Throughout the history of literature, our ears have been graced with many timeless love stories, spanning millennia. We hear of brave, dashing heroes and princes who overcome all odds to win the hand of their designated female love interest. It’s an evergreen formula, though derivative and a gateway to a sexist mindset. Nevertheless, this tale shall follow suit; this story deserves a protagonist, and a protagonist it shall have.
Thus, the role falls to Pygmalion. He was a proud man, and why not? He had a lot to be proud of. He was an extremely talented artist, a household name across the Mediterranean, known particularly for his lifelike statues. Crafted with such affection and attention to detail, his statues seemed as vivacious and feisty as a patron of the local tavern. With their mischievous eyes and strong limbs, it was suspected that his sculptures were liable to jump out of their petrification at any moment, and dance around the room. They said that his work was so magnificent that the gods themselves were envious of his talent. He had almost everything a classical-era celebrity could want: Wealth, Status and Political Influence. He lacked just one thing: A Wife.
Of course, a man of his stature could have his pick of the bunch. If he so desired, he could have all of the local kings line up their young daughters from Crete to Macedonia and choose his favourite. It would be an honour to be the wife of such an esteemed figure in their society – there was just one problem.
Pygmalion despised women. In his eyes, they were debaucherous creatures: prostitutes and drunks. They were weak and prone to vanity. Vapid. Greedy. He avoided their company wherever possible. No woman borne of Earth was good enough for Pygmalion.
He had grown old by this time. Old, and deeply unhappy. He had all the riches he could wish for, fields full of valuable livestock and crops and was a valued member of the council. But it wasn’t enough. He wished for a son, to carry forth his legacy. But how could he obtain an heir without a woman to bear his seed? He could never lower himself to be with a disgusting woman, lest his enlightened mind be infected by her domestic, frivolous drivel and his wealth wasted on her vanity and greed.
The perfect woman, Pygmalion thought, would be designed by man. She would live her life as her husband dictates. She would be innately beautiful, with no need of expensive clay and beeswax cosmetics. She should, however, not be a slave to her own narcissism. She would have youthful, golden locks, and wide child bearing hips. Her breasts should be large and filled with milk for my suckling son, her face perfectly symmetrical and her skin pale, and blemish-free. She would be pious, and fearfully respectful of the gods. Her mind should not be tainted by hearsay or the effects of alcohol. She should be well educated, and a sparkling conversationalist, who agrees with me on all matters of morality, philosophy, art and politics. She should also, however, know her place in the home, never speak out of turn, and serve my every need.
Pygmalion knew that this woman could not be found in Cyprus. He could search the entirety of the western world and not find her; and should he scour the far off eastern lands, and the whole world, he would be as lonely as ever. This perfect woman existed solely inside his mind.
And that was the idea that struck him. If the perfect woman didn’t exist, it was his job to change that. And who better for the task? With his talent, he could elicit the most beautiful woman in the world from a slab of cold, obstinate marble with ease. Men from around the globe would want to flock to Cyprus to marvel at her beauty – but he wouldn’t allow it. No one else could gaze upon on his flawless creation. The fruits of his labour were for his eyes only.
After purchasing the finest Parian marble in the land, denting his fortune, he set off to work. His wizened muscles ached as he tirelessly chipped away at the sheets of rock cocooning his magnum opus. He laboured on her image for almost three years, labouring on each small detail; the convex curve of her fertile womb, her earnest, full-lipped smile, and perfectly symmetrical face.
His toil finally ended on a sweltering hot day in the middle of summer. After smoothing down her shapely calves, he wiped a layer of sweat from his forehead and admired his work.
She was breathtaking. Pygmalion’s heart whelmed with devotion as he gazed upon the face of his creation. The statue was more beautiful than he could have imagined. And perhaps it was the heat of summer, his old age, or the overjoyed relief that came with her completion, or a combination of all three; but Pygmalion found himself kissing the sculpture. It was quick and forceful, her cold, frigid lips combating the hateful sun’s heat. He held the figure close, relieved by the chill. But her skin, though smooth, was hard and unforgiving. Not at all like the soft, supple flesh he imagined. His eyes welled with tears – His perfect creation was nothing more than a lifeless husk.
Days passed, where Pygmalion could do nothing but stare at the statue. The excitement of her completion had long since worn off, and left a gaping wife-shaped hole in his heart. Here she was, his perfect woman was standing in front of him and he felt lonelier than ever. He knew for certain now that no other woman would be as beautiful as she.
“A creation as beautiful as you deserves life.” Pygmalion said to the statue. “I am an old man, and I know that life is be cruel. But I can’t bear to spend the rest of my days alone. I am a helpless old fool who has fallen in love with his own sculpture.”
The statue, of course said nothing.
“You, as divine as you are, shall share my burdens, and bear me a son. I shall go to Aphrodite’s temple and ask for her blessing. I shan’t be away for too long – I can’t bear to take my eyes off of you.”
Once more, the statue was silent, though it’s doubtful that it would’ve had much of a choice in the matter anyway.
After fetching his prize bull from his fields, Pygmalion made his way to the Temple of Aphrodite, where a large crowd gathered around the alter. Caught up in his own mind, he had forgotten that today was Aphrodisia – a festival honouring the very goddess of love and beauty that he had come here to pray to. He watched in reverent silence as the blood of a dove was used to purify the temple. The crowds dropped to their knees and called out in exaltations, adulating Aphrodite. Pygmalion followed suit, praying to her with all his might.
Atop Mount Olympus, Aphrodite watched the paltry humans laud her powers and revere in her greatness. She smirked, so used to seeing them go about their everyday lives, that it was almost insulting to see so many visitors in her temple during the festival. Those foolish little fleas had no idea how much power she had on their mortal world.
“Pathetic.” She spat. “These little idiots think that, just because they pray to me, they can get whatever they want. I don’t care about their failing marriages and unrequited loves. It’s just the same requests over and over, with no thanks to be had.”
Then, as the crowds began to dissipate, she spotted Pygmalion. This was a face she knew all too well. She had kept an eye on the sculptor in the past, drawn to his faultless statues and virility in his youth. She had always wondered which woman would end up his wife, and be rolling in gold for the rest of her days, but now she could see that Pygmalion had never been wed; nor did he frequent the local brothels. She raised an eyebrow – what request could this man ask of the goddess of love and beauty?
Pygmalion brought his bull towards the altar, and sliced it open with the ceremonial blade. Its guttural screech could be heard across the island as the blood spattered the ground. It had been decades since a sacrifice so grand had been made to Aphrodite; if he hadn’t caught her attention before, he certainly had it now.
“Oh Great and Beautiful Goddess!” He cried. “Maiden of the Sea!
“I have at last found my true love, a woman so perfect and pure, unlike any other. The smile on her face blesses my days and her alabaster thighs haunt my nights. I present to you this fine bull, the greatest of my herd, as I plead for your blessing. My greatest love is a sculpture made by my own hand. As the just goddess of love, I beseech of you – bestow my sweetheart with the gift of life, and we shall both be eternally grateful.”
Aphrodite pinched the bridge of her nose, sighing deeply. After all these years, the buffoon had fallen for his own statue? Surely this had to be madness; the man was losing his sanity in his old age.
“No,” Dionysus told her, “I know madness, and this is no madness. Pygmalion has truly fallen for the sculpture; a pretty thing she is too.”
“That’s ridiculous. It’s not a woman, or any kind of human – It’s an inanimate object! He’s not in love with an inanimate object.” Aphrodite said, shaking her head. “There’s more to love than beauty, you know.”
“That’s a tad hypocritical, coming from you.” Dionysus chuckled. “So, what’re you going to do? Are you going to bring the statue to life?”
“I suppose I shall.” She sighed. “Perhaps it’ll be amusing if nothing else.”
Meanwhile, Pygmalion’s heart battered at his bloodstained chest, harder and harder as he approached his front door. He held his breath, and pressed his hand against the rough wood. If Aphrodite was willing, the love of his life would be waiting for him behind this door.
He pushed it open.
The statue stood exactly where he had left it. Cold and hard as ever.
A darkness settled into his heart. How dare Aphrodite not answer his prayer! He had sacrificed his best bull for her – he was certainly entitled to a payment of some sort!
He slammed the door shut, and stormed across the room, grabbing the statue by the waist. The bull’s blood on his fingers seeped into the porous rock and stained the milk-white. His gripped tightened, as he resolved himself to destroy his creation. He wanted nothing more than to throw it to the ground, smashing it into innumerable sharp fragments.
He stared into her bovine eyes for one last time, and bent down to kiss her goodbye. He bowed his head, and closed his eyes, bracing himself for the sharp chill of her lips.
But it never came.
The statue’s lips were soft and warm, moving out of sync with Pygmalion’s. They were speaking. Pleading.
“Let go of me! Let go! You’re hurting me!” The statue cried. Pygmalion’s eyes shot open. His grip on her waist loosened, letting her fall to the floor.
“You’re alive!” He exclaimed, a large grin crawling over his face. “Aphrodite has answered my prayer, and you shall be my wife!”
“W-Who are you?” The girl asked, struggling to cover her nude body. Pygmalion could hardly believe his eyes. She was his statue, come to life – and she was even more beautiful with blood pumping through her veins.
“I am Pygmalion.” He said proudly. “I sculpted your body from the finest Parian marble and prayed for you to be given life so that you could be my wife. I am madly in love with you.”
The girl swallowed hard. “I am Galatea.”
“Are you in love with me?”
“We… have just met, sir.”
Pygmalion frowned. This wasn’t right – he brought this woman to life. He should be a hero in her eyes, if not a God. “No,” He said sternly. “You love me. That’s how this works. You’re just a stupid statue so you probably don’t know how love feels, but I do. You are my perfect ivory virgin, borne of my own hand, and we shall be wed tomorrow. Perhaps in time, you shall learn how love feels.”
Galatea bowed her head, too afraid to use her newfound tongue against her creator. He had already exercised his power over her, marked by the finger-shaped bruises on her waist. She waited until Pygmalion had gone to sleep before she found some old sheets to drape around her body, and stole out of the house. Without direction or deliberation, she made her way to Aphrodite’s Temple.
The temple was in a shambles after the day’s celebrations; the tiled mosaic on the floor could barely be seen through the blood and muddy footprints; and the smell of the slaughtered bull lying on the altar hung heavy in the air.
Galatea crept in cautiously, keeping out a watchful eye for any stray Cypriots who might who might approach her. The chill in the night air made her wary, and the smell of death made her stomach lurch. Once she was certain she was alone, she fell to her knees sobbing.
“My Lady,” she cried. “Why have you forsaken me to this mortal life? I do not want to marry Pygmalion. He is a strange, old man, and I fear he shall do me harm. He claims that he loves me, yet he does not know me. O goddess of love, will you have me forced into this sham of a marriage?”
“Yes, my child.” said a voice behind her. It was low and earthy, but Galatea could swear she heard the earth move with each cadence. Warm hands clasped her shoulders in a comforting manner. “I know of your struggles all too well, Galatea. But I’m afraid this is a struggle you must bear, as a woman.”
“He has bruised me, my Lady.” Galatea protested, adjusting the sheets to display her waist. “His forceful grasp is too rough for my skin. His wicked hands too careless and destructive. He claims to love me for my beauty, but surely there is more to me than that? What if the rest of me is not to his liking?”
“You were created to be beautiful.” Aphrodite said tonelessly. “Nothing else matters. Not to Pygmalion anyway. You shall marry him and give him a son.”
“Without love? That doesn’t seem like any kind of life.”
“You have no choice, Galatea.”
The girl, shocked by Aphrodite’s lack of compassion, snapped her neck up. Goosebumps writhed up her spine as her gaze met the goddess’. An aura of ethereal power radiated from her, more alluring than Galatea could ever hope to be. She stood up and turned around, drawn towards the goddess. Her deep, brown face, wide set green eyes and long nose seemed almost hypnotic. This was a face too dangerous, too beguiling for the eyes of a mortal.
“Do not come any closer.” Aphrodite warned, outstretching her hand. “Go home to Pygmalion, child. He’ll be happy to see you; you should be thankful to have a man at all.”
But Galatea couldn’t look away from the goddess, until she blinked, looked around and found herself back in Pygmalion’s house once more. That day, the two of them were wed. They married in secret, an unorthodox ceremony as they were both older than the traditional age for marriage, and Pygmalion forbid anyone else, even wedding guests, from laying their eyes on his wife. By the end of the night, she still did not love him.
Nine months later, she gave birth to twins, a son, Paphos and a daughter, Metharme. She wasn’t the most maternal of women, but she loved the two of them dearly. She still did not love Pygmalion.
She watched her children grow up, performing each of her motherly duties to perfection. Her days were monotonous at best and chaotic at worst. Wake at dawn, help Paphos get ready for school, cook and clean with Metharme, and spend the evenings spinning. With his supervision, Pygmalion sometimes allowed Galatea to visit the market in the afternoons. He paraded her around like a trophy, falsifying stories of their intoxicating love for his fans, and vilifying all the other women in comparison to her. She wondered if he knew how uncomfortable it made her. She wondered if he cared.
Nights were even worse. They tried to talk, but there was nothing to say. They had the exact same opinions on morality, philosophy, art and politics, and would only parrot the same beliefs back at each other. And the nights Pygmalion tried to make advances towards her were nothing but awkward. She turned him down most times, unless they had come across some silphium in the market. She cried almost every night while he slept, wishing for her repetitive life to come to a stop. She almost prayed for some natural disaster or death to occur; just so something would happen. Years passed, and she still did not love him.
At the age of fourteen, Metharme began to menstruate. Just a few days after her fourteenth birthday, she awoke her mother excitedly; proud that she had finally become a woman. That day, accompanied by Paphos, Galatea took her daughter to the woods, and helped her sacrifice her old toys to Artemis, as a symbol for the end of her childhood. Pygmalion didn’t join them. In the past few months, he had been ill, and seemingly deteriorating more and more each day. He had been bedridden for almost a year now.
Metharme worried about her parents often. They didn’t act like the other parents in the town, who were younger, buoyant and full of life. Pygmalion was easily the oldest man in the village, and Galatea seemed as though her mind was full of thoughts that she didn’t dare speak aloud. During the ceremony, she seemed even more subdued than usual. The crackling of flames filled the clearing, the smoke rising to the treetops. Galatea’s gaze did not stray from the pile of burning dolls. She did not cry.
As they made their way home in silence, Metharme tugged at her mother’s dress. “Maia, you seem sad. Are you worried about Pateer?”
“No, child.” Galatea said abruptly. Her pace quickened.
“He’s rather old, isn’t he?” Paphos chimed in. “A boy from my school, Doros, said that his father said Pateer wouldn’t be around to see winter. He said that if the frost won’t kill him, then Hades would get impatient and come up to the surface world and kill him himself.”
“You shouldn’t speak about your father in such a way.” She scolded. “Your father is very proud of you both, it would sadden him to hear this, you know.”
Their walk home continued in silence.
Within a week, Metharme was married off to Cinyras, a hero from the land of Cilicia, leaving Galatea even lonelier than before. “It’s a good pairing…” Her ailing husband assured her in a self-satisfied wheeze. “Metharme has your beauty… And Cinyras is a brave warrior… With great riches… Any children of theirs…Will be destined for greatness.”
“Metharme is brave.” Galatea replied. “And she has a good heart. She genuinely cares for those around her. Even as a child, she was very empathetic; but also, very soft-willed. Aren’t you worried that you pushed her into this marriage? Did you ask her want she wanted? How she felt?”
“She will be… an excellent mother.” Pygmalion croaked.
Metharme would go on to have six children; none of whom would ever get to meet Galatea or Pygmalion, for she never saw her parents again. Her youngest son, Adonis, inherited his grandmother’s beauty, and gained repute from causing a rift between Aphrodite and Persephone, who both admired the young man’s good looks.
In the meantime, Galatea waited by Pygmalion’s bedside, holding his withered, liver-spotted, old hand in hers. She performed all the duties of a loving, dedicated wife; she helped him wash, and relieve himself; as well as cooking for him, and singing him to sleep.
After all these years, her beauty had not faded. She looked as young as the day she came alive, her skin smooth and unblemished, her hair free of grey streaks. Every day, Pygmalion looked at her the way he did on that first day, with the same mixture of pride and devotion. And even then, she did not love him. The bruises on her waist had never faded.
Paphos grew up to take his father’s place in the local council, enamouring the masses with his strategical mind and unparalleled intellect. So much so that they renamed the city after him after he died. At the age of thirty, he took his own young wife, and had his own children. He visited his parents often at first, but his job became more and more demanding; his visits became less frequent.
It was during one of his visits that Pygmalion would breath his last. He sat at his father’s bedside while his mother went to the well. He told him of the latest developments in the political sphere, and listened patiently when Pygmalion gave his own, unsolicited opinion on the matter. When Galatea returned, Pygmalion grew quiet. He watched her wordlessly as she busied herself around the room, dusting and cleaning. Finally, he said: “I won’t be seeing you in the Fields of Elysium, will I, my sweet?”
“I doubt it.” Galatea said, reaching up to eviscerate a cobweb in the corner of the room with a flourish of her rag.
Pygmalion’s eyes lost their light. Letting out a final sigh, his muscles went slack, and he peacefully surrendered to his eternal rest, feeling accomplished with his life. And why not? After all, he had a lot to be proud of.
Paphos buried his face in his hands, breathing deeply. His father was dead. He waited for his mother to speak. She did not. He raised his head, and turned his tear stained face to where she stood.
In his mother’s place stood a statue of a young woman, lifelike and expensive-looking. It was made of Parian marble, yellowed with age, with fingerprints of dried blood staining its waist. He looked back and forth from the statue to his father’s corpse, wondering what to do.
Galatea had been granted the gift of life in order to be Pygmalion’s wife. Without a husband to dote upon or children to raise, what use would a woman be? She never went to any sort of afterlife, she simply ceased to exist; her marble figure lost to history, never to be seen again.
However, some say that Galatea lives on in the hearts of women everywhere. Galatea is the little girl in pigtails who wants to be a doctor, a firefighter, an engineer when she grows up, and receives a nurse’s costume, a toy kitchen and a baby doll for her birthday.
Galatea is the school girl with the short skirt who cowers from the lewd men who shout at her in the street, wondering why her fashion choices makes her a target.
Galatea is the stripper; stronger and braver than most people she knows, and faces physical and verbal abuse every day by the same men pay to objectify her every night.
Galatea is the housewife tamed into submission by her loud husband, wondering how her life might have turned out if she hadn’t taken her mother’s advice, and travelled the world instead of having a child.
Galatea is the crazy cat lady, dubbed so by the community she leans on for support, wondering why her identity was erased because her feline friends are the only visitors she gets these days.
Galatea is Audrey, Kelly, Julia, Wendy, Kim, Rachel, Julie, Karen, Christina and she could even be you or me.
Galatea was valued for little more than her beauty and her sex, but upon further examination, Pygmalion may have reaslised that she, and many others, had a bit more to offer.
Words – Róisín Doherty
Images – Danielle Jade Oldham