Introduction and Synopsis for

Ovid, Heroides VI

Text of the Poem

The Basic Situation

Hypsipyle is the ruler of Lemnos, an island in the Aegean Sea near Greece.  Jason is leader of the famous Argonauts, who went in quest of the Golden Fleece.. On the way to Colchis, where the Golden Fleece was kept, Jason and his crew stopped at Lemnos.  There, Jason stayed for some time, and either married or had an affair with Hypsipyle.  When he finally left to continue his quest, Hypsipyle was pregnant; according to Hypsipyle, he promised to return to Lemnos when the quest was finished.  In Colchis, Jason succeeded in taking the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea, the daughter of the king; in return for her help, he promised to marry her and take her back to Greece with him.  Hypsipyle has now gotten word that Jason has returned home to Greece, and that he has married Medea.  In her letter, Hypsipyle reproaches Jason for failing to return to her, virulently attacks Medea, and contrasts the circumstances and probable consequences of the two marriages.

The Background

The first member of this love triangle is Hypsipyle.  Her story starts two generations earlier, when the Greek hero Theseus was sent to the court of King Minos of Crete.  There he had to enter the Labyrinth, a confusing maze of passages which housed the Minotaur, a fearsome half-man, half-bull.  Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love with Theseus, and supplied him with a sword to use against the Minotaur and with a thread to guide him back out of the Labyrinth.  Theseus killed the Minotaur and escaped from Crete, taking Ariadne with him.  However, Theseus left Ariadne on the island of Naxos (the circumstances surrounding his abandonment of her are a little confused).  On Naxos, the god Bacchus (Dionysus) fell in love with her and married her.  Bacchus and Ariadne had a son, Thoas, who became ruler of Lemnos, an island in the Aegean Sea near Greece. Thoas ruled Lemnos for a number of years, and had a daughter--Hypsipyle.  

At some point during Thoas' reign, however, the women of Lemnos began neglecting the worship of Venus, the goddess of love.  In retaliation, Venus afflicted them with a foul smell, so that their men would have nothing to do with them; the men took to consorting with concubines from Thrace instead.  The women of Lemnos then hatched a conspiracy to kill all the men on the island.  They carried out their plot successfully, but Hypsipyle hid her father, Thoas, and got him secretly off the island.  Hypsipyle then ruled Lemnos, now an island inhabited only by women.  

Enter Jason.  His story also starts farther back.  He is the son of Aeson, King of Iolcus, a city on the coast of Thessaly in Greece.  Aeson lost his throne to his brother, Pelias.  To protect his son, Aeson had Jason hidden away, and educated by the centaur Chiron.  When Jason reached manhood, he returned to Iolcus.  On the way there, however, he lost one of his sandals.  Pelias, who was now ruling Iolcus, knew of a prophecy that a man with one sandal would be his undoing.  So when Jason appeared, Pelias decided to get rid of him by setting him the seemingly impossible task of retrieving the Golden Fleece from Colchis, a distant kingdom on the far eastern shore of the Black Sea.  Jason commissioned Argos to build him a ship (named the Argo in honor of its builder), assembled a crew of the greatest heroes in the land, and set sail for Colchis.  

The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts became one of the great heroic legends of classical antiquity.  The roster of the Argo's crew varies from writer to writer, but many of the most famous legendary heroes occur on one list or another:  Orpheus (the greatest musician and poet of the ancient world); Hercules (son of Jove, famous for the Twelve Labors); Telamon (father of Ajax); Peleus (father of Achilles); Pollux and Castor (the Dioscuri); Meleager (who killed the Calydonian boar); Laertes (father of Odysseus).  During the voyage, in addition to other adventures, Jason and his crew of Argonauts became the first humans to pass through the Symplegades (the Clashing Rocks), and freed Phineus from the curse of the Harpies; they encountered the perils of Scylla and Charybdis and the isle of the Sirens, as well as Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete.  

They also stopped at Lemnos on their way to Colchis.  There they were welcomed by the Lemnian women and there were apparently a number of sexual affairs (Venus' curse must have worn off by this time).  Jason himself either married or had an affair with Hypsipyle.  After quite a long stay, Jason set sail again for Colchis, leaving Hypsipyle pregnant with twins.

When he finally reached Colchis, Jason was received cautiously by the king, Aeetes; the Argonauts were a formidable fighting force, and Aeetes seems to have felt the need to proceed delicately, but he did not intend to give up the Golden Fleece.  So he insisted that Jason meet a set of inhumanly dangerous conditions in order to gain the Fleece:  he had to yoke a pair of fire-breathing, brazen-hooved oxen and use them to plow a field; he then had to sow dragon's teeth in the plowed field, which would immediately yield a crop of fierce, hostile, armed men; if he could deal with this home-grown army, then he would still have to find a way to get past an unsleeping dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece day and night.  Only then could he take the Fleece away with him.

At this point, the final member of the love triangle appears--Medea, one of the most colorful and compelling figures in classical mythology, and one of the most disturbing ones as well.  She is the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, and the granddaughter of Helios, the sun god.  She is also one of the most famous sorceresses in the ancient world.  She immediately falls in love with Jason and offers to use her magical arts to help him, if he will marry her and take her with him when he departs.  Jason agrees.  Medea then gives him protection against the fire-breathing oxen.  She tells him how to trick the armed men by throwing a boulder among them--they will fight over it and kill each other instead of harming Jason. Finally, she devises a charm to put the watchful dragon to sleep.  All goes smoothly, and Jason gains possession of the Golden Fleece. 

 However, King Aeetes still does not intend to let the Fleece leave his kingdom.  Jason and his Argonauts quickly set sail, taking Medea with them, but the ships of Aeetes are in hot pursuit.  Medea has brought her brother, Absyrtis, with her, and she kills him and dismembers him.  Then she throws the pieces of his body, one by one, into the sea in front of the pursuing ships.  The ships are forced to stop to retrieve each of the body parts, since a person whose body is not properly buried cannot pass into Hades and must wander as a homeless shade.  As a result of their delays, the Argo escapes.

The Argo makes it safely back to Iolcus after further delays and adventures, and Medea continues her practice of sorcery.  She restores Aeson, Jason's father, to youth by cutting his throat and filling him with a magical potion.  The daughters of Pelias approach her and ask her to do the same thing for their father.  She tricks them into killing Pelias, but then withholds the magic that would have restored him to life and youth.  As a result of this, Jason and Medea are forced to flee Iolcus and take refuge in the city of Corinth.  There Jason decides to marry the daughter of Creon, Corinth's ruler, leaving Medea in the lurch.  Medea retaliates by sending "wedding gifts" to the bride--a beautiful gown and tiara infused with deadly poison.  When the bride-to-be puts them on, they cling to her, eating into her flesh and burning her alive.  When her father tries to embrace his suffering daughter, he too is destroyed by the poison.  Medea then summons the flying chariot of her grandfather, the sun-god, and murders the two children she has had by Jason.  She displays their bodies to to Jason as he stands below and refuses to let him bury them or even say his farewells to them.  She then flies away to take refuge in the court of the aged King Aegeus in Athens; she has promised Aegeus that she will use her magical powers to enable him to have children.  After some time in Athens, she is forced to flee again.

These are the principal characters and events that are involved in Hypsipyle's letter.  The letter itself is written sometime shortly after Jason returns safely to Iolcus, but it foreshadows events that occur later--particularly in the curse Hypsipyle pronounces on Medea near the end.

The Letter

Lines 1-8:  Hypsipyle opens the letter by congratulating Jason on his safe return to his home in Thessaly--but she does it in a slightly odd fashion.  For one thing, she starts in the passive voice--"you are said to have touched the shores of Thessaly"--indicating that she only knows of the news by hearsay.  Then she weakens the warmth of her greeting further by saying that she congratulates him "as much as I am allowed to;" there is already a hint of animosity toward Medea here, even though Medea has not yet been named.  A further oddity is the fact that she does not congratulate him on the success of his quest to gain the Golden Fleece.  She mentions that he is "Rich with the fleece of the golden ram," but only congratulates him on his safety (after all, it was the gaining of the Golden Fleece that entangled him with Medea).  Having set up her message in this fashion, she goes on to reproach him for not informing her directly of his safe return:  she reminds him of his ties to her, including the "kingdoms I had promised you," and points out that, even if the winds had prevented him from coming to Lemnos himself, he could at least have written to her.  It is only in the eighth line that she finally identifies herself as the writer of the letter:  "Hypsipyle deserved having a greeting sent."  From the very beginning, the tone of the letter is one of reproach rather than reconciliation, with Jason as the guilty party and Hypsipyle as the one who has been wronged; the role of Medea is only hinted at indirectly in these first few lines, but her presence will make itself very strongly felt in what follows..

Lines 9-18:  This section continues the theme begun in the introductory section, as Hypsipyle complains once again that she received news of Jason through rumor rather than from his own communication.  Her knowledge of his activities proves to be fairly detailed.  She knows of the tasks Jason was faced with in Colchis--the yoking of the fire-breathing bulls, the sowing of the dragon's teeth, the crop of armed men, and the sleepless dragon--and even something of how he went about accomplishing them (the armed men "had no need of your right arm for their death").  She will mention these tasks twice more in the letter, but this time she does not link them to Medea's help.  Instead, she uses them as part of her initial complaint, exclaiming that she wished that Jason had written to her about them himself, so that she would have first-hand knowledge that she could use to convince those who were skeptical.  She ends the section with some heavy-handed irony, saying that she should not complain about a thing like this, and that she would consider herself well-treated "if only I remain yours"--once again hinting at Medea's presence without naming her directly.

Lines 19-38:  In this section, she finally begins to approach her real cause for complaint:  that Jason has been unfaithful to her.  She still does not call Medea by name, but she makes it clear that she knows who her rival is:  "It is said that a barbarian poisoner has come with you."  She uses the passive voice again ("It is said"), echoing her first complaint against Jason and indicating that so far she only knows it by hearsay.  She also professes a willingness to disbelieve it ("oh,  may I have spoken rashly").  But then she immediately goes on to give the source of her information, and the forcefulness and detail of her account make her disbelief unconvincing.  She emphasizes the Thessalian stranger's embarrassment when he is asked about Jason ("He stopped still, his eyes fixed on the ground").  Instead of belaboring the complaint, however, and instead of dwelling on the iniquities of Medea or the betrayal of Jason, she quickly moves on from it and gives instead a vivid picture of her own desperate concern for her husband's safety ("tearing the garment from my breast," "when my wits returned," etc.).  Then, for the second time, she gives an account of what Jason had to do to win the Golden Fleece, including even more detail this time.  She ends the section by re-emphasizing her own desperate and selfless concern for Jason's safety at the time:  "Again, if Jason lives, I ask; hope and fear alternate with one another."

Lines 39-54:  In the beginning of this section, Hypsipyle returns again to Jason's faithlessness ("Where is the promised faith?  Where are the marriage rights"), but once again she quickly digresses to describe her own injury and her own innocence rather than Jason's guilt.  She insists on the openness and legitimacy of her own marriage ("I did not come to know you furtively"), and she plays on the multiple roles that torches played in antiquity (at weddings, at funerals, and as accompaniments of the ill-omened goddesses of vengeance, the Furies).  She then elaborates on her own role as innocent bystander ("What had I to do with the Minyans?"), giving a long list of things and people with whom she and her kingdom were not associated and with which they should not have become entangled.  She ends the section with an account of what she could have done legitimately to keep from becoming involved, and what she should have done if an "evil fate" had not led her on--she could have driven the Argonauts from her shores with her "soldiery" of women, who had proven in the past that they could vanquish men.  This is her first mention of the episode in which the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island because of their sexual infidelity; she will bring it up again later on.

Lines 55-64:  In this section, Hypsipyle goes into what she did for Jason, and what he promised her.  She first points out that she gave refuge to Jason and that he stayed at least two years with her ("two summers," etc.).    Then she gives an account of their parting.  The tone is one of bitter recrimination ("you ... tainted these words with false tears").  She says that Jason promised to return, that he promised to always be her husband, and that he acknowledged their unborn children.  She says that he wept, and she returns to the tone of recrimination ("with tears running down your deceitful face").  

Lines 65-74:  This section moves from Jason's parting to Hypsipyle's own reaction to his departure.  As the ship sails away, there is one last moment of poignant unity, with his gaze "on the land," and hers "on the water" as the ship moves out of sight.  She recounts how she went to a tower, so that she could see farther out across the waves, and even mentions that her eyes could see "farther than they are accustomed to," even though she is looking "through my tears," because her mind is so "eager."   She tells of her "pious prayers," and the "vows" she promised to fulfill if Jason made it through his adventures safely.

Lines 75-78:  This short section marks a turning point in the letter.  Hypsipyle is moving from hints about Medea and innuendo and negative adjectives about Jason, to a direct assault on them both.  For the first time she mentions Medea by name, pointing out the heavy irony of her "vows":  "Do I fulfill these vows?  Vows Medea reaps the benefit of?"  Because she has prayed for Jason's safety, she now must "bear gifts to shrines because Jason, who is alive, is lost to me."

Lines 79-94:  In this section, Hypsipyle focuses directly on Medea, the woman who has taken her place in Jason's bed.  She points out that she had always been afraid that Jason's father would want him to take a bride from some city on the Greek mainland; what she had not expected was that she would be supplanted by a "barbarian" from Colchis; she calls her a "concubine," or "mistress" (paelex in Latin), refusing even to use the word for "wife."  She then goes on to charge that Medea did not attract Jason with her beauty or her character, but rather ensnared him with her magical arts.  What follows then is a long description of Medea's activities as a sorceress, ranging from harvesting "harmful plants" and herbs, to picking up bones from funeral pyres and sticking pins in wax dolls of her enemies--and "other things best not known."  It is a sinister and unnerving picture, and she ends by pointing out that this is a bad way to win the love of another person.

Lines 95-108:  In the previous section, Hypsipyle blackened Medea's character as a sorceress and questioned the source of Jason's love for her.  In this section, she portrays Medea as a threat to Jason  himself.  She asks how Jason can share the same bedchamber with such a person and "enjoy without fear the sleep of the soundless night."  She returns once again to the tasks Jason had to accomplish in Colchis and charges that Medea used her magic to force Jason into marriage just as she forced the fire-breathing bulls and the dragon.  She then goes on to claim that Medea is trying to take credit for Jason's own heroic deeds, and that people believe her--especially the supporters of Pelias, Jason's uncle, who usurped the throne of Iolcus and sent Jason away on his dangerous quest.  She claims that even Jason's mother and father do not approve of his new marriage to a barbarian from the "frozen north," and ends by saying that Medea should take a husband from among her own kind, a barbarian from the lands beyond the Black Sea.

Lines 109-118:  In this section, Hypsipyle turns her attention from Medea back to Jason himself.  She starts with an accusing tone, calling Jason "fickle" and saying that his word cannot be trusted.  But she also pleads with him--"Let me be the wife of your return, as I was of your departure."  She points out her own merits, especially her noble ancestry:  she is the granddaughter of both King Minos of Crete and the god Bacchus, and her grandmother is now a brilliant constellation in the skies.  She ends by pointing out the material advantages of a union with her:  Jason's marriage would bring him both the kingdom of Lemnos and Hypsipyle herself.  

Lines 119-138:  Hypsipyle begins this section by continuing to appeal to Jason, but then moves into a renewed attack on Medea.  She first tells Jason that she has given birth to twins, and that even the pains of pregnancy were "sweet" to her because they were his children.  She tells him that they look just like him, but the tone changes slightly when she adds that, while they resemble him in every other way, "they do not know how to deceive."  The tone continues to darken when she says that she almost sent them as her ambassadors to Jason, but the thought of their "cruel stepmother" held her back.  This last comment serves as the introduction to her most virulent attack on Medea.  Before this line, she had only mentioned Medea by name once; in the next two lines, she names her three times--"Medea I fear; Medea is more than a stepmother; Medea's hands turn to any crime."  She reminds Jason that Medea murdered and dismembered her own brother and scattered the parts of his body.  She repeats the accusation that Medea stole Jason away by sorcery ("O madman carried away by Colchian poison").  She then compares her own marriage with that of Medea.  She contrasts Medea's adulterous union with her own "chaste wedding torches."  She points out that Medea betrayed her own father, while Hypsipyle saved hers.  And she adds that, while Medea has deserted her homeland, she herself remains in her native Lemnos.  She closes by saying that the same "crime" (her sorcery) captured a husband for Medea and provided the dowry (by aiding in the acquisition of the Golden Fleece).

Lines 139-148:  Hypsipyle opens this section by mentioning once again the "evil deed of the Lemnian women--i.e., their massacre of the men who had been unfaithful to them.  She says that she blames them for it but is not surprised by it, since they had great provocation.  She asks Jason how he would have reacted if he had returned to Lemnos to find her with their twin infants.  She describes how ashamed he would have been, how he would even have wished for the earth to swallow him up.  And yet, she says, in spite of his guilt she would still have protected him, "not because you deserve it, but because I am gentle"--thus establishing an implicit contrast between herself and that "evil deed of the Lemnian women."

Lines 149-164:  Hypsipyle ends the letter with a long final curse upon Medea.  There is a stark contrast between the ending of the last section and the beginning of this one.  She claims that she would have spared Jason "not because you deserve it, but because I am gentle," but then goes on immediately to say "But I would myself have stained my face with the blood of your mistress."  She prays to Jupiter that Medea should suffer the same fate that she does--that she should be deserted by her husband and be deprived of the same number of children as Hypsipyle has borne.  She says that Medea will suffer banishment and wander the world in exile, and that she will betray her own children and husband just as she betrayed her brother and father.  She even says that Medea will finally have to take to the air, when she has worn out her welcome on land and sea.  (The "curse" is based on Medea's own future career--she was, in fact, cast off by Jason, and she did murder their two children; she was banished and was finally forced to flee through the air in the chariot of her grandfather, the sun-god.)  The letter ends with a final exhortation to both Medea and Jason to "live on" in their "cursed marriage bed."




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Last updated 06/22/2013