The Greeks vs. Their Gods in Hippolytus 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: “Ill wait till she loves a mortal next time, and with this hand – with these unerring arrows Ill 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 Aphrodite. 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 Phaedras 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 Aphrodites reaction to Hippolytuss 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 sons 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.