The story of Iphis and Ianthe is full of contradictions, manipulations, and ambiguities. I think Boehringer makes a key point (although it may get lost in the details) that what makes female same-sex love "impossible" for Ovid is the essential structural understanding of sex in Roman society: that it must involve a hierarchical relationship and must involve at least one man. If those elements aren't present, the relationship--no matter how obviously romantic-- cannot be fit into the conceptual category of "a romantic/sexual relationship." If this seems quaint and ridiculous, let me point out that it wasn't all that long ago that people sincerely asked lesbian couples "which one of you is the man?"
From a modern point of view, the story of Iphis and Ianthe begs to be understood as a transgender myth. But Boehringer makes an excellent point that nowhere within the story is Iphis presented as understanding her identity as masculine. At every turn, she not only is framed as considering herself to be a maiden, but is treated as such in terms of her upbringing and her anticipated marriage. And when the idea of resolving her dilemma with a change of sex arises--well before the goddess Isis implements that idea--Iphis would be happy if either she or Ianthe were transformed, it doesn't matter which as long as they are able to marry as a result. (This same motif shows up in John Lyly's Gallathea, which has Iphis as one of its inspiratoins.)
The essential metamorphosis here, Boehringer asserts, is not the change of Iphis from woman to man, but the change in the relationshp from woman/woman to man/woman, thus aligning it with the Roman understanding of "nature" and changing the relationship from impossible to possible. And yet...you can't argue that female same-sex love was "unimaginable" for Ovid and his audience, because he requires us to imagine it, even if only to erase it.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3c: The Roman Period - Iphis
Ovid also composed one of the longest texts dealing with love between women from the Roman period—the story of Iphis, also from the Metamorphoses. In brief, a poor man of Crete tells his wife they can’t afford to raise their expected child if it’s a girl. So a girl child would be killed. The child being a girl, at the recommendation of the goddess Isis, the mother conceals its biological sex and raises it as a boy. The name Iphis is given and noted as being a name that might be borne by either gender. Iphis is betrothed to a neighbor’s daughter Ianthe, and the two are deeply in love, but Ianthe believes Iphis to be a boy and Iphis believes her love for Ianthe to be an impossibility. (Recall that one of Ovid’s themes is “impossible loves”.) Iphis’s mother prays to the goddess Isis for help, when the long masquerade is about to be revealed. Isis transforms Iphis into a boy and then the marriage is celebrated.
The source of Ovid’s tale is most likely a now lost collection of myths by the second century BCE Greek writer Nicander, preserved in a circa 200 CE collection by the Roman author Antoninus. [Note: the text has a typo, dating Nicander to the 2nd century CE, not BCE. This confused me until I double-checked Nicander’s Wikipedia entry.]
Nicander’s version called the protagonist Leukippos, and is presented as an explanatory myth for a Cretan coming of age ritual in which boys, having dressed temporarily in female clothing, remove it to mark their passage into manhood. Nicander's version evidently does not include the elements of same-sex love. The trigger for the divine intervention is when Leukippos' growing beauty threatens to betray her biological sex. [Note: So many assumptions there!]
The two versions have different emphases, both in terms of narrative detail and proportion of text. Antoninus focuses more on the cross-dressing while Ovid focuses more on the transformation. Ovid omits the motif of explanation for a ritual. And, most importantly, in the Leukippos story, the “disruptive element” is the character’s maturing, while in the Iphis story, it is the “impossible” love between Iphis and Ianthe. If (as Boehringer presumes) the version we have of the Leukippos story is complete, then the motif of same-sex love and impending marriage is a novel addition by Ovid.
The Leukippos version can be read as a story of the feminized boy leaving the sphere of women to become a man. The figure of Leukippos is entirely passive in the story with all relevant actions being taken by her mother. In contrast, the mother of Iphis acts—not out of her own initiative—but in obedience to the goddess. And Iphis plays a more active and visible part in the story. Her desires and the internal debate about them take up a substantial part of the story. Moreover, while Leukippos can be seen as inherently male, but confined within the female sphere, the essence of Iphis’s story is that she is not male and this is what creates the conflict.
Ianthe is not only a character of Ovid’s addition, but she too is an active participant. She is not a passively pursued beloved but actively returns Iphis’s love and desires the planned marriage.
The role of the gods also differs between the two stories. In the Leukippos story, the presiding goddess who enables the transformation is Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, who preside over the initiation ceremonies of boys and girls respectively. Leukippos’s mother decides on her own to defy her husband’s command about a daughter, and only involves the goddess later. In Ovid’s version, Isis is substituted and it is she who tells the mother to conceal her child’s sex. But a variety of other goddesses are present in complementary roles: easing the birth, blessing the eventual marriage. Leto acts to support and protect the mother, while Isis acts to protect and support Iphis. Isis was seen specifically as a protector of women, and her substitution erases elements that connected the story to a boy’s rite of passage.
The authorial commentary in the story of Leukippos situates it among other myths of sex change. Ovid does not directly relate Iphis’s story to other sex change myths, beyond the general theme of “metamorphosis” in the collection as a whole, and the presence of other sex change myths within that collection. Rather, the overt connections are with other “impossible love” myths, such as Pasiphae and the bull.
Add this point Boehringer posits the interpretation that, despite the superficial reading, the story of Iphis is, fundamentally, not a myth about change of sex.
In interpreting the gender of the Leukippos /Iphis character it is essential to keep in mind the trope of pre-adolescent boys having a beauty that was framed as feminine. Iphis is described as having the kind of beauty suitable for either a boy or a girl, thus her appearance does not betray her biological sex. She “looks like a boy who looks like a girl.” The visual similarities between Iphis and Ianthe is noted. Iphis dresses like a boy, but is not otherwise described in masculine terms. Iphis and Ianthe receive an education together, rather than being separated by gendered expectations. (This co-education is an anachronism for the supposed setting of the story.) There is no mention of Iphis being socialized with the boys or engaging in male-coded activities like sports and hunting. Even the age at which her marriage is arranged is appropriate for a girl but younger than the age at which boys were considered marriageable. Ovid consistently presents Iphis as a maiden (virgo) and describes her as understanding herself as a girl. Iphis falls in love with Ianthe as a girl, and not because masculine socialization has situated her to desire women.
The marriage plan brings in another gender disruption in the identical ages of the couple. Normal Roman practice was for the husband to be a minimum of 4 to 5 years older than his bride.
A comparison is made to another cross-dressing romance story, that of Leukippe and Theonoe. The woman Leukippe dresses as a (male) priest of Apollo per the god’s instruction and comes to Caria where she encounters her sister Theonoe, who doesn’t recognize her and takes her for a man and falls in love with her. In the story, Leukippe recognizes her sister and a possible incest storyline is avoided by her discouragement. This also means there is no self-aware same-sex love involved. In this and several other cross-dressing romantic encounters, but desire is always heterosexual—the people involved only love when they believe the beloved to be of the opposite sex. The existence of these other stories would have set up Ovid’s audience to expect that Ianthe would fall in unrequited love, not that Iphis would love Ianthe. The dominant theme of the second half of Ovid’s story is no longer the cross-dressing motif, but if Iphis wrestling with what it means to be a woman who loves a woman.
Isis, the central goddess of all the story, was an Egyptian deity whose cult had become popular in Rome. She had a number of attributes, but one that Ovid emphasizes is her association with the moon, a symbol of ambivalence and intermediate states.
In contrast to the Leukippos story, Isis intervenes before Iphis is born, urging her mother to conceal her sex if a girl. Isis takes initiative, rather than responding to a human’s plea. And rather than other possible actions, such as ensuring Iphis is born a boy, or changing her father’s heart, what she does is to predict (perhaps ensure) that Iphis will be born a girl, to require that Iphis be concealed and protected, and to promise that she will provide additional aid if requested. On the cusp of the wedding Iphis’s mother brings her to Isis’s altar and begs the goddess for help as promised.
The central feature of the second half of the story is Iphis’s extended monologue about her desire and its failure to fit in her understanding of the world. The speech follows a conventional form, beginning with complaint and blame, presentation of counter examples drawn from the natural world and mythology, an exhortation, a description of the obstacles stated both in negative and positive form, and a conclusion about the impossibility of the situation and an appeal to the goddess for assistance.
Within the speech Ovid gives Iphis beliefs that he knows to be false, e.g., that love between women is completely unknown. Ovid—but perhaps not Iphis—knows the story of Sappho and of Callisto, and tells them in forms that clearly recognize the same-sex relationships involved. [Note: Iphis also laments that love between females is unknown among animals, but Ovid must have been aware of myths involving sex between female animals such as weasels and hyenas—myths presented as fact by classical philosophers.]
Iphis catalogs things that might present an obstacle to love (such as a protective father or jealous husband) that do not apply in her case. The only obstacle is natura, which makes her situation all the more frustrating. She challenges Juno and Hymen, deities of marriage, asking why they are present when there is no husband but only two brides. There is no language for a woman marrying a woman—all terms are gendered for a heterosexual union. But despite the lack of language, there is absolutely no ambiguity about the central problem.
The problem that they beg Isis to solve is not that Iphis is really a boy, but that Iphis needs to be able to marry the woman she loves. As Boehringer puts it, “the sex change is a means, not an end.” And as the story states explicitly, it is not the only possible means. Ianthe could be transformed instead. The identity of the two must become in contrast. After Isis performs the change, Iphis takes on the physical characteristics of a man: darker skin, greater strength, shorter hair, a longer stride. These are all fairly superficial changes. (There is no mention of but God is granting if mail genitals.) The essential metamorphosis is from an impossible love (between women) to a love that is allowed by nature.
The changes Ovid makes to the Leukippos story are specifically in order to be able to address the topic of love between women. Boehringer reviews various psychological analyses of the story and how it relates to gender identity, but Boehringer feels the structure of the story itself contradicts those interpretations. The resolution negates the possibility of successful f/f love (but not of same-sex love generally) and in that context the ending is not “happy”, but is the acceptance of failure.
Given the variety of romantic and sexual possibilities illustrated in the Metamorphoses (through not always positively), why is this one singled out for impossibility? All of the loves that are framed as possible involve a power differential in which one lover “possesses” and the other is “possessed”. Two women may love, but fulfillment requires sex, which requires an act of possession. The essential rules that make this an impossible love are that a relationship must involve at least one man, and cannot involve partners of equal status. This aligns with the basic Roman attitudes towards sex (and differ from earlier Greek views on f/f love). As with Sappho and Calisto, Ovid presents f/f love to his audience at the point when he erases it.
And yet, paradoxically, in order to deny the possibility of f/f love, Ovid must recognize it and describe it, thus creating and acknowledging it as imaginable.