During my initial research on Greek legends, I was most interested in the tale of Achilles and Patroclus, which lead me to the myth of Ianthe and Iphis. Theirs a tale is a familiar one now, after the advent of studies in Queer Theory in the last couple of decades. But before that, it remained a tale of how a woman is turned into a man so that they could marry the woman they loved.
The myth follows a couple Ligdus and Telethusa, who were expecting a child. Ligdus was a farmer and wanted a son who could inherit the farms and carry on the farming legacy. He only wanted two things, one that his wife experience little pain during her labor and two that she gives him a son. One night Goddess Isis appeared in Telethusa’s dream and asked her to keep the child irrespective of the gender. When Telethusa went into labor, Ligdus wasn’t present. Therefore when she gave birth to a girl, only Telethusa and the nurse knew of the gender. Terrified of her husband, she decided to bring up the girl as a boy and named them Iphis.
Years passed and Iphis grew up to be a vivacious person if not slightly confused regarding their identity. Iphis was soon betrothed to marry Ianthe, an unparalleled beauty who was a daughter of a merchant. Iphis soon fell in love with Ianthe but was troubled since they did not want to love a girl while she was a girl dressed as a boy. Noticing her child’s dilemma and realizing that once they are married the world and Ligdus will find out about Iphis’ true identity, Telethusa decided to go to the temple of Isis and pray for a miracle.
On their way, Telethusa and Iphis met with positive omens that assured them that their prayers would be answered. At the temple, Telethusa expressed her problem and asked the goddess to help her. Then Isis decreed – “Iphis is following the going one, as she is accustomed, but with a bigger stride, the brightness on her face does not stay, her strength is increased, her face is sharper, her messy hair is shorter, more vigor is present than a woman would have. For that which was recently a woman, is a boy.” As Telethusa and Iphis walked out of the temple, Iphis was no longer a girl, but a boy and could finally marry Ianthe.
One of the interesting things about this myth was the name. Iphis is a gender neutral name, and it does not change when Iphis is transformed into a boy. The name remains and serves as a reminder about who Iphis was and who they have become now. Another interesting aspect of the myth was that it’s told by an omniscient narrator, who glosses over what the characters felt or desired. For instance, we don’t know if Iphis wanted to undergo a gender transformation or whether Ianthe knew about Iphis’ identity (at the temple when the goddess Isis transforms Iphis, she markedly talks about her feminine features changing into masculine ones.) Furthermore, while the myth does not speak about any of its characters, it does neither divulge into what happened after Iphis went through a transformation. Many of the representations of this legend that we have now, serve as a possible tool to answer many of our questions regarding this.
One of the better examples of this myth in the popular media was the 2015 movie Qissa starring Tillotama Shome, Irrfan Khan, and Tisca Chopra. The movie explores the similar themes that the Greek myth tackled. It begins with Umber (played by Irrfan Khan’s) desire to have a male child to carry the family lineage. His wife is afraid as Telethusa was, and desires a boy just to elevate that fear, but here is where the movie takes a darker turn from the otherwise happily ending myth. Umber is present at the time of the birth of his child but is so blinded by the desire to have a male child that he ignores the fact that he has a daughter and decides to raise her as a boy named Kunwar. The movie then moves on to depict the gender issues Kunwar faces. Born as a woman but forced to be a boy, Kunwar constantly struggles to repress her femininity. She ultimately undergoes a gender transformation like Iphis, but in the movie Kunwar lets herself be drowned by her father’s troubled and wandering spirit so that Umber’s spirit can enter her body. Umber then tries to copulate with Neeli, the woman Kunwar was married to. Scared and knowing that it is not Kunwar, Neeli kills herself, while Umber’s spirit continues to wander around the house.
The myth invariably deals with the issue of gender identity, lesbian love, and suppression of the true identity by a strong patriarch who desires a male progeny. In that sense, the myth becomes an important talking point in reference to the Indian society who has always preferred a male child and at the same time have turned a blind eye to gender identity and issues regarding gender transformation. Trans people have had a long history of struggle with some not even getting accommodation to live in urban cities like Delhi (in Qissa we see Kunwar’s house ‘mysteriously’ burning down as soon as she starts to accept her femininity. This reflected the fact that after the society shunned her and forced her to move away after she disrobed all the masculine clothing and traits, it also took away the roof over her head).
Qissa manages to answer some question that the myth of Iphis and Ianthe left behind. We know that Kunwar takes immense pleasure in her femininity and died to not let her father’s desire of having a male child overcome her desire of living her life as a woman. While the myth leaves it completely ambiguous as to whether Ianthe knew Iphis was born a woman, Neeli realizes that Kunwar is a woman on the night of their wedding.
The myth of Ianthe and Iphis calls itself a story of two women in love, but it says a lot when Iphis has to become a man so that their love can find legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Perhaps to un-silence this shrouding of homosexual romantic love by a heteronormative interpretation of the same, we need new media and its portrayal of myths such as these. However, Qissa does not indulge in presenting a lesbian love story between Kunwar and Neeli either. When Neeli realizes that Kunwar is a woman and not a man, she proposes that they live together as sisters and start anew. If Iphis had to turn into a man in order to marry Ianthe, Kunwar and Neeli’s relationship was relegated to the one between the sisters after Kunwar reveals her identity. In that sense, the movie could move on to concentrate more on the gender identity rather than add a lesbian love story, which though is not completely unfair since the movie also doesn’t focus on the sexual orientation of the lead pair.
There is, however, a different aspect of the myth and the movie that separates the one from the other. The legend of Ianthe and Iphis portray how Iphis who is born a woman, but forced to live as a boy, is ultimately transformed into a man. Her gender identity is portrayed as more of a lie of omission, and her confusion over it is something that occurs because she wanted to identify as a man to marry Ianthe. As mentioned before, the myth does not talk about whether the gender transformation was something that Iphis wanted. In any case, a transformation occurs and Iphis who is described being as joyful as their mother and is able to marry Ianthe.
In Qissa however, the fact that Kunwar was born a woman is never accepted or said so that all the characters who know that she is a woman are the women in the house who are silenced by Umber and are forced to accept the fact that she was born a male. Qissa then tackles how Kunwar makes her own decision to shed the identity that she chose for herself and not the one imposed upon her during her birth.
Hence, both the myth and the movies such as Qissa are important to give birth to questions on complicated gender and sexual identity. They are also necessary to answer the question as to how gender identity is always ignored in lieu of societal acceptance. The more questions such as the ones raised by the myth and the movie are answered, wider spaces will be created to tackle and answer more.