Artemis, Hippolytus, and sexuality

Before the play’s first performance yesterday, we had a fantastic lecture by Professor Judith Mossman from Nottingham University, who spoke eloquently about the role of the gods in Hippolytus. One of the things that Judith stressed in her lecture was the importance of distinguishing between what Hippolytus thinks Artemis represents, and what the audience would have understood about Artemis from their own religious experience. I thought this was a very important insight, and it got me thinking about how this relates to the research I’ve done in the past on the play, particularly with regard to gender and sexuality.

It can be tempting to see Artemis and Aphrodite as polar opposites, and as representing opposing forces in human life: Artemis as purity and chastity, Aphrodite as unbridled sexuality. In the play, this perspective is compounded by the attitudes of the goddesses’ human agents: Hippolytus, the servant of Artemis, rejects all forms of sexuality, while Phaedra, who acts as Aphrodite’s unwitting agent, is consumed by uncontrollable desire. Yet within the play we find several clues that this extreme position represents only a partial account of the goddesses’ true nature, and the role that they played in religion and society.

While Artemis is a virgin goddess, and the patron of unmarried girls, in Greek life, virginity was always a temporary state which looked forward to a change: the main purpose of a Greek girl’s life was to marry and produce children. Although poetry which deals with young girls’ transitions often expresses reluctance and fear regarding these life changes, it does so in a context which celebrates the transition as a positive and important event. In religion, this is reflected by Artemis’ status as the patron of childbirth as well as virginity: her role was to guide girls in their journey from maidens to mothers, and to protect them during this final and most dangerous transition. Yet Hippolytus perceives Artemis as representing eternal virginity, and any form of sexuality posing a threat to her worship. This is encapsulated in his first scene, when he offers her a garland from an ‘untouched meadow’, which has never known agriculture or pasture, and which only those who are sophron (chaste or self-controlled) can enter. The meadow in Greek thought represents a potential location for seduction; a lush and attractive wilderness in which young girls in myth are frequently seduced, or even abducted, yet Hippolytus here attempts to sanitise the meadow, and present it as a controlled and sealed environment. This is reinforced by the prayer at the end of his speech to ‘end life’s race as I began it’; yet trying to resist change and adulthood is a futile effort, and one which disregards the important religious role that Artemis held in this sphere.

Similarly, Hippolytus’ view of Aphrodite as representing uncontrolled lust is also out of kilter with her real worship. We are reminded of this by the Nurse, who tells Phaedra that Aphrodite is unbearable in full force, but gentle to those who yield to her. While Phaedra’s adulterous lust for Hippolytus would have been considered deeply distasteful, a Greek audience would also have understood that Aphrodite as goddess of love and desire, has an important place in society: specifically within the bounds of marriage. We are reminded of the possibility of sexuality as a positive force in human life in the chorus’ second stasimon, where they imagine flying away as birds to the ends of the earth, and imaging coming to the garden of the Hesperides, where Zeus and Hera consummated their marriage. Here we find an alternative garden to Hippolytus’ airtight meadow; one which allows human love and fertility to be celebrated, while the marriage of Zeus and Hera stands as a prototype for all human marriages. Our directors have taken the decision to stage this ode as a dance between the male and female choruses; this further enhances the marital imagery in the song, and offers the possibility of a harmonious relationship between the sexes, which the characters in the play are tragically unable to attain.

In conclusion, then, we should not be tricked into accepting Hippolytus’ polarising view of the two goddesses, a view which is rooted in his own profound inability to accept sexuality as a natural part of the human experience. Rather, the play reminds us that Artemis and Aphrodite can represent a continuum of human life, even if this aspect is something that the characters in the play are unable themselves to experience.  (Laura Swift)


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