Sappho’s Shadow: Reading Ovid’s Heroides 15 as Reconstruction

Reading Ovid’s Heroides 15 as Reconstruction

By Clare Kearns


I. Introduction

Ovid’s Heroides are fundamentally paradoxical. As a collection of letters that take on the point of view of spurned mythological heroines writing to their former lovers, the poems purport to express the sadness, fear, and anger felt by the heroines from their own perspective—though, of course, the Heroides is the work of male poet Ovid. Time and genre intersect in a number of ways in the Heroides: the epistolarity of the poems insists that each is written at a specific point in time or “to the moment,” as Duncan Kennedy argues; in the Heroides, this is often a point in time prior to the defining moment of that heroine’s mythology. This temporal and generic relationship, however, is complicated by gender: Kennedy argues that the subjects of Ovid’s poems “have a ‘mythic’ or prototypical quality to them” but that “allowing them to write in their ‘own’ words, and vitally ‘to the moment’, gives them the opportunity to subvert the timeless abstractions that they have become.” But can this always be true of the Heroides when Ovid employs obscured female voices for his own literary project? Though this essay will not explore all of the Heroides in considering Kennedy’s claim, Heroides 15—Sappho to Phaon—provides an interesting case study that problematizes the way epistolarity, gender, and time might relate to one another.


II. Reconstructions of Sappho

Unlike Ovid’s other heroines, Sappho was a real historical figure. Her biography, however, is hotly disputed, and has been subject to post hoc mythologizing almost as much as those of Ovid’s mythic women. Even in antiquity her most basic biographical details were a subject of debate: though a fragment from Menander’s 4th century BCE play The Leukadia details Sappho’s plunge off of Cape Leukas in pursuit of her lover Phaon, the geographer Strabo takes issue with this account in his Geographica (1st century BCE): “now although Menander says that Sappho was the first to take the leap, yet those who are better versed than he in antiquities say that it was Cephalus, who was in love with Pterelas the son of Deïoneus” (Geog. 10.2.9 trans. Jones). Strabo disputes the history Menander has ascribed to Sappho, arguing that it was instead Cephalus who leapt from the cliff rather than Sappho. Menander’s apocryphal account of Sappho’s dramatic death can thus be said to mythologize the poet, helping turn her into the “timeless abstraction” that Kennedy suggests Ovid is subverting. To evaluate the applicability of Kennedy’s argument to Heroides 15, then, I will compare the poem to the Menander fragment (Fr. 258 K), to see where, how, and to what extent or effect Ovid departs from or adheres to Menander’s account of Sappho. It ultimately becomes clear that Ovid’s Sappho bears striking similarities to Menander’s Sappho, similarities which seem to go against the silhouette of Sappho that we see from her own writing. Ovid thus contributes to the mythologization of the poet, and his choice of the epistolary form reifies his myth in politically problematic fashion.

Menander’s fragment about Sappho is short. It is from his play titled The Leukadia, which appears to detail a rocky outcropping on the island of Leucas from which criminals and unhappy lovers either were thrown or jumped, respectively. The fragment, the authorship and attribution of which is discussed in the Loeb edition of Menander’s fragments, reads as follows:

οὗ δὴ λέγεται πρώτη Σαπφὼ

τὸν ὑπέρκομπον θηρῶσα Φάον’

οἰστρῶντι πόθῳ ῥῖψαι πέτρας 

ἀπὸ τηλεφανοῦς

Where ‘tis said Sappho first, when pursuing her proud, 

High and mighty Phaon, in her frenzied desire 

Threw herself from the cliff that eye can discern 

From afar.

There are many points of interest in this four-line fragment. Most immediately, Menander’s Sappho is passionate to the point of insanity. The language Menander uses to describe Sappho’s mental state signifies irrationality and perhaps fanaticism: θηρῶσα, from the verb θηρεύω (translated as “to hunt” or “to pursue”), is often used to describe the pursuit of marriage (i.e., Euripides’ Helen 314, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound 858). The word is sometimes associated with those not in their right mind, as it is in Prometheus Bound, in which the men “hunting” their brides are “impassioned in their hearts” [οἱ δ᾽ ἐπτοημένοι φρένας], a phrase that similarly connotes those who are non-compos mentis. But what is most notable about the passage is the third line: “in her frenzied desire [she] threw herself from the cliff [οἰστρῶντι πόθῳ ῥῖψαι πέτρας].” Sappho is apparently dominated by a “frenzied desire,” an emotion that reinforces the image of Sappho as not in her right mind. This line, moreover, seems to recall the character of Io from, again, Prometheus Bound. The word οἰστρῶντι, which the Loeb edition renders as “frenzied,” comes from the verb οἰστράω meaning “to sting.” Its metaphorical meaning “frenzied” is most directly related to Io’s role in Aeschylus, where she is portrayed as driven insane by the stings of a gadfly. Like Menander’s Sappho, Aeschylus’ Io also considered throwing herself off a cliff: “what gain is there for me in living? Why did I not throw myself right away from the rugged rock? [τί δῆτ᾽ ἐμοὶ ζῆν κέρδος, ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἐν τάχει ἔρριψ᾽ ἐμαυτὴν τῆσδ᾽ ἀπὸ στύφλου πέτρας]” (Prometheus Bound 747-748). Io, like Menander, uses the words throw [ῥίπτω] and rock [πέτρα] in her lament. Such linguistic similarities point to a potential intertextual relationship between Menander’s Sappho and Aeschylus’ Io; since Io, in Prometheus Bound, has moments of psychological instability and insanity, this relationship suggests a comparable lack of control over mental faculties for Menander’s Sappho.

Ovid’s Heroides 15 also depicts Sappho as suffering from a destructive and mentally incapacitating love. Ovid forefronts Sappho’s experience of love from the outset: “I burn,” Ovid-as-Sappho writes, “like a fertile field with its crop ablaze, when the indomitable east wind excites a flame [uror, ut indomitis ignem exercentibus Euris/Fertilis accensis messibus ardet ager]” (Her. 15.9-10). The imagery here recalls, as Menander’s does, the madness of Io in Prometheus Bound, who is “inflamed” by the sting of the gadfly to the point of insanity [ὑπό μ᾽ αὖ σφάκελος καὶ φρενοπληγεῖς/μανίαι θάλπουσ᾽, οἴστρου δ᾽ ἄρδις]. But beyond possible, even debatable, references to previous mad heroines, Ovid makes Sappho’s insanity quite literal, as he has his heroine detail her mental state upon waking up to remember Phaon is gone: “There I run, helpless in my mind, with my hair cast about my neck, as one whom the dreadful Enyo touched [illuc mentis inops, ut quam furialis Enyo/Attigit, in collo crine iacente feror] (Her. 15.139-140). Sappho is unequivocally non-compos mentis, as Ovid uses the inverse phrase inops mentis to describe her. Accompanying this incapacitation is the depiction of Sappho’s strewn-about hair, a reference to the appearance of the Bacchae, women maddened by Dionysus. Through such allusions, Ovid fashions his Sappho in the same way that Menander had previously: a spurned woman whose burning love has driven her to insanity.


III. Sappho in (Some of) Her Own Words

It is also true, however, that Sappho herself wrote about experiencing a destructive, physically inhibiting love. Sappho 31 is often cited as the most important literary antecedent to other ancient depictions of destructive love. In order to responsibly consider representations of Sappho and her biography, we must look at what the poet herself actually wrote in her own words instead of attempting to reconstruct her biography, or, as Barbara Graziosi said at the 10/31 Penn Classical Studies Department Colloquium, to “look at what is right under our noses.” Following that imperative, we can consider Sappho’s own words (shortened to the relevant descriptions here for spatial reasons):

…ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽, ὤς με φώναι-

σ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει,

ἀλλ᾽ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε†, λέπτον

δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν…

…†έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται†, τρόμος δὲ

παῖσαν ἄγρει…

…For when I even glance at you,

It’s impossible for me to speak,

But it’s like my tongue is broken

A delicate fire runs over my skin…

…A cold sweat pours down me,

Trembling seizes me entirely…

In this poem, Sappho is identifying, maybe even glorifying, an experience of love that manifests itself psychologically and corporeally. But what should one, according to Sappho, do in the face of such a love? The answer lies in the final, incomplete line of the fragment: “but all must be endured, since… [ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον ἐπεὶ…].” While we may never know exactly why Sappho believes this physical deterioration must be endured, the line ends the poem on an unmistakably hopeful note. Absent from Sappho’s account of burning love is the insanity and despair that accompanies Menander’s portrayal of a suicidal Sappho. On the contrary, Sappho is optimistic about—and in full control of—this seemingly catastrophic love; the uncertainty of the ἐπεὶ clause suggestively points to a number of future possibilities that make her love worthwhile.

The distinction between hope and despair in the face of love is where we see exactly how Ovid adheres closer to Menander’s depiction of Sappho than he does to Sappho’s own words. Unlike Sappho, who sees love as meaningful and, though destructive, something to be endured, Menander’s Sappho cannot bear love’s psychological stress. As is suggested by the dative phrase “by her frenzied desire [οἰστρῶντι πόθῳ]” that precedes Sappho’s act of throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff, Menander paints Sappho as so unable to bear such desire that she must end her own life to resolve her pain. Ovid’s Sappho behaves similarly: the heroine recalls being visited by a Naiad, who encouraged Sappho to throw herself from the Leucadian rocks on account of her destructive and unrequited love: “because you burn by an unrequited flame… seek right away high Lucas, and don’t fear from leaping off the rock! [quoniam non ignibus aequis urerispete protinus altam Leucada nec saxo desiluisse time!]” (Her. 15.163-172). As Menander does, Ovid traces a direct line through Sappho’s experience of love (the unrequited flame), her precarious psychological state (as suggested by his use of uro) and Sappho’s subsequent suicide. Indeed, Ovid ends his poem with Sappho disclosing to Phaeon her intention to follow the Naiad’s words: “… that the fate of the Leucadian waves is sought for me! [ut mihi Leucadiae fata petantur aquae]” (Her. 15.220). This statement, especially arriving ominously at the last line of the poem, makes obvious that Ovid’s Sappho is more closely descended from Menander’s Sappho than the poet herself.

But what, exactly, is at stake in Ovid’s interpretation? Unlike Ovid’s other heroines, Sappho was very much a historical figure and, of course, a poet herself. As Hallett (1979) has pointed out, however, her biography has been subject to embellishing and mythologizing by scholars ancient and modern, to the extent that from the fourth century onwards Sappho had essentially become a “mythic heroine.” It is possible, as Kennedy suggests, that Ovid writes in the voices of his heroines to allow them the opportunity to subvert the “timeless abstractions” they have become; however, the politics of a male author assuming a historical woman’s voice to tell her own story should be questioned. Sappho is, of course, one of the only female voices from antiquity that survives. As a result, much has been done to twist her biography to suit the sensibilities of a particular era. The same cannot be said of Greek male poets, per Hallett; this gendered discrepancy suggests a tendency to twist or reconstruct women’s writing and biography that does not apply to male authors and their writing. Given that textual evidence from Sappho herself survives, any such twisting that departs from Sappho’s words—as I have shown Ovid’s does—contributes to the development of the poet as a timeless abstraction. 

Here, the epistolarity of Ovid’s Heroides becomes crucial. As I stated before, Ovid is not only writing a biography of Sappho, but writing one purporting to be written by the hand of Sappho. Mary Beard has done much work to show how some of the most famous women’s speeches, especially Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury and Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, are fabricated to serve a particular narrative: either, in the case of Elizabeth, to avow her own masculinity in the act of public speech making, or in the case of Truth, to ghettoize women’s rhetoric into a particular subsection of speech “in support of their own sectional interests.” In this discussion, I have gestured to what may be the desired narrative operating in Menander and Ovid’s mythologizing of Sappho—the frailness of the female mind in the face of desire and emotion—but it is outside the scope of this essay to investigate completely what exactly Ovid’s goal might be in his depiction of Sappho. Instead, to illustrate how epistolarity might complicate, or perhaps compound, the problematic mythologizing of Sappho, I will end by mentioning that when Heroides 15 was discovered in the 15th century, it was thought to be an actual letter from Sappho to Phaon, translated into Latin, just as many still believe Sojourner Truth, who grew up speaking Dutch and not using colloquialisms such as “ain’t,” delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. 


IV. Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this analysis of Heroides 15 in comparison with Menander Fr. 258 K and Sappho’s writing itself illuminates the limitations of Kennedy’s argument for Ovid as the subverter of timeless abstractions. As we have seen, Heroides 15 adheres stringently to the narrative of Sappho provided by what we have of Menander’s Leukadia, while departing from both Sappho’s own words and from Strabo’s more historical perspective. Ovid’s portrait of Sappho thus certainly contributes to the picture of a mythic heroine that the poet has become over the course of millennia. Perhaps more importantly, the epistolarity of the Heroides also has a hand in the development of the mythic heroine. Unlike Menander’s Leukadia, which does not purport to be from the voice or hand of Sappho, Ovid’s Heroides 15 was once believed to be her work. While such confusion is impossible for the actual mythic heroines that comprise the subjects of Ovid’s preceding fourteen Heroides, I hope that this case study might provide the basis for considering Kennedy’s argument in light of the other Heroides, and whether Ovid can ever be said to subvert the mythological abstractions these heroines have become.


Clare Kearns graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in the Class of 2020 with a B.A. in Classical Studies (Classical Languages and Literature).




Thank you to Dr. James Ker, in whose Latin 308 course I wrote this essay.

Thank you to the protestors of the 2020 Uprising. Hopefully Sappho reminds us to not silence their voices or twist their words. Black Lives Matter.



Arnott, W. G. Menander: Volume II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Beard, Mary. “The Public Voice of Women.” London Review of Books 36:6, 2014.

Graziosi, Barbara. “Sappho, Networked.” University of Pennsylvania Department of Classical Studies Colloquium, October 29th, 2019.

Hallett, Judith. “Sappho and Her Social Contexts: Sense and Sensuality.” Signs 4:3, 1979; pp. 447-464.

Kennedy, Duncan F. “Epistolarity: the Heroides” in The Cambridge Companion to Ovid (pp. 217-232). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 

Most, Glenn. “Reflecting Sappho,”Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 40, 1995; pp. 15-38.