100 Days of Wonder Woman, Mythology

Love and Art: The Story of Pygmalion

In Wonder Woman #1, Marston compared Diana’s birth to the myth, “Pygmalion and Galatea,” in which a sculptor became so enamored of his creation that Aphrodite brought the statue to life to become his bride. As presented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion dismissed women as shameless prostitutes and committed himself to bachelorhood. However, he loved the idea of women, even if he found the flesh-and-blood variety distasteful. 

In his loneliness, Pygmalion carved an ivory statue of his perfect woman and named her Galatea. He showered the figure with delicate kisses and beautiful gifts and took her to his bed. One day, after he delivered a sacrifice to Aphrodite, the goddess granted the artist’s deepest desire and breathed life into the ivory form. Pygmalion married Galatea, and they bore a child.

At first blush, kinky overtones fill this story. Unable to get laid, Pygmalion made himself a sex doll and became confused about reality. Aphrodite pitied the poor guy and turned his puppet into a real girl. 

At a deeper level, the story is not about sex, but love. Pygmalion was so love-starved and socially awkward that the only way he could express love was through his art. The attentive care with which he sculpted and attended to Galatea earned him the favor of the Goddess of Love. Pygmalion’s story has been retold in My Fair Lady, Mannequin, and Lars and the Real Girl.

Mythology Note: Aphrodite’s husband was Hephaestus, the Olympian craftsman. Love, Beauty, Passion are married to Art and Craftsmanship.

If we look at the story as a metaphor for relationship, Pygmalion fell in love with a cold, hard woman — like one made from ivory. By treating her well, by being gentle with her body and attentive to her tastes, Pygmalion earned her love, and she grew warm and emotionally available, and finally married him.

Myths hit a cultural nerve and allow us to see layers of meaning, elucidating dimensions of human truth. In a letter to DC Editor Sheldon Mayer, Marston noted that “if you hit a universal theme, symbols, or experience, not merely reader identification but something more, a racial truth, you get really tremendous results.” In other words, if a story is true enough to an archetypal pattern, a myth, then it reaches beyond a reader’s personal experience and into the collective subconscious. 

Marston described Hippolyte’s appreciation of her sculpted daughter thusly: “Hippolyte adores the tiny statue she has made as Pygmalion worshiped Galatea.” For those familiar with Pygmalion’s story, this implies that the queen doted on the clay form as she would a beloved daughter, perhaps with songs or stories or lessons. Whatever the details, they satisfied Aphrodite, who brought the child to life. In this case, however, it is mothery love, not amatory love, that brings Diana to life.

The circumstances of Diana’s birth are unique amidst all mythology (and perhaps in all of literature!) in its semi-divine and purely divine feminine nature. This distinction of being the child of a Heavenly mother and an Earthly mother, with no male involvement, belongs exclusively to Wonder Woman. Hippolyte was the daughter of Aphrodite alone, who herself had no father. Wonder Woman’s creation story was not just an origin myth of an empowered feminine archetype. It was the origin myth of the empowered feminine archetype.

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