The story of Pygmalion and Galatea is well-known: it’s a myth about art, about love, and about the relationship between the artist and his ‘muse’, in some respects. But there are also, as so often with classical myths, a few things we assume we know about this story but, it turns out, don’t really know. Or at any rate, we don’t know the full story.
So let’s delve deeper into the myth of Pygmalion and the statue he sculpted (did he?) and which came alive as the woman named Galatea (was she?) …
Pygmalion and Galatea: plot summary
There are actually two Pygmalions in classical mythology. The first one was a king of Tyre, the son of Mutto and the brother of Elissa. Elissa is better-known to us as Dido, of the Dido and Aeneas love story.
But that Pygmalion is not the famous one. The other Pygmalion was also a king, but a king of Cyprus. Famously, this Pygmalion fell in love with an ivory statue of a woman. In many versions of the myth, Pygmalion was the one who sculpted the statue (though this isn’t always the case in every single account).
Pygmalion went and asked Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, to give him a woman who looked as beautiful as the ivory statue: a real flesh-and-blood woman who looked exactly like the statue he had fallen head over heels for.
When Pygmalion got home, he discovered the statue had come to life. He married the statue-woman and they had a daughter together.
That’s the shorter version of the myth. But such a plot summary can be fleshed out if we turn to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written much later than the original Greek myths arose, during the heyday of ancient Rome.
In Book 10 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid fleshes out the backstory for Pygmalion: in his account, the king – who was also the sculptor of the statue – was a raging misogynist. But when he sculpted the perfect woman, his misogyny was quickly forgotten and he longed for his creation to become a living, breathing woman.
As in the summary above, Pygmalion went to make offerings to Aphrodite and asked for a woman just like his perfect statue, and when he went back and kissed the statue, it came alive, and the two of them have a child together, a daughter whom Ovid names as Paphos.
Pygmalion and Galatea: analysis
You’ll notice that at no point in the above summary is the name of the statue mentioned. This is because Ovid doesn’t give Pygmalion’s statue a name, nor does the informative and comprehensive The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary).
And yet in the popular imagination, Pygmalion gives the statue a name: Galatea. The name of Galatea is found in the earlier Greek myths, given to several different women, but none of them is the statue from the Pygmalion legend. One of them is a maiden who was loved by Polyphemus, the Cyclops from the stories of Odysseus; she didn’t return Polyphemus’ love and when the Cyclops saw Galatea with Acis, her lover, he threw a boulder which killed the hapless man. Galatea turned Acis into a stream which contained sparkling water.
Indeed, according to the twentieth-century classical scholar Meyer Reinhold, it was only in the eighteenth century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a play about the Pygmalion myth that the name Galatea began to be associated with the sculpture. The name is, however, entirely fitting for the ivory statue in the story, because it means ‘she who is milky white’ in ancient Greek (it’s related to words like lactic and galaxy and even, ultimately, latte, all of which mean ‘milk’).
And the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (if we choose to call her that) is one that is laden with meaning and significance. Quite what that meaning and significance might be, however, is less easy to answer: we somehow feel that the story conveys something truthful about art, about inspiration, about masculine attitudes to femininity and womanhood (and, indeed, to their own desire for women), but reducing the various strands of the Pygmalion myth to a single line – as Aesop-like ‘moral’, if you will – is not at all straightforward.
Does the myth represent the triumph of love over hate, of male desire over male hatred of women? Does erotic desire and love trump misogyny in the case of Pygmalion, perhaps with a bit of help from Aphrodite? Perhaps love does conquer all here. And yet it’s hardly representative of all male attitudes, given Pygmalion’s special status as a sculptor (at least in many retellings of the myth). Is the story, then, not about love but about art? Pygmalion hates women and can only love one that is, in a sense, a reflection of his own self: a ‘woman’ who is his own creation, and thus speaks, on some level, to his own inward-looking narcissism.
This is obviously a less positive interpretation of the Pygmalion myth, because it suggests that men can only like or love women who are made in the man’s own image, like ordering a bespoke tailor-made suit. Galatea (as she has become known, albeit only relatively recently) isn’t given any agency in the story, and is instead first a dumb statue and then, so far as the narrative goes, an equally dumb flesh-and-blood woman, voiceless and passive.
In this connection, it’s hardly surprising that Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful explorations of misogyny. It’s a play in which Leontes’ wronged wife Hermione returns as a statue (the real Hermione being thought dead by Leontes) only to ‘come alive’ when it’s revealed this is the real Hermione who is not dead at all. The reconciliation of Leontes and the wife he had falsely accused can leave a bitter taste in many readers’ and spectators’ mouths.
Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913) obviously takes its title from the myth, but Shaw inverts this love story: in Shaw’s Pygmalion a real woman is turned into a statue, a ‘mechanical doll who resembles a duchess’ in the words of the theatre critic Michael Billington. As Shaw makes clear in the epilogue to the play, Eliza makes a carefully considered decision not to marry Professor Higgins, the Pygmalion of the play.
Numerous poets have written about the Pygmalion myth: Robert Graves, who believed strongly in the idea of the female muse inspiring the male artist, wrote two poems about the story. Roy Fuller’s villanelle about Pygmalion and Galatea takes a less happy view: in the poem (not available online, sadly, but Fuller’s New and Collected Poems, 1934-84 is well worth picking up second-hand), Pygmalion voices his regret at making the wish that the statue would come alive.