Iphis

Fleur Adcock

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, IX, 666-797)

But that’s nothing to what happened in Crete.
Once upon a time there was a man
called Ligdus, from near Knossos – a nobody,
but freeborn, honourable and decent.
His wife was pregnant. When her time was close,
this is what he told her: ‘I pray for two things:
a painless labour for you, and a son.
Girls are more trouble, and I can’t afford one.
So – God forgive me – if by some awful chance
the baby’s female, she will have to be killed.’
Then both burst into tears, and Telethusa
pleaded with her husband, but he was adamant.

When her heavy womb could scarcely hold
its load, at midnight she had a vision:
she saw, or thought she saw, the goddess Isis
standing by her bed in royal splendour,
crowned with crescent horns and wheat-ears of gold
and attended by dog-headed Anubis,
the bull-god Apis, the cat Bubastis,
and the god of silence, his finger to his lips.
‘Stop grieving, Telethusa,’ Isis said.
‘Ignore your husband; keep whatever child
may come. You’ve been my loyal worshipper.
I’m not ungrateful, and you’ll find me helpful.’

So when the baby, of its own accord,
pushed its way out and proved to bed a girl,
its mother told the nurse (her only partner
in the fraud): ‘Take care of my little boy.’
They got away with it – Ligdus never guessed.
He called the child after its grandfather:
Iphis, a gender-free name (which pleased
Telethusa – no need for deception there).
Somehow the trick – an honourable one,
since the gods approved – fooled everyone. The child
was dressed as a boy, and had the kind of looks
that would have done credit to either sex.

Years passed, and when Iphis was thirteen
her father arranged for his daughter to be married
to another girl, golden-haired Ianthe,
a famous beauty. They were school-mates, these two,
equal in age, equally good-looking,
and equally in love with one another;
far from equal, though, in their expectations:
Ianthe was looking forward to her marriage,
assuming that the person who was to be
her husband would turn out to be a man.
Iphis loved someone she despaired of enjoying –
a fact which only served to fan the flames.

This is what she said, almost in tears:
‘What future is there for me – for a woman
in love with a woman, a freakish and unheard-of
passion? Cows don’t fall in love with cows,
or mares with mares. A ewe fancies a ram,
a doe runs after a stag. Even birds do it
normally, like the whole animal kingdom.
If only I weren’t female! True, Pasiphae
loved a bull; but at least it was male.
She had her way with it, disguised as a heifer;
but not Daedalus himself, if he flew back
on his wax wings, could magic me a sex-change.

Come on, then, Iphis, pull yourself together.
Shake off this useless doting. Be what you are,
and love what women are permitted to love.
It’s hope that breeds love, hope that feeds it,
but the facts deny you hope. No jealous husband
or cruel father keeps you from her arms,
nor the girl herself. The obstacle is nature,
that force more powerful than any ... But look:
the day’s at hand. Ianthe will be mine –
and not mine. I shall be thirsty amid water.
Why should Juno and Hymen come to a wedding
where there’s no bridegroom, and both of us are brides?’

Meanwhile Ianthe longed for the ceremony –
while Telethusa did her best to postpone it,
inventing illnesses, dreams, bad omens.
But when all her excuses had run out
and the day was imminent, she unbound her hair
and her daughter’s and, all dishevelled, prayed:
‘Isis, goddess, you who dwell in the lands
of Egypt, by the Nile with its seven horns,
help us! I saw you once, with all your symbols
and your retinue; I listened to your commands.
My daughter was kept alive by your orders.
Have pity on us both, and come to our aid!’

She wept. And then it seemed to her that the goddess
moved her altars – yes, and the temple-doors
were shaking, the crescent horns flashed with light ...
Uncertain still but excited, Telethusa
left the temple. Iphis walked by her side –
with a longer stride than usual; her fair skin
lost its pallor; she seemed to have gained in strength;
her features were more rugged, her hair shorter.
She was a boy! Now for fearless rejoicing
and thank-offerings. They wrote this verse on a plaque:
  The gifts which as a girl he made a vow
  to bring, the young man Iphis presents now.

Next morning, daylight streamed across the world
when Venus, Juno and Hymen all assembled
at the wedding-fires; and Iphis gained his Ianthe.