Context of the Pygmalion myth
Stories that survive the ages must matter. Find out why.
Believe it or not, Pygmalion wasn't the first person in Greek mythology to create a living statue. According to legend, this feat was mastered by Daedalus, the genius craftsman who also invented wings made out of wax. Greek writers credit Daedalus with constructing statues that could walk, dance, and "feel human sensations." Fancy!
Hephaestus—the somewhat depressing god of blacksmithing and technology—was also fond of making moving statues. In Homer's Iliad, we learn that Hephaestus forged a pair of golden ladies to guard his house (yep, gold lady statues make great security guards). Hephaestus also crafted twenty golden tripods that wheeled around Olympus like little R2D2s, assisting with feasts and household chores. Not exactly humanoid, but certainly very helpful.
Digging up Pygmalion's Roots
Regardless of its predecessors, though, The Pygmalion myth is probably the most well-known of the statues-coming-to-life stories in Greek mythology. So if it's so popular, why aren't there more versions of the tale?
In fact, Pygmalion isn't even discussed by many Greek writers. He gets a brief mention as Metharme's father in the ancient anthology Bibliotheca, and is cited as the King of Cyprus in Clement of Alexandria's Exhortation to the Greeks. In a small nod to the myth, Clement also mentions that Pygmalion fell in love with a shapely ivory statue that resembled Aphrodite.
But the longest version of the myth comes from our friend Ovid, the Roman poet. Ovid wrote about Pygmalion in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses (8 CE), going into great detail about the gifts Pygmalion gave to the statue, and which parts of her body he liked best. (Ovid's descriptions get pretty hot and heavy, actually.) Unlike Clement, Ovid doesn't say that Pygmalion was King of Cyprus or that the statue looked like the goddess of Aphrodite. Instead, he just says that Pygmalion was an artful sculptor and that the goddess granted his wish because, well, she felt like it.
From Sinful Story to Broadway Blockbuster
In the Middle Ages, the story of Pygmalion was considered sinful, because it was a prime example of someone worshipping an object over God. This practice, called "idolatry," is a big no-no in Christianity and other monotheistic religions.
The whole idolatry taboo went away by the 18th century, and the myth became a source of inspiration for several ballets, plays, and operas. The most famous play from this period was by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher and rabble-rouser who influenced the French Revolution. Rousseau's Pygmalion treated the myth like a love story, and used music and pantomime.
Fast forward to the 20th century and we get George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in which a pompous professor transforms a flower girl into a well-spoken, high-class lady. This adaptation is one of the first times that the female "statue" rejects her male "creator," so in our book, it's pretty important. Shaw's play was later transformed into My Fair Lady, the smash hit musical and motion picture.