Discussion of the hippolytus myth

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It is indeed true that there are numerous interpretations of the Hippolytus myth, and in fact it is not the only myth that has been altered and developed according to the individual writer's or artist's impression. There are many reasons why an ancient writer or artist may have chosen to depict a particular interpretation of a myth; personal choice; political or social influences at the time; differences between interpretations from different geographical locations. In this essay I will be exploring some of these reasons in relation to five interpretations of the Hippolytus myth; three textual sources, both of Euripides' Hippolytus plays and Ovid's Heriodes: Phaedra to Hippolytus; and two visual sources, plates 1.5 and 1.10 in the Visual Sources book.

Euripides twice used the Hippolytus myth as a basis for his plays, but only one (scholars believe it to be the second), has survived. It is believed that his first version, Hippolytos Kalyptomenos (Hippolytus Veiled), depicted Phaedra as a sexually insatiable woman and included a scene in which Phaedra openly professed her desire to Hippolytus. The surviving play, Hippolytus Stephanophoros (Hippolytus Crowned), portrays a chaste Hippolytus and Phaedra, with the responsibility for their fate being attributed primarily to Aphrodite. Early scholars believed the extant Hippolytus to have been a modification of Euripides' first attempt, after its failure to please Athenian audiences due to material that was "unseemly and worthy of condemnation" (Block 1 p.23). Whilst this explanation may be true, it seems unlikely, since the ideas in the play that was supposed to so offend the Athenian audience were not dissimmilar to other myths that had previously been accepted. Is it more likely then that Euripides rewrote his play for personal and professional glory? Given that many Greek myths involve women destroying men, and that Greek society seems to have been a mysoginistic one; "I was well aware of being a woman, something hated by all men" (Euripides 407-8); a "bad" Phaedra might have been more expected by the audience, whereas Euripides' alternative Phaedra who falsely accuses Hippolytus to protect her reputation, may have been more surprising. That the same writer can have written two such seemingly different plays about the same myth demonstrates just how much these myths could be altered.

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Whilst both of Euripides' versions of the Hippolytus myth deal with the "story" of the myth, beginning with Phaedra's unrequited love for her stepson and ending with Hippolytus' death, Ovid, in his Heriodes IV, explores the origins of Phaedra's love. One of the significant differences in the two adaptations is the genre of the pieces; with Euripides' play, the audience follows the events as they unfold, and sees these events from a more objective viewpoint, Ovid's Phaedra however, is writing at a specific moment, and the letter presents her point of view. There are of course, similarities between the two Phaedra's, since they are intended to be the same character; both blame the goddess of love for their passion, both are reluctant to voice their feelings, and both are fixated on retaining their reputation; but, perhaps the most noteworthy difference between the two Phaedra's is the decision of Ovid's Phaedra to declare her love to Hippolytus by means of this letter.

The Phaedra in Euripides' Hippolytus is a sympathetic character, presented as a pawn in the rivalry between two goddesses, who laments her love for Hippolytus and in intent on keeping her love from him. Ovid's Phaedra however, is more aggressive in her pursuit of Hippolytus, imploring him to "Go now, pay your respects to the bed which your father denies" (Ovid 156-7). She claims to value her "purity long-preserved" (Ovid 39) yet is quite desperate to give in to her passion, and at the end of her letter seems to reject virtue entirely, claiming that "Jove decreed that virtue was pleasure" (Ovid 162).

In Euripides' Hippolytus, Phaedra's unrequited love is blamed upon Aphrodite who herself accepts responsibility in her opening monologue; "my scheming cause a terrible longing to seize her heart" (Euripides 28). In Ovid's Heriodes IV however, Phaedra also portions some of the blame on her heritage; "Perhaps I am paying a debt to Venus for the favours my family has enjoyed" (Ovid 71-2). Phaedra seems to blame fate for her love, likening herself to her female relatives. By invoking the image of the bull in the stories of Europa, Pasiphae and Ariadne, Ovid is hinting at what his readers will know, but that his Phaedra does not know, of Hippolytus's fate.

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Whilst for Euripides the central character is Hippolytus, Ovid brings the focus to Phaedra. This seems to have made a significant impact of later adaptations of the Hippolytus myth, since Seneca, Racine and even Sarah Kane's play, Phaedra's Love, focus on Phaedra's role in the myth. Since Heriodes IV is written from the point of view of Phaedra, the reader is much more able to understand the complexity of Phaedra's feelings. As mentioned earlier, in Euripides' Hippolytus, the blame is firmly blamed on Aphrodite, whereas in Ovid, Phaedra alludes to other reasons for her intended adultery; Venus is named, but so is her family, and her husband Theseus. Phaedra blames Theseus for being absent; "Theseus, we must conclude, loves [Pirithous] more than he loves Phaedra" (Ovid 38-39). However, unlike in Hippolytus, where the reader may feel sympathy for Phaedra, here, the reader is left with the impression that Phaedra is a woman who has rejected her "purity long-preserved" (Ovid 39) and is intent on fulfilling her adulterous passions.

Myths were a vital part of the ancient Greek and Roman culture, and knowledge of them was a sign of good education. This is perhaps why myths were such a popular inspiration for artists at the time. Not only that, but myths were full of powerful imagery that would make for stimulating decorations. Identifying a myth in art however, can prove to be difficult, since artists based their work on their own personal interpretations.

The Hippolytus panel from the 'Red Pavement' (Plate 1.5) shows three figures in a line on a plain red background. We assume these figures to be Hippolytus, Phaedra and the nurse because of significant clues in the panel; the letter on the floor, the statue of Aphrodite in the top left corner, and the fact that one of the figures is holding a spear. Each of these clues suggests that the panel is depicting the Hippolytus myth. The presence of the Aphrodite statue is reminiscent of Aphrodite's role in the myth as portrayed in Euripides' Hippolytus. The pose and expression of Phaedra seems to show her grief, while the nurse is placed between the two characters to illustrate her role as 'go-between'. The presence of the tablet shows a different interpretation to Euripides' since the letter in his play appeared after Phaedra's suicide and would not therefore be present with the three characters depicted here. This panel implies a further interpretation of the myth with perhaps Phaedra having sent a letter similar to that in Heriodes IV and this scene the result. This is a further indication of the individual's own interpretation of the same myth.

The appearance of Cupid and a letter in plate 1.10 also seem to suggest that this panel depicts Hippolytus and Phaedra. Once again, however, the interpretation differs from others that I've discussed. Like the previous panel, the inclusion of the letter with both the characters of Phaedra and Hippolytus contrasts with Euripides' play, but unlike in plate 1.5, Phaedra here does not appear so distressed, but in leaning and seems to be waiting for Hippolytus to finish reading. Likewise Hippolytus himself, seems to be leaning towards Phaedra, which would seem to contrast with the majority of other versions of the Hippolytus myth since it seems to suggest a physical relationship between the two.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, myths defined their religion and were used to explain the world around them, they provided entertainment, and in the case of some Roman emperors, were used to account for Roman world domination as predestined by the gods. Such different motives of the ancient writers and artists are illustrated in the ways in which their interpretations differ. We should also remind ourselves that these ancient writers and artists were not the original inventors of these myths, but that they were simply re-telling stories that had been told numerous times before both orally and textually. Each new interpretation alters the emphasis of the myth, like Euripides to Ovid, and allows the readers to draw new connections, giving each interpretation a new and separate significance. Writers perhaps would have more scope for alterations since it was easier for them to identify the myths that they were depicting, whereas artists had to identify their characters instantly. Whilst the opportunity for individual interpretation is certainly vast, it is not limitless, since there becomes a point where the myth has changed so much that it becomes a new myth entirely.

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