Text of the Poem
Macareus and Canace are brother and sister; they are the children of Aeolus, ruler of the winds. They conceived an incestuous passion for one another and had a sexual affair. Canace became pregnant and secretly gave birth to a child. Canace's old nurse attempted to help them by spiriting the newborn infant out of the palace, but she was discovered by Aeolus when the child cried. Aeolus was outraged and ordered the child destroyed. He then sent a sword to Canace, with a message that she should know what to do with it. Canace writes to Macareus just before she commits suicide with the sword. She laments her incest, gives a detailed account of the events leading up to her impending suicide, and complains bitterly of her father's cruelty.
This story is less well-known and much less widely retold than some of the other tales in the Heroides, although it is mentioned at least once by Plato as an example of an especially heinous crime. It is basically a tale of incest and the punishment for incest.
The background begins with Aeolus. He is the ruler of the winds, commanding when and where they will blow. There is some uncertainty about his parentage. The two most common versions are that 1) he was the son of a mortal, Hippotes, and 2) he was the son of the sea-god Neptune; at least one writer seems to make him the son of Jove, the king of the gods. There is also some disagreement over whether he himself is a mortal human being or an immortal minor god. In Homer's Odyssey, he is a mortal king, living a particularly serene life with his six sons and six daughters on the floating island of Aeolia (oddly enough, in this version, the sons and daughters are happily married to one another). He receives the hero Ulysses (Odysseus) hospitably, and gives him the winds imprisoned in a bag in order to allow him to sail safely home. Ulysses' men, thinking the bag contains hidden treasure, open it when they are almost home, and are blown right back to Aeolus' island. Aeolus refuses to help a second time since Ulysses is obviously not favored by the gods. In Virgil's Aeneid, written much later, he is a god, and keeps the winds imprisoned in a cave beneath the island. In most accounts, his kingdom is a peaceful and happy place.
Canace is one of Aeolus' daughters. The most widely-told stories about her make her the lover of the sea-god Neptune, by whom she is supposed to have had several children. Macareus is one of Aeolus' sons, and there are very few stories about him.
Ovid's own story is a fairly simple one. Canace conceives an incestuous passion for her brother, Macareus, and he in turn is inflamed with love for her. The two of them secretly become lovers. Their only confidante is Canace's old nurse, who apparently assists them in carrying on the affair and in keeping it secret. Canace becomes pregnant as a result of the affair. With the nurse's assistance, she keeps the pregnancy secret, even trying unsuccessfully to cause a miscarriage with various herbs and drugs. Finally the child is born, and the secret of Canace's and Macareus' illicit affair is still unrevealed. One problem remains, however. The child must be smuggled out of the palace somehow, and the only way out of Canace's chamber lies through the main hall, where Aeolus is. The nurse disguises the infant with olive branches and sacred fillets of wool and makes all the preparations for a ritual sacrifice. She then carries her bundle out through Aeolus' hall as though she is on her way to perform important religious rites. Before she can get all the way through the hall, however, the child cries. Aeolus hears it, and the nurse's deception is revealed.
Aeolus is outraged and ruthless. He orders that the child be "exposed"--that is, that it be left in the open countryside to be eaten by wild beasts or to die of exposure to the elements. He berates Canace and then sends one of his attendants to her with a sword; his message to her is that she should know what to do with the weapon. Canace commits suicide with the sword, in obedience to her father's wishes.
Macareus' fate is less clear. Some versions of the myth have him commit suicide together with his sister. In Ovid's version, however, Canace clearly expects him to survive, even giving him instructions about the burial of their child's remains after her death.
Canace writes her letter to Macareus after her child has been taken and after she has received the sword from her father, just before she commits suicide.
Lines 1-6: The letter starts abruptly, almost as though Canace began writing in mid-thought: "However, if anything that I write..." It also starts on a note of drama; other letters of the Heroides have mentioned that the letter may be stained with its author's tears--this one foreshadows Canace's suicide by saying that it may be "obscured by its mistress' blood." She then gives a vivid picture of herself with a pen in one hand and a sword in the other, and finally identifies herself and the letter's recipient: "Aeolus' daughter writing to her brother." She completes the dramatic situation with the mention of her "harsh father" in the closing line of the section.
Lines 7-20: In this section, she elaborates on the harshness of her father, wishing that he could be present to witness "the work" of her suicide. She says that he is so cruel that "he would look upon my wounds with dry eyes," and compares him to the fierce nature of the "savage winds" he rules. His "swollen anger" is uncontrollable. She closes by complaining that her illustrious ancestry, which includes Jove, the king of the gods, is of no help to her--the sword that her father has presented her with ("my funeral gift") is "no less dangerous" because of it.
Lines 21-32: In this section she turns to the circumstance that led to the current tragedy--her love for her brother, Macareus. She starts by lamenting their love ("Why, brother, did you ever love more than as a brother," etc.). She then gives a rather pathetic description of the beginnings of her love. She was an inexperienced girl, and so recognized the "god I felt in my warming heart" only "by what I was accustomed to hear." She describes the conventional signs of unrequited love--paleness, thinness, lack of appetite and sleep, restless moaning. She closes the section by re-emphasizing her naivete and lack of experience ("I did not know what it was to be in love--but I was").
Lines 33-44: In this section, she moves on to the fulfillment of her love, and introduces the fourth character in the drama, her old nurse. It is the nurse who first recognizes the signs of love, and Canace blushes and does not deny it ("I confessed in silence"). She then passes over the sexual consummation of her love and moves directly to its consequences--her pregnancy ("now the burden swelled my corrupted womb"). The nurse attempted to induce a miscarriage with "herbs" and "medicines," but the child was "too vigorous" to succumb and remained "safe from the hidden enemy."
Lines 45-62: In this section, she describes the pain of her labor. It had been nine months ("now nine times the most beautiful sister of Pheobus [i.e., the moon] had risen") when she felt the "sudden pains." Once again she emphasizes her inexperience ("I was unpracticed at childbirth"). When she groans with the pain, the nurse warns her to be silent ("why do you reveal your sin?"), and she is "forced to drink my very tears." She feels that she is going to die, and worries that death itself would be "a heavy crime" (since it would kill her child as well). At this point Macareus appears, bearing the conventional signs of grief ("with hair and garments torn"). He embraces her and urges her to live, promising that the two of them will be married ("you will be your brother's bride").
Lines 63-82: In this section, Canace narrates the tragic aftermath of her labor. Following Macareus' arrival, the child is born ("the sin and burden of my womb was delivered"), and now it must be taken from the palace without Aeolus' knowledge. The old nurse hides the child beneath olive branches and fillets of cloth and pretends that she is about to make a sacrifice to the gods ("makes pretence of sacred rites"). She passes through Aeolus' chamber, but just as she is about to leave the room, Aeolus hears the child cry. He "exposes the false sacrifice" and flies into a rage. Canace spends four lines describing how she herself shuddered with fear at his outburst, saying that even "the bed was quivering" from her trembling. Then Aeolus "rushes in," proclaiming her "shame" for all the world to hear. She herself weeps without speaking ("my ... tongue was numb with cold fear").
Lines 83-92: In this section she approaches the climax of her narrative. Aeolus orders that the child be "exposed"--left in "some lonely place" to be eaten by "the dogs and birds," and even "by mountain wolves." She adds an additional touch of pathos when she recounts how the child cried, pleading with his grandfather "as though he understood" what was about to happen to him. After her father has left her chamber, she finally reacts with the conventional signs of overwhelming grief, beating her breast and tearing "my cheeks with my nails."
Lines 93-106: This section completes the climax of her narration, as her father arranges for her suicide. Aeolus sends an attendant with a sword, commanding that she "know from your faults what it signifies." She vows to "use the violent sword bravely," and complains against her father's "gift" with heavy irony, calling it the "dowry" for her marriage. She then urges Hymen, the god of marriage, to take his "wedding torches" far away, and invokes instead the torches of the Furies, the dread goddesses of vengeance, to light "my funeral pyre." She closes the section by wishing her sisters better luck in their marriages, but urging them to remember her.
Lines 107-118: In this section, she laments the fate of her new-born child. She asks that injury he could have done to his grandfather to deserve this treatment, complaining that he "is punished for my crime." She laments the manner of his death ("prey of ravening beasts") and the shortness of his life ("this is the first day for you; this will be the last for you"). She closes the section by lamenting that she will not even be able to weep or grieve over him.
Lines 119-128: She ends the letter with a final appeal to her brother and lover, Macareus. She announces that she will soon follow her child in death, and asks that Macareus gather up the remains of his son and place them in a single tomb with the mother. She asks that he remember her, and urges him to carry out her "commands" just as she is going to carry out her father's command.
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