Introduction and Synopsis for

Ovid, Heroides VIII

Text of the Poem

The Basic Situation

Hermione is the daughter of Menelaus and Helen.  Orestes is the son of Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon , and Helen's sister, Clytemnaestra.  Hermione is in love with Orestes and had been promised in marriage to him by her grandfather.  Her father, however, had other ideas and gave her in marriage to Neoptolemus (also known as Pyrrhus), the son of the great Greek hero Achilles.  Hermione hates Neoptolemus and longs for Orestes, whom she regards as her rightful husband.  But Orestes has his own problems.  His father had been murdered by his mother and her lover, Aegisthus.  Orestes avenged the murder by killing both of them, but as a result he was pursued by the goddesses of vengeance, the Furies.  Hermione, languishing in Neoptolemus' palace, writes to Orestes, explaining her plight, exhorting Orestes to come for her, and lamenting the bad luck that has plagued her own life and her family.

The Background

In itself, the love of Hermione and Orestes is a fairly minor episode in Greek heroic legend, but what lies behind it is one of the great tragic sagas of antiquity:  the tale of the house of Atreus.  This is a tale of lust, murder, incest, cannibalism, and a whole host of other human sins; if you are easily disturbed, then you might be wise to turn elsewhere.  It is also a little complicated to explain, and stretches over several generations.

The story starts with Tantalus, the king of Sipylos and a son of Jove.  He was uniquely favored among mortals since he was invited to share the food of the gods.  The gods also consented to dine at his table in Sipylos.  However, Tantalus abused the guest-host relationship by trying to deceive the gods in a particularly grisly way.  Instead of serving them good and wholesome food, he killed and dismembered his son, Pelops, and served his flesh as meat for the banquet.  The gods discovered the deception and reassembled Pelops, bringing him back to life.  The goddess Ceres had accidentally eaten one piece of meat from Pelops' shoulder; the gods replaced this portion with a piece of gleaming ivory.   Tantalus himself was punished in Tartarus in the underworld by being endlessly "tantalized" with hunger and thirst:  he was immersed up to his neck in water, but when he bent to drink, it all drained away; luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but when he reached for it the winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

Tantalus' daughter, Niobe, did not fare much better.  She compared herself boastfully to the goddess Latona, mother of Apollo and Diana; all her daughters were killed by Diana and her sons by Apollo, and she herself was turned into a stone, down which ran the streams of her endless tears.  Pelops, who had been brought back to life by the gods after his brush with cannibalism, suffered less during his own lifetime.  After being restored to life he was an even more beautiful young man than before; Poseidon fell in love with him and gave him a winged chariot.  Later, Pelops wooed Hippodameia, the daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa. Oenomaus was reluctant to allow his daughter to marry, either because he had an incestuous desire for her himself, or because of a prophecy that his son-in-law would cause his death.  So he decreed that any suitor might carry Hippodameia off, but that he himself would pursue them and would kill anyone he was able to overtake. He had already killed twelve or thirteen suitors this way. However Pelops (or Hippodameia in some accounts) persuaded Oenomaus' charioteer, Myrtilus, to remove the linchpins from the king's chariot; Oenomaus was thrown from the vehicle, became entangled in the reins, and was dragged to his death. Pelops then killed Myrtilus by throwing him into the sea, either because he had tried to rape Hippodameia or because Pelops resented sharing the credit for success in the chariot race. Myrtilus, as he was dying, cursed the house of Pelops, and this curse blighted the lives of Pelops' sons (Atreus and Thyestes), and his grandsons (Agamemnon and Aegisthos).  Pelops subdued the area of Greece which became known as the Peloponnesus, and then returned to rule Oenomaus' kingdom in Pisa. During the time of the Trojan War, the Greeks brought his bones to Troy because of a prophecy that only by doing so could they conquer the city.

In the generation after Pelops, things began to get really ugly.  Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes.  Atreus, who had become the king of Mycenae, vowed to sacrifice the finest animal in his flock to Diana; however, when he discovered a golden lamb in the flock, he reneged on the promise and hid the lamb away. At the same time his wife, Aerope, was having an affair with his brother, Thyestes. Aerope secretly gave the lamb to Thyestes, and Thyestes then got Atreus to agree that the possessor of the golden lamb should be king. Thyestes produced the lamb and seized the throne.  Atreus was determined to be king again. On the advice of Hermes, he got Thyestes to agree to yield the throne when the sun ran backwards in its course. Jove then made the sun set in the east, and Atreus became king once more, banishing Thyestes for good measure.  Later, Atreus learned of his wife's adultery and decided to seek revenge for it. He invited Thyestes to return and be reconciled with him. He killed Thyestes' sons, cut them up, and cooked everything except their hands and feet. Then he served this meat at a banquet in Thyestes' honor. After Thyestes had finished eating, Atreus produced the hands and feet, taunted his brother with them, and banished him once more.  At this point, Thyestes was the one intent on revenge. An oracle advised him that his revenge would be successful if he fathered a son by his own daughter. He did so, and named the son Aegisthos. When Aegisthos grew to manhood, he killed Atreus and restored his father to the throne.  But Atreus had two sons of his own, Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Agamemnon seized the throne and banished Thyestes for a third and final time.

At this point we come to the generation immediately before Hermione and Orestes: Agamemnon is the father of Orestes, and Menelaus is the father of Hermione.  But before we can come to their story, we have to digress a little, moving from Mycenae to the kingdom of Sparta.  Tyndareus was the king of Sparta, and he was married to Leda.  Jove became enamored of Leda; he took on the form of a swan, and either seduced her or raped her.  On the same night, Tyndareus slept with Leda as well.  As a result, Leda gave birth to four children:  two sons, Castor and Pollux; and two daughters, Helen and Clytemnaestra.  Accounts of their paternity vary, but Helen and Pollux are often said to be the children of Jove, while Clytemnaestra and Castor are attributed to Tyndareus.  Helen was the one that was most immediately troublesome.  She was the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world.  Even as a child, she was abducted by the Greek hero Theseus, but he returned her to Tyndareus with her chastity intact.  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 the clever Ulysses, king of Ithaca (his Greek name is Odysseus, and he is the hero of Homer’s Odyssey). Ulysses wanted to marry Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. He told Tyndareus that, in return for help in winning Penelope as his wife, he would devise a plan by which no unsuccessful suitor would interfere with Helen’s marriage. Here was Ulysses’ plan: he 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 the two of them had a daughter, Hermione. 

Meanwhile, Agamemnon married Helen's sister, Clytemnaestra, and had several children by her, including a son, Orestes.  Aegisthus (who had killed Agamemnon's father, Atreus) was still around, but as long as Agamemnon was firmly on the throne, he was not a problem.  

But there was trouble brewing elsewhere in the world.  Jove, the king of the gods, and Neptune, the principal god of the sea, had sexual designs on the Nereid Thetis (a sea-nymph). However, they discovered a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would be mightier than his father. Since neither god wanted a son who might overthrow him, they decided to avoid the problem by having Thetis marry a human. They chose Peleus, because of his reputation for good character. All of the gods were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, with the exception of one—Eris, the goddess of discord. To avenge the snub, Eris showed up at the wedding anyway, and threw a golden apple into a group of goddesses; the apple was inscribed with the words “for the fairest.” The goddesses Juno, Venus, and Minerva all claimed the apple, and appealed to Jove to settle the dispute. Jove did not want to get involved (Juno was his wife, and Venus and Minerva were his daughters), so he referred the decision to Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. 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.  Meanwhile, Peleus and Thetis were married and had produced the prophesied son--the mighty Achilles, greatest of the Greek warriors.

A little later, Paris was sent on an embassy to Sparta, where Menelaus was now king. There he wooed Menelaus’ wife, Helen. When Menelaus went away on a journey to Crete, Paris either eloped with Helen or abducted her, and took her back to Troy as his wife. At this point, Menelaus invoked the oath that all the other suitors had taken, and demanded that they band together to bring back his wife. The result was a coalition of forces under the leadership of Agamemnon, Menelaus’ elder brother, which sailed to Asia Minor and besieged Troy for ten years, finally taking it by the stratagem of the Trojan horse, and burning the city to the ground. Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus, and they lived happily as husband and wife once more.

But ten years is a long time, and a lot had been happening in Mycenae while Agamemnon had been gone.  Aegisthus had begun a long-running affair with Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnaestra, and the two of them had decided to murder Agamemnon when he finally returned.  They carried out their plot successfully, and Aegisthos married Clytemnaestra and became the king of Mycenae in Agamemnon's place.  They remained married for a number of years, but the curse on the house of Atreus was not finished yet.  Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnaestra, felt impelled to avenge his father's death.  With the help and support of his sister, Electra, he plotted against his mother and step-father and finally succeeded in murdering them both.  Orestes did not get away scot-free, however.  The goddesses of vengeance, the Furies, pursued him, punishing him for the murders.  He wandered, half-mad, all over Greece before he was finally purified of his blood-guilt and released by the Furies.

We finally come back to Hermione and Orestes.  Old Tyndareus (the grandfather of both of them) had formally betrothed Hermione to Orestes--that is, he had promised them in marriage to one another.  A betrothal was not something to be taken lightly; it was a serious contract.  But Menelaus, after he returned from the Trojan War, had other ideas.  He gave Hermione in marriage to Neoptolemus (also known as Pyrrhus), the son of the great Achilles.  Achilles had been killed in the fighting at Troy, but Neoptolemus was his heir and was a redoubtable warrior in his own right.  So Hermione, having no say in the matter, went to Neoptolemus as his wife.  She was still in love with Orestes, though, and regarded him as her rightful husband, not Neoptolemus.  It is this situation that prompts her letter.  She writes to Orestes, urging him to rescue her and assert his own rights of betrothal.  In the process, she touches on much of their common family history and laments the tragic fate that has plagued the house of Atreus. 

Eventually Hermione gets her wish and she and Orestes are married.  Neoptolemus either dies or goes away; in one version, Orestes kills him at the oracle at Delphi in order to get Hermione back.

The Letter

Lines 1-12:  The letter opens dramatically, with a vivid description of Hermione's plight.  Neoptolemus (Pyrrhus) "holds me prisoner," she says, even though she "refused."  She laments that she lacked the physical strength to resist, but she says that she did threaten Neoptolemus with Orestes' vengeance.  He was deaf to her threats and dragged her into his house.  She then compares her plight to the fate of the women of Troy.  "How much worse could it have been" she asks, of her own city had been sacked and burned as Troy was?  Even Andromache, the wife of the greatest Trojan warrior, Hector, was treated better than she has been by Neoptolemus.  There is a flavor of irony here, since it was Neoptolemus himself who had enslaved Andromache after the fall of Troy.

Lines 13-20:  In this section, she makes a direct appeal to Orestes, urging him to "take possession of  your right" and rescue her from Neoptolemus (Pyrrhus).  She points out that he would fight back if someone stole his cattle; he should be even more ready to fight for his wife.  She also makes a comparison with Menelaus (her own father and Orestes' uncle), who assembled all the forces of Greece and launched the Trojan War when his wife, Helen, was taken by the Trojan prince, Paris.

Lines 21-28:  In this section, she continues the comparison to the Trojan War.  She points out that Orestes does not have to "prepare a thousand ships," but merely "come yourself."  Even so, she says, all-out war for an abducted wife is not without honorable precedent.  She then invokes their family connection.  They are first cousins ("Atreus, son of Pelops, is our common grandfather"), and both as cousin and as husband it is his duty to come to her aid.

Lines 29-46:  In this section, Hermione elaborates on the legitimacy of Orestes' claim to her.  She begins with her betrothal.  Tyndareus is her grandfather, and he is the one who betrothed her to Orestes;  Menelaus, her father, gave her to Neoptolemus (Pyrrhus).  The grandfather, she says, has authority over the father, and so Orestes' claim is stronger.  She also points out that Orestes' claim is superior in another respect--her first betrothal to Orestes harmed no one, while the marriage to Neoptolemus does harm to Orestes, the legitimate husband.  She then goes on to discuss family reactions.  Menelaus himself, she says, "will forgive our love," since he too has known Cupid's arrows ("the missiles of the swift-winged god").  Her mother, Helen, is an even stronger example, since she herself was abducted and brought back.  She develops the comparison with the Trojan War again:  Neoptolemus now plays the part of the Trojan, Paris, and Orestes is acting the part of Menelaus.  She closes with a comparison between the merits of the two husbands.  Both have illustrious fathers--Neoptolemus is the son of Achilles, and Orestes is the son of Agamemnon.  But Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces, while Achilles was merely "part of the army," and therefore under Agamemnon's command.  Orestes himself is, after all, a direct descendant of the king of the gods, Jove ("you are fifth from Jove"), since his great-great-grandfather, Tantalus, was Jove's son.

Lines 47-62: In this section, Hermione begins by continuing her comparison of Orestes with Neoptolemus.  Neoptolemus has a reputation as a brave warrior like his father, Achilles; Orestes, too, has courage.  But here Hermione is on delicate ground--Orestes' act of courage was the killing of his mother and step-father.  She acknowledges that he "bore hateful arms," and wishes that he had "had a better cause."  But she points out that he acted because of his father's murder, and so had no choice ("the reason for your deeds was not chosen, but given").  His vengeance was successful, and Aegisthus paid with his own blood for shedding the blood of Agamemnon.  Then her focus shifts back to Neoptolemus--Neoptolemus "turns praise to accusation" and "rebukes" Orestes for his act of vengeance.  The rest of the section is concerned with her own reactions to Neoptolemus.  She swells with rage, and she regrets that she is unable to use physical force against him for insulting Orestes ("I did not have strength, and there was no savage sword at hand").  All she can do is weep, and her tears are an "unending fountain."

Lines 63-78:  In this section, Hermine links her own sadness to the grief that has beset her family over the generations.  She says that the women of Tantalus' family are liable to be assaulted or abducted.  She says that she will not complain about Jove's deception of Helen's mother, Leda (perhaps because she herself could not have been born without that episode?), and then goes on to mention the abduction of Hippodameia by her great-grandfather, Pelops.  She spends most of the section, however, on Helen's abduction by Paris; she describes in detail the grief of the family and her own reaction to her mother's disappearance.  Her grandfather wept, and so did her aunts and uncles ("my mother's sister Phoebe and the twin brothers"), and her grandmother (Leda) prayed; she herself tore her youthful hair and cried out because her mother had left her behind.  In the last two lines, she once again compares Helen's abduction with her own unwilling marriage to Neoptolemus.

Lines 79-96:  In opening lines of this section, Hermione turns from Neoptolemus to his father, Achilles.  She wishes that Achilles had not been killed at Troy; she is sure that he would have condemned his own son's actions.  She then asks why the gods are against her, and quickly moves into a survey of her own unhappy past.  Both her mother and her father were absent during her childhood, her mother because she had been abducted, and her father because he was "bearing arms" in the Trojan War.  But her concern is primarily with the absence of her mother.  She was not there to hear Hermine's childhood words, or to hold her in her lap; she was not there to raise her or to prepare her for marriage.  When Helen finally did return, Hermione recognized her only because she was "the most beautiful"; Helen had to ask who her daughter was.

Lines 97-112:  In this section, Hermione returns to her lament over her present circumstances.  Her one happiness was her marriage to Orestes, but she will lose that as well "unless he fights for his own."  She says that her unwanted marriage to Neoptolemus is the "gift demolished Troy gives to me."  She then describes her own day-to-day life in pathetic terms.  Her unhappiness is easier to bear during the day ("when lofty Titan presses behind his glowing horses").  It is at night that she suffers the most.  She weeps instead of sleeping, and flees from her "master."  Sometimes during the night she touches his body "with ignorant hand," and then regards her hand as "defiled."  When she mistakenly says the name "Orestes" in place of "Neoptolemus," she regards it as a good omen.

Lines 113-118:  Hermione ends her letter with an oath.  She invokes her ancestry in the oath:  her "unhappy family," her great-great-great-grandfather Jove (the "forefather of our family," who is also her grandfather, oddly enough), and the bones of the murdered Agamemnon.  She reminds Orestes of their family connection ("your father, my uncle"), as well as of his "courageous" role in avenging his father's murder.  Then she swears that she will either "die before my time," or be the wife of Orestes ("be the wife of a man of Tantalus' line").




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Last updated 06/23/2013