On Wednesday I was lucky enough to see a brilliant adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytus by Antic Face at the V&A museum. It is one of my favourite tragedies, mostly because of its memorable female characters, proud but wretched Phaedra and the terrifying goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis. I had not originally planned to put any tragedy on this blog, however this chorus song is one of my favourite moments in Greek poetry. It is a dream of a divine escape from earth, a fantasy of the lands they would reach. However the imagery eventually leads the chorus back down to earth, and the beauty and prosperity of the first strophe are distorted in the portrayal of Phaedra’s wedding and the destruction it will cause.
The tragedy acts out the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. Hippolytus is a virgin and exclusively worships Diana, goddess of virginity, spurning Aphrodite, goddess of love and lust. This infuriates Aphrodite and she has her revenge by forcing Phaedra, Theseus’ husband and Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him. Phaedra tries to hide her love, but eventually reveals her secret to her nurse. The nurse then tells Hippolytus who is enraged and rails against Phaedra and womankind as a whole. Phaedra is overwhelmed by grief and shame and determines to kill herself. It is at this point that the chorus song begins.
In Greek tragedy a chorus is a group of singers and dancers who collectively comment on the dramatic action of the play in their songs. Here they build up the sense of impending doom and horror of what is happening offstage with their idyllic fantasies, a sense that is heightened as the imagery is distorted and the chorus are relentlessly dragged back down to earth.
I wish I could be in the hidden hollows of the high cliffs,
and that there the god would make me a winged bird
among the flying flocks.
I wish I could fly over
the swollen waves of the shore of Adria
and the waters of Eridanus
where the sad maidens
drop their bright amber tears
into the deep-blue swell,
grieving for Phaethon.
And I wish that I could make my way to where the apples grow,
To the shores of the Hesperides, songstresses,
where Poseidon, Lord of the blue sea,
forbids a passage to sailors
marking the holy boundaries of the sky
which Atlas bears.
And there the divine springs flow
by the marriage bed of Zeus.
There the holy earth
graces the gods with prosperity.
Oh white winged ship of Crete,
you who brought my queen
over the roaring waves of the salty ocean.
from her blessed home to her wedding bed,
a joyless joy.
For bad were the omens
under which she flew,
when she left the land of Crete for famous Athens
and when they tied the twisted ropes to the shore of Mounichos,
and stepped upon the mainland’s soil.
And so her mind has been broken
by the terrible sickness of Aphrodite,
an unholy passion.
Drowning in her cruel misfortunes,
she will fasten
from the beams of her bridal chamber
a hanging noose
and slip it round her white throat
ashamed by her hated destiny.
She will choose good repute
and free her soul from the pain of love.
I am heavily influenced by, and in parts directly copying, James Morwoods moving translation (1997).
The song is immediately followed by cries of grief as Phaedra’s body is found. And so Aphrodite’s revenge unfolds. The play ends with the death of Hippolytus, cursed by his father Theseus, who wrongly believed he drove Phaedra to suicide by raping her.
The weeping maidens in the first section are the sisters of Phaethon, also known as the Heliades. Phaethon was the mythical son of Apollo who wanted to drive the chariot of the sun, but found the horses too wild to control and was plunged into the River Eridanus. Zeus, pitying the endless grief of his sisters, transformed them into amber poplar trees. The Hesperides in the second section are nymphs who tend the garden at the end of the world, where sea meets sky. The scenes are mythical and serene, far-removed from earth’s turmoil. Even the grief of the Heliades is ornamental, a part of the beautiful scenery.
However this changes in the second strophe. The chorus describes the Cretan vessel, the ship that took Phaedra from her homeland in Crete to her husband in Athens. The same imagery of wings is used, but the picture is no longer serene. The roaring sea interrupts the peaceful waters of before, and Phaedra is relentlessly sped to her doom.
In the first strophe the colours are rich and shining. The sea is deep blue and the tears of the Hesperides are a radiant amber. Water is an ornamental theme; we see the beautiful colours of the Eridanus, and the holy fountains that bless the gods with prosperity. The emotion adds to the peaceful fantasy of this world, even when it is sad. The grief of the Heliades is not dreadful but distant in its serene beauty. The gods in the garden of the Hesperides are prosperous and blessed, as is the marriage bed of Zeus.
In contrast the only colour in the second strophe white. Water is a far more dangerous element. It is noisy and salty, we can feel it splash our faces as it speeds Phaedra towards Athens. And once there the queen drowns in her misfortunes. The ropes of the ship that carry her foreshadow the noose she will hang from. The wedding bed of Zeus is a happy contrast to the bridal chamber where Phaedra dies. The land of the gods is a distant utopia, but the land of mortals is a harsh and dreadful reality. The chorus’ wish for wings only emphasises anyone’s inability to escape what the gods have planned for them.
Further reading: Padel, R ‘”Imagery of the elsewhere” Two choral odes of Euripides’, CQ 1974.