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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #77 Pintabone 2002 "Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won't Be Girls”

Full citation: 

Pintabone, Diane T. "Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won't Be Girls” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Pintabone, Diane T. “Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won’t Be Girls”

One of my reasons for including literary and mythic themes in the LHMP is that I'm interested not only in the "real" historic context for lesbian-like characters, but also in what models a historic character might have had available to help them understand their own lives and desires. I used the story of Iphis and Ianthe for just that purpose in my novel Daughter of Mystery. At the point when the complex relationship between my characters Margerit and Barbara was developing into romantic love, Barbara was much more self-aware of her feelings, having had a previous affair with a woman, but Margerit was still in the process of understanding her feelings as romantic, and working out what that might mean for the future. While attending an opera based on the story of Iphis and Ianthe (a very plausible topic for an early 19th century opera, although the specific work is entirely my invention) Margerit finally has a model for what she's feeling and (unsuccessfully) tries to use the story to open up a conversation. Stories have power.

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Ovid's Iphis & Ianthe (in the Metamorphoses) raises questions about Roman views of female homoerotic relationships. Iphis, born female but raised male, falls in love with Ianthe and then is transformed into a male body in order to marry her.

One view of female-female desire that emerges from (male) Roman writers (see e.g., Hallett 1989) is the concept of a "masculine" woman who desires women sexually, takes the active/agressive role in the relationship, and falls in the category tribas. Her partner, viewed as more traditionally "feminine" and passive may not be understood as belonging to a special sexual category, or may in some cases also be considered tribas. Brooten (1996) describes this image as well, but also notes some evidence for female-female marriage, attributed to Canaanites and Egyptians. Ovid's depiction of Sappho masculinizes her, due to her active expression and pursuit of desire (even when he is discussing her relationship with a man). The Roman, phallocentric, binary understanding of sexual desire could only imagine -- or rather could only define -- active desire as a masculine role, just as a "passive" man was viewed as inherently feminized.

Roman descriptions of female-female sex focused on phallic or pseudo-phallic activity (rubbing vulvas, or using a dildo). In this context, only the "active" female partner is viewed as deviant, with the nature of the object of her desire being a consequence rather than a cause of her deviance. (That is, as an "active" lover, she naturally is drawn to a "passive" partner, and therefore typically to a female beloved.)

Is Ovid's Iphis a "masculine" woman by nature, whose transformation harmonizes nature and body? Or does the story carry a sympathy for female-female desire even while treating it as impossible to realize? The text is slippery and elusive.

The Metamorphoses are concerned with hierarchies of power in both the natural and mythic worlds. Stories present and resolve challenges to "natural" authority in a way that restores and maintains order. But the presentation of these lessons often has a subtext that critiques that order, as when the gods are depicted as over-reacting to challenges.

Iphis is raised by her mother as a boy to escape her father's murderous misogyny and not due to her personal preference or desire. When Iphis is grown, the father--still in ignorance--betroths Iphis to a childhood friend, Ianthe. The two love each other deeply, but Iphis despairs, believing their love to be impossible and contrary to nature. Iphis and her mother pray to Isis for a solution and the goddess answers by giving Iphis a male body. Iphis and Ianthe then marry and presumably live happily ever after. It may or may not be relevant that Isis is an Egyptian deity – one of the regions to which woman-woman marriage is attributed.

Iphis and Ianthe are described in the language of similarity: equal in age, in beauty, in education, and in the love they feel for each other. Interestingly, their desire is not framed in active/passive terms but as equivalent. The active/passive contrast is reserved for Iphis's internal debate on whether to act on that desire.

Ianthe believes herself to be betrothed to a man and feels no conflict about it. Iphis--in denial of her actual emotions--believes it is impossible for a woman to love a woman, and therefore concludes that the only solution is for her or for Ianthe to become a man. (She expresses indifference as to which it would be, indicating that she does not understand her desire as deriving from her own identity as being masculine.) In her understanding, the marriage is impossible "as is" because marriage requires a groom--desire is not enough. There is also language indicating that what she considers "impossible" about their love is the ability for phallocentric consummation. That is, in contrast to the image of the active/aggressive pseudo-phallic tribas, Iphis is a "normal" woman (despite desiring another woman) and cannot resolve the problem simply by taking a "masculine" sexual role.

In general, Ovid metes out punishments to female sexual aggressors in the Metamorphoses. In this context, Iphis's failure/refusal to act on her desire appears to be what makes her a virtuous character and therefore deserving of a divine resolution to her dilemma. That is, by maintaining female passivity, she is rewarded with male actuality. Thus, although the story involves a cross-gender childhood and a physical sexual transformation, it does not seem to frame Iphis as having a transgender identity.

Despite the gender essentialism in the resolution, there are several aspects of the story that subvert an essentialist understanding. Iphis's father had resolved to kill any daughter due to the perceived inferiority of girls, but as Iphis grows to adulthood without manifesting any perceptible "inferiority", the validity of the father's motivation is undermined.

The story can be seen alternately as supporting or condemning female same-sex love. The author shows no overt disapproval of Iphis's feelings when, as a woman, she loves a woman. But neither is this situation allowed to stand. Same-sex love is literally erased by means of divinely-mediated sex-change. And yet, in contrast to other Roman depictions of female homoeroticism, the story provides a model of egalitarian, mutual, non-phallocentric love between women...for as long as there are two women present to love each other.

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