Iphis: LGBTQ+ Representation in Ovid and Beyond


  • Introduction
  • Myth of Iphis and Ianthe
  • Characters
  • Iphis’s Sapphism
  • Iphis as Transgender
  • Iphis: LGBTQ+ Icon
  • Sources


Okay, so we all know there’s lots of homoeroticism in Greece; but, when it comes to trans-sapphic (that is: transgender and female attraction) characters in early Imperial Rome literature, Iphis is really the Roman go-to example. Iphis is a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fifteen-book saga written first century CE about myth and history from the Greco-Roman world. Throughout this article, you will notice I have used they/them/theirs pronouns for Iphis. I believe gender-neutrality is important to the discussion of Iphis.

The Myth of Iphis and Ianthe is the seventh and final fable of Metamorphoses‘s Book IX (Lines 9.666-797). It is a tale of passion, lust, romance, deceit, confliction, and transformation. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself:

The Myth of Iphis and Ianthe

view of Phaestus, Crete, Greece
Present-day view of the town of Phaestus by Jebulon

On the isle of Crete, in the town of Phaestus, there lived a poor, young couple named Telethusa and Ligdus. When Telethusa became pregnant, Ligdus told Telethusa of his two wishes: he wished for the birth to be easy on her, and he wished for her to give birth to a son. He believed that girls were too weak. They needed a son capable of providing for their family. Both Ligdus and Telethusa began to sob, but Ligdus vowed that if Telethusa gave birth to a daughter, he would kill the child. Telethusa begged Ligdus to reconsider, but he refused. He could see no other way.  

When Telethusa went into labour, she was visited by a small band of gods. Isis, Osiris, Anubis, Bubastis, and Apis came to her bedside.

“Do not worry about your husband’s orders,” Isis told Telethusa. “Save your child, and raise them as a boy, even if she is born a girl.” Telethusa tried to put her fears aside, taking solace in Isis’s words. Telethusa pushed again and again, until the small cries of a baby girl sounded. Telethusa committed herself to Isis’ plan, and told Ligdus that she had given birth to a son. Overjoyed, Ligdus named the child after his grandfather, Iphis. Telethusa was very pleased with this decision, since Iphis was a gender-neutral name. 

Isis comforts Telethusa
Isis and company comfort Telethusa by Rijiksmuseum

Iphis grew up to be a handsome adolescent with androgynous features. At the age of thirteen, Iphis was betrothed to their childhood friend, the beautiful Ianthe. The two loved and longed for each other, but Iphis was filled with doubt. Ianthe thought Iphis was a boy, and Iphis believed lust between two women was immoral. Iphis paced the floor, lamenting to themselves. How could they forgive themselves knowing they were deceiving Ianthe and her family? How could they live with this sin? Iphis wished for themselves or Ianthe to be turned into a boy, but then quickly scoffed at the idea. There was no cure for the situation. 

Telethusa was also anxiety-ridden. She knew well that her lies would soon be revealed, and that the relationship would be taboo. Telethusa postponed the wedding multiple times, praying to Isis for an answer. The day before the wedding, Telethusa took Iphis to Isis’s temple and prayed once more:

Iphis transforms by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

“Isis, you came to my aid at the birth of my daughter. Take pity on us again, dear Goddess!” Hearing Telethusa’s prayer, the temple shook. Telethusa took this as a good sign and put her trust in Isis. Telethusa and Iphis left the temple, but as Iphis walked, their stride began to widen. Iphis’ hair began to shorten and become coarse; their face darkened, and their strength grew. Iphis had transformed into a man. 

Telethusa and Iphis were in disbelief. After thirteen long years of deception, this was the most wondrous miracle imaginable. Iphis and Ianthe were wed that evening, and the couple lived happily ever after.

Based on Brooke More’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IX, Lines 666-797

The Characters

Now that we’re all acquainted with the Myth of Iphis and Ianthe, let’s take a closer look at the characters in this episode. This myth has a very small cast of only five characters: Iphis, Telethusa, Isis, Ligdus, and Ianthe. If you’re just here for Iphis, feel free to scroll to the next sections. For information on the other characters, keep on reading!

The Dedicated Mother: Telethusa

Telethusa and Iphis might have had a close relationship simply because they both knew the truth of Iphis’s sex, but I still imagine a good, healthy relationship between Telethusa and her child. Telethusa could have just agreed with Ligdus and thought that a female child would be bad for the family (see below), but instead, she prayed to Isis for a solution. Isis might have given her guidance, but it is Telethusa who truly saved her child. Telethusa does everything she can to deceive Ligdus, Ianthe’s family, and the people of Phaestus, just so her child can live. Iphis does not go to the Temple of Isis alone to lament some more; Iphis goes with Telethusa, and it is Telethusa who prayed to Isis, bringing about the transformation. Ovid describes:

The mother took the circled fillets from her own head, and her daughter’s head, and prayed, as she embraced the altar—her long hair spread out upon the flowing breeze—and said: “O Isis, goddess of Paraetonium, the Mareotic fields, Pharos, and Nile of seven horns divided—oh give help! Goddess of nations! heal us of our fears! I saw you, goddess, and your symbols once, and I adored them all, the clashing sounds of sistra and the torches of your train, and I took careful note of your commands, for which my daughter lives to see the sun, and also I have so escaped from harm;—all this is of your counsel and your gift; oh, pity both of us — and give us aid!”  

(More, 1922; Met. 9, 764-767)

This myth is special because of its examples of love between non-men. Through Iphis’s lament, there is an obvious focus on the romantic and erotic love between Iphis and Ianthe, but throughout the entire myth there is also the love Telethusa has for her child, regardless of gender or sexuality, and the love Telethusa has for her goddess, Isis. It is true that Iphis becomes a man in the end of the story, but the myth is largely centred around three “women” (in Ovid’s eyes): Iphis, Telethusa, and Isis.

The Great Goddess: Isis

Bust of Roman Isis by Gary Todd

Isis’s role in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is great because it exemplifies one of my favourite things in Mediterranean religious beliefs: syncretism. Throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we see many characters have visions of Isis. Isis is seen twice in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe. First, she comes to Telethusa’s bedside, as Telethusa is in labour. Isis is accompanied by multiple gods and sacred objects, all to ease Telethusa’s worries and the pain of childbirth. Ovid says:

…beside her stood the dog Anubis, and Bubastis, there the sacred, dappled Apis, and the God of silence with pressed finger on his lips; the sacred rattles were there, and Osiris, known the constant object of his worshippers’ desire, and there the Egyptian serpent whose quick sting gives long-enduring sleep. 

(More, 1922; Met. 9, 747-753)

Isis’s involvement in the myth is quite interesting because in the end she adheres to Iphis’s father two wishes as well: for Telethusa to have an easy birth, and for Telethusa to have a son. 

The Conflict Bringer: Ligdus

Although deciding to kill your infant if it is a girl isn’t the best thing a guy could do, Iphis’s father, Ligdus, cannot be blamed for all of Iphis and Telethusa’s troubles. This story is much more complicated than that. Since Ligdus’s presence in Ovid’s myth is so minimal, we can really only base his character off of his dialogue with Telethusa towards the opening of the myth. Ovid writes:

There are two things which I would ask of Heaven: that you may be delivered with small pain, and that your child may surely be a boy. Girls are such trouble, fair strength is denied to them.—Therefore (may Heaven refuse the thought) if chance should cause your child to be a girl, (gods pardon me for having said the word!) we must agree to have her put to death.

(More, 1922; Met. 9, 679-686)

After telling Telethusa of his wish of an easy birth and promise to put a daughter to death, Ovid tells us that both Telethusa and Ligdus begin to cry: “…their faces were completely bathed in tears; not only hers but also his while he forced on her that unnatural command.” (Met. 9, 688)

There are two ways to interpret Ligdus’s character, which is why adaptations have treated his character differently. The first way, which is more accepted when analyzing Ovid’s version, is that Ligdus and Telethusa are too poor to have a girl. At the beginning of the myth, Ovid says: “Ligdus, not well known; in fact obscure, of humble parentage, whose income was no greater than his birth; but he was held trustworthy and his life had been quite blameless.” (Met. 9, 671-672) This line shows us that Ligdus was definitely not a wealthy man, and that the townspeople think Ligdus is a good guy. Not to mention he cries when he tells Telethusa his wishes. Perhaps by saying “fair strength is denied to [girls]” (Met. 9, 692), Ligdus just means that girls would not be able to work and make money for the family. Or, as Walker (2006) points out, Ligdus would not be able to afford a dowry. So, Ligdus must be a good guy, right? Well, not according to John Gower, who adapts the myth of Ianthe and Iphis in 1390 in Confesso Amantis, nor to William Caxton, who translates Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1480 as The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose. 

In both Caxton and Gower, Ligdus is a rich, misogynistic jerk. In Caxton, when Ligdus expresses his preference of a son, he tells Telethusa (in Caxton’s Middle English): “A woman is withoute strength & valoyr. By women many ther be put to gret shame & sorrow” (Caxton, 2013, Met. 9 692). This line is clearly related to Ovid’s “fair strength is denied to [girls]” (Met. 9, 692), but with a not-so-fun twist. Caxton’s translation is rooted in Christian ideals, and there’s a lot of rewrites and syncretism between religion in Ovid’s time and religion in Caxton’s time (Jones 2021). It is possible that there is something to be said about how people in the medieval/renaissance period viewed women based on these translations, but that is a topic for another project.  

The Love Interest: Ianthe

Ianthe is a very important character in this myth, even though she does not have any lines in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the three versions I explored (that is Ovid, Gower, and Caxton), Ianthe does not play a role beyond Iphis’s beloved and betrothed. Is the lack of Ianthe’s perspective indicative of a woman’s role in any of these time periods? We only know four things about Ianthe: When we first hear of Ianthe, it is when Ligdus arranges Iphis and Ianthe’s marriage. We then hear about her looks, so we know Ianthe is golden-haired and known for her beauty. Next, we are told that Iphis and Ianthe grew up together, having all the same lessons and teachers. Finally, Ovid tells us that Ianthe is excited to be marrying her best friend; that is, her male best friend (Met. 9). 

Iphis’s Sapphism

This myth is part of a tradition of transformation stories. Ovid writes several sexual deviant transformation stories, which approach taboo topics like incest by turning the deviant from human into something else, like an animal, a plant, or a river (Met. 9, Met. 10). Iphis is unique because they are turned into a man and the story ends happily. The deviance in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe is Iphis’s love and lust for another woman. It is their same-sex (sapphic) relationship that is problematic (Pintabone, 2009).

It is important to say that it is not necessarily the romantic love between Iphis and Ianthe that presents an issue. It is their sexual relationship that Ovid finds problematic. Ovid is known for a few anti-lesbian quotes, such as: “[female same-sex relations are] a desire known to no one, freakish, novel … among all animals no female is seized by [sexual] desire for female.” Remember, this is the guy we are trusting to tell us this story about female same-sex attraction and transgender themes (Jones, 2021; Met 9). There is debate whether Ovid is pro-lesbian or anti-lesbian, since his writings show both positive and negative feelings towards female same-sex relations (Pintabone, 2009). The repulsion of female same-sex erotic relationships may come from ancient Roman gender roles within sexual relationships (Jones, 2021). 

Romans perceived sex to be solely between a phallus (or penis, and therefore a man) and a vulva (or vagina, and therefore a woman). Actually, the latter didn’t matter too much to the Roman men. Elite Romans (of which Ovid is) could not understand non-phallocentric sexual activity, and therefore could not understand female same-sex intimate relations (Jones, 2021). Walker (2006) explains that Romans rationalized Sappho’s homosexual relations as either resulting in converting to heterosexuality, or just the ravings of a crazed prostitute. Walker’s article is largely about how Romans were unable to conceptualize lesbianism, since they were witnessing it before the term “lesbian” was coined. Many scholars of this myth attempt to define Iphis’s sexuality, despite these terms not existing in the Greco-Roman period (Walker, 2006; Bychowski, 2016; Jones, 2021). 

Jones (2021) considers Roman ideas of sexual archetypes, and considers Iphis to be a tribade or tribas. A tribade is a woman who takes an active, leading, traditionally masculine role in sex. In modern-day queer slang, this is known as a “Top.” This came from the idea that sex has to have an active and passive partner; the man and the woman respectively (Walker, 2006; Pintabone, 2009; Jones 2021). Ovid might not be upset that same-sex romantic attraction is happening (since it was happening all the time in the Greco-Roman world, ex. Sappho). Jones says: “[the woman] usurps the power of a man [during intercourse].” Jones (2021) continues to explain that Iphis, as a tribade, leaves the traditional and “proper” role of the passive partner to become the sexually aggressive partner, and this is what is abnormal and condemned by Ovid. By transforming Iphis into a man, the taboo tribade in a homosexual relationship becomes a regular, acceptable guy in a heterosexual relationship. 

While ancient Greece and Rome certainly had gender roles, the definitions of gender and sexuality have changed completely in the modern world (Walker, 2006; Janecek, 2016; Jones, 2021). Today, we have new terminology and new perspectives into gender and sexuality. Iphis was AFAB (assigned female at birth) and raised as a male, but they do not appear to feel fully male or fully female. The complexity in this story is the strong tie between gender and sexuality. 

Today, we understand that sexuality and gender are not the same thing, but to the Romans, sexuality and gender were certainly the same thing (Walker, 2006; Pintabone, 2009; Kamen, 2012; Jones, 2021). Iphis cannot imagine being a woman and loving another woman. Walker (2006) points out a section of Iphis’s lament where they explain how homosexuality is unnatural. Ovid writes:

If the Gods should wish to save me, certainly they should have saved me; but, if their desire was for my ruin, still they should have given some natural suffering of humanity. The passion for a cow does not inflame a cow, no mare has ever sought another mare. The ram inflames the ewe, and every doe follows a chosen stag; so also birds are mated, and in all the animal world no female ever feels love passion for another female—why is it in me? Monstrosities are natural to Crete, the daughter of the Sun there loved a bull—it was a female’s mad love for the male—but my desire is far more mad than hers, in strict regard of truth, for she had hope of love’s fulfillment.

(More, 1922; Met 9, 706-722)

Iphis proclaiming that female same-sex relationships are unnatural isn’t very comforting to my fellow Sapphic folk, and in fact, it is not true (Bailey, 2009; Pintabone, 2009). Modern research has found that many animals experience homosexual attraction, but I digress, since Ovid (as an Imperial Roman man) did not know this (Bailey, 2009). Iphis calls upon Pasiphae’s relations with a bull and considers bestiality to be naturally, if not socially, more acceptable, because at least the relation was between a female and a male. In this section, Pintabone (2009) says this is because of Roman hierarchy. While Pasiphae dressed as a cow to deceive the bull, she still played the part of the passive woman. The deception is active, but the sexuality is passive. In their lament, Iphis focuse on the sexual passive and refuses to acknowledge female same-sex erotic relations as anything but taboo (Pintabone, 2009). Janeck (2019) says that, in ancient Roman society, females who are not attracted to males could be considered crazy. In a society that considers sexuality and gender to be synonymous, does this evidence show thT Iphis is transgender?

If you’re looking for more information on lesbianism in ancient Greece, check out this article on our website on Queer Women in Ancient Greece.

Iphis as Transgender

While Jones (2021) argues for Iphis being a tribade, as seen in the previous section, Walker (2006) argues against Iphis being a tribade. Instead, he says that Iphis is gender confused, as Iphis never considers eroticism between two women. Iphis very clearly yearns for Ianthe, but cannot act on this urge (Pintabone, 2009). Iphis continues to reiterate that they do not possess the phallus necessary to be in a sexual relationship with Ianthe. Iphis speculates ways for them or Ianthe to obtain a phallus by invoking the memory of Daedalus. Ovid writes:

Though all the subtleties of all the world should be collected here;—if Daedalus himself should fly back here upon his waxen wings, what could he do? What skillful art of his could change my sex, a girl into a boy—or could he change Ianthe?

(More, 1922; Met 9, 727-731)


Sacrifices to Isis to transform Iphis by ETH Zurich

This almost proves that Iphis wishes to be a boy, except for the suggestion that Ianthe could be changed into a man. Iphis does not mention this again, and instead dismisses the thought when they say: “What a useless thought!” in the next paragraph (Met. 9, 733). These are the only lines where gender transformation is mentioned, until the end when it happens. Iphis is clearly struggling between a female and male identity, but their gender identity is so reliant on sexuality that it is hard to determine Iphis’s gender identity. When Telethusa and Iphis go to the Temple of Isis, they do not wish for Iphis to become a man, they simply ask Isis for help (More, 1922; Met 9, 765). It is the goddess, Isis, who makes this decision for Iphis. The myth ends so suddenly after the transformation, that we do not know if gender transformation is what Iphis truly wanted. Iphis must balance their masculine and feminine, mental and physical features to become complete (Janeck, 2019). So, is Iphis transgender?

In Caxton’s version of this myth, he says Iphis appears androgynous, and refers to them as both male and female, depending on the context. Caxton considers Iphis as sinful and taboo, even at the end of the myth. He does not say that Isis transforms Iphis. Jones (2021) describes the ending of Caxton’s telling as “an obsession with dildos and deceit.” Caxton’s version does not end in Iphis transforming into a man. Instead, Iphis finds a phallic object, pretends it is their own genitalia, and continues to lie about their sex. Despite Iphis not having a biological phallus, Caxton continues to switch Iphis’s pronouns, depending on the context Iphis finds themselves in. Jones (2021) points out that the pronoun switching is common in medieval versions of this myth. Jones (2021) says that, by switching the pronouns, Caxton is showing that he believes that Iphis is kind of male, just not male enough.

In Gower’s version of the myth, Iphis is always referred to with he/him/his pronouns. His myth in Confessio Amantis overlooks Iphis’s lament, leaving this version of Iphis to be interpreted as transgender (Janecek, 2019). Gower skips the heavy amount of pressure which Iphis endures. It can be hard to say if Iphis is transgender in Ovid because of all of the trauma Iphis must face: Ligdus’s infanticide wish, Telethusa’s lies, Iphis’s feelings towards Ianthe, and Iphis’s fear of the wedding. Gower believes Iphis to be a man from the start of the myth. Cupid transforms Iphis at the end to match their physicality to their identity from birth (Gower, 2013; Janecek, 2019). Some scholars, like Bychowski (2016), compare Ovid’s version to the psychological definition of “gender dysphoria” from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) 5. Bychowski argues that Gower’s version does more harm than good to Iphis, claiming that the erasure of Iphis’s trauma also erases Iphis’s gender dysphoria, and therefore the proof that Iphis is transgender (Bychowski, 2016). In Janecek’s (2019) critique of Bychowski’s comments on Gower’s Iphis, they remind us that the DSM is used for medical practice; it cannot determine if someone is trans or not.

Iphis: LGBTQ+ Icon

I believe Iphis is an important trans-sapphic icon. It’s common knowledge that everyone wants to fit in, or at the very least they want to see themselves in art, literature, and representation that surrounds them. The world is finally opening itself up to identities that have always existed, but have been shamed for hundreds of years. Let’s forget Ovid’s and the Roman world’s lesbophobia, and consider the basics of Iphis’s story. When Iphis is transformed by Isis, they become their truest, happiest self. You don’t need Isis to transform you; you just need to trust yourself and allow yourself to be who you want to be. Embrace your gender and sexuality, regardless of what others may think, and allow yourself the happiness you deserve; that is the lesson Iphis gives us as a LGBTQ+ icon.

Do you believe Iphis is trans? Do you believe Iphis is a lesbian? Can we ever really put modern labels on ancient literature? Let us know what you think in the comments below!


Bailey NW, Zuk M (2009). “Same-sex sexual behavior and evolution”. Trends in Ecology & Evolution24 (8): 439–46. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.014. PMID 19539396. Lay summary – ScienceDaily.

Bychowski, M. W. (2016). Unconfessing Transgender: Dysphoric Youths and the Medicalization of Madness in John Gower’s “Tale of Iphis and Ianthe”. Accessus, 3(1), 3.

Caxton, W. (2013). The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. ISBN 978-0-88844-182-9

DeCoste, M. (2009). Hopeless love : Boiardo, ariosto, and narratives of queer female desire. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443

Diane T. Pintabone. “Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe.” Among Women. U of Texas, 2009. 256-285. Web. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443

Gower, J. (2013). Confessio Amantis: Book 4. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/peck-gower-confessio-amantis-book-4 

Janecek, C. (2019). Undiagnosing Iphis: How the Lack of Trauma in John Gower’s “Iphis And Iante” Reinforces a Subversive Trans Narrative. Accessus, 5(1), 2.

Jones, H.R. (Host). (2021). Iphis and Ianthe (No. 42) [Audio podcast episode]. Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. TLT. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bc2HIOHKueU  

Jones, H.R. (2021). “Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 42d: Iphis and Ianthe.” Alpennia. http://alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-42d-iphis-and-ianthe 

Kamen, D. (2012). Naturalized Desires and the Metamorphosis of Iphis. Helios, 39(1), 21–36. https://doi-org.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443/10.1353/hel.2012.0000 

Ovid, ., & More, B. (1922). Metamorphoses (P. Ovidius Naso): Book 9. Boston, U.S.A: Cornhill. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses9.html#7 

Ovidian Transversions:“Iphis and Ianthe,” 1300–1650. Valerie Traub, Patricia Badir, and Peggy McCracken, eds. Conversions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

Ranger, H. (2019). “‘Reader, I married him/her’: Ali Smith, Ovid, and queer translation.” Classical Receptions Journal, Vol 11(Issue 3), 231–255. https://doi-org.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443/10.1093/crj/clz009

Robins, W. (2009). Three Tales of Female Same-Sex Marriage: Ovid’s “Iphis and Ianthe,” the Old French Yde et Olive, and Antonio Pucci’s Reina d’Oriente. Exemplaria, 21(1), 43-62.

Walker, J. (2006). Before the Name: Ovid’s Deformulated Lesbianism. Comparative Literature, 58(3), 205-222. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4125343 

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