Spilling Over: Ovid’s Heroides and the Mythological Female Voice

In recent years, ‘re-imaginings’ of Greco-Roman myth have flourished in contemporary fiction. Feminist reclamations are particularly popular, whose aim has been to free the women of these ancient stories from the shadows of obscurity, to pull (sometimes quite literally) a veil from their faces. Notable and prize-winning works have included, among others, Madeleine Miller’s Circe, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. With the upcoming release of Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne (30 March 2021), the trend shows no sign of slowing. But the centring of female voices within retellings of Classical mythology is not entirely unique to the modern era.

            The Heroides, published by the Augustan poet Ovid between 5 BCE and 8 CE,is one of the most fascinating pieces of literature from the Roman world. It is also, in comparison with his other works such as the Metamorphoses, the Amores or the Ars Amatoria (‘the Art of Love’), relatively understudied. Only in recent years have we seen real efforts within scholarship to free the Heroides from its unfair reputation as a second-rate piece of literature or, as it was considered throughout the nineteenth century, “suited only for women”. I personally stumbled upon it quite by accident – at a sale of the HCA department’s old books – but I was immediately intrigued. The Heroides consists of fifteen ‘letter’ poems, written in elegiac couplets, which Ovid pens from the perspective of various female characters of Greek and Roman myth, from the well-known figures of Penelope or Dido, to the less frequently discussed, such as Laodamia and Canace. The letters are addressed to the male ‘counterparts’ of each writer, even, rather problematically, in the case of Sappho, the only non-mythological woman to be included in the collection (although I would argue that Ovid’s version of Sappho, despite clearly being inspired by her poetry, can be considered as fictional as the rest). Some male ‘heroes’ get more than one mention – both Medea and Hypsipyle address Jason directly, and Theseus comes off rather poorly in the letters of Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. There is also a ‘sequel’ known as the Double Heroides, in which three pairs of lovers, including the infamous Helen and Paris, address one another. The authorship of this second work is contested, but there are strong arguments for its Ovidian authenticity. 

To encounter a piece of literature devoted entirely to the stories of women is rare in Antiquity. This is not to claim that Ovid is wholly original in bringing to the fore the ‘female’ voice – the women of Euripides’ plays, or the perhaps more direct influence of Propertius’ Arethusa, serve as just a few examples, though it should of course be noted that these are still all works by male authors, something we should not lose sight of when reading Ovid either. But there is something different about the way in which the Heroides functions, something about hearing these women raise their voices en masse,which makes clear just how sparsely their narratives are threaded across the wider plains of Greco-Roman myth.

A longstanding critical view of the Heroides has been that they are “more or less ineffectual letters, written by abandoned women to the men who abandoned them”, and that they are repetitive in both their themes and outpourings of anger and grief. Laurel Fulker counters this perspective, arguing that, on careful examination, there are subtle differences within these “repetitive themes”, and that their similarities should be interpreted as the women of the Heroides expressing their ability to say the same thing in many different ways – an art which is seen in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria as the “height of erotic skill”. It is misleading, also, to reduce these heroines to merely “abandoned women”, when one of the greatest pleasures the Heroides offers us is the opportunity to discover that they are so much more than their stereotypes, the brief outlines they are usually afforded. It is exhilarating to hear ‘patient’ Penelope scold Ulysses – “you’re late!” – or watch as Helen, so often lusted after as an object rather than a person, plays the game of romance with far more skill than Paris (it is she, not the Trojan prince, who seems to have read Ovid’s Art of Love!), rebuking him for his “shameless” approaches and asserting her own worth when he casts aspersions upon her lineage: “my house glories in its nobility!”. That is not to say that these women embody a kind of “feminist solidarity”, or that their ire is reserved solely for the men who have abandoned them. In some instances, they snipe at one another: “you pleasure now in sluts, who abandon their husbands” the nymph Oenone jibes at Paris, mocking his passion for Helen, while Hypsipyle takes aim at Medea, denigrating her as a “barbarian mistress”, a “shameless strumpet”, and, in a moment of ominous foreshadowing, doubting her ability to raise children – “she’ll be a sour wife and mother”. But the depth of feeling – the hatred, the passion, the despair – displayed by each woman serves to flesh out their characters for us; no longer are they satisfied to wait quietly at home in the hope that their ‘hero’ might return, they demand to be heard.

            As Efrossini Spentzou has suggested, the Heroides can be read like a collection of short stories, but, reliant as they are on the “grander” myths from which they are plucked, the poems are “ill at ease” with their shorter form, existing in a state of constant tension as they lurch through the motions of epic and tragedy in “elegiac dress”. It is true that the stories of these women are hardly contained to the bounds of the letters; they burst at the seams, spill over into one another, and ultimately disrupt the pre-existing narratives from which they were previously side-lined. For if our former knowledge of Greco-Roman literature informs our reading of the Heroides, then surely, we can also claim the reverse? The letters, as Spentzou notes, occupy “blank spots” within the original works, “interstices” between the major events of their larger stories, but when we re-read these myths those spots will be blank no longer – they will instead be filled with the many, insistent voices of the overlooked heroines, and their own view of affairs. Our impression of the much-lauded men of mythology – Theseus, Hercules, Aeneas – will also be altered; doubt is cast upon their once assumed ‘destiny’ to become heroes, through the recriminations of our heroines. This disruption can also be read as a generic struggle, with Ovid pitting the Callimachean slenderness of elegy against the overbearing vastness of epic.

It has been argued that the women of the Heroides are pitiful, naïve to the grander narrative which surrounds them and to their (often unpleasant) destinies, waiting just around the corner. But I would argue, as Fulker does, that in canonizing the “source texts” (the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid etc) in such a way, we blind ourselves to other possibilities. Who says that Homer, that Virgil, is the true authority here when it comes to the fate of these women, and not Briseis, or Dido, or any of the other multitude of voices that shine out from the pages of the Heroides? The first-person perspective of the letters, each coming to a close before the traditional ending of their respective ‘wider’ myths, leaves their stories open, with us as the reader free to imagine a different future for these heroines from the one we have been told is ‘correct’, one in which, perhaps, they do not die tragically, or pale beneath the masculine heroics of the men whose narratives insistently take precedence.

And that is a very exciting prospect.

Written by Hazel Atkinson


Primary Sources

Ovid. Heroides. Translated by Harold Isbell.London, 1990.

Ovid. Ovid’s Heroines. Translated by Claire Pollard. Hexham, 2013.

Secondary Literature

Drinkwater, Megan O. “An Amateur’s Art: Paris and Helen in Ovid’s Heroides.” Classical Philology 108.2 (2013): 112-125.

Fulkerson, Laurel. The Ovidian Heroine as Author: Reading, Writing and Community in the Heroides. Cambridge, 2009.

Lindheim, Sara H.; Rosenmeyer, Patricia A. Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. Maddison, 2003.

Jacobson, Howard. Ovid’s Heroides. Princeton, 1974.

Spentzou, Efrossini. Readers and Writers in Ovid’s Heroides: Transgressions of Genre and Gender. Oxford, 2003.

Image: Sappho, Wikimedia.

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