Posts Tagged ‘Galatea and Pygmalion’

Robert Graves

To turn men into stone on sight is the particular magic of Medusa – but to turn a stone sculpture into a woman  is how the Goddess Aphrodite answers Pygmalion’s prayer. Pygmalion is only human – though his origins hearken back to the Phoenician royal house.  His desires are modest – all he wants is a perfect woman,  – one who can meet his impossibly high standards,  and he is willing to take both spiritual and temporal steps to procure her.

It might be that he desired only that stone be turned to flesh – but he hadn’t counted on the perversity of that flesh – to wish that it would always accompanied by spirit.

This kind of thinking is very much in vogue, from the New-Age assertions about the power of affirmations to materialise our wishes and desires, to the ‘Prosperity’ based preachments trumpeted from the pulpits of mega churches and the programs broadcast by televangelists. But more than that, it has been around for a very long time.  Both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies concur that our ‘thought-forms’ under the correct circumstances can become ‘real’.

Incarnation – the ability of spirits or divinities like  Christ and Galatea  to become flesh, are popular staples in the belief systems of millions of people even today,  as is the belief in Reincarnation, (or as the Greeks called it, Metampsychosis) which is  the ability of the spirit or soul being born and reborn in different bodies. These are of course  just different shades of the same enduring belief.

What did Pygmalion really believe? They say he fell in love with Cyprian Aphrodite – the same Goddess adored by Sappho, but she of course rejected his advances, whereupon in order to assuage his longing he created the flawless sculpture of a woman.  Some say he made a sculpture of Aphrodite herself.

Then Pygmalion laid the statue beside himself in his bed, and fervently prayed to the Goddess… and she took pity on him, and brought the sculpture to life  – as Galatea.

This of course is Robert Grave’s spine-tingling version of the tale in his poem.


Galatea and Pygmalion.













Galatea, whom his furious chisel
From Parian stone had by greed enchanted
Fulfilled, so they say, Pygmalion’s longings:
Stepped from the pedestal on which she stood,
Bare in his bed laid her down, lubricious.
With low responses to his drunken raptures,
Enroyalled his body with her demon blood.

Alas, Pygmalion had so well plotted
The articulations of his woman monster
That schools of eager connoisseurs beset
Her single person with perennial suit;
Whom she (a judgement on the jealous artist)
Admitted rankly to a comprehension
Of themes that crowned her own, not his repute.




So Pygmalion got his dearest wish: A goddess breathed life into the image of perfection as he himself conceived it, and that he himself  had made. Though the sculpture was at first lifeless and unresponsive to his desperate passion, divine offices rendered it otherwise, and she then graciously and wantonly submitted herself to him.  This was the  moment in life unrivaled in its perfection, when  that which is most long for and desperately desired  delivers itself into one’s hands.  It is also a moment which never lasts.  On the other side of this incredibly fulfilled wish, is a sea of the darkest horror waiting to unleash its tides.  One wonders that Pygmalion did not feel a cold hand brushing against the back of his neck….

The sequence of events is clear: Pygmalion, for whom the mortal imperfections of women are an insurmountable impediment to love, falls in love with a goddess. Motivated by his intense and unbearable longing for her, he sculpts her perfect image. He then presumes to take her to his bed – and with the fire of his passion and his passionate importunities to the Goddess, she is brought to life. Or, alternatively, he kindles passion in what was before a lifeless object – a mere ideal. He  succeeds in transferring his love from its first perfect and unattainable form, to one which he has now attained and which in part by the magic of his sexual enchantments by which he has induced to come to life the expression of perfection which is Galatea.

Some versions would have it that forgetful of all else but his rapture, that Pygmalion neglected to make an offering to the Goddess as an expression of his gratefulness to her as a recipient of her favours – and that this is the reason for the devastation which followed.

I myself do not subscribe to this belief, as it strikes me as an example of the ‘what if’ and ‘of only I had’ type of thinking we indulge in when everything has gone dreadfully wrong.  We do it largely so that we can go on clinging to the memory of the past.

The fact is, that though Pygmalion was the creator and Galatea the created, she was perfect: whereas he was not.  This is the creation story turned on its head.  Nor is this incarnation placed beside Pygmalion by her own free will. She was created by a mortal, placed in his bed by him insensate, and brought to life by the Goddess whose indwelling  spark vivifies her.  She has both human and divine attributes because she is the result of the collaboration between a mortal man and the Goddess Aphrodite – the Goddess of Love. She is perfect in a way that only an idealisation, and therefore no mortal woman could be perfect.

Could Pygmalion have been aware of his predicament? Or was he too euphoric to notice that things were perhaps just not adding up? We humans know about these types of liaisons between ordinary mortals and the perfect beings they long for and fall in love with and by a stroke of unheard of good luck manage to procure: liaisons that are impossible from the very first moment they take shape. But we are blinded by the stunning thrill of madness we feel when a dream comes true. After all, we feel that we have performed some kind of miracle – we don’t know how we did it, but God knows, we have made it happen! So we steadfastly ignore what we know to be true at the back of our minds. But often we have waited so long and and expended so much of ourselves creating this dream and bringing it to life, that even as we play out our passions with the reality  ignore the fact that we are really making love with a fantasy.

This is the moment when we might do well to look at the negative space within us that is now being so gloriously filled – the shape that exactly fitted the space which exactly corresponded to the shape that was waiting for this Goddess incarnate step into.

In the last verse of Grave’s  ‘Pygmalion to Galatea’ – a verse which he later expunged  this is what happens….

Down stepped Galatea with a sigh
“Pygmalion, as you woke me from the stone
So shall I you from bonds of sullen flesh.
Lovely I am, merciful I shall prove:
Woman I am , constant as various,
Not marbel-hearted but your own true love
Give me an equal kiss as i kiss you…”

The first thing that Galatea does when she comes to life is sigh – and  if he had not already been lost, this inauspicious sigh should have sent a shiver down Pygmalion’s back – but who knows _ perhaps it did….

Glatatea then makes a promise  – a promise in which there is something very sinister: a promise that almost sounds like a warning.   She  promises to “wake him from the bonds of sullen flesh.” This promise is sealed with a brazen lie. Pygmalion may have heard the truth, but he chose only to to believe the lie.  He probably does not even notice that she has asked him to do the impossible, which is to kiss her as an equal.

Pygmalion should have been suspicious from the very start. He had all the information he needed in order to piece things together – but he wouldn’t  – or blinded by love, he couldn’t.

Galatea was never going to be satisfied with Pygmalion, and his stuffy little list of requirements, his cloying importunities –  his assumptions that he could shape her behaviours  and choices as he shaped her shape – were doomed to go unmet and unsatisfied. It was inevitable that  milk-white Galatea (that is indeed the meaning of her name)  with her uniqueness and perfect beauty would attract other lovers – and she would not refuse them. Rare indeed is the beautiful woman who will not wield her beauty as a weapon, and use it to her own advantage.

Only wives – and frequently not even they – agree to keep the patriarchal bargain – body and soul in exchange for a promise of security.  This is never the contract of the Muse when she takes a lover.

But who is to say that even  if the men and women the Muse takes as her lovers were to know ahead of time what would happen in the future – that they would not make the same choices anyway?  After all, we are only human, and we are driven by the need to love and be loved.

Graves being human, might have wished for a partially happy ending when he wrote ‘Pygmalion to Galatea’, but in his calling as a True Poet, he was bound to tell the unvarnished truth, and so the last verse with its small but passing hope was tidily put away.

Pygmalion to Galatea.











As you are woman, so be lovely:
Fine hair afloat and eyes irradiate,
Long crafty fingers, fearless carriage,
And body lissom, neither short nor tall.
So be lovely!

Ay you are lovely, so be merciful:
Yet must your mercy abstain from pity:
Prize your self-honour, leaving me with mine.
Love if you will; or stay stone-frozen.
So be merciful!

As you are merciful, so be constant:
I ask not you should mask your comeliness,
Yet keep our love aloof and strange,
Keep it from gluttonous eyes, from stairway gossip.
So be constant!

As you are constant, so be various:
Love comes to sloth without variety.
Within the limits of our fair-paved garden
Let fancy like a Proteus range and change.
So be various!

As you are various, so be woman:
Graceful in going as well armed in doing.
Be witty, kind, enduring, unsubjected:
Without you I keep heavy house.
So be woman!

As you are woman, so be lovely:
As you are lovely, so be various,
Merciful as constant, constant as various.
So be mine, as I yours for ever.














*(The concluding lines  of Pygmalion to Galatea as they appeared in Poems 1914-1926,  and later omitted)

Then as the singing ceased and the lyre ceased,
Down stepped proud Galatea with a sigh.
‘Pygmalion, as you woke me from the stone,
So shall I you from bonds of sullen flesh.
Lovely I am, merciful I shall prove:
Woman I am, constant as various,
Not marble-hearted but your own true love.
Give me an equal kiss, as I kiss you.

And that is where the proposition shows itself to be what it was all along: something beyond the ability of a mere mortal. To ask such a thing of poor Pygmalion was to demand of him something he could never do. 

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