“Everybody,” writes Greek geographer Pausanias in his Description of Greece in the second century after Christ, “even a foreigner who has learned Greek, knows about the love of Phaedra and the wickedness the nurse dared commit to serve her.” However, even nowadays, not everybody knows that this is only one of the two stories of Phaedra’s tragic infatuation with her stepson Hippolytus. Since they contradict each other, we decided to share them with you separately; after all, both deserve to be narrated in full.
The First Story of Hippolytus and Phaedra
The Unscrupulous Phaedra
According to the more traditional story, Phaedra, the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, was the shameless and lustful wife of Theseus, the king of Athens. Even though he had borne her husband two sons, Acamas and Demophon, she wasn’t at all interested in settling just yet. Quite the opposite, she was interested in her husband’s son from his previous marriage with the Amazon queen Antiope (also known as Hippolyte). So, Phaedra set out to entice him, using all her charms and trickeries – both plentiful.
The Death of Hippolytus
Unfortunately for her, Hippolytus turned out to be a tough nut to crack: not only he rebuffed her advances, but he also did it without blinking an eye. Afraid of the consequences and thirsty for revenge, Phaedra rushed to her husband Theseus and lied to him that Hippolytus had tried to seduce her, even going so far to suggest that he did so forcefully. Theseus cursed his son and asked the god Poseidon – who had owed him three wishes – to kill him. Poseidon sent a huge bull which rose out of nowhere from the sea and utterly confused Hippolytus’ horses. They started running haphazardly, crashing Hippolytus’ chariot and then dragging the entangled prince to his death; hence, his name: Hippolytus probably means “the one who is torn apart by horses.” Soon after the death of Hippolytus, Phaedra’s treachery was somehow exposed, and, to avoid a more brutal punishment, the scheming queen decided to commit suicide.
The Second Story of Hippolytus and Phaedra
Hippolytus the Chaste
It is only fitting to start this second version of the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra with the other of the two main characters: after all, in this case, Phaedra is much more innocent, and Hippolytus much more guilty for his demise. His fault? As Aphrodite informs us at the very beginning of Euripides’ surviving Hippolytus, he alone among the citizens of Troezen saw in the goddess of love “the basest of divinities.” Moreover, he thought Artemis the greatest of all deities; and to honor her, he swore to eternal virginity, shunning the bed of love and claiming that marriage is one thing he would never consider.
Aphrodite and Phaedra
Not worshipping Aphrodite – as we have learned from all too many Greek myths – is not something you would want to do if you cherish your wellbeing. After all, even Zeus himself wasn’t immune to her powers. Phaedra couldn’t stand a chance: Aphrodite decided to punish Hippolytus by forcing the virtuous queen to fall in love with him, fully aware that this would set a chain of events which should eventually bring about the death of Hippolytus. Phaedra is merely collateral damage in this story: “noble though she is,” says Aphrodite in Euripides’ play, “she shall nonetheless die.”
The Nurse and Hippolytus
Soon after Aphrodite had caused a “dreadful longing” in Phaedra’s heart, the queen shrunk to merely a shadow of her former self. She spent months trying to overcome her passion, in silence and solitude; eventually, she couldn’t stand the pain any longer – too weak to bear the burden of such a terrible secret, she decided to confide to her enquiring nurse. Concerned about the health of her mistress and in an attempt to help her, the nurse revealed her love to Hippolytus – but only after having him swear to tell nobody about it.
“O Zeus,” shouted Hippolytus after hearing out the Nurse, “why have you settled women in the light of the sun, women, this bane mankind find counterfeit? If you wished to propagate the human race, it was not from women that you should have given us this. Rather, men should have put down in the temples either bronze or iron or a mass of gold and have bought offspring, each man for a price corresponding to his means, and then dwelt in houses free from the female sex.” Not exactly a decent one, don’t you think? And certainly not one which could appease Aphrodite.
The Death of Phaedra
Soon after Hippolytus learned of the secret, Theseus returned from his journey to the Underworld. Thinking that anything is better than facing him, Phaedra decided to kill herself. However, before doing that, she penned a letter in which she accused Hippolytus of trying to seduce her. The reason? She was afraid that the revelation of her immoral passion, combined with her suicide, would bring about many misfortunes for her children. As it could only be expected, upon reading Phaedra’s letter, Theseus prayed to Poseidon to kill his son; and the god did, in much the same manner as in the first story of Hippolytus and Phaedra. It was only then that Artemis revealed to Theseus the truth; the great king was devastated: in one day, he lost both his loving wife and his virtuous son.
Strangely enough, this is not where the story – in either of the two versions – ends; at least not as far as Hippolytus is concerned. You see, soon after his death, Artemis, aggrieved for having lost such a dedicated follower, asked the healer Asclepius to bring Hippolytus back from the dead. Asclepius did, and Hippolytus, angry with everybody in Troezen, reemerged once again as a young prince on the shores of Lake Nemi (also called Diana’s Mirror) in the vicinity of Rome. There, the Romans believed, he lived a virtuous life and, upon death, he was deified by Artemis as the minor god Virbius. The Troezenians, though unwilling to accept this version of the events, refused to show Hippolytus’ tomb to strangers, claiming that he had become the constellation Auriga, or “The Charioteer.” Even so, it seems to have been a custom for the girls of the city to dedicate a lock of their hair to Hippolytus on their marriage; the act was supposed to symbolize them leaving their virginity behind and consecrating it to Hippolytus.
As we said above, the love of Phaedra for Hippolytus was dramatized at least three times by Ancient Greek tragedians; however, both Sophocles’ play (Phaedra) and Euripides’ earlier play (Hyppolitus Veiled) have been lost. Fortunately, Euripides’ second play, Hippolytus the Wreath-Bearer – known today simply as Hippolytus – has been preserved. From what we know, the much later play, Phaedra – written by the Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca the Younger – shares quite a few similarities with the two lost plays, so consult that one for the first story. Finally, in The Heroines – a collection of poems by Ovid presented as though written by some of the most famous women in Greek mythology – you can read a letter in which Phaedra confesses his love to Hippolytus; it is both elegiac and poignant.