Ovid’s Heroides represent and reveal sides of stories we are not usually given in classical myth- the stories of the women left behind while men wander the world accomplishing heroic deeds. This collection also leaves no chance for response- the letters are themselves just one side of a dialogue, giving us a male poet’s construction of women abandoned and betrayed. We can picture Ovid’s imagined women writers sitting hunched over their desks, scrawling quick, vicious, tear-stained reams of papyrus, or endless blocks of wax tablets to the men who have left them and refused to return. The letter written by Ovid from Hypsipyle to Jason is revealing for how it deals with a woman’s identity being tied up in love for a man, and hatred of another woman.
A 15th century image of Hypsipyle writing her letter, apparently keeping it together quite well.
Hypsipyle is a woman with no small sense of her own worth, and we see that from the beginning of her letter. She felt entitled to a letter from Jason that she never received: “debueram scripto certior esse tuo” (“I ought to be more certain [of your safety] with a letter from you”) (4), “Hypsipyle missa digna salute fui” (“Hypsipyle deserved to be sent a greeting”) (8). Instead she has had to hear all from rumours, a theme that continues through the text: “diceris” (“you are said [to]”) (2, 132), “fama . . . venit” (“rumour came”) (9), “narratur” (“it is said”) (19), “narrat” “he said”) (32, 39). She doesn’t even sound that angry with Jason, who in this version of the tale had stayed with her for two years, got her pregnant, promised to marry her and then promptly left on a quest for a shiny golden sheepskin. She is just a bit embarrassed that she seems to be the last to know, and has been shown to be out of the loop in front of people who ask where her man is gone and what he’s up to (15-6).
She still thinks of him as her husband (“mariti” (17), “virum” (22), “Aesonides . . . meus” (25)). She still hopes, despite what she’s heard, that Jason has been faithful (21-2). And when a stranger arrives she is keen and quick to question him about Jason’s welfare, demonstrating her devotion even after all this time, asking three times after him (25, 28, 37-8). Still her sense of self is tied up in being with Jason, but a shift occurs when she has her worries and suspicions confirmed: “heu! ubi pacta fides?” (Alas, where is the faith I was promised?”) (41). She remembers how good she was to him, how vulnerable- welcomed him into city and heart and soul (55). He made that speech so many have heard before and since, that he is dragged away and will always be her man (59-60). We are brought into the present, as Hypsipyle vividly relives watching the Argo sail into the distance. She resents having made vows to ensure his safety, does she really have to be grateful, give up livestock to sacrifice now that he’s alive but not hers (77)? The vows are another reminder of her devotion, which seems misplaced now. With this the focus shifts from Jason to Medea, and in the mix of love and anger, anger starts to win out (76).
Hypsipyle’s anger now directed at Medea, the other woman. She admits having worried, don’t we all, but her (82)? She’s not pretty or accomplished, just clever with potions and so controlling that nature itself follows her lead (83-88). Surely Jason has had no real choice in the matter (97-8), else he would be back already? ‘And your mother, Jason, she doesn’t like this new one at all, I fit in far better with your family, so there’s that, she’s from way up North (104-6), not suitable for folks like us.’ With all the anger directed at Medea, Jason is merely “mobilis”, changeable, fickle (109). The focus on Medea here begins a process of Hypsipyle trying to set herself up in opposition to Medea.
1868 painting of Medea by Frederick Sandys.
She even highlights her difference from a Medea we as readers know, but who doesn’t exist yet in this point- the child-killer. Hypsipyle reminds Jason of her noble lineage, her land, and finally of their two children (114-19). They are used to highlight the difference between herself and Medea- her care for her children contrasts with the past and foreseen violence of Medea, who is more than the archetypal ‘evil stepmother’ (“saeva noverca”, 126). But in setting herself up as Medea’s opposite, as she does especially clearly in lines following from this particularly 135-6, she hints at a greater similarity between herself and this other woman. For the moment it is a similarity that requires hindsight, and the knowledge of Medea’s own story: she will actually send her own children as ambassadors to their father and stepmother as Hypsipyle considers in 125. In Medea’s own letter to Jason as penned by Ovid, she expresses the same worry about the treatment of her children by a stepmother: “saeviet in partus dira noverca meos” (“a hard stepmother will be cruel to my children”) (Heroides 12.188).
Not long after this parallel between these women is made, Hypsipyle’s increasingly vicious anger towards Medea (notably not Jason, whom she says she would spare if he were to return, even though he deserves to die for his treachery- 146-7) draws her even closer to the character of this “barbara paelex” (“barbarian mistress”) (81) who stole her man. Medea the mistress would not be safe- and “Medeae Medea forem!” (I will be Medea to Medea”) (150-1). Here we have an explicit identification with Medea, the repetition of her name reflecting the near-obsessive focus on Medea throughout this letter. The identification continues, as Hypsipyle prays that Medea become like her (as she has now become like Medea?), lose her children and her husband, becoming an exile (155-8). We know how this story ends, and that Hypsipyle’s prayers will come to fruition.
The letter from Hypsipyle to Jason demonstrates perfectly the heart swollen, mixed up with love and anger (76). Her love for Jason, anger and hatred for Medea, but also her profound sense of self-worth, hinted at again at the very end by her use of her patronymic title- “Thoantias” (daughter of [King] Thoas) (163). We see a woman whose identity is tied up in this mix of feelings: her demonstration of wifely duty to Jason and her care for their children become mixed with her murderous rage. Even as she tries to secure her identity within these new circumstances, she finds herself consumed to the point that she starts to lose herself and become Medea, just as she prays that Medea become Hypsipyle. She seems to know she is worth more than this, and seems as concerned with how she is perceived as the betrayal itself, but anger soon takes over. This letter, as male constructions of female identity go, is not insensitive to the way in which our identities can so easily become warped in our relationships with men and with other women; this manufactured woman’s voice reflects the inconsistency and chaos of the mind of a woman betrayed.
Jacobson, H., (1974) Ovid’s Heroides. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.
Lindheim, S., (2003) Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.
Spentzou, E., (2003) Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
And for the Internet’s Heroides: http://lettertomyex.com