Text of the Poem
Demophoon is the son of Theseus, king of Athens. Phyllis is the daughter of King Lycurgus of Thrace, and now rules his kingdom. When Demophoon was returning from the Trojan War, he stopped in Thrace, where Phyllis received him hospitably. The two became lovers, and Demophoon promised to marry her. He then departed for Athens, promising to return in a month. When his return was delayed, Phyllis despaired and committed suicide. She was transformed into a leafless almond tree. When Demophoon finally did arrive, he embraced the tree, which put forth leaves in response. Phyllis writes her letter just before her suicide, describing her waning hope for Demophoon's return, reproaching him for his faithlessness, and telling him of her coming death.
The background begins with Demophoon's father, Theseus, who was one of the great heroes of Greek legend. He was the son of King Aegeus of Athens (or in some accounts the son of the god of the sea, Neptune). He was conceived under rather unusual circumstances.
Aegeus had been married twice, but had had no children. He went to the oracle at Delphi--the most famous source of prophecies in the ancient world--to ask for help. The oracle gave him an enigmatic response: he was told that he should not open the wineskin until he reached home. He did not understand the oracle, and on the way home he stopped at the city of Troezen. Pittheus, the ruler of Troezen, did understand the oracle, and he determined that his daughter, Aethra, should be the one to bear the prophesied child. He arranged for Aethra to sleep with Aegeus, and she became pregnant. (It should be noted that, in another version of the myth, the god Neptune slept with Aethra on the same night that Aegeus did, and that he, not Aegeus. was the true father of Aethra's child.) Before he left, Aegeus hid a sword and a pair of sandals beneath a large stone; he told Aethra that, if she bore a son, the boy should take the sword and sandals when he was old enough to lift the rock, and come to Athens. After Aegeus' departure, Aethra bore a son, Theseus.
When Theseus became a young man, he lifted the rock, took the sword and sandals, and set out for Athens. The safe and sensible route would have been by sea. However, Theseus was eager to prove himself, and so he chose the more dangerous land route. His journey took him across the Isthmus of Corinth, an area which at that time was infested with robbers and bandits of all descriptions. Theseus proved himself a hero by clearing the Isthmus of its most dangerous inhabitants:
When Theseus arrived in Athens, he found Aegeus married to Medea, one of the most famous sorceresses of the ancient world, and a woman with a bloody and unscrupulous past. She saw Theseus as a threat to the inheritance of her own son, Molossus. She persuaded Aegeus that this stranger was a danger to him, and so Theseus was sent to deal with the deadly bull of Marathon, which had been ravaging the countryside. When Theseus was unexpectedly successful in this venture, Medea prepared a cup of poison which Aegeus presented to Theseus at a feast. At the last moment, Aegeus recognized Theseus' sword, and knocked the cup from his lips. He accepted Theseus as his son, and Medea was banished.
At the time when Theseus settled down in Athens, the Athenians were forced to send a yearly tribute of seven young men and seven young women to Crete. These young people were sent into the Cretan Labyrinth as food for the Minotaur, a monstrous creature who was half-man, half-bull. Theseus volunteered to be one of those sent to Crete, vowing to kill the Minotaur and end the tribute. When he arrived in Crete, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him, and she offered to help him if he would marry her. She gave him a ball of string, one end of which he tied to the entrance of the Labyrinth. He then proceeded in, unwinding the string as he went. He killed the Minotaur and followed the string back out. He and Ariadne fled together from Crete, but Ariadne was left behind when they stopped at the island of Naxos. There are various stories about how she came to be abandoned, including a sort of magical fit of forgetfulness on Theseus' part, a request by the god Bacchus, or simple, cold-hearted desertion. In any case, Ariadne was left behind, and she married Bacchus after Theseus' departure. (For Ariadne's letter to Theseus after her abandonment, see Heroides X.)
When he returned from Crete, Theseus became king of Athens in a rather tragic fashion. Before he set out, he had promised his father, Aegeus, that he would raise a white sail on his ship if he were returning safely. As he neared Athens on the voyage home, he forgot to raise the white sail. Aegeus, thinking his son was dead, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea from a high cliff. Thus Theseus became king, and the sea was thereafter called the "Aegean" Sea.
Theseus' friendship with Pirithous, the king of the Lapiths in Thessaly, also enters into the letter. The two men confronted one another on the battlefield after the Lapiths invaded Attica (the region around Athens), and instantly became friends for life. The two of them attempted to abduct Proserpina, the wife of Pluto, god of the underworld, for Pirithous. They failed in this attempt and were held prisoner in the underworld. Theseus was rescued by Hercules, but Pirithous did not escape. They also had a number of other joint exploits, including the famous battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, when Theseus helped to rout the drunken Centaurs (creatures who were half-human and half-horse) who tried to disrupt Pirithous' wedding to Hippodame.
Theseus also abducted the Amazon warrior Antiope and had a son by her, Hippolytus. He later married Phaedra (the daughter of King Minos of Crete and the sister of the abandoned Ariadne), and had two sons by her, Demophoon and Acamus. (For more details on Theseus, Hippolytus, and Phaedra, see the Introduction to Heroides IV.) It is Demophoon who is the recipient of this letter.
Details on Demophoon himself are more sketchy. He is supposed to have accompanied the Greek hero Diomedes to Troy when the Greeks were attempting to negotiate the return of Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The negotiations were unsuccessful, and the Trojan War ensued, with the destruction of Troy after a ten-year siege. Both Demophoon and his brother, Acamus, fought in the Trojan War, and Demophoon is sometimes said to have brought the Palladium back to Athens. (The Palladium was a sacred statue of the goddess Minerva. It was said that Troy could never fall as long as it possessed the statue. Ulysses and Diomedes stole it from Troy, and it is not clear how Demophoon came into possession of it.)
It was on his way home from the Trojan War that Demophoon met Phyllis, the writer of this letter. Even less is known of her. She was the daughter of King Lycurgus of Thrace (in northeastern Greece), and she had become the ruler of his kingdom. Demophoon stopped in Thrace and was received hospitably by her. She was attracted to him, and the two became lovers. Demophoon then departed for Athens, promising to return in a month and marry her. His return was delayed, and Phyllis finally became convinced that he had betrayed her. She committed suicide, and was transformed into an almond tree which was bare of all leaves. After her death, Demophoon finally did return. He embraced the almond tree, and it put out leaves for the first time in recognition of his love.
Phyllis writes her letter shortly before her suicide.
Lines 1-8: Phyllis introduces both herself and her addressee in the first line of the letter, with a directness that is rare in the Heroides. She gives her basic complaint in the second line--Demophoon is late in returning to her. She then spends the rest of this introductory section elaborating on his tardiness: he promised to return in one month ("when the horns of the moon had joined once in full circle"), and he has now been absent four months ("moon has waned four times," etc.). She closes the section by emphasizing her much-tried patience ("my complaint does not come before its day").
Lines 9-26: In this section, she declares her own reluctance to believe that Demophoon has abandoned her ("hope has been slow to depart"), and says that she has even imagined reasons that he might have been delayed--that Theseus (Demophoon's father) "would not let you go," or that "your ship had been wrecked." She says that she offered prayers for his safety, and believed that he was coming whenever "the winds in sky and sea were favorable." But finally she has come to believe that he is not going to return at all, and ends the section by complaining that "your words lack faith."
Lines 27-54: In this long section, she berates Demophoon for his faithlessness. She begins by emphasizing her own merits--the only "crime" for which she could be punished is the praiseworthy act of loving Demophoon faithfully ("what have I done, except to love unwisely?"). She reminds Demophoon of his broken promises ("the joining of hand to hand," and "the promised bond of Hymen"), and of the gods he swore by--Neptune ("your grandfather"), Venus, and Ceres ("the torchbearing goddess"). She tells him that if all these gods should be avenged on him for taking their names in vain, he would be insufficient to bear all the punishments ("you alone would not be enough for the punishment"). She reminds him ironically of the services she did for him--she repaired his ships and thereby supplied the means for him to desert her. She closes the section with a catalogue of all the things she had faith in--his "flattering words," his "family" and "name," his tears at parting, and the gods he swore by.
Lines 55-62: In this short section, she focuses on her chief regret--the affair she had with Demophoon. She says that she does not regret the other "services" she rendered him ("a port and a place to stay"), but wishes that she had died the night before she "augmented my hospitality/ With the marriage bed." She closes the section by once again defending her own choices, saying that she had "hoped for better," and that "wherever hope comes from merit, it is fair."
Lines 63-90: In this long section, she compares Demophoon to his father, Theseus, and describes the consequences she suffers as a result of his desertion. She begins by pointing out that his betrayal of her was not a great exploit ("To deceive a trusting maiden is not hard-won glory"). Then she proposes that his statue should be set in the center of Athens among the other descendants of Aegeus (his grandfather). Theseus would be placed first, and she gives a list of "his honors": the slaying of the bandits of the Isthmus ("Sciron and savage Procrustes, and Sinis"); the conquest of the Minotaur in Crete ("the mixed form of bull and man"); the conquest of Thebes; the defeat of the Centaurs; and the attempt, with Pirithous, to abduct Proserpina from the underworld ("the knocking at the dark palace of the black god"). Compared to these heroic deeds, Demophoon has only one exploit to be inscribed on his statue--the "fraud" which "deceived the lover who welcomed him." All that Demophoon has inherited of his father's character, she says, is the shameful episode of Theseus' desertion of Ariadne ("his deserted Cretan bride"). But even Ariadne "enjoys a better husband," since she married the god Dionysus. Phyllis, on the other hand, is now spurned by the men of her own country because she preferred a foreigner as her husband. She rejects their harsh judgement of her, saying that if Demophoon were to return, she "would be said to have counseled wisely." But she closes the section on a note of despair, saying that he will not, after all, return to her.
Lines 91-98: In this section, Phyllis recalls the way Demophoon parted from her. He kissed her and wept because he had to leave, and "complained that the wind favored your sails." His last words to her were "Phyllis, be sure to wait for your Demophoon!"
Lines 99-120: In this section, she reproaches Demophoon for his failure to come back to her and reviews all the services she had done for him. She opens by echoing the last line of the preceding section, in which Demophoon told her to wait for him. She asks whether she should wait for one who has betrayed her and will never return. Nevertheless, she says, she does wait, and still wishes for his return. She imagines that "now you have another wife," and that "now you have forgotten me." Then, in case he has forgotten entirely, she reminds him with heavy irony of who she is and what she has done for him. She gave him shelter in the ports of Thrace, and "gave many gifts" to him. She gave him rulership of her realm, "the broadest kingdom of Lycurgus." She brings the list to a climax by saying that she even gave him her virginity. At this point, the tone turns darker again. Instead of the usual emblems of joy that surround a wedding, her "virginity was offered amidst birds of evil omen." Instead of the gods of marriage, Tisiphone and Allecto, two of the three avenging Furies, presided over the nuptials. She ends the section by replacing the traditional wedding torches with "funeral torches."
Lines 121-130: In this section, she gives a pathetic picture of her own hopeless vigil as she awaits his return. She ranges along the shore, looking out across the "broad sea," keeping watch both by day and night. Whenever she sees sails, "I predict that they are the ones of my prayers." Then, when they come closer, and she loses hope, she faints, "to be caught by my maidservants."
Lines 131-144: In this next-to-last section, she finally speaks directly of her own impending suicide. She speaks first of throwing herself from a cliff into the sea, so that her body would be washed up in Athens and would "come to your eyes unburied"; she contemplates the remorse this would cause to Demophoon, even if he were "harder than steel and adamant." She then goes on to list other possible means of death. She mentions briefly poison and "a sword," and then speaks of hanging herself. This last method would be most appropriate, she says, since she had already offered her neck to "the bonds/ of your unfaithful arms." She closes the section by predicting that death will come with "little delay."
Lines 145-148: She closes the letter with a four-line section which gives the epitaph to be inscribed on her tomb: Demophoon is to be blamed as the cause of her death, and her own hand is to be given as its means.
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