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Ovid: Metamorphoses, Bk 9: 666-797
The Story of Iphis and Ianthe

Translation by John Dryden


Ovid's (43 BCE-17CE) Metamorphoses consists of a long series of stories concerned with "changing bodies". The fable of Iphis and Ianthe is about two women who love each other, but it is not exactly "lesbian" in that one of the pair has been raised as a boy, and the solution is for her to be changed into a man. The poem also contains an extended [ll. 731-734] horror of women loving women, a horror Ovid did not extend to men loving younger men.

The fame of this, perhaps, thro' Crete had flown:
But Crete had newer wonders of her own,
In Iphis chang'd; for, near the Gnossian bounds
(As loud report the miracle resounds),
At Phaestus dwelt a man of honest blood,
But meanly born, and not so rich as good;
Esteem'd, and lov'd by all the neighbourhood;
Who to his wife, before the time assign'd
For child-birth came, thus bluntly spoke his mind.
If Heav'n, said Lygdus, will vouchsafe to hear,
I have but two petitions to prefer;
Short pains for thee, for me a son and heir.
Girls cost as many throes in bringing forth;
Beside, when born, the titts are little worth;
Weak puling things, unable to sustain
Their share of labour, and their bread to gain.
If, therefore, thou a creature shalt produce,
Of so great charges, and so little use
(Bear witness, Heav'n, with what reluctancy),
Her hapless innocence I doom to die.
He said, and common tears the common grief display,
Of him who bad, and her who must obey.
Yet Telethusa still persists, to find
Fit arguments to move a father's mind;
T' extend his wishes to a larger scope,
And in one vessel not confine his hope.
Lygdus continues hard: her time drew near,
And she her heavy load could scarcely bear;
When slumbring, in the latter shades of night,
Before th' approaches of returning light,
She saw, or thought she saw, before her bed,
A glorious train, and Isis at their head:
Her moony horns were on her forehead plac'd,
And yellow shelves her shining temples grac'd:
A mitre, for a crown, she wore on high;
The dog, and dappl'd bull were waiting by;
Osyris, sought along the banks of Nile;
The silent God: the sacred crocodile;
And, last, a long procession moving on,
With timbrels, that assist the lab'ring moon.
Her slumbers seem'd dispell'd, and, broad awake,
She heard a voice, that thus distinctly spake.
My votary, thy babe from death defend,
Nor fear to save whate'er the Gods will send.
Delude with art thy husband's dire decree:
When danger calls, repose thy trust on me:
And know thou hast not serv'd a thankless deity.
This promise made, with night the Goddess fled;
With joy the woman wakes, and leaves her bed;
Devoutly lifts her spotless hands on high,
And prays the Pow'rs their gift to ratifie.
Now grinding pains proceed to bearing throes,
'Till its own weight the burden did disclose.
'Twas of the beauteous kind, and brought to light
With secrecy, to shun the father's sight.
Th' indulgent mother did her care employ,
And past it on her husband for a boy.
The nurse was conscious of the fact alone;
The father paid his vows as for a son;
And call'd him Iphis, by a common name,
Which either sex with equal right may claim.
Iphis his grandsire was; the wife was pleas'd,
Of half the fraud by Fortune's favour eas'd:
The doubtful name was us'd without deceit,
And truth was cover'd with a pious cheat.
The habit show'd a boy, the beauteous face
With manly fierceness mingled female grace.
Now thirteen years of age were swiftly run,
When the fond father thought the time drew on
Of settling in the world his only son.
Ianthe was his choice; so wondrous fair,
Her form alone with Iphis cou'd compare;
A neighbour's daughter of his own degree,
And not more bless'd with Fortune's goods than he.
They soon espous'd; for they with ease were join'd,
Who were before contracted in the mind.
Their age the same, their inclinations too;
And bred together, in one school they grew.
Thus, fatally dispos'd to mutual fires,
They felt, before they knew, the same desires.
Equal their flame, unequal was their care;
One lov'd with hope, one languish'd in despair.
The maid accus'd the lingring day alone:
For whom she thought a man, she thought her own.
But Iphis bends beneath a greater grief;
As fiercely burns, but hopes for no relief.
Ev'n her despair adds fuel to her fire;
A maid with madness does a maid desire.
And, scarce refraining tears, Alas, said she,
What issue of my love remains for me!
How wild a passion works within my breast,
With what prodigious flames am I possest!
Could I the care of Providence deserve,
Heav'n must destroy me, if it would preserve.
And that's my fate, or sure it would have sent
Some usual evil for my punishment:
Not this unkindly curse; to rage, and burn,
Where Nature shews no prospect of return.
Nor cows for cows consume with fruitless fire;
Nor mares, when hot, their fellow-mares desire:
The father of the fold supplies his ewes;
The stag through secret woods his hind pursues;
And birds for mates the males of their own species chuse.
Her females Nature guards from female flame,
And joins two sexes to preserve the game:
Wou'd I were nothing, or not what I am!
Crete, fam'd for monsters, wanted of her store,
'Till my new love produc'd one monster more.
The daughter of the sun a bull desir'd,
And yet ev'n then a male a female fir'd:
Her passion was extravagantly new,
But mine is much the madder of the two.
To things impossible she was not bent,
But found the means to compass her intent.
To cheat his eyes she took a different shape;
Yet still she gain'd a lover, and a leap.
Shou'd all the wit of all the world conspire,
Shou'd Daedalus assist my wild desire,
What art can make me able to enjoy,
Or what can change Ianthe to a boy?
Extinguish then thy passion, hopeless maid,
And recollect thy reason for thy aid.
Know what thou art, and love as maidens ought,
And drive these golden wishes from thy thought.
Thou canst not hope thy fond desires to gain;
Where hope is wanting, wishes are in vain.
And yet no guards against our joys conspire;
No jealous husband hinders our desire;
My parents are propitious to my wish,
And she herself consenting to the bliss.
All things concur to prosper our design;
All things to prosper any love but mine.
And yet I never can enjoy the fair;
'Tis past the pow'r of Heav'n to grant my pray'r.
Heav'n has been kind, as far as Heav'n can be;
Our parents with our own desires agree;
But Nature, stronger than the Gods above,
Refuses her assistance to my love;
She sets the bar that causes all my pain;
One gift refus'd, makes all their bounty vain.
And now the happy day is just at hand,
To bind our hearts in Hymen's holy band:
Our hearts, but not our bodies: thus accurs'd,
In midst of water I complain of thirst.
Why com'st thou, Juno, to these barren rites,
To bless a bed defrauded of delights?
But why shou'd Hymen lift his torch on high,
To see two brides in cold embraces lye?
Thus love-sick Iphis her vain passion mourns;
With equal ardour fair Ianthe burns,
Invoking Hymen's name, and Juno's pow'r,
To speed the work, and haste the happy hour.
She hopes, while Telethusa fears the day,
And strives to interpose some new delay:
Now feigns a sickness, now is in a fright
For this bad omen, or that boding sight.
But having done whate'er she could devise,
And empty'd all her magazine of lies,
The time approach'd; the next ensuing day
The fatal secret must to light betray.
Then Telethusa had recourse to pray'r,
She, and her daughter with dishevel'd hair;
Trembling with fear, great Isis they ador'd,
Embrac'd her altar, and her aid implor'd.
Fair queen, who dost on fruitful Egypt smile,
Who sway'st the sceptre of the Pharian isle,
And sev'n-fold falls of disemboguing Nile,
Relieve, in this our last distress, she said,
A suppliant mother, and a mournful maid.
Thou, Goddess, thou wert present to my sight;
Reveal'd I saw thee by thy own fair light:
I saw thee in my dream, as now I see,
With all thy marks of awful majesty:
The glorious train that compass'd thee around;
And heard the hollow timbrels holy sound.
Thy words I noted, which I still retain;
Let not thy sacred oracles be vain.
That Iphis lives, that I myself am free
From shame, and punishment, I owe to thee.
On thy protection all our hopes depend.
Thy counsel sav'd us, let thy pow'r defend.
Her tears pursu'd her words; and while she spoke,
The Goddess nodded, and her altar shook:
The temple doors, as with a blast of wind,
Were heard to clap; the lunar horns that bind
The brows of Isis cast a blaze around;
The trembling timbrel made a murm'ring sound.
Some hopes these happy omens did impart;
Forth went the mother with a beating heart:
Not much in fear, nor fully satisfy'd;
But Iphis follow'd with a larger stride:
The whiteness of her skin forsook her face;
Her looks embolden'd with an awful grace;
Her features, and her strength together grew,
And her long hair to curling locks withdrew.
Her sparkling eyes with manly vigour shone,
Big was her voice, audacious was her tone.
The latent parts, at length reveal'd, began
To shoot, and spread, and burnish into man.
The maid becomes a youth; no more delay
Your vows, but look, and confidently pay.
Their gifts the parents to the temple bear:
The votive tables this inscription wear;
Iphis the man, has to the Goddess paid
The vows, that Iphis offer'd when a maid.
Now when the star of day had shewn his face,
Venus and Juno with their presence grace
The nuptial rites, and Hymen from above
Descending to compleat their happy love;
The Gods of marriage lend their mutual aid;
And the warm youth enjoys the lovely maid.