By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“Whatever words are here, read on to the end.
How could reading this letter hurt you?
Indeed, my words might even give you pleasure.
These letters carry my secret thoughts over land and sea,”
So writes Ovid in the Letter from Phaedra to Hippolytus from his magnificent work, the Heroides. Here, Ovid explores some of the greatest (and some of the most tempestuous) romances of Greek mythology: Odysseus and Penelope, Dido and Aeneas, and Theseus and Ariadne, amongst others. Despite its obvious appeal, however, the Heroides has been unjustifiably neglected and overlooked.
This work is a collection of 21 fictional letters. The first fifteen letters are presented as being written by women (all mythical except for the final letter, which is by a fictional version of the Greek poetess Sappho). They are each addressed to their current or former lovers from whom they have been separated. Letters 16-21 are known as the Double Heroides, as they contain three letters from mythical heroes, all followed by a response from their respective female lovers.
These letters are all written in elegiac couplets: a pair of sequential lines in poetry in which the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (typical for epic poetry) and the second line in dactylic pentameter. The authenticity of some of these letters, however, particularly the Double Heroides, has been questioned. Yet most critics accept that 1-14 were written by Ovid.
Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus by Angelica Kauffmann
Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus by Angelica Kauffmann
This work is innovative in many aspects. Ovid made a significant change in shifting the perspective of an elegiac poem to a female one. Elegy was all about personal experiences and desires, and an individual’s feelings, but usually from a perspective of a male lover. Instead, Ovid lets women speak up and offer their own perspective. Yet we must be a more careful than to assume that Ovid was some kind of an initiator of the fight for the female voice, however significant this change might be.
Speaking of innovation, Ovid did something else that was not common for this type of poetry. He took mythical material, most common in epic and tragedy, and retold it in the elegiac manner, putting love at the center of attention.
The reception of the Heroides has varied greatly (and it continues to vary to this day). It achieved great popularity in the Middle Ages. Yet tastes and expectations change over time, and starting with the 19th century, these fictional letters began to receive a lot of criticism.
Phèdre by Alexandre Cabanel
Phèdre by Alexandre Cabanel
One of the greatest objections to Heroides is its artificiality. What this criticism fails to acknowledge, however, is that these letters are not written in an attempt to sound like genuine letters. They are the product of a poet with well-rounded rhetorical knowledge, and a great sense for innovation. Ovid uses the epistolary form as a literary device, placing particular aspects of the mythical narrative in the center. This allows us to hear from the perspective of some of the more marginalized characters and figures from Greek mythology.
Many critics have found these letters too monotonous, as they have similar narratives with too much repetition across them. We cannot deny that there is repetition in Heroides. However, this is not accidental. Although Ovid’s heroines are saying the same things, they are doing it in slightly different ways. Moreover, the authors of different letters are alluding to each other and referring to the words of their respective comrades in suffering. This kind of intertextuality shows that Ovid’s repetition was not accidental, but rather a deliberate literary technique.
Even though the main themes of these letters are almost the same, and despite the fact that the characters are saying similar things, the tone of these letters is not the same. One would expect all of them to be sad and demonstrate the typical tragic pathos. However, some of these letters are tragicomic, and some are incredibly witty and humorous, while still preserving the tone of suffering and evoking compassion among the readers.
So whether you want to experience cathartic emotions or laughter, or even better, a roller-coaster of both, read Ovid’s Heroides. In any case, you will not regret it!
Ovid, Heroides, The Latin Library
P. Murgatroyd, B. Reeves, and S. Parker (2017) Ovid’s Heroides: A New Translation and Critical Essays, Routledge
L. Fulkerson (2005) The Ovidian Heroine as Author; Reading, Writing, and Community in the Heroides; Cambridge University Press
If you want to read more about Ovid, this month’s edition of our magazine, Classical Wisdom Litterae, focuses on the famed poet. Get your subscription NOW!