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The Metamorphosis of Iphis

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Iphis, like Clytie, was born through the masterwork that is Ovid's Metamorphoses. While not descended from Gods or aristocracy, Iphis lived a double-life that's well renowned for its uniqueness.

"Iphis Changed by Isis", Cornelis Van Dalen II

The story begins with Ligdus and Telethusa, a working-class couple native to the island Crete. They were just married, and soon, Telethusa became pregnant. Throughout the duration of the pregnancy, Ligdus prayed for two things: a painless birth for his young wife, and for the child to be a boy. Since they were relatively poor, Ligdus knew that if the child was a girl they'd have no means of paying a dowry when she came of age to marry.

Ligdus vowed, although reluctantly, that if the child were a girl he'd have no choice but to kill her. The idea made him ill, but he knew that her life without the ability to marry would be tragic: she'd be betrothed to a low-life, unkind man, or not be married at all. Out of fear, he didn't tell his wife his decision until a month before the unborn baby was full-term. He expected rage, or an outcry of protest. However, stoic and unyielding, Telethusa only nodded her consent.

Behind closed doors, Telethusa became distraught to the point of sickness. She cradled her stomach and sobbed violently, barely able to catch her breath. Death of infants was common, but knowing that there was a split chance of her child being intentionally slaughtered destroyed her.

Telethusa's tears carried out into the night, loud enough to alert the Gods. However, it was not a Greek God who came to ail her, but instead the Egyptian Goddess Isis. She was a natural-born protector and couldn't ignore the innocent, anguished mother's cries. Together with four other Egyptian Gods, she visited Telethusa in the thick fog of the night. When Isis was told the situation regarding the unborn child, she held Telethusa in her arms and made her a promise: If Telethusa kept the child, Isis would ensure them a good life, regardless of their gender.

Just days after the promise made by Isis, Telethusa went into labor. She gave birth on her own: her husband barred from watching or taking part. When a healthy infant girl was born, Telethusa wrapped the baby in swaddling blankets before allowing Ligdus to see. Ligdus came in, and Telethusa handed him the bundle telling him it was a boy. Ligdus cried his relief, cradling his child and vowing to name her Iphis, his father's name before him.

Time passed, and Iphis grew into a healthy, active child. Despite knowing the truth about his gender, he believed himself to be a boy as much as his father did. Remarkably, he was raised just as any other Cretan boy was without anyone suspecting his secret. He was educated meagerly with his parent's earnings and participated in sports: running, wrestling, javelin, and discus. As he grew, and as his body grew, he bound his chest and cropped his hair short, effectively concealing who he was born as.

When Iphis came of age, his father decided it was time for him to marry. Ligdus' friend Telestes had a daughter Iphis' age, a beautiful girl named Ianthe. Decided by the fathers of both families, Iphis and Ianthe were betrothed to each other upon meeting for the first time. Despite their marriage being arranged, the two soon fell irreversibly in love with each other. Before they were even married, they spent hours beside one another doing nothing but the mundane, allowing their conversations to linger. This love, bright and new and never-fleeting, consumed Iphis. She was in fact so blinded by Ianthe that it was only the night before her wedding that she realized women could not marry each other, and Ianthe would find out the truth soon enough. Iphis, though presenting as a man, could never give Ianthe children of her own.

Iphis realized, overcome with grief, that her desire for Ianthe was unnatural and deemed "wrong". She sobbed so loud through her panic that it alerted Telethusa, who immediately remembered Isis' promise years ago. As they held each other in the dark, just as Telethusa had held her womb before Iphis' birth, the goddess Isis reappeared. Keen on keeping her promise, the goddess took Iphis' clammy palms in her own and transformed Iphis, permanently, into a biological male.

Iphis, overcome with relief, was now permitted to marry Ianthe and give her everything she deserved: especially the truth. Rare in classical mythology, their story ends happily as the two are wed the next morning. The story of Iphis, as well as Iphis' love for Ianthe, stands alone when compared to other stories from Greek mythology. It explores modern themes of gender and sexuality, but also highlights a mother's love and the extent to which people will protect those they love.


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