Ovid’s Heroides: An Appreciation

March 6, 2006

By Gayle Allan



Classical literature is not usually the first place a feminist like myself would look for inspiration, however Ovid’s Heroides has always been one of my favourite books. In it, Ovid provides a uniquely female perspective of the predominantly male-centric tales of ancient mythology. Although many people are familiar with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, his Heroides is not as well known. This is unfortunate as Heroides is a an extraordinary text that gives a voice to many of the women featured in classical myths and legend. These women are otherwise largely silent in the myths, or their story is mentioned incidentally to the heroes’ deeds. All the women featured in Heroides have been abandoned by, or separated from, their “heroic” husbands or lovers, and in Ovid’s text, they get to say what they think about that. The first edition of Heroides consists of fifteen letters written by these women to the men who have abandoned them. Ovid’s choice of the letter form, and therefore a first person “complaint”, puts the text inescapably in the private domain where potent heroes can be shown to be deficient and dishonourable lovers, dismantling the underpinning of the epic and the heroic. This provision of the women’s subjective experience provides a female interiority that we don’t normally get from the myths themselves, and they provide fascinating reading.

The second edition of Heroides, sometimes referred to as Double Heroides, includes a further six letters which consist of three paired exchanges between some of the men and women before their affairs have begun.  It is interesting to note that although the males are given a voice in these letters (not that they have lacked one in previous sources and versions of stories), Ovid could not resist the temptation to alter their voice from the traditional stories, and to a certain extent this undermines their integrity even further than their wives’ and lovers’ letters already do.

437264Penelope’s letter to Ulysses is a highlight of the text and opens proceedings with a bang! In Heroides Penelope, the long suffering wife of the epic wanderer and adventurer Ulysses, finally gets to vent her spleen. Penelope’s letter to her long absent husband, scolding him over his delay in coming home, encapsulates a trope that has been long popular in literature – that of the scolding, nagging wife. The opening line of her letter, “Penelope to the tardy Ulysses” (p.5), sets up the sarcastic tone that this formidable lady takes with her heroic husband.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is cast in the role of traditional wife and mother, the epitome of wifely faithfulness, waiting for Ulysses and turning away all suitors who pressure her during Ulysses’s ten year absence. But in Heroides, Penelope is a fully fleshed-out woman, with seething emotions – and a voice. Ulysses’ reputation and status mean nothing to her – she is his wife, he is taking his time coming home, and she’s angry!  Penelope continually berates Ulysses for the injury he has done her by being away for so long, and eventually conveys her suspicions:

I consider the perils of land and sea

and wonder what has caused your delay.

But while I worry alone at home, perhaps

it is only love that detains you:

be sure that I know how fickle men can be.(p.5)

Of course her instincts are correct.  As we know from Homer, Ulysses “tarried” with both Circe and Calypso on his way home.

Central to the collection is the letter from Dido to her lover Aeneas. The story of Dido, the founder and first Queen of Carthage, varies somewhat amongst the classical sources. While some sources say that Dido killed herself because she would not succumb to the advances of the African King Iarbus and in the process break her marriage vows to her dead husband, others such as Virgil in The Aenid and Ovid in Heroides, claim that Dido suicided over her abandonment by Aeneas. Virgil’s Aenid depicts Dido’s suicide as a defiant and heroic gesture, but in Heroides Dido is a victim of love, and her grief and shame over her abandonment is given a voice in her letter to Aeneas. In the letter, Dido takes what could be termed, in modern parlance, as a “doormat” approach. She lists out the advantages she has offered Aeneas, and contemplates the revenge she could take on him, but she continually returns to a more compliant position, finally offering Aeneas an opportunity to return to her. Dido offers to accept a lower status as hostess rather than wife, in order to keep Aeneas close to her.  Why such a powerful woman would be reduced to such subservience is not explained by Ovid, but this enormous fall adds to the poignancy of Dido’s painful lament.

177px-Herkulaneischer_Meister_001In mythology, and in Heroides, the opposite extreme of Dido is the apocalyptic figure of Medea, the enchantress (some say sorceress), prophetess, and lover of Jason. Medea was known in legend as a woman of astounding and unparalleled evil. In Heroides, Medea’s letter to Jason after he leaves her to marry Creusa, is full of the fire and spite expected of an acknowledged sorceress, but what is unexpected is the grief and hurt of a woman whose says her “heart is sad” (p.111).  In her complaint, Medea abuses Jason, but she saves her most poisonous vitriol for his new bride, who she refers to as “That slut [who] is caressing the body I saved”. (p.111) This kind of abuse towards “the other women” is common in Heroides, and is a disturbing aspect of the voice Ovid has given these women.

The errant Jason receives yet another letter in Heroides, this time from Hypsiyple, the Queen of Lemnos, who was his partner before he was enchanted by Medea (who he subsequently left for Creusa). In her letter Hypsipyle refers to Medea as “a barbarian slut” who “prowls among tombs” (p.51) in search of bones and other vile things to make her evil potions. Hypsipyle herself is a formidable woman. As the Queen of Lemnos she led the women of Lemnos to rebel against their cruel and tyrannical men folk. However, initially Ovid’s Hypsiple reveals herself to be as vulnerable as any woman when it comes to betrayal but, like her rival Medea, Hypsipyle’s indulgence in womanly sadness is soon overcome by rage, fierceness and resolve.  Not unexpectedly, a woman whose skills and experience include leading a successful mutiny, is not going to take Jason’s betrayal lying down!

There are many other intriguing letters in Heroides including Briesis to Achilles urging him to accept her as part of a benefits package from Agamemnon, Oenone to Paris after he returned from the Spartan wars with another woman (Helen), and Deianira to Hercules after he defeated King Eurytus and took the King’s daughter Iole as his concubine. The pattern continues throughout the text. Men behave badly. Women write letters.

431px-Ovidius_Metamorphosis_-_George_Sandy's_1632_editionBeside the alarmingly high rate of male inconstancy, one of the most notable aspects of many of the letters are what they don’t say, and this is both Heroides’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  The subjective, in-the-moment, emotional response contained in the letters, which give such depth to the personalities of these women, makes compelling reading. However this form does not allow for a forward or back story. Unless we know our classical mythology well, we are not familiar with the events that prompted this outpouring of emotion. So, while the letters on their own can be interesting, touching or amusing in their own right, knowing the story origins enables them to become titillating, moving, or downright hilarious. If we know what sparked the response, then we can look for hints of scandalous behaviour, or oblique references to terrible doings, or marvel at the understatement or innuendo of the letters’ contents. Without that knowledge, the letters lose much of their power.

So, while Heroides is a wonderfully lively and rich reading experience, it is also definitely a text that requires a good background knowledge of classical mythology and legends. But don’t let this deter you! Many modern editions provide a preamble before each letter, which fills you in on the salient points of the story (the Penguin Classic edition does this quite well).  However if you want to add real depth to your reading of Heroides, then make sure you have a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses beside you (and maybe some Virgil and Homer.)  Your efforts will be well and truly rewarded.

All quotes from Heroides in this article are from Harold Isbell translation, Penguin: Harmondsworth (1990). 

Photo credit: Latin Poet Ovid, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit:  Medea by Herkulaneischer Meister, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: Ovidius Metamorphosis by George Sandy, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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