More on the love story of Phaedra and Hippolytus: comparing the references in Pausanias and Euripides

2018.08.03 | By Gregory Nagy

In the posting for 2018.06.21, I highlighted a painterly vision in the narrative of Pausanias about the erotic passion felt by Phaedra for Hippolytus. In that vision, Phaedra is viewing Hippolytus exercising naked. And the agent of the vision is the goddess Aphrodite. In the present posting, for 2018.08.03, I compare another painterly vision—this time, in the poetry of Euripides. In this vision, Phaedra is viewing her own self, but this self is now transformed. Phaedra sees herself as Artemis the Huntress. The agent of Phaedra’s vision is still the goddess of sexuality, but the object of this vision is the goddess of sexual unavailability. In the painting I have chosen as cover for this posting, Hippolytus looks just like Artemis the Huntress, and the white space I artificially interpose to separate him from the glowering Phaedra can be seen as a symbol of her frustration.


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

In The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, 20§57, I focus on the painterly passage in the Hippolytus of Euripides where Phaedra, in an erotic reverie, puts herself into the picture, as it were. Into a picture of what? She pictures herself as Hippolytus hunting in the wilderness. But it can also be said that she pictures herself as Artemis hunting in the wilderness. Here is how Phaedra expresses her passionate desire (Hippolytus 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 | a Thessalian javelin, holding (in the foreground) the barbed | dart in my hand’. In 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 poses herself 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, as I argue in H24H, Phaedra can thus become the very image of Artemis.

We can actually see such a pose in the ancient visual arts. Here, for example, is a mosaic showing an Amazon hunting on horseback:

Detail of mosaic pavement depicting hunting Amazons in the Nile Festival House, early 5th century CE, Sepphoris (Diocaesarea).
Detail of mosaic pavement depicting hunting Amazons in the Nile Festival House, early 5th century CE, Sepphoris (Diocaesarea). Image via Flickr, under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

When Phaedra sees Hippolytus for the very first time in the narrative of Pausanias 2.32.3, as I noted in the posting for 2018.06.21, she is already falling in love with the youthful hero. In that posting, I was worrying about the translation ‘fall in love’ for erân/erâsthai in the “present” or imperfective aspect of the relevant verb used by Pausanias—and for erasthênai in its aorist aspect, as he uses it elsewhere. In the present posting, 2018.08.03, I still worry about that translation—and I continue to prefer the wording ‘conceive an erotic passion’ as a more accurate way to capture the moment—but now I worry more about the actual moment of erotic passion in Pausanias 2.32.5. As we will see, that moment is really a recurrence of moments. The storytelling of Pausanias points to an untold number of moments for experiencing the erotic passion—as expressed by the “present” or imperfective aspect of the verb, erân, and by the imperfect tense of the verb apo-blepein ‘gaze away, look off into the distance’. Further, there is a divine force that presides over all these moments, embodied in the sacralized role of Aphrodite as the kataskopiā, ‘the one who is looking down from on high’.

Here is the relevant passage in Pausanias, where our traveler speaks of the enclosure containing the space that is sacred to both Hippolytus and Phaedra as cult heroes:

{2.32.3} In the other part of the enclosure [peribolos] is a racecourse [stadion] named after Hippolytus, and looming over it is a shrine [nāos] of Aphrodite [invoked by way of the epithet] kataskopiā [‘looking down from the heights’]. Here is the reason [for the epithet]: it was at this very spot, whenever Hippolytus was exercising-naked [gumnazesthai], that she, Phaedra, feeling-an-erotic-passion-for [erân] him, used-to-gaze-away [imperfect of apo-blepein] at him from above. A myrtle bush [mursinē] still grows here, and its leaves—as I wrote at an earlier point [= 1.22.2]—have holes pricked 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.

{2.32.4} There is also a tomb [taphos] of Phaedra, not far from the tomb [mnēma] of Hippolytus, and it [= the mnēma] is heaped-up-as-a-tumulus [kekhōstai] near the myrtle bush [mursinē]. The statue [agalma] of Asklepios was made by Timotheus, but the people of Troizen say that it is not Asklepios, but a likeness [eikōn] of Hippolytus. Also, when I saw the House [oikiā] of Hippolytus, I knew that it was his abode. In front of it is situated what they call the Fountain [krēnē] of Hēraklēs, since Hēraklēs, as the people of Troizen say, discovered the water.

Before further comment on Pausanias 2.32.3, I note a detail in my translation of 2.32.4. I take it that Pausanias here is guardedly indicating that he saw the tomb of Hippolytus himself, situated next to the tomb of Phaedra. Our traveler is guarded because, as he said earlier at 2.32.1 about the hero cult of Hippolytus, 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 he ostentatiously uses this word here at 2.32.4. 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 calls the nearby tomb of Amphiaraos simply a 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 used by Pausanias here at 2.32.4 with reference to the tomb of Hippolytus. Other examples where oikiā refers to tombs of cult heroes include 2.36.8, 5.14.7, 5.20.6, 9.11.1. 9.12.3. 9.16.5. 9.16.7.

Returning to Pausanias 2.32.3, I conclude by arguing that the role of the goddess Aphrodite in the visualization of Phaedra’s recurrent erotic passion complements the role of the goddess Artemis in a visualization that we saw being brought to life in the poetry of Euripides. Whereas the role of Aphrodite is to be always available as the agent of erotic desire, 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.

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