Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Asexuality in Classical Myths
Content Warnings: Slight warning for sexual harassment. One mention of masturbation. One mention of conversion therapy. And just a warning that the views/interpretations of myths in the article are based on my own personal experience of asexuality and are not intended to represent the views and feelings of the whole spectrum.
I didn’t identify as asexual until my late 30s; I didn’t have the words. In the early ‘90s no one was talking about asexuality. No one was there to help me understand who and what I was. It felt like an unfair taboo.
By Elizabeth Hopkinson
In 1992, I went to Leeds University to study English Language and Literature. All first years had to take an elective module from another department, and one of our tutors advised us to choose Classics, as it would help us later. That was how I first came to read the Metamorphoses. (That’s my copy in the picture, purchased later on, when I finally had the money to buy a new one!)
It’s a big, epic poem, written in the time of Caesar Augustus, that crams in hundreds of stories from Greek and Roman mythology, all about transformation. People turn into nightingales, stags and spiders. Gods turn into cattle, swans and showers of gold. Each story morphs seamlessly into the next. It’s utterly magical!
I was a late bloomer as far as identity is concerned. I didn’t identify as asexual until my late 30s; I didn’t have the words. In the early ‘90s no one was talking about asexuality. No one was there to help me understand who and what I was. It felt like an unfair taboo.
But I had Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I could read about Daphne, who turned into a tree to escape the amorous advances of the god, Apollo. I could meet Pygmalion, who fell in love with a beautiful, chaste statue. There was something in these stories that spoke to me.
“Pygmalion and Galatea” by Anna Hopkinson, 2019.
It is fair to say that most people have never heard of asexuality. The biggest problem asexuals face in coming out is not persecution but erasure. People have been told to their faces that asexuality is a myth, or asked if they are plants. Attempts to come out to friends have been met with bafflement or the assumption that it is an intimate marital matter, not to be discussed in public. Asexuals have been told by professionals that they have a medical problem and sent to therapy they do not need.
AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network) defines an asexual person as one who does not experience sexual attraction. This term embraces a whole spectrum of different identities and represents around 1% of the population.
In contemporary culture, it often seems there is little or no representation of asexuals and our perspectives. People still make jokes about 40-year-old virgins. Advertisers try to sell everything using sex. Our ancestors, on the other hand, seemed much more honest and open about the spectrum of human sexuality. There are many fairy tales and myths that apparently contain asexual characters, or use motifs that speak to asexual issues and struggles.
At any rate, that was how I felt (and still feel) when reading the Metamorphoses. So I'd like to briefly introduce three of its stories that are special to me, and that I have retold or re-imagined in my books Asexual Fairy Tales and Asexual Myths & Tales.
Daphne & Apollo
Daphne, daughter of the river-god, is pursued by the god Apollo, who is inflamed with desire for her. She can’t outrun him, so she cries to her father for help. The river-god turns her into a laurel tree. (We are told this is why the laurel is Apollo’s favourite tree and is used to crown Roman generals.)
Read one way, this could be a horrible story about male violence towards women. But as a young adult, what I saw in Daphne was a character I could relate to. She flees from the advance of sexuality; she begs to escape from it. This was just how I’d felt about being kissed by my first boyfriend. (A relationship I’d felt “doomed” into embarking on, and which I abandoned after a fortnight.) As I didn’t know I was asexual, no one ever asked me, “Are you a plant?”. But there were times when being a tree would have been easier.
I’ve retold this story a few times, but my favourite retelling is “The Lost Children of Lorenwald” (in Asexual Fairy Tales) in which there is a whole forest of Daphnes - of all genders - happy in their identity.
“The Lost Children of Lorenwald” by Emma Howitt, 2017.
Pygmalion & Galatea
Pygmalion is a sculptor who is repulsed by the lewd behaviour of the women of Cyprus, and so creates his ideal woman in the form of an ivory statue, which he calls Galatea. He is so in love with Galatea that the goddess Venus takes pity on him and brings her to life.
I find myself coming back to the story of Pygmalion again and again. It can be read as the struggle of an asexual in a sex-crazed society, trying to show the world through their art what their kind of love looks like. It also speaks to an internal struggle I know well; growing up with a huge “romance drive” and no sex drive; desperately wishing for marriage and children, yet almost worshipping my own chastity. “So much easier to go for a sexless and perfect sort of male Galatea (ie Legolas)” I wrote in my diary in 2005. This after my husband bought me a pin-up of Legolas for Valentine's Day. Yes, it’s complicated.
I see myself in the sculptor Pygmalion and in Galatea, the ivory maid. In fact, in my short story “The Ivory Maid”, the titular character keeps twelve young lords imprisoned behind mirrors as virtual pin-ups. And when I retold Pygmalion’s story for Asexual Fairy Tales, I drew inspiration from George MacDonald’s Victorian “Faerie Romance” Phantastes. In that book, the protagonist Anodos frees the form of a woman from the marble wall of a cave; but she keeps running away from him, saying, “Touch not!” rather like Daphne. Meanwhile, Anodos finds himself constantly pursued by a dark shadow. His conclusion at the end of the book is the line I want written on my gravestone: “Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.”
“The Ivory Maid” by Anna Hopkinson, 2019.
Echo & Narcissus
Echo is a nymph who falls in love with the beautiful youth, Narcissus. But he rejects her and she pines away, becoming at first stone and then just a voice: an echo that can only repeat the last words of others. Narcissus is cursed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. He, too, pines away and dies, mourned by Echo. At his death he becomes a narcissus flower (a daffodil).
“I am both Narcissus and Echo, the Prince both my Echo and my Narcissus,” I wrote in “The Little Mermaid Speaks” (Asexual Myths & Tales, 2020). Incidentally, the Little Mermaid starts out in love with a statue under the sea. But when it becomes flesh in the form of the Prince, all she gains is pain and rejection of a love she cannot articulate.
The Greeks named this inconsolable longing after a special god, Antieros, brother of Eros. It has produced some of the world’s greatest art and poetry, and has been a constant companion throughout my life. Unsurprising, then, that my particular blend of high-romance, low-sex has often led me to believe unrequited love is the best.
Narcissus is my ideal pin-up: an androgynous-looking boy. I think that, in my mind, makes him appear sexless. (We’re back to Legolas and Galatea again). It also speaks to a non-binary streak in me that I don’t fully understand but has always been with me. Narcissus is a mirror-image of me. But the image is broken if you try to touch the pool. I know this kind of love is impossible.
It’s also worth noting another point illustrated by the tale of Narcissus. Yes, you can be auto-erotic (masturbate) and still be asexual. I know this one causes a lot of agony for people, so I just wanted to put it out there. The only person Narcissus desires is himself, and that’s OK.
“The Little Mermaid Speaks” by Anna Hopkinson, 2020.
When my tutor recommended that I study the Classics in 1992, he could not have predicted the profound impact Metamorphoses has had on my life. Its author Ovid was banished from Rome part-way through writing it, and had to complete it in disgrace and exile. But I think he deserves to be honoured for creating the first work that spoke to my confused identity with beauty, magic and symbolism; and for giving me source material for many short stories, in which I could explore that identity for myself.
Elizabeth Hopkinson is the author of Asexual Fairy Tales, which featured in the BBC’s We Are Bradford project, and earned her a place in Wikipedia’s Timeline of Asexual History. Her short stories have appeared in The Forgotten & the Fantastical and Dancing with Mr Darcy, along with many other anthologies and magazines. Her story “A Short History of the Dream Library” won the James White Award. Elizabeth has appeared at Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. She lives in Bradford with her husband, daughter and cat. Elizabeth is a romantic asexual and is committed to asexual representation in fiction.
Asexual Fairy Tales book: https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/product/9781781328941/asexual-fairy-tales
Asexual Myths & Tales book: https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/product/9781800420236/asexual-myths-tales