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Metamorphoses: Iphis and Ianthe (Ovid)

1st century BCE Roman poem about the love between two girls, one of whom has been raised as a boy, resolved when the goddess Isis transformed Iphis into a boy. This story was reworked repeatedly in Western literature and can reasonably be considered one of the foundational lesbian/transmasculine plots.

LHMP entry

Blud's book is focused primarily on philosophy and literary criticism, and employs a lot of theory jargon. This is not a book about historic substance and data, but an analysis that plays with ideas, using Old and Middle English texts as a unifying theme.

Introduction by Marilyn B. Skinner

This is an invaluable book that collects all manner of classical Greek and Roman texts relevant to homosexuality in a single volume. I doubt that it’s exhaustive, especially with regard to male homosexuality, but Hubbard seems to have made special efforts to include female-oriented material. The material is organized chronologically and by literary genre, with an introductory discussion in each section to provide historic context.

[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]

Introduction

As with most general works on same-sex sexuality (and especially ones authored by men) this book is overwhelmingly focused on male sexuality. There is also the tendency usual in this context to suggest that texts, situations, and commentaries that don’t specifically include women can be extrapolated to them.

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

This is primarily a literary analysis paper, comparing the structure and themes of 13/14th c French romance Yde et Olive with one of its possible inspirations, Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. It begins with a brief reference to other medieval French romances with cross-dressing themes (e.g., Tristan de Nanteuil, as well as an outline of the entire Huon de Bordeaux cycle of which if forms a part.

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).

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