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The Metamorphoses Sex Quotes

How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Book.Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation, but these citations refer not to the lines in Mandelbaum's edition, but to the original Latin.

Quote #4

The sight was quite enough; the flame of love
had taken Tereus, as if one had set
afire ripe grain, dry leaves, or a haystack.
It's true she's fair, but he is also spurred
by venery, an inborn tribal urge.
The vice inflaming him is both is own
and that dark fire which burns in Thracian souls.
His impulse was to buy his way with her,
to bribe her closest friends or faithful nurse
and then, when he'd corrupted them, to tempt
the girl himself, though that might cost his kingdom;
or else to ravish her, and the defend
his rape by waging unrelenting war. (6.455-464)

One way of reading this passage would be to say that it shows the dark side of sexual desire. According to this interpretation, Tereus's overwhelming desire for what can't be had – his wife's sister – boils up to such a point that he violently rapes her. (For good measure, Ovid also throws in a racist interpretation of Tereus's crime, when he claims that Tereus was especially liable to these passions because he was a Thracian.) Today, however, many people think that rape is not necessarily motivated by sexual desire, but is more an act of aggression and domination. Could Ovid's story of Tereus also be interpreted in this way? Why would Ovid think there might be a "dark side" of sexual desire anyhow?

Quote #5

(Iphis to herself):
"Even now there's no
desire of mine that's been denied; the gods
have been benevolent – they've given me
as much as they could give; and what I want
is what my father and Ianthe want,
and what my future father-in-law wants.
It's nature, with more power than all of these,
that does not want it: my sole enemy
is nature! Now the longed-for moment nears,
my wedding day is close at hand: Ianthe
will soon be mine – but won't belong to me." (9.755-761)

These lines by Ovid show same-sex desire, when the female Iphis lusts for the female Ianthe. Things are a bit complicated, in this case, because Iphis has grown up disguised as a boy, and is currently engaged to marry Ianthe. (This is partly what she means when she says that "nature […] / does not want it" – nature is the one that has given her the wrong equipment for a conventional, opposite-sex marriage.) In the end, things work out for Iphis when Isis turns her into a boy, thus making marriage possible. All the same, this passage is notable for shedding light on the wide range of human sexuality.

Quote #6

[Pygmalion] is enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame. He often lifts his hand to try
his work, to see if it indeed is flesh
or ivory; he still will not admit
it is but ivory. He kisses it:
it seems to him that, in return, he's kissed.
He speaks to it, embraces it; at each
caress, the image seems to yield beneath
his fingers: and he is afraid he'll leave
some sign, some bruise. (10.252-258)

The story of Pygmalion – an artist who makes a statue, then falls in love with it, then marries it after the gods miraculously bring it to life – is easy to mine for images of stereotypical male sexual desire (focused on appearances, based on an unequal power dynamic, to some degree narcissistic, and so on). Still, though, Ovid displays some tact in handling the story. Even though Pygmalion is controlling, he is also worried for the statue's safety – as when he is afraid he will leave a bruise on its skin. Taking all of the relevant factors into consideration, do you think that the story of Pygmalion portrays sexual desire in a positive light or not?

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