Ovid and the Female Experience

Ovid’s mythological heroines can display heightened reactions to their situations which everyday women can still relate to, argues Kimberly Tyson (’25)

Heroides (“Heroines”) by the Roman poet Ovid is a series of verse letters written in the voices of mythological women. Each character composes a letter to her lover, airing grievances that both her lover and the reader might disregard as inconsequential. But Ovid explored these intense emotions of mythological women towards their romantic partners to highlight the experiences of women in real life. Ovid illustrated the universal themes of abandonment, honor, and agency through the amplified frustrations of mythological women to make the reader understand these experiences through a female lens.

woman's hand writing a letter
Portrait of Penelope, detail from Héroïdes ou épitres d’Ovide, traduites par Octavien de Saint Gelais. Huntington Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid emphasized the range of emotions from fear to fury in the heroines’ reactions to abandonment. Abandonment defines the Heroides but affects each character differently. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, worries that her husband Odysseus, absent for the past twenty years, “could be captive now to a foreign love” (1.76). Phyllis laments to Demophoon that “like a madwoman I even had your damaged ships rebuilt…ready for your desertion” (2.45–49), and Aeneas similarly abandons Dido once her usefulness ended (7.9–10.) Briseis is no queen, but a slave who feels “contemptible, forsaken,” with “fear shak[ing her] bones” at her fate if Achilles leaves her behind (3.81–82). The cause of their worries vary: some fear for their own security, or what their lover himself will suffer. The heroines struggle to cope with the loss, suffering at home unlike their ambitious lovers. They often have little say in their lover’s departure, even when they wield vast societal power otherwise.

The heroines’ own dignity—as well as the honor they bestow upon their lovers—are united in their righteous anger. Phyllis cries to Demophoon, “The lover and the woman were deceived by your words: may the gods let this be the one thing you are known for!” (2.55–56). Dido tells Aeneas she hopes “the image of the wife you cheated would stand before your eyes” (7.63–64). Queen Hypsipyle curses Jason and his new wife Medea to “‘live man and bride in an accursed bed!’” for his infidelity (6.163–164). The heroines’ wrath is completely justified: their lovers were the first to break the heroines’ trust. Even when they can do nothing about it, the women fully express the truth of their own experience.

Ovid explored the women’s lack of agency in their relationships, sometimes contrasting it with their agency in other parts of their lives. Dido furiously asks Aeneas “Who’d give possession of his fields to an unknown?” like she did. (7.17–18). She reminds him of her accomplishments: “[I] endured harsh journeys, pursued by enemies…and I won this shore, I founded Carthage…a cause of envy” (7.113–122). She desperately promises, “If your mind’s eager for war…we’ll have no lack of enemies to offer” (7.157–159). In contrast, Briseis is a non-Greek slave with zero agency who relies on the love and mercy of her superior Achilles, whose decisions control her future (3.1–2, 59–62, 99–102). The queens exert agency separate from their lovers, through their own station and merit, which initially lets them choose to assist their lovers. But their lack of agency in their relationships consumes them, lovers robbing them of power.

Penelope’s frustrations with Odysseus represent those of real-life women who must intelligently manage their lovers’ absence. Penelope berates Odysseus for making her “fear everything, insanely, [with] my anxieties…open to wide speculation” (1.71–72). Penelope uses her demure fidelity against the suitors who have besieged her home, making her an unwilling hostess in Odysseus’s absence. (1.84–86, 91–95). Ovid demonstrated her quiet, effective intelligence and strong internal motivations despite the arrogant men around her. Penelope’s complicated feelings about Odysseus are a nuanced representation of women’s real-life concerns. Phyllis, however, cannot cope with being exploited by Demophoon.

Ovid used Phyllis to explore the bleaker experiences of women who suffer betrayal by men they trusted after offering their support. She is the most pitiful of all the women in the Heroides, reflecting the depression of well-meaning women who undeserving men take advantage of, and for whom the women remain desperate. Phyllis gave everything to Demophoon and received nothing but heartbreak. Phyllis is a warning against naivete, wasting away as she pines for Demophoon’s unlikely return (2.99–102). Her suffering is passive and desolate, but the images she conjures of suicide—“The tide will carry me, abandoned, to your shore” —are almost dream-like (2.131–144). Through Phyllis, Ovid represents the fallacy of naïve trust and romanticism, which results in the exploitation of a woman with a good heart.

Dido, in contrast, is much angrier about her turmoil. Ovid uses Dido’s unhinged emotional perspective to demonstrate the terrifying extent of women’s anger toward traitorous lovers. Queen Dido is a powerful character, but her love for Aeneas has reduced her to unbecoming, dramatic behavior. She desperately wants Aeneas to marry and rule alongside her, even declaring, “If you are ashamed of me being your wife, let me be called not bride, but host; as long as she is yours, Dido will endure to be whatever you wish” (7.167–169). Dido’s anger and desperation at his betrayal is deranged, but Ovid validated her fury. He acknowledged women’s full, unpretty breakdowns, and licensed not being strategically subdued like Penelope, nor weepy like Phyllis. Ovid took Dido seriously as a complex, powerful woman who demands both his and the reader’s attention.

He treated Briseis with similar care, though her situation requires a different degree of understanding. Ovid portrayed Briseis’s enslavement with nuance to highlight her unique suffering and elaborate on her marginalization. Briseis lost her livelihood to the Greeks in the Trojan War but feels that her master Achilles “alone made up for them,” (3.51) even though she worries he will “reject and shun [her]” (3.55-56). Briseis has the least societal power of all the heroines, particularly when Greek commander-in-chief Agamemnon takes her away from Achilles, who is “idle, and slow to anger” in recovering her, for which he has absolutely no obligation (3.21–24, 3.39–42). Ovid explored her unique position at the bottom of society to demonstrate the full female experience. The reader feels uncomfortable and hopeless on her behalf as shares her confusion about the future state of her life. These mythological characters enabled Ovid to exaggerate and dramatize their problems which are relevant and understandable to his audience.

Ovid used the inherently dramatized stories of these mythological women to emphasize the universal struggles they portray. Because they are mythological characters, the heroines can display heightened reactions to their situations which everyday women can still relate to. The suffering of being abandoned by a lover has transcended women’s lives throughout history. Even when one’s lover is gone because of duty or necessity, anger and frustration arise from the fear of loss, infidelity, and abandonment. Terrifying questions persist: What will happen to my lover? Why can’t he stay safe with me? Will someone else take advantage of me? Though Ovid was not necessarily unique among his contemporaries in depicting well-developed female characters, by exclusively dedicating the Heroides to female characters, Ovid demonstrated their perspectives to a higher degree.

Ovid examined his chosen themes through a lens that illuminates the nuances of female suffering. Ovid refrained from demeaning the women’s experiences and fleshed them out with their own motivations, emotions, and actions without the distraction of male perspectives. He filled in a gap in his own storytelling and brought forth a necessary set of poems that voiced all female perspectives on the themes of abandonment, honor, and agency. Even though some of the heroines exert astounding political and social power, all experience their world in a distinctly female way. Men do not take the heroines seriously and treat the women’s desires as trivial in contrast to their own heroic goals. If the heroines were men, their lovers would not treat them with such callous disrespect.

Ovid used the mythological women of the Heroides to explore the full range of women’s experiences with abandonment, honor, and agency. He contrasted the characters both against each other and the freedom and dominance of their lovers. Penelope conveys the intelligent tact that women must display when their lover’s absence has made them lose agency in their lives. Phyllis’s desolate emotions represent the depression of kind, exploited women, though Dido’s reaction to the same situation is much more furious. Through Briseis, Ovid explored an enslaved women who is keenly aware of her lack of agency. The characters’ dramatic stories let Ovid illuminate real women’s suffering for his audience and validate women’s experiences throughout time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *