Heroines and Heroes: Ovid’s Heroides

It goes without question that the Roman poet Ovid’s greatest contribution to our understanding of classical mythology is his Metamorphosis. Born in 43 BCE, and dying between 17/18 of the common era, his poetic vision –  tinged with his political cynicism – would see him banished to a remote province near the Black Sea.

Ovid cryptically attributed this to carmen et error.

Carmen et error, you ask?

A poem, and a mistake.

Now, his Metamorphosis is true to its title: it deals entirely with transformations; from humans to plants and animals, typically as a curse or a blessing from the Gods.

It’s not about love, per se.

However, love was really what fascinated Ovid.

Yes, there were other works of his that didn’t focus on those intangible forces that bind us; his Fasti, an uncompleted catalog of Roman monthly festivals, comes to mind. But in the end, like his ancient Greek counterpart Sappho, he was fascinated with love.

(keep Sappho in mind, because we’ll return to her shortly)

Consider some of his other titles:

  • Amores – the loves
  • Ars Amatoria – the art of love
  • Remedia Amoris – the cure for love

While these – especially Ars Amatoria – are well worth examining and discussing, I want to turn our focus somewhere else:

The Heroides, or the Heroines.

*

The Heroides is a volume of fifteen poems, all written by Ovid from a female point of view. They are presented as love letters, sent from women who have been mistreated, neglected, or abandoned by their lovers – all classical Greek ‘heroes’, which of course calls the very nature of heroism into question.

So who do we hear from?

Here’s a very partial sampling:

*

The first poem is from the ever patiently weaving Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to return home from the Trojan war, as recounted in the Homer’s Odyssey:

Haec tua Penelope lento tibi mittit, Ulixe;
nil mihi rescribas attinet: ipse veni!

This your Penelope sends to you, too-slow Ulysses;
A letter in return does me no good; come yourself!

*

Poem seven is a letter from Dido, the queen of Carthage, to Aeneas, who left her to found the city of Rome:

Accipe, Dardanide, moriturae carmen Elissae;
quae legis a nobis ultima verba legi.

Dardanian, receive this song of dying Elissa;
What you read are the last words written by me.

*

In poem ten, we see the message sent by Ariadne to Theseus after he abandoned her on the island of Naxos:

Illa relicta feris etiam nunc, improbe Theseu
vivit. Et haec aequa mente tulisse velis?

Even now, left to the wild beasts, she might live, cruel Theseus.
Do you expect her to have endured this too, patiently?

*

Poem twelve shows the plight of Medea, who was left by Jason of Argonaut fame; typically Medea, like Dido, wasn’t portrayed in the kindest of lights – she is both a priestess of Hecate, and had no problem killing people – including her own children by Jason, depending on the account. Still, Ovid counts her as a heroine, and recognizes her pain:

Exul inops comtempta novo Medea marito;
dicit, an a regnis tempora nulla vacant?

Scorned Medea, the helpless exile, speaks to her recent husband,
surely you can spare some time from your kingship?

*

And finally, in a nod to his own poetic aspirations, he ends his epistolary cycle with poem fifteen, an ode to the Queen of Poetry Herself, the Tenth Muse herself, Sappho. This poem follows a tradition wherein Sappho fell in love with the ferryman Phaon – though his poem does allude to her love of women. Here’s a small excerpt:

Ecquid, ut adspecta est studiosae littera dextrae,
Protinus est oculis cognita nostra tuis?

When these letters, from my eager hand, are examined
Are any of them known to your eyes, straight away, as mine?

*

Now, to modern readers, these women may not seem heroic at all; they were all left to suffer, and suffer they did. However, we have to consider the time and the place: some of these women were reviled, especially Dido and Medea; Ovid is unapologetic in his defense of them.

These are his heroines, his Heroides.

This is a form of undermining social norms through poetry; Agitprop, in a sense.

It’s tragic that we’re still in the process of defining and discovering myth arcs that celebrate strong women; for every Gloria Steinem who quips that a “woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, we still have no less than Joseph Campbell, the father of comparative mythology, stating:

“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

Maybe Campbell should have spent some more time with Ovid:

The Heroine’s Journey is real, its revealing itself, and it matters now, more than ever.

Ariadne_Abandoned_by_Theseus_1774
Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, Angelica Kauffmann, 1774. Note Theseus’ ship sailing away.

 

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