Study Guide

Pygmalion The Hero's Journey

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The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

The story of Pygmalion doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:

Ordinary World

Pygmalion, a talented, mild-mannered sculptor, is living on the island of Cyprus. The weather's great, his town is peaceful, and (considering the expensive gifts he buys later in the myth), he makes pretty good money for artist.

Call To Adventure

One day, Pygmalion goes out for a walk in the beautiful Mediterranean sun, only to discover prostitutes on the street. The mere sight of these ladies utterly disgusts the guy. Even though the prostitutes didn't proposition him (we don't think), seeing these sexually adventurous women puts sex on the table for Pygmalion. Will he answer the call?

Refusal Of The Call

Nope. Not only does Pygmalion refuse to hang out with the prostitutes, he swears off all women forever. Ovid makes it very clear that Pygmalion hates the thought of having a wife. Just to prove his point, Pygmalion shuts himself up in his studio.

Meeting The Mentor

This part of the journey doesn't really apply. After all, much like Daedalus, Pygmalion is his own mentor. He is the ultimate creator in this myth, and the ultimate creator can't have a teacher or guide. If you ask us, a guy who's repressing his sexuality this much could have used some friendly advice, but that's just not part of the story.

Crossing The Threshold

Here's where things get interesting. Although Pygmalion may not be ready for a relationship with a real woman, he is ready for one with a fake woman. His first step out of the world of "normal" is to carve a beautiful woman out of stone… and to fall in love with it. With each chisel, he journeys further away from the real world, becoming completely involved in his fantasy.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Since a statue can't physically or emotionally return affection, being in love with one has plenty of challenges. Pygmalion holds his statue. He kisses her. He squeezes her. But despite all of these advances, she doesn't respond to him, and her hard ivory body even repels his touches. Can he stay in love with her, despite these cuddling difficulties?

Approach To The Inmost Cave

Well, Pygmalion certainly tries to approach—going so far as to lay her, naked, on his bed.

Metaphorically, the bed traditionally represents the inner most sanctum of sex and romantic relationships. By bringing the naked statue to it, Pygmalion is admitting that he does want a lasting romantic relationship with someone, despite his opinions at the beginning of the myth. According to Ovid, Pygmalion even thinks of the statue as his bride when he lays her on the bed. This is a big step for someone who originally abhorred the idea of marriage.

In going over to the bed, Pygmalion is also entering the "inmost cave" of his psyche, where he discovers the truth about his own desires. Dun dun dun.


After the whole bed thing, Pygmalion leaves his studio (presumably, for the first time since making the statue). Stepping back into the real world marks a break from his fantasy world, and Pygmalion may be having doubts about the wisdom of forging a lifelong commitment to a lifeless statue.

This feeling is confirmed when he goes to Aphrodite's festival and prays for a bride like his statue. He's too ashamed to actually ask for his statue to come to life—he knows this is an insane thing to say out loud. So yeah, he's clearly having doubts about the whole endeavor.

Reward (Seizing The Sword)

Pygmalion shouldn't have worried though, because Aphrodite was feeling both clairvoyant and generous that day. She knew that Pygmalion was really wishing for his statue to come to life (don't ask how, she just knew), and so she granted his wish. This might have had something to do with the fact that Pygmalion made the statue in her image, and she was flattered by his rendering.

Pygmalion sees the fires at the festival leap three times, which is a good sign for prayers being answered. Natch.

The Road Back

Hoping that his wildest dreams have come true, Pygmalion races back to his studio. Not super exciting.


And behold! His statue has come to life. Not only is she resurrected (or, well, just regular "surrected," since this is the first time she's been alive), but Pygmalion is resurrected, too.

How can Pygmalion be resurrected? you might ask. He never died!

Well, he never literally died. But by swearing off women and hiding in his studio, he stopped being a healthy, well-balanced person, and started being a creepy weirdo living in a fantasy world. When his statue comes to life, Pygmalion is "resurrected" into normalcy. He is no longer some lunatic groping a statue in the privacy of his own home, but a guy in a loving relationship with a real woman.

Return With The Elixir

This is the part of the journey where the hero returns to the normal world, usually as a changed man. And indeed, Pygmalion does fully return to the normal world by marrying that living-statue Galatea (who is symbolically his "elixir") and having children with her. He becomes a happily married family man, and you really can't get more ordinary than that.

But did Pygmalion really change throughout this myth? That's debatable. On the one hand, not really, because he was rewarded for living in a fantasy world. This never really happens in real life. When was the last time all of your fantasies came completely true, and you lived happily ever after? More often, real life demands that we confront our problems, make compromises, and grow as people.

By getting exactly what he wanted (a living statue), Pygmalion doesn't learn any life lessons. He never learns how to talk to real, "non-perfect" women or have meaningful relationships with them. He never learns that passing judgments on others (even prostitutes) is sometimes dangerous and wrong. Instead, he learns that he was completely right to reject all women without even knowing them and that demanding perfection in a romantic partner is perfectly reasonable.

On the other hand, you could say that by the end of the myth, Pygmalion was finally comfortable with the ideas of relationships and sexuality. Remember, this is the guy who was so disgusted (or we might argue, terrified) by sex at the beginning of the myth that he swore off half of humanity. So for him to get married and have kids with a living, breathing person is actually kind of a big deal.

Ultimately, how you interpret this myth is up to you.

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