Notes for

Ovid, Heroides II

Actaean: Belonging to or coming from Acte. Acte is an older name for Attica, the region of Greece in which Athens is found. Athens is the home of Demophoon.

Aegeus: King of Athens; father (or stepfather) of Theseus and grandfather of Demophoon. Aegeus was childless, and went to consult the oracle at Delphi; he was told to remain chaste until he returned home, but the languge of the oracle was so obscure that he did not understand it. On the way home he stopped at Troezen, where he made love to Aethra, the king's daughter (another version of the legend says that Aethra left Aegeus' bed and slept with Neptune--hence the legend that Neptune was Theseus' father, rather than Aegeus). He left a sword and a pair of sandals under a boulder, and said that when his son was old enough to lift the boulder, he should seek his father. After Aegeus returned to Athens, he gave refuge to Medea, who had fled Corinth after getting revenge on her husband, Jason, with a series of grisly murders. He married Medea, hoping that her skill at sorcery could cure his apparent infertility. When Theseus came of age and appeared at Athens, Aegeus did not recognize him, but Medea did. Medea persuaded Aegeus that the newcomer was dangerous, and got him to send Theseus to slay the bull of Marathon. After Theseus survived his encounter with the monstrous bull, Medea then arranged for Aegeus to poison his son. But Aegeus recognized Theseus' sword just in time, dashed the poisoned cup from his lips, and exiled Medea. When Theseus sailed for Crete to confront the Minotaur, Aegeus sent him in a ship with black sails, but instructed him to hoist white sails on the voyage home if he succeeded in returning safely. Theseus did return safely, but he was distraught over the loss of his lover Ariadne and forgot to raise the white sails. Aegeus, thinking that his son was dead, hurled himself from a cliff (or into the "Aegean" sea in another version) and died.

Allecto: One of the three Furies (Greek: "Erinyes," or later "Eumenides"), the goddesses of revenge who tormented evildoers, driving them to madness and death. The other two Furies were Tisiphone and Megaera. They were typically represented with snakes for hair, and often carried torches and whips for punishing their victims. 

Ariadne: Daughter of King Minos of Crete. When Theseus came to Crete as part of the Athenian tribute of youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur in its labyrinth, Ariadne fell in love with him and agreed to help him. She gave Theseus a ball of thread (often called a "clue"); Theseus tied one end of the thread to the doorway of the labyrinth, and then unwound the ball as he ventured into the maze. He killed the Minotaur and followed the thread back into the daylight. He and Ariadne fled from Crete, but Theseus either abandoned her or lost her on the island of Naxos (or Dia). After her betrayal by Theseus, Ariadne wed the god Dionysus. See Heroides X for Ariadne's letter to Theseus, written from Naxos. 

Athens: Major city of Attica and home of Demophoon and his father, Theseus. In classical times, Athens became famous as the center of Greek arts and learning. 

Bistonian: From "Bistones," a warlike Thracian tribe. Here "Bistonian" simply refers to "Thracian."

better husband: See Dionysus

bull and man: See Minotaur.

Centaurs: Reference to the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The centaurs were half human and half horse. At the marriage of Pirithous, a Lapith prince and Theseus' closest friend, to Hippodamia, a group of Centaurs were wedding guests. They became drunk and attempted to adbuct the bride and other Lapith women. A heroic battle ensued, in which Theseus and Pirithous succeeded in defeating the Centaurs, killing many of them in the process. 

Cretan bride: See Ariadne.

dark palace of the black god: The underworld, kingdom of the god of the dead, Pluto. Theseus and his friend, Pirithous, agreed to get brides who were daughters of the god Jove. First, they abducted Helen (later known as Helen of Troy) for Theseus. Next, they went down to the underworld to abduct Proserpine (Greek: Persephone), a goddess and the wife of Pluto. They did not succeed in bringing her to the upper world, and were held prisoner by Pluto until Hercules entered the underworld (on the last of his famous twelve labors) and released Theseus. 

Demophoon: Son of Theseus, the king of Athens. Demophoon (or Demophon) fought on the Greek side in the war against Troy, and stayed in Thrace during his return home. In Thrace he met the princess Phyllis, who fell in love with him. He left her to continue on to Athens, but promised to return. His return was long delayed; she grew tired of waiting, hanged herself, and was transformed into an almond tree. When Demophoon finally did return, he embraced the tree, which put out leaves in token of their love. In some legends, Demophoon also acquired the Palladium--an image of the goddess Minerva (Greek: Athena, or Pallas Athena), which had been the sacred protection of the city of Troy--and took it back to Athens, where it protected that city from disaster or conquest. 

Dionysus: God of wine, song and fertility; also known as Bacchus. Ariadne was married to Dionysus after she was deserted by Theseus on Naxos. Dionysus was the son of the god Jove and the mortal woman Semele. Semele died while pregnant with Dionysus, destroyed by Jove's thunderbolts, and Jove sewed the unborn child into his thigh to bring it to term. Dionysus was associated with drunkeness and revelry; his religious celebrations were known as "orgies," and his female followers, the Maenads, were often disruptive and destructive. He was also one of the patron gods of poetry, and Athenian tragic drama grew out of his festivals. He characteristically travelled in a chariot drawn by tigers. 

father: See Theseus.

grandfather: See Neptune.

Haemus: A mountain range in Thrace.

Hebrus, Heber: A river in western Thrace.

Hymen: The god who presided over weddings and wedding feasts. He is traditionally represented with a torch in his hand, and is associated with wedding songs or hymns. 

Juno: (Greek: Hera) Wife (and sister) of the king of the gods, Jove, and goddess of married love and marital fidelity, as well as of childbirth. Juno was also involved in the divine dispute which led ultimately to the Trojan War, in which Demophoon participated--see the note on Paris, in Heroides I. Ironically enough, although she was the patron goddess of the marriage bond, she herself probably suffered more from the infidelity of her spouse than any other figure in classical mythology. 

Lycurgus: A Thracian king; father of Phyllis. He resisted the worship of the god Dionysus and was punished for it. 

Minotaur: A ferocious creature which was half man and half bull. When King Minos of Crete was struggling with his brothers for the right to the throne, he prayed to Neptune to send him a white bull as a sign of his kingship; he promised to sacrifice the bull to Neptune. Neptune obliged with a snow-white bull from the sea, but Minos kept the beautiful bull for himself instead of sacrificing it. In retribution, Neptune made Minos' wife, Pasiphae, be seized with an overpowering lust for the bull. Pasiphae had the master artificer Daedalus build the false body of a cow for her to hide in, and used this disguise to have sex with the bull; as a result, she gave birth to a hybrid of bull and human, the Minotaur. The Minotaur proved to be uncontrollably savage, and so King Minos had Daedalus build an elaborate labyrinth, or maze of interconnecting pasageways, to imprison it. Every ninth year thereafter, Minos demanded seven young men and women as tribute from the city of Athens; these were put into the labyrinth as prey for the Minotaur. Theseus went to Crete as part of the tribute, where Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him. Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread to help him find his way back out ot the labyrinth. Theseus tied one end of the thread to the entrance of the maze, then unwound the ball as he walked forward. He killed the Minotaur and followed the thread (often called a "clue") back out of the labyrinth. 

Neptune: (Greek: Poseidon) God of the sea. Demophoon's father, Theseus, was reputed to be the son of Neptune rather than of Aegeus. During the voyage to Crete, King Minos doubted Theseus' divine parentage; he threw a ring overboard, saying that a true son of Neptune could retrieve it from the depths of the sea. Theseus dived overboard and retrieved the ring, bringing back as well a golden crown from the palace of the sea goddess Amphitrite. Neptune was also a patron of horses and horsemen, and was responsible for earthquakes. 

Noose: This last method of suicide is the one Phyllis actually chose: she hanged herself, and was then transformed into an almond tree.

Phyllis: Thracian princess, daughter of King Lycurgus. She fell in love with Demophoon, the son of Theseus. When Demophoon sailed away to Athens, Phyllis despaired of his return and hanged herself. She was transformed into an almond tree. When Demophoon finally did return, he embraced the tree and it put forth leaves as a sign of their love. 

Procrustes: A brigand who preyed on travelers in Attica, near the end of Theseus' journey to Athens. He had two beds, one short and one long. A short traveler would be put into the long bed and then hammered out (presumably like forged metal), or stretched out with weights, until he was long enough to fit the bed. A tall traveler would be put into the short bed and then have his upper and lower parts lopped off until he fit. Theseus killed him in the same way that he had killed hapless travelers. 

Rhodope: Mountains in northern Thrace, on the border with modern Bulgaria. In classical times, they were home to warlike peoples whom the Greeks considered barbarous.

Sciron: A brigand who preyed on travelers along the cliffs near Megara. He would force strangers to wash his feet, then kick them over the cliff as they did so. In some versions, they would be eaten by a giant turtle that lurked in the sea below. Theseus killed him by hurling him into the sea. 

Sinis: A brigand who preyed on travelers on the Isthmus of Corinth. There are two related versions of his misdeeds. In the first, he would force passersby to bend pine trees down to the ground; when they couldn't hold them down, they would be flung high into the air and killed. In the second version, he would bend two pine trees, tie the victim's hands and feet to them, and then release the trees, tearing the victim apart. Theseus killed him in the same manner that he killed his victims. 

Sithonian: Sithonia was a region of Thrace; here it seems to refer to Thrace in general.

Thebes: After the war of the "Seven Against Thebes," Creon, the ruler of Thebes, forbade anyone to perform funeral rites for those who had died on the Argive side in the war. Adrastus fled to Athens and begged for the help of the Athenians. Theseus led an army against Thebes, defeated the forces of Creon, and took the bodies away for proper funerals. 

Theseus: King of Athens and father of Demophoon. Theseus is one of the major figures in Greek heroic legend, his exploits being second only to those of Hercules; his career is also very complicated, and is different in the various versions which have come down to us. Theseus was the son either of Aegeus (king of Athens) or of Neptune (god of the sea). When he came to manhood, he went to seek his father in Athens and along the way cleared the area around the Isthmus of Corinth of a number of dangerous monsters and brigands, including the ones which Ovid mentions: Sciron, Procrustes, and Sinis. Theseus then went to Crete as part of an offering to the monstrous Minotaur, demanded by King Minos. On the way to Crete, he proved his descent from Neptune by diving into the sea and retrieving a ring which Minos had thrown overboard. In Crete, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus, and helped him slay the Minotaur and then escape from the labyrinth in which the monster was imprisoned. Ariadne and Theseus fled from Crete, but Theseus either abandoned her or lost her on the island of Naxos (or Dia). (Heroides X is a letter from the abandoned Ariadne, writing from Naxos to her lover Theseus.) When he finally reached Athens, Aegeus had committed suicide, believing his son to be dead. Theseus then became king of Athens, although he had to overcome dangerous opposition from the sons of his uncle, Pallas. Theseus had many other exploits, as well:

Tisiphone: One of the three Furies (Greek: "Erinyes," or later "Eumenides"), the goddesses of revenge who tormented evildoers, driving them to madness and death. The other two Furies were Allecto and Megaera. They were typically represented with snakes for hair, and often carried torches and whips for punishing their victims. 

torchbearing goddess: Ceres (Greek: Demeter), goddess of the harvest and of agricultural fertility. She was an object of veneration in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a mystery cult involving death and rebirth; the initiates of the mysteries were forbidden to speak of them to outsiders. She often carries a torch, probably in token of her search in the underworld for her daughter, Proserpine, who had been abducted by Pluto. 

Thrace, Thracian: Region north (or northeast) of classical-era Greece. There were Greek colonies along the Aegean coast of Thrace, but the interior was dominated by Thracian-speaking peoples, including warlike tribes living in the mountains of Haemus and Rhodope, whom the Greeks considered barbarous. 

Venus: (Greek: Aphrodite) Goddess of love. Venus was the patron goddess generally of heterosexual romantic or sexual love of any kind, and often particularly of unmarried love. Her son ("Eros" in Greek, and "Amor" or "Cupid" in Latin) used a bow and arrow for inflaming human hearts with love or violent passion. Venus was also involved in the divine dispute which led ultimately to the Trojan War, in which Demophoon participated.



This page created and maintained by James M. Hunter

Comments and suggestions welcome:

Last updated 06/22/2013