Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry – An introduction, Part 4:  Phaedra the hero as a would-be hunter

2022.06.06 | By Gregory Nagy


§0. In Part 3, I have been arguing that the athleticism of Amazons as hunters is connected, by way of myth, to the corresponding athleticism of the hero Hippolytus as a hunter. Earlier, in Part 2, I had argued that the athleticism of Amazons as charioteers is likewise connected, again by way of myth, to the corresponding athleticism of the same hero Hippolytus as a charioteer. And I had further argued in Part 2 that the connectivity of Amazons with Hippolytus in the athletic world of charioteering is expressed, by way of poetry, in words spoken by the lovesick queen Phaedra in the drama of Euripides that is named after Hippolytus. In the Hippolytus of Euripides, Phaedra expresses her erotic longing for Hippolytus by imagining herself as a charioteer, thus joining Hippolytus—mentally if not physically—in his athleticism. And the wording of Phaedra, as we saw, connects the athleticism of charioteering with the divine realm of the goddess Artemis. But this same goddess, as we saw in Part 3, is also intimately connected with the athleticism of hunting: in fact, Artemis in her function as Divine Hunter is a prototypical model for Amazons, whose primary activity—and delight—is hunting. And the modeling extends further. Just as Artemis the hunter is a model for Amazons as hunters, so also the Amazons as hunters are models for Hippolytus, son of an Amazon, who is a model hunter in his own right. Hippolytus is a paragon of athleticism not only because he was a model charioteer: he was also a model hunter. And Phaedra, in her unrequited love for Hippolytus, knows this. As we will now see in Part 4, Phaedra is in love with Hippolytus not only because he is a model charioteer but also because he is a model hunter. And so, in the Hippolytus of Euripides, Phaedra expresses her erotic longing for Hippolytus by imagining herself not only as a charioteer but also as a hunter, thus joining Hippolytus—again, mentally if not physically—in his athleticism. As we will now see, this mental conjoining of Phaedra with Hippolytus as a hunter shows that she too, as a would-be hunter, is destined to become, however tragically, a cult hero—just as her beloved Hippolytus, devotee of the goddess Artemis, becomes a cult hero in his own right.


“Phèdre et Hippolyte” (1802). Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (French, 1774–1833). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. In the painting I have chosen as the leading illustration for Part 4, we see Hippolytus the hunter, devotee of Artemis, looking just like his ultimate model, Artemis the Hunter, and the white space I artificially interpose to separate him from the glowering Phaedra can be seen as a symbol of the frustration felt by the young queen over her unrequited love for Hippolytus.

§2. The painter of this picture, obviously inspired by the Hippolytus of Euripides, captures the beautiful queen’s feelings of frustration over unrequited love. We read in the drama how this queen Phaedra, wife of Theseus the king of Athens, had fallen in love with the athletic Hippolytus, charioteer and hunter. Theseus was his father, whereas his mother—I can think of her, for the moment, as the Other Woman—was an unnamed Amazon whom Theseus had acquired as a trophy-mate in the course of his successes in fighting Amazons. And we know also that Aphrodite, goddess of sexuality and love, was the goddess who made Phaedra fall in love with Hippolytus. So, we know who made her love him. But it is not so easy to know what made her love him. What did she see in him? Here in Part 4, my answer to such a question is simply this: what she saw in him was whatever—or, better, whoever—she herself desired to be on her own. And Phaedra desired to be a hunter just like Hippolytus.

§3. When Phaedra saw Hippolytus for the very first time, she was already falling in love with him. That is what Pausanias seems to be saying as he retells the myth. The ancient Greek word that he uses in this context is erasthēnai, which is conventionally translated as ‘fall in love with’. I think, however, that this translation can be misleading—unless the relevant contexts are explained from an anthropological perspective. I attempt such an explanation here. Relevant is an observation once advanced by the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers (1970:870 n. 5) in an article he wrote for a Festschrift honoring Claude Lévi-Strauss: some “brave” person, he said, should write a study on the anthropology of love or, let me say it this way, of falling in love. I attempt here some preliminaries to such a study as I now proceed to ask this question: what’s love got to do with it?

§4. In the city of Troizen (or Trozen: Barrett 1964:157), as Pausanias tells his readers (2.32.4), he saw the taphos ‘tomb’ of Phaedra, young wife of Theseus king of Athens. The queen, according to the version reported by Pausanias, had fallen in love with the young hunter and athlete Hippolytus, whose father was Theseus and whose late mother, in this version of the myth, was Antiope, queen of the Amazons. This Antiope, as Pausanias retells the relevant version of the myth at an earlier point in his narrative (1.2.1), had once upon a time fallen in love with Theseus, who abducted her and took her with him to Athens. Right away, I must ask my basic question about the very idea of ‘falling in love’ in these two interconnected love stories as we see them being retold by Pausanias. The question is, what’s love got to do with it?

§5. The original Greek word that translators conventionally render as ‘fall in love with’ is erasthēnai, as we see for example in the version produced over a hundred years ago by the Loeb Classical Library (Jones 1918). In my earlier work, in fact, that is the way I too regularly translated erasthēnai in my overall analysis of the myths centering on Hippolytus (H24H Hour 20). Eventually, however, I began to question the accuracy of such a translation (as in Nagy 2018.06.14), experimenting with an alternative translation: ‘conceive a passion for’. Still, I was reluctant to give up altogether on the expression ‘fall in love with’, hoping to work out an explanation from an anthropological perspective that tracks correlations between myth and ritual. As I argue, myths about ‘falling in love’ are correlated with myths about ‘dying of a broken heart’. And such correlation between such stories, I also argue, involves rituals of hero cult.

§6. Pausanias at 2.32.4 highlights a detail about Phaedra: her taphos or ‘tomb’ in Troizen is located next to a myrtle-bush—and it was there, as Pausanias says earlier at 2.32.3, that Phaedra saw Hippolytus for the very first time:

{2.32.3} In the other part of the enclosure [peribolos] is a race-course [stadion] named after Hippolytus, and looming over it is a temple [nāos] of Aphrodite [invoked by way of the epithet] Kataskopiā [‘looking down from above’]. Here is the reason [for the epithet]: it was at this very spot, whenever Hippolytus was exercising-naked [gumnazesthai], that she, feeling-an-erotic-passion-for [erân] him, used to gaze away [apo-blepein] at him from above. Phaedra did. A myrtle-bush [mursinē] still grows here, and its leaves—as I wrote at an earlier point—have holes punched into them. Whenever Phaedra was-feeling-there-was-no-way-out [aporeîn] and could find no relief for her erotic-passion [erōs], she would take it out on the leaves of this myrtle-bush, wantonly injuring them.

§7. Here is what Pausanias had said even earlier about this myrtle-bush:

{1.22.2} When Theseus was about to marry Phaedra, he did not wish, in case he had children, for Hippolytus either to be ruled by them or for Hippolytus to be king [basileuein] instead of them, and so he sent him [= Hippolytus] to Pittheus [in Troizen] to be raised there to become the future king of Troizen. Sometime later, Pallas and his sons rebelled against Theseus. After killing them he [= Theseus] went to Troizen for purification [katharsia], and Phaedra first saw Hippolytus there. Conceiving-a-passion [erasthēnai] for him she made-contrivances [bouleuein] that resulted in death. The people in Troizen have a myrtle-bush [mursinē] that has every one of its leaves pierced with holes; they say that it did not grow originally in this way, the holes being the result-created [ergon] by two causes. One was the saturation-of-longing [asē] that she felt in her erotic-passion [erōs] and the other was the pin [peronē] that Phaedra wore in her hair.

§8. I see here indications of a hero cult for Phaedra, as reflected in such details as the use of the verb aporeîn at 2.32.3, which I translate ‘she was-feeling-there-was-no-way-out’. There was no way out for Phaedra to escape from her erotic passion, just as there was no way out for Hippolyte the Amazon to escape from her sorrow:

{1.41.7} Near the hero-shrine [hērōion] of Pandion is the tomb [mnēma] of Hippolyte. I will write-down [graphein] the kinds of things that the people of Megara say with regard to her. When the Amazons, having made war against the Athenians because of Antiope, were defeated by Theseus, most of them met their death in the fighting, but Hippolyte, the sister of Antiope and on this occasion the leader of the women, escaped with a few others to Megara. Having failed so badly with her army and feeling-disheartened [athumōs ekhein] at her present situation, given that she felt-there-was-no-way-out [aporeîn] with regard to getting back home in safety [sōtēriā] to Themiskyra [= the land of the Amazons], she died in her sorrow [lupē]. And, now that she was dead, the people of Megara buried her. The shape [skhēma] of her tomb [mnēma] is like an Amazonian shield [aspis].

§9. Like Phaedra, Hippolyte has a tomb, as we see in this passage, and the tomb here is an explicit sign of hero cult. Accordingly, just as the feeling of no-way-out from erotic passion—or let us continue to call it ‘falling in love’—has led to the death of Phaedra and, ultimately, of Hippolytus, so also the sorrow—or let us call it the ‘broken heart’—of Hippolyte had earlier led to her own death and to heroization. I posit a parallel heroization for Phaedra.

§10. In this version of the myth as reported by Pausanias, I highlight the role of Aphrodite, goddess of erotic passion, in presiding over Phaedra’s first gaze at Hippolytus as she looks down from the hilltop while she is standing where the myrtle-bush grows. The identity of the goddess here as Kataskopiā ‘looking down from above’ is defined by that gaze.

§11. Having considered this painterly vision of Hippolytus, exercising naked and viewed from on high by Phaedra—where the agent of the vision is the goddess Aphrodite—I now compare another painterly vision. This time, the vision is verbalized in the poetry of Euripides. In this poet’s painterly vision, Phaedra is viewing her own self, but this self is now transformed. Phaedra sees herself as Artemis the Hunter. I think that the agent of Phaedra’s vision here is still Aphrodite, the goddess of sexuality, but now the object of this vision is the goddess of sexual unavailability. As I have already observed with reference to the modern painting I chose as the leading illustration for Part 4, Hippolytus in that painting looks just like Artemis the Hunter, and the white space I artificially interpose to separate him from the glowering Phaedra can be seen as a symbol of her frustration.

§12. But now I move from the modern painting and consider a corresponding painterly verbalization in the poetry of Euripides. In the passage I quote here from his Hippolytus, we join an ongoing dialogue between Phaedra and her Nurse:

|198 {Φα.} αἴρετέ μου δέμας, ὀρθοῦτε κάρα· |199 λέλυμαι μελέων σύνδεσμα φίλων. |200 λάβετ’ εὐπήχεις χεῖρας, πρόπολοι. |201 βαρύ μοι κεφαλῆς ἐπίκρανον ἔχειν· |202 ἄφελ’, ἀμπέτασον βόστρυχον ὤμοις. … |208 πῶς ἂν δροσερᾶς ἀπὸ κρηνῖδος |209 καθαρῶν ὑδάτων πῶμ’ ἀρυσαίμαν, |210 ὑπό τ’ αἰγείροις ἔν τε κομήτῃ |211 λειμῶνι κλιθεῖσ’ ἀναπαυσαίμαν; … |215  πέμπετέ μ’ εἰς ὄρος· εἶμι πρὸς ὕλαν |216 καὶ παρὰ πεύκας, ἵνα θηροφόνοι |217 στείβουσι κύνες |218 βαλιαῖς ἐλάφοις ἐγχριμπτόμεναι. |219 πρὸς θεῶν· ἔραμαι κυσὶ θωύξαι |220 καὶ παρὰ χαίταν ξανθὰν ῥῖψαι |221 Θεσσαλὸν ὅρπακ’, ἐπίλογχον ἔχουσ’ |222 ἐν χειρὶ βέλος. |223 {Τρ.} τί ποτ’, ὦ τέκνον, τάδε κηραίνεις; |224 τί κυνηγεσίων καὶ σοὶ μελέτη; |225 τί δὲ κρηναίων νασμῶν ἔρασαι; |226 πάρα γὰρ δροσερὰ πύργοις συνεχὴς |227 κλειτύς, ὅθεν σοι πῶμα γένοιτ’ ἄν. |228 {Φα.} δέσποιν’ ἁλίας Ἄρτεμι Λίμνας |229 καὶ γυμνασίων τῶν ἱπποκρότων, |230 εἴθε γενοίμαν ἐν σοῖς δαπέδοις |231 πώλους Ἐνετὰς δαμαλιζομένα. |232 {Τρ.} τί τόδ’ αὖ παράφρων ἔρριψας ἔπος; |233 νῦν δὴ μὲν ὄρος βᾶσ’ ἐπὶ θήρας |234 πόθον ἐστέλλου, νῦν δ’ αὖ ψαμάθοις |235 ἐπ’ ἀκυμάντοις πώλων ἔρασαι. |236 τάδε μαντείας ἄξια πολλῆς, |237 ὅστις σε θεῶν ἀνασειράζει |238 καὶ παρακόπτει φρένας, ὦ παῖ.

|198 {Phaedra, speaking to her attendants:} Lift my body, keep my head up. |199 The fastenings [sun-desma] of my dear [phila] limbs [melea] have come apart [le-lū-tai]. |200 Hold on to my shapely arms, attendants. |201 My hair all done up on top of my head is a heavy load to bear. |202 Take out my hair pinnings, let the curls of my hair cascade over my shoulders. … |208 I only wish I could, from a dewy spring, |209 scoop up a drink of pure water, |210  and, lying down beneath the poplars in a grassy |211 meadow [leimōn], I could find relief. … |215 Take me to the mountains – I will go to the woods, |216 to the pine trees, where the beast-killing |217 hounds track their prey, |218 getting closer and closer to the dappled deer. |219 I swear by the gods, I have a passionate desire [erâsthai] to give a hunter’s shout to the hounds, |220 and, with my blond hair and all, to throw |221 a Thessalian javelin, holding the barbed |222 dart in my hand.

|223 {Nurse, speaking to Phaedra:} Why on earth, my child, are you sick at heart about these things? |224 Why is the hunt your concern [meletē]? |225 And why do you feel a passionate desire [erâsthai] for streams flowing from craggy heights |226 when nearby, next to these towers, there is a moist |227 hillside with a fountain? You could get your drink from here.

|228 {Phaedra, speaking not to the Nurse but crying out to Artemis the goddess:} 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!

|232 {Nurse, speaking to Phaedra:} Why in your madness have you hurled out of your mouth this wording here? |233 One moment you were going up the mountain to hunt |234 – you were getting all set, in your longing [pothos], to do that, and then, the next moment, you were heading for the beach |235 sheltered from the splashing waves, in your passionate-desire [erâsthai] for the horses. |236 These things are worth a lot of consultation with seers: |237 which one of the gods is steering you off-course |238 and deflects your thinking [phrenes], child?

Euripides Hippolytus 198-202, 208-211, 215-238

§13. Here the wandering mind of Phaedra conceives a passionate desire to be a hunter just like Hippolytus (215-222, 233-234) and, the next moment, to be a charioteer just like Hippolytus (228-230, 234-235). I have analyzed this passage at length in H24H 20§§53–60, and I cross-refer to my analysis there with reference to what I have to say about the anthropology, as it were, of falling in love, though now I must add that I should have made it more clear in my earlier analysis (at H24H 20§56) that the very idea of hunting in this passage from Euripides is viewed as a form of athleticism that is parallel with the athleticism of charioteering.

§14. Since Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, and since she is also the goddess who presides over the athletic exercises of Hippolytus, we can say that the mortal Phaedra is really at one with the immortal Artemis when this troubled woman lets her mind wander off—first to the mountains where Hippolytus would do his hunting (215-222, 233-234) and then to the sheltered long beach where Hippolytus would speed around in his racing chariot (228-230, 234-235).

§15. Earlier, I described as “painterly” the self picturing of Phaedra in her reveries about hunting and about charioteering. In H24H 20§57, I focus on a most telling example we find in the passage just quoted, where Phaedra expresses her passionate desire for the hunt. I repeat my translation of how she says it at lines 219–222: ‘I swear by the gods, I have a passionate desire [erâsthai] to give a hunter’s shout to the hounds, | and, with my blond hair and all (in the background), to throw |221 a Thessalian javelin, holding (in the foreground) the barbed |222 dart in my hand’ (219-222). In repeating my translation here, I have added within parentheses the cues ‘in the background’ and ‘in the foreground’. That is because, in her painterly imagination, Phaedra even holds a pose here in the act of hurling a hunting javelin that is foregrounded against the golden background of her blond hair flowing in the wind. Holding this pose, Phaedra can become the very image of Artemis.

§16. The tragedy in all this, as I argue in H24H 20§§58–60, is that Artemis, who presides over both the male experiences of Hippolytus and the female experiences of Phaedra, makes it impossible for a woman like Phaedra to share in the male experiences that Artemis reserves for Hippolytus. Only Aphrodite allows female and male experiences to merge, but that merger can happen only in the adult world of heterosexuality, not in the pre-adult world represented by Hippolytus. In the pre-adult world, activities like hunting and athletics can already become part of male experiences, but the experience of heterosexual relationships must wait until adulthood is reached. In H24H 5§111 and 20 §44, I described Artemis as a prenuptial as well as a postnuptial goddess in comparison to Aphrodite as a nuptial goddess. My purpose was to highlight the complementarity of these goddesses in the lives of women. And then I went on to highlight in H24H 20 §§59–60 the most obvious example of complementarity in the case of Artemis: she presides over a woman’s uterus both before and after marriage, but the heterosexual experience of intercourse and becoming impregnated is reserved for Aphrodite. As for the lives of men, the complementarity of these two goddesses is less clearly defined. For example, although Artemis presides over the activities of hunting and athletics as ritualized preliminaries to adulthood, these activities are clearly not restricted to pre-adults. It is only in the case of mythological figures like Hippolytus that the linking of these activities with pre-adulthood is accentuated.

§17. In H24H 20§60, I offered a general formulation about the roles of Phaedra and Hippolytus in the mythology channeled by the poetry of Euripides in the Hippolytus, and the formulation applies also here with specific reference to the role of Phaedra as would-be hunter. Here is the formulation: the world of ancient Greek myth and ritual tends to differentiate, like it or not, the experiences of men and women from each other. And we see the cost of such differentiation, as expressed in myth: Phaedra must die because the experiences of men and women must be kept distinct. Unlike Hippolytus the hunter, Phaedra remains a would-be hunter—except in her reveries of athleticism. Such reveries become realties, by contrast, in the world of Amazons.

§18. Returning to the first passage I quoted and translated in Part 4, Pausanias 2.32.3, where we read how Phaedra used to see, from on high, standing next to a myrtle bush, her own private view of Hippolytus exercising naked in his own private athletic space down below, I conclude by arguing that the role of the goddess Aphrodite in the visualization of Phaedra’s recurrent erotic passion for athleticism complements the role of the goddess Artemis as the embodiment of that athleticism in the poetry of Euripides. Whereas the role of Aphrodite is to be always available as the agent of erotic desire, however, the corresponding role of Artemis is to maintain her eternal unavailability as the object of that desire. Always unavailable, Artemis thus becomes the very picture of what is erotically desirable.


The statue “Diana,” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, atop Madison Square Garden around 1905. Image via Wikimedia Commons.





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