Iphis & Ianthe, full stop.

Youth with a scroll, from the Casa del Cenacolo, Pompeii, photo by Dr Sophie Hay

My Ovid: A Very Short Introduction is edging ever closer to publication, and I’ve been blogging snippets as I’ve gone along. Here’s a final thought on the subject of Iphis and Ianthe, the intensely satisfying story that concludes Metamorphoses IX. (It has been brilliantly retold, relocated to a mildly surreal but very contemporary Scotland, by Ali Smith in Girl Meets Boy.)

The story of Iphis and Ianthe, first of all. Iphis’ father had told his pregnant wife Telethusa that if her child proved to be a girl she must not be allowed to live. But the goddess Isis appeared to Telethusa in a dream and ordered her to disobey her husband and raise the child whatever the gender. Iphis is born a girl, but raised by Telethusa as a boy, and her husband never becomes aware of her deceit. Iphis is betrothed to a girl named Ianthe, and they are deeply in love. But Iphis (and Telethusa) live in dread of the marriage day, when their secret will be revealed, to Ianthe as well as to Iphis’ father. A desperate appeal by Telethusa to Isis follows, and when Iphis and her mother emerge from the goddess’ temple, a metamorphosis has occurred:

sequitur comes Iphis euntem
quam solita est maiore gradu nec candor in ore
permanet et uires augentur et acrior ipse est
uultus et incomptis brevior mensura capillis,
plusque uigoris adest habuit quam femina. nam quae
femina nuper eras, puer es!

“Iphis follows her mother closely as she goes/ with a stride larger than usual, and the whiteness is no longer/ on her face. Her strength increases, and her very features/ are sharper, and her hair shorter and untidy:/ she has more vigor than she had as a woman. For you who/ were just now a woman, are a boy!”

Iphis and Ianthe, now boy and girl, are married, and so the tale ends. Why do I call this narrative intensely satisfying? Well, partly because a love story that faces an insurmountable challenge but achieves unexpected resolution and eventuates in a happy marriage answers a few of the requirements of the archetypal narrative plot, and Ovid structures and paces his story to perfection (Ovid is aside from anything else a superb storyteller), while at the same time indulging his taste for the paradoxical. Latin also has the resources, in Ovid’s hands at least, to end the story with the two names “Iphis Ianthe” lying next to each other in the closing cadence of the very last line.

Partly that, then, but, at the risk of appearing hopelessly cold and donnish, what I like more than anything about this story is how it plays with poetic form. (This can perhaps be forgiven the author of a whole book on Roman metrical form, who has recently been deriving inordinate pleasure from learning to scan mutaqarib mahzuf, the metre of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.) Here in Met. IX the form in question is not metre, but book divisions. Metamorphoses has fifteen books in modern editions, which corresponds to an ancient text divided into fifteen separate uolumina or book rolls (the young man in the image at the top is holding a uolumen). A physical multi-book poem in antiquity would thus have been a great deal more cumbersome than a modern paperback, but so also would the reader’s experience of passing from book to book. The end of Book I and beginning of Book II of the Metamorphoses was not simply a matter of turning the page, but putting aside (and potentially also rewinding) one roll and then locating the next among fourteen others.

Ovid, a poet ever alert to the mechanics of composition, has a lot of fun with the ends and beginnings of his books, in particular avoiding Virgil’s practice in the Aeneid of tying up an episode tidily in one book. More typical of Ovid’s approach is the end of the previous book, Book VIII, where the horned river god Achelous points to a horn he is missing from his forehead, but we have to wait until Book IX to learn how he lost it in combat with Hercules and how it became the Cornucopia. (Horns proliferate at the end of Ovid’s books, and it’s something to do with the fact that the cornua, “horns”, were the ends of the stick around which books were rolled, and “rolled out right to its horns” was synonymous with “read right to the end”, see Martial 11.107.1.) The disorderliness this lack of respect for book divisions brings to Ovid’s narrative is one of many ways in which Ovid allows the principle of instability, intrinsic to a work about change, to seep into every aspect of the poem.

But if books have a habit of not ending the way they should, it can be a metamorphically disruptive move to do the opposite, too. The story of Iphis and Ianthe is the last story of Book IX, and with its conclusion the book also ends: “Iphis Ianthe” are the final words of the book. That conclusion, as I’ve suggested, is heavily underlined in other ways: a narrative neatly wrapped up, a wedding, the newly-weds tucked up in bed. But in formal terms, too, Book IX of the Metamorphoses ends in a very, very conventional way. In fact I’d say that there’s no other book in the Metamorphoses that concludes quite so tidily and conclusively, with the necessary exception of the very last, Book XV.

When I find Iphis and Ianthe such a thoroughly satisfying story, then, it’s partly because at this point everything about the narrative, even down to the relation of that narrative to its physical vehicle, the book roll, is just tickety-boo.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

2 responses to “Iphis & Ianthe, full stop.”

  1. (((kp))) (@kushka53) says :

    I find this story deeply unsatisfying. From the distant perspective of 2020, it would have been much more interesting if Iphis’ betrothed actually knew she was a girl and they went on their merry way hiding all to the world. On the other hand, I suppose it can be viewed as one of the first transgender stories in antiquity, thanks not to surgery but to the abilities of Isis…

  2. Ross McPherson says :

    Continues to be the best blog in the cosmos right now. Thanks.

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