Pygmalion is the story of a sculptor who was so incredibly skilled in his art that he fell in love with one of his statues, and when he slept with it, it came to life.

It is one of a bundle of Greek myths about metamorphosis, left to us in the words of Ovid. As far as I'm aware, they are mainly concerned with the consequences of sexual desire.

For a modern, Americanized version, see the Stepford wives.

'Pygmalion' is also a play by George Bernard Shaw, with a very different message, as far as I can see.

In Greek mythology a Cypriote king and sculptor. Pygmalion fell in love with a ebony statue that he had made and named it Galatea. Seeing his love, the goddess of love Aphrodite gave life to the Galatea and saw to it that they got married.

Ovidius/Ovid wrote about this in his grand epos Metamorphoses and the romantic Rousseau for instance used the same theme as a symbol for perfect love.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a play bearing the king’s name, and Shaw’s work was later made a musical as My Fair Lady. Shaw’s comedy Pygmalion was first played in 1913 and is one of the modern classics. Phonetics professor Higgins and his protégé Eliza Doolittle are often referenced in other plays and writings.

THE FLOWER GIRL (Eliza Doolittle) {far from reassured} Then what did you take down my words for? How do I know whether you took me down right? You just shew me what you’ve wrote about me. {The note taker opens his book and holds it steadily under her nose, though the pressure of the mob trying to read it over his shoulders would upset a weaker man}. Whats that? That aint proper writing. I cant read that.
THE NOTE TAKER (Henry Higgins) I can. {Reads, reproducing her pronunciation exactly} "Cheer ap, Keptin; n' baw ya flahr orf a pore gel."


George Bernard Shaw, on the opening night of the live performance version of his Pygmalion, wired the following message to Winston Churchill:

"Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Come and bring a friend — if you have one."

Churchill, having no shortage of dry wit himself, wired back:

"Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second — if there is one."

(238)... but the ill-fated Propoetides dared to refuse Venus as their goddess;
For this offense, by the anger of divine power, they were said
To be the first to prostitute their beautiful bodies.
And so their shame stopped, and blood hardened in their faces.
They were changed into hard stone -- no one could tell the difference.

(243) Pygmalion saw them living their life of crime, and he was offended
By the countless vices which nature gave to the minds of women.
So he lived celibate without a spouse,
And was for a long time lacking a partner in the bedroom.
Meanwhile, he happily sculpted snowy ivory with a wonderful art,
And gave it a form -- so beautiful that no woman could be born with it,
And he began to love his own work.

(250) The form was of a maiden, which you would believe was living.
If modesty did not obstruct, you might even think it moved --
Art hid in its own art.
Pygmalion marveled and drew into his heart a fiery passion for the body he had produced.
Often he moved his hands towards the work,
Testing whether it was flesh or ivory,
And he did not acknowledge that it was ivory.
He gives kisses, imagining them returned, he converses and holds and believes that his fingers sink into the limbs he has touched,
He fears that a bruise will appear on the skin he has pressed.

(259) And sometimes he offers flattery, sometimes he brings gifts pleasing to girls:
Pearls and rounded gems and small birds
And thousand-colored flowers and lilies
And colored balls and tears from the tree of the Heliades.
He also decorates the art with clothing:
Gives the fingers jewels and the neck long necklaces.
From her ears light pearls hang, and on her chest garlands --
Everything adorned. And she is just as beautiful in the nude:
He arranges the statue with sheets dyed in Sidonian shells.
And he calls it the companion of his bed,
And he lays its head on soft feathers, as if it could feel.

(270) The festival of Venus had come,
The most celebrated festival in all of Cyprus.
And with their arching horns gilded, the young cows fell down,
Having been struck on their snowy necks. And frankincense smoldered.
When an offering had been performed, Pygmalion stood at the altar and reverently said:
"If, goddess, you are able to give all, let my spouse be, I pray,
Similar to the statue made of ivory." (Not daring to say "let her be the ivory maiden").
Golden Venus felt the prayers as if she herself had been at her festival,
And as an omen of the friendship of her divine power,
Three times she made the flame strengthen and leap through the air.

(280) When Pygmalion returned, he looked for the likeness of his own girl,
And bending over the couch gave her kisses; she seemed to become warm!
He moved his mouth again, he felt her breasts with his hands;
The touched ivory became soft, and the hardness yielded,
Giving way to his fingers as when beeswax from Mt. Hymettus
Is softened by the sun, and having been rubbed by the thumb
It is bent into many forms, becoming more useful with every use.
While he gapes and hesitatingly rejoices and fears that he is deceived,
Pygamalion feels, loving the object of his prayers again and again with his hand.
It was a body, the veins he felt pulsed under his thumb!

(290) Then truly the hero of Paphius composed the most generous words, which gave thanks to Venus.
And at last the not false mouth pressed on his own mouth, and the maiden felt the kiss
And blushed with shame, and lifting her timid eye to the light,
She saw at the very same time her lover and her first day.

(295) The goddess came to the marriage which she had made.
And now, with the horns of the moon having been forced nine times into a full circle,
The bride gave birth to Paphos, from whom the island holds its name.

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 10, Lines 238-297

This is my own translation, the line lengths are uneven in order to make the line numbers in English match up with those in Latin. The original is in dactylic hexameter. A few brief notes:
  • The story is actually stuck in the middle of a song by Orpheus, one of a series of ballads mourning the death of Eurydice and rejecting women in general.
  • Line 252 is, imho, one of Ovid's coolest lines, to make the meaning unnecessarily clear, he's saying that the fact that the statue was art (and not real) was hidden by the quality of its art.
  • And line 296, of course, means that nine months have passed.
Latin text from:
LaFleur, Richard A. Love and Transformation: An Ovid Reader. Addison-Wesley, 1995.

Clouds enter the room
light on a statue
marble on
a window over sea
beneath the cliff

I carved
an image
of that which I loved
from how my eyes
saw my imagination
a goddess worked
the stone to create
the simulacrum
that emerged

The skies empty,
blue depth, that
that wouldn't be seen

Nothing had created
the image,
what good was it
from my hands?
I watched outward
over the white paths
that wove upwards,
at her walking
in her true form

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