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Pygmalion (mythology)


Pygmalion (mythology)

Étienne Maurice Falconet: Pygmalion et Galatée[1] (1763)

Pygmalion (; Greek: Πυγμαλίων, gen.: Πυγμαλίωνος) is a legendary figure of Cyprus. Though Pygmalion is the Greek version of the Phoenician royal name Pumayyaton,[2] he is most familiar from Ovid's narrative poem Metamorphoses, in which Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved.


  • In Ovid 1
  • Parallels in Greek myth 2
  • Re-interpretations of Pygmalion 3
    • Paintings 3.1
    • Literature 3.2
    • Opera, ballet, and music 3.3
    • Stage plays 3.4
    • Films 3.5
    • Television 3.6
    • Interactive fiction 3.7
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

In Ovid

Depiction of Ovid's narrative by Jean Raoux.

In Ovid's narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was "not interested in women",[3] but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.

In time, Aphrodite's festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There—too scared to admit his desire—he quietly wished for a bride who would be "the living likeness of my ivory girl". When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion's wish.

Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite's blessing. In Ovid's narrative, they had a son, Paphos, from whom the city's name is derived. One translation reads as follows:

A lovely boy was born; Paphos his name, who grown to manhood, wall'd The city Paphos, from the founder call'd.[4]

In some versions, they also had a daughter, Metharme.[5]

Ovid's mention of Paphos suggests that he was drawing on a more circumstantial account[6] than the source for a passing mention of Pygmalion in Pseudo-Apollodorus' Bibliotheke, a Hellenic mythography of the 2nd-century AD.[7] Perhaps he drew on the lost narrative by Philostephanus that was paraphrased by Clement of Alexandria.[8] Pygmalion is the Greek version of the Phoenician royal name Pumayyaton, and figures in legend of Paphos in Cyprus.

Parallels in Greek myth

The story of the breath of life in a statue has parallels in the examples of Daedalus, who used quicksilver to install a voice in his statues; of Hephaestus, who created automata for his workshop; of Talos, an artificial man of bronze; and (according to Hesiod) of Pandora, who was made from clay at the behest of Zeus.

The moral anecdote of the "Apega of Nabis", recounted by the historian Polybius, described a supposed mechanical simulacrum of the tyrant's wife, that crushed victims in her embrace.

The trope of a sculpture so lifelike that it seemed about to move was a commonplace with writers on works of art in antiquity. This trope was inherited by writers on art after the Renaissance.

Re-interpretations of Pygmalion

The basic Pygmalion story has been widely transmitted and re-presented in the arts through the centuries. At an unknown date, later authors give as the name of the statue that of the sea-nymph Galatea or Galathea. Goethe calls her Elise, based upon the variants in the story of Dido/Elissa.

A variant of this theme can also be seen in the story of Pinocchio, in which a wooden puppet is transformed into a "real boy", though in this case the puppet possesses sentience prior to its transformation; it is the puppet and not its creator, the woodcarver Mister Geppetto, who beseeches the divine powers for the miracle.

In the final scene of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, a statue of Queen Hermione which comes to life is revealed as Hermione herself, so bringing the play to a conclusion of reconciliations.

In Pygmalion, a modern variant of the myth with a subtle hint of feminism, the underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle is metaphorically "brought to life" by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, who teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations.


Pygmalion by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1786, Musée National du Château et des Trianons

The story has been the subject of notable paintings by Agnolo Bronzino, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Honoré Daumier, Edward Burne-Jones (four major works from 1868–1870, then again in larger versions from 1875–1878 with the title Pygmalion and the Image), Auguste Rodin, Ernest Normand, Paul Delvaux, Francisco Goya, Franz von Stuck, François Boucher, and Thomas Rowlandson, among others. There have also been numerous sculptures of the "awakening".


Ovid's Pygmalion has inspired many works of literature, some of which are listed below. The popularity of the Pygmalion myth surged in the 19th century.

Poems (sorted by year and country of author's origin)






United States of America



Short stories

Novels and plays


Opera, ballet, and music

  • The story of Pygmalion is the subject of Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1748 opera, Pigmalion.
  • It was also the subject of Gaetano Donizetti's first opera, Il Pigmalione.
  • Molin produced a ballet-pantomime version of Pygmalion in 1800.
  • The ballet Coppélia, about an inventor who makes a life-sized dancing doll, has strong echoes of Pygmalion.
  • The great choreographer Marius Petipa and the composer Prince Nikita Trubetskoi created a four-act ballet on the subject called Pygmalion, ou La Statue de Chypre. The ballet was revived in 1895 with the great ballerina Pierina Legnani.
  • The English progressive rock group Yes composed "Turn Of The Century" (1977); it tells the story of the sculptor Roan who, in the grief of his wife's death, "molds his passion into clay." The sculpture of his wife comes to life and they fall in love.
  • British shoegazing band Slowdive named their third LP Pygmalion in 1995.
  • The song "Trial By Fire" by darkwave/gothic band ThouShaltNot recreates the idea of a modern-day Pygmalion with lyrics such as "I sculpt your nature within, I am your Pygmalion" and "I dust away the plaster from off your breathing body...You'll never be the same."
  • Mariusz Duda, working under his moniker Lunatic Soul, named a track off of his 2014 album after Pygmalion. Walking on a Flashlight Beam and the longest track, Pygmalion's Ladder, in a general sense, speak of a reclusive individual who struggles to understand the fiction around him, and the ways in which his imagination is affected by this introspective seclusion he has embraced or succumbed to "LunaticSoul" (2014).

Stage plays

W. S. Gilbert's stage version, 1871

There have also been successful stage-plays based upon the work, such as W. S. Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea (1871). It was revived twice, in 1884 and in 1888.

In January, 1872, Ganymede and Galatea opened at the Gaiety Theatre. This was a comic version of Franz von Suppé's Die schöne Galathee, coincidentally with Arthur Sullivan's brother, Fred Sullivan, in the cast.

In March 1872, William Brough's 1867 play Pygmalion; or, The Statue Fair was revived, and in May of that year, a visiting French company produced Victor Massé's Galathée.

In 1883, the musical burlesque Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed was performed at the Gaiety Theatre with a libretto by Henry Pottinger Stephens and W. Webster, and a score composed by Wilhelm Meyer Lutz.

Pygmalion (1912, staged 1914) owes something to both the Greek Pygmalion and the legend of "King Cophetua and the beggar maid"; in which a king lacks interest in women, but one day falls in love with a young beggar-girl, later educating her to be his queen. Shaw's comedy of manners in turn was the basis for the Broadway musical My Fair Lady (1956).

P. L. Deshpande's play Ti Fulrani ("Queen of Flowers") is also based on Shaw's Pygmalion. The play was a huge success in Marathi theater and has earned many accolades.


Notable 20th and 21st century feature films are My Fair Lady (1964, based on the Broadway musical); Ruby Sparks written by and starring Zoe Kazan as an author's muse come to life, Mighty Aphrodite by director Woody Allen; Weird Science directed by John Hughes; and the 1987 film Mannequin, a remake of the 1948 classic One Touch of Venus, the Julia Roberts' hit movie Pretty Woman, She's All That with Freddie Prinze Jr., as well as S1m0ne (featuring a computer-generated artificial intelligence as the love object). Many films have dealt collaterally with this theme.: Vertigo, and more recently Lars and the Real Girl, depicting an introverted man who falls in love with a plastic sex doll. The play, 1946, and films, 1950 and 1993, Born Yesterday also carry the Pygmalion theme as does Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

The popular horror genre in film has also had an interest in 'bringing to life' waxwork figures and show-room dummies (see: Waxworks: A Cultural Obsession by Michelle Bloom). For instance, Karl Freund's 1935 horror film Mad Love features an obsessive character named Doctor Gogol who keeps a wax figure of an actress he is in love with in his apartment, referring to the figure as Galatea as he speaks to it and plays music for it. In the climax, the actress is caught hiding in Gogol's apartment and pretends to be the figure in an attempt to conceal herself. When she finally screams, Gogol mistakenly and insanely believes that his love has brought Galatea to life at last. Many horror films deviate considerably from the original story; for example, in The Stepford Wives (1975) the creators turn their living wives into inanimate (robotic, compliant) wives.

Other notable film adaptations include The Red Shoes, All About Eve, Her and Ex Machina.


  • The American TV series My Living Doll portrayed a female robot (Julie Newmar) whose creators attempted to transform her into a "perfect woman".
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 3rd season episode "The Galatea Affair" from 1966 is a spoof of My Fair Lady. A crude barroom entertainer (Joan Collins) is taught to behave like a lady. Noel Harrison, son of Rex Harrison, star of the My Fair Lady film, is the guest star.
  • The Aerosmith music video for "Hole in My Soul" features a nerdy college student who tries to find the girl of his dreams by creating one in a lab, only to have her leave him.
  • The Japanese anime series Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 includes a character named Galatea, an artificial life form designed to be the next evolution of the human race.
  • In Justice League Unlimited, Emile Hamilton creates a clone of Supergirl, that he names Galatea.
  • An episode of the Philippine TV series Love Spell features a teenage boy who falls in love with a mannequin who comes to life when lightning strikes it.
  • In the music video for "This Time" by K-pop group Wonder Girls, a designer falls in love with his mannequin, and she comes to life. She runs away, leaving the designer to chase after her.
  • In "Fagmalion" a three-part episode of Will and Grace, Will Truman falls in love with a man named Barry whom he sculpts into a more refined gay man following his coming out.
  • In King Of The Hill Season 7 Episode 9 "Pigmalion" Luanne becomes involved with a psychotic owner of a pork processing plant.
  • In Disneys Hercules: The Animated Series, Pygmalion was Hercules' art teacher. His success in crafting a perfect wife for himself prompted Hercules to do the same to create a date for a school dance, naming it Galatea.
  • In the "Live Show" episode of 30 Rock the character Jack tries to give up drinking and asks Liz Lemon to comfort him by telling a story. She impersonates Eliza selling flowers to which Jack orders her to leave the room.

Interactive fiction

See also


  1. ^ The invention of the name Galatea is modern; Falconet's title was Pygmalion aux pieds de sa statue qui s'anime, "Pygmalion at the feet of his statue, which comes to life".
  2. ^ See Pygmalion of Tyre.
  3. ^ Morford, Mark (2007). "Classical Mythology". Oxford University Press, p. 184
  4. ^ XMetamorphosesOvid, .
  5. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, iii.14.3.
  6. ^ The Greek sources of Ovid's tale are fully discussed at Galatea.
  7. ^ Bibliotheke, iii.14.3 simply mentions "Metharme, daughter of Pygmalion, king of Cyprus."
  8. ^ Clement, Exhortation to the Greeks, 4: "So the well-known Pygmalion of Cyprus fell in love with an ivory statue; it was of Aphrodite and was naked. The man of Cyprus is captivated by its shapeliness and embraces the statue. This is related by Philostephanus".

Further reading

  • Essaka Joshua. (2001). Pygmalion and Galatea: The History of a Narrative in English Literature. Ashgate.
  • Kenneth Gross. (1992). The Dream of the Moving Statue. Cornell University Press. (A wide-ranging survey of 'living statues' in literature and the arts).
  • Jack Burnham. Beyond Modern Sculpture (1982). Allan Lane. (A history of 'living statues' and the fascination with automata - see the introductory chapter: "Sculpture and Automata").
  • Ernst Buschor. Vom Sinn der griechischen Standbilder (1942). (Clear discussion of attitudes to sculptural images in classical times).
  • John J. Ciofalo. "The Art of Sex and Violence - The Sex and Violence of Art." The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • John J. Ciofalo. "Unveiling Goya's Rape of Galatea." Art History (December 1995), pp. 477–98.
  • Gail Marshall. (1998). Actresses on the Victorian Stage: Feminine Performance and the Galatea Myth. Cambridge University Press.
  • Alexandra K. Wettlaufer. (2001). Pen Vs. Paintbrush: Girodet, Balzac, and the Myth of Pygmalion in Post-Revolutionary France. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Danahay, Martin A. (1994) "Mirrors of Masculine Desire: Narcissus and Pygmalion in Victorian Representation". Victorian Poetry, No. 32, 1994: pages 35–53.
  • Edward A. Shanken. (2005) "Hot 2 Bot: Pygmalion's Lust, the Maharal's Fear, and the Cyborg Future of Art," Technoetic Arts 3:1: 43-55.
  • (2005). Almost Human: Puppets, Dolls and Robots in Contemporary Art, Hunterdon Museum of Art, Clinton, New Jersey. (Catalogue for a group exhibition March 20 - June 12, 2005)
  • Morford, Mark. (2007). "Classical Mythology Eighth Edition". Oxford University Press
  • Hersey, George L (2009). "Falling in love with statues: artificial humans from Pygmalion to the present", Chicago, 2009, ISBN 978-0-226-32779-2
  • Law, Helen H. (1932). "The Name Galatea in the Pygmalion Myth", The Classical Journal, Vol. 27 No. 5 (Feb. 1932), published by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, accessed via JSTOR at

External links

  • English translation of Ovid's poem
  • English translation of Ovid's poem
  • Latin original, lines 243-297, at The Latin
  • Shakespeare reference
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