Unlucky in Love: Phaedra and Hippolytus

If there was ever a wrong match in Greek mythology, Phaedra and Hippolytus were one of the worst. Read on to discover how the House of Theseus was destroyed.

Jul 11, 2022By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature

phaedra lying in bed painting cabanel


One could argue that the fallout was neither’s fault, but the machinations of the vengeful and ruthless goddess Aphrodite. Equally, Theseus’ pride had a major hand in the downfall of his own house. Were Phaedra and Hippolytus simply victims?


Hippolytus’ Origin

Hippolytus and Phaedra, by Jean-François Scipion du Faget, 1836, via Sotheby’s


Hippolytus’s father was the famous Greek hero Theseus. His mother was either Antiope or Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons — his lineage differs from myth to myth. In one version, Theseus accompanies Hercules to battle the Amazons. The Amazons were a fierce race of all-female warriors, and they were not often defeated in battle. During the campaign against the Amazons, Theseus fell in love with Antiope, the Queen’s sister. Some adaptations of the myth claim that Theseus kidnapped her, while others say that she, too, fell in love and so left with Theseus for Athens.


It was due to this betrayal of her Amazon sisters that the Amazons attacked Theseus back in his kingdom in Athens. However, if the other version is to be followed, the Amazons attacked Athens to try and save Antiope. The Amazons here met their defeat outside Athens, as Theseus’ army vanquished them. When Antiope had her child, she named him Hippolytus after her sister, Hippolyta.


While most accounts claim Antiope was the mother, sometimes these events are attributed to Queen Hippolyta instead, making her the mother of Hippolytus.

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Phaedra & the Attic War

Battle of the Amazons, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1618, via the Web Gallery of Art


Eventually, Theseus’ interest in Antiope waned. Unfortunately, Theseus had a reputation in Greek myth for falling deeply in love with a woman, convincing her to run away with him, and then abandoning her when he was no longer interested. A case in support: Ariadne.

Ariadne was a Princess of Crete, and she helped Theseus in his youth survive the winding roads of the Labyrinth. She betrayed her home and king on the promise of Theseus’ loyalty and the promise of marriage. However, on the voyage from Crete to Athens, Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos.


Hence, a similar scenario happened with Antiope. Theseus let his intentions be known, that he no longer wanted to be with Antiope, but he instead had his eyes set on Princess Phaedra. To make matters even more baffling, Phaedra was actually the sister of Ariadne, Theseus’ lover long-ago.


Antiope was enraged at the betrayal, and so she fought Theseus on the day of his wedding to Phaedra. However, the battle ended with her death.


Sometimes, the myth claims that the battle between the Amazons and Theseus was the war in which Antiope died. This was known as the Attic War. In this version, the Amazon women fought to defend Antiope’s honor and punish Theseus’ disloyalty. In other accounts, the battle resulted in the death of Antiope by the hands of Molpadia, an Amazon, by accident. Theseus avenged Antiope by killing Molpadia.


After Antiope’s death, Theseus went on to pursue Phaedra.


Theseus’ Marriage to Phaedra

Theseus with Ariadne and Phaedra, the Daughters of King Minos, by Benedetto the Younger Gennari, 1702, via Meisterdrucke Fine Arts


Hippolytus’ lineage can be a little confusing due to all the different versions of the myth. But they all end with the death of Antiope and Theseus’ marriage to Phaedra.


In Crete, some time had passed since Ariadne’s desertion. Theseus returned to Crete to find Deucalion had succeeded his father, King Minos. Minos had been the one to force Athenian victims to act as tributes in his Labyrinth every year, in penance for an old war between Athens and Crete. While the Labyrinth and the monster within — the Minotaur — had been destroyed by Theseus years hence, there remained an uneasy relationship between Crete and Athens.


Theseus entered into peace talks with Deucalion. They agreed to improve the relationship between the cities, and Deucalion gave his sister, Phaedra, to Theseus in marriage as a truce gift. Apparently, Deucalion did not seem to harbor any resentment towards Theseus for the treatment of his other sister, Ariadne. In any case, he happily gave over another sister to be Theseus’ love interest. Phaedra and Theseus were married and sailed back to Athens.


Theseus and Phaedra had two sons, but around the same time, Theseus’ uncle named Pallas attempted to usurp Theseus. However, Pallas and his sons were killed by Theseus in the ensuing battle. To atone for the murders, Theseus agreed to a one-year exile.


Theseus travelled to Troezen, where he had left Hippolytus to grow up with Theseus’ grandfather (and so Hippolytus’ great-grandfather) Pittheus. Theseus intended for his sons by Phaedra to succeed to the throne of Athens, but for Hippolytus to succeed in his hometown in Troezen.


Aphrodite’s Wrath

Phèdre, photographed by Jean Racine, via the New York Public Library Collections


At this point in the myth of Hippolytus, Euripides the playwright brings to life the story in his play named Hippolytus, written in 428 BCE. Euripides opens the play with a soliloquy from Aphrodite. The Goddess of love and sexual desire informs the audience how she is angered by Hippolytus’ refusal to worship her.


“Love he scorns, and, as for marriage, will none of it; but Artemis, daughter of Zeus, sister of Phoebus, he doth honor, counting her the chief of goddesses, and ever through the greenwood, attendant on his virgin goddess, he clears the earth of wild beasts with his fleet hounds, enjoying the comradeship of one too high for mortal ken.” – Aphrodite in Euripides’ Hippolytus


In Greek mythology and culture, it was expected that young boys would transition from worshipping Artemis, the chaste huntress goddess, to Aphrodite, who represents sexual passion. This transition demonstrated the process of puberty and the change from boy to man. To reject Aphrodite was often inferred as a refusal to develop as culture saw fit. For this reason, poor Hippolytus became the target of Aphrodite’s wrath.


“But for his sins against me, I will this very day take vengeance on Hippolytus.” — Aphrodite in Euripides’ Hippolytus


The Curse

Phèdre, by Alexandre Cabanel, c.1880, via Meisterdrucke Fine Arts


Hippolytus simply loved to hunt and did not want to marry. He wished to be free and traverse the forests of Greece forever. Just like the goddess Artemis. She was the goddess of chastity, the hunt, the Moon and the wild. Aphrodite would not allow this insult.


Unfortunately for the members of Hippolytus’ family, Aphrodite brought them into the fray. She cursed Phaedra to fall madly in love with her step-son Hippolytus. The curse caused Phaedra to fall into a spiraling turmoil of passion and shame, turning her reason to madness.


“Ah me! alas! what have I done? Whither have I strayed, my senses leaving? Mad, mad! stricken by some demon’s curse! Woe is me! Cover my head again, nurse. Shame fills me for the words I have spoken. Hide me then; from my eyes the tear-drops stream, and for very shame I turn them away. ‘Tis painful coming to one’s senses again, and madness, evil though it be, has this advantage, that one has no knowledge of reason’s overthrow.” — Phaedra on her curse, Euripides, Hippolytus


“So Foul a Crime” 

Phèdre et Hippolyte (Phaedra and Hippolytus), by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, c.1802, via the Louvre


Phaedra had a loyal and kind nurse, who wished to help her mistress avail herself of the curse. The nurse discreetly came to Hippolytus and asked him to swear a vow of secrecy, on what she was about to ask him.


Hippolytus agreed to the secret, but when the nurse told him of Phaedra’s passion for him, and requested that he reciprocate for her sanity, he was disgusted. He rejected Phaedra and the nurse. To his credit, and perhaps his downfall, Hippolytus did indeed keep his promise not to tell anyone about Phaedra’s confession of love.


“Even thus, vile wretch, thou cam’st to make me partner in an outrage on my father’s honor; wherefore I must wash that stain away in running streams, dashing the water into my ears. How could I commit so foul a crime when by the very mention of it I feel myself polluted?” — Hippolytus on Phaedra’s love confession, Euripides, Hippolytus


Phaedra’s Way Out

Death of Phaedra, by Phillipus Velyn, c.1816, via the British Museum


When the nurse relayed Hippolytus’ response to Phaedra, Phaedra was astounded that the nurse had shared her secret passion. The nurse claimed that she loved Phaedra too much to see her in such pain, and so she had tried to save her by telling Hippolytus of Phaedra’s love. Phaedra was still distraught, and the rejection increased her pain and madness tenfold.


“I only know one way, one cure for these my woes, and that is instant death.” — Phaedra in Hippolytus by Euripides


Phaedra resorted to suicide to relieve herself of the shame and pain inflicted on her by Aphrodite’s curse. She could not bear the rejection and neither the shame of lusting after her step-son. Her way out was through death. In a note, she wrote in a final act of revenge that Hippolytus had attempted to rape her. Theseus found the note clasped in Phaedra’s cold hand.


Theseus’ Revenge on Hippolytus

The Death of Hippolytus, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, c.1767-1824, via ArtUK, Birmingham Museums Trust


Theseus immediately made some bad decisions in his grief. He called on his father, the god Poseidon, to bring down revenge on Hippolytus. In the past, Poseidon had given Theseus three wishes, and here Theseus used one of them for the death of his own son.


“Ah me! Hippolytus hath dared by brutal force to violate my honor, recking naught of Zeus, whose awful eye is over all. O father Poseidon, once didst thou promise to fulfil three prayers of mine; answer one of these and slay my son, let him not escape this single day, if the prayers thou gavest me were indeed with issue fraught.” — Theseus calls to Poseidon in Hippolytus, Euripides


Hippolytus was hence banished. As he was riding his chariot along the shore, Poseidon sent a great tidal wave, with terrifying water creatures to scare Hippolytus’ horses. Hippolytus was thrown from his chariot and killed. Poseidon, compelled by the wish, was forced to murder his own grandson.


Artemis Defends Hippolytus’ Name

Diana (Artemis) the Huntress, by Guillame Seignac, c.1870-1929, via Christie’s


After his death, Artemis revealed to Theseus that Hippolytus had been falsely accused…


“Why, Theseus, to thy sorrow dost thou rejoice at these tidings, seeing that thou hast slain thy son most impiously, listening to a charge not clearly proved, but falsely sworn to by thy wife?” — Artemis to Theseus in Hippolytus, Euripides


In further grief, Theseus lamented his House’ destruction. The goddess’ wrath had been fulfilled, and the terrible, cursed love of Phaedra had brought about the downfall of young Hippolytus. A lesson in myth: don’t get on Aphrodite’s bad side! Unlucky in love, both Phaedra and Hippolytus suffered. While Phaedra was an innocent brought into the plot, Hippolytus just wanted to be single for life. Not if Aphrodite had anything to do with it…


An Alternative End for Hippolytus

Esculape Ressucitant Hippolyte, by Jean Daret, c.1613-68, via Wikimedia Commons


There is another myth attributed to the events in Hippolytus’ life. This myth recounts that Artemis was so upset by Hippolytus’ death that she brought his body to Asclepius, who was such a skilled doctor that he had the power to bring the dead back to life. Artemis felt that her devotee had been treated unfairly by Aphrodite’s jealousy. Artemis believed that Hippolytus deserved honors in life rather than an untimely death.


Asclepius was able to revive the young man, and Artemis took him to Italy. There, Hippolytus became the king of the Aricians and he built a magnificent temple to Artemis. No horses were allowed inside the temple — perhaps they were too close a reminder of his death. Hippolytus spent the rest of his days as a priest for Artemis, finally able to devote his life to the pursuit of his choice.

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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.