The Abandoned Heroine Archetype in Greek and Roman Myth
In the epic myths of Ancient Greece and Rome, it is common for heroes to abandon their heroines in order to reach the end of their quests, as it was considered virtuous in these cultures for a man to choose duty over love. In fact, this trend was so pervasive that playwrights and poets turned to writing entire works centering on the tragic women of epic. In doing so, Greeks like Euripides and Romans like Ovid brought into the spotlight the women who were originally supporting characters for heroes of myth.
One of the most famous abandoned heroines in ancient myth is Dido, queen of Carthage in the time following the Trojan War.
According to the myth as written by the Roman poet Virgil, the Trojan warrior Aeneas escapes the wreckage of Troy and embarks on a divine quest to found the city of Rome. When Aeneas seeks protection in Carthage, Venus, the Roman goddess of love (who also happens to be Aeneas’ mother), compels the queen to fall in love with him. Struck with passion for the stranger, Dido grants him the protection he seeks.
Then, while the two are out hunting, a storm forces them to take refuge in a cave, where they consummate their love.
Aeneas and Dido in the cave, image from a 5th century AD manuscript in the Vatican Library
Dido understands this act to be a promise of marriage, but Aeneas still intends to sail on and establish a city in Italy. Broken-hearted at this news, Dido curses Aeneas, promising that her descendants will torment his, alluding to the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage that would take place in the third and second centuries BC. Dido then builds a pyre to burn all of Aeneas’ things, and surprises her subjects by throwing herself onto the fire as well.
Before committing suicide, Dido makes this stirring speech [translated]:
I don’t speak with hope that you will be moved by my plea,
For as I begin, the gods are already against me!
But since I have wretchedly wasted my chase reputation,
and body, and mind, to waste a few words is a trifling thing.
Are you still determined to go and leave poor Dido?
Will the same winds carry your sails and your promise away?
(Ovid, Heroides VII.3-9)
By the time she meets Aeneas, Dido was already a widow and her city was threatened by another suitor. A marriage to Aeneas seemed to be the end of her troubles. When he abandons her, he leaves her hopeless, as she writes on her own epitaph:
Aeneas gave the reason for dying and the sword.
Dido killed herself by her own hand.
(Ovid, Heroides VII.195-6)
More famous, perhaps, than Dido is Medea, whose crimes of infanticide have carried her reputation through the ages. Medea murders her own children as revenge against the husband who left her, showing a different side of the abandoned heroine archetype than we saw in Dido.
Medea’s story begins when, as a young princess, she aids the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Medea uses her knowledge of herbs and magic to help Jason, and in exchange, Jason pledges to marry her.
In some versions of the story, Medea’s brother tries to keep her from leaving with the stranger, prompting Medea to kill her brother and reveal her homicidal nature. And yet, she and her husband settle into married life and have two sons, until Jason leaves Medea for another princess, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.
With one day left before she will be exiled, Medea plots. She covers a gown and tiara in poison and has them sent to Jason’s new wife as a wedding present. The poisoned garments kill the princess and her father, the king, as he tears them off her. Euripides describes the scene:
Her flesh dripped from her bones like sap from a pine,
Because of the unseen jaws of the poison.
(Euripides, Medea 1200-1)
But Medea’s vengeance is not satiated until she kills her two sons as well, though it grieves her, and she gloats of her deed to Jason. She flees the scene in a chariot drawn by dragons.
Krater vase ca. 400 BC, located at the Cleveland Museum of Art . Image source .
Medea embodies a combination of the ancient archetypes of the witch and the abandoned heroine. She is made particularly famous by the Euripides, Athenian playwright of the 5th century BC, and in Roman times by the playwright Seneca and the poet Ovid, who found her side of the tale more stirring than the epic quest of Jason.
In Dido and Medea, we see two very different depictions of the abandoned heroine, one suicidal, one murderous. Another version comes to us in Ariadne, whom the hero Theseus abandons.
In this hero story, Theseus kills the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull imprisoned in a labyrinth. Ariadne, princess of Crete, gives Theseus a thread in order to find his way out of the labyrinth after he slays the monster within. In gratitude, he agrees to marry her. As in the earlier examples, love leads the heroine to help the hero, fulfilling her supporting role in the epic. But while her goal is love, his is only glory.
Adriadne giving some thread to Theseus. Image source .
Having conquered the Minotaur, Theseus inexplicably leaves Ariadne asleep on an island and sails away. When she sees that he is gone, she is crushed and frightened, as the Roman poet Catullus writes:
Ariadne looks out from the pebbly weeds, her eyes
Despairing, the image of a Bacchant, alas!
She looks and wavers beneath the great waves of her fears.
These lines hint at the end of the story, when Ariadne joins Bacchus, the god of wine, and his wild followers. Where other heroines would kill themselves or take their rage out on others, Ariadne succumbs to bestial madness as a Bacchant.
Dido, Medea, and Ariadne are all abandoned by their beloveds. Each plays the role of a supporting character, falling in love with the hero and helping him with his quest. But then, as each hero chooses duty over the temptation of love, the women take on unique characteristics. Dido crumbles under the weight of her grief and commits suicide; Medea turns her rage outward and punishes everyone who wronged her, and even those who did not; Ariadne removes herself from civilization and joins a band of feral women. It is no wonder that ancient writers found these women interesting enough to make them the protagonists of the stories.
Ovid especially rewrote ancient myths to show underrepresented perspectives. In his Heroides, meaning “heroines,” Ovid shows us how Penelope pines for her long awaited Odysseus; Phaedra laments her uncontainable love for her stepson, Hippolytus; Deianira bewails her philandering husband Hercules, before she accidentally poisons him to death. Though these women were less important than the heroes in ancient epics like the Argonautica, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, their stories proved fascinating to ancient poets and remain so to us today.
Ovid, Heroides VII, X, XII
Apollonius Rhodius , Argonautica
Featured image: Theseus and Ariadne at the Entrance of the Labyrinth by Richard Westall. Credit: North Lincolnshire Museums Service
By Kamil Miriam