Text of the Poem
Danaus, king of Argos, had fifty daughters; his brother, Aegyptus, king of Egypt, had fifty sons. Aegyptus wanted Danaus' daughters as brides for his sons. However, Danaus feared a prophecy that said that his son-in-law would kill him, and refused. Aegyptus and his sons waged war against Danaus, who finally agreed to the marriages. On the wedding night, however, Danaus gave each of his daughters a dagger, and ordered them to kill their new husbands. Hypermnestra was the only daughter who refused to carry out Danaus' order; she spared her husband, Lynceus, and helped him to escape. When her father discovered her betrayal, he had her imprisoned. Hypermnestra writes to Lynceus from prison, lamenting the injustice of her fate, reminding him that she spared his life, and urging him to come to her assistance.
The background starts three or four generations back, with the beautiful nymph, Io, who was the great-grandmother of Danaus and Aegyptus. Io was the daughter of a river god, Inachus, and her beauty attracted the attention of the king of the gods, Jove. Io refused his advances, but Jove would not be put off--he pursued her and raped her. Unfortunately, Jove had a wife, the goddess Juno (who was also his sister). Juno was intensely jealous of her husband's extra-marital activities and had a history of taking her revenge, not on Jove himself, but on the women he was unfaithful with, even when they had been unwilling participants in Jove's adultery. In order to hide his latest infidelity from Juno, Jove turned Io into a heifer, or young cow. Even as a heifer, Io remained strikingly beautiful, and Juno, who was familiar with her husband's deceits, became suspicious. She asked Jove to give the heifer to her as a gift. Jove was afraid to arouse Juno's suspicions further, and so he gave the heifer to her. Juno promptly set the hundred-eyed, unsleeping guardian, Argus, to watch over the heifer and see to it that neither Jove nor anyone else interfered with it.
At this point, Io was truly miserable. She had unexpectedly and undeservedly been turned into a cow, forced to eat grass and drink from streams and pools. She could not even speak to complain about her situation or alert others to her plight, since all she could do was low like a cow. To make matters worse, she was now a prisoner of Jove's jealous wife, with no prospect of ever regaining her human form. However Jove--whether out of pity for her or from motives of his own--sent the god Mercury to set her free. Mercury used his music to lull the guardian, Argus, to sleep, and then cut off his head. Io was set free to roam the landscape.
But Io's troubles were not over yet. For one thing, she still had the form of a cow. For another, Juno was enraged at the death of her guardian, Argus, and sent the Furies, the terrible goddesses of vengeance, to torment her rival. Io wandered all across the world for a long time, fleeing from the Furies, and lowing mournfully in her suffering. Finally she came to the banks of the Nile River in Egypt. At long last, Jove persuaded Juno to relent, and Io was returned to her human form. She bore Jove's son, Epaphus, and she herself was worshipped as a goddess in Egypt.
Now we can skip forward a couple of generations. Epaphus had a son, Belus, and Belus had two sons, Danaus and Aegyptus. It is Danaus and Aegyptus that bring us into the circumstances immediately behind the letter.
Aegyptus became king of Egypt, and Danaus traveled to Greece, where he became king of Argos. Aegyptus then fathered fifty sons, while Danaus had fifty daughters. After the children reached marriageable age, Aegyptus decided that he wanted Danaus' daughters as brides for his sons. But Danaus had learned of a prophecy that his son-in-law would kill him, and so he refused to consent to the marriages. Aegyptus and his sons were angry, and they made war on Danaus. Finally Danaus consented, and the marriages were arranged to take place in Argos.
But Danaus was not through yet. Rather than acquire a son-in-law who might kill him, he arranged to have all the brothers murdered on their wedding night. He gave daggers to all of his daughters, and ordered them to kill their newly-wedded husbands as they slept. The weddings duly took place, and wine flowed plentifully at the wedding feast so that the new bridegrooms slept heavily. Forty-nine of the daughters then carried out their father's orders, and killed their husbands. Only one, Hypermnestra, failed to do so. She spared her husband, Lynceus, and told him to flee from Argos in order to save his life.
The next morning, Danaus discovered that Lynceus was gone. He was enraged with Hypermnestra for her betrayal of him, and had her thrown into prison, despite her complaint that she was being punished essentially for failing to commit murder. She suffered in prison for some time, until Lynceus finally returned, killing Danaus to avenge the deaths of his brothers, and reclaiming Hypermnestra as his wife.
In some accounts, Hypermnestra's sisters (often called the "Danaids") were punished in the afterlife by being forced to try to carry water in sieves for all eternity.
Hypermnestra writes her letter while she is in prison, weighted down with chains. She urges Lynceus to come to her aid.
Lines 1-16: Hypermnestra opens the letter by identifying herself directly, by name. She identifies her husband much more obliquely, however ("the only one of so many brothers"), emphasizing the mass murder of the sons of Aegyptus rather than Lynceus' personal identity. She goes on immediately to state her own circumstances--she is in prison because she refused to kill her her husband; her only crime is being "dutiful." She says that she is not sorry for her refusal ("It is no shame to have hands unstained by slaughter."). She then plays on the objects surrounding the fatal wedding: the marriage torches that "my father may burn me with," and the sword, intended for Lynceus, that he may now "cut my throat with." She points out that she may now die the death intended for her husband. She closes the section by refusing to repent of her actions, and insisting that it would be more appropriate for her father and her sisters to repent.
Lines 17-20: In this short section, she gives an emotional preface to her narration of the events of the fatal night. She says that her heart "quakes with fear," and she speaks of the "sudden trembling" that keeps her from writing. She also implies that Lynceus may believe that she meant to murder him ("She whom you believe able to carry out her husband's murder"), and she defends herself by pointing out that, far from being capable of murder, she is even afraid to write about murders that she did not commit.
Lines 21-32: In this section, Hypermnestra begins her narration of the events of the wedding night. Just at dusk, the brides are led into the palace; since the wedding takes place in Argos, the palace is identified as "the roof of great Pelasgus," who was the legendary founder of the city. (It is also worth noting that she identifies the brides as "descendants of Inachus"--later in the letter she will digress at some length on the story of Io, Inachus' daughter and the great-great-grandmother of both Hypermnestra and Lynceus.) Her description of the scene is heavy with irony: the brides are described as "armed" when they are received by Aegyptus ("the father-in-law"), and while there are gold-adorned torches to illuminate the scene, the traditional incense is "impious" and the hearths on which it burns are "unwilling." The people attending the wedding invoke the marriage-god, Hymen, but "he avoids their call." Even Juno ("the wife of Jove") is absent. The bridegrooms, bedecked with traditional flowers and already rather drunk ("muddled with wine"), are conducted "joyously" into the marriage-chambers by their attendants. The section closes with a final reminder that their marriage-beds will prove to be fatal ("they press the beds that are worthy to be funeral biers").
Lines 33-42: In this section, Hypermnestra prepares her narrative for its emotional climax. The bridegrooms lie in a drunken sleep, and ironically everything seems peaceful. She says that she hears the groans of the dying men, and then spends the next few lines describing her own emotional state. Her blood leaves her and she feels cold, and she trembles like leaves or ears of grain in the wind. She closes the section by emphasizing Lynceus' own helplessness at this moment: "You yourself lay there/In the sleep the wine had given you."
Lines 43-66: In this section, she describes her own struggle over whether or not to kill Lynceus. She emphasizes her indecision dramatically, saying how she tried to carry out her father's orders, raising her blade three times to strike, and even putting it to her husband's throat. But, she says, she was stopped by "fear and duty." She then tears her dress and hair (the traditional signs of grief or great distress), and speaks "with a faint voice." The rest of the section is taken up with a recitation of what she said while crouched over Lynceus' sleeping form. The speech further dramatizes her indecision, swinging back and forth between killing Lynceus and sparing him. It can be a little confusing to read the first time through, since it alternates from argument to counter-argument in two-line segments. In the first two lines (53-54), she urges herself to kill Lynceus because she has been ordered to by her "cruel father." Then in the next two (55-56), she argues against the murder, saying that, as a woman, she is unsuited to weapons and violence. She invokes the examples of her sisters in the next two lines ("act to imitate your brave sisters"), and then counters by claiming (59-60) that if she could commit a murder at all, she would kill herself instead. In the next two lines (61-62), she argues that the brothers deserve to die ("they deserved this death for taking their uncle's kingdoms"), and then turns around (63-64) to ask why she should be forced to become guilty as well. She closes both the speech and the section in the last two lines by returning to the argument that she, as a woman, is unsuited to violence ("the wool and the distaff are more suitable for my hands").
Lines 67-78: In this section, she completes her account of the wedding night. She says that she wept as she spoke, shedding tears on Lynceus' sleeping form. He stirs and reaches to embrace her, almost wounding himself on her blade as he does so. She wakes him up, telling him that he must flee in order to save his life. He awakes instantly, and asks why she has a weapon in her hand. She does not answer his question, saying only "While night allows it, flee!" He leaves, while she stays behind.
Lines 79-84: In this section, Hypermnestra gives a brief account of the aftermath of the wedding night. In the morning, Danaus discovers that Lynceus has not been killed ("you alone are missing"), and he is angry that "not enough blood was shed." Hypermnestra is "dragged away from my father's feet," and "put in prison."
Lines 85-106: In this section, she begins her long digression on Io, her great-great-grandmother. She begins by blaming her family's misfortunes on the goddess Juno, who became angry with the whole lineage when her husband, Jove, became enamored of Io and raped her. She summarizes the situation very briefly in the second line of the section: after Jove raped Io, she was transformed into a cow, and then became a goddess. The rest of the section she spends in an emotional description of Io's sufferings. Io's transformation alone, she says, should have been enough punishment. Io's father was a river god, and Hypermnestra points out ironically that she sees the reflection of her new horns in her father's own waters. She has been robbed of human speech ("her mouth, trying to complain, brings forth only lowing"), and she is terrified at her transformation. She had been "the mistress of great Jove," and now she must eat "leaves and turf" and drink at a spring. She is even afraid that her own horns might wound her, and she must sleep naked on the ground. The section closes by pointing out that, although Io flees across the whole earth, she cannot flee from herself and her new form.
Lines 107-122: She opens this section by completing her digression on Io. Having spent twenty-one lines describing Io's sufferings, she covers her recovery in two, saying simply that the Nile River restored her to human form. She then returns immediately to her own present troubles ("why should I speak of distant things"). Her father and her uncle are at war, she says, and she even claims that "we are driven from our kingdom and our home" (something which has not happened yet). She then says that she weeps both for the brothers who were killed and for those who killed them, for she has "lost" her sisters as well. She closes the section with a renewed emphasis on her immediate plight--she is in prison, accused of doing something which she should have been praised for, and she is alone, "with only one brother remaining."
Lines 123-130: In this section, she brings her letter to its emotional climax. She appeals to Lynceus, calling herself his "sister" now, and reminding him that she saved his life ("that gift which I gave you"). She asks him either to help her, or to "give me to death" and give her a secret funeral. She even dictates the inscription for her tomb, emphasizing the unjustness of her death and her sacrifice for her husband.
Lines 131-132: She ends the letter briefly, on a note of pathos: she would like to write more, but the weight of the chains and her own fear have robbed her hand of strength.
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