Introduction and Synopsis for

Ovid, Heroides I

Text of the Poem


The Basic Situation

Penelope is the wife of the wily Ulysses, the king of Ithaca and one of the most famous of the Greek heroes who fought in the Trojan War.  It has been ten years since the end of the Trojan War, and most of the Greek warriors have returned home.  Ulysses has been delayed by the series of adventures recorded in Homer's Iliad; he is finally on the point of returning home, but Penelope does not know this.  Meanwhile, Penelope herself is being urged to remarry, and her palace is overrun by ill-mannered and aggressive suitors.  She has steadfastly refused to be unfaithful to Ulysses, but she is supported only by her son (Telemachus), her father-in-law (Laertes), and two or three faithful servants; she is finding it harder and harder to hold her own.  She writes to Ulysses, complaining of his long delay, professing her own faithfulness, and speculating on the reasons for his failure to return.

The Background

The letter is set against the background of the Trojan War and its aftermath, and the background of the Trojan War begins with the birth of Helen of Troy--or rather, with her conception.  Jove, the king of the gods, became enamored of a human woman, Leda. Leda was married to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta in Greece, but this did not stop Jove. He took the form of a swan, and then either seduced or raped Leda. As a result, Leda gave birth to Helen. Helen was raised as Tyndareus’ daughter. 

Helen was incredibly beautiful—she was said to be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. Even when she was still quite young, she was kidnapped by the legendary Greek hero Theseus, although she is said to have been returned to her parents unharmed. As a young adult, she was sought as a bride by virtually every king in Greece. So Tyndareus was faced with a problem: if he chose one suitor for Helen’s husband, then he would offend practically every other king in the land. Even worse, there was the danger that someone among the unsuccessful suitors would not take “no” for an answer, and would attempt to kidnap Helen from her husband, starting inter-clan fighting or even full-scale civil war.

Enter Ulysses.  He was the son of Laertes and the king of Ithaca.  He was a redoubtable warrior, but the things he was most famous for were his cleverness, his persuasiveness, and his skill in trickery.  He wanted to marry Penelope, the daughter of Icarius, but he had been unable to persuade Icarius to give his consent.  So Ulysses approached Tyndareus with a proposition:  if Tyndareus would help him win Penelope, then he would arrange things so that none of Helen's suitors would make trouble after her marriage.  Tyndareus agreed.  Ulysses then got all the suitors to swear a solemn oath to defend Helen’s marriage, regardless of who was chosen. If anyone tried to take Helen away from her husband, the rest of the suitors would form a military alliance to get her back. The plan worked. Helen was married to Menelaus, who became king of Sparta, and remained peacefully wed to him for a number of years.  Tyndareus also kept his side of the bargain.  Ulysses married Penelope and the two them settled down in Ithaca and had a son, Telemachus.

But there was trouble brewing elsewhere in the Mediterranean.  Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, was asked to settle a dispute among three goddesses.  The goddess of discord, Eris, had thrown a golden apple into a group of other goddesses.  The apple was inscribed with the words "for the fairest."  Juno, Minerva, and Venus each tried to claim the apple.  They appealed to Jove, the king of the gods, to settle the disagreement.  Jove did not want to get involved in such a touchy matter (after all, Juno was his wife, and Minerva and Venus were his daughters), and so he referred the decision to Paris, who was supposed to be wise in the ways of love and a great judge of feminine beauty. The result was the famous “Judgement of Paris.” All three of the goddesses tried to bribe him: Juno (queen of the gods) promised him the rulership of a kingdom; Minerva (goddess of wisdom, learning, and defensive warfare) promised him wisdom; and Venus (goddess of love) promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Venus.

Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world--the one whose love Venus had promised to Paris--was Helen.  When Paris was sent on an embassy to Sparta, he wooed Helen, and either eloped with her or abducted her, taking her back to Troy with him.  Menelaus then invoked the oaths of the other suitors and assembled a great army under the command of his brother, Agamemnon.  

As the army was gathering, Ulysses got involved again.  There was a prophecy that the city of Troy could not be taken without the help of the great Greek warrior, Achilles.  However, Achilles' mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, knew that if Achilles went to Troy he would die an early death, so she disguised him as a girl, and hid him among the maidens at the court of King Lycomedes of Scyros.  Ulysses then went with a group of Greek representatives to Scyros.  He placed some fine armor and weapons among a display of feminine finery, and the disguised Achilles betrayed himself by his interest in these "masculine" items.  Once Ulysses had exposed him, Achilles accompanied the other Greeks, apparently quite willingly, to Troy.

The siege of Troy lasted ten years, and Odysseus continued to distinguish himself both for courage and for cunning.  Along with Diomedes, he sneaked into the camp of Troy's allies at night and slaughtered a number of the enemy, making off with the magnificent horses of Rhesus.  From Troy itself, he stole the Palladium--a sacred image of the goddess Minerva which was supposed to protect the city by its presence.  After the death of Achilles, he used his eloquence to persuade the Greeks to award to him Achilles' magnificent armor, which had been manufactured by the god Vulcan.  He also devised the stratagem of the the Trojan horse, by which Troy was finally taken, and he was one of the warriors who hid inside the horse as it was dragged into the city.

After Troy had been sacked and burned to the ground--and Helen had been reunited with Menelaus--the Greek forces dispersed.  Many of the warriors experienced difficulties and delays on their return voyages, but none had as much trouble as Ulysses; his wanderings and struggles are the subject of Homer's Odyssey.  He guided his men successfully through many perils, including the savage and cannibalistic Cyclops, Polyphemus, and the twin navigational hazards of Scylla and Charybdis.  He got them safely past the lure of the Sirens, and became the only man who had ever heard the Sirens' beautiful singing and lived to tell about it.  When he landed on Aeaea, the island of the sorceress-goddess Circe, many of his men were transformed into swine by the goddess's magic; but with the help of the god Mercury, he got her to release his men and help them on their journey--and he had a brief sexual affair with her in the process.  He even visited the underworld and came back out alive.  

It was when he landed in Trinacia, however, that his cleverness was not enough to save the day.  Contrary to divine command (given to him by the seer Tiresias, whom Ulysses had consulted in the underworld), and against Ulysses' own orders, his men slaughtered some of the cattle of the sun-god Helios.  When they set sail again, Jove destroyed their ship with a thunderbolt.  Only Ulysses survived, eventually washing up on the island of Ogygia, home of the goddess Calypso.  Calypso was smitten with Ulysses, and kept him on the island as her lover for seven or eight years, promising him immortality if only he would consent to marry her.  Ulysses refused and continued to pine for home.  Eventually, Jove sent Mercury to order Calypso to release him, and she helped him to build a raft to continue his journey.  The god Neptune sent a storm which destroyed the raft, but once again Ulysses was washed up safely on land, this time on the island of Phaeacia.  After a brief flirtation with the king's young daughter, Nausicaa, he was finally conveyed safely to Ithaca.

But his troubles were not over yet, because things had been happening in Ithaca during his absence.  By now, ten years had passed since the fall of Troy, and most people assumed that Ulysses must be dead.  Penelope's father, Icarius, was urging her to remarry.  To make matters worse, her household was besieged by would-be suitors; noblemen from the surrounding areas infested the palace, behaving arrogantly and rudely, and demanding imperiously that she choose one of them for a husband.  Penelope steadfastly refused to remarry, but the pressure was increasing, and the behavior of the "suitors" was becoming more outrageous.  Her only allies were her son, Telemachus, her father-in-law, Laertes, and three servants.  Telemachus sailed to the Greek mainland to try to get information on Ulysses' whereabouts.  He was almost ambushed and killed by the suitors before he could set sail, only escaping through the aid of the goddess Minerva.  He visited Menelaus at Sparta and Nestor at Pylos, but came back without any word of Ulysses.  Meanwhile, Penelope herself had devised a trick to gain more time.  She said that she would make no decisions until she had finished weaving a burial-garment for Laertes.  She wove the garment during the day, and then spent the nights unweaving it, so that it was never finished.  

It was at this point that Ulysses arrived.  He landed at an isolated spot on the island, and the goddess Minerva warned him about what was going on.  He visited his home disguised as a beggar in order to observe the situation.  Penelope, whose deception with the weaving had finally been exposed, was persuaded to make an offer to the suitors:  she would marry the man who could string the bow of the mighty Ulysses.  All the suitors tried and failed.  Then the "beggar," Ulysses, succeeded in stringing the bow.  He had the doors of the palace blocked off and, with the help of Laertes, Telemachus, and two faithful servants, killed all the suitors and was re-united with Penelope.  The goddess Minerva helped out one last time by settling an impending war with the vengeful relatives of the slain suitors, and Ulysses and Penelope settled down to a peaceful married life.

Penelope came to be widely regarded as an ideal example of the faithful wife, both in the ancient world and later.  She writes her letter just before Ulysses shows up disguised as a beggar.

The Letter

Lines 1-10:  Penelope opens the letter with a directness that is unusual in the Heroides, naming both writer and recipient in the first line ("Your Penelope sends you these words, truant Ulysses").  She urges him to come home rather than answer the letter, and then goes on to sketch the basic circumstances of their separation.  The Trojan War is over ("Troy has certainly fallen"), and she wishes that the war itself had never occurred--that Paris ("the adulterer") had never reached Sparta ("Lacedaemon"), and that Helen had never been abducted.  She closes the section with a brief sketch of her own situation.  She lies "cold, in my lonely bed," and her "widowed hands" are "weary" from weaving and unweaving the robe that she is using to stave off the importunate suitors.

Lines 11-22:  In this section, she reviews the  fears she had for Ulysses while the Trojan War was still going on.  Even though there was no report of harm to Ulysses himself, she imagined his death in every report of a Greek casualty.  She particularly feared Hector, the mightiest of the Trojan warriors, and she mentions the names of three Greek warriors whose deaths are recorded in the Odyssey:  Antilochus, Patroclus ("son of Menoetius"), and Tlepolemus.  

Lines 23-36:  In this section, she moves on to a review of the aftermath of the Trojan War.  Troy has been destroyed, and Ulysses is unharmed.  The Greeks ("Argive leaders") have come home, and they sacrifice the spoils of Troy to give thanks to their gods.  Everyone rejoices, and the tales of Troy are told over and over again.  She closes the section with a rather piquant picture of a veteran drawing a map of Troy on the table with wine to illustrate his tale ("paints all of Pergamum with a little wine"), showing where all the principal figures, including Ulysses, were to be found.

Lines 37-58:  In this section, Penelope's review of the aftermath of the war becomes more personal.  She knows of all the stories because she sent her son, Telemachus, to the court of Nestor, oldest and wisest of the Greek commanders.  Nestor recounted the exploits of Ulysses himself in some detail, and Penelope mentions one of them here.  Ulysses and Diomedes sneaked into the camp of Troy's allies to steal the magnificent horses of Rhesus (it was said that the city could never be taken if these horses reached Troy).  They questioned and then killed an enemy scout, Dolon, and then killed a number of sleeping troops before making off with the horses ("the horses of Ismarus").  Penelope speaks of her own fear for Ulysses during the story, until she hears of his safe return to the Greek encampment.  Her focus shifts in the second half of the section.  She questions the meaning of the final Trojan defeat ("what did it profit me that Ilium lies ruined by your arms"), if her own husband still has not returned home ("my husband is kept from me to the very end").  She gives a moving picture of the complete destruction of Troy, including fields fertilized by human blood and the bones of men "struck by the curving plow."  She closes the section with a lament on her ignorance of Ulysses' whereabouts or fate.

Lines 59-80:  In this section, Penelope recounts her own attempts to get word of Ulysses and describes the fears and uncertainties of not knowing what has happened to him.  Every passing ship is asked about him and is given a copy of this letter to deliver to him if they see him.  She has sent to the cities of Pylos and Sparta, but neither city knew anything of Ulysses' whereabouts.  She even finds herself wishing that Troy had not fallen ("It would be better if Phoebus' walls stood even now"), since then at least she "would fear only war," and would have the company of others who feared for their loved ones.  Instead, she says, she does not know what she fears ("half-crazed, I fear all things"), and imagines all the dangers of land and sea.  The section comes to a climax when she calls these fears foolish, and admits that she suspects that, given Ulysses' "appetite," he "may be captive to a foreign love."  She imagines him telling this new paramour disparaging tales of his "country wife."  She closes the section by hoping that this suspicion is unfounded, and that Ulysses has not simply chosen to stay away.

Lines 81-96:  In this section, she moves from the reasons for Ulysses' absence to a description of the deteriorating situation at home.  Her father, Icarius, has urged her to remarry, she says, and only her steadfast loyalty to Ulysses "tempers the force of his insistence."  Suitors from all over the region throng the palace and "demand my hand."  They are "a dissolute crowd," and they squander the household's wealth.  She names several of the more importunate of the suitors and blames the damage that they do on "your shameful absence."  Even "Irus the beggar" and the lowborn herdsman Melanthius show no respect for the house, and "add the final shame to your ruin."

Lines 97-116:  In this final section, she sums up the precariousness of her position, and pleads with Ulysses to return.  "We are three in number, unwarlike," she says--only the aged Laertes and the young Telemachus stand with her, and even Telemachus "was almost taken from me by ambush not long ago" when he tried to journey to Pylos in search of his father.  Only three servants have remained faithful:  the cowherd, the swineherd, and the old nurse.  Laertes is too old to fight, she says ("useless in arms"), and Telemachus is still too young.  Their only hope is for Ulysses to return and put his house in order himself, and she pleads with him to come quickly, for the sake of his son's upbringing and the peace of his father's death.  She closes the letter touchingly, pointing out that, although she was "a girl when you left," she will now seem "an old woman, even if you come without delay."

 

 

 

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