Friday, March 18, 2011

A Note on Theseus, Pirithous, and Phaedra from Ovid's Heroides

In my research on Theseus' paternity, I was reading Ovid's Heroides. In particular, I was taking a look at Phaedra's letter to Hippolytus, where I came across this particular gem as part of her appeal to her step-son to give in and have a love affair with her:
The hero son of Neptune is absent now, in happy hour, and will be absent long; he is kept by the shores of his dear Pirithous. Theseus – unless, indeed, we refuse to own what all may see – has come to love Pirithous more than Phaedra, Pirithous more than you. Nor is that the only wrong we suffer at his hand; there are deep injuries we both have had from him. 
Alexandre Cabanel Phèdre
A lovesick Phaedra
Yowza, Phaedra. Not pulling any punches there, are we?

What's interesting to me, is that Ovid's commentary doesn't put the emphasis on the sexuality, so much as how Theseus has neglected his wife and child in favor of spending time with his best friend. That's the true wrong that Phaedra is suffering from in this passage. Ovid paints Phaedra as a jealous wife, feeling ignored and throwing out spiteful accusations about where Theseus is having his needs met, if not in her bed.

Of course Theseus' track record with women tells us a lot about his relationship with Phaedra, too. You know that if he was off with Pirithous for extended periods he was coming home with new ah, consorts, lifted from raids on neighboring and unallied lands. Theseus is a man who loves women a little bit too much, not unlike Heracles, and somehow I really doubt he was keeping that enjoyment any kind of secret from his wife. Certainly it isn't any secret to us, today. But that wouldn't have been unusual for that time period-- women were prizes, and having a wife would never stop a man from taking another as a consort. Homer makes that very clear in the Iliad.

But I'm still left wondering: Is this Ovid's view of the ancient Greek hero, as a Roman stereotyping (and maybe even slandering) Greeks, OR is this just an illustration of Phaedra's character as a spiteful woman talking smack about her husband?


  1. So....Phaedra is jealous of Theseus' bromance with his BFF Pirithous, and is trying to make Theseus son by another marriage take her side against him?

    Phaedra sounds like she needs a girls night. :P

  2. Not JUST take her side-- she's trying to seduce Hippolytus to be her LOVER by arguing that Theseus is out getting it on with Pirithous and doesn't care about EITHER of them anymore.

    I would guess Phaedra needs some more quality time with her husband more than she needs a girl's night-- I expect girls nights are about all she's had!

  3. See, that's the other angle I was going to go with. Theseus and Pirithous might be having more of a romance than a bromance, and Phaedra's jealousy has more substance. But if that's the case, then quality time with her husband might not solve the problem :P'''

    What's CRAZY to me is that, Hippolytus would even CONSIDER being his stepmom's lover!

  4. Hippolytus didn't ever consider it! Which is good for him! But he still took the blame, by some accounts.

    And I might be prejudiced, but all the information I've seen regarding Theseus and Pirithous is that they were "like brothers" but I think that Ovid was looking to color things a little bit more offensively, by making something of it, and in the process, insult the Greeks on the whole, though by that time, the Greeks would have frowned on it, too.

    BUT. it would not be the first time a relationship of more than just bromance had been read back into a pair of Greek heroes who were tight-knit, so I shouldn't have been surprised to come across it. See: Patroclus and Achilles. There isn't any support in the Iliad for their romance, but later writers created one for them.

  5. Ohhhh see, I thought Hippolytus went for it!!!

    Theseus and Pirithous went through a lot together-- I can certainly see how feelings beyond friendship/brotherhood could have formed-- but then again, with the womanizing that Theseus is kind of famous (notorious?) for, this doesn't strike as true to me either. I think Ovid wanted to make more of it than there really was.

    I'll have to google Patroclus and Achilles! I haven't heart that angle for those two!

  6. It seems strange to me that Theseus would go to so much trouble over women if he preferred men, generally speaking. I could see if it was a just Pirithous thing, maybe, but I just don't see the support for it in the texts anywhere else, or on Pirithous' side. If their relationship was that of two brothers, it makes it kind of extra creepy if they DID have that kind of relationship, just like it would be extra creepy if he was um, doing his sister.

  7. Yes. All in all, Phaedra was a troublemaker, if nothing else. Whether or not her husband WAS in a relationship with his friend, she should've left his son out of it!

  8. She was a troublemaker, but she was put up to it by Aphrodite because the goddess was mad that Hippolytus refused HER first, and dedicated himself to Artemis, and everybody got totally screwed :(

    It's just a sad story all around.

  9. Indeed. :(

    Super fun discussion!!


  10. Interesting discussion.

    I do wonder how much of the sexual preference-discussion is something we interpret into these stories from today's point of view. Just how liberal were the greeks (or the romans, for that matter) about who shared who's bed? Zeus certainly didn't seem opposed to a bit of or at least had an interest in it (I'm thinking of his cupbearer, here).

    Maybe Theseus was an equal-opportunity kind of lover, maybe Ovid was just being a roman amongst greeks, so to speak. But I can't help thinking of the stories of Alexander the Great, and HIS "BFF"... it seems this 'bromance'/'romance' thing was a common theme at the time...

    Then again, Ovid's prejudice together with Phaedre's jealousy certainly make sense, too.


  11. Blake:

    Absolutely there is a lot being read backwards into the texts-- Not unlike how people suggested that Frodo and Sam had some kind of bromance-romance going on, after the movies came out (and obviously that was not Tolkien's intention at all. He was trying to recapture the bonds between the men who had gone to war together, but people -- at least those who I heard making comments about it-- were made uncomfortable by the closeness of the relationships of the men in that movie).

    And the Greeks, in particular the Spartans and the Athenians both were societies with very, VERY strong male bonds. In Athens there was also the tradition of an older man taking a younger male for a lover-- though by Classical Athens, it was being criticized, if not outright frowned upon-- and in Sparta the men were totally isolated from the women until they hit 30, spending their time with their fellow soldiers in barracks instead, where they developed very strong relationships with one another, to the point where they often seemed to have preferred the barracks to their wife (after they had won her).

    It makes perfect sense for a culture which accepts and even nurtures bromantic/romantic relationships between men to insert it into their mythology to reflect there values. And also for a culture which does not accept or nurture that kind of relationship to disparage the society and culture of the myths by pointing to it, unfortunately. And it is the latter which Ovid is most likely doing. Though the Romans borrowed a lot from the Greeks, they did NOT find same-sex relationships acceptable, but by the time of ROMAN Greece, there was not a lot of that going on anymore ACCEPTABLY in Athens, at least. I'm not certain about Sparta or other cities.

    I haven't seen even the vaguest suggestion anywhere else of that kind of relationship (when Pirithous and Theseus are discussed they are always referred to as brothers, with this exception), and I think I've done more research on Theseus at this point than I have Thor (which is saying a LOT).

    Basically, this is most likely a Roman stereotype of the Greek tradition, being picked at/on by Ovid.


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