Sexuality & Celibacy

Hippolytos - Robert Bagg, Euripides

I should mention that technically this play should come under 'I' as opposed to 'H' (and I almost put it under 'I' without thinking) namely because Greek does not actually have an 'H'. What they have are rough and smooth breathings, which is a little symbol that appears at the front of a word that begins with a vowel. If the word has a smooth breathing it is pronounced without an H while if it has a rough breathing it is pronounced with an H. You have probably worked out that Hippolytus has a rough breathing, however in the Greek Lexicons it will be found under 'Iota' which is the Greek I.


This play is a tragedy however it is not strictly a tragedy in the true sense of the word namely because the main character, Hippolytus, does not have a fatal flaw. However, this whole concept of a fatal flaw was something that Aristotle explores in 'Poetics' and it is something that Shakespeare used in a lot of his tragedies, though I will still argue that the central characters in his tragedies do not strictly have fatal flaws. The Greek tragedies don't really seem to use it either, so I am not sure what Aristotle is getting at when he was writing his poetics. Mind you, I don't think Aristotle was around during the period when the great playwrights were writing their plays, and while one could consider that drama as an artform was still developing, it seemed that by the time Sophocles and Euripides were writing their plays and competing against each other drama had reached a reasonably mature form.


One could consider that Phaedra and Theseus are the tragic heroes in this play and that Hippolytus has just an innocent victim. It is not the only play where the tragic hero is not the title character, the same is the case of Julius Ceaser: the tragic hero in Julius Ceaser is Marcus Brutus. Now, the issue with Phaedra is that she is madly in love with Hippolytus however Hippolytus is Theseus' son (not by Phaedra) and Phaedra is married to Theseus, so there is a problem. The second problem is that Hippolytus has devoted himself to the goddess Artemis, the Goddess of nature and the wilds. In keeping with Artemis' character, Hippolytus has chosen a life of celibacy. Despite that Phaedra is still his step mother and I am very doubtful that Hippolytus would betray his father by sleeping with his stepmother. Strangely enough it is this type of relationship that Paul goes ballistic at the Corinthians for in the New Testament. Seriously, it is not a comforting idea, even though Phaedra is not his mother by birth. Remember, it is this sin that drives Oedipus to gouge out his eyes and exile himself (though Jocasta is his mother by birth).


Now, the play opens with a very upset Aphrodite and the reason that she is upset is because Hippolytus is celibate. It confuses me somewhat as to why a god would get so uptight over a single celibate man, but I have a feeling that it goes quite deeper than that. I guess we need to consider the Greek Gods in a more ancient and pagan sense where they personify ideas and concepts, and in Aphrodite's case that concept is sexual love (though I suspect that is where Eros comes in, the Greek Gods can be quite confusing, though I know that Aphrodite is a major god while Eros is not). Anyway, the play demonstrates the fickleness of the gods, where by devoting himself to Artemis Hippolytus earns the enmity of Aphrodite. In a way it is a lose lose situation, and I suspect something that Hippolytus is confronting. I also suspect that Euripides is not a very big fan of this.


Now, Hippolytus is not actually living with his father, he is old enough to go out on his own, however because Theseus is purging some sin (which remains unnamed in the play) he has taken his wife Phaedra to Trozen to become pure. Now, there were issues between Phaedra and Hippolytus back in Athens, and Hippolytus left, probably for his own sanity, however Phaedra's yearning for him has not gone away. We should note that this is a part of Aphrodite's curse on Hippolytus. There is an interesting thing that I have picked up from the Greek dramas because in our society we would simply call it love sickness, and personally, we really don't know how it comes about. I doubt the Greeks did either, which is why they blamed the gods. We see a similar thing with madness cursing Herakles in his self-named play, and a similar thing with Ajax in his self-named play.


Now, Phaedra, who cannot handle Hippolytus' rejection, and cannot imagine living without a sexual liason with him, decides to kill herself and to leave a note blaming Hippolytus for her death. This indicates hints of depression, however it does seem to be a very extreme case in killing herself because she cannot have Hippolytus. However I suspect that such suicides are not unheard of in our own society, though I must admit that I haven't explored this concept deeply. We should note that psychologists have turned to this play in relation to some mental health issues. Anyway, Thesus pretty much prejudges Hippolytus and it is only after he has called curses down on him that he realises that he has acted too rashly. I guess it is not surprising. In fact it is a very human grief reaction to act and blame before rationally thinking about what has been occurring. We actually saw the grief cycle at a seminar today, though I must admit that I can't remember the specific. I suspect, though, that if we look at Theseus' reaction to Phaedra's death then we will see the grief cycle (and one aspect is denial followed by blame and then later on comes acceptance).


Once again, I am not convinced Hippolytus did anything wrong, and it appears that he is simply being persecuted for his way of life. I was going to say morality, but my feeling is that celibacy is not actually a question of morality because there is actually nothing wrong with sex. It is like many of the other good things on this Earth, namely that it is good but it can be quite destructive if not respected.


So what we seem to see here is the struggle between sexuality and celibacy. It is once again something that is all too common in our society. It is unacceptable to be celibate, as seems to be the case here. Our society believes that we are fools if we chose a path of celibacy, where as in this play, celibacy angers Aphrodite. However, the catch is that celibacy is accepted by Artemis and I also suspect that Athena is celibate as well. I guess that the one reason that celibacy is looked down upon has nothing to do with sexual pleasure and everything to do with the failure to procreate. This is something that does come out in the Bible, especially when we have one of Judah's children in the book of Genesis spilling his seed on the ground and then God punishing him when he does so. Remember that twice in Genesis God commands humanity to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth with progeny.


I wish to finish off on the nature of death. When Hippolytus dies Artemis comes to comfort him in his final hours. It is not a quick death - it is a long, slow, and painful one, namely because he was trampled by his horses. Anyway the tragedy of the situation is that despite his lifelong devotion to Artemis it is clear that he is not going to be spending his afterlife with her. In fact this is clearly spelt out in the text. I suspect that that was not originally a Greek concept, and was probably inherited from the Middle East. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all have the concept of spending the afterlife with the deity. With the Greeks, and I suspect the Romans, this is not the case. Mind you, the Greeks did believe in reincarnation, but I suspect that this was not going to happen to Hippolytus (though we do know that Achilles did go to the Elysian Fields, which is the closest one can come the Greek concept of Heaven).