Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Myth: Paris and Oenone

I work for the Morris County Historical Society and we have an art show coming up, with pieces that come from the "art closet." Hence the name "Out of the Closet: An Art Collection Revealed." In addition to Japanese prints, portraits, historical and literary engravings, etc., there are several Victorian engravings with classical themes/myths portrayed. So, since I plan on writing about classicism in more recent art in addition to Classical art, I thought that these pieces might be interesting to cover.

The first one I'd like to discuss is a hand-colored engraving of Paris and Oenone.

Title: Paris and Oenone
Artist: Unknown
Engraver: Unknown
Medium: Hand-colored engraving on paper

First things first:

We know who Paris is (son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, and "abductor" of Menelaus's wife Helen)... but who is Oenone?

The Story

Heroides V

by Ovid - 4-8 A.D.

In Ovid's Heroides V, Oenone writes a letter to her former husband Paris, the man who abandoned her for the beautiful Helen. She begins the letter with the line, “Will you read this through? Or does your new wife forbid it?” The letter's introduction states that Oenone is the injured party and that Helen is not only an unsavory individual, but she is also a foreigner. It is interesting to note that she does not dismiss the idea of Paris returning to her.

Oenone then reminisces about their life together. She reminds him of her higher status by lamenting the fact that she endured to marry a "slave" - alluding to the fact that Paris was merely a shepherd's servant, while she was a nymph. She recalls his carving her name into the trunk of a tree, and promising that he would also be with her - and if he broke his promise, the waters of the river Xanthius would flow backwards. Oenone now calls on the river to make good on Paris's oath.

She recalls the dreaded Judgment of Paris - when Zeus was to award a golden apple to the fairest among Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena, he deferred his judgment to Paris. When Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Paris eagerly accepted and awarded her the golden apple. She remembers when Paris left her for Sparta (to take home the fair Helen), and reminds him that he had tears in his eyes, and asks him not to deny it. Oenone recounts her own grief as she watched Paris's ship come home with Helen clinging to his side.

She then goes into a full-scale attack on Helen, calling her a "shameful lover" instead of his "new wife." She claims that Menelaus - Helen's Spartan husband - is justified in bringing war to Troy, in order to get his wife back. Oenone warns that Helen will never stay faithful to Paris, as she has already abandoned her first husband for him.

Oenone tells of Cassandra's (Paris's sister who was cursed with the "gift" of prophecy after she spurned Apollo's advances) prophetic prediction that war would come to Troy, over the abduction of Helen. She then admits that many others - including Apollo himself - have desired Oenone, but she has always remained faithful to Paris. The gift that Apollo gave to her - that of healing - is no match for her broken heart. She begs him to have pity on her asks to be his once more.

Paris and Oenone: A Tragedy in One Act

By Lawrence Binyon – 1906

Based upon Quintus Smyrnaeus’s Posthomerica, book X.259-489 (4th century C.E.)

[A contemporary piece that was most likely an influential source for a Victorian artist, in addition to the Classical texts]

When the play opens, Oenone weeps over the fact that Paris, her former love, left her for the beautiful Helen of Troy. Paris staggers in, wounded by Philoctetes’ poisoned barb and begs for her to heal him with her herbs, for she is well known as a healer. Still angry that he abandoned her, Oenone refuses to help and leaves him to die. With his two attendants by his side, Paris laments his fate and disappears into the woods. Oenone, who has had a change of heart, runs in looking for Paris, ready to tell him that she has an herb that could save his life. She instead finds Helen, who is out looking for Paris as well. Oenone tells Helen that she will give her the herb as long as Paris’s life is saved, but it is too late: a funeral pyre with Paris’s body on it comes into view. Oenone, crazed with grief, runs to the pyre in order to throw herself on it, as Helen looks on in horror.

The Engraving

This colored engraving of Paris and Oenone shows the pair as a young, happy couple, back when Paris was still a shepherd boy (or a servant to a shepherd, if we are to believe Ovid's Oenone) and had not yet abandoned Oenone for Helen of Troy. In the picture he holds her arm lovingly as he carves their names into the bark of a tree, just as Ovid's Oenone recalls. At the bottom of the engraving are the words:

"When Paris lives not to Oenone true

Back Xanthius' steams shall to their fountains flow.

- Ovid epist. V"

Paris's promise is set next to a time when he was faithful to his wife Oenone. But we as viewers know that his oath will soon be broken and chaos in the Greek world will ensue. Because of our foreknowledge, the oath seems more like a terrible warning than a promise made in a moment of passion.

For more information:

Ancient texts/quotes having to do with the story of Paris and Oenone

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