I am still participating in “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” starring Gregory Nagy and a chorus of enthusiastic teaching assistants. It in a free on-line class from Harvardx. This “Hour” we studied Hippolytus by the Ancient Greek playwright Euripides.
If you don’t know the story; Hippolytus is out about in the suburbs of Ancient Athens. Either he is participating in a major public event or else exercising naked on a remote beach, in either case his stepmother gets an eyeful and falls madly in love. Hippolytus has two problems with her obsessive affection;
1) Well, it is his step-mother!
2) Hippolytus is madly in love with the virginal invisible goddess Artemis.
Hippolytus picks flowers for Artemis and weaves them into a headband for the goddess. Explaining that the blossoms are from “a place where it is not fit for the shepherd to pasture his flocks, nor has iron yet come there, but it is unspoiled” (Euripides Hippolytus 75) The above is an euphemism for an “untrod meadow”. In other words Hippolytus is a virgin. This is a problem among the Ancient Greeks, particularly when Hippolytus forsakes his dutiful worship at the altars of mighty Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex.
Professor Nagy writes in Chapter 20.41 of the textbook “ So, what is the trouble with Hippolytus? The answer is, Hippolytus himself simply cannot make the transition from the phase of virginity into the phase of heterosexuality.” Then at “20§42. “facilitated in the ritual of initiation, leading to social equilibrium, this same transition is blocked in myth (that is the myth of Hippolytus that we studied), leading to personal disequilibrium for the hero and, ultimately, to catastrophe. ” In other words, like Peter Pan, Hippolytus doesn’t want to grow up.
At line 87 the young hero says “That is the same way I should go round the turning post, heading toward the end of life just as I began it.“ He came into this world a virgin and he wants to rather unnaturally to go out that way. The problem is the “turning post”.
As I discussed elsewhere, in the next to last book of the Iliad Nestor gives a very long speak his son Antilokhos on how to win a chariot race. If involves how to turnabout the the turning point. Two thousand and five hundred years of scholarship termed that Nestor’s speech had nothing to do with chariot racing. Neither do Hippolytus’ words.
Hippolytus loves to drive his chariot along the beach practicing his skills as a chariot driver. The turning post is what chariots turnabout during a race or contest. And let’s be honest any time you go anywhere in life, once you go “there” and come back you aren’t the same person. For Hippolytus, his figurative “turning post” would be the move into adulthood and marriage.
Nagy says of Hippolytus’ virginity and relationship with the huntress goddess Artemis at 20.58 “Only Aphrodite allows female and male experiences to merge, but that merger can happen only in the adult world of heterosexuality, not in the pre-adult world represented by Hippolytus.”
One of our lecturers for the hour is Douglas Frame. He says of this Euripides comments on this turning post. “he’s just not explicit about it. There's something called an absent signifier here, which means that the audience isn't being told everything. But the absent signifier is something that you can supply if you just think it through”. As to Hippolytus chariot racing metaphor, Douglas Frames says, “this metaphor at this point, about reaching the end of his life, turning. It's going to be a crash. He doesn't know that yet.”
So his step-mother commits suicide and leaves an accusatory note. Hippolytus whips the horses in hopes of getting away. But his father believing the suicide note curses his son, the horses are freaked by a bull running up out of a wave, Hippolytus is tangled in the reins and dragged to death. Bummer, eh? But after all this is a tragedy.
Now for the good news. Artemis asks her nephew Asclepius to resurrect Hippolytus from the dead. Artemis transplants the now immortal Hippolytus to Italy and gives him the name Virbius to disguise this little trick they played on the fates. As to Artemis’ nephew: Nagy at 20.30 explains “As the story goes, Zeus incinerated Asclepius with his divine thunderbolt.”