The Tragic Allure of Phaedra

Phaedra is a name that conjures up images of passion, betrayal, and tragic love. As we delve into the labyrinthine world of Greek mythology, it’s impossible to overlook this captivating figure. She’s a character who, despite her flaws, has been immortalized in art, literature, and even psychology.

Phaedra Key Facts

ParentsMinos and Pasiphae
Other namesNone
Roman namePhaedra
Best Known MythLove for Hippolytus

Name and Etymology

The name “Phaedra” itself is derived from the Greek word “phaidros,” which means “bright” or “radiant.” It’s a name that carries a certain irony, considering the dark and tumultuous life she led. In Roman mythology, she retains her Greek name, a testament to her enduring legacy across cultures. Various epithets and alternative names are scarce for Phaedra, as her story is so singularly compelling that it overshadows any need for additional monikers.

Myth Phaedra Altemps
Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Phaedra’s Family and Relationships

Born to King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of Crete, Phaedra was destined for a life entangled with myth and legend. Her sister Ariadne is another well-known figure, famous for her role in the tale of the Minotaur and her love for Theseus. Phaedra’s early life is shrouded in the grandeur and complexity of the Cretan court, a place teeming with divine interventions and mythical creatures.

As for matters of the heart, Phaedra was married to Theseus, the heroic king of Athens. However, her life took a tragic turn due to her illicit love for Hippolytus, Theseus’ son from another marriage. This unrequited love would become the catalyst for her ultimate downfall, making her one of the most tragic figures in Greek mythology.

Myths about Phaedra

Phaedra’s story is one of passion, deceit, and tragedy. Her myths, deeply rooted in the annals of Greek mythology, shed light on the complexities of human emotions and the dire consequences of unchecked desires. Let’s delve into some of the most poignant tales associated with this tragic queen:

Phaedra and Hippolytus

The most renowned myth involving Phaedra revolves around her unrequited love for Hippolytus, her stepson. Overwhelmed by a forbidden passion, she finds herself trapped in a web of desire and despair. When Hippolytus rejects her advances, Phaedra, in her anguish, falsely accuses him of violating her to her husband, Theseus. Theseus, believing his wife, invokes a curse upon Hippolytus using one of the three wishes granted to him by Poseidon. This results in Hippolytus meeting a gruesome end, being dragged to death by his own chariot horses. Overwhelmed by guilt and grief, Phaedra takes her own life, leaving behind a legacy of sorrow and regret.

Phaedra’s Love Potion

In some versions of the myth, Phaedra’s infatuation for Hippolytus isn’t a result of her own feelings but is instigated by external forces. It is said that Phaedra was made to fall in love with Hippolytus because of a love potion or a curse. This twist adds another layer of tragedy to the tale, portraying Phaedra as a victim of fate, ensnared by forces beyond her control.

Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Artemis

Hippolytus, the son of Theseus and the Amazonian queen Antiope, was a devoted follower of the virgin goddess Artemis. He revered her above all other deities and dedicated himself to a life of chastity in her honor. This devotion was not just a matter of faith but also a personal choice, as he spurned the advances of all women, choosing instead to immerse himself in the hunt and the wilderness, domains closely associated with Artemis.

Artemis, in turn, favored Hippolytus, granting him prowess in hunting and protecting him in the wild. Their bond was one of mutual respect and admiration, with Hippolytus often offering sacrifices and singing praises in her sacred groves.

However, this unwavering devotion to Artemis came at a cost. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, felt slighted by Hippolytus’ rejection of romantic love and his disdain for her domain. In some versions of the myth, it is this scorn from Hippolytus that leads Aphrodite to instigate Phaedra’s overwhelming and unnatural passion for her stepson as a form of divine retribution.

When the tragic events unfold — Phaedra’s false accusation and Hippolytus’ subsequent death — Artemis is said to have revealed the truth to Theseus. She explains Phaedra’s deceit and Aphrodite’s role in the tragedy, ensuring that Hippolytus’ name is cleared, even if posthumously.

Phaedra’s Legacy

Beyond her immediate tale, Phaedra’s legacy lives on in the myths and legends of her descendants. Her children by Theseus, Demophon and Acamas, play pivotal roles in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Demophon, in particular, has a brief romantic involvement with Briseis after the fall of Troy, while Acamas aids in the rescue of Helen alongside Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Depiction and Characteristics

Phaedra is often depicted as a beautiful but tormented woman, caught in the web of her own desires. She doesn’t have specific symbols associated with her, but her story itself has become emblematic of forbidden love and tragic fate. In terms of personality, she’s complex; a blend of vulnerability and cunning, passion and despair.

Representations of Phaedra in Art

The story of Phaedra has inspired countless artists throughout history. From ancient frescoes to Renaissance paintings, her image is one of haunting beauty and tragic love. One of the most famous artworks featuring Phaedra is “Phaedra and Hippolytus” by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, which captures the tension and tragedy of their relationship.

Phaedra and Hippolytus
Jozef Geirnaert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mentions in Ancient Texts

Phaedra’s tale has been immortalized in various ancient texts, each offering a unique perspective on her life, her passions, and her tragic end. Let’s delve into some of the most significant mentions:

Euripides’ “Hippolytus” (428 BC)

Euripides, one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, penned “Hippolytus” which centers around Phaedra’s forbidden love for her stepson. The play delves deep into the complexities of human emotions and the consequences of unbridled passion. Quote: “Love, unconquerable Waster of rich men, keeper of warm lights by night and watcher by the door.”

Seneca’s “Phaedra” (1st Century AD)

The Roman philosopher and dramatist, Seneca, reimagined Phaedra’s story in his own play titled “Phaedra.” His version is darker, emphasizing the destructive nature of obsessive love and the moral decay it can bring about. Quote: “Great crimes follow great desires.”

Plutarch’s “Life of Theseus” (Late 1st Century AD)

Plutarch, a Greek biographer, and essayist, in his work “Life of Theseus,” provides a detailed account of Theseus’ life, including his marriage to Phaedra and the subsequent events that led to the tragedy. This work offers a more historical perspective, grounding the myth in the context of the times. Quote: “For often in human affairs there is a divine element, and a slight cause may lead to a great disaster.”

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (8 AD)

Ovid, the renowned Roman poet, touches upon Phaedra’s story in his magnum opus “Metamorphoses.” His poetic narrative weaves together myths and legends, and in it, Phaedra’s tale is but one of the many tragic love stories that highlight the capricious nature of the gods and the fates of mortals they toy with.

Frequently Asked Questions

What led to Phaedra’s downfall?

Her unrequited love for Hippolytus and the subsequent false accusation led to her tragic end.

Was she a real person?

Phaedra is a character from Greek mythology, not a historical figure.

How is she related to the Trojan War?

She is not directly related to the Trojan War. However, her husband Theseus is linked to heroes like Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Who were her parents?

She was the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of Crete.

Did she have any children?

No, she did not have any children.

What is her Roman name?

Her Roman name is also Phaedra.

Featured Image Credit: Jastrow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of which has been merged with She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.