Notes for

Ovid, Heroides XII

Aeetes:  King of Colchis and father of Medea.  The Golden Fleece was kept in his kingdom.

Aeson:  Father of Jason.  Aeson was ruler of Iolcus until his brother Pelias took the throne from him.

Aesonian youth:  Son of AesonJason.

Argo:  The ship in which Jason and the Argonauts went in search of the Golden Fleece.

brother:  Medea's brother, Absyrtis.  Medea killed and dismembered him in order to delay pursuit as she and Jason fled from Colchis.  For more details on this episode, see the note on Medea.

bull, dragon, field:  Lines 15-18, 39-50, 59-60, 93-102, 163, 171, 195-96, and 199-200 all refer to the tasks that Jason had to accomplish in order to obtain the Golden Fleece.  For details of these tasks, see the note on Jason.. 

burning:  Jason's new bride-to-be, Creusa, was literally burned alive by the poisoned gifts Medea sent to her.  More more details of this episode, see the note on Medea.

charms:  Jason was only able to obtain the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea's magic.  For more details on this, see the note on Jason.

Charybdis:  A famous maritime hazard which sits opposite Scylla, so that ships must encounter either one or the other of them in order to pass by.  It was traditionally located in the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy.  Charybdis was a giant whirlpool which sucked ships down and then spewed them up again.

Colchis:  Kingdom at the eastern end of the Black Sea, south of the Caucasus Mountains, in modern-day Georgia.  Colchis was Medea's home, and was ruled by her father, Aeetes.  It was an important center for trade, but its peoples were regarded as barbarians by the Greeks.

Corinth:  City in southern Greece, at the southwestern end of the isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus to the Greek mainland.  Jason and Medea fled to Corinth after they were driven out of Jason's home, the kingdom of Iolcus.  For more details of their banishment, see the note on Medea.

Creon:  King of Corinth.  

Creusa:  Daughter of Creon, king of Corinth.  Jason planned to abandon Medea in order to marry Creusa.  For more on the events that followed, see the note on Medea.

daughters of Pelias:  The daughters of Pelias asked Medea to restore their father's youth.  She tricked them into murdering him and then failed to use her magic to restore him.  For more details of this episode, see the note on Medea.

Diana:  Goddess of the moon, of hunting, and of chastity; daughter of Jove and Leto, sister of Apollo.

father:  Medea's father, King Aeetes of Colchis, did not want the Golden Fleece to leave his kingdom.  Medea betrayed him by helping Jason take it.  For more details on this episode, see the note on Medea.

father-in-law:  Creon, king of Corinth.

flaming eyes:  The eyes of the dragon who guarded the Golden Fleece.  The dragon was never supposed to sleep, but Medea used a potion to render it unconscious.

goddess in whose marble temple we are:  I.e., Diana.

Golden Fleece, golden ram:  The Golden Fleece; the treasure sought by Jason and the Argonauts. It originated in the following fashion. Phrixus and Helle were the children of Athamus and the goddess Nephele. When Athamus remarried, the children's stepmother, Ino, became jealous of them and plotted to get rid of them. She arranged to have seed-corn roasted so that it would not sprout. When the crop failed, messengers were sent to consult the oracle at Delphi, and Ino persuaded the messengers to say that that the oracle required the sacrifice of Phrixus to restore fertility to the fields. Before Phrixus could be sacrificed, however, Nephele sent a golden ram which carried both children off through the air. Helle fell into the Hellespont (which was named after her), but Phrixus arrived safely at Colchis, where he married the daughter of King Aeetes. Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Jove, and gave its pelt (the Golden Fleece) to Aeetes. Aeetes placed the fleece in an oak tree, where it remained until Jason arrived to claim it.

grandfather, all-seeing grandfather:  Helios, the sun-god, was Medea's grandfather.  Because of his position in the sky, he is often described as seeing all that goes on on the earth.  When Medea flees from Corinth after the murder of Creusa and Creon, and of her own children, she does so in Helios' chariot, drawn through the air by winged dragons.

Haemonian:  Haemonia was another name for Thessaly, the region in which Iolcus, home of Jason, was located.  Haemon was the father of Thessalus, and names for the region were derived from both.

Hecate:  A goddess associated with sorcery, especially magic and charms of the darker kind.  She is often associated with, or even combined or confused with, the goddess Diana.

Hymen:  God of marriage.  Generally represented as a youthful, handsome man, carrying a marriage torch and blessing a wedding.

Iolcus:  Town in Thessaly, on the eastern coast of Greece, near Mount Pelion.  Home of Jason, as well as of his father, Aeson, and his uncle, Pelias.

Isthmus:  The narrow strip of land that connects the Peloponnesus to the Greek mainland.  Corinth--the home of King Creon and his daughter, Creusa--sits on the Peloponnesus right next to the Isthmus.

Jason:  Son of King Aeson of Iolcus.  When Aeson was overthrown by his brother, Pelias, he hid Jason and had him raised by the centaur, Chiron.  As a young man, he returned to Iolcus, but on the way there he lost one of his sandals.  Pelias, who now ruled Iolcus, knew of a prophecy that a man with one sandal would do him great harm.  To prevent this, he set Jason a seemingly impossible task:  retrieve the Golden Fleece from the faraway land of Colchis.  Jason then built a great ship, the Argo, recruited a crew of heroes for the quest, and sailed for Colchis.  The voyage of the Argo became one of the great heroic legends of the ancient world.  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.  On the way to Colchis, Jason also landed on the island of Lemnos.  (For the episode on Lemnos, and Jason's desertion of Hypsipyle, the island's ruler, see Heroides VI.)  When he arrived at Colchis, King Aeetes demanded that Jason accomplish a series of tasks to get the Golden Fleece: he must yoke a team of fierce, fire-breathing oxen and plow a field with them; then he must sow the teeth of a dragon in the field, and deal with the warlike armored men who sprouted from these "seeds"; finally, he must brave the sleepless dragon who guarded the Fleece.  He was only able to accomplish these tasks with the aid of the magical arts of Medea, who offered her help on condition that Jason marry her and take her away with him.  Medea gave him magical protection from the fire of the bulls' nostrils, and instructed him to throw a boulder into the midst of the armed men; the men then fought each other for possession of the boulder and killed each other instead of attacking Jason.  Medea also prepared a potion which put the dragon to sleep, enabling Jason to reach the oak tree and get the Fleece.  Having obtained the Fleece, Jason fled with Medea, pursued by Aeetes' men.  For more on Jason's career after he returned to Ilocus, see the note on Medea.

Juno:  Goddess of marriage, childbirth, etc.  Wife of Jove, the king of the gods.

Magnesian:  The Magnetes were a tribe inhabiting the mountainous region around Mount Pelion in Thessaly.  "Magnesian" here is almost a synonym for "Thessalian."  Jason's home, Iolcus, was in Thessaly.

Medea:  Daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, granddaughter of Helios, the sun god.  Medea was a devotee of the goddess Hecate, and one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world.  She used her magic to help Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, in return for his promise to marry her.  (For more details on this episode, see the note on Jason.)   When Jason and Medea fled from Colchis in the Argo, Medea took her younger brother, Absyrtis, with her.  King Aeetes pursued them. In order to delay the pursuit, Medea killed her brother and cut his body into pieces, scattering the parts behind the ship. The pursuers had to stop and collect Absyrtis' dismembered body in order to give it proper burial, and so Jason, Medea and the Argonauts escaped.  After the Argo returned safely to Iolcus, Jason's home, Medea continued using her sorcery. She restored the youth of Jason's aged father, Aeson, by cutting his throat and filling his body with a magical potion. She then offered to do the same for Pelias, the king of Iolcus who had usurped Aeson's throne. She tricked Pelias' daughters into killing him, but left the corpse without any youth-restoring potion.  After the murder of Pelias, Jason and Medea had to flee Iolcus; they settled next in Corinth. There Medea bore Jason two children before Jason forsook her in order to marry Creusa, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Medea got revenge for Jason's desertion by killing the new bride with a poisoned robe and crown which burned the flesh from her body; King Creon died as well when he tried to embrace his dying daughter. Medea fled Corinth in a chariot, drawn by winged dragons, which belonged to her grandfather Helios. She took with her the bodies of her two children, whom she had murdered in order to give Jason further pain.  Medea then took refuge with Aegeus, the old king of Athens, having promised him that she would use her magic to enable him to have more children, but she was eventually forced to flee from his court as well.. 

Minyans:  A tribe or clan, one of whose branches inhabited the area around Iolcus in Thessaly.  Hence "Minyans" is simply a synonym for the people of Jason's homeland here.

new bride, foolish wife:  Creusa, daughter of King Creon of Corinth.

Pelasgian:  The Pelasgians were presumed to be the oldest (or at least pre-Hellenic) inhabitants of Greece.  The name was used in a number of areas of Greece, in which the populations claimed to be of very old lineage.  Thessaly, home of Jason, was one of these.  Hence "Pelasgian" is used here as a synonym for "Thessalian," or perhaps more broadly for "Greek."

Pelian timbers:  Wood used to build the Argo, cut from the slopes of Mount Pelion, a mountain near Ilocus, Jason's home.

Pelias:  King of Iolcus; brother of Aeson and uncle of Jason.  Pelias had taken over the kingdom from Aeson, and sent Jason on the seemingly impossible quest for the Golden Fleece as a way of getting rid of a potential claimant to the throne.

Phasis:  Main river of Colchis, Medea's home.  It flowed into the eastern end of the Black Sea, south of the Caucasus Mountains.  It was sometimes seen as the boundary between Europe and Asia in antiquity.

Phrixus:  Son of Athamus and the goddess Nephele.  For details of his involvement with the origin of the Golden Fleece, see the note on the Golden Fleece.

Pontus:  The Pontus Euxinus, or Black Sea.  The Black Sea is east of the Mediterranean, and is connected to it by the straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.  

punishment:  Medea plans to kill Jason's two children, after murdering his intended bride and father-in-law, but she stops short of telling him what she is actually planning to do here.  For more details of her revenge, see the note on Medea..

ram of Phrixus:  See note on Golden Fleece.

royal wife:  Creusa.

Scylla:  A famous maritime hazard which sits opposite Charybdis, so that ships must encounter either one or the other of them in order to pass by.  It was traditionally located in the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy.  Scylla had originally been a nymph, who was beloved by the sea-god Glaucus.  But the sorceress Circe, who also loved Glaucus, got revenge on her rival by poisoning a spring where Scylla liked to bathe.  The result was that Scylla was changed, from the waist down, into a monstrosity of barking, savage dogs.  She threw herself into the sea, and whoever sailed by her was attacked by the savage beasts below her waist.  There was also another Scylla, the daughter of Nisus, who fell in love with King Minos of Crete when Minos and Nisus were at war.  This Scylla betrayed her father in order to aid Minos, and then was spurned by Minos.  Line 124 ("It would be fitting for Scylla to harm ungrateful men") indicates that Ovid may be combining the two Scyllas here.

Scythia:  An area which is mostly in modern-day southern Russia.  It was ruled by a nomadic people, the Scythians, who herded livestock and were skilled metal-workers and fierce warriors.  They were regarded by the Greeks as barbarians, and their land was regarded as cold and inhospitable.

she who spews up the flood:  Charybdis.

sisters who pay out the thread of mortality:  The Fates, who spin out, and ultimately cut off, human lives as longer or shorter threads.

Sisyphus:  Legendary founder of Corinth, who is said to have been greedy and to have acquired much of his wealth by trickery.  In the afterlife, he was punished eternally by having to roll a large stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down again so that he had to start over.

Symplegades:  The "Clashing Rocks" that guarded the entrance to the Hellespont (the Hellespont sits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea).  These rocks were said to move apart and then clash back together again, crushing whatever was between them.  The Argo was supposed to have been the first ship to pass safely between them.  Jason let a dove fly through the rocks to see if the passage was safe; the dove passed through, losing only its tail feathers as the rocks crashed together behind it. Jason and his Argonauts then rowed mightily through the passage, and the Argo made the hazardous trip safely, losing only a piece of her stern ornament. After the Argo's successful journey, the Symplegades stopped moving and became firmly rooted in the sea.

Thessaly:  A region of northern Greece; a person from that region.  Jason's home, Iolcus, was an important port city in Thessaly.

three-fold face:  In some accounts, the goddess Diana had three personae or identities:  as the moon in the heavens, as Diana on the earth, and as Proserpina (wife of Pluto) in the underworld.

Tinacrian waters:  The seas near Sicily, presumably in the Straits of Messina where Scylla and Charybdis were supposed to be located.

Tyrian purple:  Cloth colored with a rich purple dye made from a variety of mollusk.  The dye was first devised in the Phoenician city of Tyre, which maintained a monopoly on its manufacture for many years.  It was very expensive and was generally reserved for royalty.

untested ship:  The Argo, which was unlike any other ship ever built.  Its maiden voyage was to Colchis, on the quest for the Golden Fleece.




This page created and maintained by James M. Hunter

Comments and suggestions welcome:

Last updated 06/23/2013