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Phaedra (mythology)

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Queen of Athens
Member of the Crete Royal Family
AbodeCrete, later Athens
ParentsMinos and Pasiphae or Crete
SiblingsCatreus, Ariadne, Androgeus, Xenodice, Acacallis, Glaucus and Deucalion; the Minotaur
OffspringAcamas and Demophon

In Greek mythology, Phaedra /ˈfdrə, ˈfɛdrə/ (Ancient Greek: Φαίδρα, Phaidra) (or Fedra) was a Cretan princess. Her name derives from the Greek word φαιδρός (phaidros), which means "bright". According to legend, she was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, and the wife of Theseus. Phaedra fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus. After he rejected her advances, she accused him of trying to rape her, causing Theseus to pray to Poseidon to kill Hippolytus (which Poseidon does), and then she killed herself.

The story of Phaedra is told in Euripides' play Hippolytus, Seneca the Younger's Phaedra, and Ovid's Heroides. It has inspired many modern works of art and literature, including a play by Jean Racine.


Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë of Crete, and thus sister to Acacallis, Ariadne, Androgeus, Deucalion, Xenodice, Glaucus and Catreus and half-sister to the Minotaur. She was the wife of Theseus and the mother of Demophon of Athens and Acamas.


Hippolytus, Phaedra and nurse, antique fresco in Herculaneum

Much of what we know about the mythology and story of Phaedra is from a collection of plays and poems. Many of these earlier sources such as Phaedra, a play by Sophocles, and Hippolytus Veiled, a play by Euripides, have been lost. However, works such as Phaedra, written by Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca the Younger, and the Heroides, a collection of poems written by Ovid, give details of the story. As a result there are many different versions of the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, but they all share the same general structure, with two versions becoming more prominent over time. Version 1 depicts Phaedra as the shameless and lustful wife of Theseus, the King of Athens. The other version, Version 2, shows Phaedra in a much kinder light, as a noble and virtuous queen, yet each has a similarly tragic ending.

Traditional version[edit]

Hippolytus after the confession of Phaedra by Étienne-Barthélémy Garnier; Musée Ingres, Montauban

In the more traditional version of the story, Phaedra is the primary cause of misfortune in the tale. The story goes that Phaedra, who was the mother of two sons, Acamas and Demophon, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, Theseus's son by another woman (born to either Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, or Antiope, her sister) and sets out to entice him. It is unclear in this version exactly why Hippolytus rejects Phaedra, if not simply because he is her stepson, but Phaedra becomes humiliated when Hippolytus refuses her.

Afraid of the consequences that may befall her if Theseus learns about her actions, she lies to her husband that Hippolytus tried to rape her. This angers Theseus who immediately curses his son with one of three wishes granted to him by Poseidon, the god of the sea. At the request of Theseus to kill Hippolytus, the god summons a huge bull that rises from the sea and scares Hippolytus's horses into a frenzy that drags the rider to his death. In one rendition of the story Hippolytus's name is translated to "the one who is torn apart by horses".

In the end Phaedra's treachery is somehow discovered (it is unclear how), and to avoid a more painful death, she decides to take her own life.

Alternative version[edit]

In this version of the story, Phaedra has a reputation as a virtuous queen and is not entirely responsible for her actions. She gets caught in the crossfire between Hippolytus and Aphrodite the goddess of love. This narrative requires a little background on an earlier conflict between Hippolytus and Aphrodite. Hippolytus is a devout follower of Artemis the goddess of the hunt and, among other things, the goddess of chastity. As a result he hails her as the greatest of all deities and in a show of devotion to honor the goddess, Hippolytus vows eternal chastity, swearing that he will never love or marry. This offends Aphrodite who is regularly worshipped by all in Greek mythology, and in an attempt to punish Hippolytus, the goddess of love curses his stepmother Phaedra to fall madly in love with him.

Death of Fedra; 2nd century sarcophagus, Santa Maria delle Vigne, Genoa

Phaedra becomes distraught and depressed for several months due to "dreadful longings" for Hippolytus. Eventually, unable to tolerate the burden of her suffering in silence, she confides in her nurse and shares her feelings towards Hippolytus. The nurse concerned about her mistress's health tells Hippolytus about how Phaedra feels. Bound by his oath of abstinence Hippolytus rejects his stepmother. When Phaedra learns of her nurse's actions, she fears the consequences of her immoral desires and plans to commit suicide. But before doing so, she writes a letter to her husband Theseus accusing Hippolytus of attempting to seduce her in an attempt to clear her name and possibly protect her children from misfortune.

Similar to the ending of Version 1, once Theseus reads Phaedra's letter and learns of his son's supposed sins, he prays to Poseidon to kill his son. And in a very similar fashion to the first tale, Poseidon summons a huge bull to scare Hippolytus's horses into a wild frenzy that kills him. However in this version of the narrative, the story does not end there. Artemis is saddened by the loss of her devout follower and reveals the truth to Theseus about Aphrodite and the curse she placed on his wife. The story ends with Theseus grieving over the death of his wife and son.

The Death of Hippolytus (1860) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Other versions of the story[edit]

In another version, after Phaedra told Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her, Theseus killed his son, and Phaedra then committed suicide out of guilt, for she had not intended Hippolytus to die. Artemis later told Theseus the truth.

In a fourth version, Phaedra told Theseus and did not kill herself; Dionysus then sent a wild bull which terrified Hippolytus's horses.

Euripides twice placed this story on the Athenian stage, of which one version survives.

According to some sources, Hippolytus had spurned Aphrodite to remain a steadfast and virginal devotee of Artemis, and Aphrodite made Phaedra fall in love with him as a punishment. The Athenians maintained a small shrine high on the south slope of the Acropolis devoted to Aphrodite 'for Hippolytus'.[1]

In one version, Phaedra's nurse told Hippolytus of her love, and he swore he would not reveal her as a source of information.

Cultural influence[edit]

Phaedra has been the subject of many notable works in art, literature, music and film.

In art[edit]

Phaedra with an attendant, probably her nurse, a fresco from Pompeii, 60–20 BC

In literature[edit]

Phaedra's story appears in many acclaimed works of literature, including:

  • Euripides, Hippolytus, Greek play
  • Ovid, Heroides IV
  • Seneca the Younger, Phaedra, Latin play
  • Jean Racine, Phèdre (1677), French play
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne, Phaedra (1866), English lyrical drama
  • Herman Bang, Fædra (1883), Danish novel.
  • Gabriele D'Annunzio, Fedra (1909), Italian play
  • Miguel de Unamuno, Fedra (1911), Spanish play
  • Eugene O'Neill, Desire Under the Elms (1924), American play
  • Marina Tsvetaeva, Fedra (1928), Russian play
  • Robinson Jeffers, Cawdor (1928), English long poem
  • Marguerite Yourcenar, "Phaedra", short story from Fires (1957)
  • Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea (1962), English novel
  • Frank D. Gilroy, That Summer, That Fall (1967), retelling of Phaedra and Hippolytus
  • Tony Harrison, Phaedra Britannica (1975), English verse play
  • Salvador Espriu, Fedra (1978), Catalan play
  • Per Olov Enquist, Till Fedra (1980), Swedish play
  • Sarah Kane, Phaedra's Love (1996), Gate Theatre London
  • Charles L. Mee, True Love (2001), modernized adaptation of Euripides's Hippolytus and Racine's Phèdre
  • Frank McGuinness, Phaedra (Donmar Warehouse, 2006)
  • Ted Hughes, Phedre FSG, c1998, Drama/Classics, ISBN 978-0-374-52616-0
  • Jennifer Saint, Ariadne (2021), which alternates chapters narrated by the title character and Phaedra

In music[edit]

Phaedra is also the subject of a number of musical works, including:

In film[edit]


  1. ^ Kerényi, Karl (1959). The heroes of the Greeks. Thames and Hudson. p. 243. OCLC 681148657.
  2. ^ Swetnam-Burland, Molly (2015). "Encountering Ovid's Phaedra in House V.2.10–11, Pompeii". American Journal of Archaeology. 119 (2): 217–232. doi:10.3764/aja.119.2.0217. JSTOR 10.3764/aja.119.2.0217. S2CID 191820393.
  3. ^ Abigail, Dupree (2017). Phaedra: Empathy for a Disloyal Wife in Roman Painting and Poetry (Thesis). doi:10.17615/xp3z-7r92.
  4. ^ "Phèdre (Massenet, Jules) - IMSLP: Free Sheet Music PDF Download". imslp.org. Retrieved 2023-03-20.
  5. ^ Fedra (Dramma mitologico dell'Antica Grecia) (1909) at IMDb
  6. ^ Phädra (TV 1967) at IMDb
  7. ^ "Phèdre (1968) - IMDb". IMDb.


External links[edit]