Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Heroides

For those of you following my journey through Trojan myth, or with any kind of passing interest, I highly recommend you check out Ovid's The Heroides. You don't even have to read the whole of it-- each letter is labeled with the writer and the intended recipient. There are three which I've focused on, personally, in regard to Helen and Paris, V, XVI, and XVII. (There are a couple more dealing with different characters from the war--Achilles, Agamemnon, and children of these--but I'm running short on time to read all this stuff, so I haven't looked at them yet.)

The fifth letter is written by Oenone to Paris. Oenone, according to Ovid, is Paris's first wife. She was a nymph, and he left her behind in Troy to go after Helen. She appears to have written this letter after his return, when he brings Helen with him to replace her as his wife. Oenone is understandably pretty upset about all of this. She was Paris's wife, after all, before he was recognized as one of Priam's sons, and was just some poor shepherd in the woods. She warns him that Helen is going to bring his ruin, and that as an adulteress, he can't trust her. I can only imagine that Paris ignores all of this. It's unclear to me whether Oenone is kept on as a second, lesser wife of Paris's, or whether she's cast out. I don't know if she's living in the palace with them or not--I think I'll have to read through it again. But until I had read this, I wasn't aware that Paris had been previously married, and that element will be an excellent and interesting thing to explore, certainly, as I write.

The sixteenth and seventeenth letters, are part of what is referred to as the double letters. These were letters paired with their responses. The first is from Paris to Helen, begging her to consider his suit for her hand, and his love, and the second is Helen's response. Paris tells Helen the story of the three goddesses, Hera/Juno, Athena/Minerva and Aphrodite/Venus, who appear to him after Hermes/Mercury drops him the golden prize and orders him under Zeus/Jupiter's command to settle the issue of who is the fairest. Each of the goddesses offers Paris a prize if he chooses them. Aphrodite offers him Helen, and that's when his obsession with her is born. It's also the source for the enmity Hera and Athena have for Troy in The Iliad. They seek Troy's destruction because Paris chose Aphrodite over them.

Paris also talks about how angry and jealous it makes him to see Helen, while he's sitting beside her as a guest of Meneleus's, being groped and kissed and fondled by her husband. He makes the argument that as a daughter of Zeus, born out of deceit and adultery, she can't hope to avoid being an adulteress at some point or another, and so she may as well cheat with him as anyone, and he'll make sure she stays chaste and he is her only affair. He offers her many riches from Troy as his wife. He argues that his lineage is much finer than Meneleus's, and that Troy is a nobler and richer empire than Sparta, more worthy of her beauty and love. He proposes that while Meneleus is away on business in Crete, they take advantage of his absence and rendezvous to begin their affair. He argues that Meneleus ordered her to see to his Trojan guest, and if she doesn't give herself to him, she'll have disobeyed her husband's command. Very sly, our Paris. Very manipulative in his arguments.

In the second letter, Helen responds with a refusal. At first, you can clearly see her offense. The way he's gone about his argument, implying that she's unchaste, or doomed to be so because of her birth, insults her and her mother, and she's clearly upset by his presumption. But as the letter goes on, we can see that her resolve softens. She's offended, and she knows his advances are wrong, and she has no wish to be disloyal to her husband, but he is very handsome, and she's clearly flattered by his attention and profession of love. She tells him that if he had come when so many sought her hand in marriage, she would have chosen to marry him above Meneleus, but now that she's married he has no right to ask it of her. He has no right to make any arguments or suggestions that she should turn to him, and refuses to allow him into her bed while her husband is away. At least for now. Especially in light of the fact that Paris has already abandoned one wife, and so she can't trust him to be faithful to her either.

The whole thing kind of reminds me of Mr. Darcy's original proposal of marriage to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice when he explains in insulting terms the objection of her family and connections and low birth. (Could Jane Austen have been a fan of Ovid?) That's kind of the same way that Paris talks about Sparta and the circumstances of Helen's birth by Zeus and Leda--that is, Zeus somehow got Leda with child while disguised as a swan or something, I have to look it up. Even though Helen is a daughter of Zeus, or perhaps because she is a daughter of Zeus, a well known philanderer, she has adultery in her veins, and can't hope to remain virtuous.

Apparently also, as noted in both the letter from Oenone, and the letter from Paris, and Helen's response, Helen had already been kidnapped once by Theseus. He stole her away, by force, and then for some reason returned her. Helen claims that Theseus only took some kisses, and not her virtue. Oenone however accuses Helen of having given her virginity to him. And Paris himself seems to find it astonishing that Theseus gave her back at all, and suggests that even if he didn't take her virginity, there was some kind of hanky panky that went on, or at least that if it had been him, he would have made sure of it.
His words are:
I praise the fact he took you: I’m amazed he ever returned you.
a prize so great should have been held forever.
My head would have been severed from my blood-stained neck
before I’d have seen you taken from my bed.
Do you think my hands could ever wish to let you go?
Do you think that while I lived I’d let you leave my side?
If you’d had to be given up, still, before I produced you,
Venus would not have been entirely idle,
Either I’d have taken your virginity, or I’d have snatched
what I could, leaving you still intact.
Helen is offended, obviously, by the raising of this issue at all and responds with:
Perhaps because Neptune’s hero, Theseus, took me by force,
once taken I’m thought worthy of being taken twice?
If I’d been seduced, the crime would have been mine:
since I was forced, what was I but unwilling?
He still didn’t get from his deed the fruits he sought:
I returned untouched except by fear.
The insolent man only stole a few kisses:
he had nothing further from me.
Your wickedness mightn’t have been content with that.
The gods help me! He wasn’t like you.
He returned me intact, and his restraint lessened the crime,
and it’s obvious the young man repented of his actions.
Oenone's comments, just to show all three sides of the story, are these:
Theseus stole her away from her country before.
A young man, and passionate, do we believe she returned a virgin?
How did I learn all this, you rightly ask? I love!
You might call it violence, and hide her crime, by a word:
but she who gets raped so often, offers herself to rape.
And wow, that last line packs a punch. She who gets raped so often, offers herself to rape. An accusation repeated by men throughout history, put into the mouth of a woman. I'll say this--Ovid had a lot of nerve. Although perhaps in Helen's case, it isn't uncalled for. Certainly she seems to end up going willingly to Paris in the end, though we don't see that in Ovid's Heroides.

This all leaves us with some lingering questions about Helen's virtue. If she is as virtuous as she says, or if she allowed herself to be stolen that first time too. In the Iliad (at least the translation I'm reading) we see Helen referring to herself as a whore, repeatedly. I wonder if that's a reflection on this same issue--an implied admission, perhaps? Ovid's letters come long after Homer put down the story of the Trojan war, though, so that's something to take into account as well. How much of this is based on actual myth, and how much just on Ovid's enjoyment of a good story?

But this is the most interesting question in regard to myth vs. fiction: Where's the line between the two? Could new stories created through fiction about old gods and heroes just be considered part of the mythology surrounding that god or hero? When a person writes about mythology, are they simply adding to the existing library? These stories began, we imagine, as simply stories themselves, right? If that's so, then why can't any new ones be part of the history? I often wonder this about Norse Mythology and Thor's personal mythology in regard to the comic books Marvel puts out with his name on it. In a hundred years, or a thousand years, or two thousand years, when people look back on it, are they going to think it's all part of the same cult? The same mythology? Why would they have any reason to distinguish between the old Norse Thor stories, and the more modern updates of his character in the comics? How will they decide what counts as Myth, and what counts as fiction?

Anyway, I think this is definitely worth a read if you're interested. There's a link in the sidebar as well as the one up top in this entry. Feel free to post your response and comments to the Helen/Paris/Oenone drama. I'd love to see any other insights!


  1. Another history fan- I'm so excited to find your blog!

    I had no idea that Paris had been previously married either. That adds a whole new angle onto the classic story, now doesn't it?

    I love digging through old histories. It's amazing the details that get left out in the modern retellings.

  2. I was pretty thrilled to find yours too! Ancient Egypt has always interested me-- though not to the same extent of research as the Norse and Olympian traditions. I actually have been playing a little bit with Amun-Ra of late, however! Excellent timing all around.

    Paris being married makes the whole thing twice as offensive-- although I'm fairly certain Priam had multiple wives (or at least he had an obscene number of sons), so perhaps marrying more than once wasn't entirely out of the norm? I'll have to look into it, but certainly we don't really hear much about Oenone anywhere else.


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