Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry – An introduction, Part 1: Hippolytus the hero as a charioteer

2022.05.16 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The picture that introduces Part 1 here helps me concentrate on heroes, athletes, poetry. What we see pictured here is a hero, Hippolytus, at the moment of his death. It was said in the myth of Hippolytus that he had lost control of the horses harnessed to his speeding chariot, and he has now been dragged to death. His father was Theseus, king of the city of Athens and revered by the people of that city as their most important native hero. His mother, on the other hand, was an Amazon, also a hero but alien to Athens. In the myths of the ancient Greeks, including the Athenians, Hippolytus was famous for his larger-than-life prowess as an athlete—especially as a charioteer. In the heroic era as pictured in myth—an era that marks the life and times of Hippolytus—no feat of athleticism was more prestigious than charioteering. And yet, no matter how accomplished Hippolytus had been as a chariot driver, his doom as a hero was destined to be a violent death-by-chariot. The picture that I have chosen for my introduction here is a most vivid visualization of this heroic death. But the most vivid verbalization of the myth about this same death can be found in the poetry of the drama Hippolytus, composed by the master composer Euripides and first staged in the fifth century BCE. What I have just said here with specific reference to myths about Hippolytus the athlete, formalized in the poetry of Euripides, is a fitting point of entry into the book-in-the-making that I will present in serialized form here in Classical Continuum, since the title of the book is Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry.

“The Death of Hippolytus” (1860). Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. The athleticism of the hero Hippolytus, as I analyze it in the book, is relevant to my general thinking about ancient Greek traditions linking heroes in their mythologized past to athletes in the ritualized present of the athletic competitions that were held at prestigious festivals like the Olympics. Such traditions, as mediated especially by poets, will be the main subject of Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry.

§2. As I will be arguing in this book, the catastrophe of the primal chariot-crash suffered by the hero Hippolytus in the mythologized past is meant to result in the viability of chariot racing as a notionally everlasting institution in the ritualized present of athletic competition. And the constellation of the Auriga or ‘Charioteer’ in the heavens will be the eternal witness.

§3. What I have just said, while thinking about the luminous Auriga who dominates the night sky, is typical of ancient thinking about this constellation—and about Hippolytus the Charioteer. I am about to quote my favorite example of such thinking as we see it worded in an ancient Greek source. Before I quote the wording, however, I need to offer some background about the author of the source.

§4. Our author is a traveler named Pausanias, who lived in the second century CE and who produced a massive book, consisting of ten papyrus scrolls, which was  traditionally known as the Peri(h)ēgēsis—a title I would translate literally as ‘A Description of Locales’. This book of Pausanias, focusing on the subject of local color in myths and rituals—that is how I would describe his focus—has become for me a cornerstone in my own  research on such a vast subject. And whatever Pausanias reports about the various different myths and rituals of various different locales in the ancient Greek world will help me elaborate, as my argumentation proceeds, on what I meant a moment ago when I spoke of  a “mythologized past” involving heroic death.

§5. With this background in place, I am now ready to quote what Pausanias says, in his own inimitably understated way, about Hippolytus the Charioteer in that hero’s stellar role as the Auriga of the night sky. During his visit to the city of Troizen, Pausanias, at 2.32.1 of his work, observes that the local population there venerates, in their rituals, the hero Hippolytus, and that they have their own myths telling about Hippolytus as their very own local hero. Then Pausanias, again at 2.32.1, goes on to say that the people of Troizen are reluctant to reveal the precise location of the tomb where their local hero Hippolytus is buried:

The people [of Troizen] wish that he [= Hippolytus] had not died when he was dragged by the horses drawing his chariot, and they do not show his tomb [taphos], even though they know where it is. As for the constellation in the heavens that is called the Charioteer [hēniokhos], they [= the people of Troizen] have a customary way of thinking [nomizein] that this one [houtos = the Charioteer] is that one [ekeinos], Hippolytus, who has this [hautē] honor [tīmē] from the gods.

§6. I have analyzed at length this passage, together with its overall context, in an older book, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, which was originally published in 2013—and which I abbreviate as H24H. My analysis there, in “Hour 20” of H24H, concentrated on the implications of what I described, a minute ago, as the veneration of Hippolytus by the local population of Troizen. In H24H I showed that such “veneration” can be described more accurately as “hero cult,” and that Hippolytus was the main “cult hero” of the people of Troizen. What I mean when I speak of hero cult and cult hero has been extensively documented not only in “Hour 20” but also in the entirety of H24H, where my starting point was this fundamental historical fact: it was the traditional practice of ancient Greeks to worship their heroes. Such a practice, as I pointed out, is nowadays conventionally described simply as hero cult, while the heroes who were worshipped in hero cult are known, correspondingly, as cult heroes.

§7. What I did not analyze fully in “Hour 20” of H24H, however, was this question concerning Hippolytus: how was the athleticism of this hero as a charioteer relevant to his role as a cult hero? And how was such athleticism relevant even to the overall role of Hippolytus as a hero? The second of these two questions applies not only to Hippolytus but also to other heroes who were famous for their athleticism: how was their fame as athletes relevant to such heroes? The book I present here, Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry, abbreviated as AGHAP, is intended to address such questions. Meanwhile, most of the observations I had once made about heroes, athletes, and poetry in H24H as published in 2013 have been omitted in a new printed edition, published in 2020, which I now abbreviate as h24h. The parts of H24H that have been omitted in h24h have now been reworked as the core of AGHAP. As I hope (and this hope has been expressed already earlier, Nagy 2018.08.10), the twofold result will be that (1) h24h becomes a more streamlined introduction to ancient Greek heroes in general and (2) AGHAP presents a more focused look at ancient Greek athletics as linked by poetry to the heroic past.

Bibliography

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Paperback 2020. Cambridge, MA. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.

Nagy, G. 2018.08.10. “Thoughts about heroes, athletes, poetry.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/thoughts-about-heroes-athletes-poetry/.

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



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