In Euripides’ Hippolytus, Phaedra, Theseus’ wife, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus. The young man is son of Theseus and an Amazon. He is not moved by women and his pride is to worship Artemis, goddess of hunting, wildlife and chastity. His disdain for goddess Aphrodite and for the love she inspires in men, makes her angry and seeking revenge through Phaedra’s love. Upon knowing Hippolytus will stay cold, the stepmother’s treachery while killing herself leaves a terrible lie in the letter she writes so Theseus will curse his own son.
The excerpt I chose is the incipit of the play, when Aphrodite shows her jealousy toward Artemis and her anger against Hippolytus. Immediately after her speech, Hippolytus reiterates his loyalty to Artemis and insists on how she is the highest daughter of Zeus. What is at stake here, is the clash between two worlds. Hippolytus’ mother, as an Amazon, can be inferred as belonging in Artemis’ team and the son himself will remain faithful to his mother and his goddess. It is a world of wildlife and freedom, where human animals do not accept to be trapped. In the other team is Aphrodite’s dimension, where Phaedra will get lost. It is supposed to be a more civilised and sunny world, where love has the main control. What we can understand in Aphrodite’s fury here, is that the warm and civilised world is going to unleash torrents of hatred and bitterness against the cold and wild world. Innocence, in Euripides’ play, belongs with the wild.
TEXT by Euripides
Wide o’er man my realm extends, and proud the name that I, the goddess Cypris, bear, both in heaven’s courts and amongst all those who dwell within the limits of the sea and the bounds of Atlas, beholding the sun-god’s light; those that respect my power I advance to honour, but bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at me. For even in the race of gods this feeling finds a home, even pleasure at the honour men pay them. And the truth of this I soon will show; for that son of Theseus, born of the Amazon, Hippolytus, whom holy Pittheus taught, alone of all the dwellers in this land of Trœzen, calls me vilest of the deities. Love he scorns, and, as for marriage, will none of it; but Artemis, daughter of Zeus, sister of Phœbus, he doth honour, counting her the chief of goddesses, and ever through the greenwood, attendant on his virgin goddess, he clears the earth of wild beasts with his fleet hounds, enjoying the comradeship of one too high for mortal ken. It is not this I grudge at him, no! Why should I? But for his sins against me, I will this very day take vengeance on Hippolytus; for long ago I cleared the ground of many obstacles, so it needs but trifling toil. For as he came one day from the home of Pittheus to witness the solemn mystic rites and be initiated therein in Pandion’s land, Phædra, his father’s noble wife, caught sight of him, and by my designs she found her heart was seized with wild desire. And ere she came to this Trœzenian realm, a temple did she rear to Cypris hard by the rock of Pallas where it overlooks this country, for love of the youth in another land; and to win his love in days to come she called after his name the temple she had founded for the goddess. Now, when Theseus left the land of Cecrops, flying the pollution of the blood of Pallas’ sons, and with his wife sailed to this shore, content to suffer exile for a year, then began the wretched wife to pine away in silence, moaning beneath love’s cruel scourge, and none of her servants knows what ails her. But this passion of hers must not fail thus. No, I will discover the matter to Theseus, and all shall be laid bare. Then will the father slay his child, my bitter foe, by curses, for the lord Poseidon granted this boon to Theseus; three wishes of the god to ask, nor ever ask in vain. So Phædra is to die, an honoured death ’tis true, but still to die; for I will not let her suffering outweigh the payment of such forfeit by my foes as shall satisfy my honour. But lo! I see the son of Theseus coming hither—Hippolytus, fresh from the labours of the chase. I will get me hence. At his back follows a long train of retainers, in joyous cries of revelry uniting and hymns of praise to Artemis, his goddess; for little he wrecks that Death hath opened his gates for him, and that this is his last look upon the light.
Come follow, friends, singing to Artemis, daughter of Zeus, throned in the sky, whose votaries we are.
Lady goddess, awful queen, daughter of Zeus, all hail! hail! child of Latona and of Zeus, peerless mid the virgin choir, who hast thy dwelling in heaven’s wide mansions at thy noble father’s court, in the golden house of Zeus.
All hail! most beauteous Artemis, lovelier far than all the daughters of Olympus! For thee, O mistress mine, I bring this woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends. Such as know no cunning lore, yet in whose nature self-control, made perfect, hath a home, these may pluck the flowers, but not the wicked world. Accept, I pray, dear mistress, mine this chaplet from my holy hand to crown thy locks of gold; for I, and none other of mortals, have this high guerdon, to be with thee, with thee converse, hearing thy voice, though not thy face beholding. So be it mine to end my life as I began.