Classical Texts Library >> Ovid, Heroides >> Epistles 11-15




1. Penelope to Ulysses
2. Phyllis to Demophoon
3. Briseis to Achilles
4. Phaedra to Hippolytus
5. Oenone to Paris


6. Hypsipyle to Jason
7. Dido to Aeneas
8. Hermione to Orestes
9. Deianira to Hercules
10. Ariadne to Theseus

EPISTLES 11 - 15

11. Canace to Macareus
12. Medea to Jason
13. Laodamia to Protesilaus
14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus
15. Sappho to Phaon

EPISTLES 16 - 18

16. Paris to Helen
17. Helen to Paris
18. Leander to Hero

EPISTLES 19 - 21

19. Hero to Leander
20. Acontius to Cydippe
21. Cydippe to Acontius



[1] If aught of what I write is yet blotted deep and escapes your eye, ‘twill be because the little roll has been stained by its mistress’ blood. My right hand holds the pen, a drawn blade the other holds, and the paper lies unrolled in my lap. This is the picture of Aeolus’ daughter writing to her brother; in this guise, it seems, I may please my hard-hearted sire.

[7] I would he himself were here to view my end, and the deed were done before the eyes of him who orders it! Fierce as he is, far harsher than his own east-winds, he would look dry-eyed upon my wounds. Surely, something comes from a life with savage winds; his temper is like that of his subjects. It is Notus, and Zephyrus, and Sithonian Aquilo, over whom he rules, and over thy pinions, wanton Eurus. He rules the winds, alas! but his swelling wrath he does not rule, and the realms of his possession are less wide than his faults. Of what avail for me through my grandsires’ names to reach even to the skies, to be able to number Jove among my kin? Is there less deadlines in the blade – my funeral gift! – that I hold in my woman’s hand, weapon not meet for me?

[21] Ah, Macareus, would that the hour that made us two as one had come after my death! Oh why, my brother, did you ever love me more than brother, and why have I been to you what a sister should not be? I, too, was inflamed by love; I felt some god in my glowing heart, and knew him from what I sued to hear he was. My colour had fled from my face; wasting had shrunk my frame; I scarce took food, and with unwilling mouth; my sleep was never easy, the night was a year for me, and I groaned, though stricken with no pain. Nor could I render myself a reason why I did these things; I did not know what it was to be in love – yet in love I was.

[33] The first to perceive my trouble, in her old wife’s way, was my nurse; she first, my nurse, said: “Daughter of Aeolus, thou art in love!” I blushed, and shame bent down my eyes into my bosom; I said no word, but this was sign enough that I confessed. And presently there grew apace the burden of my wayward bosom, and my weakened frame felt the weight of its secret load. What herbs and what medicines did my nurse not bring to me, applying them with bold hand to drive forth entirely from my bosom – this was the only secret we kept from you – the burden that was increasing there! Ah, too full of life, the little thing withstood the arts employed against it, and was kept safe from its hidden foe!

[45] And now for the ninth time had Phoebus’ fairest sister risen, and for the tenth time the moon was driving on her light-bearing steeds. I knew not what caused the sudden pangs in me; to travail I was unused, a soldier new to the service. I could not keep from groans. “Why betray thy fault?” said the ancient dame who knew my secret, and stopped my crying lips. What shall I do, unhappy that I am? The pains compel my groans, but fear, the nurse, and shame itself forbid. I repress my groans, and try to take back the words that slip from me, and force myself to drink my very tears. Death was before my eyes; and Lucina denied her aid – death, too, were I to die, would fasten upon me heavy guilt – when leaning over me, you tore my robe and my hair away, and warmed my bosom back to life with the pressure of your own, and said: “Live, sister, sister O most dear; live, and do not be the death of two beings in one! Let good hope give thee strength; for now thou shalt be thy brother’s bride. He who made thee mother will also make thee wife.”

[63] Dead that I am, believe me, yet at your words I live again, and have brought forth the reproach and burden of my womb. But why rejoice? In the midst of the palace hall sits Aeolus; the sign of my fault must be removed from my father’s eyes. With fruits and whitening olive-branches, and with light fillets, the careful dame attempts to hide the babe, and makes pretence of sacrifice, and utters words of prayer; the people give way to let her pass, my father himself gives way. She is already near the threshold – my father’s ears have caught the crying sound, and the babe is lost, betrayed by his own sign! Aeolus catches up the child and reveals the pretended sacrifice; the whole palace resounds with his maddened cries. As the sea is set a-trembling when a light breeze passes o’er, as the ashen branch is shaken by the tepid breeze from the south, so might you have seen my blanching members quiver; the couch was a-quake with the body that lay upon it. He rushes in and with cries makes known my shame to all, and scarce restrains his hand from my wretched face. Myself in my confusion did naught but pour forth tears; my tongue had grown dumb with the icy chill of fear.

[83] And now he had ordered his little grandchild thrown to the gods and birds, to be abandoned in some solitary place. The hapless babe broke forth in wailings – you would have thought he understood – and with what utterance he could entreated his grandsire. What heart do you think was mine then, O my brother – for you can judge from your own – when the enemy before my eyes bore away to the deep forests the fruit of my bosom to be devoured by mountain wolves? My father had gone out of my chamber; then at length could I beat my breasts and furrow my cheeks with the nail.

[93] Meanwhile with sorrowful air came one of my father’s guards, and pronounced these shameful words: “Aeolus sends this sword to you” – he handed me the sword – “and bids you know from your desert what it may mean.” I do know, and shall bravely make use of the violent blade; I shall bury in my breast my father’s gift. Is it presents like this, O my sire, you give me on my marriage? With this dowry from you, O father, shall your daughter be made rich? Take away afar, deluded Hymenaeus, they wedding-torches, and fly with frightened foot from these nefarious halls! Bring for me the torches ye bear, Erinyes dark, and let my funeral pyre blaze bright from the fires ye give! Wed happily under a better fate, O my sisters, but yet remember me though lost!

[107] What crime could the babe commit, with so few hours of life? With what act could he, scarce born, do harm to his grandsire? If it could be he deserved his death, let it be judged he did – ah, wretched child, it is my fault he suffers for! O my son, grief of thy mother, prey of the ravening beasts, ah me! torn limb from limb on thy day of birth; O my son, miserable pledge of my unhallowed love – this was the first of days for thee, and this for thee the last. Fate did not permit me to shed o’er thee the tears I owed, nor to bear to thy tomb the shorn lock; I have not bent o’er thee, nor culled the kiss from thy cold lips. Greedy wilds beasts are rending in pieces the child my womb put forth.

[119] I, too, shall follow the shades of my babe – shall deal myself the stroke – and shall not long have been called or mother or bereaved. Do thou, nevertheless, O hoped for in vain by thy wretched sister, collect, I entreat, the scattered members of thy son, and bring them again to their mother to share her sepulchre, and let one urn, however scant, possess us both! O live, and forget me not; pour forth thy tears upon my wounds, nor shrink from her thou once didst love, and who loved thee. Do thou, I pray, fulfil the behests of the sister thou didst love too well; the behest of my father I shall myself perform!


[1] And yet1 for you, I remember, I the queen of Colchis could find time, when you besought that my art might bring you help. Then was the time when the sisters who pay out the fated thread of mortal life should have unwound for aye my spindle. Then could Medea have ended well! Whatever of life has been lengthened out for me from what time forth has been but punishment.

[7] Ah me! why was the ship from the forests of Pelion ever driven over the seas by strong young arms in quest of the ram of Phrixus? Why did we Colchians ever cast eye upon Magnesian Argo, and why did your Greek crew ever drink the water of the Phasis? Why did I too greatly delight in those golden locks of yours, in your comely ways, and in the false graces of your tongue? Yet delight too greatly I did – else, when once the strange craft had been beached upon our sands and brought us her bold crew, all unanointed would the unremembering son of Aeson have gone forth to meet the fires exhaled from the flame-scorched nostrils of the bulls; he would have scattered the seeds – as many as the seeds were the enemy, too – for the sower himself to fall in strife with his own sowing! How much perfidy, vile wretch, would have perished with you, and how many woes been averted from my head!

[21] ‘Tis some pleasure to reproach the ungrateful with favours done. That pleasure I will enjoy; that is the only delight I shall win from you. Bidden to turn the hitherto untried craft to the shores of Colchis, you set foot in the rich realms of my native land. There I, Medea, was what here your new bride is; as rich as her sire is, so rich was mine. Hers holds Ephyre,2 washed by two seas; mine, all the country which lies along the left strand of the Pontus e’en to the snows of Scythia.

[29] Aeëtes welcomes to his home the Pelasgian youths, and you rest your Greek limbs upon the pictured couch. Then ‘twas that I saw you, then began to know you; that was the first impulse to the downfall of my soul. I saw you, and I was undone; nor did I kindle with ordinary fires, but like the pine-torch kindled before the mighty gods. Not only were you noble to look upon, but my fates were dragging me to doom; your eyes had robbed mine of their power to see. Traitor, you saw it – for who can well hide love? Its flame shines forth its own betrayer.

[39] Meanwhile the condition is imposed that you press the hard necks of the fierce bulls at the unaccustomed plow. To Mars the bulls belonged, raging with more than mere horns, for their breathing was of terrible fire; of solid bronze were their feet, wrought round with bronze their nostrils, made black, too, by the blasts of their own breath. Besides this, you are bidden to scatter with obedient hand over the wide fields the seeds that should beget peoples to assail you with weapons born with themselves; a baneful harvest, that, to its own husbandman. The eyes of the guardian that know not yielding to sleep – by some art to elude them is your final task.

[51] Aeëtes has spoken; in gloom you all rise up, and the high table is removed from the purple-spread couches. How far away then from your thought were Creusa’s dowry-realm, and the daughter of great Creon, and Creon the father of your bride! With foreboding you depart; and as you go my moist eyes follow you, and in faint murmur comes from my tongue: “Fare thou well!” Laying myself on the ordered couch within my chamber, grievously wounded, in tears I passed the whole night long; before my eyes appeared the bulls and the dreadful harvest, before my eyes the unsleeping serpent. On the one hand was love, on the other, fear; and fear increased my very love. Morning came, and my dear sister,3 admitted to my chamber, found me with loosened hair and lying prone upon my face, and everywhere my tears. She implores aid for your Minyae. What one asks, another is to receive; what she petitions for the Aesonian youth, I grant.

[67] There is a grove, sombre with pine-trees and the fronds of the ilex; into it scarce can the rays of the sun find way. There is in it – there was, at least – a shrine to Diana, wherein stands the goddess, a golden image fashioned by barbaric hand. Do you know the place? or have places fallen from your mind along with me? We came to the spot. You were the first to speak, with those faithless lips, and these were your words: “To thy hand fortune has committed the right of choosing or not my deliverance, and in thy hand are the ways of life and death for me. To have power to ruin is enough, if anyone delight in power for itself; but to save me will be greater glory. By our misfortunes, which thou hast power to relieve, I pray, by thy line, and by the godhead of thy all-seeing grandsire the sun, by the three-fold face and holy mysteries of Diana, and by the gods of that race of thine – if so be gods it have – by all these, O maiden, have pity upon me, have pity on my men; be kind to me and make me thine for ever! And if it chance thou dost not disdain a Pelasgian suitor – but how can I hope the gods will be so facile to my wish? – may my spirit vanish away into thin air before another than thou shall come a bride to my chamber! My witness be Juno, ward of the rites of wedlock, and the goddess in whose marble shrine we stand!”

[89] Words like these – and how slight a part of them is here! – and your right hand clasped with mine, moved the heart of the simple maid. I saw even tears – or was there in the tears, too, part of your deceit? Thus quickly was I ensnared, girl that I was, by your words. You yoke together the bronze-footed bulls with your body unharmed by their fire, and cleave the solid mould with the share as you were bid. The ploughed fields you sow full with envenomed teeth in place of seed; and there rises out of the earth, with sword and shield, a warrior band. Myself, the giver of the charmèd drug, sat pallid there at sight of men all suddenly arisen and in arms; until the earth-born brothers – O deed most wonderful! – drew arms and came to the grapple each with each.

[101] Then, lo and behold! all a-bristle with rattling scales, come the unsleeping sentinel, hissing and sweeping the ground with winding belly. Where then was your rich dowry? Where then your royal consort, and the Isthmus that sunders the waters of two seas? I, the maiden who am now at last become a barbarian in your eyes, who now am poor, who now seem baneful – I closed the lids of the flame-like eyes in slumber wrought by my drug, and gave into your hand the fleece to steal away unharmed. I betrayed my sire, I left my throne and my native soil; the reward I get is leave to live in exile! My maidenly innocence has become the spoil of a pirate from overseas; beloved mother and best of sisters I have left behind.

[113] But thee, O my brother, I did not leave behind as I fled! In this one place my pen fails. Of the deed my right hand was bold enough to do,4 it is not bold enough to write. So I, too, should have been torn limb from limb – but with thee! And yet I did not fear – for what, after that, could I fear? – to trust myself to the sea, woman though I was, and now with guilt upon me. Where is heavenly justice? Where the gods? Let the penalty that is our due overtake us on the deep – you for your treachery, me for my trustfulness!

[121] Would the Stymplegades had caught and crushed us out together, and that my bones were clinging now to yours; or Scylla the ravening submerged us in the deep to be devoured by her dogs – fit were it for Scylla to work woe to ingrate men! And she who spews forth so many times the floods, and sucks them so many times back in again – would she had brought us, too, beneath the Trinacrian wave! Yet unharmed and victorious you return to Haemonia’s towns, and the golden fleece is laid before your fathers’ gods.

[129] Why rehearse the tale of Pelias’ daughters, by devotion led to evil deeds – of how their maiden hands laid knife to the members of their sire?5 I may be blamed by others, but you perforce must praise me – you, for whom so many times I have been driven to crime. Yet you have dared – O, fit words fail me for my righteous wrath! – you have dared to say: “Withdraw from the palace of Aeson’s line!” At your bidding I have withdrawn from your palace, taking with me our two children, and – what follows me evermore – my love for you. When, all suddenly, there came to my ears the chant of Hymen, and to my eyes the gleam of blazing torches, and the pipe poured forth its notes, for you a wedding-strain, but for me a strain more tearful than the funeral trump, I will filled with fear; I did not yet believe such monstrous guilt could be; but all my breast none the less grew chill. The throng pressed eagerly on, crying “Hymen, O Hymenaeus!” in full chorus – the nearer the cry, for me the more dreadful. My slaves turned away and wept, seeking to hide their tears – who would be willing messenger of tidings so ill? Whatever it was, ‘twas better, indeed, that I not know; but my heart was heavy, as if I really knew, when the younger of the children, at my bidding, and eager for the sight, went and stood at the outer threshold of the double door. “Here, mother, come out!” 6 he cries to me. “A procession is coming, and my father Jason leading it. He’s all in gold, and driving a team of horses!” Then straight I rent my cloak and beat my breast and cried aloud, and my cheeks were at the mercy of my nails. My heart impelled me to rush into the midst of the moving throng, to tear off the wreaths from my ordered locks; I scarce could keep from crying out, thus with hair all torn, “He is mine!” and laying hold on you.

[159] Ah, injured father, rejoice! Rejoice, ye Colchians whom I left! Shades of my brother, receive in my fate your sacrifice due; I am abandoned; I have lost my throne, my native soil, my home, my husband – who alone for me took the place of all! Dragons and maddened bulls, it seems, I could subdue; a man alone I could not; I, who could beat back fierce fire with wise drugs, have not the power to escape the flames of my own passion. My very incantations, herbs, and arts abandon me; naught does my goddess aid me, naught the sacrifice I make to potent Hecate. I take no pleasure in the day; my nights are watches of bitterness, and gentle sleep is far departed from my wretched soul. I, who could charm the dragon to sleep, can bring none to myself; my effort brings more good to any one else soever than to me. The limbs I saved, a wanton now embraces; ‘tis she who reaps the fruit of my toil.

[175] Perhaps, too, when you wish to make boast to your stupid mate and say what will pleasure her unjust ears, you will fashion strange slanders against my face and against my ways. Let her make merry and be joyful over my faults! Let her make merry, and lie aloft on the Tyrian purple – she shall weep, and the flames7 that consume her will surpass my own! While sword and fire are at my hand, and the juice of poison, no foe of Medea shall go unpunished!

[183] But if it chance my entreaties touch a heart of iron, list now to words – words too humble for my proud soul! I am as much a suppliant to you as you have often been to me, and I hesitate not to cast myself at your feet. If I am cheap in your eyes, be kind to our common offspring; a hard stepdame will be cruel to the fruitage of my womb. Their resemblance to you is all too great, and I am touched by the likeness; and as often as I see them, my eyes drop tears. By the gods above, by the light of your grandsire’s beams, by my favours to you, and by the two children who are our mutual pledge – restore me to the bed for which I madly left so much behind; be faithful to your promises, and come to my aid as I came to yours! I do not implore you to go forth against bulls and men, nor ask your aid to quiet and overcome a dragon; it is you I ask for, - you, whom I have earned, whom you yourself gave to me, by whom I became a mother, as you by me a father.

[199] Where is my dowry, you ask? On the field I counted it out – that field which you had to plough before you could bear away the fleece. The famous golden ram, sightly for deep flock, is my dowry – the which, should I say to you “Restore it!” you would refuse to render up. My dowry is yourself – saved; my dowry is the band of Grecian youth! Go now, wretch, compare with that your wealth of Sisyphus! That you are alive, that you take to wife one who, with the father she brings you, is of kingly station, that you have the very power of being ingrate – you owe to me. Whom, hark you, I will straight – but what boots it to foretell your penalty? My ire is in travail with mighty threats. Whither my ire leads, will I follow. Mayhap I shall repent me of what I do – but I repent me, too, of regard for a faithless husband’s good. Be that the concern of the god who now embroils my heart! Something portentous, surely, is working in my soul!

1. Medea begins suddenly, as if in answer to a refusal of Jason to listen to her plea.
Euripides wrote a Medea, and was followed by Ennius, Accius, and Ovid himself, whose play is lost, and Seneca. In this letter Ovid draws from Euripides and Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica III and IV.
2. Corinth.
3. Chalciope.
4. The dismemberment of her brother Absyrtus.
5. At the persuasion of Medea, who wished to avenge Jason, they attempted the rejuvenation of their father by dismembering and boiling him in a supposed magic cauldron.
6. They were still in the palace. Palmer, who reads lassus and abi, pictures Medea and her son in the street.
7. Creusa and her father will really be consumed in the fire, with the palace.


[1] Greetings and health Haemonian Laodamia sends her Haemonian lord,1 and dsires with loving heart they go where they are sent.

[3] Report says you are held in Aulis by the wind.2 Ah, when you were leaving me behind, where then was this wind? Then should the seas have risen to stay your oars; that was the fitting time for the floods to rage. I could have given my lord more kisses and laid upon him more behests; and many are the things I wished to say to you. But you were swept headlong hence; and the wind that invited forth your sails was one your seamen longed for, not I; it was a wind suited to seamen, not to one who loved. I must needs loose myself from your embrace, Protesilaus, and my tongue leave half unsaid what I would enjoin; scarce had a time to say that sad “Farewell!”

[15] Boreas came swooping down, seized on and stretched your sails, and my Protesilaus soon was far away. As long as I could gaze upon my lord, to gaze was my delight, and I followed your eyes ever with my own; when I could no longer see you, I still could see your sails, and long your sails detained my eyes. But after I descried no more either you or your flying sails, and what my eyes rested on was naught but only sea, the light, too, went away with you, the darkness rose about me, my blood retreated, and with failing knee I sank, they say, upon the ground. Scarce your sire Iphiclus, scarce mine, the aged Acastus, scarce my mother, stricken with grief, could bring me back to life with icy-cold. They did their kindly task, but it had no profit for me. ‘Tis shame I had not in my misery the right to die!

[20] When consciousness returned, my pain returned as well. The wifely love I bore you has torn at my faithful heart. I care not now to let my hair be dressed, nor does it pleasure me to be arrayed in robes of gold. Like those who he of the two horns is believed to have touched with his vine-leafed rod, hither and thither I go, where madness drives.3 The matrons of Phylace gather about, and cry to me: “Put on they royal robes, Laodamia!” Shall I, then, go clad in stuffs that are saturate with costly purple, while my lord goes warring under the walls of Ilion? Am I to dress my hair, while his head is weighed down by the helm? Am I to wear new apparel while my lord wears hard and heavy arms? In what I can, they shall say I imitate your toils – in rude attire; and these times of war I will pass in gloom.

[43] Ill-omened Paris, Priam’s son, fair at cost of thine own kin, mayst thou be as inert a foe as thou wert a faithless guest! Would that either thou hadst seen fault in the face of the Taenarian wife, of she had taken no pleasure in thine! Thou, Menelaus, who dost grieve o’ermuch for the stolen one, ah me, how many shall shed tears for thy revenge! Ye gods, I pray, keep from us the sinister omen, and let my lord hang up his arms to Jove-of-Safe-Return! But I am fearful as oft as the wretched war comes to my thoughts; my tears come forth like snow that melts beneath the sun. Ilion and Tenedos and Simois and Xanthus and Ida are names to be feared from their very sound. Nor would the stranger have dared the theft if he had not power to defend himself; his own strength he well knew. He arrived, they say, sightly in much gold, bearing upon his person the wealth of Phrygia, and potent in ships and men, with which fierce wars are fought – and how great a part of his princely power came with him? With means like these were you overcome, I suspect, O Leda’s daughter, sister to the Twins; these are the things I feel may be working the Danaäns woe.

[65] Of Hector, whoe’er he be, if I am dear to you, be ware; keep his name stamped in ever mindful heart! When you have shunned him, remember to shun others; think that many Hectors are there; and see that you say, as oft as you make ready for the fight: “Laodamia bade me spare herself.” If it be fated Troy shall fall before the Argolic host, let it also fall without your taking a single wound! Let Menelaus battle, let him press to meet the foe; to seek the wife from the midst of the foe is the husband’s part. Your cast is not the same; do you fight merely to live, and to return to your faithful queen’s embrace.

[79] O ye sons of Dardanus, spare, I pray, from so many foes at least one, lest my blood flow from that body! He is not one it befits to engage with bared steel in the shock of battle, to present a savage breast to the opposing foe; his might is greater for in love than on the field. Let others go to the wars; let Protesilaus love!

[85] I confess now, I would have called you back, and my spirit strove; but my tongue stood still for fear of evil auspice. When you would fare forth from your paternal doors to Troy, your foot, stumbling upon the threshold, gave ill sign. At the sight I groaned, and in my secret heart I said: “May this, I pray, be omen that my lord return!” Of this I tell you now, lest you be too forward with your arms. See you make this fear of mine all vanish to the winds!

[93] There is a prophecy, too, that marks someone for an unjust doom – the first of the Danaäns to touch the soil of Troy. Unhappy she who first shall weep for her slain lord! The gods keep you from being too eager! Among the thousand ships let yours be the thousandth craft, and the last to stir the already wearied wave! This, too, I warn you of: be last to leave your ship; the land to which you haste is not your father’s soil. When you return, then speed your keel with oar and sail at once, and on your own shore stay your hurried pace.

[103] Whether Phoebus be hid, or high above the earth he rise, you are my care by day, you come to me in the night; and yet more by night that in the light of day – night is welcome to women beneath whose necks an embracing arm is placed. I, in my widowed couch, can only court a sleep with lying dreams; while true joys fail me, false ones must delight.

[109] But why does your face, all pale, appear before me? Why from your lips comes many a complaint? I shake slumber from me, and pray to the apparitions of night; there is no Thessalian altar without smoke of mine; I offer incense, and let fall upon it my tears, and the flame brightens up again as when wine has been sprinkled o’er.4 When shall I clasp you, safe returned, in my eager arms, and lose myself in languishing delight? When will it be mine to have you again close joined to me on the same couch, telling me your glorious deeds in the field? And while you are telling them, though it delight to hear, you will snatch many kisses none the less, and will give me many back. The words of well-told tales meet ever with such stops as this; more ready for report is the tongue refreshed by sweet delay.

[123] But when Troy rises in my thoughts, I think of the winds and sea; fair hope is overcome by anxious fear, and falls. This, too, moves me, that the winds forbid your keels to fare forth – yet you make ready to sail despite the seas. Who would be willing to return homeward with the wind saying nay? Yet you trim sail to leave your homes, though the sea forbids! Neptune himself will open up no way for you against his own city. Whither your headlong course? Return ye all to your own abodes! Whither your headlong course, O Danaäns? Heed the winds that say you nay! No sudden chance, but God himself, sends that delay of yours. What is your quest in so great a war but a shameful wanton? While you may, reverse your sails, O ships of Inachus! But what am I doing? Do I call you back? Far from me be the omen of calling back; may caressing gales second a peaceful sea!

[137] I envy the women who dwell in Troy, who will thus behold the tearful fates of them they love, with the foe not far away. With her own hand the newly wedded bride will set the helmet upon her valiant husband’s head, and give into his hands the Dardanian arms. She will give him his arms, and the while she gives him arms will receive his kisses – a kind of office sweet to both – and will lead her husband forth, and lay on him the command to return, and say: “See that you bring once more those arms to Jove!” He, bearing fresh in mind with him the command of his mistress, will fight with caution, and be mindful of his home. When safe returned, she will strip him of his shield, unloose his helm, and receive to her embrace his wearied frame.

[149] But we are left uncertain; we are forced by anxious fear to fancy all things befallen which may befall. None the less, while you, a soldier in a distant world, will be bearing arms, I keep a waxen image to give back your features to my sight; it hears the caressing phrase, it hears the words of love that are yours by right, and it receives my embrace. Believe me, the image is more than it appears; add but a voice to the wax, Protesilaus it will be. On this I look, and hold it to my heart in place of my real lord, and complain to it, as if it could speak again.

[159] By thy return and by thyself, who art my god, I swear, and by the torches alike of our love and our wedding-day, I will come to be thy comrade whithersoever thou dost call, whether that which, alas, I fear, shall come to pass, or whether thou shalt still survive. The last of my missive, ere it close, shall be the brief behest: if thou carest ought for me, then care thou for thyself!

1. Homer, Il. ii. 695 ff., refers to the story of Protesilaus, and Euripides uses it in his Protesilaus. Compare also Hyginus, Fab. ciii.
2. With the rest of the Greek fleet, which was under divine displeasure because Agamemnon had killed a stag in the grove of Diana.
3. The Bacchic frenzy.
4. The final flare when the fire at the altar is quenched.


[1] Hypermnestra sends this letter to the one brother left of so many but now alive – the rest of the company lied dead by the crime of their brides. Kept close in the palace am I, bound with heavy chains; and the cause of my punishment is that I was faithful. Because my hand shrank from driving into your throat the steel, I am charged with crime; I should be praised, had I but dared the deed. Better be charged with crime than thus to have pleased my sire; I feel no regret at having hands free from the shedding of blood. My father may burn me with the flame1 I would not violate, and hold to my face the torches that shone at my marriage rites; or he may lay to my throat the sword he falsely gave me, so that I, the wife, may die the death my husband did not die – yet he will not bring my dying kips to say “I repent me!” She is not faithful who regrets her faith. Let repentance for crime come to Danaus and my cruel sisters; this is the wonted event that follows on wicked deeds.

[17] My heart is struck with fear at remembrance of that night profaned with blood, and sudden trembling fetters the bones of my right hand. She you think capable of having compassed her husband’s death fears even to write of murder done by hands not her own!

[21] Yet I shall essay to write. Twilight had just settled on the earth; it was the last part of day and the first of night. We daughters of Inachus2 are escorted beneath the roof of great Pelasgus,3 and our husbands’ father4 himself receives the armed brides of his sons. On every side shine bright the lamps girt round with gold; unholy incense is scattered on unwilling altar-fires; the crowd cry “Hymen, Hymenaeus!” The god shuns their cry; Jove’s very consort has withdrawn from the city of her choice! Then, look you, confused with wine, they come in rout amidst the cries of their companions; with fresh flowers in their dripping locks, all joyously they burst into the bridal chambers – the bridal chambers, their own tombs! – and with their bodies press the couches that deserve to be funeral beds.

[33] And now, heavy with food and wine they lay in sleep, and deep repose had settled on Argos, free from care – when round about me I seemed to hear the groans of dying men; nay, I heard indeed, and what I feared was true. My blood retreated, warmth left my body and soul, and on my newly-wedded couch all chill I lay. As the gentle zephyr sets a-quiver the slender stalk of grain, as wintry breezes shake the poplar leaves, even thus – yea even more – did I tremble. Yourself lay quiet; the wine I had given you was the wine of sleep.

[43] Thought of my violent father’s mandates struck away my fear. I rise, and clutch with trembling hand the steel. I will not tell you aught untrue: thrice did my hand raise high the piercing blade, and thrice, having basely raised it, fell again. I brought it to your throat – let me confess to you the truth! – I brought my father’s weapon to your throat; but fear and tenderness kept me from daring the cruel stroke, and my chaste right hand refused the task enjoined. Rending the purple robes I wore, rending my hair, I spoke with scant sound such words as these: “A cruel father, Hypermnestra, thine; perform thy sire’s command, let thy husband there go join his brethren! A woman am I, and a maid, gentle in nature and in years; my tender hands ill suit fierce weapons. But come, while he lies there, do like as the brave sisters – it well may be that all have slain their husbands! Yet had this hand power to deal out murder at all, it would be bloody with the death of its own mistress. They have deserved this end for seizing on their uncle’s realms; we, helpless band, must wander in exile with our aged, helpless sire. Yet suppose our husbands have deserved to die – what have we done ourselves? What crime have I committed that I must not be free from guilt? What have swords to do with me? What has a girl to do with the weapons of war? More suited to my hands are the distaff and the wool.”

[67] Thus I to myself; and while I utter my complaint, my tears follow forth the words that start them, and from my eyes fall down upon your body. While you grope for my embrace and toss your slumberous arms, your hand is almost wounded by my blade. And now fear of my father seized on me, and of my father’s minions, and of the light of dawn; I drove away your sleep with these words of mine: “Rise up, away, O child of Belus,5 the one brother left of so many but now alive! This night unless you haste, will be forever night to you!” In terror you arise; all sleep’s dullness flies away; you behold the strenuous weapon in my timorous hand. You ask the cause. “While night permits,” I answer, “fly!” While the dark night permits, you fly, and I remain.

[79] ‘Twas early morn, and Danaus counted o’er his sons-in’-aw that lay there slain. You alone lack to make the crime complete. He bears ill the loss of a single kinsman’s death, and complains that too little blood was shed. I am seized by the hair, and dragged from my father’s feet – such reward my love for duty won! – and thrust in gaol.

[85] Clear it is that Juno’s wrath endures from the time the mortal maid became a heifer, and the heifer became a goddess.6 Yet it is punishment enough that the tender maid was a lowing beast, and, but now so fair, could not retain Jove’s love. On the banks of her sire’s stream the new-created heifer stood, and in the parental waters beheld the horns that were not her own; with mouth that tried to complain, she gave forth only lowings; she felt terror at her form, and terror at her voice. Why rage, unhappy one? Why gaze at thyself in the water’s shadow? Why count the feet thou hast for thy new-created frame? Thou art the mistress of great Jove, that rival to be dreaded by his sister – and must quiet thy fierce hunger with the leafy branch and grassy turf, drink at the spring, and gaze astonied on thine image there, and fear lest the arms thou bearest may wound thyself! Thou, who but now wert rich, so rich as to seem worthy even of Jove, liest naked upon the naked ground. Over seas, and lands, and kindred7 streams dost thou course; the sea opens a way for thee, and the rivers, and the land. What is the cause of thy flight? Why doest thou wander over the long seas? Thou wilt not be able to fly from thine own features. Child of Inachus, whither doest thou haste? Thou followest and fliest – the same; thou art thyself guide to thy companion, thou art companion to thy guide!

[107] The Nile, let flow to the sea through seven mouths, strips from the maddened heifer the features loved of Jove. Why talk of far-off things, told me by hoary eld? My own years, look you, give me matter for lament. My father and my uncle are at war; we are driven from our realms and from our home; we are cast away to the fartheset parts of earth. Of the number of the brothers but a scantest part remains. For those who were done to death, and for those who did the deed, I weep; as many brothers as I have lost, so many sisters also have I lost.8 Let both their companies receive my tears! Lo, I, because you live, am kept for the torments of punishment; but what shall be the fate of guilt, when I am charged with crime for deeds of praise, and fall, unhappy that I am, once the hundredth member of a kindred throng, of whom one brother only now remains?

[123] But do thou, O Lynceus, if thou carest aught for thy sister, and art worthy of the gift I rendered thee, come bear me aid; or, if it pleases thee, abandon me to death, and, when my body is done with life, lay it in secret on the funeral pile, and bury my bones moistened with faithful tears, and let my sepulchre be graved with this brief epitaph: “Exiled Hypermnestra, as the unjust price of her wifely deed, has herself endured the death she warded from her brother!”

[131] I would write more; but my hand falls with the weight of my chains, and very fear takes away my strength.

1. Of the marriage-altar.
2. Inachus, Io, Epaphus, Libya, Belus, Danaus – was their descent.
3. King of Argos.
4. Aegyptus.
5. Belus, Aegyptus, Lynceus.
6. The story of Io, daughter of the river Inachus.
7. Oceanus, father of all streams, was father of Inachus, Io’s father.
8. The scholiast to Euripides’ Hec. 886 says Lynceus avenged his brothers by slaying the guilty wives.


[1] Tell me, when you looked upon the characters from my eager right hand, did your eye know forthwith whose they were – or, unless you had read their author’s name, Sappho, would you fail to know whence these brief words come?

[5] Perhaps, too, you may ask why my verses alternate, when I am better suited to the lyric mode. I must weep, for my love – and elegy is the weeping strain; no lyre is suited to my tears.

[9] I burn – as burns the fruitful acre when its harvests are ablaze, with untamed east-winds driving on the flame. The fields you frequent, O Phaon, lie far away, by Typhoean Aetna; and I – heat not less than the fires of Aetna preys on me. Nor can I fashion aught of song to suit the well-ordered string; songs are the labour of minds care-free! Neither the maids of Pyrrha charm me now, nor they of Methymna, nor all the rest of the throng of Lesbian daughters. Naught is Anactorie to me, naught Cydro, the dazzling fair; my eyes joy not in Atthis as once they did, nor in the hundred other maids I have loved here to my reproach; unworthy one, the love that belonged to many maids you alone possess.

[21] You have beauty, and your years are apt for life’s delights – O beauty that lay in ambush for my eyes! Take up the lyre and quiver – you will be Apollo manifest; let horns but spring on your head – you will be Bacchus! Phoebus loved Daphne, and Bacchus, too, loved the Gnosian maid, and neither one nor other knew the lyric mode; yet for me the daughters of Pegasus dictate sweetest songs; my name is already sun abroad in all the earth. Not greater is the praise Alcaeus wins, the sharer in my homeland and in my gift of song, though a statelier strain he sounds. If nature, malign to me, has denied the charm of beauty, weigh in the stead of beauty the genius she gave. I am slight of stature, yet I have a name fills every land; the measure of my name is my real height. If I am not dazzling fair, Cepheus’ Andromeda was fair in Perseus’ eyes, though dusky with the hue of her native land. Besides, white pigeons oft are mated with those of different hue, and the black turtle-dove, too, is loved by the bird of green.2 If none shall be yours unless deemed worthy of you for her beauty’s sake, then none shall be yours at all.

[41] Yet, when I read you my songs, I seemed already beautiful enough; you swore ‘twas I alone whom speech forever graced. I would sing to you, I remember – for lovers remember all – and while I snag you stole kisses from me. My kisses too you praised, and I pleased in every way – but then above all when we wrought at the task of love. Then did my playful ways delight you more than your wont – the quick embrace, the jest that gave spice to our sport, and, when the joys of both had mingled into one, the deep, deep languor in our wearied frames.

[51] Now new prey is yours – the maids of Sicily. What is Lesbos now to me? I would I were a Sicilian maid.3 Ah, send me back my wanderer, ye Nisaean matrons and Nisaean maids, nor let the lies of his bland tongue deceive you! What he says to you, he had said before to me. Thou too, Erycina, who doest frequent the Sicanian mountains – for I am thine – protect thy singer, O lady! Can it be my grievous fortune will hold the ways it first began, and ever remain bitter in its course? Six natal days had passed for me, when I gathered the bones of my father, dead before his time, and let them drink my tears. My untaught brother was caught in the flame of harlot love, and suffered loss together with foul shame; reduced to need, he roams the dark blue seas with agile oar, and the wealth he cast away by evil means once more by evil means he seeks.4 As for me, because I often warned him well and faithfully, he hates me; this has my candour brought me, this my duteous tongue. And as if there were lack of things to weary me endlessly, a little daughter5 fills the measure of my cares.

[71] Last cause of all are you for my complaint. My craft is not impelled by a propitious gale. Lo, see, my hair lies scattered in disorder about my neck, my fingers are laden with no sparkling gems; I am clad in garment mean, no gold is in the strands of my hair, my locks are scented with no gifts of Araby. For whom should I adorn myself, or whom should I strive to please? He, the one cause for my adornment, is gone. Tender is my heart, and easily pierced by the light shaft, and there is ever cause why I should ever love – whether at my birth the Sisters declared this law and did not spin my thread of life with austere strand, or whether tastes change into character, and Thalia, mistress of my art, is making my nature soft. What wonder if the age of first down has carried me away, and the years that stir men’s love? Lest thou steal him in Cephalus’ place, I ever feared, Aurora – and so thou wouldst do, but that thy first prey holds thee still. Him should Phoebe behold, who beholds all things, ‘twill be Phaon she bids continue in his sleep; him Venus would have carried to the skies in her ivory car, but that she knows he might charm even her Mars. O neither yet man nor still boy – meet age for charm – O ornament and great glory of thy time, O hither come; sail back again, O beauteous one, to my embrace! I do not plead for thee to love, but to let thyself be loved.

[97] I write, and my eyes let fall the springing tears like drops of dew; look, how many a blot obscures this place! If you were so resolved to leave my side, you could have gone in more becoming wise. You might at least have said to me: “O Lesbian mistress, fare you well!” You did not take with you my tears, you did not take my kisses; indeed, I felt no fear of the pangs I was to suffer. You have left me nothing, nothing except my wrong; and you – you have no token of my love to put you in mind of me. I gave you no behests – nor would I have given any, save not to be unmindful of me. O by our love – and may it never far depart! – and by the heavenly Nine who are my deities, I swear to you, when someone said to me: “Your joys are flying from you!” for a long time I could not weep, and could not speak! Tears failed my eyes, and words my tongue; my breast was fast frozen with icy chill. After my grief had found itself, I felt no shame to beat my breast, and rend my hair, and shriek, not otherwise than when the loving mother of a son whom death has taken bears to the high-built funeral pile his empty frame. Joy swells my brother Charaxus’ heart as he sees my woe; he passes before my eyes, and passes again; and, purposing to make the cause of my grief appear immodest, he says: “Why does she grieve? Surely her daughter lives!” Modesty and love are not at one. There was no one did not see me; yet I rent my robe and laid bare my breast.

[123] You, Phaon, are my care; you, my dreams bring back to me – dreams brighter than the beauteous day. In them I find you, though in space you are far away; but not long enough are the joys that slumber gives. Often I seem with the burden of my neck to press your arms, often to place beneath your neck my arms. I recognize the kisses – close caresses of the tongue – which you were wont to take and wont to give. At times I fondle you, and utter words that seem almost the waking truth, and my lips keep vigil for my senses. Further I blush to tell, but all takes place; I feel the delight, and cannot rule myself.

[135] But when Titan shows his face and lights up all the earth, I complain that sleep has deserted me so soon; I make for the grots and the wood, as if the wood and the grots could aid me – those haunts were in the secret of my joys. Thither in frenzied mood I course, like one whom the maddening Enyo has touched, with hair flying loose about my neck. My eyes behold the grots, hanging with rugged rock – grots that to me were like Mygdonian marble; I find the forest out which oft afforded us a couch to lie upon, and covered us with thick shade from many leaves – but I find not the lord both of the forest and myself. The place is but cheap ground; he was the dower that made it rich. I have recognised the pressed-down grass of the turf I knew so well; the sod was hollowed from our weight. I have laid me down and touched the spot, the place you rested in; the grass I once found gracious has drunk my tears. Nay, even the branches have laid aside their leafage, and no birds warble their sweet complaint; only the Daulian bird, most mournful mother who wreaked unholy vengeance on her lord, laments in son Ismarian Itys. The bird sings of Itys, Sappho sings of love abandoned – that is all; all else is silent as midnight.

[157] There is a sacred spring, bright and more transparent than any crystal – many think a spirit dwells therein – above which a watery lotus spreads its branches wide, a grove all in itself; the earth is green with tender turf. Here I had laid my wearied limbs and given way to tears, when there stood before my eyes a Naiad. She stood before me, and said: “Since thou art burning with unrequited flame, Ambracia is the land thou needs must seek. There Phoebus from on high looks down on the whole wide stretch of sea – of Actium, the people call it, and Leucadian. From here Deucalion, inflamed with love for Pyrrha, cast himself down, and struck the waters with body all unharmed. Without delay, his passion was turned from him, and fled from his tenacious breast, and Deucalion was freed from the fires of love. This is the law of yonder place. Go straightway seek the high Leucadian cliff, nor from it fear to leap!”

[173] Her warning given, she ceased her speech, and vanished; in terror I arose, and my eyes could not keep back their tears. I shall go, O nymph, to seek out the cliff thou toldst of; away with fear – my maddening passion casts it out. Whatever shall be, better ‘twill be than now! Breeze, come – bear me up; my limbs have no great weight. Do thou, too, tender Love, place thy pinions beneath me, lest I die and bring reproach on the Leucadian wave! Then will I consecrate to Phoebus my shell, our common boon, and under it shall be writ one verse, and a second:

[185] Yet why do you send me to the shores of Actium, unhappy that I am, when you yourself could turn back your wandering steps? You can better help my state than the Leucadian wave; both in beauty and in kindness you will be a Phoebus to me. Or, if I perish, O more savage than any cliff or wave, you can endure the name of causing my death? But how much better for my bosom to be pressed to yours than headlong to be hurled from the rocks! – the bosom, Phaon, of her whom you were wont to praise, and who so often seemed to you to have the gift of genius. Would I were eloquent now! Grief stops my art, and all my genius is halted by my woes. My old-time power in song will not respond to the call; my plectrum for grief is silent; mute for grief is my lyre. Lesbian daughters of the wave, ye who are to wed and ye already wed, ye Lesbian daughters, whose names have been sung to the Aeolian lyre, ye Lesbian daughters whom I have loved to my reproach cease thronging to me more to hear my shell! Phaon has swept away all that ye loved before – ah, wretched me, how nearly I came then to saying “my Phaon”! Accomplish his return; your singer, too, will then return. My genius had its powers from him; with him they were swept away.

[207] But do my prayers accomplish aught, or is his churl’s heart moved? or is it cold and hard, and do the zephyrs bear away my idly falling words? Would that he winds that bear away my words might bring your sails again; this deed were fitting for you, tardy one, had you a feeling breast. If you intend return, and are making for your stern the votive gift, why tear my heart with delay? Weigh anchor! Venus who rose from the sea makes way on the sea for he lover. The wind will speed you on your course; do you but weigh anchor! Cupid himself will be helmsman, sitting upon the stern; himself with tender hand will spread and furl the sail. But if your pleasure be to fly afar from Pelasgian Sappho – and yet you will find no cause for flying from me – ah, at least let a cruel letter tell me this in my misery, that I may seek my fate in the Leucadian wave!

1. This epistle is not in P, G, or any MS. earlier than P or G, and is not in Plan. In the MSS. which do contain it, it is either annexed or prefixed to the whole. Hein. placed it after XIV because of the presence of some verses from it in that position in two MSS. of excerpts from a ninth or tenth century archetype.
The Sappho-Phaon story seems to have been well known by the fourth century B.C. The authorship of this letter has been disputed, but is generally conceded to be Ovid’s.
2. The parrot. Compare Amores II. vi. 16.
3. The Parian Marble says that Sappho really was exiled and went to Sicily. Her troubles were of a political nature.
4. Probably as a pirate. He ransomed the courtesan Rhodopis from Egypt, and was reproved by Sappho in a poem.
5. Cleis.