Ovid: The Heroides


Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved

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VIII: Hermione to Orestes

Hermione speaks to one lately her cousin and husband,

now her cousin. The wife has changed her name.

Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, proud, in his father’s image,

holds me imprisoned contrary to piety and justice.

I have refused what I could, so as not be held against my will,

a woman’s hand has not the power to do more.

‘Scion of Aeacus, what are you doing? I’m not without a champion’

I said, ‘to you, Pyrrhus, this girl is under his command!’

Deafer than the sea, he dragged me under his roof,

my hair unbound, and I calling on Orestes’s name.

How could I have endured worse, as a slave in a captured Sparta,

if a barbarian horde were to seize a daughter of Greece?

Andromache was less abused by victorious Achaia,

when Greek flames might have burnt the wealth of Troy.

But you, Orestes, if my affectionate care for you moves you,

take possession of me, without cowardice, as is your right!

You’d surely take up arms if someone snatched your cattle

from the closed stable, will you be slower for a captive wife?

Let your father-in-law, Menelaus, be your example in reclaiming

a lost wife, a girl who was the cause of a just war:

if my father had wept in his empty palace like a coward,

my mother would be married to Paris as before.

Don’t ready a thousand ships with swelling canvas

or hosts of Greek warriors: come yourself!

Yet if I too were won back in this way, it’s no shame for a husband

to have endured fierce war for his dear marriage bed.

Why, since Atreus, Pelop’s son, is our mutual grandfather,

even if you weren’t my husband, you’d still be my cousin.

Husband, I beg you, aid your wife, cousin aid your cousin:

both titles urge you to perform your duty.

Tyndareus gave me to you, he, my ancestor, heavy with experience,

and years: the grandfather decided for the grand-child.

But Menelaus, my father, made a promise of me, unaware of this act:

yet a grandfather has more power than a father, being first in rank.

When I married you, my wedding harmed no one:

if I unite with Pyrrhus, you’ll be hurt by me.

And my father, Menelaus, may know nothing of our love:

he himself succumbed to the arrows of the swift-winged god.

The love he allowed himself, he should pardon in a son-in-law.

My mother appears as an example to him.

You are to me as my father was to Helen, my mother. The part

that Paris, a Trojan stranger, once played, Pyrrhus performs.

He may boast endlessly about his father’s, Achilles’s, deeds,

you also have your father’s actions to speak about.

Agamemnon, Tantalus’s scion, ruled over all, even Achilles:

the latter a soldier, the former was lord of lords.

You too have Pelops and his father, Tantalus, as ancestors:

if you counted carefully, you’d be the fifth from Jove.

Nor do you lack worth. You bore the weapons of hate:

but why might you have done so? Your father’s fate endowed you.

I wish you might have had better reasons for courage:

the work was not of your choosing, the cause was forced on you.

You still fulfilled your duty: Aegisthus, from his open throat,

stained the house with blood, as your father had before.

Pyrrhus, scion of Aeacus, speaks against you, turns praise

to blame, and still maintains it to my face.

I am violated, and my face swells with feeling,

and my inflamed emotions grieve me with hidden fires.

Who has not taunted Orestes in Hermione’s presence:

I have no power, there’s no cruel sword here!

Truly I can weep: I diffuse anger in weeping,

and tears flow like streams over my breast.

I have only these, always, and always I pour them out:

they wet my neglected cheeks, from a perennial fountain.

Surely, by the fate of my race, that tracks us through the years,

the mothers of Tantalus’s line are suited to be prey?

I’ll not repeat the lies of the swan of the river to Leda,

or complain of Jupiter hiding under its plumage.

Far off where the long Isthmus divides two seas,

Hippodamia was carried of by the stranger’s, Pelops’s, chariot.

Two sisters, Phoebe and Hilaeira, were brought back to the city

of Taenarus, from Messene, by Castor and Pollux, of Amyclae.

Helen was taken from Taenarus, across the sea to Ida, by a stranger,

Paris, on account of whom the Greeks turned to their weapons.

Of course I can scarcely remember it. Yet I remember:

everyone grieving, everyone full of anxious fears.

Grandfather cried, and aunt Phoebe, and the Twins,

Leda prayed to the heavens and her Jupiter.

Even then I cut my hair that was not yet long

calling: ‘Without me, mother, why do you go without me?’

Now a husband will leave. Lest I may be thought not Pelops’s scion,

see I was prepared as a prize for Pyrrhus, this Neoptolemus.

I wish Apollo’s bow had avoided Achilles, son of Peleus!

The father would condemn the son for his violent deed.

A bereaved husband crying for his abducted bride

didn’t please Achilles then, nor would it have pleased him now.

Why do the hostile heavens cause me injury?

Why must I complain that a troubled destiny harms me?

My childhood was motherless: father was at the war:

and while both lived, I was bereaved of both.

Not for you, my mother, the charming lispings of those tender years,

spoken by your daughter’s uncertain mouth.

I did not clasp your neck with tiny arms,

or sit, a welcome burden, on your lap.

You didn’t tend my dress, nor on my marriage

did I enter a new marriage bed, prepared by my mother.

When you returned I came out to meet you – I confess the truth –

my mother’s face was not familiar!

Yet I knew you were Helen, as you were the most beautiful:

you yourself asked which child was your daughter.

This alone is mine: that Orestes is happily my husband:

he too will be taken from me, if he doesn’t fight for his own.

Pyrrhus has a prisoner, though my father returns victorious:

and this is the gift to me from Troy’s destruction!

When the Sun with his radiant horses holds the heights,

I still enjoy, unhappily, my little freedom:

when night shuts me in my room, with crying and bitter groans,

and I sink down on my sorrowful bed,

tears instead of sleep are made to spring up in my eyes

and I shrink from my husband as if from an enemy.

Often I’m stupefied by my ills and forgetful of things,

and where I am, and, unaware, I touch a limb from Scyros:

and I feel the wrong, and draw away from the body I touched,

in error, and I think my very hand to be polluted.

Often Orestes’s name escapes me rather than Neoptolemus,

and I love the error in my speech as if it were an omen.

I swear by my unhappy tribe and Jove, the father of that tribe,

who shakes the seas and lands and his own realm:

by your father’s, my uncle’s, bones, who requires of you

that he might lie beneath his mound bravely avenged:

that either I shall die early, and be lost in my first youth,

or I, descendant of Tantalus, shall be wife to his descendant.


IX:  Deianira to Hercules

A letter, that shares her feelings, sent to Alcides

by your wife, if Deianira is your wife.

I give thanks that Oechalia is added to our titles,

I lament that the victor succumbs to his victory.

A sudden rumour spreads through the Pelasgian cities

tarnishing, and denying, your deeds:

you, whom neither Juno nor her succession of mighty labours

could crush: Iole has placed the yoke on you.

King Eurystheus would enjoy this, the Thunderer’s sister too,

that stepmother delighting in the blemish to your career.

But Jupiter would not, for whom (if it’s to be believed)

one night was not sufficient to father so great a child.

Venus has harmed you more than Juno: the latter, burdened you,

and raised you up, the former holds your neck beneath her foot.

Behold, a world pacified by your protective strength,

where sea-green Nereus circles the wide earth.

The lands owe their peace to you, the oceans their safety:

your merits fill the sun’s two horizons.

The sky where you will live, you once bore:

Hercules, replacing Atlas, held up the stars.

What will you have gained except notoriety for your sad disgrace

if you add a known unchastity to your former deeds?

Do you insist on what is said, that, in your tender cradle,

you squeezed two snakes tightly, and were once worthy of Jove?

You started better than you finish: the end’s inferior

to the beginning: this man differs from that child.

What a thousand wild beasts, Sthenelus your enemy,

and Juno, could not conquer, Love has conquered.

But they say I married well, since I’m called Hercules’s wife,

and my father-in-law is he who thunders through the heights.

The ox that comes to the plough unequally yoked

is weighed down like the lesser wife of a greater husband.

It’s a burden not an honour to endure a flawed splendour,

if you wish to be well married, marry an equal.

My husband’s always away, more like a guest than a husband,

and he chases after vile monsters and wild beasts.

I, occupied with my chaste prayers in this empty house,

torment myself that he’s downed by some aggressive enemy:

I’m troubled by serpents, wild boars, hungry lions,

and hounds that cling to him with their triple jaws.

I’m worried by sacrificial entrails, vain dream phantoms,

and secret omens searched for in the night.

Unhappy, I try to catch the murmurings of uncertain rumour:

I’m made fearful by wavering hope, and hope is killed by fear.

Your mother Alcmena is absent, and grieves that she pleased the god,

neither your father Amphitryon nor your son Hyllus are here.

I suffer Eurystheus, your judge through the cunning of unjust Juno,

and I suffer the endless anger of the goddess.

That is enough to bear: but you add foreign lovers,

and whichever girl wishes to can become a mother by you.

I won’t mention Auge, violated in the valleys of Parthenius,

or your child Tlepolemus by the nymph Astydameia:

it wasn’t your fault, that crowd of Thespius’s daughters,

of whose company not one was left alone by you.

There’s one recent sin, reported to me, Omphale, the adulteress,

by whom I’m made a stepmother to your Lydian Lamus.

Maeander, which wanders about so greatly through that same land,

often returning his weary waters back on themselves,

saw a necklace hanging from Hercules’s neck,

that neck to which the heavens were a small burden.

Weren’t you ashamed, your strong arms circled with gold,

and jewels placed on your bulging muscles?

Surely the breath of the Nemean lion was expelled by those arms,

that pestilential beast whose skin you wear on your left shoulder.

You dare to crown your long hair with a turban!

White poplar leaves are more fitting for Hercules.

Aren’t you ashamed at having been reduced to circling your waist

with a Maeonian belt like an impudent girl?

Don’t you recall the memory of cruel Diomede,

that savage who fed his horses on human flesh?

If Busiris had seen you dressed like this, surely he’d have been ashamed

to be have been conquered by such a conqueror!

Antaeus would tear the bands from your strong neck,

lest he regret surrendering to such a weakling!

They say you held a basket among the Ionian girls

and were frightened by your mistress’s threats.

Did your hand not draw back, assigned its smooth basket,

Alcides, conqueror of a thousand labours,

and did you draw out the thread with your strong thumb,

and was an equally handsome weight of wool returned?

Ah! How often, while your rough fingers twisted the thread,

your over-heavy hand broke the spindle!

Of course you’ll have told of deeds, hiding that they were yours:

squeezing savage snakes by their throats,

entangling your infant hands in their coils:

how the Tegaean boar would lie in Erymanthian cypress woods

and damage the earth with his great weight:

you wouldn’t be silent about those heads hung on Thracian houses,

nor Diomede’s mares fattened on human bodies,

nor the triple monster, rich in Spanish cattle,

Geryon, who was three monsters in one:

and Cerberus the hound with as many bodies split from one,

his hair entangled by a threatening snake:

the fertile serpent born again from her fecund wound,

and she herself enriched by her losses.

and he who hung between your left arm and left side,

a weary weight as you crushed his throat,

and the Centaurs’ battered troop on the heights of Thessaly,

trusting wrongly in their speed and dual form.

Can you speak of that, marked out by Sidonian dress?

Shouldn’t your tongue fall silent curbed by your clothing?

Iole, the nymph, daughter of Iardanus, also wears your arms

and bears a familiar trophy from her captive hero.

Go on then, excite your courage and review your great deeds:

swear by that she’s the hero you should be.

By as much as you are the less, greatest of men, so much the greater

her victory over you, than yours over those you conquered.

The measure of your goods goes to her, give up your wealth:

your mistress is the inheritor of your worth.

O shame! The rough pelt stripped from the ribs

of a bristling lion covers her tender flank!

You are wrong and don’t realise: her spoils aren’t from a lion,

but from you: you’re the creature’s conqueror, she’s yours.

A woman bears the black shaft with Lernean poison,

one scarcely fitted to carry the heavy distaff of wool,

and lifts in her hand the club that tamed wild beasts,

and gazes at my husband’s arms in her mirror.

Yet I still had only heard this: I could ignore the rumours,

and grief came to the senses gently on the breeze.

Now a foreign rival is brought before my eyes,

and I cannot hide from myself what I suffer!

You won’t let me avoid her: she walks like a captive

through the middle of the city to be seen by unwilling eyes.

But not with unbound hair in the manner of a captive:

she confesses her good fortune by her seemly looks,

walking, visible far and wide, covered with gold,

just as you yourself were dressed in Phrygia:

showing her proud face to the crowd like Hercules’s conqueror:

you’d think Oechalia still stood, with her father living:

and perhaps Aetolian Deianira will be beaten off,

and Iole will be your wife, dropping the label of mistress,

and wicked Hymen will join the shameful bodies

of Iole, Eurytus’s daughter and Aonian Hercules.

My mind shuns the idea, and a chill runs through my body,

and my listless hand lies here in my lap.

You have loved me too among others, but without sin:

don’t regret I was twice a reason for you to fight.

Achelous, weeping, lifted his broken horn from the wet bank,

and immersed his maimed head in the muddy waters:

Nessus the Centaur sank into the fatal Evenus,

and discoloured its waves with his equine blood.

But why do I recall this? Written news comes,

rumour that my husband’s dying from the poison in his tunic.

Ah me! What have I done? What madness has my love caused?

Impious Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?

Or shall your husband tear himself apart on Mount Oeta,

and you, the cause of so much wickedness, survive?

If I have had reasons till now why I should be thought

Hercules’s wife, let my death be a pledge of our union.

You will recognise a sister of yours in me too, Meleager!

Impious Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?

Alas for my accursed house! Agrius sits on Calydon’s high throne:

defenceless old age weighs on forsaken Oeneus:

Tydeus, my brother, is an exile on an unknown shore:

the other, Meleager, was burned by the fatal flame.

Althaea, our mother, pierced her breast with a blade.

Impious Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?

This one thing I plead, by the most sacred law of the marriage-bed,

lest I appear to have plotted for your death:

Nessus, when his covetous breast was struck by the arrow,

whispered: ‘This blood has power over love.’

Oh, I sent you the fabric smeared with Nessus’s poison.

Impious Deianira, why do you hesitate to die?

Now farewell my aged father, and you, my sister Gorge,

and my land, and my brother wrenched from that land,

and you the last day’s light to meet my eyes: and my husband –

but O can he still be - and Hyllus my son, farewell!


X:  Ariadne to Theseus

Even now, left to the wild beasts, she might live, cruel Theseus.

Do you expect her to have endured this too, patiently?

The whole tribe of creatures contrive to be gentler than you:

not one have I had less confidence in than you.

Theseus, what you read has been sent to you from this land,

from which your sails carried your ship without me,

in which my sleep, and you, evilly betrayed me,

conceiving your plans against me while I slept.

It was the time when the earth’s first sprinkled with glassy frost,

and the hidden birds lament in the leaves:

waking uncertainly, and stirring languidly in sleep,

half-turning, my hand reached out for Theseus:

there was no one there. I drew back, and tried again,

and moved my arm across the bed: no one there.

Fear broke through my drowsiness: terrified, I rose

and hurled my body from the empty bed.

Straight away my hands drummed on my breast, and tore at my hair,

just as it was, on waking, from my confused sleep.

There was a moon: I looked and saw nothing but the shore:

wherever my eyes could see, there was nothing but sand.

I ran here and there without any sense of purpose,

the deep sand slowing a girl’s feet.

Meanwhile I called: ‘Theseus!’ over the whole beach

your name echoing from the hollow cliffs

and as often as I called you, the place itself called too:

the place itself wished to give aid to my misery.

There was a hill: a few bushes were visible on its summit:

a crag hangs there hollowed out by the harsh waves.

I climbed it: courage gave me strength: and I scanned

the wide waters from that height with my gaze.

Then I saw – now the cruel winds were also felt –

your ship driven before a fierce southerly gale.

Either with what I saw, or what I may have thought I’d seen:

I was frozen like ice and half-alive.

But grief allowed no time for languor. I was roused by it,

and roused, I called to Theseus at the top of my voice.

‘Where are you going?’ I shouted ‘turn back, wicked Theseus!

Work your ship! You’re without one of your number!’

So I called. When my voice failed I beat my breast instead:

my blows were interspaced with my words.

If you could not hear at least you might still see:

I made wide signals with my outstretched hands.

I hung a white cloth on a tall branch,

hoping those who’d forgotten would remember me.

Now you were lost to sight. Then finally I wept:

till then my cheeks were numb with grief.

What could my eyes do but weep at myself,

once they had ceased to see your sails?

Either I wandered alone, with dishevelled hair,

like a Maenad shaken by the Theban god:

or I sat on the cold rock gazing at the sea,

and I was as much a stone as the stones I sat on.

Often I seek again the bed that accepted us both,

but it shows no sign of that acceptance,

and I touch what I can of the traces of you, instead of you,

and the sheets your body warmed.

I lie there and, wetting the bed with my flowing tears,

I cry out: ‘We two burdened you, restore the two!

We came here together: why shouldn’t we go together?

Faithless bed, where’s the better part of me now?

What am I to do? Why endure alone? The island’s unploughed:

I see no human beings: I can’t imagine there’s an ox.

The land’s encircled by the sea on every side: no sailors,

no ship to set sail on its uncertain way.

Suppose I was given companions, winds and ship,

where would I make for? My country denies me access.

If my boat slid gently through peaceful waters,

calmed by Aeolian winds, I’d be an exile still.

I could not gaze at you, Crete, split in a hundred cities,

a land that was known to the infant Jove.

But my father and that land justly ruled by my father,

those dear names, were both betrayed by me.

while you, the victor who retraced your steps, would have died

in the winding labyrinth, unless guided by the thread I gave you,

Then, you said to me: ‘I swear by the dangers overcome,

that you’ll be mine while we both shall live.’

We live, and I’m not yours, Theseus, if you still live,

I’m a woman buried by the fraud of a lying man.

Club that killed my brother, the Minotaur, condemn me too!

The promise that you gave should be dissolved by death.

Now I see not only what I must endure,

but what any castaway would suffer.

A thousand images of dying fill my mind,

and I fear death less than delay in that penalty of death.

At every moment I dream it, coming from here or there,

as if wolves tore my entrails with eager teeth.

Perhaps this land breeds tawny lions?

Who knows if this island harbours savage tigers?

And they say that the ocean throws up huge sea-lions:

and who could prevent some sword piercing my side?

If only I might not be a captive, bound with harsh chains,

nor draw out endless threads with a slave’s hand,

I whose father is Minos, whose mother is the Sun’s daughter,

because of that I remember the more, that I was bound to you!

If I see the ocean, the land and the wide shore,

I fear many things on land, many on the waves.

The sky remains: I fear visions from the gods:

I’m forsaken, a prey and food for swift beasts.

If men live here and cultivate this place, I distrust them:

I’ve thoroughly learned to fear wounds from strangers.

I wish my brother Androgeos lived and you Athens, land of Cecrops,

hadn’t paid with your children’s deaths for his impious murder:

and that you, Theseus hadn’t killed the Minotaur, half man, half bull,

wielding a knotted club in your strong hand:

and that I hadn’t given you the thread that marked your way back,

the thread so often received back into the hand that drew it.

I’m not surprised that victory was yours, and the monster,

prone, lay groaning on the Cretan earth.

His horns could not pierce your iron heart:

though you might fail to shield it, your breast would be safe.

There you revealed flints and adamants,

there you’ve a Theseus harder than flint.

Cruel sleep, why did you hold me there, senseless?

Rather I should have been buried forever in eternal night.

You too cruel winds, you gales, all too ready

and officious in bringing tears to me:

cruel right hand that causes my death, and my brother’s,

and offered the promise I asked, an empty name:

Sleep, the breeze, the promise conspired against me:

one girl, I’m betrayed by three causes.

So it seems I’ll die without seeing my mother’s tears,

and there’ll be no one to close my eyes.

My unhappy spirit will vanish on a foreign breeze,

no friendly hand will anoint my laid-out body.

The seabirds will hover over my unburied bones:

these are the ceremonies fit for my tomb.

You’ll be carried to Athens, and be received by your homeland,

where you’ll stand in the high fortress of your city,

and speak cleverly of the death of man and bull,

and the labyrinth’s winding paths cut from the rock:

speak of me also, abandoned in a lonely land:

I’m not to be dropped, secretly, from your list!

Your father’s not Aegeus: Aethra, daughter of Pittheus,

is not your mother: your creators were stone and sea.

May the gods have ordained that you saw me from the high stern,

that my mournful figure altered your expression.

Now see me not with your eyes, but as you can, with your mind,

clinging to a rock the fickle sea beats against:

see my dishevelled hair like one who is in mourning

and my clothes heavy with tears like rain!

My body trembles like ears of wheat struck by a north wind

and the letters I write waver in my unsteady fingers.

I don’t entreat you by my kindness, since that has ended badly:

let no gratitude be owed for my deeds.

But no punishment either. If I’m not the cause of your health,

that’s still no reason why you should cause me harm.

These hands weary of beating my sad breast for you,

unhappily I stretch them out over the wide waters:

I mournfully display to you what remains of my hair:

I beg you by these tears your actions have caused:

turn your ship, Theseus, fall back against the wind:

if I die first, you can still bear my bones.


XI:  Canace to Macareus

An Aeolid, who has no health herself, sends it to an Aeolid,

and, armed, these words are written by her hand.

If the script is full of errors, with its dark blots,

the letter will have been stained by a woman’s blood.

My right hand holds a pen, my left a naked sword

and the paper’s lying loosely in my lap.

This is the image of Aeolus’s daughter writing to her brother:

it seems in this way I can appease our harsh father.

I could only wish that he were here to see my death

and the eyes of its author contemplate the act

though he’s uncivilised, and more ferocious than his east wind,

he would gaze at my wounds with dry cheeks.

How can anything good come of living with savage winds,

that nature of his matches his subjects.

He governs south, and west winds, and Thracian northerlies,

and your wings, violent easterlies.

Alas he governs the winds! He cannot govern his swollen anger,

and his kingdom is smaller than his faults.

What’s the use of my bandying my ancestor’s names about the sky,

that Jupiter can be mentioned among my relatives?

Is this blade, my funeral gift, any less dangerous

because I hold it, not yarn, in my woman’s hand?

O I wish, Macareus, the hour that made us one

had come later than the hour of my death!

Brother, why did you love me more than a brother should,

and why was I not merely what a sister should be, to you?

I also burnt with it, in a way I used to hear about,

I don’t know what god I felt in my loving heart.

The colour fled from my face, my slender body grew thin,

I took the least food, forced it into my mouth:

I couldn’t sleep easily, and the night was a year to me,

and, wounded by no pains, I gave out groans.

Nor could I give a reason for why I acted so,

nor knew what a lover was, but I was one.

My nurse was the first to sense it, with an old woman’s acuteness:

my nurse first said: ‘Canace, you’re in love!’

I blushed, and shame sent my eyes down to my lap:

that was enough of a confession, that silent signal.

Then the burden swelled in my sinful belly,

and the secret load weighed on my weak limbs.

What herbs, what remedies did my nurse not bring

and she applied them with her rash hand,

in order – I hid this one thing from you – to expel

the growing burden from my womb!

Ah! The child, too much alive, resisted the arts she tried,

and was safe from its secret enemy.

Now Phoebus’s most beautiful sister had risen nine times,

and the new Moon drove her light-bringing horses:

I didn’t know what caused my sudden pains,

and I was a new soldier, raw to the part.

I couldn’t lessen my cries. ‘Why betray your sin?’

my knowing nurse said covering my wailing mouth.

What can I do, in my misery? Pain forces me to groan,

but fear and my nurse and shame forbid it.

I contain my cries, take back the words that escape me,

and force myself to swallow the tears I’ve shed.

Death was before my eyes, and Lucina denied her help

and, if I died pregnant, death too would be a crime:

when bending over me, tearing open my tunic, parting my hair,

and pressing my breast to yours, you revived me,

and you said to me: ‘Live, sister, o dearest sister,

live so that two aren’t lost in one body. Let a fine hope

give you strength: now you’ll be your brother’s bride.

he through whom you’ll be a mother and a wife.

Though I was dead, believe me, I still revived at your words

and my burden was laid down, the crime of my womb.

Why do you give thanks? Aeolus sits mid-palace:

our crimes must be hidden from our father’s eyes.

My diligent nurse hides the child among fruits,

and grey olive branches, and light sacred ribbons,

and pretends she’s making a sacrifice, says words of prayer:

the people give worship, the father himself steps aside.

Now she was nearly at the door. A cry reached our father’s ears

and that betrayed signs of the child.

Aeolus snatched up my baby and revealed the false sacrifice.

The palace echoed to his furious voice.

As the sea trembles, when touched by a mild breeze,

as the ash twig shakes in a warm south wind,

so you might have seen my pale limbs quiver:

the bed was shaken by the body lying on it.

He forced his way in, and broadcast my shame by his shouts,

and scarcely kept his hands from my poor face.

I could do nothing but modestly pour out tears.

My tongue was frozen, numbed by icy fear.

And then he ordered that his little grand-child should be given

to the dogs and birds, abandoned in a lonely place.

The child began to scream with misery – could he have understood –

as though he could beseech his grandfather with his voice.

What do you think my feelings were, then, my brother,

(now you can collect your feelings yourself)

when my child was carried off by my enemy into the deep woods,

to be eaten by wolves from the mountains?

He left my room, then at last I beat my breasts

and proceeded to run my fingers through my hair.

Meanwhile one of father’s attendants came, with a mournful face,

and his mouth uttered shameful words:

‘Aeolus sends you this sword’ – he delivered the sword –

‘and orders you to know his wish from its purpose.’

I know, and will use the violent weapon bravely:

I will sheathe father’s gift in my breast.

Do you give me this gift for my marriage, father?

Father, will your daughter be rich in this dowry?

Hymen, betrayed, take your marriage torches far from here,

and flee this impious house with troubled feet!

Furies bear the black torches you bear, to me,

and from those fires light my funeral pyre!

My happy sisters wedded to a better fate:

be lost to me but still remember me!

What did the child commit, in so few hours of life?

Scarcely born, by what act could he harm his grandfather?

If he can have merited death, he merited consideration:

ah, poor thing, punished for what I committed!

Child, your mother’s grief, a prey to devouring beasts,

ah me, your day of birth tears you apart,

child, sad pledge of my less than auspicious love,

this is your first day, this has been your last.

I could not let my rightful tears drench you,

nor cut a wisp of your hair to bear to the tomb:

I could not bend over you, and snatch an icy kiss:

ravenous wild beasts tear apart my baby.

I too, wounded, will follow the shade of my child:

I will not be called ‘mother’ or ‘bereaved’ for long.

Yet you, vain hope of your unhappy sister,

gather I beg you the scattered limbs of your son,

and bring them to their mother, place us in a shared tomb,

and let the narrow urn have whatever there is of us both!

Live on, remember us, and weep tears over my wound:

lover, do not shun the body of your lover.

You, I beg, obey the requests of the sister you loved too well!

I myself will obey our father’s order.


XII:  Medea to Jason

Scorned Medea, the helpless exile, speaks to her recent husband,

surely you can spare some time from your kingship?

Oh, as I remember, the Queen of Colchis found time

to bring you riches, when you sought my arts!

Then, the Sisters who spin mortality’s threads,

should have unwound mine from the spindle:

Then you might have died well, Medea! Whatever

life’s brought since that time’s been punishment.

Ah me! Why was that Pelian ship driven forward

by youthful arms, seeking the ram of Phrixus?

Why did we of Colchis ever see the Thessalian Argo,

and your Greek crew drink the waters of Phasis?

Why did I take more pleasure than I should in your golden hair,

and your comeliness, and the lying favours of your tongue?

If not, once your strange ship had beached on our sands,

and had brought your brave warriors here,

Aeson’s son might have gone unmindful, unprotected by charms,

into the fiery breath, and burning muzzles, of the bulls!

He might have scattered the seed, and sown as many enemies,

so that the one who sowed fell prey to his own sowing!

What great treachery would have died with you, wicked man!

What great evils would have been averted from my head!

There’s some kind of delight in reproaching your ingratitude

for my kindness: I’ll enjoy the only pleasure I’ll have from you.

Ordered to turn your untried ship towards Colchis,

you entered the lovely kingdom of my native land.

Medea was, there, what your new bride is here:

as rich as her father is, my father was as rich.

Her father holds Corinth, between two seas, mine all

that lies to the left of Pontus, as far as the Scythian snows.

Aeetes welcomes the young Greek heroes as guests,

and Pelasgian bodies grace the ornate beds.

Then I saw you: then I began to know what you might be:

that was the first ruin of my affections.

I saw and I perished! I burnt, not with familiar fires,

but as a pine torch might burn before the great gods.

And you were handsome, and my fate lured me on:

the light of your eyes stole mine away.

You sensed it, faithless one! For who can, easily, hide love?

its flame is obvious, displaying the evidence.

Meanwhile rules were laid down for you: to yoke the strong necks,

first, of fierce bulls to the unaccustomed plough.

They were the bulls of Mars, more cruel than just their horns,

also their exhalations were terrible with fire,

their hooves were solid bronze, and bronze coated their nostrils,

and these too were blackened by their breath.

Besides that, you were ordered to scatter seed to breed a nation,

through the wide fields, with dutiful hands,

who would attack your body with co-born spears:

a harvest hostile to the farmer.

Your last labour, by some art, to deceive the guardian

that knows no sleep, and make its eyes succumb.

So said King Aeetes: all rose sorrowfully,

and the shining benches were pushed from the high table.

How far, from you, then was the kingdom, Creusa’s dowry,

and your father-in-law, and that daughter of great Creon.

You leave, downcast. My wet gaze follows you as you go,

and my tenuous voice murmurs: ‘Fare well!’

Though I reached the bed, made up in my room, stricken grievously,

how much of that night for me was spent in tears.

Before my eyes were the brazen bulls, the impious harvest,

before my sleepless eyes was the serpent.

Here is love, here fear – fear itself increased my love.

It was morning and my dear sister entered my room

and found me, with scattered hair, lying face downwards,

and everything drenched in my tears.

She prays for help for the Minyans: one asks, the other obtains:

what she requests for Aeson’s son, I give. 

There’s a wood, dark with pine and oak branches,

the sun’s rays can scarcely reach there:

in it, there is – or was for certain – a temple of Diana:

there a golden goddess stood made by barbarian hands.

Do you know it, or has the place been forgotten, along with me?

We came there: you began to speak first, with false words:

‘Fortune indeed has given you the means of my salvation

and my life and death are in your hands.

It’s enough to destroy me if you were to delight in that:

but it will be more honour to you to help me.

I beg you by our troubles, which you can lighten,

by your race, and the divinity of the all-seeing Sun,

your grandfather, by Diana’s triple face and sacred mysteries,

and if my people’s gods have worth, those too:

O Virgin, take pity on me, take pity on my men,

grant me your services for all time!

If, perhaps, you do not scorn to have a Pelasgian husband –

but can it be so easily granted me, and by which of my gods? –

let my spirit vanish into thin air, if any bride

enters my bed, unless that bride be you.

Let Juno share in this, who oversees holy matrimony,

and that goddess in whose marble shrine we stand!’

This passion – and how much of it was words? –

moved a naive girl, and our right hands touched.

I even saw tears – or were they partly lies?

So I quickly became a girl captivated by your words.

And you yoked the brazen-footed steeds, your body un-scorched,

and split the solid earth with the plough, as you were ordered.

You filled the furrows with venomous teeth, instead of seed,

and warriors were born, armed with swords and shields.

I, who gave you the charms, sat there pale of face,

when I saw these men, suddenly born, take up arms,

until the earth-born brothers – marvellous happening! –

with drawn swords, joined battle amongst themselves.

Behold the sleepless guardian, coated with rattling scales,

hissed, and swept the ground with his writhing body.

Where was the rich dowry then? Where was the royal bride

for you then, and that Isthmus splitting the waters of twin seas?

I, the woman who has come to seem, at last, a barbarian to you,

who am now poor, who am now seen to be harmful,

subdued those burning eyes, with sleep-inducing drugs,

and safely gave you the fleece you carried away.

My father is betrayed, kingdom and country forsaken,

for which, it is right, my reward’s to suffer exile,

my virginity becomes the prize of a foreign thief,

my most dearly beloved sister, with my mother, lost.

But Absyrtus, my brother, I did not abandon you, fleeing without me.

This letter of mine is lacking in one thing:

what I dared to do my right hand cannot write.

So should I have been torn apart, but with you!

Yet I had no fear – what was to be feared after that? –

believing myself a woman at sea, already guilty.

Where is divine power? Where are the gods? Justice is near us

on the deep, you punished for fraud, I for credulity.

I wish that the clashing rocks, the Symplegades, had crushed us,

so that my bones might cling to your bones!

Or ravening Scylla might have caught us, to be eaten by her dogs!

Scylla is destined to harm ungrateful men.

And Charybdis, who so often swallows and spews out the tide,

should also have sucked us beneath Sicilian waters!

You return safe to the cities of Thessaly:

the golden fleece is placed before your gods.

Why speak of the daughters of Pelias, piously harming him,

and carving their father’s body with virgin hands?

Though others blame me, you must praise me,

you for whom I was forced to be so guilty.

You dared – oh words fail themselves, in righteous indignation! –

you dared to say: ‘Depart from Aeson’s house!’

As you ordered, I left the house, accompanied by our two children,

and, what will pursue me always, my love of you.

When suddenly the songs of Hymen came to my ears,

and the torches shone with illuminating fire,

and the flutes poured out the marriage tunes for you,

but a mournful funeral piping for me,

I was afraid, I hadn’t thought till now so much wickedness could be,

but still I was chilled through my whole body.

The crowd rushed on, continually shouting: ‘Hymen, Hymenaee!’

the nearer they came the worse it was for me.

The servants wept apart, and hid their tears –

who wants to be the bearer of such evil news?

It would have been better for me not to know what happened,

but it was as if I knew, my mind was sad,

when the younger of our sons, ordered to be on the lookout,

stationed at the outer threshold of the double doors, called to me:

‘Mother, come here! Jason, my father, is leading the procession,

and he’s driving a team of gilded horses!’

Straightaway, tearing my clothes, I beat my breasts,

nor was my face safe from my nails.

My heart urged me to go, in procession, among the crowd,

and to throw away the garlands arranged in my hair.

I could scarcely keep myself from shouting, my hair dishevelled,

‘He’s mine!’ and taking possession of you.

My wounded father, rejoice! Colchians, forsaken, rejoice!

My brother’s shade, in me find offerings to the dead!

I abandon my lost kingdom, my country, my home,

my husband, who alone was everything to me.

Thus, I could subdue serpents and raging bulls,

but I could not subdue this one man.

And I’ve driven off wild fires with skilful potions,

but I’ve no power to turn the flames from myself.

My charms and herbs and arts forsake me,

nor does the goddess, sacred Hecate, act with power.

The day does not please me: I’m awake through nights of bitterness,

and gentle sleep is absent from my miserable breast.

What cannot make me sleep made a dragon sleep.

My cures are more use to others than myself.

My rival clasps that body that I saved

and she has the fruits of my labours.

Indeed, perhaps when you wish to mention married foolishness,

and speak in a way that suits unjust ears,

you invent new faults in my face, and my manner.

Let her laugh, and lie there, lifted up on Tyrian purple –

she’ll weep, and, scorched, she’ll surpass my fires.

While there are blades, and flames, and poisonous juices,

no enemy will go unpunished by Medea.

If by chance my prayers move your breast of steel

now hear these humble words from my heart.

I’m as much a suppliant, to you, as you often were to me,

nor do I hesitate to throw myself at your feet.

If I’m worthless to you, consider the children we have:

a dread stepmother, in my place, will be cruel to them.

And they’re so like you, and touched by your semblance,

and as often as I see them, my eyes are wet with tears.

I beg you, by the gods, by the light of the Sun, my grandfather’s fire,

by my kindness to you, and by our two children, our pledges,

return to the bed for which I, insanely, abandoned so many things!

Add truth to your words, and return the help I gave you!

I don’t beg your help against bulls, or warriors,

or that a dragon sleeps conquered by your aid:

I ask for you, whom I deserve, who gave yourself to me,

a father by whom I was equally made a mother.

You ask, where’s my dowry? I numbered it on that field

that was ploughed by you, in taking the fleece.

My dowry’s that golden ram known by its thick fleece,

that you’d deny me if I said to you: ‘Return it.’

My dowry is your safety: my dowry’s the youth of Greece.

Cruel man, go: compare this to the wealth of Corinth.

That you live, that you have a wife and powerful father-in-law,

that you can even be ungrateful, all that’s due to me.

Indeed, what’s on hand – but why should I be concerned to warn you

of your punishment? Great anger teems with threats.

I’ll follow where anger takes me. Perhaps I’ll regret my deeds:

I regret having been concerned for an unfaithful husband.

Let the god see to that, who now disturbs my heart.

Assuredly I do not know what moves my spirit most.


XIII:  Laodamia to Protesilaus

She, who sends this, wishes loving greetings to go to whom it’s sent:

from Thessaly to Thessaly’s lord, Laodamia to her husband.

Rumour has it you’re held at Aulis by delaying winds:

ah! when you left me, where were those winds then?

Then the sea should have obstructed your oars:

that would have been a useful time for raging waters.

I might have given my husband more kisses, and more requests,

and there was much I wanted to say to him.

You were driven headlong from here and there was a wind that might

have been summoned for your sails, that the sailors loved, not I.

It was a wind fit for a sailor, not one fit for a lover:

I was freed from your embrace, Protesilaus, and my tongue,

commissioning you, left the words unfinished:

it could scarcely say a sad: ‘Farewell.’

The North Wind leaned down, and filled your departing sails,

and soon my Protesilaus was far away.

While I could still see my husband, I delighted in watching

and your eyes were followed, all the way, by mine:

when I could no longer see you, I could see your sail,

your sail held my gaze for a long time.

But once I could not see you, or your vanishing sail,

and I could look at nothing except the waves,

the light went with you too, and suffocating darkness rising,

they say that, my knees failed, and I sank to the ground.

Your father Iphiclus, and mine, aged Acastus, and my mother

could scarcely revive me, with icy water, in my misery.

They went about their kind action, but vainly for me:

I’m angry I wasn’t allowed to die in my distress.

When consciousness returned, my pain returned with it:

a rightful affection hurts my chaste heart.

I take no care about displaying my hair neatly combed,

nor does it please me to cover my body with golden dresses.

I run, here and there, like one you’d think had been touched

by the rod of the twin-horned god, just as madness drives me.

The women of Phylace gather round, and they call to me:

‘Put on your royal garments, Laodamia!’

Of course she should wear clothes steeped in purple,

while he wars beneath the walls of Troy!

She to comb her hair? A helmet to weigh his down?

She should bear new dresses, her husband heavy armour?

Let them say, that as I can, I imitate your hardships, with harshness,

and, by my circumstances, act out the sad war.

Paris, son of Priam, harmful to your people through your beauty,

be as cowardly an enemy as you were an evil guest!

I wish you’d reproached your Spartan bride for her character,

or that she’d been displeased with yours.

Menelaus you suffer too much for the one you lost,

alas! with what grieving you’ll avenge her.

Gods, I beg you, keep all dark omens from us

and let my husband dedicate weapons to Jove, on his return!

But I’m afraid whenever the miserable war comes to mind:

my tears flow like snows melting in the sun.

Troy and Tenedos, Simois, Xanthus, Ida, are names

that almost scare me by their very sound.

That guest would not have dared to take her, unless

he could defend himself: he knew his strength.

He came, as rumour has it, remarkable with all that gold,

bearing the wealth of Phrygia on his back,

powerful in men, and ships, to wage a war –

and what part, and how much, of his kingdom follow him?

I suspect these things conquered you, sister of Leda’s Twins,

I think these things may bring disaster on the Greeks.

I do not know this Hector whom I fear: Paris said that Hector

wages war with a blood-stained sword in his hand:

If I’m dear to you, beware Hector, whoever he might be:

have the memory of that name stamped on your heart!

When you shun him, remember to shun the others,

and imagine there are many Hectors there,

and make sure you say, when you prepare to fight:

‘Laodamia herself ordered me to forbear.’

If it’s possible for Troy to fall to the Greek army,

let it fall without you receiving any wounds.

Let Menelaus fight and strain against the enemy:

among enemies, let the wife be sought by the husband.

Your cause is different: fight so as to live,

and be able to return to your wife’s loving breast!

I beg you, Trojans, spare this one of all your enemies,

don’t let my blood flow from his body!

He’s not one to charge into battle with naked blade

and bear savage feelings towards men.

He’s better suited, by far, to making love than fighting.

Let others make war: let Protesilaus love!

Now I confess: I wish I’d called you back, and shown my feelings:

my tongue was stilled, for fear of evil omens.

When you wished to leave your father’s door,

your feet showed signs of stumbling on the threshold.

When I saw, I groaned, and said, secretly in my heart:

‘I pray this might be a sign of my husband’s returning!’

I tell you this now, so you aren’t too brave in battle.

Make sure all my fears vanish on the wind!

Also I know not what unjust death fate promises,

to the first Greek who touches Trojan soil:

unhappy the woman who grieves for the first man slain!

I wish the gods might not make you over-eager!

Among the thousand ships let yours be the thousandth,

and the last to be wrecked by the tormenting waters!

This also I forewarn you of: be the last to leave the vessel!

Where you land is not your father’s country.

When you return sail your ship with canvas and oars together,

and reach your own shore with all speed!

Whether Phoebus hides, or stands high above the earth,

come quickly to me by day, or come to me by night:

All the better if you come at night. Night is pleasing to girls,

whose necks have arms to embrace them.

I try to grasp deceitful dreams in my empty bed:

while I’m without true joys, false ones must give me pleasure.

But why does your pale image appear to me?

Why do so many plaintive sounds rise to your lips?

I shake off sleep, and revere these phantoms of the night:

no altar in Thessaly’s free from the smoke of my gifts:

I offer incense, with tears too, that blazes as it’s scattered,

so that the flames sputter, as they do when wine’s poured on.

When will I lead you home again, clasped in my loving arms,

to free my joy from this listlessness?

When will it be, that, truly joined with me in the one bed,

you’ll recall the splendid deeds of your battles?

While you tell me of them, while listening delights,

you’ll still snatch many kisses, and give many in return.

rightly, in their retelling, the words are stopped:

the tongue’s more easily refreshed by sweet delay.

But when Troy comes to mind, so do the winds and seas:

firm hope fails, overcome by anxious fears.

It troubles me too, that the winds prevent your ship from leaving:

you prepare to go with the waves against you.

Who would return to his country, obstructed by the wind?

You sail, from your country, though the sea denies you!

Neptune himself offers no road, to his own city, Troy.

Where do you rush to? Go back to your homes!

Where do you rush to, Greeks? Heed the winds’ denial!

This is no sudden chance – this is divine delay.

What do you seek by such warfare but a shameful adulteress?

Ships, from the Inachus, back your sails while you may!

What do I say? Do I call you back? Let the omen at your going

be recalled, and gentle winds might favour calm seas.

I’m envious of the Trojan women, who, though they see

the tearful funerals of their people, though the enemy are nearby,

the new bride herself, with her own hands, places the helmet

on her brave husband’s head, and gives him his Trojan weapons:

gives him his weapons, and while she does so, snatches a kiss –

that kind of service will be sweet for both –

and she leads her husband out, and gives him orders to return,

and says: ‘Be sure you bring Jove’s weapons back!’

Bearing his lady’s recent orders with him,

he’ll fight with caution, and see their home again.

Leading him back, she takes his shield, loosens his helmet again,

and takes his weary body to her breast.

We are unsure: troubled, everything hems us in:

whatever might happen, fear thinks it fact.

While you bear arms, a soldier in a remote world,

your wax image recalls your face to me:

I speak endearments to it, words that I owe to you,

and it receives my embrace.

Believe me this image is more than it seems:

add sound to wax, and it would be Protesilaus.

I gaze at it, and hold it to my breast, in place of my true husband

and I complain to it, as if it might answer back.

By your return, by your body, by my gods, I swear,

and by the twin torches of our love and our marriage,

and by your head, itself, that you might bring back to me again,

so that I might see its grey hairs grow in time to white,

wherever you call from to me, I will come to accompany you,

whether what – alas! – I fear might be, or whether you survive.

Let this letter end with a last small request:

if you care for me, let your care be for yourself!


XIV:  Hypermestra to Lynceus

Hypermestra sends this letter to her one cousin of many,

the rest lie dead because of their brides’ crime.

I’m held prisoner in this house, confined by heavy chains:

that’s my punishment because I was virtuous.

Because my hand was afraid to plunge a blade into a throat,

I’m guilty: I would be praised if I’d dared to be wicked.

Better to be guilty, than to have pleased a parent so:

I don’t regret my hands are free of blood.

Father might burn me, with the fire I didn’t violate,

and hold in my face the torches, that were present at my rites.

or cut my throat, with the sword he wrongly gave me,

so that I might die the death my husband did not –

he still won’t make my dying mouth say: ‘I repent!’

It’s not possible to regret being virtuous!

Wicked Danaus, my father, and my savage sisters should repent:

that’s the customary thing that follows wicked deeds.

My heart trembles, remembering the blood of that shameful night,

and a sudden tremor binds together the bones of my right hand.

The woman, you might think had the power to perform the murder

of her husband, is afraid to write of deeds of murder not her own!

But I’ll still try. Twilight had just begun on earth,

it was the last of light, and the first of night.

We, scions of Inachus, are led beneath Pelasgus’s noble roof,

and there the father-in-law welcomes the armed daughters.

Everywhere lamps, encircled by gold, are shining:

and incense is impiously offered to unwilling flames.

The crowd of men shout: ‘Hymen, Hymenaee!’ He flees their shouts:

Juno herself abandons her city of Argos.

See how, fuddled with wine, to the cries of many friends,

their drenched hair crowned with flowers,

they’re carried to the joyful bedrooms – rooms to be their graves –

and weigh down the beds, worthy to be their biers.

So they lay there, heavy with food, and wine, and sleep,

and there was deep peace throughout carefree Argos.

I seemed to hear around me the groans of dying men

and I did indeed hear, and what I feared was true.

My colour went, and mind, and body, lost their warmth,

and I lay there, chilled, in my new marriage bed.

As slender stalks of wheat quiver in a mild west wind,

as cold breezes stir the poplar leaves,

I trembled so, and more. You yourself lay there,

and were drowsy, as the wine had made you.

My cruel father’s order drove away my fear:

I rose, and grasped the weapon with shaking hand.

I won’t tell a lie. Three times I lifted the sharp blade,

three times my hand lowered the sword it wickedly raised.

I confess the truth to you despite myself: I pointed it

at your throat: still overcome by cruel terror of my father,

I pointed my father’s sword at your throat:

but fear and piety hindered the cruel act,

and my chaste hand fled the work demanded.

Tearing my purple robes, tearing at my hair

in a whisper I spoke these words:

‘You father’s cruel towards you, Hypermestra: act out

his order: let your husband join his brothers!

I’m female and a young girl, gentle by age and nature:

fierce weapons are no use in tender hands.

Why not act while he lies there, imitate your brave sisters:

it’s possible all the husbands have been killed?

If this hand had any power to commit murder,

it would be bloodied by the death of its mistress.

They deserved to die for taking their uncle’s kingdom:

but suppose our husbands deserved to die, we who

were given to strangers: what have we ourselves done?

What crime have I committed that I’m not allowed to be virtuous?

What have I to do with swords? Or a girl with warlike weapons?

My hands are more suited to the distaff and wool.’

So I whispered. While I lamented, tears chased my words,

and fell from my eyes onto your body.

While you seek my embrace, and, still asleep, stir your arms,

your hand is almost wounded by my weapon.

And now I feared my father, his servants, and the light.

These words of mine dispelled your sleep:

‘Rise and go, scion of Belus, sole one of many cousins!
This night will be yours eternally, unless you hurry!’

You rose in terror, shaking off all the weight of sleep,

you saw the sharp sword in my timid hand.

You ask why: I say: ‘Flee, while the night allows!’

While night’s darkness itself allows, you flee, I remain.

It was dawn, and Danaus counted his sons-in-law lying dead,

One’s missing from the tally of crime.

He takes it badly, downcast by one among these dead relations,

and complains that the acts of blood are unfinished.

I’m dragged by my hair, from my father’s, feet to prison –

is this the reward I deserve for my virtue?

No doubt Juno’s anger lasted from the time when Io was changed

from girl to heifer, till a goddess was made of that heifer –

but Jove’s punishment was enough, that a tender girl bellowed,

her beauty in no way able to please him.

The new heifer stood on the banks of her father’s stream

and saw horns not hers, in her father’s waves,

and, lowing, tried to lament with her mouth,

and was frightened by her form, and by her voice.

Why are you maddened, unhappy one? Why gaze at yourself

in the water? Why count the feet formed from your new limbs?

A rival, feared by that sister of mighty Jupiter,

you ease your great hunger with leaves and grass:

you drink from springs, and, stunned, see your shape,

and fear lest the weapons you bear might kill you.

You were once rich enough to be fit to be seen even by Jove,

naked you lie on the naked earth.

You wander by the sea, and the lands, and their rivers:

the sea, the streams, the land grant you a way.

What’s the reason for your flight? Oh, Io! Why wander vast straits?

You can’t escape from your own features.

Daughter of Inachus, where do you hasten to? The same form

flees and follows: you’re guide to a follower, follower to a guide.

The Nile flowing to the sea through seven gates

drove out the maddened heifer from the girl’s face.

Why recall these earliest things, sung to me by ancient authors?

Behold, my own life gives me things to lament.

My father and my uncle wage war: we’re expelled from home

and from our kingdom: driven to inhabit furthest places.

That warlike one, alone, is master of solitude and power:

while we wander a helpless crowd, with a helpless old man.

Of the horde of cousins the least part remains:

I weep for those given death, and those who gave it.

For as many cousins as I lost, I lost as many sisters:

let both groups of them receive my tears.

But I, because you live, am kept for punishment’s torment:

what becomes of guilt, when I’m tormented for things men praise?

Unhappy, I may die with only one cousin left, I once

a hundredth of a crowded family.

But you, Lynceus, if you care for your virtuous cousin

and are worthy of the gift I gave you,

bring me help or bring me death: and add my body,

when life is gone, to the secret fires,

and bury my bones, drenched with your loyal tears,

and let these brief lines be carved on my tomb:

‘Hypermestra, an exile, bore the unjust price of virtue,

she who averted death from her cousin.’

I’d like to write more to you, but my hand’s dragged down

by the weight of chains, and fear itself drains my strength.


XV:  Sappho to Phaon

When these letters, from my eager hand, are examined

are any of them known to your eyes, straight away, as mine?

Or would you not know where this work came from

in short, unless you’d read the name of its author, Sappho?

Indeed, perhaps you ask why my lines alternate,

when I’m more suited to the lyric mode:

my love is weeping: it’s elegiac verse that weeps:

I don’t set any of my tears to the lyre.

I’m scorched, as a cornfield burns, its rich crop set alight

by a wild south-easterly, bringing lightning.

Phaon frequents the far fields of Typhoeus’s Etna:

passion grips me no less fiercely than Etna’s fire.

Songs to the well-tuned strings don’t rise in me:

song is the work of a mind at leisure.

Nor do the girls of Pyrrha, or Methymna delight me,

nor the rest of the Lesbian throng.

Worthless is Anactoria, lovely Cydro’s worthless, to me,

while Atthis isn’t pleasing to my eyes,

nor a hundred others that I’ve loved guiltily.

Cruel man, one alone has what was a multitude’s!

Beauty is yours, years suited to loving,

oh, treacherous beauty to my eyes!

Take up the lyre, and archery – you’ll surely become Apollo:

add horns to your head – it’s Bacchus that you’ll be.

And Phoebus loved Daphne: Bacchus loved Ariadne,

neither she nor she knew the lyric mode.

But the Muses compose the sweetest songs for me:

now, my name is sung throughout the world:

Alcaeus is not more praised, who shares the lyre

and my country, even though he may sound more grand.

If nature, being difficult, denies me beauty,

my genius repays beauty’s loss.

I’m small. But mine’s a name that fills every country:

I reveal the measure of the name itself.

If I’m not pale, Andromeda pleased Perseus,

dark with the colour of her father Cepheus’s land.

and often white pigeons mate with other hues,

and the dark turtledove’s loved by emerald birds.

If nothing but what’s possessed by beauty will seem worthy to you,

none will be yours in future, none will be yours in future!

But when I read my poems, I seemed beautiful enough, indeed

you swore I was the only one, fit to speak for ever.

I sang, I remember (lovers remember everything),

and, while I sang, you gave me stolen kisses.

Those too you praised, I pleased you in all ways

but especially there, where Love’s work was done.

Then you enjoyed my playfulness more than ever

and endless teasing, appropriate laughing words,

and when we were both abandoned to pleasure,

that deepest languor of our weary bodies.

Now Sicilian girls come to you as new prizes.

What is Lesbos to me? I wish I were Sicilian.

Oh you Nisean mothers, and Nisean daughters,

send back the wanderer from your shores!

Don’t let the lying endearments of his tongue deceive you:

what he says to you, he said before to me.

You also Venus, Erycina, who frequents Sicilian hills

(since I am yours) look to your poet, goddess!

Or must my painful fate fulfil its tender beginning,

and always be bitter in its course.

Six birthdays had gone when my father’s bones, gathered

before his time, drank of my tears.

Helplessly, Charaxus, my brother, captivated, burnt with love

of a whore, and suffered disgraceful losses, mixed with shame.

He wanders, poverty stricken, over the blue sea, with fast oars,

and sinfully seeks now, the wealth he sinfully lost.

He hates me too, because, from great loyalty, I warned him, clearly:

that’s what frankness, and conscientiousness brought me.

And just as what I miss torments me, endlessly,

so a young daughter adds to my cares.

You give me a final reason for complaint:

our ship’s not driven by favourable winds.

Look, my scattered hair lies lawlessly about by neck,

no bright jewels clasp my fingers.

I’m covered by cheap cloth, no gold’s in my hair,

my tresses hold no perfumed gifts of Araby.

Unhappy, for whom should I dress, for whom labour to please?

The sole author of my adornments has gone.

My heart’s easily vulnerable, and to slender weapons,

and often the cause is that I often love,

Either the Fatal Sisters uttered it as a law, at my birth,

and no thread of discipline was granted to my life,

or inclination becomes habit, and my muse Thalia,

my instructress in art, made my genius prone to love.

Why wonder if men in their first youth captivated me

and those years in which a man’s first able to love?

I should fear lest you steal him away, Aurora, in place of Cephalus!

(and you would, but your first love holds you!)

If the Moon goddess should see him, she who sees everything,

it’s Phaon, not Endymion, who’ll be ordered to remain asleep.

Venus might have carried him off into the sky, in her ivory chariot,

but she might think he’d please Mars, himself.

Oh lovely years: not yet a man, nor still a boy,

Oh honour and great glory of your age,

come to me, handsome one, sink into my arms again:

I don’t ask you should love, only let yourself be loved!

I write, and my eyes are wet with rising tears:

look at the many blots here in this place.

If you were so certain of leaving, you might have behaved better,

and at least have said: ‘Woman of Lesbos, farewell!’

You carried away no tears, no kisses of mine:

in short I felt no fear of the pain that was.

Nothing of you is left me, only injury. Nor have you

any token of love to remind you.

I gave you no requests. Nor truly should I have given any,

except that you should not be unmindful of me.

I swear, by Love who is never far from you,

and by the Nine Muses, my divinities,

when whoever it might be said to me: ‘Your joys depart’,

I couldn’t cry for ages, nor could I speak:

tears indeed failed my eyes, words failed my tongue,

my heart was frozen by an icy chill.

When grief came to itself, I was not ashamed

to beat my breast, and howl as I tore my hair,

no differently than that holy mother who carries the body,

of her dead son, empty of life, to the heaped-up pyre.

My brother Charaxus delights in, thrives on, my misery,

and he reappears and fades before my eyes,

And that the reason for my grief might seem shameful,

he says: ‘Why grieve at this? Surely her daughter lives!’

Shame and love do not come together: all the crowd saw:

I was there with torn clothes and naked breasts.

You’re my care, Phaon: you’re restored to me in dreams –

dreams brighter than the beauty of the day.

There I find you, though you’re far from this sphere:

but the joys of sleep don’t last for long enough.

often your arms feel the weight of my neck,

often I seem to place mine beneath yours.

I recognise the kisses you engaged in with your tongue,

and used to be ready to take, and to give.

Now and then I caress you, and speak words that are almost real,

and my lips alone guard my thoughts –

I blush to tell more, but everything takes place –

and I please – and I’m not allowed to thirst.

But when the Sun shows himself, and all things along with him,

then I complain that sleep’s quickly left me:

I seek the caves and woods, as if the woods and caves

might help me: they have shared my pleasures.

Then I suffer a vacant mind that resembles fearful Enyo’s,

goddess of war, with hair loose about her neck.

I see rough tufa that hangs from the caves,

that to me was the equal of Phrygian marble:

I find the grove again, which often offered us a bed,

and hid us with a host of shadowy leaves.

But I do not find the lord of woods and me,

the place itself is worthless – he was its dowry.

I recognise crushed herbs in the familiar turf:

the grass was bent by our weight.

I’ve lain down, and touched the place where you were:

a herb, that welcomed me before, drinks my tears.

Indeed the very branches seem to mourn with falling leaves

and there are no birds sweetly singing.

Only Procne, grief-stricken mother, unholy punisher of her husband,

as a bird now, sings of Thracian Itys of Daulis.

The bird sings of Itys: Sappho of forsaken love:

so far, they’re, otherwise, as silent as midnight.

There’s a sacred fountain, shining, clearer than any crystal:

many think a divine spirit lives there.

Over it water-lotus unfolds its branches, itself a grove,

the earth is green with tender turf.

Here, when, weeping, I laid down my weary limbs,

a Naiad stood before my eyes:

she stood there and said: ‘Since you burn with the fires of injustice,

Ambracia’s the land to be sought by you.

Apollo on the heights watches the open sea:

summoning the people of Actium and Leucadia.

Here Deucalion, fired by love of Pyrrha, cast himself down,

and struck the sea without harming his body.

Without delay love turned and fled, from his slowly sinking

breast: Deucalion was eased of his passion.

The place obeys that law. Seek out the Leucadian height

right away, and don’t be afraid to leap from the rock!

As she as instructing me, she vanished, with her voice. I rose,

chilled, and the tears ceased flowing from my eyes.

I’ll go, oh Nymph, and seek the rock you’ve shown me:

let fear be far from me, conquered by frantic love.

Whatever comes will be better than what is. Breeze,

support me – indeed, my body has no great weight.

You also, sweet Love, lift me on your wings as I fall,

lest my death be charged to Leucadia’s waters.

Then I’ll set up my lyre to Phoebus, the gift we share,

and beneath it this pair of verses, one below the other:

‘The grateful poetess, Sappho, sets up this lyre, to you, Apollo:

appropriate to me, it is appropriate for you.’

Still, why do you send me, unhappy, to Actium’s shore,

when you yourself could turn your wandering feet back to me?

You’d be better for me than Leucadia’s waves:

and you could be Phoebus to me, in beauty and kindness.

Perhaps if I die, oh you, fiercer than any cliff or sea,

might bear the infamy of my death?

Ah how much better to join my thoughts to yours,

than that they should be given to the rocks in headlong fall!

These are they, Phaon, which you used to praise

and seemed to you to be so ingenious.

I wish I was eloquent now! Pain obstructs art

and my ills put paid to every talent.

My old powers of song won’t awaken for me:

the plectrum falls silent through grief, and silent the lyre.

Lesbian women of the waves, those to be married: those married,

Lesbian women, names sung to the Aeolian lyre,

Lesbian women, beloved women, who made me infamous,

cease to come, in a crowd, to the melodies of my lyre!

Phaon has stolen what pleased you so before,

ah me! I nearly said, as once I did: ‘My Phaon.’

Make him return. Your singer too will return.

He gave my genius power: he snatched it away.

Do I rouse his savage heart moved by my prayers, or does it freeze,

and the west winds carry away my fleeting words?

I wish those that carry them would bring back your sails:

That, if you only knew it, sluggard, would be the right thing to do.

If you are returning, and prepare a votive offering for the stern,

why torment my heart by your delay?

Loose your ship! Venus, born from the sea, offers the sea to lovers.

The winds will give you way – only loose your ship!

Cupid himself will pilot it, settled on the stern:

he’ll furl and unfurl the sails himself, with his delicate hand.

If you wish to flee far from Sappho of Greece,

(you’ll still find no reason why I’m worthy of being shunned)

a harsh letter might at least speak that misery,

so that death might be sought by me in Leucadia’s waters.