Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Pygmalion's Statue

Mythology is not lacking in tales of punished vice. But so too is it abundant with tales of rewarded virtue. Humility could as readily reward you with joy as Pride could punish you with retribution. This is the story of one such humble man who harboured a dream which came true.

Pygmalion at work in his studio
Painting by Jean Baptiste Regnault
There was once on the isle of Cyprus the seedling of a dangerous idea. In the city of Amathus there lived an accursed crowd, the Propoetides by name. A godless crew, drunk on the riches that the veins of gold in the Earth had bestowed upon them, they soon began to turn away from their gods. Numberless were their heresies, but one graver than all the rest. An array of women, the daughters of Propoetus, dared to deny the existence of the goddess Venus, the lady of desire. To Venus, this was deeply blasphemous. "With just abhorrence, and with wrath purs'd", the goddess was unleashed. But seeing no reason to inflict vengeance on the innocent pastures and cities of her former lands, she bent her anger on the daughters, the sinners themselves. Blasted from their mind was their remaining sense of dignity, honour and shame. Outcast from the people, and shunned by society the Propoetides took to prostitution, the first to do so, and the first to feel the blind eye of fellow men and women, "the first that sold their lewd embraces for gold... unknowing how to blush, and shameless grown."

There was, however, one man in particular who bore witness to their dread crimes. A lonely but noble spirited young man, Pygmalion was his name. A poor sculptor, Pygmalion spent his life crafting the forms of the divine, his chisel hewing perfection out of the coarse stone. While his craft was widely admired, and his skills with marble adored, he lived a life cut off from society. One day in Amathus, Pygmalion caught a glimpse of the apostate Propetides. Rarely entering the city, he was appalled at the heinous debauchery on display that day. Shocked to his very core, he resolved never to have anything further to do with womankind, and abhorred marriage, convinced that there was not one well spirited woman in all the world.

Pygmalion admires his work
Sculpture by √Čtienne Maurice Falconet 
Wracked with hopeless longing, Pygmalion turned to his one true solace. Taking up his chisel and hammer, he began to hew a new ivory block. Tears came as he struck the matter, the artist carving out some new image of perfection. Working day and night, Pygmalion, fearing idleness lest it remind him of his plight, worked harder and harder, and shards of ivory flew hither and thither across the master's workshop. Scarcely could Nature herself have bettered Pygmalion's craft, so fine were his cuts and smooth the polished surface. Ever pious to the deities on high, the sculptor made sure that the summit of the sculpture was carved finely too, where man could not see but the gods could. "Pleas'd with his idol, he commends, admires, adores; and last, the thing ador'd, desires". At last, Pygmalion set down his chisel and hammer, and stepped back from his masterpiece. So great had been the sculptor's skill, he was taken in by his own art. Stood before him was the image of a perfect maiden, pure and serene, untroubled by vice, unburdened with guilt. At any moment she might have stepped down from her pedestal, so incredibly lifelike was she. Such perfection was there, and such pollution in the real world! With this realisation, Cupid's arrow struck, and Pygmalion could never look at his beloved statue with anything but deep longing.

The day soon came, however, for the feast of Venus on Cypriot shores. A sombre day to which quiet prayers were owed, the day was a chance for all Cypriots to honour the goddess they had once scorned. Gild horned bulls were lead through the streets, slaughtered and by the high altars they bled. Pygmalion, however, shunned the procession and came to the shrine of Venus, and bowed before the image of the goddess.

            " Almighty Gods, if all we mortals want,
              If all we can require, be yours to grant;
              Make this fair statue mine, he wou'd have said,
              But chang'd his words for shame; and only pray'd,
              Give me the likeness of my iv'ry maid... "
                   - PYGMALION'S PRAYER

Galatea born
Painting by Jean Raoux
Terrible was the sound of Pygmalion's grief. Mere silence, as a tear rolled down his grizzled cheek. But high on Olympus' lofty heights, Venus heard his sadness, and her divine heart was moved beyond pity.Hearing his prayer, and knowing the true prayer that lay in Pygmalion's heart, the goddess recognised that there was one in that accursed land who was a true and noble servant of Heaven. The altar flame roared, and the fire rose high, and Pygmalion leapt back, suddenly afraid. Daring to hope, longing perhaps, he dashed back home. There she was still, in harmony, glazed eyes and fixed stare, his beloved statue. So afire was Pygmalion, he ran to embrace the statue. Feeling at first the cold hard ivory he despaired. But swiftly did his despair turn to ecstasy. For at his touch, he felt the ivory soften, saw the whiteness lessen, the cold white lips redden, the coldness warm. The Blessing of Venus passed to the statue, as the goddess's gift was bestowed upon humble Pygmalion. Ivory no more, but living flesh. Stony silence no more, but beating pulse. Frozen stance no more, but animated form. The transformation complete, Pygmalion and his statue stared at each other, robbed of words. Barely a moment of tranquillity passed before each ran to embrace the other, and Venus smiled. Pygmalion, his deepest wish granted, gave the woman a name, Galatea. The two were wed, and scarcely has such devotion been seen among the domains of men. Pygmalion and Galatea had a son, Paphos, and the House of Pygmalion lived a life of joy 'till the end of days.

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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