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Ovid, Heroides XIV

Introduction and Synopsis

Hypermnestra to Lynceus

Hypermnestra sends to the only one of so many brothers--
The rest of the group lie dead by the crime of their wives.
I am held, confined in the house, and restrained with heavy chains;
The reason for my punishment was that I was dutiful.
Because my hand dreaded to plunge the steel into your throat,
I am accused; I would have been praised, if I had dared the evil deed.
It is better to be accused, than thus to have pleased my father;
It is no shame to have hands unstained by slaughter.
My father may burn me with that flame which I would not violate,
And hold in my face the torches that were present at my marriage rites;
Or he may cut my throat with that sword that he gave to me for no good purpose,
So that the death my husband did not die, I, the wife, will die--
Nevertheless, he would not cause my lips to say "I repent" as I die.
She is not dutiful who is ashamed of her duty.
Let Danaus repent of crime, and my savage sisters;
This is the usual event to follow wicked deeds.




My heart quakes with fear at the memory of that night defiled with blood,
And a sudden trembling chains the bones of my right hand.
She whom you believe able to carry out her husband's murder
Fears to write of murders not done by herself!


But I will try nevertheless.  Twilight had just come to the earth;
It was the last part of daylight and the first part of night.
We, the descendants of Inachus, are led beneath the roof of great Pelasgus,
And the father-in-law himself receives his armed daughters-in-law.
On all sides shine the torches ringed with gold;
Impious incense is given to unwilling hearths;
The people cry "Hymen, Hymenaeus!"  He avoids their call;
The wife of Jove herself has withdrawn from her city!
Behold, muddled with wine, amid the cries of their retinue, the crowd of men,
With fresh flowers entangled in their damp hair,
Are borne rejoicing into the marriage-chambers--the marriage-chambers, their graves!--
And with their bodies they press the beds that are worthy to be funeral biers.




And now, heavy with wine and food and sleep they lay,
And deep peace was in tranquil Argos--
Around me I seemed to hear the groans of the dying;
And yet I did hear it, and that which I feared was true.
My blood left me, and warmth abandoned my mind and body,
And in my new wedding-bed I lay, made cold.
As the slender ears of grain are shaken by the gentle Zephyr,
As the icy breeze shakes the poplar leaves,
Either thus, or even more did I tremble.  You yourself lay there
In the sleep the wine had given you.




The orders of my violent father struck away fear;
I arise and seize the weapon in a trembling hand.
I will not speak falsehood: three times my hand raised the sharp sword;
Three times it fell back with the evilly raised sword.
I brought it to your throat--let me confess the truth to you--
I brought my father's weapon to your throat.
But fear and duty opposed the cruel act,
And my pure right hand shrank from the ordered deed.
Tearing the purple folds of my dress, tearing my hair,
I spoke with a faint voice words such as these:
"You have a cruel father, Hypermnestra; carry out
Your parent's command; let this one be companion to his brothers!
I am a woman and a maiden, gentle in nature and in years;
Soft hands are not suited to fierce weapons.
But come now, while he lies there, act to imitate your brave sisters--
It is likely that all their husbands are murdered!
If this hand could commit any murder,
It would be bloody with the death of its mistress.
They deserved this death for taking their uncle's kingdoms;
We wander, a helpless crowd, with the helpless old man.
Imagine that our husbands deserved to die--what have we ourselves done?
What crime has been committed by me that I am not allowed to be virtuous?
What have I to do with a sword?  What does a girl have to do with warlike weapons?
The wool and the distaff are more suitable for my hands."






Thus I speak; and while I complain, tears follow their own words,
And fall from my eyes onto your limbs.
While you seek an embrace, and toss your sleepy arms,
Your hand is almost wounded by the weapon.
And now I feared my father and my father's servants and the light;
I drove away your sleep with these, my words:
"Arise, go, descendant of Belus, the only one of so many brothers!
This night, if you do not hurry, will be eternal for you!"
Terrified, you rise up; all the sluggishness of sleep flees;
You see the powerful weapon in my timid hand.
You ask the reason; "While night allows it, flee!"  I say.
While the dark night allows it, you flee; I stay.




It was morning, and Danaus counted his sons-in-law lying murdered.
You alone are missing from the fulfillment of the crime.
He takes badly the loss of the death of a single relative
And complains that not enough blood was shed.
I am dragged away from my father's feet, and seized by the hair--
Duty deserved this reward!--I am put in prison.



Certainly Juno's wrath has lasted from that time
When a human became a cow, and the cow was made a goddess.
But it is enough punishment that the tender girl lows like a cow,
And cannot, by her beauty, please Jove.
The new heifer stood on the banks of her father's flowing stream,
And saw in her father's waters the horns that were not her own,
Her mouth, trying to complain, brings forth only lowing,
And her form is terrifying, her voice is terrifying.
Why do you rave, unfortunate one?  Why wonder at yourself in the reflection?
Why count the feet given to your new body?
The mistress of great Jove, feared by his sister,
You must relieve your great hunger with leaves and turf,
Drink at a spring and gaze astonished at your image
And fear lest the weapons that you bear should wound you.
You who only now were so rich that you could seem worthy even of Jove,
Naked, recline upon the naked ground.
Over sea, over land and the streams of your relatives you run;
The sea gives way to you, and the streams and the land.
What is the cause of your flight? Why do you wander over the wide seas?
You will not be able to flee from your own face.
Daughter of Inachus, why do you hurry?  You follow and flee the same thing;
You are the leader of your companion; you yourself are companion to your leader.





The Nile, sent out to the sea through seven mouths,
Takes away from the raving cow the features of the concubine.
Why do I speak of distant things, told to me by gray old men?
My own years, behold, give cause that I should complain.
My father and my uncle wage war; we are driven from our kingdom and our home;
We are cast out to the ends of the earth.
. . .
Of a host of brothers only the smallest part remains.
For those who were given death, and for those who gave it, I weep;
For so many brothers, as many sisters have been lost to me.
Let both groups receive my tears!
See!  I, because you live, am kept for the tortures of punishment;
What will be done with the guilty, when I am accused for things of praise,
And, once the hundredth part of a crowd of siblings,
I fall, unhappy, with only one brother remaining?




But you, Lynceus, if you have any care for your sister's duty,
And if you are worthy of that gift which I gave you,
Either bring me aid, or give me to death, and when my body is finished with life,
Place it atop a secret funeral pyre,
And bury my bones sprinkled with faithful tears,
And let my tomb be inscribed with this brief inscription:
"Exiled Hypermnestra, as the unjust reward for duty,
Bore the death which she turned aside from her brother."



I would like to write more, but my hand falls under the weight of the chains,
And fear itself takes away strength.



This page created and maintained by James M. Hunter

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Last updated 06/23/2013