Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Oenone (her name comes from the Greek word oinos, for 'wine’) was a Greek nymph and daughter of the river god Cebren, who lived on Mount Ida where she met the young Paris of the city of Troy. The two were married and enjoyed their life together until Paris’ voyage to Sparta where he met Helen, wife of Menelaus, and carried her off; thus igniting the Trojan War as depicted in Homer's Iliad.
Oenone had been given the gift of prophecy by Rhea (the mother of the gods) and so foresaw the results of Paris’ actions in Sparta and tried to talk him out of going. Paris refused, however, and so Oenone told him that, should he be wounded in his venture, he should return to her for only she could heal him. When, in the course of the Trojan War, Paris was struck by the arrow of Philoctetes, he was carried to Mount Ida to be saved by the potions of Oenone. She, hurt by his betrayal of her with Helen of Sparta, refused to help him and he was brought back to Troy. Oenone repented of her decision and rushed to Troy with aid but arrived too late and found Paris already dead. In her grief and regret she flung herself onto his flaming funeral pyre and died. Two allternate ends of Oenone’s life claim she hanged herself or threw herself off a cliff near Troy.
Her name has since been translated as 'Lover of Paris’ without regard to etymological roots. The Greek island of Aegina was originally known as Oenone or Oinone, 'Island of Wine’, due to the excellence of the wine made there, before the great King Aeacus re-named it after his mother. It is generally held that the island’s original name had nothing to do with the Greek nymph. The English poet Tennyson (1809-1892 CE) wrote a famous poem about Oenone in 1833 CE which sparked widespread interest in the legend in the 19th century CE and inspired artists of the Romantic period.
Her story is related through the works of a number of ancient writers such as Bacchylides (5th century BCE), Lycrophon (3rd century BCE) and the poet and grammarian Parthenius of Nicea (died 14 CE). The earlier writers's mentions of Oenone are fragments while Parthenius' account remains intact in his Erotica Pathemata (Sorrows of Romantic Love) which features tragic love stories from history or mythology. Oenone's tale as given by Parthenius is told thusly:
When Alexandros [Paris], Priamos' son, was tending his flocks on Mount Ida, he fell in love with Oinone (Oenone) the daughter of Kebren (Cebren): and the story is that she was possessed by some divinity and foretold the future, and generally obtained great renown for her understanding and wisdom. Alexandros took her away from her father to Ida, where his pasturage was, and lived with her there as his wife, and he was so much in love with her that he would swear to her that he would never desert her, but would rather advance her to the greatest honour. She however said that she could tell that for the moment indeed he was wholly in love with her, but that the time would come when he would cross over to Europe, and would there, by his infatuation for a foreign woman, bring the horrors of war upon his kindred. She also foretold that he must be wounded in the war, and that there would be nobody else, except herself, who would be able to cure him: but he used always to stop her, every time that she made mention of these matters.
Time went on, and Alexandros took Helene to wife: Oinone took his conduct exceedingly ill, and returned to Kebren, the author of her days: then, when the war came on, Alexandros was badly wounded by an arrow from the bow of Philoktetes. He then remembered Oinone's words, how he could be cured by her alone, and he sent a messenger to her to ask her to hasten to him and heal him, and to forget all the past, on the ground that it had all happened through the will of the gods. She returned him a haughty answer, telling him he had better go to Helene and ask her; but all the same she started off as fast as she might to the place where she had been told he was lying sick. However, the messenger reached Alexandros first, and told him Oinone's reply, and upon this he gave up all hope and breathed his last: and Oinone, when she arrived and found him lying on the ground already dead, raised a great cry and, after long and bitter mourning, put an end to herself.
Her story is also told by Ovid (43 BCE-18 CE) in his Heroides but here it is framed as an epistle from Oenone to Paris. Ovid's version also includes elements which are not found in Parthenius or the earlier writers such as Oenone's rape by the god Apollo. In every version of her tale, however, Oenone is represented as the dutiful and loving wife who is deserted by her one true love and takes her own life in remorse.