Heroides by Ovid

heroides1Letter-writing is hardly a modern activity, and there were many epistolographers among the ancients I would like to read someday. I went with fiction: Ovid’s Heroides, a series of fictional letters between mythic figures. The first group are all single letters from a woman to a man; these are followed by three exchanges.

The verse letters give voice to some very famous women (and men): Penelope, Ariadne, Dido, Medea, Paris, Helen… They are stylized and exotic in an ancient sort of way—much rending of clothes from breasts and tearing of hair—but Ovid imbues each character with very recognizable human emotions. Most of the stories are of love lost, women scorned, &tc., all very dramatic.

The epistolary form is relevant here. Harold Isbell, in his very helpful notes, explains that we see, for example, a different side of Medea than Ovid shows in the Metamorphoses, whose “narrator…though apparently all-knowing, quite often misses the subjective states of a character while the objective facts of a character’s actions are recited with apparent accuracy.” Medea’s letter, on the other hand, is all about her subjective state—and she doesn’t exactly have the same opinion of herself we do. Her letter to Jason is particularly vivid:

I have subdued serpents and raging
bulls, but a single man I could not control;
I have turned back the raging fire with
cunning potions, but I cannot turn aside
the consuming flames of my desire.
My spells, my herbs and all my skill have left me;
my goddess has forsaken me, and
Hecate ignores the sacrifice I make.

The letter form provides something else for Ovid to take advantage of, a knowledge problem that goes very well with his sense of irony. Letter-writers know only what they know at the time of writing. In epistolary novels, this can often mean that the reader has access to much more information than the narrator of a given passage. In Heroides, Ovid doesn’t have the full apparatus of a novel, but he doesn’t need it—all these characters (except Sappho) are from myth. His audience already knew their stories. This makes for good material throughout, but my favorite parts are in Paris’s letter to Helen.

It should also be noted that Paris’s is the first letter from a man, and at least to me it started out very forceful (appropriately so):

I, son of Priam, send to you, the daughter
of Leda, prayers for my well-being:
something that will come to me only from you.
Should I speak or is my flame of love
so visible to all that I need not speak
and my love is all too apparent?
I would prefer that it be hidden until
the time came for me when joy and fear
might be distinct. Could a man conceal
flames when their light can be seen by all?
However, I will enhance the fact with words:
I am consumed by the fires of love!

Poor Paris, if only he knew what we knew. He tells Helen about how his mother, before his birth, had a vision of a torch—“That was my heart’s torch,/ and I tell you, it has come to be.” Or, better, “I remember, it was this that my sister,/ always truthful, spoke in prophecy:/ I would be impaled on a heavenly shaft”—Cupid’s arrow! Or, here:

And do not fear that if I steal you away
terrible wars will pursue us as
Greece stirs up her mighty arms. Of all those who
have been taken before, has any
one of them ever been followed by armies?
I tell you now, your fears are foolish.

Then, he is nice enough to recount the stories of some of our other letter-writers, who were stolen away and not followed by armies. There is a lot of cross-pollination like that, which is very effective.

These were ancient love letters; next we’ll have some ancient narrative letters. If they’re anywhere near this good, I’ll be thrilled. This was a real treat for me.