Heroines: Ovid’s ‘Heroides’, fictional letters from great women – an index and more

Paulus Bor (circa 1601–1669), Ariadne (1630-35), oil on canvas, 149 x 106 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poznań, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Ovid’s most controversial works, his Heroides (which means ‘heroines’) could have been written early in his career, or quite late, and some have claimed that few of its letters were even written by him. Until the late nineteenth century, they were among his most popular works, at times better-known than his Metamorphoses. Bizarrely, it was after the critical attention that they received during the nineteenth century that they declined in popularity.

The Heroides consist of two series of letters, and Ovid claimed that they established a new genre of epistolary (poetic) fiction. The genre has developed considerably since, although it remains limited in scope and popularity.

The first series, consisting of letters 1 to 15, are fictional letters written by a woman, one of Ovid’s heroines, to her partner during a time of separation. The situations vary considerably, from Penelope’s imminent reunion with her husband after twenty years apart, to several who knew that they could never be reunited and chose suicide.

The second series, letters 16 to 21, consists of three pairs of fictional letters, the first from the man to the woman, and the second from the woman to the man, in relationships in which Ovid considers the woman to have been a heroine. They are accounts of famous couples, whose lives were not necessarily ended because of their relationship. Indeed, the collection ends with the thoroughly positive story of Cydippe and Acontius, who seem to have lived happily thereafter.

The most recent literary critical examinations of Ovid’s letters consider them to have been highly innovative in their approach to gender and its roles. For a male Augustan poet to have even considered writing such a collection seems extraordinary. When you read the individual letters, many have deep insight, and a timelessness which is exceptional among contemporary literature.

The Heroides have inspired many fine paintings and other works of art over the centuries, many of which share Ovid’s radical ideas on women and their roles. I hope that this occasional series of articles reflects those paintings, and does justice to Ovid’s poetic epistles.

References

Wikipedia.
AS Kline’s translation.
James M Hunter‘s translation and commentaries.
The Latin Library‘s text in Latin.
Downloadable PDFs of Loeb Classical Library – L041 includes the Heroides in English and Latin.
Arthur Palmer’s edition and commentary (1898).

Boyd, Barbara W (ed) (2002) Brill’s Companion to Ovid, Brill. ISBN 978 90 04 22676 0.
Hardie, Philip (2002) The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 77528 1.
Knox, Peter E (ed) (2009, 2013) A Companion to Ovid, Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978 1 118 45134 2.
Syme, Sir Ronald (1978) History in Ovid, Oxford UP. ISBN 019 814825 9.

Kenney, EJ (1996) Ovid Heroides, XVI-XXI, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 46623 3.
Knox, Peter E (1995) Ovid Heroides, Select Epistles, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 36834 6.
Palmer, A (ed) (1898, 2005) Ovid Heroides, vol 1, Latin text, Bristol Phoenix Press. ISBN 978 1 904675 05 0.
Palmer, A (ed) (1898, 2005) Ovid Heroides, vol 2, Commentary, Bristol Phoenix Press. ISBN 978 1 904675 06 8.

Gantz, Timothy (1993) Early Greek Myth, A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, vol 1, Johns Hopkins UP. ISBN 978 0 801 85360 9.
Gantz, Timothy (1993) Early Greek Myth, A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, vol 2, Johns Hopkins UP. ISBN 978 0 801 85362 3.
Morford, MPO, Lenardon, RJ, & Sham, M (2015) Classical Mythology, 10th ed., Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 999739 8.

1: Penelope to Ulysses – Love’s Restless Fear: Penelope’s story

rossettipenelope
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Penelope (1869), chalk, primarily red, 90.2 × 71.1 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

2: Phyllis to Demophoon – The Over-Exposed Warrior, the Suicide Pact, and the Almond Tree

burnejonesphyllisdemophoon
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), bodycolour and watercolour with gold medium and gum arabic on composite layers of paper on canvas, 47.5 x 93.8 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

3: Briseis to Achilles – Pride and Petulance: How one woman almost saved Troy

deshaysbriseis
Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays (1729–1765), Briseis Led from the Tent of Achilles (c 1761), oil on canvas, 83 x 78.5 cm, Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

4: Phaedra to Hippolytus – The Largest Salon, the Wicked Stepmother, and a Fatal Lie

cabanelphaedra
Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), Phaedra (1880), oil on canvas, 194 x 286 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

5: Oenone to Paris – President’s Park, the Titanic, and a Name on a Tree

dewitparisoenone
Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Paris and Oenone (1737), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 146.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

6: Hypsipyle to Jason – Bigamy, sorcery, and rotting timbers: was Jason just another rat?

reinharthypsipyle
Johann Christian Reinhart (1761-1847), Classic landscape with Hypsipyle and Opheltes (1816), oil, dimensions not known, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

7: Dido to Aeneas – It wasn’t their fault: Dido and Aeneas as a doomed couple

fuselidido
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Dido (1781), oil on canvas, 244.3 x 183.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

8: Hermione to Orestes – Spouse-swapping, matricide, and Harry Potter

girodetmeetingoresteshermione
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767-1824), The Meeting of Orestes and Hermione (c 1800), pen and brown and black ink, point of brush and brown and gray wash, with black chalk and graphite, heightened with white gouache on cream wove paper, 28.5 x 21.8 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art (Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund), Cleveland, OH. Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art.

9: Deianira to Hercules – A Troubled Woman, Centaur’s Blood, and Hercules as Martyr and Cross-Dressing, Feminism, and the Greek Demi-God

demorgandeianera
Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Deianira (c 1878), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

10: Ariadne to Theseus

borariadne
Paulus Bor (circa 1601–1669), Ariadne (1630-35), oil on canvas, 149 x 106 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poznań, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

11: Canace to Macareus
12: Medea to Jason – Sorcery Seldom Succeeds: Painting Medea and Jason

sandysmedea
Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

13: Laodamia to Protesilaus
14: Hypermnestra to Lynceus – Fifty Brides for Fifty Brothers, and their Unexpected Wedding Night

waterhousedanaides1903
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Danaides (1903), oil on canvas, 111 × 154.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

15: Sappho to Phaon
16, 17: Paris to Helen, Helen to Paris
18, 19: Leander to Hero, Hero to Leander
20, 21: Acontius to Cydippe, Cydippe to Acontius – A Message on an Apple, and Two Abandoned Lovers

borcydippe
Paulus Bor (c 1601–1669), Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple (date not known), oil on canvas, 151 x 113.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.