(PBP) H is for Hippolytus

Perhaps one of my favorite plays of Euripedes is that of Hippolytus, a myth of a youth who is devoted to Artemis and spurns Aphrodite which results in his downfall. Of course there is more to this myth that this most simple outline. First I think it is important to examine the relationship of Artemis to Hippolytus and the necessity of Aphrodite within the story. There may be some relevance to the character of Hippolytus that he was born to Theseus and the Amazon queen he took as wife, before replacing the Amazon with another marriage (which was said, in some versions of the myth, to have resulted in the war of the Amazons upon Attica who drew as close to Athens as to be camped on the Aeropagus within the city in their assault upon Athens). It does however seem that some of the oldest cult centers of Artemis in Attica are associated with Hippolytus, like the center of Artemis in Trozan that he built for her during the period he lived there at the time of his father’s marriage to his new wife. Therefore there is some possibility that this son of Athens and the Amazons may have been some kind of initiation of the cult of Artemis in Attica from Themiscyra.

But what I think is most relevant in the myth of Hippolytus is what it implies of the interaction between the goddesses (Artemis and Aphrodite) on the life and development of human beings. Artemis, as the nurturer of the young is inseperable from the huntress, and for this purpose it is not unusual to hear of maidens engaged in activities of hunting (such as we see in the myth of Atlanta) or other activities done outdoors in the freshair such as dancing and sport, nor that hunting would have been an area occupied largely by youths and less by adult men who have their concerns involved more elsewhere. Compared to the adult male, the youth, as we see in the activities of Hippolytus, engages his days with his comrades hunting in the hills in the company of Artemis giving all honors to her. In this sense Artemis truly rules over the unsexualized childhood and youth of living beings and they are in her company almost exclusively until the time which the reach the age of transition into adulthood which came with rituals performed in her honor widespread in Hellas. With the exception of Brauron which focused on the transition girls, in other places within Attica we see mixed rituals of boys and girls reaching the age of adulthood and in Sparta we have rituals of boys at the temple of Artemis Orthia. Therefore we understand that Artemis plays a very specific role in the transition from youth to adult.

In the myth of Hippolytus we see an image forming of a youth who is at the age of adulthood, but who is scorning this transition. He has no desire to take on the responsibilities of adulthood towards the oikos, rather he prefers to spend his days in the company of the goddess that he loves. This goes so far that he openly scorns Aphrodite whose domains he would be submitted, and unwisely refuses any acknowledgement of the power of the goddess or her greatness, out of what seems to be a desire to not cross into the next stage of his life which would take him away from the company of his goddess. All that he desires to continue with the hunt with his goddess. And I can relate to this, there was a period in my youth in which I too scorned Aphrodite and clung to Artemis like a child, and I felt the impact on my life which eventually led me in my early twenties to setting up a small shrine to her in my home out of necessity. This is also the reason why the shrine to Aphrodite is one of the eldest shrines in my home, nearly equal in age that that of Apollon, despite the fact that I don’t have a personal connection with her.

It is because, that of out of wrath, Aphrodite inspired his stepmother to feel a hot passion for Hippolytus that it resulted in her suicide, Theseus’ anger towards his son over false accusations from his wife’s note upon her death and the invocation of a curse from Poseidon that caused the death of Hippolytus in his chariot. So we have Hippolytus whose horses, while driving along the beach, were startled from a giant bull rising from the ocean, and threw Hippolytus from the chariot to die, caught forever on the brink of youth and adulthood. Hippolytus, over whome Artemis greives and promises vengeance for a love of Aphrodite (which we see in the tale of Adonis…which is appropriate to mention on this day of Adonia), is deified as the charioteer. In another version Hippolytus is brought back to life by Asklepios and the sacrifice of horses to the god is preserved in Trozan. Romans from this believed that Hippolytus then traveled to Italy and become the god of the grove of Diana in Nemi in Aricia. But we do have a charioteer god, the youth who is mastering the chariot of his soul to follow Artemis towards his deification. His death was caused by love, Aphrodite acting upon his love for Artemis, and thus he enters into the next spiritual stage of development even though he was cut down in youth because he refused to go into the next stage of adulthood. Therefore I see both a spiritual development here and a tale about human life transitions tied together in which Aphrodite appears to be working in both a positive manner (on the spiritual side) and in a manner that seems to be retributive upon his life due to his scorn and refusal to submit to her place in the human life cycle.

The divine Hippolytus, in the end, as the charioteer is representative of the soul self, but also bears some connection to imagery of Artemis’ beloved twin Apollon. For in Delphi we see the charioteer preserved in statuary and Pausanias too tells us that Kyrene gifted an image of Delphi of Apollon-Ammon in which the god was depicted as a charioteer. As Apollon dwells at the gate of transition towards which Artemis propells life in her hunt, it is reasonable that this transitional stage resembled of the charioteer would also be linked to Apollon even as Hippolytus is most literally the symbol of the charioteer from myth. He gained the mastery of the horses of his soul-chariot (as is described by Plato is Phaedo) and in the event of things though his body was destroyed by them, his soul was able to rise to the state of divinity in his adoration of Artemis. This destruction caused by a bull rising from the sea represents a crossing of the liminal zone by an animal associated with the gods. Therefore we also have Poseidon acting in part as his destroyer which aids his forward elevation to cross into the next level as one who is descended from the line of that god. However, his early death could have been prevented if he had not scorned the goddess, and so I don’t take this as a tale of the superiority of chastity towards the gods one loves (and the ancient Hellenes largely didn’t approve of such as we can see not only in the exchange going on in Euripedes’ play but also in the laws of Sparta in which bachelors were austrocized from certain community events). Rather, it demonstrates the spiritual principles going on while also providing a word of caution against rebelling against the influence of the gods. The harmony of energies by Aphrodite, a harmoization which is necessary for procreation and transformation, are necessary not only for the purpose of the spiritual but also for the longivity of the oikos that it continues on. Therefore Aphrodite’s part almost seems to be as a double-edged sword within this play, for she who harmonized Hippolytus to Artemis, is spurned in his life and suffers the consequence of it even while his soul gains elevation.


4 thoughts on “(PBP) H is for Hippolytus

  1. A very nice study indeed of the myth.

    That “clinging” to youth, even childhood, that is portrayed in Hippolytus in some ways serves as a counterpart to Theseus, his father, who repeatedly engages in acts of abandonment. He abandons his mother, his mortal father, his lover Ariadne, his beloved companion, Perithous, and his son, Hippolytus. Poseidon, in turn, abandons him, as do all other gods and all mankind.

  2. Wow… I never really thought about the myth in such detail. I just took it as an example of how dangerous it is to not pay due worship to all the Gods, focusing instead on just one or a few of them. This is all much more sophisticated and actually does ring true. Thanks for this enlightening piece of thought about this myth 🙂

    • thanks Apollodorosh! That is a high compliment indeed! It always makes me happy to introduce a new ways of seeing something that makes sense to another as well as myself. It is a good feeling 🙂

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