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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: “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 Aphrodite.

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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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