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Phaedra, Princess of Crete torn by love

 

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Biography

Phaedra, or more properly Phaidra, was a daughter of Minos, ruler of Crete in the generations before the Trojan War. In the Odyssey (book 11 line 321) while Odysseus is in Hades he says “Then I saw Phaidra, Prokris; and Ariadne, daughter of Minos, the grim king. Theseus took her aboard with him from Krete for the terraced land of ancient Athens; but he had no joy of her. Artemis killed her on the Isle of Dia at a word from Dionysos” This is the oldest reference to Phaedra. It gives an association of Phaedra with Crete and Ariadne but it does not establish their relationship.

In the Illiad Book XVIII there is this passage: “Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once made in Cnossus for lovely Ariadne. Hereon there danced youths and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another’s wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths well woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another, and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up with his tune.” Though Phaedra is not mentioned here it is suggested this is a reference to the women in the previous quote. Phaedra was involved with similar dancing ceremonies when she was in Crete.

Phaedra dancing for the Sun
Phaedra dancing for the Sun.

Is it not odd that Theseus should fail with one of the daughters of Minos, Ariadne, and then take up with another, Phaedra? On this light other information is available on this family in the drama “Hippolytus” by Euripides. There is the following exchange:

  • “Phaedra – Ah! hapless mother, what a love was thine!
  • Nurse – Her love for the bull?…
  • Phaedra – And woe to thee! my sister, bride of Dionysus.”

So the two sisters Ariadne and Phaedra and the Minotaur share the same mother, Pasiphae. And it is interesting to note that all three women, Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra, are involved with sexual obsession. Furthermore Theseus is involved with both Ariadne and Phaedra. Theseus is quite young, perhaps 16, when he is involved with Ariadne, While he takes Phaedra as his bride some twenty years later. Procris, mentioned earlier, was also involved with sexual obsession in Crete. While there she cured Minos of a loathsome curse plased on him by Pasiphae. He could not have sexual relations without killing his partner since, instead of semen, he ejaculated deadly scorpions and insects. (Bell,381)

The name ‘Phaedra’ is supposed to be derived from ‘phaetho’ whicn refers to the sun. Phasiphae means ‘all shining and has the same root word related to ‘phaetho’. At line 855 in the ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripides she is referred to as ‘.. fondest wide and noblest of all women beneath the sun’s bright eye.”

Theseus brings Phaedra to Athens from Crete and then sails her to Troezen when he is exiled from Athens. Troezen is southwest of Athens, and the place where Theseus was born. It is also the place where Phaedra kills herself.

At line 143 in the ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripides she has ‘her head of golden hair.” Then at line 213 she refers to ‘..my golden hair.. Is it possible that Minos is of Minoan descent if his daughter has golden hair? The Minoans are depicted with black hair and reddish skin and may have been from Africa. The Mycenaeans, who conquered Crete, had many more golden haired children.

At line 748 in the ‘Hippolytus’ is written: “O white winged bark, that over the booming ocen-wave did bring my royal mistress from her happy home, to crown her queen among sorrow’s brides! Surely evil omens from either port, at least from Crete, were with that ship, what time to glorious Athens it sped its way, and the crew made fast its twisted cable-ends upon the beach of Munychus, and on the land stepped out.” Apparently she came to Athens to marry Theseus on a smaller sailing vessel because the sails were wing like and the ship was drawn up on the beach before he stepped out. This is an interesting example of a woman traveling by ship.

Sir James George Frazier in his “The Golden Bough” on page 7 states, “The rivalry of Artemis and Phaedra for the affection of Hippolytus reproduces, it is said, under different names, the rivalry of Aphrodite for the love of Adonis, for Phaedra is merely a double of Aphrodite.” That is not to say that the drama of Euripides is merely the retelling of the story. Rather we are to understand that the story of Adonis bears the initial idea of the story upon which Euripides has elaborated. Yet the uderstanding of the story of Adonis as a story of spring helps to understand the drama. Spring is no more rational than the love of Phaedra for Hyppolytus.

Robert Graves in “The White Goddess” states “Lucian who in his ‘Concerning the dance’, a mine of mytholocical tradition , gives as the subjects of Cretan dances: ‘the myths of Europae, Pasiphae, the two Bulls, the Labyrinth, Ariadne, Phaedra (daugheter of Pasiphe), Anddrogeous (son of Minos), Icarus, Glaucus (Raised by Aesculapius from the dear), the magic of Polydius, and of Talus the bronze man who did his sentry around Crete.’ Both these quotes suggest that Phaedra was a goddess before she was a mortal. It is believed that the Greek pantheon owes much to the Minoan religion but difficulties of translation of the Minoan scrits have failed to reveal any identifications. Fraziers identification of Phaedra with Aphrodite is not all that helpful as Aphroditie is more closely associated with Astarte rather than any Minoan dieties.

The article A Clew to the Function of the Minoan Palaces, Joseph Alexander MacGillivray not only lists The goddesses as have been identified but also points out that the sun is important to the Minoans. Because the name of Phaedra is related to the sun she might have been “Mistress of the Sun”. Aphrodite might have been “Mistress of the Sea” in that context.

Bell, in his work “Women of Classical Mythology” reports that the mother of Hippolytus actually interfered with the wedding of Theseus and Phaedra. He also states that Phaedra gave birth to two sons, Acamas and Demophon and her temple to Aphrodite was built in Thrace. Bell also points out that When Phaedra relocated to Troezen the window of her quarters overlooked the stadium in which Hippolytus daily exercised stark naked. The people of Troesen foun d a myrtle with pierced leaves that Phaedra had punched out of frustration. They founded the temple of Artemis Catascopia(spying) on the spot.

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Images of Phaedra

  • Hippolytus and Phaedra
  • Hippolytus 4 drives his chariot. Poseidon’s bull can be seen beneath the horses. 8220: Red-figured volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water) with two zones of decoration. Hippolytus. Apulia c. 340 BC. British Museum, London.
  • Phaedra confiding in her nurse. Pompei, casa di Giasone o dell’Amor fatale (IX 5,18, cubicolo (e). National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
  • LOVESICK PHAIDRA British Museum, London, United Kingdom Catalogue Number: London F272

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Resources

  • Euripides, Hippolytus. One has to wonder at the relation between ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripides and ‘Phaedrus’ by Plato, since the drama probably preceeded the dialog and they touch on the same topic.
  • Ovid deals with Phaedra in his ‘Metamorphosis’ Bk XV:479-546
  • Seneca, ‘Phaedra’
  • Jean Baptiste Racine, ‘Phaedra’. To the legend
    as treated by Euripides, Racine added the love of Hippolytus for
    Aricia, and thus supplied a motive for Phaedra’s jealousy, and at the
    same time he made the nurse instead of Phaedra the calumniator of his
    son to Theseus.
  • Eugene O’Neill, ‘Desire Under the Elms’

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