Pygmalion and Galatea

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Pygmalion and Galatea




pig-MAY-lee-uhn and gal-uh-TEE-uh

Alternate Names


Appears In

Ovid's Metamorphoses

Myth Overview

In Greek mythology , Pygmalion was a king of the island of Cyprus and a sculptor who may have been a human son of the sea god Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun). He spent many years carving an ivory statue of a woman more beautiful than any living female. According to myth, Pygmalion became fascinated by his sculpture and fell in love with it. He pretended it was an actual woman. He brought it presents and treated it as if it were alive. However, the statue could not respond to his attentions, and Pygmalion became miserable. Finally, he prayed to Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee), the goddess of love, to bring him a woman like his statue. Aphrodite did even better. She brought the statue to life. Pygmalion married this woman, often called Galatea (pronounced gal-uh-TEE-uh), who gave birth to a daughter (or, in some versions, a son).

Pygmalion and Galatea in Context

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea reflects the ancient Greek view of the ideal wife. Pygmalion's statue is beautiful and without voice or opinion. Even after the statue comes to life, she is only described as blushing at Pygmalion's kiss and giving birth to his child. She does not perform any other actions beyond these simple duties—a reflection of the ancient Greek ideal in a society dominated by men. The myth of Pygmalion also reflects ancient Greek and Roman achievements in sculpture: at the time they were created, the works of Greek and Roman sculptors were arguably the most lifelike representations of the human form ever crafted. Without this crucial quality, it is unlikely that the myth of Pygmalion would have been as popular as it was. In fact, the myth itself can be viewed as a celebration of such artistic achievement.

Key Themes and Symbols

The main theme of Pygmalion's myth is the artist's love of his own creation. Pygmalion becomes so infatuated with his work that he begins to treat it as if it were a real person. Another important theme, common in Greek mythology, is the equation of physical beauty with perfection. The statue's flawless physical appearance, suggests that it is the perfect woman—though there is never any evidence of Galatea's personality or character.

Pygmalion and Galatea in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The myth of Pygmalion and his sculpture has appealed to many artists over the centuries, perhaps because the myth speaks directly to the act of artistic creation. Artist Jean-Leon Gerome created an astounding pair of paintings, both titled Pygmalion and Galatea, depicting similar scenes of sculptor and sculpture from two different angles. Images of Pygmalion and his creation have also been captured by modern artists, such as Boris Vallejo.

The myth was the subject of two operas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as a humorous play by W. S. Gilbert (later of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) in 1871 titled Pygmalion and Galatea. The writer George Bernard Shaw took the name Pygmalion as the title of his play about an English professor who turns a poor girl from the streets into a fashionable society woman, which touches upon some of the same themes as the original myth. In the play, the professor “creates” a beautiful woman out of a poor wretch, just as Pygmalion creates a flawless beauty out of a chunk of ivory. Shaw's story was the basis of the later Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady. Another updated version of the myth of Pygmalion can be found in the 1987 comedy film Mannequin, where the object of the artist's affection is a department store mannequin rather than a statue.

The Fat Girl by Marilyn Sachs (1984) is a novel that updates the myth of Galatea and Pygmalion to include modern issues that many adolescents face. The narrator, Jeff, is a popular boy with a beautiful girlfriend. When he makes a remark about an overweight girl named Ellen in his ceramics class and she overhears, he feels bad and becomes friendly with her to make up for his cruel act. He helps her gain self-confidence and blossom into a successful young woman, though his motives may not be entirely charitable, and the result may not be what he expects.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The idea of creating the perfect companion—whether it is a friend or romantic partner—is one of most enduring elements of the myth of Pygmalion. It appears frequently in modern forms of storytelling. Think of an example of this that you have encountered in books, songs, on television, or in movies. (One example would be Pinocchio.) How does your example use the theme of creating the perfect companion? Are there other similarities to the tale of Pygmalion?