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Hypsipyle and the Murderous Greek Women of Lemnos

painting of an ancient Greek woman
Hypsipyle was the mythical queen of Lemnos. She saved her father from the massacre of the men on the island and ruled over a matriarchal society. Credit: John William Godward / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, Hypsipyle was a queen of the island of Lemnos and mother to the two sons of Jason, the legendary hero who led the Argonauts on their quest for the golden fleece.

Hypsipyle’s story is bound with that of the Lemnian women who were cursed by Aphrodite for their impiety. When their husbands returned from raiding with slaves and concubines, the women of Lemnos exacted revenge by killing all of their male relatives.

References were made to Hypsipyle and the man-killing women of Lemnos in the Iliad, a play by Euripides, and a number of ancient Greek literary sources. The figure of Hypsipyle is a tragic one at times, but she was also intelligent, courageous, and devoted to her family.

The murder of the men by the Lemnian women

As is often the case with Greek mythology, there are multiple explanations as to why the women of Lemnos were cursed by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality.

According to one version of the myth recounted in Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, the Lemnian women were cursed for having neglected the shrines of the Olympian deity.

In another version of the myth told by the first century AD Roman author and poet Valerius Flaccus, the Lemnian women were cursed following a particularly angry episode between Aphrodite and her husband Hephaestus.

After Hephaestus had caught the goddess having an affair with Ares, the god of war, he publically humiliated the pair in front of the other Olympian gods. Aphrodite later took out her rage on the women of Lemnos, where Hephaestus had one of his homes.

In any case, the result of the curse was the same; the women of Lemnos were spurned by their husbands in favor of the Thracian women they had captured raiding.

Enraged by the neglect and infidelity of their husbands, the Lemnian women massacred them all. With all the men dead, the women were now responsible for ruling the island themselves, farming, and even fighting.

Hypsipyle saves her father

Hypsipyle was anxious to save her elderly father Thoas, the king of Lemnos, from the murderous intent of the other Lemnian women. Thoas was himself the son of the god Dionysus and the mortal princess of Crete, Ariadne.

To save her father, Hypsipyle put him in a hollow chest and set him adrift at sea. Luckily for Thoas, the chest was discovered floating in the water by some fisherman and he was taken to safety on the island of Sicinus.

According to another version of the myth, Hypsipyle saved her father by hiding him in the temple of Dionysus during the night of the massacre. The next morning, Hypsipyle disguised Thoas as the cult statue of Dionysus, and drove him outside of the city on the chariot used to parade the statue during religious ceremonies. He was then put to sea on a boat where he reached the safety of another island.

After the slaughter of the men and the escape of Thoas – unbeknown to the remaining inhabitants of Lemnos – Hypsipyle was named ruler of the island by the Lemnian women.

Jason and the Argonauts

Sometime after the murder of the men on the island, Jason and the Argonauts stopped off on Lemnos during their quest to acquire the golden fleece.

The account by Apollonius of Rhodes of what happened next is the best-known version of the story. Jason and the Argonauts landed on Lemnos and Hypsipyle and the women feared that they were Thracians who had come to attack them. So, the women donned their armor and prepared to meet the Argonauts in battle.

However, the women were persuaded by Polyxo, the elderly nurse of Hypsipyle, to instead invite the Argonauts to remain on Lemnos. Thus, the Argonauts remained on the island and lived with the women, with Jason and Hypsipyle living together in the palace.

Eventually, at the urging of Heracles, who remained apart from the rest of Jason’s crew, the Argonauts left the island to continue their quest. Hypsipyle told Jason that her father’s scepter would be waiting for him if he should decide to return, but she doubted that he would.

Hypsipyle later gave birth to two sons of Jason – Euneus and Thoas – after he had left the island. In another myth, Eueneus and Thoas would save their mother from slavery after the Lemnian women discovered that she had saved her father, and forced her to flee.

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