns to a love of boys after losing his wife Eurydice (10.1–85). Next is the brief story of Cyparissus, a boy who accidentally kills his pet deer (10.86–147). Orpheus himself then tells a number of tales, including those of the Cerastae and Propoetides, women punished for their impiety (10.220–42); Pygmalion, who falls in love with an ivory statue (10.243–97); Ganymede and Hyacinthus, both beloved by gods (10.148–219); Myrrha, who knowingly sleeps with her own father (10.298– 502); and Venus and her beloved Adonis (10.503–739). It has been variously suggested that Ovid assimilates Iphis to everyone but Byblis and Myrrha on the basis of a generalized unnatural desire (Otis 1970); that he assimilates Iphis to precisely these girls on the basis of their shared forbidden desire (Galinsky 1975); or that he assimilates Iphis to the boy-lovers on the basis of a shared homoerotic desire (Makowski 1996)3—though whether Ovid (or ‘Ovid’) disapproves of or is sympathetic toward female homoerotic desire has been a point of contention.4 [End Page 21]

In the past ten years, scholars have investigated primarily what the Iphis story itself can tell us about Ovidian/Roman concepts of gender and sexuality;5 these enquiries have yielded a number of different, but often complementary, interpretations. Thus, for example, Diane Pintabone (2002) has argued that Ovid simultaneously presents a positive and a negative portrait of “woman-for-woman passion,” thus appearing (at least temporarily) to question normative gender/sexuality but ultimately reinforcing it. Shilpa Raval (2002) contends that the Iphis story shows, on the one hand, that gender is performative and not necessarily tied to biological sex, and on the other, that social institutions (including heterosexual marriage) depend on and reinforce the notion of stable gender identity predicated on sexual difference.6 Jonathan Walker (2006) argues that the Iphis story both gives and revokes “lesbianism”: while the possibility of something like lesbianism is allowed to emerge in readers’ minds, Ovid never allows it to fully materialize. According to Kirk Ormand (2005), Ovid’s myth is ultimately not so much about female deviance or “lesbianism” as it is about the vexed relationship between masculine gender performance and a supposedly stable male sex.7 Finally, a few scholars have called attention to the impossible or incomprehensible nature of Iphis and Ianthe’s desire, whether because it is mutual and lacks hierarchy (Ormand 2005; Boehringer 2007, 257–8), because it lacks penetration (Walker 2006), or because it lacks a masculine element (Boehringer 2007, 257–8).

My argument focuses on what the Iphis story, read in context, can tell us about Roman conceptions of sexual acts. More specifically, I contend that alongside the well-known “penetration model” of Roman sexuality, in which sexual acts were defined...


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