Phaedra in Greek Mythology

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In Greek mythology, Phaedra was a legendary character. Details of her tragic story even helped to inspire a play - Hippolytus, which was composed by the great Greek poet and dramatist Euripides. And indeed, it is from this play that we get a sense of the role Phaedra played in myth and legend.

Phaedra was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphae. She was therefore the sister of Ariadne. It is interesting to note that both Phaedra and Ariadne were involved with the same man - the hero Theseus. For, some time after Theseus abandoned Ariadne, he married Ariadne’s younger sister. Unfortunately, neither of the sisters had a successful relationship with Theseus.

Phaedra had the misfortune of falling in love with Hippolytus, the handsome but chaste son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta. Even though Phaedra was Hippolytus’s mother-in-law, this did not prevent her from desiring the young man. In the play Hippolytus, the goddess Aphrodite claims responsibility for making Phaedra the victim of lust. Aphrodite speaks in the prologue:

“Phaedra saw him [Hippolytus]
and her heart was filled with the longings of love.
This was my work.”

(Euripides, Hippolytus)

As much as Phaedra desires the young man, Hippolytus wants nothing to do with his mother-in-law. Naturally, this doomed relationship is the stuff of tragedy. In the play, Phaedra commits suicide, shamed by her inappropriate - and unreciprocated - passion. However, she leaves a note that blames Hippolytus on the grounds of attempted seduction. When Theseus returns from one of his many journeys, he finds his wife dead, and his son apparently is the cause of her demise. In the end, Hippolytus too is killed.

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