c. 25-16 BCE
Medea and Jason join hands in marriage, 1st c. CE
Ovid's Heroides take the form of letters from wronged women to the men they loved. Two of the letters concern Jason: the first, from Hypsipyle; and the second, from Medea. Below are the letters in the translation of A. S. Kline. Kline's complete translation of the Heroides can be found here.
Translation © 2001 A. S. Kline. All rights reserved. Reproduced by kind permission of A. S. Kline.
VI: Hypsipyle to Jason
Hypsipyle of Lemnos, born of the people of Bacchus,
speaks to Jason: how much of your heart was truly in your words?
You’re said to have reached Thessaly’s shore in your returning ship,
rich with the fleece of the golden ram.
I give thanks for your safety, as much as you might allow:
yet surely the letter itself should have come from you.
For though you might not have had the winds, as you wished,
so as not to be driven beyond the kingdoms I granted:
however adverse the wind, Hypsipyle was worthy
of being sent a sealed letter of greeting!
Why does rumour reach me, with news, before a letter:
the sacred bulls of Mars going under the yoke,
a crop of warriors growing from scattered seed
and their deaths not requiring your efforts,
the watchful dragon guarding the hide of the ram
yet the golden fleece snatched by your brave hand?
If I could say this timidly to the doubters: ‘He himself
wrote this to me’, how fine that would be!
Why complain at the sense of duty of an indifferent husband?
If I’m still yours, I’ve been shown great indulgence.
It’s been said that a barbarous sorceress came back with you
to be welcomed to that half of the bed you promised me.
Love’s a credulous thing. If only it’s thoughtless speech
that has charged a man with false crimes!
Recently a guest came to me from Thessalian shores,
and had scarcely crossed the threshold when I said:
‘How is my Jason faring?’ He hung there,
shame-faced, his eyes fixed on the ground.
I leapt up immediately, and tearing my tunic from my breast,
I shouted: ‘Does he live, or does death call me, also?’
‘He lives,’ he said timidly: I forced that timid man to swear it.
I scarcely believe you live even with a god as witness.
As my reason returns, I begin to inquire about your deeds:
He tells of your ploughing with the bronze-footed bulls,
the dragon’s teeth sown in the earth instead of seed
and the sudden warriors bearing arms,
an earthborn people killed in civil war
fulfilling their life’s destiny in a day.
The dragon defeated. Again, I ask if Jason lives:
belief alternates with hope and fear.
While he relates each tale, he reveals, by his ability,
in the eagerness, and the flow of his story, my wounds.
Oh, where’s the loyalty promised? Where’s the marriage oath,
and the torch better fitted to plunge beneath my funeral pyre?
I was not known to you secretly. Juno was present at the wedding
and Hymen, his brow was crowned with garlands.
Yet neither Juno nor Hymen, but dismal bloodstained Erinys
carried her torches of ill-luck before me.
What are the Minyans to me? Or ships and Tritons?
Or Tiphys the Argo’s helmsman, and my country, to you?
There’s no ram here with a remarkable golden fleece,
nor was Lemnos the kingdom of old Colchian King Aeetes.
True, at first – but my evil fate drew me on –
I intended to drive the stranger away with my army of women
and they know how to overcome Lemnian men – too much so!
His life was protected by such a resolute army!
I saw that man into my city, admitted him to my house and heart.
Here two summers and two winters passed you by.
It was the third harvest when you contracted to sail,
mixing words like these with your tears:
‘I’m dragged away from you Hypsipyle. May fate only let me return:
I leave here as your husband, your husband I’ll always be.
But that of mine that’s hidden in your pregnant womb,
will live, and we should both be parents to it!’
So you spoke. And, tears falling from your lying cheeks,
I remember you could say nothing more to me.
Of the comrades you embarked last on the sacred Argo:
it sped away, the wind took your billowing sails.
The dark-blue waves well up from your driving keel:
The land’s gazed at by you, the sea by me.
A wide tower, open on all sides, surveys the waves:
there I suffer and tears wet my face and breast.
I gaze through tears, and my eyes see further
than they used to do, sharpened by loving feelings.
Now, also, add to them chaste prayers for your safety,
mingled with anxious vows, to be fulfilled by me.
Shall I fulfil the vows? Medea may enjoy the fruits of sacrifice!
My heart grieves, and overflows, with anger mixed with love.
Shall I take gifts to the temples because Jason lives who I’ve lost?
Should some victim die at a blow because of the harm to me?
I was anxious, and always afraid, lest your father
might arrange for a daughter-in-law from a city of Argolis.
I feared the Argolid – yet it’s a barbarian rival that harms me!
I never expected to suffer this wound from your enemy.
It’s not her face or merits that enchant you, but the charms she knows
and the herbs, cut, with fearful incantations.
She could labour to draw the reluctant moon from her course
and hide the horses of the sun in darkness:
she could hold back the waters, and halt the falling streams,
she could move woods, and natural rocks, from their place.
She wanders through the tombs, clothes loose, hair dishevelled,
and collects particular bones from tepid funeral pyres.
She bewitches absent folk: she pierces wax effigies,
and forces fine needles into their wretched livers.
And what it might be better for me not to have known: wrongly,
love’s sought, and its nature’s to be bought, by magic practices.
Can you embrace her, without fear, in the one bed,
enjoying sleep, in the silence of the night?
I suppose she forced you to bear the yoke, like those bulls:
and like cruel dragons, you too are lulled by her powers.
Add that she favours attributing your long list of deeds to herself
and that the wife’s name harms the husband’s.
Someone of Pelias’s party could ascribe your successes to poisons,
and there are people who might believe him, saying:
‘It wasn’t Jason, but Medea of Phasis, Aeetes’s daughter
who stripped the golden fleece from the Phrixean ram’
Alcimede, your mother, doesn’t approve – seek her council! –
nor your father: she’s a daughter-in-law come from the frozen pole.
Let her find a husband from the Don, or the damp Scythian marshes,
or even from her homeland of Phasis, for herself.
Fickle son of Aeson, more uncertain than a spring breeze,
why do your words of promise lack substance?
You who’d gone from here my husband, didn’t return so from there –
if I might be restored as your wife, I’d be as before your going.
If high birth and a noble name move you:
see, I was born the daughter of Thoas and of Ariadne.
Bacchus was my grandfather: as Bacchus’s wife she wears a crown,
and her constellation outshines the lesser stars.
Lemnos will be my gift to you: a land ripe for cultivation:
and you shall have me too with the rest of my dowry.
Now I have given birth, also. Rejoice for us both, Jason –
sweetly it’s author had made a burden for my womb.
I’m happy in their number, as well, and produced twin boys,
favoured by Lucina with a double pledge.
I you ask who they are like, you’ll be able to identify them:
they don’t know how to pretend they have any other father.
I nearly gave them up to be seen as ambassadors for their mother,
but a cruel stepmother stood in the way of that undertaking.
I feared Medea – a stepmother indeed –
Medea’s hands are made for every wickedness.
She who could scatter the torn limbs of her brother, Absyrtus,
over the fields, would she spare my children?
O you, maddened and confused by Colchian drugs,
do you still say she’s preferable to Hypsipyles in bed?
Shamefully that girl knew a man in adultery:
chaste marriage gave me to you, and you to me.
She betrayed her father – I snatched my Thoas from death.
She abandoned Colchis – I have my Lemnos.
What does matter, then, if wickedness overcomes piety,
if she is endowed by crime itself, and it earns her a husband?
Jason, I don’t admire the crime the Lemnian women committed!
However indignation grants itself a coward’s weapons.
If hostile winds as they ought had forced you and your friends
to enter my harbour, and I’d come out to meet you with young twins
– surely you’d have asked the earth to swallow you! – say, wretch,
with what look would you have gazed at me, and your children?
What death would have been fitting reward for such treachery?
In fact you would have been safe and sound because of me,
not because you deserved it, but because I am kind.
I would have drenched my face with my rival’s blood,
and yours that she stole with her magic arts.
I would have been Medea to Medea. Why, if he who is on high,
Jupiter the Just, himself, assists my prayers,
let her grieve herself for what Hypsipyle bewails, a rival
in my bed, and feel the effect of her own laws,
and as I am forsaken, a wife, and mother of two children,
may she be bereaved of similar children, and her husband!
May she not keep her evil place for long, and forsake worse:
may she be exiled, and search the whole world for refuge.
What the sister was to the brother, the daughter to the unlucky father,
let that harsh woman be to her husband and her children!
When she’s exhausted sea and land, let her try the air:
may she wander helpless, hopeless, bloodied by her crimes.
I, daughter of Thoas, cheated of my husband, beg this:
‘Live man and bride in an accursed bed!’
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.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.