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Ovid's heroines: World's first feminist literature

by Siv Palm, A & E editor


Once upon the time there lived a small man whose name meant Big Nose. He was a famous writer, a poet who evoked the anger of the Emperor Augustus himself. Ovid Publius Ovidius Naso lived between 43 B.C. and 17 A.D., and although he lived in a patriarchal society, he loved women and would later inspire such great writers as Jeffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

Women. Ovid loved the young for their beauty, the mature for their skills in love making, and the older for their wisdom. He published a uniquely female-oriented version of the world’s history up to his age, the Metamorphoses, cataloging the ancient stories of women who changed to avoid lovers and men who changed to become lovers, and it made him famous. His second work, about women’s beauty and their sexual preferences, Ars amatoria, got him banished from his home city, Rome.

Sound like interesting reading? Yes, but Ovid’s most interesting work, according to many readers and scholars, is his Heroides, a collection of fictional letters, from legendary heroines of Greek and Roman mythology and history, to the men in their life. Here readers will find Ariadne’s letter to Theseus. Daughter of King Minos of Crete, she abandoned her birthright to help Theseus defeat the monstrous Minotaur and escape the Minoan Labyrinth. He expressed his gratitude by abandoning her on a deserted island as he returns home to Athens. “Is this how you repay my love?” she cries out, her anger ringing through Ovid’s poetry. “By leaving me to my death, and my bones to lie scattered and unburied?” Her anguish echoes the agony of spurned lovers throughout the centuries before and since.

Those who saw the film Troy, with Brad Pitt as Achilles, will remember Briseis as his love interest. Ovid presents her letter to the fabled warrior. Ovid’s fervent imagination also recreates the letter that Dido might have written to Aeneas, or Hermione’s to Orestes, and many more, including Medea to Jason.

Medea fell in love with Jason of the Argonauts and helped him steal the Golden Fleece from her own father. To slow his pursuit, she cut her own little brother into pieces and threw them into the sea as she and Jason fled with the fleece. He makes her his queen, and sires two children with her, and then leaves her for a younger woman. Medusa sends him bitter words of good-bye. She then kills his new love Creusa, and Creusa’s father.

But her revenge is not finished. She lures him back promising a reconciliation, and for a bridal meal serves him a stew in which the meat is their children.

Less cruel but every bit as anguished is Penelope’s letter to her long gone husband, Ulysses. She pleads for his return. After almost 20 years, she is tired of being alone and fighting off unwanted suitors.

Ovid ends the work with letters from some love-struck suitors written in courtship of the women of their dreams. Here are Paris’ letters to Helen and Leander’s letter to Hero. After Ariadne and Briseis and Medea, the irony of their courtship is telling.

What makes the letters differ from most other works of literature, from ancient well as modern times, is that we hear the women’s voices. Even though penned by a man, the letters represents an interesting window into women’s lives in troubled times.

They flee with their love only to be cast aside when the next beauty crosses his path. They are abducted from their husbands and family, maybe never to see their children or parents again, only to be subsequently cast aside. They are abandoned for war, honor, conquest, or new love--female or male. They despair, they long, and they are angry.

Women such as Helen, often criticized for adapting too quickly to their new lives, rage over their husband’s reluctance to save them. They attack the lack of understanding of those they meet, and the double standard that expects them to adjust quickly and then, when they try to make the best of the situation, criticizes them for not committing honorable suicide. They try to stay strong while they wait for help that may never come.

Ovid portrays his heroines as human beings with reason and courage. They are neither saints nor demons, but complex beings capable of sweetness and kindness, as well as violent acts, just like the men in their lives.



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