The legend of Dido, Queen of Carthage
I shall, if I can, follow behind your light, Oh Virgil – may glory and honour be attached to your name! – and recall the story of how Aeneas rejected Dido. I shall use your Aenead as my guide. I’ll describe how Troy was brought to destruction by Greek subterfuge, through a deception, a horse offered to Minerva, through which many a Trojan had to die. The ghost of Hector appeared. There was a raging conflagration that couldn’t be controlled, it engulfed the main citadel of that city and the country was brought to its knees. King Priam was dead.
The goddess Venus instructed Aeneas to flee, so he took his son Ascanius in his right hand and escaped the slaughter, carrying his father Anchises on his back. Along the way he lost his wife, Creusa. He was in great sorrow until he met up with some of his friends, and when they had all gathered together, he chose his moment and set sail upon the sea towards Italy, as his destiny decreed.
It’s not my intention to speak of his adventures while he was on the sea, for it’s not relevant. As I said, it’s the story of he and Dido that I want to tell. He sailed so long in the salt sea that he arrived in Libya, with only seven ships left, overjoyed to have made it safely to land, so battered was he from a recent storm. When he found a harbour, he took a trusted friend, a knight called Achates, and went with him to spy out the surrounding countryside. They went off alone. leaving the ships lying at anchor, and walked for a long while across rough ground until they came upon a huntress. She held a bow in her hand, and some arrows, and wore a short dress that came only to her knees. But she was the most beautiful creature that nature had ever created, and she greeted Aeneas and Achates and asked them:
‘Have you, by chance, seen any of my sisters with arrows in her case and an animal killed and wrapped up; a wild boar, perhaps, or some other game that we’ve been hunting in this forest?’
‘We haven’t,’ replied Aeneas. ‘But from your beauty, I guess that you cannot be an earthly woman. Are you Apollo’s sister, Diana? If you are a goddess, then have mercy on our tribulations and our sorrow.’
‘I’m no goddess, I must tell you,’ she said. ‘It’s the custom here for young ladies to hunt in these forests with bows and arrows. This is the kingdom of Libya, where Queen Dido rules.’
Then she told Aeneas the story of how Dido had come to Libya, which I won’t put into verse here, because there’s no need, it would waste time unnecessarily. It was the goddess Venus who was speaking to Aeneas, his own mother. She told him to make his way to Carthage. Then she vanished. I could follow Virgil word for word, but it would take too long to do so. Suffice it to say that this noble queen, whose name was Dido, had been the wife of Sitheo and she was as beautiful as the shining sun. She founded the city of Carthage and reigned there with such great honour that she was called the flower of all queens, for her gentility, her beauty and generosity – so much so that it was a lucky man indeed who set eyes upon her! She was so well-regarded that kings and lords were vying for her favour, and all the world had been set alight by her beauty.
When Aeneas arrived at the city, Dido was worshipping at its principal temple, so he made his way there and entered it as unobtrusively as he could. And I cannot say whether it truly happened exactly in this way, but Virgil says that his mother Venus made him invisible, he’s quite clear about this. And when Aeneas and Achates were searching through this temple, they came upon a wall with a fresco on it depicting how Troy had been destroyed, and the entire land of Ilium along with it.
‘Alas!’ cried Aeneas when he saw this. ‘Our shame is spread so widely across the entire world that it’s even painted on a wall here! We, who were once so prosperous, are now reduced to being a byword for ruin and disaster!’ and he began to weep, so softly that it was pitiful to see.
This young lady, the queen of this city, stood in the temple in her royal clothes and with her royal attendants. She was so rich and magnificent, so refreshingly young and energetic and had such bright, gleaming eyes that if that god who made the heavens and the earth wished to take a lover, whom could he possibly choose above this sweet lady? For beauty and goodness, feminine virtue and honesty, no woman could possibly be more attractive to him. Fortune, who governs this world, had created such a rare thing that it had never been seen before.
But Aeneas’s friends and comrades, whom he thinks have been lost at sea in the storm, have come ashore not far from here, and some of his highest noblemen by chance have already arrived in the city, in that same temple even, intent upon speaking to the queen and asking for her hospitality, such is her fame and reputation.
When these shipwrecked noblemen had explained their distress to her, described the tempest they had experienced and the hardship they had endured, Aeneas suddenly appeared before the queen and introduced himself. His men were overjoyed to see him! They could see that their lord was alive, and the queen saw the honour and respect that they showed to him. She had often heard of Aeneas and felt great pity and sorrow that such a man should be disinherited in this way, and so reduced in status. She saw that he was like a knight: strong and resourceful, refined and articulate, handsome and well-proportioned, for Aeneas had inherited his good looks from Venus, more than any other man, I guess, and he truly looked a lord.
And because he was a stranger, she felt even more attracted to him; for, by God’s salvation, some people find new things entrancing simply because of their very newness. She felt pity for his predicament, and along with this pity grew love, and she was determined to help him. She told him how very sorry she was that he had fallen into such peril, and how sorry she was for everything else that had happened to him, and in her friendly way she said: ‘Are you not the son of Venus and Anchises? I’ll give you all the honour and reward that I can, in good faith, and I’ll rescue your ships and your men.’
She spoke many a friendly word to him and commanded her messengers to go at once, that same day, to seek out his ships and to repair and provision them. She had many a bull and goat sent to his ships for slaughter, and wine, and then she made haste to her palace with Aeneas alongside her. But what need is there for you to hear about the feast that she gave? Aeneas had never enjoyed himself so much! There were all manner of rare dishes to sample, music, singing and entertainment, and many amorous glances to enjoy as well.
From the gates of hell, Aeneas has suddenly been delivered into heaven. It is just like the old days in Troy.
After dinner, Aeneas was led to lavishly furnished dancing-chambers filled with tapestries and rich hangings, couches and ornate decorations. When he had sat and tasted the spices and drunk all the wine, he was led by the queen to his chambers, to relax with all his men, and to rest.
There is no horse with reins nor warhorse for jousting, no large riding pony, no bridle and no saddle, no article of jewellery speckled with precious gemstones nor heavy sackful of gold, no ruby that shines by night, no proud falcon for catching herons nor swift hound for chasing wild boar, no greyhound to chase deer, no cup of gold and not one of those newly-minted coins that can be found in Libya that Dido does not send to Aeneas. All his personal bills are settled as well. This is what this noble queen does for her guests, like a lady whose generosity is limitless.
Aeneas also, in all honesty, has sent Achates down to his ship to fetch his son and all the treasure that he can lay his hands on, sceptres, clothes, broaches, rings – some to wear and some to present to Dido, the lady who has given him all these wonderful gifts – and Aeneas has told Achates to instruct his son how he should present these things to the queen.
Achates returned. Aeneas was very happy to see his young son Ascanius; although our author tells us that Cupid, who is the god of love, at the behest of his mother, high in the heavens, had taken on the likeness of Ascanius in order to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. But as for that scripture, be that as it may, I find it hard to believe. This at least is true, however: that Dido made such a fuss of the child that it was a wonder to see, as she thanked him many times for the presents that his father had sent to her.
The queen is full of happiness and joy, surrounded by all these handsome Trojans. She asks Aeneas to tell her everything that happened in Troy before he left, and they spend long hours together, conversing and enjoying one another’s company, until such a fire begins to ignite in foolish Dido’s heart, and she now has such a desire to go to bed with her new guest, that she has gone quite pale and looks quite ill because of it.
So now to business, to the fruit of this story and the reason I’ve been telling it. Thus I begin: one night, when the moon had risen and spread her light over the city, this noble queen retired to her chamber and to her bed. Later she woke, and began to sigh and to agonise with herself. She tossed and turned in bed, as do many lovers – so I’ve heard – and at last she confided with her sister Anne.
‘My dear sister, what can it have been that so frightened me out of my dream? This Trojan guest is so much in my thoughts, he is so handsome and so attractive and so powerful that my life lies in his hands, along with all my love. You haven’t heard him tell the story of his adventures? Certainly, Anne, if you were to advise it, I would gladly marry him. This is how I feel. He has the power to let me live or die.’
Her sister Ann spoke frankly to her. But what she said was such a sermon that it would take far too long to repeat it here, and in the end, it had no effect anyway. Love will run its course, and no one can stop it from doing so.
The sun arose over the sea and this young, energetic and amorous queen gave instructions to all her court to prepare the nets and the broad, sharp spears. Queen Dido wished to go hunting. Everybody prepared their horses, the hounds were brought to the court, all her young knights paraded about on their swiftest hunting steeds and there were a large number of women there as well. The queen rode out on a paper-white palfrey and, sitting on a red, embroidered saddle embossed with gold stripes and wearing gold and many glittering jewels, she looked as fair as the dawn that brings relief to the restless sleeper.
On a lively and animated horse, which was so responsive that men might turn him with the pull of a tiny thread of a rein, Aeneas sat looking for all the world like Phoebus the sun god. The bridle and the frothy golden bit were firmly under his control, so let me allow this noble queen to ride to the hunt with this Trojan alongside her. Soon a herd of deer is located, with a: ‘Hey! Spur on! Unleash! Unleash! Why won’t a lion or a bear appear for us to kill’ these young folk cry, as they pick off the deer at will.
With all this going on, the sky began to darken and thunder began to rumble and then lightning flashed and the clouds cracked with a terrible noise. Down came the rain, hail and sleet with such terrifying flashes that it distressed this noble queen, and all her followers, so much so that they were glad to flee quickly towards some shelter. In order to save herself from this storm, Queen Dido found a little cave and Aeneas went in with her. I don’t know if anybody else was with them. Virgil doesn’t say. But here their love blossomed. This was the first morning of her happiness, and the true beginning of her death. Aeneas knelt and told her how much he loved her and swore that he would be faithful, come what may, and would never seek another woman – just as every false lover lays it on with a trowel and lies deceitfully. But Dido took pity on him and took him as her husband, and vowed to be his wife forevermore, for as long as they both lived. And after this, when the storm had passed, they emerged from the cave with great mirth and happiness and went home.
Tongues quickly began to wag. People soon learned that the queen and Aeneas had gone into a cave alone together. Imaginations began to run wild. King Yarbus came to hear of it; he who had loved Dido all his life and had wooed her and wanted to marry her. He made such sorrow and felt such anguish that it’s pitiful to hear of it. But as far as love is concerned, this happens all the time – one man laughs at another’s sorrow. Aeneas laughs; he’s happier and wealthier now than he ever was in Troy.
Oh foolish womankind, full of innocence, pity, faithfulness and conscience, why do you trust men so? Why so much pity for feigned sorrow, when you have so many old stories to guide you? Can’t you see how you’re all deceived? Can you show me a single example of a man who hasn’t left his sweetheart, or been unkind, or done her some mischief or robbed her and boasted of his deed? You can see it all around you, as clearly as you can read about it. Take heed now of this great gentleman, this Trojan, who is so well able to please her, who pretends to be so faithful and obedient, so kind and so discreet, and performs all his duties of obedience so well and waits on her at feasts and at dances and when she goes to the temple and then home again, and does not eat until he’s seen her and carries around his badges of office for her sake and I don’t know what; and he composes love songs, he jousts, he performs deeds of arms, sends her letters, tokens, broaches and rings. Where shortly before he was in peril of his life, hungry and at the mercy of the raging sea, exiled and destitute, a refugee from his own country and pursued by storms, Dido has given him her body and her realm, when she might otherwise have married a king and been the queen of another country as well as her own, and lived in joy enough. What more can I say? Now listen how he serves his lady!
Aeneas, who has so fervently sworn to be faithful, soon tires of the situation. His ardour has cooled. His ships are readied and he prepares to make a run for it at night. Dido suspects that something is wrong, for Aeneas is very restless in bed. She asks him what is the matter?
‘My darling, whom I love beyond all else, I dreamed that my father’s ghost visited me, and Mercury came with a message as well. It was about the conquest of Italy which it is my destiny to achieve and how I must soon set sail for Latium. It’s nearly breaking my heart!’ Then false tears trickled down his deceitful face, as he held her in his arms.
‘Is this true?’ she asked. ‘Will you go? Have you not promised to marry me? Alas! What sort of a woman does this make me? I’m a gentlewoman and a queen. Will you disgrace your own lover by fleeing from her? What shall I do? Alas that I was born!’
And to get quickly to the point, this noble queen Dido prayed at holy shrines, did sacrifice, knelt and wept so much that it’s pitiful to relate; she pleaded with Aeneas and offered to be his servant, his humblest minion, fell at his feet, fainted, and then, dishevelled with her golden hair in a tangle, cried: ‘Mercy! Let me sail with you. My noblemen will destroy me if you leave me liked this. Only marry me, as you have promised, then I give you permission to kill me with your sword the very same evening! For then I shall die as your wife. But I’m carrying your child. Give my child his life! Mercy, lord! Have pity!’
But it was to no avail. One night, as she lay sleeping, Aeneas left her lying there and stole away to where his men were already waiting on the ship, and like the despicable traitor that he was, he sailed for the broad country of Italy. In this way, he left Dido in sorrow and pain and in Italy he married a woman named Lavinia.
Aeneas left some clothing behind, and his sword, right at the head of the bed, so keen was he to creep away swiftly and silently to where his ships were lying. When she woke, foolish Dido kissed this clothing many times and said: ‘While it pleases Jupiter, Oh cloth, take my soul and unravel me from this agony. My life has run its course.’
Alas! No help came from Jupiter. She fainted twenty times. And then she went to pour out her grief to her sister Anne – which I cannot put into verse because it would be too painful to have to translate it all. She instructed her nurse and her sister to go to fetch fire and some other things, for she wanted to perform a sacrifice. And when she saw her opportunity, she leapt into the sacrificial flames and drove the point of Aeneas’s sword into her heart. But as Ovid describes, before doing this she wrote a letter that begins: ‘Just as the white swan sings before dying, so I make my complaint here. Not that I cherish any hope of getting you back, for I know that that’s impossible. The gods will have their way. But since my reputation has been lost through you, I may as well lose a word or two as well, or a letter, although it will do me no good I know, for the wind that has blown away your ships has blown away all the hope that I have …’.
Those of you who want to read this letter in its entirety, read Ovid and you’ll find it there.
The legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
Jason, you father of all faithless lovers! – you sly devourer and destroyer of gentle and tender women who were lured and enticed by your stately appearance, your false promises, your honeyed words and gentle manner, feigned consent and false tears. Where others deceived one, you deceived two!
Oh, you swore many times how you would die for love, when all the time you felt nothing but a warm throb in your loins, which you called love. If I live, your name will be thrust into English so hard that you’ll be known for the villain and the liar that you were. Get this, Jason – your horn will be blown!
It is a great sorrow and also pitiful that false lovers get so much out of it while true lovers get so little. Unfaithful lovers receive far more delight than those who pay a heavy price for their love. A fox will enjoy eating a hen for nothing, just as much as the good man who has looked after the bird and fed it for months and cared for it. The chickens belong to him, but the deceitful fox gets his portion at night, for free.
In Thessaly, as Guido tells us, there was once a king called Pelias who had a brother called Aeson; for when Aeson became so crippled with age that he could scarcely walk, he let his brother rule in his place and made him lord and king. Jason was Aeson’s son, and in his youth, there was no lustier, chivalrous, more generous nor more celebrated knight than he, in the entire country. After his father’s death, Jason behaved with such honour that he had no enemies at all, only good friends and loyal companions. This provoked jealousy in King Pelias’s heart. He feared that Jason might become so popular and so well-respected amongst the nobility that they might soon wish to elevate him to the throne, as his father’s rightful heir. So he pondered at night how best he might destroy Jason, without bringing any slander down upon his own head. And at last he decided to send Jason to some far country where he would be likely to meet his death. This was his plan, although he outwardly pretended to show great love and affection for his nephew, in case his lords should become suspicious.
It came about, as is well-known, that fame became attached to a story that goes as follows: that in a land far to the east, beyond Troy, on an island called Colchis, there was a ram with a golden fleece that shone so brightly that nowhere in the whole world was there one like it. It was guarded by a dragon, and by many other marvellous things as well, including two copper bulls that spat fire. It was also said that whoever wanted to win this fleece must fight with these bulls, and with this dragon. King Aeërtes was the lord of this isle.
King Pelias had heard of this and conceived the following plan: he would encourage his nephew to set sail for this land and present himself there.
‘Nephew,’ he said. ‘If you were fortunate enough to win this famous treasure and bring it back to me here, it would bring me so much honour, and indeed pleasure, that I would be bound to reward you very highly for it. I will pay for the whole expedition and choose the right people to go along with you. What do you say? Are you brave enough to take this on?’
Jason was young and courageous, and agreed at once to make the voyage. Argus prepared the ship, and along with Jason’s crew went the strong Hercules and many others as well; if you want to know the names of everyone who went, you’ll have to read the Argonauticon, for it’s a long story. Philotetes raised the sail when the wind was favourable and they sailed away from Thessaly.
They travelled as far as the isle of Lemnos – this isn’t mentioned by Guido but it is by Ovid, in his Epistles – where the queen of that island was the young and beautiful Hypsipyle, the daughter of King Thoas. She was taking a leisurely walk along the cliffs beside the sea when she saw Jason’s ship arrive. Out of generosity, she sent men down at once to see whether it was a ship that had been blown off course by a storm and whether she could do anything to help; for it was her custom to help those in need, through her courtesy and her generosity of spirit.
The messenger scrambled down the rocks and found Jason and Hercules rowing to the shore, to fetch water and to take the air. It was a lovely morning and the messenger soon caught up with them. He greeted them very courteously and delivered his message, asking if their ship was in any way damaged, or if they were in trouble of any sort, or if they had need for provisions, or a pilot, perhaps, to guide them away from rocks. Anything they wanted was theirs for the asking, by order of the queen.
‘May I thank my lady heartily,’ replied Jason, softly and correctly. ‘It is very kind, but we are in no need of anything at present. It is just that we are tired and have come ashore to rest our legs and to wait for a more favourable wind.’
By now, the lady’s walk had taken her, and all her entourage, to the beach where Jason and Hercules were standing talking with her messenger. They saw the queen approaching and greeted her at once. She observed them and noted, by their manner and by their clothes, by their language and their demeanour, that they must be noblemen of great distinction. She led them to her castle, these strange foreigners, and asked them to tell her of their time in the salt sea and to describe how they had fared, and she honoured them greatly.
At last, after a day or two, she came to understand, from the rest of the crew, that it was the renowned Jason and the famous Hercules she was entertaining, and that they were on their way to adventure in Colchis. She honoured them even more because of this, and looked after them even more attentively. Their worthiness was plain to see. She spoke particularly with Hercules, with whom she was very honest, advising him to be sober, wise and faithful, and to be careful what he said and what he did in regard to love, and not to indulge his fantasies. And Hercules so praised Jason in return that he raised him to the very sun itself, claiming that no man under the heavens was half as faithful in love as he was. He was wise and strong, discrete and very rich, he said. On these many counts there was no one to equal him. As far as energy and generosity went, Jason surpassed anybody who had ever lived, he was such a great noblemen, and as likely as not, destined to rule over Thessaly in due course. His only failing was that he was very shy when it came to women. He would rather kill himself than be seen with a lady. ‘I’d give anything to see the day that he marries a suitably royal wife somewhere, and she’d certainly lead a pleasant life, with such a lusty husband in her bed!’ Hercules told her.
Jason and Hercules had concocted all this garbage the night before. And they cunningly agreed to go to the palace on an innocent pretext in order for Jason to flirt with Hypsipyle in person.
Jason pretends to be as coy as a maid, glancing at the queen and then remaining silent. But he has already given fine gifts to her counsellors and her officials, and I wish I had the leisure and the time to describe in verse exactly how duplicitously he wooed her. But if you can see any deceitful lovers in this house, then I’ll just say that he did exactly what they do, very subtly and with equal cunning. You’ll get no more from me. You can read all about it in the original if you want. But the outcome of it all was that Jason and Hypsipyle were married. He took everything he wanted of her property, fathered two children upon her, then raised his sail and said farewell. She never saw him again.
She sent him a letter, which is too long to describe in detail here, reproaching him for his unfaithfulness and begging him to show some pity on her. And of his children, she said that they were like him in every way, except that they did not tell lies. And she prayed to God that before long, the woman who had taken her place in Jason’s life might find him to be equally unfaithful and kill her children by him, and the same with all his other women.
Hypsipyle remained faithful to her husband all her life and never took another man. She died in sorrow, through unrequited love.
Jason, a dragon where love was concerned, finally arrived in Colchis. And just as matter always passes from one form into another, or like a well whose bucket can never find the water, so Jason can find no peace. To seek out gentlewomen and to satisfy his lusts upon them is the sum total of his desire.
Jason went into the town which was the principal city of Colchis and told King Aeërtes the reason for his visit. He explained that he wanted permission to try to seize the golden fleece. The king granted his request, and honoured Jason so greatly that he made his daughter Medea sit next to him at the meal table and in the hall. She was the most sensible and beautiful young lady you could ever wish to meet. Jason was a handsome man, like a lord, he was as noble as a lion and had a fine reputation, he spoke well and knew how to flirt and be intimate with a woman, without the help of any book of love. And to her unspeakably bad fortune, Medea began to fall in love with him.
‘Jason’ she said. ‘From all that I can see, you’re putting yourself into great danger by attempting this feat. Any man who desires this thing will be lucky to escape with his life, without my help. And it is my wish to help you. I don’t want to see you die but to return again, fit and well, to your land of Thessaly.’
‘My righteous lady,’ replied Jason. ‘The great honour you do me by showing concern over my welfare I shall not deserve to my life’s end. May God thank you for it. I am your man, and I humbly ask for your help, although I’ll not let any possibility of death get in the way of my quest.’
Medea then explained to Jason the dangers of this enterprise, point by point, describing what he would have to contend with and the perils that he would have to face, which only she could save him from. And, to get quickly to the point, they both agreed to arrange a time, very soon, for him to come to her chamber at night and there to make his oath, upon the gods, that whatever might befall, he would become a true and faithful husband to her, as surely as she had saved him from death. And this they did: they met together one night, he made his oath, and they went to bed together.
The next morning, he raced off to capture the golden fleece, for Medea had told him all that he needed to know; she saved his life and brought him great fame, through her power as an enchantress.
Now Jason has the fleece and he’s on his way home, with Medea and a load of treasure! Her father has no idea that she’s sailing to Thessaly with Jason, which will later bring her to such harm, for he will abandon her like a traitor, leave her with two young children and marry a third wife, the daughter of King Creon – Alas! He’s the greatest villain as far as love is concerned.
This is the reward that Medea received for her love and her fidelity, her help and assistance, and her kindness. She loved Jason better than she loved herself, I think, and left her father and all her inheritance for him. This was Jason’s achievement, who in his days was the most dishonest lover on Earth. Therefore, she wrote in her letter, when she first reproached him for his unfaithfulness: ‘Why did I find your fair hair more attractive than a regard for my own reputation? Why did I fall for your youth, your beauty and the infinite graciousness of your words. Oh! if you had died in your endeavour, a great deal of unfaithfulness and dishonesty would have perished along with you.’
Ovid has very skilfully presented the substance of her letter in verse, but it would take too long for me to recall it now.