‘Pygmalion and Galatea’: The Metamorphosis of a Metamorphosis Myth

Marc Barham
10 min readFeb 8, 2020

‘‘Myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology’’

(Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectics of Enlightenment)

  1. Aphrodite of Knidos

The famous sculptor Praxiteles was said to have created a statue of a nude woman so beautiful that it inspired desire in every man who saw it. His statue, the Aphrodite of Knidos, a representation of the Greek goddess of love and fertility, may have inspired Ovid to write his story of Pygmalion.

Athenaeus writes that the Knidian Aphrodite was modeled on the artist’s lover, Phryne, a famous courtesan who was seen by the artist rising naked from the sea in the manner of Aphrodite herself. At that moment, Praxiteles fell in love with her and soon after, represented her as Aphrodite in his sculpture.

In Ovid’s Hellenistic sources, Pygmalion was a king and not a sculptor who orders a statue which then comes to life as herself, not a sculptor who brings to life a maiden through Aphrodite’s intervention. But this pre-Ovidian myth has already provided the links between artist, the model and the work of art created in whatever medium. But there is also a more ominous side to these associations in the myth, when Pliny the Elder reports:

a certain man was once overcome with love for the statue and . . . , after he had hidden himself [in the shrine] during the nighttime, he embraced it and . . . it thus bears a stain, an indication of his lust

Not only has this man bodily transgressed a sacred shrine to Aphrodite but he has used the statue for sexual gratification in what can only be described as a symbolic rape. This man has reversed the process by turning the representation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite back into the willing courtesan who had inspired the statue in the first place to fulfil his masculine lust.

The mythology surrounding the Knidian Aphrodite slides the sculpture’s identity amidst skillfully sculpted statue or skilfully created android, awesome and powerful goddess, sexualized courtesan or violated woman. Here are the first indications of a strange correlation between the work of art or the creation of a synthetic humanoid and the artists model, that will become a trope, incredibly…

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Marc Barham

Column @ timetravelnexus.com on iconic books, TV shows/films: Time Travel Peregrinations. Reviewed all episodes of ‘Dark’ @ site. https://linktr.ee/marcbarham64