Ending book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of two young people who will soon be married, Iphis and Ianthe (666-797). Their betrothal was arranged, very traditionally, by their fathers. Despite appearances, however, this happy couple is unusual by Roman standards and an anomaly in Ovid’s epic. Iphis is a biological girl disguised as a boy. Only Iphis’ mother and her nurse know Iphis’ true sex. Before Iphis was born, her father, compelled by poverty, reluctantly commanded the child be killed if it were a girl. The immanent marriage as a source of anxiety for both daughter and mother motivates the plot. It is ultimately resolved by Iphis’ transformation by the goddess Isis into a biological boy. In a society in which gendered categories of active and passive articulate both sexual subjects and positions of power simultaneously (Ormand, Richlin, Skinner (1991, 1993), et al.), I maintain that the story of Iphis, as it is told by Ovid, queers other representations in the Metamorphoses of the traditional kinship system, which relies on heterosexual marriages, by undermining the assumption that an active, masculine participant in the exchange of women is necessarily a biological man.
Much recent scholarship on Ovid’s tale focuses on how this story constructs female homosexuality qua sexuality in relation to the active/passive configuration which defined what counted as sex in ancient Rome (e.g., Hallett, Ormand, Pintabone, Robins). While this research is important for more fully understanding how sexual subjects were constructed and may have identified in Ovid’s Rome, I suggest we approach this tale from a slightly different perspective, without, of course, neglecting the importance of Roman constructions of sexuality in Iphis’ representation. Instead, I will consider Iphis in relation to the pattern of desiring maidens established in books 7-10 of Ovid’s epic. For, hers is not a story about what we would now refer to as lesbianism, although two women are sexually attracted to each other. In fact, one girl thinks the other is a boy. The divine intervention and happy ending ultimately confirms what the reader has suspected and the narrator has suggested from the beginning—Iphis is not like the other girls.
But how different is she? Were it not for Io/Isis’ miracle, the revelation of Iphis’ biological sex could have destroyed three women (Iphis, Telethusa, and Ianthe) and, more importantly to a Roman, I suspect, her father. This “sad” ending resembles those of other desiring maidens in the Metamorphoses: Medea, Scylla, Byblis, and Myrrha. Because her story contains elements so familiar from the desiring maidens in the Metamorphoses (a sililoquy, a dream, feminine deceit, the nurse), but with a difference (she does not act on her desire and the elements are shared between her and her mother), I propose Iphis, albeit subtly, challenges the reader to rethink the paradigm. What would have happened had divine intervention granted these girls their wishes? As Pintabone has argued, Ovid has it “all ways.” Iphis leads one to ask, “and why exactly not?” Such questions, for the modern reader at least, suggests alternatives to the exchange of women and the heterosexual mandate it effects.