Creating the Perfect Woman (Part 1) – Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

The story of Pygmalion is a great place to start when exploring the topic of creating a perfect woman in art. The most well known of the classical sources of the myth can be found in Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. The basic story is that a talented sculptor, Pygmalion, creates a statue that he subsequently falls in love with. The goddess Venus brings the statue to life and they live happily ever after. Only, a story is never that simple with Ovid!

Gérôme, J-L.  (1890).  Pygmalion and Galatea [oil on canvas], London, The Bridgemen Art Library.  (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

Pygmalion is idealistic, he has shunned the company of the local women because he is ‘sick of the vices of the female sex’ (Raeburn, 2004). Eventually, he succeeds in creating a statue of his ideal woman. Ovid repeatedly describes this ivory statue as ‘virginal’ and ‘white as snow’ (‘eburnea virgo‘ and ‘niveum‘), the implication here being that it is untouched by male hands (other than his own of course) and unblemished by sexual relations. Ovid is emphasising the statue’s purity and innocence.

Ovid makes it clear that Pygmalion is in love with the image of a woman, his desire is ‘for a semblance of body’ (simulati corporis). Since he is too idealistic he cannot love a flawed real woman, instead can only love his own imagined mimic of a woman. Pygmalion’s predicament is that the ivory statue is not real, he cannot fulfil his desires. There is irony here as his frenzied passion makes him paw at the stone and press his lips against the statue as he imagines what flesh would feel like.

His madness increases as he talks to the statue, dresses it and buys it expensive gifts. Ovid really makes the most of this passage as he exaggerates Pygmalion’s strange behaviour and lists details of the sculptor’s actions. This scene is heaped with parody and the reader may be amused by Pygmalion’s obsession. Should we laugh at him or pity him? There is a sense that he brought this upon himself, that he is being punished for rejecting local women in favour of his own fantasy.

Ultimately, Pygmalion prays at the alter of the goddess Venus. He really wants his statue to be brought to life but even he knows this is a fantasy, so he asks to wed a woman ‘resembling’ his ‘ivory maiden’ (‘similis mea eburnae‘). This is an ironic inversion of his predicament: he was in love with a statue in the image of a woman and he now wishes for a woman in the image of his statue.

Venus knows what he really means and in an uncharacteristic show of magnanimity she grants his wish. Pygmalion rushes home and this time when he touches and kisses the statue he feels it soften under his fingers. What once was hard stone could now be moulded like soft wax into many shapes. Pygmalion is still an artist here, forming and reforming the flesh. Perhaps the implication is that he is fickle?

It is important to note that the statue never speaks. Nor does she ever give consent. The only reaction she has is that she blushes under her creator’s touch. The word used here is ‘erubuit‘ which could mean she blushed ‘with shame’. Previously, Pygmalion was concerned about bruising the white stone of her arms with his rough touch, his touch now makes her imperfect. The irony is that by fulfilling his desires he is also soiling his immaculate woman. His passion has ruined his fantasy and the woman is no longer untouched. The concept of a ‘perfect woman’ remains a fantasy.

Watts, G.F.  (circa. 1868)  The Wife of Pygmalion [oil on canvas], Oxfordshire, The Faringdon Collection Trust.  (via Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository).

The Wider Context

Metamorphoses is a long narrative poem which leaps from story to story. This sometimes feels random, however, stories are often positioned close to each other to allow the audience to make links and comparisons.

The preceding story before we encounter Pygmalion is one that also involves statues and female sexuality. In this story we are told how the women of the neighbouring island of Amanthus, the Propoetides, offended the goddess Venus and were punished by becoming ‘the first to offer their bodies and beauties for sale’. Through prostitution they ‘lost all shame and the blood no longer ran to their cheeks’ until they ultimately became so hardened that they turned to stone.

The story of Pygmalion’s statue then is an inversion of the story of the Propoetides. By selling their bodies they lost their shame and with that the ability to blush. Pygmalion’s statue experiences shame because of the artist’s actions and blushes for the first time. We cannot read the story of Pygmalion as a straightforward love story when it is purposefully tinged with inferences of prostitution and shame. Ovid has emphasised the purity and virginal qualities of the ivory statue, and when she becomes a real woman, created for Pygmalion’s pleasure, it is her downfall. It is no coincidence Ovid tells us that ‘snow white’ young female heifers are to be sacrificed at Venus’ festival, using the same word ‘nivea‘ to describe both these young victims and the virginal statue.

Ovid was composing his poetry during the rule of Augustus. During this time a number of controversial ‘marriage laws’ were instated, designed to penalise celibacy and heavily punish adultery. The laws were unfairly weighted against women as they were designed to promote legitimate offspring, and men were permitted to go so far as to kill their own wives and daughters if they were caught in the act of adultery. Thus the sexual propriety of women was under close scrutiny at the time and virginity was a cherished commodity. A girl could quite literally be ‘ruined’ once a man had had his way with her. It is possible to argue that sex between the sculptor and his perfect woman is ok because there were no other partners involved… but does Pygmalion ever marry her?

It is possible to argue that Ovid is either mocking Augustus’ marriage laws or that he is supporting them. Certainly, Pygmalion shows signs of what must have been a common concern among men at the time, in that he distrusted the sexual morals of women. Ovid appears to mock this attitude as the sculptor rejects all real women and suggests that his ideals are too high and the idea of a completely virginal woman is a fantasy. The poet had cultivated his own reputation as being a hopeless romantic and a successful seducer of women, writing a guide to love, his Ars Amatoria. Perhaps the poet knew the sexual nature of women well enough that he believed the idea of an entirely sexually innocent woman was an entirely male fiction. With his mockery of Pygmalion’s obsession and the ultimate corruption of the virginal woman, it is possible to read Metamorphoses as a satirisation of Augustan conservative attitude.

However, you could also read the poem as supporting Augustan laws. Ovid’s mocking portrayal of Pygmalion as a man who rejects women and is driven mad by his passion for an unachievable ideal certainly mocks those who would choose celibacy over marriage. With heavy financial deterrents punishing celibacy in place, this passage could be read as a parody of those individuals who do not follow the expected social norms.

Ovid is a tricky character and it is hard to pin down any firm opinions the poet may have held. He seemed to enjoy upsetting conventions and when you think you understand a certain perspective in Metamorphoses, the story twists and contradicts itself. We do know that he eventually found himself on Augustus’ bad side and was banished to the Black Sea.

A key theme of Metamorphoses is the silencing of characters, often through the metamorphosis itself, and often in combination with the theme of power. Ovid seems to be commenting on those who have the power to speak and be heard, and those who have their voices suppressed. It is important to note that the statue-woman never speaks in this poem. Nor does she have a name. In fact her story is told by two male voices. Ovid as the poet narrator is the first voice. The second is the character Orpheus, who is telling a series of stories ‘of boys whom the gods have loved and of girls who have been inspired to a frenzy of lawless passion and paid the price for their lustful desires’. So that is two male voices telling stories of women’s sexuality, and if you count David Raeburn as the translator, then the total is three. Whether purposefully or inadvertently, Ovid reveals a world where women often do not have a voice and where their sexuality is constantly monitored and judged by men.


As much as we might like to think of the tale of Pygmalion as a beautiful love story, this would be the result of a light reading of the passage out of context. A detailed analysis of the passage reveals how Ovid subtly injects sinister undertones to the story. The girl never speaks and her situation is tinged with its association with prostitution. The loss of her virginity is compared to the murder of young female heifer. The legacy of this union is also plagued with incest and misfortune, indicating that it was unnatural or cursed in some way (the following stories of Myrrah, Venus and Adonis, and Atalanta and Hippomenes can be discussed separately later). I like to think that Ovid has a realist’s approach to relationships and that he enjoys mocking those who are too idealistic or that try to impose their sexual morals upon others.

Ferrari, E. (1887) Statuia lui Ovidiu din Constanța, [online], Wikimedia Commons [uploaded by Romeo Tabus].

Key Features:

  • Primary Source (in Latin and in translation)

  • Poetry

  • Written in Rome circa 2-8 CE during the Principate of Augustus.

  • Close reading

Further Information:

  • The Latin text of Metamorphoses can be found at The Latin Library online at:

  • The excellent English translation I used was by David Raeburn for Penguin Classics (Raeburn, D. trans. [2004] Metamorphoses, London, The Penguin Group. ISBN-13: 978-0-140-4489-7)

  • Translations assisted by the Morwood, D. ed., (2005), Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary, New York, Oxford University Press.

  • The images used in this post were sourced from Wikimedia Commons [online]:

  • For more courses on myth in the Greek and Roman worlds (A330), information on Ovid and the Augustan period (A330 and A276), and for courses in Classical Latin (A276) see The Open University:


One thought on “Creating the Perfect Woman (Part 1) – Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

  1. Interesting post — I think a lot of men (and women) have an idealized view of a potential partner, whether it’s a certain beauty/handsomeness statndard, employment/income level, etc. We could all stand to have more realistic expectations of the person we ask to share our lives.


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