Text of the Poem
Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete, is married to the great hero Theseus, who is ruler of Athens. Phaedra's family has a history of unpleasant dealings with Athens and Theseus. Her brother, Androgeos, was murdered by the Athenians. Her mother, Pasiphae, had sex with a bull and gave birth to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur; Theseus killed the Minotaur. Her sister, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus and helped him, and was abandoned on the island of Naxos. Now that Pheadra is married to Theseus, she has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus (the son of Theseus and the Amazon Antiope). Hippolytus is devoted to the goddess Diana; he spends his time with hunting and other outdoor activities, and he despises love and women. Phaedra writes to Hippolytus, trying to persuade him into an incestuous relationship with her. She presents her love for Hippolytus, reviews the wrongs that Theseus has done to both of them, argues that incest is not such a bad thing, and begs Hippolytus to return her love.
The background to this letter involves the intertwined fates of two families: the family of King Minos of Crete, and that of King Aegeus of Athens. King Minos' daughter, Phaedra, is the writer of the letter. She is married to Aegeus' son, Theseus, and writes the letter to Hippolytus, Aegeus' grandson. We should start with Aegeus.
Aegeus had been married twice, but had had no children. He went to the oracle at Delphi--the most famous source of prophecies in the ancient world--to ask for help. The oracle gave him an enigmatic response: he was told that he should not open the wineskin until he reached home. He did not understand the oracle, and on the way home he stopped at the city of Troezen. Pittheus, the ruler of Troezen, did understand the oracle, and he determined that his daughter, Aethra, should be the one to bear the prophesied child. He arranged for Aethra to sleep with Aegeus, and she became pregnant. (It should be noted that, in another version of the myth, the god Neptune slept with Aethra on the same night that Aegeus did, and that he, not Aegeus. was the true father of Aethra's child.) Before he left, Aegeus hid a sword and a pair of sandals beneath a large stone; he told Aethra that, if she bore a son, the boy should take the sword and sandals when he was old enough to lift the rock, and come to Athens. After Aegeus' departure, Aethra bore a son, Theseus.
When Theseus became a young man, he lifted the rock, took the sword and sandals, and set out for Athens. The safe and sensible route would have been by sea. However, Theseus was eager to prove himself, and so he chose the more dangerous land route. His journey took him across the Isthmus of Corinth, an area which at that time was infested with robbers and bandits of all descriptions. Theseus proved himself a hero by clearing the Isthmus of its most dangerous inhabitants:
When Theseus arrived in Athens, he found Aegeus married to Medea, one of the most famous sorceresses of the ancient world, and a woman with a bloody and unscrupulous past. She saw Theseus as a threat to the inheritance of her own son, Molossus. She persuaded Aegeus that this stranger was a danger to him, and so Theseus was sent to deal with the deadly bull of Marathon, which had been ravaging the countryside. When Theseus was unexpectedly successful in this venture, Medea prepared a cup of poison which Aegeus presented to Theseus at a feast. At the last moment, Aegeus recognized Theseus' sword, and knocked the cup from his lips. He accepted Theseus as his son, and Medea was banished.
Now we must go a little farther back in time, to the parents of King Minos (and the grandparents of Phaedra, the writer of the letter). Europa was the beautiful daughter of King Agenor of Tyre. Jove, the king of the gods, was enamored of her. Jove took the form of a beautiful white bull in order to approach her while she was on the seashore. By appearing to be very tame, he coaxed her to climb onto his back; he then swam off with her across the sea to the island of Crete. There Europa bore three sons, Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Sarpedon. When the sons grew to manhood, they had a dispute over who should be king of Crete. Minos prayed to the god Neptune to send a sign that he was the chosen one. Neptune sent a beautiful bull from the sea, with the understanding that Minos would sacrifice the bull to him. Minos became king because of Neptune's sign, but he was so taken with the beauty of the bull that he kept it, sacrificing an ordinary bull instead. As punishment, Neptune made Minos' wife, Pasiphae (the daughter of the sun-god, Helios), conceive an unnatural sexual desire for the bull. Pasiphae satisfied this desire by having the master craftsman, Daedalus, build a hollow replica of a cow; she climbed inside the cow, the bull mounted it, and Pasiphae bore a son that was half human and half bull--the Minotaur. The Minotaur was so savage and uncontrollable that Minos had to call Daedalus back to build a Labyrinth--a maze of passages through which the creature could wander, but from which it could never find its way out. Minos and Pasiphae also had three other children: a son, Androgeos, and two daughters, Ariadne and Phaedra. When Androgeos traveled to Athens and defeated everyone at the Pan-Athenian games, the Athenians killed him. In retaliation, Minos made war on Athens. As part of the peace settlement, he demanded tribute from the Athenians--seven young men and seven young women to be sent to Crete each year. These young people were sent into the Lanyrinth as food for the Minotaur.
It is at this point that Theseus first crosses paths with the family of Minos. Soon after Theseus settled down in Athens, he volunteered to be one of the seven young men sent to Crete, vowing to kill the Minotaur and end the tribute. When he arrived in Crete, Minos' daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him, and she offered to help him if he would marry her. She gave him a ball of string, one end of which he tied to the entrance of the Labyrinth. He then proceeded in, unwinding the string as he went. He killed the Minotaur and followed the string back out. He and Ariadne fled together from Crete, but Ariadne was left behind when they stopped at the island of Naxos. There are various stories about how she came to be abandoned, including a sort of magical fit of forgetfulness on Theseus' part or a request by the god Bacchus. In any case, Ariadne was left behind, and she married Bacchus after Theseus' departure.
When he returned from Crete, Theseus became king of Athens in a rather tragic fashion. Before he set out, he had promised his father, Aegeus, that he would raise a white sail on his ship if he were returning safely. As he neared Athens on the voyage home, he forgot to raise the white sail. Aegeus, thinking his son was dead, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea from a high cliff. Thus Theseus became king, and the sea was thereafter called the "Aegean" Sea.
It was after Theseus became king that Hippolytus enters the story. Theseus made war on the Amazons, the famous tribe of warrior women. He abducted Antiope, the sister of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (some accounts say that he abducted Hippolyta herself), and Antiope became the mother of Hippolytus. In retaliation, the Amazons attacked Athens, penetrating into the city itself and even holding the Acropolis, the city's central citadel, before they were finally defeated. Hippolytus grew up into a handsome young man, but he disdained love and the attractions of women. He devoted himself to the goddess Diana, vowing to remain entirely chaste and pursuing the favored pursuits of the goddess, particularly hunting and other outdoor activities.
Later on, Theseus became involved with the family of King Minos again, and it is at this point that the scene for the letter is set. He married Phaedra, daughter of Minos and sister of Ariadne and Androgeos (and half-sister of the Minotaur). Antiope, the mother of Hipplytus, saw this marriage as a betrayal of herself and her son, and she and her Amazons attacked Athens once more; Antiope was killed in the fighting, perhaps by Theseus himself. Some time thereafter, Phaedra fell violently in love with Hippolytus. She struggled with her love, and kept silent for a long time. Finally, perhaps at the urging of her servant and confidant, she approached Hippolytus, revealing her love and inviting him to share it. When he refused her advances, she accused him of improper sexual conduct toward her. Theseus then banished Hippolytus and asked the god Neptune to curse him. Neptune sent a monster from the sea as Hippolytus was driving his chariot down the coast; the horses bolted, Hippolytus became entangled in the reins, and he was dragged to his death behind them. Theseus discovered that Hippolytus was innocent, and Phaedra committed suicide. Accounts of her death differ. In the best-known ones, she either committed suicide and left a letter accusing Hippolytus, or she accused him while she was still alive and then killed herself after his death.
Theseus' friendship with Pirithous, the king of the Lapiths in Thessaly, also enters into the letter. The two men confronted one another on the battlefield after the Lapiths invaded Attica (the region around Athens), and instantly became friends for life. The two of them resolved to marry daughters of the god Jove. Together they kidnapped the beautiful Helen (later known as "Helen of Troy") for Theseus, but she was recovered by Helen's brothers, Pollux and Castor. They then attempted to abduct Proserpina, the wife of Pluto, god of the underworld, for Pirithous. They failed in this attempt and were held prisoner in the underworld. Theseus was rescued by Hercules, but Pirithous did not escape. The two of them had a number of other joint exploits, and their friendship became legendary. Theseus himself was also involved in a number of other important adventures which helped establish him as one of the greatest of the Greek heroes. He participated in the Calydonian boar hunt, and is sometimes listed as one of the Argonauts who accompanied Jason on the quest for the golden fleece. When the fifty sons of Pallas, Aegeus' brother, tried to take the throne of Athens, Theseus killed them. Eventually Theseus himself was driven out of Athens and took refuge in Scyros, where he was murdered by its king.
Phaedra writes this letter as her first attempt to tell Hippolytus of her love. She is trying to persuade him into an incestuous love affair, and there are no real hints of her future revenge upon him.
Lines 1-6: Phaedra opens the letter with a rather indirect and convoluted greeting in the first two lines. She sends her wishes for the welfare of Hippolytus ("the man born of an Amazon," since his mother was the Amazon Antiope), and says that her own welfare is in his hands ("which she herself will lack, unless you give it to her"); she refers to herself simply as "the Cretan maiden" (since she was the daughter of King Minos of Crete). She then spends the next four lines presenting arguments as to why he should read the letter at all. She first asks whether there can be any harm in simply reading, and then suggests that he may find something "which pleases you" in this particular letter. She reminds him that secrets are often transmitted by writing, and that even enemies read written communications from one another.
Lines 7-16: In this section, Phaedra speaks of her struggle to keep silent about her incestuous love, and justifies her decision to speak of it. She opens by saying that she tried to speak to Hippolytus three times, but could not ("three times my tongue was held fast", etc.). But love, she says, was more powerful than modesty, and so she is writing what she could not say. In the last six lines of the section, Love is personified as a god, and she speaks of his overwhelming power, which "rules and gives law even to the gods." She even says that Love himself "spoke to me," commanding her to write and promising that Hippolytus would be moved. She ends the section by appealing to the god to "help," and "transfix your spirit with my prayers."
Lines 17-36: In this section, she defends the illicit nature of her love and urges her own attractiveness. She does not mention incest, but only adultery. She says that she does not betray her marriage through "wantonness"; she has no history of promiscuity, and her reputation "is free from fault." She excuses her passion by saying that love has come to her "later in life." She uses metaphors and similes of injury to describe her plight, comparing herself to a young bull or an unbroken horse, and using words like "burn," "wound," "endures," and "burden." She claims that for those who love early, "love becomes an art" that is easier to control, while those who love late in life love "more excessively." She makes her age a further attraction for Hippolytus, speaking of her "reputation long conserved," and comparing herself to the "first rose" in a mature garden. She then extenuates the sin of adultery by claiming that at least she burns "with a worthy flame" and is not "a base adulterer." She closes by saying that she would even prefer Hipplytus to Jove himself.
Lines 37-52: In this section she speaks of the changes that love has caused in her own activities and preferences. She has learned to love the things that Hippolytus enjoys. Now she honors Diana ("the Delian") above all other deities. She goes hunting, pursuing deer with her dogs; she loves to "brandish the quivering spear" and to lie upon the "grassy ground" rather than upon a comfortable couch. She practices chariot-racing, "twisting the reins in the mouth of the speeding horse." All this, she says, is like a kind of divine possession. She compares herself to the worshippers of Bacchus or Cybele, who were famous for the frenzy that swept them away during their religious rites, or to those who have been put into a kind of trance or state of possession by the woodland deities ("the demi-god Dryads and two-horned Fauns"). She closes the section by saying that it is love that has caused her possession.
Lines 53-66: In this section, Phaedra presents her love as part of the "fate of my family," and then proceeds to give a quick history of her family's fortunes in love. She starts with her grandmother, Europa, who was abducted by the god Jove (Jupiter) disguised as a bull. Then she mentions her mother, Pasiphae, who became inflamed with unnatural lust for the bull sent by the god Neptune, and bore the monstrous Minotaur ("her sin and her burden"). Then she goes on to Theseus ("the treacherous son of Aegeus"), who killed the Minotaur and escaped from the Cretan Labyrinth ("the curving house") with the help of Phaedra's sister, Ariadne; Ariadne was later abandoned on the island of Naxos. Finally she comes to herself. She too is "under the common law of our family," and she has fallen in love with Hippolytus. She ends by pointing out that "one house has pleased two of us"--Theseus took Ariadne, and his son, Hippolytus, has captured the love of Phaedra. She closes by urging him bitterly to "set up a pair of trophies" for the conquests.
Lines 67-84: In this section, Phaedra moves from family history to the personal history of her love for Hippolytus. She first fell in love with him in the Greek city of Eleusis, and she laments that she had ever left her home in Crete ("I wish the Knossian land had detained me"). She describes in detail what he looked like at that time, with his white clothes and flower garland; he had a "modest blush on his stern face (which she saw as "strong instead of stern"). She praises the lack of care he takes for his appearance, characterizing it as appropriately masculine and "fitting for you"--even the dirt ("the light dust") on his face as he handled a spirited horse. She admires his skill in horsemanship and with the spear, and her eyes linger on his "noble arm." She says she loves looking at him, "whatever you do."
Lines 85-104: In this section, she urges him to practice the arts of Venus (the goddess of love), as well as the arts of Diana (the goddess of hunting and of chastity). She urges love as a kind of "rest": from the labors of Diana, and compares Hippolytus' constant pursuit of hunting and other sports to the over-use of a bow (Diana's own favored weapon), which "will become weak" from constant bending. She then cites examples of famous hunters who also yielded to love. The examples are not without irony. The first one, Cephalus, was abducted by the goddess Aurora, but refused to be unfaithful to his wife. Adonis ("Cinyras' son") was the offspring of an incestuous relationship; he was beloved by the goddess Venus herself, but was killed while hunting. Meleager ("the son of Oeneus") loved the huntress maiden Atalanta, and awarded her the prize of the boar's hide in the Calydonian boar hunt, but he himself died in a rather grisly fashion as a result. It is this "throng" that Phaedra wants to be "numbered among," and she says that she will not be afraid of the perils of the woodlands ("the hidden rocks, ... nor the boar, fearsome for his slanting tusk") if Hippolytus will consent to be her lover.
Lines 105-128: In this section, Phaedra attacks her husband, Theseus, saying that he has injured both her and his son, Hippolytus. She starts by offering to go and live in the Greek city of Troezen, on the Isthmus of Corinth, the home of Hippolytus' maternal grandfather, King Pittheus. Then she points out that Theseus ("the hero, son of Neptune") is away visiting his close friend, Pirithous. In fact, she says, he prefers Pirithous to either his wife or his son. He has also done serious injury to Phaedra. He killed her half-brother, the Minotaur ("shattered my brother's bones with his triple-knotted club"), and abandoned her sister, Ariadne, on the island of Naxos "as the prey of wild beasts." He also killed Hippolytus' mother, the Amazon Antiope ("most courageous among the ax-carrying maidens"). To make matters worse, he never married Antiope, and excluded Hippolytus from inheriting his father's throne, choosing instead to acknowledge Hippolytus' "brothers," the children of Phaedra. She dramatically wishes that she had not given birth to the children who disinherited Hippolytus, wishing her "womb ... had been torn open in the midst of its labor." She closes with bitter irony, urging Hippolytus to go ahead and honor a father who has betrayed him.
Lines 129-155: In this section, she finally addresses the question of incest ("since I may seem a stepmother who would sleep with her stepson"). She says that "this ancient sense of virtue" is dying out, and cites the examples of Saturn and Jove (Jupiter), gods who both married their own sisters, to justify incestuous relationships. Love, she says, is "the only bond of kinship that binds firmly." She then goes on to point out the advantages they would enjoy in their affair because they are so closely related. It would not "be difficult to conceal our love," she says, since they would be "praised" rather than blamed for "embracing," and "I shall be called a faithful stepmother to my stepson" because she showed affection to him. Hippolytus would not have to sneak past guards and locked doors, since they both live in the same house. The could kiss in public without suspicion, and he could even be seen in her bedroom. She then urges him to "hurry to bind our pact," and abases herself before him, pleading with him "on bended knee." She uses the language of military conflict, saying that she had been determined "not to yield to sin," but that she has been "defeated" by love. She ends by admitting that she has "lost all shame," using the military metaphor one last time when she says that "having fled, my shame has abandoned its standards in the field."
Lines 156-164: In this next-to-last section, she brings up the prestige of her family line as a way of persuading Hippolytus: her father, Minos, with his great navy; her paternal grandfather, the god Jove, from whose "hand comes the twisted lightning"; her maternal grandfather, the sun-god Helios, "who sets in motion the warmth of day." She continues with the quasi-military language of the previous section, urging him to "spare my line," and ends by offering him "the isle of Jove, the land of Crete" as her dowry.
Lines 165-176: Here Phaedra ends the letter with a final impassioned appeal to Hippolytus, asking him to "bend your spirit," and urging him not to be "fiercer than the savage bull" that her mother Pasiphae "corrupted." She offers a prayer to "Venus, who is greatest with me now." In the prayer, she invokes all the things that Hippolytus values most--the goddess Diana ("the nimble goddess"), the beasts that he hunts, and the Fauns, Pans, and Nymphs who are the deities of the woodlands. She closes by finally asking him to imagine the tears she sheds as he reads her words.
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