Iphis and Ianthe: changing sex and gender – but not the name


Telethusa and Iphis praying to Isis. Engraving by Johann Wilhelm Bauer. Source: Ovidii Metamorphosis, Nuremberg 1703 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iphis#/media/File:Bauer_-_Isis_Iphis.jpg; public domain.

Montaigne in his famous essay „De la force de l’imagination“ without reference quotes the following line:

Vota puer solvit, quæ foemina voverat Iphis.

[As a boy Iphis fulfilled vows made as a girl.]

Essays I, 20 (see https://intersex.hypotheses.org/3042)

This short line was familiar enough to educated men who probably had read Ovid as schoolboys. It is an allusion to the only other story about a change of bodily sex (that is, aparat from the aitiology of the God Hermaphroditus) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, namely the story of Iphis and Ianthe (Met. 9, 666-797).

According to Ovid, Iphis was born as a girl, but given that her father had vowed to kill his child if it was female, the mother (at the advice of the Goddess Isis) passes her as a boy. The father named his child Iphis after a male ancestor, much to the relief of the mother, as Iphis was also a fitting name for a girl (Ἶφις is indeed one of the few Greek unisex names.). Later, Iphis is betrothed to the girl Ianthe, and the two fall in love. As the marriage is approaching, mother, daughter and fiancée are increasingly desperate, and the mother prays to Isis for help – who transforms Iphis into a male just before the marriage. Happy ever after.

Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe is one of many stories of women passing as men (often labelled “crossdressing” stories) in Western tradition, and probably served as a model for other stories of this kind, e.g. the medieval Yde et Olive. What these stories have in common is that passing as a man is surprisingly easy, at least before marriage. Commonly, the heroine is presented as having a female body, but easily to pass as male and to assume male roles (husband, abbot, knight etc.) by assuming male gard and a male name. In the case of Iphis however, the change of gender (her upbringing as a boy) and later the change of bodily sex do not affect the name.

The story is sometimes quoted in queer studies, sometimes along the lines of this webpage (isiopolis.com) which calls Isis the “LGBT-friendly goddess”. Well, the story as told by Ovid may be queer in the sense of making the reader aware of the arbitrariness of gender roles but certainly not “LGBT-friendly”: the protagonists abhor the idea of a same-sex union, and Isis in the end “saves” them from this happening by transforming Iphis into a man. Indeed, Iphis articulates at some length her fears of same-sex unions as “unnatural”.

I hope to come back to Ovid’s story in detail in the near future; for today, I am content to provide a slightly abriged translation (by Tony Kline). Enjoy reading!

Ovid, The metamorphosis of Iphis

Translation: Tony Kline; source: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph9.htm

Perhaps, the story of this new marvel would have filled Crete’s hundred cities, if Crete had not recently known a miracle nearer home, in the metamorphosis of Iphis. In the Phaestos region, near royal Cnossos, there once lived a man named Ligdus, undistinguished, a native of the place, his wealth no greater than his fame, but living a blameless and honourable life. When his pregnant wife, Telethusa, was near to her time, he spoke these words of warning in her ear: ‘There are two things I wish for: that you are delivered with the least pain, and that you produce a male child. A girl is a heavier burden, and misfortune denies them strength. So, though I hate this, if, by chance, you give birth to a female infant, reluctantly, I order – let my impiety be forgiven! – that it be put to death.’ He spoke, and tears flooded their cheeks, he who commanded, and she to whom the command was given. Nevertheless, Telethusa, urged her husband, with vain prayers, not to confine hope itself. Ligdus remained fixed in his determination.


[Isis appears Telethusa in a dream], saying: ‘O, you who belong to me, forget your heavy cares, and do not obey your husband. When Lucina has eased the birth, whatever sex the child has, do not hesitate to raise it. I am the goddess, who, when prevailed upon, brings help and strength: you will have no cause to complain, that the divinity, you worshipped, lacks gratitude.’ Having given her command, she left the room. Joyfully, the Cretan woman rose, and, lifting her innocent hands to the stars, she prayed, in all humility, that her dream might prove true.

When the pains grew, and her burden pushed its own way into the world, and a girl was born, the mother ordered it to be reared, deceitfully, as a boy, without the father realising. She had all that she needed, and no one but the nurse knew of the fraud. The father made good his vows, and gave it the name of the grandfather: he was Iphis. The mother was delighted with the name, since it was appropriate for either gender, and no one was cheated by it. From that moment, the deception, begun with a sacred lie, went undetected. The child was dressed as a boy, and its features would have been beautiful whether they were given to a girl or a boy.

Thirteen years passed by, meanwhile, and then, Iphis, your father betrothed you to golden-haired Ianthe, whose dowry was her beauty, the girl most praised amongst the women of Phaestos, the daughter of Telestes of Dicte. The two were equal in age, and equal in looks, and had received their first instruction, in the knowledge of life, from the same teachers. From this beginning, love had touched both their innocent hearts, and wounded them equally, but with unequal expectations. Ianthe anticipated her wedding day, and the promised marriage, believing he, whom she thought to be a man, would be her man. Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.

Hardly restraining her tears, she said ‘What way out is there left, for me, possessed by the pain of a strange and monstrous love, that no one ever knew before? If the gods wanted to spare me they should have spared me, but if they wanted to destroy me, they might at least have visited on me a natural, and normal, misfortune. Mares do not burn with love for mares, or heifers for heifers: the ram inflames the ewe: its hind follows the stag. So, birds mate, and among all animals, not one female is attacked by lust for a female. I wish I were not one! […] Juno, goddess of brides, and Hymen, why do you come to these marriage rites, where the bridegroom is absent, and both are brides?’

With these words, she stopped speaking. The other girl was no less on fire, and prayed, Hymen, that you would come quickly. Telethusa, afraid of what she sought, merely put off the day: now lengthening the delay through pretended illness, now, frequently, using omens and dreams as an excuse. But eventually every pretext was exhausted, the date for the delayed marriage ceremony was set, and only a day remained. Then Telethusa took the sacred ribbons from her own and her daughter Iphis’s head, so that their hair streamed down, and clinging to the altar, cried: ‘Isis, you who protect Paraetonium, Pharos, the Mareotic fields, and Nile, divided in its seven streams, I pray you, bring help, and relieve our fears! Goddess, I saw you once, you, and those symbols of you, and I knew them all, accompanied by the jingling bronze of the sistrum, and imprinted your commands on my remembering mind. That my daughter looks on the light, that I have not been punished, behold, it was your purpose, and your gift. Gladden us with your aid. Have pity on us both!’

Tears followed words. The goddess seemed to make the altar tremble (it did tremble), and the doors of the temple shook, her horns, shaped like the moon’s crescents, shone, and the sistrum rattled loudly. Not yet reassured, but gladdened by the auspicious omen, the mother left the temple. Iphis, her companion, followed, taking larger paces than before; with no whiteness left in her complexion; with additional strength, and sharper features, and shorter, less elegant hair; showing more vigour than women have. Take your gifts to the temple, Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!

They take their gifts to the temple, and add a votive tablet: the tablet has this brief line:


The next day’s sun reveals the wide world in its rays, when Venus, and Juno, joined with Hymen, come, to the marriage torches, and Iphis, the boy, gains possession of his Ianthe.

Editions and translations

There are, of course, very many editions and translations of the Metamorphoses, and it would be an interesting task to compare the way they present this story. I restrict myself to pointing out three editions available online:

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Christof Rolker (2016, 19. Dezember). Iphis and Ianthe: changing sex and gender – but not the name. Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/qdpb

Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Eine Antwort

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