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Sexual Desire as Punishment in Euripides' Hippolytus

"Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest" (France, 1901, p.24). Anatole France in The Revolt of the Angels reconfigures chastity as a variant of sexuality rather than an opposing force to it. This view frustrates extant readings of Euripides’ Hippolytus, which claim that the “play is a symbolic conflict of two ideals, an austere chastity and the natural desires of the flesh." (Grene, 1939, p.46). This essay will then take the view that sexual passion and purity are only superficially pitted against one another in Hippolytus, and that for Euripides, the tragic hero's abstinence is not a virtue to be defended but instead a personal failing, an ‘aberration’. The idea that Hippolytus’ chastity is a symptom of sexuality mangled by repression - rather than a mark of his goodness - bears implications for the efficacy of Aphrodite’s punishment: what kind of pain does she most want to inflict upon Hippolytus? And by extension, what is the focal point of her revenge? There are a number of moving parts to Hippolytus’ trials, and while the extent of Aphrodite's orchestration is unknown it is clear - given her words in the prologue - that she intends to realise just one primary goal, with all else being secondary effect or “collateral damage” (l. 24). Hippolytus’ death for instance is expected, but secondary in importance. Although Aphrodite does not explicitly state this herself, Theseus seems to be speaking for her as well when he declares:

Either Poseidon will dispatch him quickly down to hell

Or, exiled from this country, he will wander, a sad refugee,

Hanging on to the miserable hold of a living death. (l.877-9)

As emphasised by the translation of ‘living death’, Hippolytus’ actual death is not required - a fate equivalent to death is enough. In his essay The Interpretation of the Hippolytus of Euripides (1939), University of Chicago classicist David Grene proposes that Aphrodite destroys Hippolytus by “a peculiarly cruel and malicious device” (p.46). This is that “he, the supremely chaste, must meet his ruin through suspicion of the greatest pollution” (pp.46-7). While the pain of being falsely accused is certainly part of Aphrodite’s design, the issue with identifying this mistrial as the point of Hippolytus’ punishment is that it doesn’t awaken the hero to the faults of his ideals. On the contrary, as we see during the debate against Theseus, Hippolytus is more certain than ever before that his abstinence is something to be lauded and emulated: ‘Father, do you see this earth, this sunlight? / There is not a man, even if you deny it now, who has more self-control than I’ (l. 956). In the following line, Hippolytus is still ironically under the illusion that, ‘I know how to respect the gods’ (l. 957).

Fig. 1: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1802, Phaedra and Hippolytus, painting, Rome

While Hippolytus does suffer under the condemnation of a father he idolises, his pride in his innocence and virtue is simultaneously inflamed; there is no point of anagnorisis that would allow Aphrodite to truly assert her power over Hippolytus. In fact, when examining the ending of the play, it looks as though there is no point of anagnorisis at all, except maybe for Theseus. Artemis appears in the final scene and assures us all that Hippolytus is sophron, meaning 'of sound mind' (Grene, 1939, p.45). But what of Hippolytus’ undeniable tendency towards excess, which Euripides goes to lengths to show? To reiterate, the thesis aims to show that atonement does occur, and that Aphrodite’s primary goal is indeed fulfilled, when Hippolytus delivers his misogynistic outcry after being solicited by Phaedra’s nurse. His chastity, a symptom of a repressed sexuality, is entwined with feelings of shame towards his origins and a desire to distinguish himself, sexually, from Theseus. During the outburst, then, it becomes clear that it is not “suspicion of the greatest pollution”, but the possibility and temptation of it that is most threatening. The genius of Aphrodite’s plan lies in her sensitivity to the workings of Hippolytus’ subconscious, and subsequently in her weapon of choice: not death, nor injustice, but sexual desire denied to oneself, by oneself.

Even before we witness Hippolytus’ tirade against women, his ideals are framed as problematic by Euripides in a way an Athenian audience would be attuned to. In Aphrodite’s prologue, we discover that he ‘spurns the bed of love and refuses marriage’ (l. 14). Simon Goldhill (1986), professor in Greek literature at Cambridge University, notes that ‘permanent virginity or even prolonged abstinence from sexual activity was regarded by writers of the Hippocratic corpus as unhealthy’ (p.49). Although sexual desire - eros - is portrayed as a mastering, often dangerous force upon the mind, sexuality itself was paramount to the continuity of oikos through children. From the outset, Hippolytus’ flouting of this convention is a note of trouble and a display of his single-mindedness. His love for the hunt - precisely in its single-mindedness - can moreover be challenged as well. French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1986) points out that hunting ‘is an expression of the transition between nature and culture’ (p. 64). Accordingly, hunting should anticipate Hippolytus’ graduation from wild adolescent to a man with citizen status in society, but his extreme love for it perverts its primary function: he keeps himself on the fringe of society, away from his responsibilities to the oikos and polis. By worshipping Artemis and rejecting Aphrodite, Hippolytus sabotages his passage to manhood. This is enacted in the text: ‘May I turn the post at life’s end as I began’ (l. 997). The implication that Hippolytus does not want to follow the narrative pattern of an upper-class Athenian male is troubling, and recalls Aphrodite’s judgement in the prologue:

Always consorting with the virgin in the green woods, he rids the earth of wild beasts with his swift hounds, embracing a companionship greater than mortal (l.54)

Fig. 2: Walter Crane, 1883, Artemis and her Hounds, watercolour and gouache, London

While Hippolytus acknowledges - of his intimate relationship with Artemis - that ‘I alone of mortals possess this honour’ (l.19), this ‘companionship greater than mortal’ (l. 54) is detrimental. It deludes Hippolytus into believing that he alone knows `how to respect the gods’ (l. 957) and, by extension, that only he truly knows Artemis. This mistaken belief is directly offensive to Aphrodite, but applies to Artemis too. We see an example of this when the chorus guesses after the cause of Phaedra’s sickness, when they sing:

How well I remember

The torment coursing through my womb

But I called on Artemis

Goddess of childbirth

And she always came. (l.169-73)

This choral ode follows shortly after Hippolytus’ invocation to Artemis. In it, Euripides juxtaposes the chorus’ conception of Artemis as a goddess of childbirth with Hippolytus’ one-sided view of Artemis as virgin huntress. Given Hippolytus’ later rant on his desire to cut women out of the reproductive process, it seems that Hippolytus is either refusing or ignoring Artemis’ alternative role as a deity that watches over women and childbirth. Though this singular view of Artemis is another way in which Hippolytus is primed for tragedy, Charles Segal (1965) , classicist at Harvard University, notes ‘It is precisely because of the complexity of divinities like Aphrodite, Artemis, and Poseidon…and the conflicting drives they instil in men that this simple view is doomed’ (p.102) - the cause for his binary understanding of the world can be traced back to a repressed sexuality, directly linked to his origins.

Fig. 3: Jean-François Scipion du Faget, 1836, Hippolytus and Phaedra, painting on plaque, Paris

Hippolytus’ determination to see only one dimension of Artemis is related perhaps to a longing for his absent mother and Amazon ancestry. That Artemis was chief deity of the Amazons is likely what propels Hippolytus’ attachment to her, if not his desire to see her as mother-substitute. American writer Anne V. Rankin (1974), in Euripides’ Hippolytus: A Psychopathological Hero, illustrates a useful syllogism that possibly exists in Hippolytus’ unconscious: ‘My mother is Artemis; Artemis is a virgin; therefore my mother is a virgin’ (p.71). Remembering that Theseus defeated the Amazons and raped Hippolytus’ mother, such a protective syllogism can be seen as a way for Hippolytus to restore his mother’s virginity and in this way, conjecture a set of parents that are both powerful and morally irreproachable (interestingly, he does not include Theseus in his feelings of reprehension, despite Theseus’ responsibility for his origins). As a result of both his mother’s absence and Artemis’ distance, Hippolytus’ ideal of womanhood is abstract and any woman is doomed to fail this impossible standard of perfection.

Fig. 4: Peter Paul Rubens, 1618, Battle of the Amazons, painting, Paris

His invocation to Artemis at the beginning of the play cements this possibility:

But, dear mistress, receive a garland from a pious hand for your golden hair. For I alone of mortals possess this honour; I both consort with you and exchange words with you, hearing your voice, but not seeing your face. (l.27)

By ‘not seeing your face’ (l.27), the two women Hippolytus holds in any esteem are blurry, unreal creatures. Therefore, Hippolytus’ ideal woman is an absent woman; even visibility for Hippolytus can be construed as wantonness, as he later confirms in his misogynistic tirade. Additionally, by raising Hippolyta above an ‘impure’ womankind' (l. 556), Hippolytus mitigates the feeling of shame surrounding his illegitimacy, which is made no secret of throughout the play: he is constantly referred to as ‘the son of the Amazon’ (l. 671) or ‘bastard’ (l. 998), rather than ‘the son of Theseus’ (l. 1002). Euripides ‘makes it clear that Hippolytus incurred the social stigma with which fifth century Athens, like most societies, penalised the illegitimate’ (Goldhill, 1986, p. 51). This status marks him as perpetual outsider and makes it so that imagining the purity of his mother is not enough - he must be pure and noble himself, more so than any legitimate child. Hippolytus’ repression of his sexuality is thus rooted in a desire to not sully the idealisation of his mother and of Artemis, as well as a resolve to rise above the stigma that surrounds his position in Athenian society. But as Freud (1901) writes of the psychopathological hero, likewise in Hippolytus does ‘an impulse that has hitherto been successfully repressed endeavours to make its way into action’ (p.14). Hippolytus’ repressed sexuality may be sublimated into worship of the divine, but this only means that his dormant, unsated curiosity - perhaps obsession - over sex manifests in moments of intense emotion:

No servant should ever come near a woman, dumb savage beasts should be set to live with them so that they might have no-one to speak to or reply to their words. But now women in their wickedness contrive indoors wicked plots, and their servants bring them outside. Just as you in my case came, wicked creature, to make a union between me and my father's chaste bed; I shall flush out your words with streams of water, dashing it to my ears. {...} Curse you! I shall never have my fill of hating women, even if anyone says I am always speaking, for they too are always wicked. Either let someone teach them to be temperate or allow me too to trample them forever under-foot. (l.565-82)

Fig. 5 Josef Geirnaert, 1819, Phaedra and Hippolytus, oil on canvas, Ghent

When Hippolytus refers to Phaedra and her nurse in the line ‘women in their wickedness contrive indoors wicked plots, and their servants bring them outside’ (l.566-7), he is imagining Phaedra acting in the fashion of a prostitute, and employing a go-between. He leaps to the assumption that Phaedra is behind this solicitation, and conjures an image of her that is in keeping with how he thinks of all women: as lustful and shameless. The vigour of his reaction is likewise telling. The last line, ‘Either let someone teach them to be temperate or allow me too to trample them forever under-foot’ (l. 582) may be read in a sexual sense, but one that absolves him of blame or sexual intentions: he suggests that he doesn't want any sexual experience, but that women can only be taught temperance by the very thing they covet. Not only his disgust takes on a sexual form - here Hippolytus is confronted by ‘a woman who, by her situation as his father’s mate, recalled his “pure” mother, but who was acting in an “impure” fashion, offering herself to him in a way that corresponded to his unconscious desires’ (Rankin, 1974, p.46). Bedding Phaedra promises a distorted version of his longing to reunite with his mother, and so "his mental equilibrium was momentarily unbalanced by the ensuing conflict between temptation and revulsion" (Rankin, 1974, p.46). The intermingling of conscious restraints and unconscious desires in this moment pushes him in a way that he likely has never experienced before, leading to an excessive tirade that bespeaks a number of unaddressed emotions.

To return to the prologue, it is clear that Euripides - through his awareness of the protean quality of Greek verbs - means to imply that Aphrodite knows of Hippolytus’ repressed desires: again, he is described to be' embracing a companionship greater than mortal' (l.14).

Fig. 6: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, 1899, The Death of Hippolytus, painting, Paris

In the original Greek, ‘the verb "ξυνεΓναι" can mean ‘to be with’ in a sexual manner; "προστπτττειν" can mean to embrace, and the accusative case favours this meaning; "όμιλια" can mean sexual intercourse’ (Rankin, 1974, p. 47). Such frequent allusions to sex in just a few lines seems deliberate on Euripides’ part in order to highlight Aphrodite’s secret knowledge. Aphrodite’s vagueness while describing her plans in the prologue suggests that her precognition of what is to come is not borne of any prophetic skill, but instead her deep comprehension of Hippolytus’ feelings about sex and love. In this way, it can be said that Hippolytus was both fated and not fated to meet his end - had he become aware of the dangers of his repressed sexuality he would not have delivered his disastrous outburst, and yet Aphrodite also knew with certainty, for her revenge, that Hippolytus could in no way willingly overcome his pathology. The aptness of Aphrodite’s revenge calls to mind the allegory behind the marriage of Eros and Psyche, in that love is out of reach if the soul has not yet undergone the trial of knowing itself. It was Hippolytus' "tragic plight", as Rankin (1974) puts it, "to be confronted with the precise situation likely to breach his defenses he had erected in his conscious behaviour" (p.47).

Bibliographical Sources

France, A. (2010, May 30). The revolt of the angels. (W, Jackson, Trans.). The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Revolt of the Angels, produced by Juliet Sutherland and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (Original work published 1914). Retrieved February 4, 2023, from Goldhill, S. (2008). Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge University Press. Grene, D. (1939). The Interpretation of the Hippolytus of Euripides. Classical Philology, 34(1), 45–58. Kornarou, E. (2020). The Agonistic Element in Euripides’s Hippolytus. In H. L. Reid, J. Serrati, & T. Sorg (Eds.), Conflict and Competition: Agon in Western Greece: Selected Essays from the 2019 Symposium on the Heritage of Western Greece (Vol. 5, pp. 157–170). Parnassos Press – Fonte Aretusa. Rankin, A. V. (1974). EURIPIDES’ HIPPOLYTUS: A PSYCHOPATHOLOGICAL HERO. Arethusa, 7(1), 71–94. Segal, C. P. (1965). The Tragedy of the Hippolytus: The Waters of Ocean and the Untouched Meadow: In Memoriam Arthur Darby Nock. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 70, 117–169. Wertenbaker, T., & Williamson, M. (2014). Euripides' hippolytus: A new version. Faber & Faber.

Visual Sources

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1899) The Death of Hippolytus [painting] Sotheby's France, Paris, France Jean-François Scipion du Faget (1836) Hippolytus and Phaedra [painting on plaque]. Sotheby's France, Paris, France Josef Geirnaert (1819) Phaedra and Hippolytus [oil on canvas]. The Bowles Museum, Durham, United Kingdom Joseph Desire Court (1825), The Death of Hippolytus [oil on canvas]. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, United Kingdom Peter Paul Rubens (1618) Battle of the Amazons [painting]. Pinakothek, Munich, Germany Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1802) Phaedra and Hippolytus [oil on canvas]. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America Walter Crane (1883) Artemis and Endymion [watercolour and gouache]. British Museum, London, United Kingdom


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Angela Tsui

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