Hippolytus - Role of Greek Gods


The play Hippolytus by the Greek playwright Euripides is one 
which explores classical Greek religion. Throughout the play, the
influence of the gods on the actions of the characters is evident, 
especially when Aphrodite affects the actions of Phaedra. Also central 
to the plot is the god-god interactions between Artemis and Aphrodite. 
In this essay, I hope to provide answers to how the actions of 
Hippolytus and Phaedra relate to the gods, whether or not the 
characters concern themselves with the reaction of the gods to their 
behavior, what the characters expect from the gods, how the gods treat 
the humans, and whether or not the gods gain anything from making the 
humans suffer.

 Before we can discuss the play, however, a few terms need to be 
defined. Most important would be the nature of the gods. They have 
divine powers, but what exactly makes the Greek gods unique should be 
explored. The Greek gods, since they are anthropomorphic, have many of 
the same characteristics as humans. One characteristic of the gods 
which is apparent is jealousy. Aphrodite seems to be jealous of 
Artemis because Hippolytus worships Artemis as the greatest of all 
gods, while he tends to shy away from worshipping Aphrodite (10-16). 
This is important because it sets in motion the actions of the play 
when Aphrodite decides to get revenge on Hippolytus. The divine 
relationship between the gods is a bit different, however. Over the
course of the play, Artemis does not interfere in the actions of 
Aphrodite, which shows that the gods, while divine, do have
restrictions; in this case, it shows the gods cannot interfere with 
each other. (1328-1330) The gods are sometimes evil and revengeful, 
though, as can seen by what Artemis has to say about Aphrodite: "I'll 
wait till she loves a mortal next time, and with this hand - with 
these unerring arrows I'll punish him." (1420-1422)

 The relationship of mankind and the gods also needs to be 
discussed. This relationship seems to be a sort of give-and-take
relationship, in part. The Greeks believed that if they gave to the 
gods, through prayer and sacrifices, that the gods would help them 
out. This is especially true of Hippolytus and his almost excessive 
worship of Artemis. Also, Theseus praying to his father Poseidon is 
another example of this, only Theseus actually gets what he prays for. 
(887-890) Just because mankind worshipped the gods, however did not 
mean that the gods had any sort of obligation to help out the humans. 
Artemis did nothing to protect Hippolytus from being killed. But not 
all relations between the gods and mankind were positive from the
humans' standpoint. Since Aphrodite is angry with Hippolytus for not 
worshipping her, she decides to punish him by making Phaedra love him, 
then making it seem that he rapes her, when she actually hangs 
herself, whether that is through her own actions or is the doing of 

 The thoughts and actions of Hippolytus and Phaedra certainly are 
irrational at times. After all, a stepmother falling in love with her 
stepson is unlikely, but probably even less acceptable. This is 
directly related to the gods. What Aphrodite does to Phaedra certainly 
causes her to do some strange things. For instance, first Phaedra 
seems to go crazy, and then she decides to hide her new-found love for 
Hippolytus from the nurse. Later, though, she decides to tell the 
nurse, and when she finds that the nurse has told Hippolytus, decides 
that the only logical course of action is to kill herself. This action 
is certainly related to the gods because Aphrodite makes it look as if 
Phaedra's suicide is really the fault of Hippolytus. Some of 
Hippolytus' actions are related to the gods as well. When Theseus 
discovers that Phaedra is dead and decides to exile Hippolytus, 
Hippolytus does object to his banishment, but eventually he stops 
arguing with his father. At this point, he prays to the gods that he 
be killed in exile if he is guilty of the death of Phaedra. It is also 
possible he may be expecting Artemis to help him out, though she does
nothing until he is on the verge of death. The characters do worry 
about how the gods react to them at times. Hippolytus does not seem to 
concern himself much with how Aphrodite reacts to his behavior. At the 
beginning of the play, the old man questions Hippolytus' decision not 
to worship Aphrodite, but Hippolytus really does not worry that he may 
be making Aphrodite angry. He does care how Artemis reacts, however, 
because he is hoping to keep her happy so that she may help him out if 
he should need it. Theseus certainly concerns himself with how the 
gods react, since he needs Poseidon to send a bull to go kill his son. 
At the end of the play he does care what Artemis has to say about him 
killing his son. He believes that he should be the one to die, though 
Artemis is able to convince him that he was fooled by the gods. 
Phaedra, on the other hand, really is in no position to care much 
about how the gods react to what she does. This is because she is 
under the control of Aphrodite. Aphrodite makes her love Hippolytus, 
it certainly is not of her own free will.

 As far as what the characters expect from their gods, it varies 
by person. Theseus, being the son of Poseidon, was supposedly given 
three curses by his father, and he expects Poseidon to help him out 
and kill Hippolytus. (887-889) Hippolytus never really expects 
anything specific from Artemis during the play, but he does tell the 
gods that he should die in exile if he is guilty of the rape of 
Phaedra. Even as he is dying , he does not expect Artemis to help him. 
Interestingly, he even apologizes to his father and to Artemis for 
causing them to suffer because of his death. Phaedra wishes that her 
judgment had not be interfered with by the Aphrodite, because she is 
the one who caused Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus. The gods 
treat human beings more or less as pawns to do with as they please. It 
seems like it is all a game to them. In Hippolytus, it is game of 
revenge between Aphrodite and Artemis. Aphrodite interferes in the 
life of Hippolytus, someone loved by Artemis, then Artemis vows to 
take revenge on Aphrodite to avenge the death of Hippolytus. Despite 
the fact that he worships her above all others, she still does not 
help him out throughout the entire play. This indicates that Artemis 
may not care for him as much as we are led to believe. She says she 
would take revenge, but there is no guarantee it will happen. From 
this, we can see that the gods often did not treat the humans very 
well. In a way, Poseidon treats Theseus well by granting his wish for 
the death of Hippolytus. This joy is short-lived, however, when he 
discovers that he has been fooled by the tricks of Aphrodite. Why the 
gods would treat the humans this way is a somewhat complicated 
question. An easy answer would be that they have the power to do to 
the humans what the please. But there are other reasons as well. For 
instance, the theme of revenge plays a major role in the plot. The
actions of Aphrodite against Hippolytus are motivated by revenge. The 
gods, at least in Hippolytus, are not malicious and wanting humans to 
suffer for no good reason. Therefore, the most important reason for 
gods treating humans the way they do is that they are reacting to the 
actions of humans; this is especially true of Aphrodite's reaction to 
Hippolytus's failure to worship her.

 The gods must derive something from the suffering of the humans; 
otherwise there is no point in making them suffer. In this case, the 
gods derive both sorrow and joy from the suffering of the characters. 
Aphrodite certainly is happy that Hippolytus suffered and died through 
her own actions, and that she causes Theseus to suffer as well by 
taking his son away. On the other hand, she probably does not care 
much that she also caused the death of Phaedra. Phaedra only serves as 
a pawn to get revenge on Hippolytus. Aphrodite only cares to punish 
Hippolytus, and she would have used Phaedra in whatever capacity
necessary to get that revenge. Artemis, however, is saddened by the 
loss of Hippolytus: "You and I are the chief sufferers Theseus." 
(1337) Because of this, she vows to avenge Hippolytus' death, and also 
tells him that he will not be forgotten by future generations of 
Greeks, that his name will live on in glory.

 Interestingly, Hippolytus wis able to forgive his father even 
though his father caused his death. That should not be surprising,
because he realizes that his father was fooled by the gods, and being 
an irrational human, could not really be expected to know he was being 
tricked. Also, Artemis does not blame Theseus for the death of his 
son: "It is natural for men to err when they are blinded by gods." 
(1433-1434) The most important thing that the ending shows is that 
sometimes the gods do care what happens to the humans. It also shows 
how easily the power of the gods, particularly that of Poseidon, could 
be misused because Theseus gets what he prays for, the death of his 
son, but it is not really what he wanted.

 Two major themes are present in Hippolytus: revenge and 
forgiveness. Almost the entire plot of the play is based on revenge.
There is the revenge between gods and humans, and humans and humans. 
Initially, we have Aphrodite wanting revenge on Hippolytus for 
worshipping Artemis and not her, which of course sets in motion the 
actions of the play. Then we have the revenge of Theseus against 
Hippolytus, when he believes that his son raped his wife and killed 
her. This does not end up as revenge, however, as Theseus eventually 
suffers as a result of his son's death. One final form of revenge 
comes at the end of the play, when Artemis vows to avenge the death of 
Hippolytus by interfering with a human loved by Aphrodite. It is all a 
vicious cycle of revenge. This same story could very easily happen 
again if Artemis does avenge his death. Also, forgiveness is an
important theme. Even though his father is responsible for his death, 
Hippolytus is nevertheless able to forgive him. This comes from the 
realization that his father had been deceived by the gods. In the end, 
this proves once again that the Greeks were at the mercy of their gods 
and that they had to try to live their life the best they could in 
spite of that fact. 


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