Phaedra (1880). Alexandre Cabanel. Public domain.
In Greek mythology Phaedra (also called Phaidra and Phedre) , was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae and mother of Acamas and Demophoon. Phaedra was also the sister of King Deucalion of Crete who had formed an alliance with Theseus. Phaedra’s name means ‘bright’ and she became the wife of Theseus after the death of Antiope. Previously Theseus had abandoned the sister of Phaedra who was Ariadne. Theseus had raped and kidnapped Phaedra from Crete where she was a queen of high priestess of Minoan Crete.
Whilst Theseus was away in Thessaly she developed an incestuous desire for, and fell in love with, her stepson Hippolytus. As the son of Theseus and the Queen of the Amazons called Hippolyte, he had scorned and incurred the wrath of Aphrodite by becoming a devotee of the goddess Artemis. For this transgression Aphrodite encouraged Phaedra to fall in love with Hippolytus. During the absence of Theseus Phaedra followed Hippolytus to Troezen and began the notoriety of the story that ended in tragedy for both.
Phaedra conceals her incestuous passion for Hippolytus but her desires are suspected by her old nurse Oenone who persuades her to declare to Hippolytus. Phaedra was also confident in confessing to Hippolytus because of false news concerning the death of Theseus. Many accounts attempt to denigrate Phaedra as the evil step-mother of Hippolytus. Having expressed her feeling in a letter to Hippolytus he came to her room in anger and scorned her approach. He thereupon burned her letter in reproach whilst she tore her clothes and accused him of raping and defiling her.
Phaedra left a message for Theseus accusing Hippolytus of violating her person. Theseus returned and in a fit of anger called upon Poseidon to destroy his own son. Upon the death of Hippolytus in a chariot accident Phaedra committed suicide out of guilt because she had not intended the death of her step-son. She died by hanging, bring her own life to a melancholy end, upon hearing of the tragic and untimely death of Hippolytus.
Phaedra was buried at Troezen and her tomb, which was near the Temple of Aphrodite and recorded by the scholar Pausanias. There is a painting of Phaedra in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The story of Phaedra and Hippolytus is recounted in the Greek play by Euripides called Hippolytus circa 428 BC. Seneca the Younger wrote the Latin play called Phaedra. In 1677 Jean Racine wrote the French play called Phedre which emphasised her role rather than that of Hippolytus. Other literary references are in Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Melina Mercouri in the film Phaedra (1962).
In 1962 a cinema film Phaedra directed by Jules Dessin, starring Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, portrayed the tragedy in brought up to modern times. The haunting theme music gave full expression to the feelings of sagapao, tragodia, expressed in the opening theme Agapi mou (My Love). Recorded versions were the traditional rendition by Mikis Theodorakis, and the orchestral offering my Henri Mancini.
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