The Myth of Pygmalion and Galatea

What if a toy you have always liked so much that you have clothed, taken care of, and treated as a pal suddenly comes to life? That is what magically transpired in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, his statue-turned-muse. It was so inspiring that themes of artistic passion, how artists value their works⁠ and feminism and how women should be treated and empowered are just some of the underlying motifs of its narrative.

As these values and issues remain relevant to this day. And the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea remains influential as it continues to be retold and reimagined via literature and film, among others. This is an ode to the relevance of this myth that continues to capture our imagination.  

Who Was Pygmalion?

In Cyprus, Pygmalion was a legend for, after all, he was both their revered king and a masterful sculptor. But he was a man who fiercely detested women to the point of misogynist. This stemmed from his awareness of the wicked ways of the Propoetides, the daughters of Propoetus.

These Cypriot girls were punished by Aphrodite due to their disregard for her divinity. They were condemned by the goddess to a life of prostitution. As a result, Pygmalion detested all the flaws and frailties of women so much that he vowed to himself that he would never marry and remain celibate until his death.

Bent on living an unmarried life, Pygmalion devoted all his attention and energy to the art of sculpting. In fact, he was so masterful in his craft that his sculptures so closely mimicked life as if it was not art anymore. One time, he was so vigorously and passionately wielding his hammer and chisel until the beauty of his magnum opus stunned him—Galatea.

Who Was Galatea?

Pygmalion named his masterpiece ivory statue Galatea(Greek: Γαλάτεια; “she who is milk-white”). Galatea is the embodiment of the perfection of the woman of Pygmalion’s dream. Thus far from the immoral Cypriot women who earned his ire.

Despite Galatea’s coldness and hardness, Pygmalion kissed her lips, caressed her breasts, and embraced her body in the nude with all the force of passion. And despite her inanimateness, he clothed her with the most precious and exquisite pearls, shells, and pendants. He further draped her with the most fashionable embroidered robes that are fit for no one but a queen. But all of these are still not enough for Galatea to be Pygmalion’s muse.

Aphrodite’s Grace

When Aphrodite’s feast was fast approaching, Pygmalion fervently prayed and wholeheartedly offered everything in her temple for Galatea to cease being a statue and transform into his worthy wife. Upon the ascension of three flames from the temple, Pygmalion rushed to his studio, not knowing what those omens meant. And upon his arrival, he was extremely shocked.

Pygmalion ran into Galatea and tightly embraced and kissed her. Surprisingly, it was not the hardness of the ivory that he felt but the warmth and firmness of her flesh. His touch left a print on her skin and exuded a smile with a blush painted all over Galatea’s beautiful face. Thereafter, Galatea expressed words of appreciation to her sculptor and lover, Pygmalion.

It is said that Aphrodite ultimately heeded Pygmalion’s request for two probable reasons. First, as the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite saw and appreciated Galatea’s beauty as if parallelizing her own beauty. Thus, Aphrodite deemed it worthy that such a work of art and beauty be turned into a human.

Second, as the goddess of love, Aphrodite pitied and realized Pygmalion’s earnest and genuine love for Galatea. This was despite her nature and identity as an ivory statue, hence Aphrodite fulfilled his wishes at last.

Happily Ever After

Soon after, the loving relationship between Pygmalion and Galatea culminated with their exchange of wedding vows at the altar. For the couple’s endless thanksgiving, Aphrodite blessed their union, and their child was born—Paphos, from whom the city of Cyprus devoted to worship Aphrodite derived its name.

The city of Paphos is particularly special because this was where Aphrodite landed after she majestically rose from the sea when she was born. Today, Paphos remains a city in Cyprus. But it is not only the name that stood the test of time but also this myth and its essence.

Undying Influence of the Myth of Pygmalion and Galatea

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea draws parallels with the classic story of Pinocchio. He was a wooden puppet that became a real boy upon wishing to be one. William Shakespeare also harnessed this narrative in his The Winter’s Tale. In its conclusion, the statue of Queen Hermione, who had been dead for many years already, came back alive.

But its most apparent reimagination is through George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In this, the protagonist Eliza Doolittle, although not a statue but a poor flower girl, aspired to learn proper English under the tutelage of Professor Henry Higgins. From this work came the most succinct articulation of the Pygmalion effect discovered by the psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson through Doolittle’s sharp yet profound observation that “the difference between a flower girl and a lady is not the way she behaves, but the way she’s treated.”

Perhaps this is why we continue to be mesmerized by the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea for it is a portrait of how true love transcends all boundaries. In love, nothing is impossible.

“Every man is his own Pygmalion, and spends his life fashioning himself. And in fashioning himself, for good or ill, he fashions the human race and its future.”

-I.F. Stone