Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry – An introduction, Phase 2: Hippolytus the hero as son of an Amazon

2022.05.23 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The role of the hero Hippolytus as an athlete—specifically, as a charioteer—is relevant to the role of his mother as an Amazon, since Amazons too could be charioteers. For example, in the picture I have chosen to introduce Phase 2 here, we see Amazons in a speeding war-chariot. They are women-warriors who are viewed here as fighters in a war against men. But Amazons in ancient Greek myths were not only women-warriors: they were also women-athletes. So, as we will see, the picturing of Amazons in a speeding chariot is evidently relevant to their athleticism. But the role of Amazons as athletes will become fully evident only after we look at another aspect of their athleticism, which is, their prowess as hunters. Only after we consider the prowess of Amazons as hunters, not only as charioteers, can we fully understand their relevance to Hippolytus as an athlete. But even before we consider the prowess of Amazons as athletes in general, we must first account for a basic fact about these female warriors in Greek mythology. That fact is, Amazons are heroes—female heroes. It is this basic fact about Amazons that primarily shapes the identity of Hippolytus himself as a hero, since his mother was an Amazon, and Amazons were heroes in their own right.

Sacrofago delle Ammazoni, Tarquinia, ca. 350–325 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. The most famous example of an Amazon as a hero is a mighty she-warrior named Penthesileia, the myths about whom I have analyzed in The Ancient Greek hero in 24 hours (Nagy 2013), abbreviated as H24H, at “Hour 3,” §§4–9. In the myth of the Amazon Penthesileia, as retold in an epic called the Aithiopis, attributed to a poet named Arctinus from the city of Miletus, this female hero was a formidable warrior who was killed, in mortal combat, by Achilles, a male hero who matched her prowess as a warrior (Proclus, plot-summary of the Aithiopis, p. 105 lines 22-26 ed. Allen 1912). But there is more to it. The Amazons of the heroic age were heroes not only because of their primary role as warriors in epic but also because they, like their male counterparts, were worshipped as cult heroes in the post-heroic age. As I already noted in Phase 1 of my Introduction, what I mean when I speak of cult heroes has been extensively documented  in my earlier work, especially in H24H, where my starting point is this fundamental historical fact: it was the traditional practice of ancient Greeks to worship their heroes. Such a practice, as I also already noted, can be described simply as hero cult, while the heroes who were worshipped in hero cult are, correspondingly, cult heroes. In the six paragraphs that follow (§1.1–§1.6),  I will argue that the honors of hero cult were extended not only to male heroes but also to Amazons as a special kind of female heroes—whether or not any of these heroes, female or even male, were primarily warriors.

§1.1. In earlier work, especially in H24H, I highlighted evidence showing that Achilles, the he-warrior who killed the she-warrior Penthesileia, was not only an epic hero but also a cult hero. But I did not analyze there the parallel evidence for thinking of Penthesileia the Amazon as a cult hero. In her case, the evidence is indirect, to be found in ancient references to other Amazons who are explicitly described as cult heroes.

§1.2. In studying such references, I start with information reported by the ancient Greek traveler Pausanias, who, as noted in Phase 1, lived in the second century CE. Near the very beginning of his travels, as he enters the city of Athens, the first thing Pausanias says he sees is the tomb of Antiope, Queen of the Amazons. Here is my translation of the wording used by Pausanias (1.2.1):

{1.2.1} ἐσελθόντων δὲ ἐς τὴν πόλιν ἐστὶν Ἀντιόπης μνῆμα Ἀμαζόνος. ταύτην τὴν Ἀντιόπην Πίνδαρος μέν φησινὑπὸ Πειρίθου καὶ Θησέως ἁρπασθῆναι, Τροιζηνίῳ δὲ Ἡγίᾳ τοιάδε ἐς αὐτὴν πεποίηται· Ἡρακλέα Θεμίσκυρανπολιορκοῦντα τὴν ἐπὶ Θερμώδοντι ἑλεῖν μὴ δύνασθαι, Θησέως δὲ ἐρασθεῖσαν Ἀντιόπην –  στρατεῦσαι γὰρ ἅμαἩρακλεῖ καὶ Θησέα – παραδοῦναι [τε] τὸ χωρίον. τάδε μὲν Ἡγίας πεποίηκεν· Ἀθηναῖοι δέ φασιν, ἐπεί τε ἦλθονἈμαζόνες, Ἀντιόπην μὲν ὑπὸ Μολπαδίας τοξευθῆναι, Μολπαδίαν δὲ ἀποθανεῖν ὑπὸ Θησέως. καὶ μνῆμά ἐστικαὶ Μολπαδίας Ἀθηναίοις.

{1.2.1} As one enters the city, there is a tomb [mnēma] of Antiope the Amazon. This Antiope, Pindar says, was abducted [passive of harpazein] by Peirithoös and Theseus, but Hegias of Troizen has created-poetically [poieîn] about her such things as I will now tell. Hēraklēs was besieging Themiskyra at [the river] Thermōdōn, and could not take it, but Antiope, having-conceived-a-passion [erastheisa] for Theseus, who was aiding Hēraklēs in his campaign, surrendered the stronghold. These things has Hegias created-poetically [poieîn]. But the Athenians assert that when the Amazons came [to attack Athens], Antiope was shot by Molpadia [the Amazon], while Molpadia was killed by Theseus. The Athenians have a tomb [mnēma] of Molpadia as well.

§1.3. As I note in my commentary on Pausanias 1.2.1, I find it most significant that the tomb of Antiope the Amazon should be the very first thing to be highlighted by Pausanias as he enters the city of Athens. On the symbolism of Athenian myths about a primordial war between Athens and the Amazons, I offer an extensive analysis in the book Homer the Classic (Nagy 2008) 4§§213–215, 4§224. According to those myths, the war was precipitated by the abduction of Antiope, queen of the Amazons, by Theseus, king of Athens.

§1.4. The idea that Antiope then falls in love with Theseus as her abductor, as mentioned by Pausanias here at 1.2.1, is a topic that disturbs—and that needs further investigation. Relevant, I think, is what we read later on at 1.41.7 in the account of Pausanias, where he says that he saw in the city of Megara a mnēma ‘tomb’ of another Amazon, Hippolyte, who was a sister of Antiope. Pausanias says that this tomb was linked with a myth about Hippolyte. The myth tells how this female hero became leader of the Amazons after her sister Antiope was abducted by Theseus, king of the Athenians, and how Hippolyte and her fellow Amazons then went to war against Athens to avenge the abduction. The outcome was a bitter defeat for the Amazons, and most of them perished in the war, but Hippolyte survived and sought refuge at the nearby city of Megara, where she died from her lupē. This word lupē as used by Pausanias at 1.41.7 can best be translated as the ‘pain’ of mourning.

§1.5. By combining what we read at 1.2.1 and at 1.41.7 in the accounts of Pausanias, we can piece together a central theme in the overall myth that is linked to the hero cults of these three Amazons named Antiope, Molpadia, and Hippolyte. In terms of this theme, all the pain resulting from the war between the Amazons and the Athenians can be traced back to the primal abduction of Antiope, queen of the Amazons, by Theseus, king of the Athenians. That abduction must have been highlighted in a song of Pindar as mentioned by Pausanias 1.2.1. Classicists track this mention by referring to it as “Pindar F 175 ed. Maehler,” that is, as a “fragment” surviving from the poetry of Pindar. In Pausanias 7.2.6, we read another such mention of these Amazons in the poetry of Pindar, and Classicists refer to this mention, similarly, as Pindar F 174 ed. Maehler.

§1.6. In considering the references made by Pausanias to Amazons as cult heroes, I deliberately use the word hero and not heroine in such contexts because I seek to challenge the assumption, common to speakers of English, that only men are heroes. In terms of ancient Greek hero cults, both men and women could become cult heroes after death—whether or not they were primarily warriors. And the wording of Pausanias at 1.2.1 and at 1.41.7 makes it clear that the Amazons Antiope, Molpadia, and Hippolyte were, all three of them, cult heroes.

§2. In sum, these mythological figures, the Amazons, were considered to be female heroes not only because they could be depicted in epic poetry as engaging in mortal combat with male heroes, as in the case of the Amazon Penthesileia, that paragon of female warriors who was killed by that paragon of male warriors, Achilles. As my argumentation shows—and I repeat here my initial formulation—the Amazons of the heroic age, as female heroes, could also be worshipped, just like their male counterparts, as cult heroes in the post-heroic age.

§3. I find it most telling, in this regard, that the name of the Amazon Hippolyte, who as Pausanias says at 1.41.7 was worshipped as a cult hero at Megara, is matched in the masculine gender by the name of Hippolytus himself, who as Pausanias says at 2.32.1 was worshipped as a cult hero in Troizen.

§4. Earlier, in Phase 1 of this Introduction, I had already mentioned the hero cult of Hippolytus in Troizen.  Now I add more details. Pausanias at 2.32.4 speaks of an enclosure containing spaces that were sacred not only to Hippolytus but also to Phaedra the Queen, wife of Theseus the King, father of Hippolytus. The unrequited love of Phaedra for the youthful hero Hippolytus had led ultimately to her death by suicide, not only to the “death-by-chariot” suffered by Hippolytus. And the wording of Pausanias makes it clear that both Hippolytus and Phaedra were worshipped in this sacred enclosure as cult heroes. Pausanias here, at 2.32.4, says explicitly that he saw the tomb of Phaedra. And, as I already noted in Phase 1,  Pausanias at 2.32.4 also says, however guardedly, that he saw the tomb of Hippolytus himself. He adds that the tomb of Hippolytus was situated next to the tomb of Phaedra, but he avoids further specificity. Pausanias is guarded because, as he says about Hippolytus earlier, at 2.32.1, the people of Troizen ‘do not show [apophainein] his tomb [taphos], though they know where it is’. In the wording of Pausanias, oikiā ‘house’ can refer to the ‘abode’ of a cult hero, that is, to his tomb. And Pausanias ostentatiously uses this word oikiā at 2.32.4 in referring to the tomb of Hippolytus. A telling parallel is the wording at Pausanias 2.23.2, where he refers to the tomb of the cult hero Adrastos as an oikiā—while he refers to the nearby tomb of Amphiaraos by using the near-synonym hieron ‘sanctuary’ and while, even more simply, he refers to the nearby tomb of Eriphyle, wife of Amphiaraos, as a mnēma, the literal meaning of which is ‘memorial marker’. This same word mnēma is also used here at 2.32.4 with reference to the tomb of Hippolytus. So, all these words are meant as synonyms in these contexts. Other examples where oikiā refers to tombs of cult heroes include these passages in Pausanias: 2.36.8, 5.14.7, 5.20.6, 9.11.1. 9.12.3. 9.16.5. 9.16.7.

§5. The symmetry that we have seen between Hippolytus and Phaedra as cult heroes extends to a symmetry between these would-be lovers in the realm of athletics, as we see in the poetry of Euripides. In the drama of Euripides that is named after the hero Hippolytus, we read that the female hero Phaedra, in her feelings of unrequited love for Hippolytus, identifies with the male hero’s role as a charioteer. I am thinking of a passage in the Hippolytus of Euripides that I had analyzed in H24H 20§52. In that passage, lines 228–231, the character of Phaedra expresses her longing to drive a chariot on the sands of a long beach that extends along a lagoon next to the seacoast of Troizen. Here is my translation of that passage:

|228 δέσποιν’ ἁλίας Ἄρτεμι Λίμνας |229 καὶ γυμνασίων τῶν ἱπποκρότων, |230 εἴθε γενοίμαν ἐν σοῖς δαπέδοις |231πώλους Ἐνετὰς δαμαλιζομένα.

|228 My lady Artemis! You who preside over the lagoon by the sea! |229 You are where the place is for exercising [gumnasia], and the place thunders with horses’ hooves! |230 Oh, if only I could be there, on your grounds, |231 masterfully driving Venetian horses!

§6. In my analysis at H24H 20§52, I had interpreted this longing of Phaedra as an expression of her desire to be with Hippolytus, who habitually drives his own chariot on the sands of that same long beach that lines the lagoon by the sea. I still stand by that interpretation, but now I see more. The longing of Phaedra translates also into a desire to look like the goddess Artemis, who is said here to preside over the lagoon lined by the beach where Hippolytus is performing his gymnastic ‘exercises’, as expressed by the suggestive word gumnasia. And what exactly are these exercises in athleticism? The answer is, Hippolytus is racing his chariot, and the goddess Artemis is presiding over the place where he performs his athletic feats. So, since Phaedra is expressing a desire to drive a chariot at this place, she can be seen as a lookalike of Artemis—even as a stand-in for the goddess herself.

§7. So, Phaedra is a lookalike of Artemis in her yearning to drive a chariot the same way as Hippolytus drives a chariot. But can we say that Phaedra is also a lookalike of an Amazon? And can we even say, for that matter, that Hippolytus is a lookalike of an Amazon? Answers to these questions will have to wait until we consider other aspects of athleticism in myths about Amazons—aspects that connect these female warriors more closely with the goddess Artemis.


Allen, T. W., ed. 1912. Homeri Opera V (Hymns, Cycle, fragments). Oxford.

Maehler, H., ed. 1980. Pindari Carmina cum fragmentis / post Brunonem Snell. 6th edition. Leipzig.

Nagy, G. 2008. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. Print edition 2009.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Paperback 2020. Cambridge, MA.

Nagy, G. 2018.06.21. “A placeholder for the love story of Phaedra and Hippolytus: What’s love got to do with it?” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2018.08.03. “More on the love story of Phaedra and Hippolytus: comparing the references in Pausanias and Euripides.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2018.08.10. “Thoughts about heroes, athletes, poetry.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020. Second edition of Nagy 2013.

Nagy, G. 2020.08.14. “Death of an Amazon.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2022.01.31. “Pausanias 2.32.3-4, on the hero cults of Phaedra and Hippolytus at Troizen.” Classical Continuum.


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