Notes for

Ovid, Heroides IV

Aegeus:  King of Athens; son of Pandion and Pylia; father of Theseus (some accounts make Theseus the son of the god Neptune).  Aegeus was childless and consulted the oracle at Delphi, which told him, rather enigmatically, not to open the wineskin until he reached Athens.  On the way home he stopped at Troezen. There King Pittheus, who seems to have understood the oracle, arranged for Aegeus to sleep with his daughter, Aethra, who became pregnant with Theseus (another version of the story says that the god Neptune slept with Aethra on the same night, and that Theseus was actually his son).  Aegeus left a sword and sandals under a large boulder, and told Aethra that, if she bore a son, he should come to Athens as soon as he was old enough to move the boulder and retrieve what was under it.  When Theseus reached young manhood, he took the sword and sandals and made his way across the Isthmus of Corinth to Athens, clearing the area of its dangerous bandits along the way.  In Athens, Aegeus had married Medea, one of the most famous sorceresses of the ancient world, and someone who had a bloody and unscrupulous past.  When Theseus arrived in Athens, Aegeus did not recognize him, but Medea did.  She saw him as a threat to the inheritance of her own son, Molossus, and convinced Aegeus that Theseus was dangerous.  She prepared a cup of poisoned wine for Aegeus to give to the stranger, but just as Theseus was about to drink it, Aegeus recognized the sword he was carrying and struck the cup from his lips.  Medea was banished and Theseus was accepted as Aegeus' son and heir.  Some time earlier, Androgeos, the son of King Minos of Crete, had been killed in Athens, and Minos had waged a successful war against Athens in retaliation.  As part of the peace settlement, Athens had to send seven young men and seven young women to Crete each year, to be sent into the Cretan Labyrinth as food for the Minotaur.  Theseus volunteered to be one of the seven men, vowing to kill the Minotaur and end Minos' demands.  Aegeus instructed him to raise a white sail on his ship on the return voyage if he had been successful.  Theseus did succeed, but forgot to raise the white sail.  Aegeus, thinking his son was dead, threw himself from a cliff into the sea as the ship neared harbor.  Theseus became king, and the sea became known as the "Aegean" Sea thereafter.

aged husband:  Tithonus, human husband of Aurora.  See the note on Aurora.

Atalanta:  Daughter of Iasus and Clymene; native of Arcadia in Greece.  Atalanta was a great huntress and a devotee of the goddess Diana.  She participated in the hunt for the Calydonian boar and was loved by Meleager.  For more details, see the note on Meleager, the son of Oeneus.  

Aurora:  Goddess of the dawn.  She married Tithonus, a human, and persuaded the gods to give him immortality; however, she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and he gradually became older and more decrepit.  She also had an affair with the human Orion, and abducted Cephalus, who refused her advances.

Bacchus:  God of wine, revelry, fertility, and song; son of Jove and the human woman Semele.  His female devotees, called Bacchantes, engaged in wild, uncontrolled, and sometimes violent behavior during his rites.  He also became the husband of Ariadne, Minos' daughter, after Theseus abandoned her on Naxos.

beast's hide:  The hide of the Calydonian boar, which Atalanta wounded and Meleager killed; Meleager, who was in love with Atalanta, awarded her the boar's hide for having drawn first blood.  For more details, see the note on Meleager, son of Oeneus.

Cephalus:  Husband of Procris, and an ardent hunter.  He was loved by Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, who abducted him.  He resisted her advances, remaining firmly faithful to his wife; however, with Aurora's help and encouragement, he tested tested Procris' fidelity to him.  Aurora disguised him and he went to his wife, offering rich presents, and eventually persuaded her to accept his advances.  He then revealed himself and reproached her for betraying him.  She fled to Crete, but the two eventually became reconciled, and Procris gave him a dog of incredible swiftness and a spear that never missed its mark.  Later Procris became jealous of Cephalus, when she was told that he often called for "Aura" (a breeze) to come to him on hot days when he was out hunting.  She then hid in some bushes to watch; he thought there was an animal in the bushes, and killed her with the spear she had given him.

Ceres:  Goddess of the earth, fertility and crops.  Daughter of Saturn and Rhea, sister of Jove, Juno, Pluto and Neptune.  Mother of Proserpina.  

Cinyras' son:  Adonis, son of Cinyras by his own daughter, Myrrha; Myrrha was transformed into a myrrh tree because of her incest.  Adonis was a beautiful young man who was devoted to hunting and outdoor activities.  The goddess Venus fell in love with him, and pursued his interests with him.  He was killed while hunting, and transformed into an anemone.  Venus was so grief-stricken by his death that the gods allowed Adonis to return from the underworld for six months each year to be with her.

cornel:  A tree with very hard wood, related to the dogwood.

Cretan maiden:  Phaedra, who was the daughter of King Minos of Crete.

Crete:  Island in the Mediterranean, south of the Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey.  It was ruled by Minos, husband of Pasiphae and father of Phaedra.

curving house:  The Labyrinth of Crete, where the Minotaur was kept.  For more details, see the notes on Minos and on Pasiphae.

Delian:  Diana, who was born on the island of Delos.

Diana:  Goddess of hunting and woodland activities, and of chastity; often associated with the moon.  Her customary weapons were a bow and arrows.  Her followers typically vowed themselves to chastity and disdained bodily adornment, pursuing hunting and related outdoor activities.  She was the daughter of Jove and Leto, and the sister of Apollo.  Hippolytus was devoted to Diana.

Dryads:  Wood-nymphs; minor female deities associated with trees and forests.  According to legend, humans could sometimes commune with the demi-gods of the woodlands and be driven into a kind of divine ecstasy or senseless state.

Eleusis:  City in Greece, west of Athens.  It contained an important temple sacred to the earth-goddess Ceres.

Europa:  Daughter of Agenor; mother of Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthys; grandmother of PhaedraJove desired her and took the form of a beautiful white bull to approach her on the seashore.  By appearing to be very tame, he coaxed her to climb onto his back and then swam off with her across the sea to Crete. There she gave birth to Minos and his brothers.  

Fauns:  Faunus was an Italian god of the woodlands and of agriculture and herding, who was identified with the Greek god Pan.  Faunus/Pan had the horns and feet of a goat.  He was associated with the mysterious sounds heard in the forest and with "panic" fear.  The "Fauns" mentioned here (in the plural) seem to be satyrs, horned and goat-footed creatures of the woodlands.  According to legend, humans could sometimes commune with the demi-gods of the woodlands and be driven into a kind of divine ecstasy or senseless state.

her sin and her burden:  The Minotaur.  See the note on Pasiphae.

hero, son of Neptune:  Theseus.  One version of the story of his conception made Neptune his father instead of Aegeus.  See the note on Aegeus.

Hippolytus:  Son of Theseus.  His mother was Antiope, the sister of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (some accounts say that his mother was Hippolyta herself).  Theseus had invaded the country of the Amazons and carried off Antiope.  The Amazons then attacked Athens, penetrating into the city itself and holding the Acropolis (the central citadel) before being defeated by Theseus.  Hippolytus grew into a handsome young man, who spent his time hunting, riding , etc.  He was devoted to the goddess Diana, and disdained women and sex.  After Phaedra became Theseus' wife, she became enamored of her handsome step-son.  Hippolytus, however, would have nothing to do with women or affairs of love, and particularly rejected an incestuous affair with his step-mother.  Phaedra then accused him of attempting to seduce her or rape her.  Theseus believed her accusations, exiling Hippolytus and asking the god Neptune to curse him.  As Hippolytus drove along the seashore in his chariot, Neptune sent a monster from the sea, terrifying the horses and sending them out of control.  Hippolytus was thrown from his chariot, became entangled in the reins, and was dragged to death behind the fleeing horses.  Theseus afterwards learned of his innocence.

Ida:  Mountain in Phrygia, near Troy.  It was a major site for the worship of the earth-goddess Cybele, the wife of Saturn and the mother of Jove.

ilex:  An evergreen oak native to southern Europe.

isthmus:  The Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the Peloponnesus to mainland Greece.

Jove, Jupiter:  King of the gods; husband and brother of Juno.  He was the father of Minos and the grandfather of Phaedra.  His principal weapons were bolts of lightning.

Juno:  Queen of the gods.  She was the sister of Jove, king of the gods, and also his wife.

Knossian land:  Crete, the kingdom of Minos and the original home of Phaedra.  Its most important city was Knossos.  

Love:  The god Amor, or Cupid.  He was the son of Venus, and his arrows could incite uncontrollable passion in both gods and humans.

Maenalian:  Maenalus was a mountain in Arcadia, a region in the middle of the Greek Peloponnesus.  "Maenalian" here is essentially a synomnym for "Arcadian."  Atalanta was from Arcadia.

man born of an Amazon:  Hippolytus, whose mother was the Amazon Antiope (or Hippolyta in some accounts).

Minos:  Son of the god Jove and the human woman Europa; husband of Pasiphae and father of Phaedra, Ariadne, and Androgeos.  When Minos was in a dispute with his brothers over who should become king of Crete, he prayed to Neptune to send him a sign; Neptune sent a beautiful bull from the sea.  But Minos then refused to sacrifice the bull to Neptune, substituting an ordinary bull instead.  As punishment, Neptune made Minos' wife, Pasiphae, conceive an unnatural sexual desire for the bull, and Pasiphae bore a son that was half human and half bull--the Minotaur.  The Minotaur was confined in the Cretan Labyrinth, and impenetrable maze.  Minos also went to war against Athens over the murder of his son, Androgeos, and, as a condition of peace, demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven young women to Crete each year; these captives were sent into the Labyrinth as food for the Minotaur.  Theseus, the son of King Aegeus of Athens (or the son of Neptune--versions of the story differ on this), volunteered to be one of the seven men.  When he arrived in Crete, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him and promised to help him slay the Minotaur and find his way out of the Labyrinth.  She gave him a ball of string that he could unwind as he traveled.  He killed the Minotaur, and then followed the string back out of the Labyrinth.  He and Ariadne fled from Crete, but Ariadne was abandoned on the island of Naxos.  

most courageous among the ax-carrying maidens:  Antiope, mother of Hippolytus by Theseus.  Antiope was one of the most prominent of the Amazons, the famed women warriors of the ancient world (hence "the ax-carrying maidens").  She and her Amazons attacked Athens on the occasion of Theseus' marriage to Phaedra, and she was killed, possibly by Theseus himself.  For more details, see the note on Theseus.

my ancestor:  Jove, who was Minos' father, and hence Phaedra's paternal grandfather.  His principal weapons were blots of lightning.

my brother:  The Minotaur, half-bull, half-human son of Pasiphae and the bull of Neptune; hence Phaedra's half-brother.  Theseus killed the Minotaur in the Labyrinth on Crete.  See the note on Theseus for more details.

my grandfather:  Helios, the sun-god, who was Pasiphae's father, and hence Phaedra's maternal grandfather.  He was pictured as driving a gleaming chariot across the sky, and as being crowned with light.

My mother:  Pasiphae.

my sister:  Ariadne, daughter of Minos and sister of Phaedra.  She was abandoned on the island of Naxos after helping Theseus slay the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth.  For more details see the note on Theseus.

Neptune:  God of the sea; brother of Jove.  In one version of the legend, Neptune slept with Aethra, Theseus' mother, on the same night that Aegeus did, and Neptune was the real father of Theseus.  Neptune also sent a beautiful bull from the sea as a sign that Minos was the rightful king of Crete.  When Minos refused to sacrifice the bull to him, Neptune made Minos' wife, Pasiphae, develop an unnatural lust for the bull; she gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster which was half-man and half-bull.  

nimble goddess:  Diana, to whom Hippolytus was devoted.

Nymphs:  Minor female deities associated with various features of nature, including springs, mountains, trees and forests, seas, etc.

Pans:  See the note on Fauns.

Pasiphae:  Daughter of the sun-god Helios and the human woman Perseis; wife of Minos and mother of Phaedra, Ariadne, and Androgeos.  After her husband, Minos, refused to sacrifice a sacred bull to Neptune, Neptune made Pasiphae conceive an unnatural sexual desire for the bull.  Pasiphae satisfied this desire by having the master craftsman, Daedalus, build a hollow replica of a cow; she climbed inside the cow, the bull mounted it, and Pasiphae bore a son that was half human and half bull--the Minotaur.  The Minotaur was so savage and uncontrollable that Minos had to call Daedalus back to build a Labyrinth--a maze of passages through which the creature could wander, but from which it could never find its way out. The Minotaur was fed on the flesh of human captives, and was eventually killed by Theseus, aided by Minos' and Pasiphae's daughter, Ariadne.

Phaedra:  Wife of Theseus; daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife, Pasiphae.  Phaedra was the granddaughter of the king of the gods, Jove (on her father's side), and of the sun-god Helios (on her mother's side).  Her family history is a strange one.  Jove took on the form of a bull and abducted the human woman Europa; he took her to Crete, where she had several children, including Minos.  As an adult, Minos prayed to the god Neptune to send a sign that he should be king.  Neptune sent a beautiful bull from the sea, with the understanding that Minos would sacrifice it to him, Minos refused to sacrifice the bull and kept it instead.  In revenge, Neptune inflamed Minos' wife, Pasiphae, with an unnatural passion for the bull, and she had a son by it--the half-human, half-bull Minotaur.  This Minotaur was confined in an impenetrable Labyrinth, where it was fed with human captives.  Phaedra's sister, Ariadne, fell in love with the Athenian hero Theseus when he came to Crete as one of these captives, and she helped him to slay the Minotaur; she fled with him from Crete, but was abandoned on the island of Naxos.  Phaedra herself later became the wife of Theseus, but she conceived an incestuous passion for his son, Hippolytus.  When Hippolytus rejected her advances, she accused him of making sexual advances to her or of sexually assaulting her.  Theseus believed her and asked Neptune to curse Hippolytus; Hippolytus was killed, dragged to his death by his own horses.  Theseus learned of his innocence afterwards.  Phaedra herself committed suicide.  Accounts of her death differ.  In the best-known ones, she either committed suicide and left a letter accusing Hippolytus, or she accused him while she was still alive and then killed herself after his death.

Pirithous:  Son of Jove and Dia; king of the Lapiths in Thessaly in northeastern Greece.  He invaded Attica (the region around Athens) and was opposed by the Athenian armies.  He and Theseus met on the battlefield and became fast friends.  Pirithous and Theseus resolved to marry daughters of Jove.  They kidnapped Helen for Theseus, but she was recovered by Helen's brothers, Pollux and Castor.  They then attempted to abduct Proserpine, 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.

Pittheus:  Theseus' maternal grandfather; king of Troezen.

Saturn:  Former king of the gods.  Son of Uranus and Gaea.  He married his own sister, Rhea (also called Cybele).  He was eventually deposed by his son, Jove.

Satyrs:  Horned and goat-footed demigods of woodland areas.  See also the note on Fauns.

son of Aegeus:  Theseus.

son of Oeneus:  Meleager, son of Oeneus, king of Calydon, and his wife, Althaea; brother of Deianira and Tydeus.  When a great boar was ravaging the countryside of Calydon, a troop of heroes assembled from all over Greece to hunt it down and kill it.  Meleager was in love with Atalanta, the only woman among the hunting party, and he rejoiced when she was the first to wound the boar; he then completed the kill himself, and awarded the boar's hide to her, on the ground that she had drawn first blood. However, Meleager's maternal uncles, Toxeus and Plexippus, were enraged that the prize of the hunt should be awarded to a woman, and tried to take it for themselves. Meleager fought with them and killed them.  Meleager's mother, Althaea, avenged her brothers' deaths by taking a piece of firewood that was linked to Meleager's life and placing it on the fire.  Meleager died in great agony, finally expiring when the log was consumed to ash.  Althaea repented of what she had done and committed suicide.

Theseus:  Son of Aegeus and Aethra; husband of Phaedra and father of Hippolytus.  Theseus was one of the great legendary heroes of the ancient world.  He was conceived when Aegeus, the king of Athens, stopped at Troezen and slept with King Pittheus' daughter, Aethra.  (For more details on his conception, see the note on Aegeus.)   Aegeus left a sword and sandals under a boulder, with the understanding that, as soon as their son was old enough to lift the rock, he should take them and journey to Athens.  When the time came, Theseus decided to journey to Athens by land instead of taking the safer and easier sea route.  This meant traveling through the Isthmus of Corinth, an area infested with robbers and bandits.  On his journey, Theseus earned a reputation as a great hero by clearing the region of its worst perils.  When Theseus arrived in Athens, Aegeus was married to Medea, one of the most famous sorceresses of antiquity.  Aegeus did not recognize him, but Medea did.  She persuaded Aegeus that this stranger was a danger to him, and so Theseus was sent to deal with the dangerous 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.  Later, Theseus determined to end the tribute that King Minos of Crete demanded of the Athenians--seven young men and seven young women who were sent into the Cretan Labyrinth as food for the Minotaur.  (See the notes on Pasiphae and on Minos for more details here.)  He volunteered to be part of the tribute; Aegeus told him that he should raise a white sail on his ship as he returned to Athens, in order to indicate that he had been successful in his quest.  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 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 or a request by the god Bacchus.  In any case, Ariadne married Bacchus after Theseus' departure.  When Theseus approached Athens, he forgot to hoist the white sail that his father had given him.  Aegeus, thinking that his son was dead, threw himself into the sea from a cliff.  Theseus then became king of Athens.  Later, Theseus made war against the Amazons, the famous tribe of women warriors.  He abducted Antiope, the sister of their queen (or in some accounts, the queen herself, Hippolyta).  The Amazons then attacked Athens, penetrating into the city itself and holding the Acropolis (the central citadel) before being defeated by Theseus.  Antiope bore a son to Theseus, Hippolytus.  Later on, Theseus married Phaedra, daughter of King Minos and sister of Ariadne.  Antiope saw this marriage as a betrayal of herself and her son, and she and her Amazons attacked Athens once again; Antiope was killed in the fighting, perhaps by Theseus himself.  Some time thereafter, Phaedra fell violently in love with Hippolytus.  When he refused her advances, she accused him of improper sexual conduct toward her.  Theseus then banished Hippolytus and asked the god Neptune to curse him.  Neptune sent a monster from the sea as Hippolytus was driving his chariot down the coast; the horses bolted, Hippolytus became entangled in the reins, and he was dragged to his death behind them.  Theseus discovered that Hippolytus was innocent, and Phaedra committed suicide.  (For more details on this episode, see the notes on Phaedra and on Hippolytus.)   Theseus was also involved in quite a number of other exploits, including several with his close friend, Pirithous.  

those who shake the tambourine beneath Ida's ridge:  The devotees of the earth-goddess Cybele, whose sometimes frenzied rites were celebrated on Mount Ida.

Troezen:  City near the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece.  It was Theseus' birthplace and home of his mother, Aethra.  It was ruled by Aethra's father, Pittheus.  

Venus:  Goddess of love and beauty.  She was either the daughter of Jove and Dione, or was born from the foam of the sea.  She was the mother of Cupid and lover of the human youth Adonis.

your father:  Theseus.




This page created and maintained by James M. Hunter

Comments and suggestions welcome:

Last updated 06/22/2013