Hippolytus: Asexuality and Ancient Greece
“Phèdre et Hippolyte” (1802), by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin / Wikimedia Commons
Classical discussions often get caught between that problematic binary of social constructionism vs essentialism.
By Dr. Chris Mowat / 05.17.2018
Visiting Fellow in Classics
Myth was a great tool with which the ancient Greeks were able to think about themselves and their place in the world, and this is something that continues to the present day. There is something about finding yourself, or even just a part of yourself, in a story, and especially in a story that has been told over and again for thousands of years. It can help you think through yourself and your identity, the good bits and the bad.
When it comes to studies of identity, especially sexuality, Classical discussions often get caught between that problematic binary of social constructionism vs essentialism – can we use terms like “homosexual” and “asexual” for ancient identities? It is possible to categorise ancient people in our terms at all? But Classics can still be useful for thinking through modern identities, how we see ourselves and others, regardless of how Euripides, say, would identify his Hippolytus.
As an asexual person, I find that people often “don’t really get it” when it comes to my sexuality, and there are a lot of modern myths that seem to float around: “it’s a medical problem”, “you’re just saving yourself for the right person, prude”, “does that mean you clone yourself?” – and, more often than I realise, people actually ask “what does that mean?” so I have to give the really clinical response of “asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to men, women or non-binary people”. But honestly that feels like it doesn’t really explain anything.
So here is a personal take on Hippolytus, using the Greek myth to do a little modern myth-busting of my own. Walking through the plot of Euripides’ play gives opportunity to spin off with personal experiences and some responses to the assumptions people frequently have about asexuality.
To begin with a dramatis personae of sorts: Hippolytus is the son of Theseus, the mythical king and founder of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazon warrior women, after he defeated her in battle. (The keen Shakespearean will have noticed these are, in fact, the same Theseus and Hippolyta of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The son, then, represents in many respects a joining of binary opposites, but despite his gender and his upbringing in the city, he very much takes after his mother, with an interest in hunting and the wilds over urban and social structures. Importantly, he dedicates himself to Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, who rejects sexuality and sexual encounters.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Death of Hippolytus (1860) / Wikimedia Commons
Hippolytus and Artemis give us a chance to explore our first asexual myth:
MYTH 1: “Asexuality just means virginity”
When I come out, I sometimes get a response along the lines of “asexual? you just haven’t tried it”. But, again, asexuality is just the lack of sexual attraction, desire and/or interest, whilst virginity is just not having had sex. You can be both – of course – but that doesn’t mean they are the same thing. You can be heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual/whatever, and be a virgin, and so equally you can be asexual and have had sex. It doesn’t invalidate the identity. You can be asexual and have sex on a regular basis, it is not an “ability” based identity, it is just the lack of desire.
There are various women (and goddesses) who remain virgins in Greek myth and society, for a number of different reasons, but interestingly Hippolytus is the only male virgin in Greek mythology, at least as far as I am aware. So, although we can’t necessarily ascribe any identity to Hippolytus, it says a lot, I think, about expectations of masculinity and sexuality.
The play itself, then, starts with Aphrodite, goddess of love, telling how she is upset because a certain son of Theseus is not paying her due respect or honour. “He scorns the bed of love, rejecting wedlock”, instead choosing to spend his days hunting with his favourite deity Artemis (all translations are taken from John Davie’s Penguin translation, 1996). She isn’t jealous (apparently), but she is angered by his insults towards her, and so intends to punish him. How? She makes Phaedra, Theseus’ second wife and Hippolytus’ step-mum, fall in love with him. So now, whilst Theseus is away, the scene is set for love and fate to basically ruin everyone’s life.
Aphrodite’s upset is confirmed by the first conversation between Hippolytus and his servant, as they enter the stage, fresh from a hunt. His servant asks “why don’t you pay your respects to a proud goddess?” to which our main character replies “I keep my distance when I greet her; I am pure”. The Greek religious category of “purity”, does not map precisely onto our own categories of purity, but Hippolytus’ self-aggrandising leads us to our second asexual myth:
MYTH 2: “Asexuals think they are better than allosexuals”
(“allosexual” being a shorthand for non-asexual people.)
Now, let’s start by breaking this down: firstly, generalisations are bad. Not all asexuals have the same experience/feelings, and I can’t speak for us all. That being said, I think it is fairly safe to say that the majority of people, regardless of sexuality, are not basing their identity on any idea of competition, but instead just trying to be themselves.
The second point to make on this myth is that, regardless of any sexuality (or gender), there is nothing wrong with either “saving yourself” or “playing around”. The problem here is that we as a society slut-shame (particularly women and female-presenting people), as well as virgin-shame (particularly men and male-presenting people). When it comes to what someone else is doing or not doing, people will always talk — they do little else — but this has nothing to do with attraction.
A nice addendum to this myth is the next conversation to take place in the play: once Hippolytus and his entourage leave the stage, on comes Phaedra with her nurse trying to figure out what is wrong. For three days she has “kept her body pure of Demeter’s grain”, an interesting — though fatal — parallel to Hippolytus’ own claim of purity. The nurse, eventually discovering that it is lovesickness that has overcome her mistress, is at first shocked but eventually comes around to the idea, essentially suggesting Phaedra face her problems head on, quite literally, and follow through on her desires. Phaedra is shocked at the proposition on account of decency — this is, after all, her step-son! — but the Nurse tells her simply that “pride it is, pure and simple, wishing to set yourself above the gods”. The heterosexual Phaedra, then, is as trapped by societal comments on her choices to have or not have sex as the asexual Hippolytus.
Moving on, rather than following her mistress’ wishes of secrecy, the Nurse immediately goes and shares the revelation with Hippolytus. His response is intense. He places the blame for sexual indecency on the shoulders of women entirely, imagining a world where men would be “free” from women, the propagation of the race done through simply buying offspring at the temple. “Never will I have my fill of hating women” he exclaims in a huff. Euripides, in his characterisation of Hippolytus, has here sprung our third asexual myth:
MYTH 3: “You’re not asexual, you are just misogynist/misandrist/gay and in denial”
This is one I unfortunately hear quite a lot, though if I’m quite honest I don’t really know where it comes from. It is quite hateful, and acephobic, when people invalidate my sexuality, and then add insult to injury when they justify it by saying I’m the hateful one. I am not saying that misogynists, misandrists and homophobes (of all sexualities and genders) do not exist, but it is quite a negative way to attribute identity. Is a gay man gay simply because he is a misogynist? Is a lesbian just a misandrist?
(As an aside: “gay and in denial” is a personal favourite of mine, as I sit here writing a blog post about queer identity for an LGBT-themed blog…)
After this outburst, Hippolytus storms off and Phaedra, rejected and disgraced, commits suicide off-stage. Just at this moment, Theseus returns home to find his household in disarray. Along with her body, Theseus finds a note, in Phaedra’s handwriting, claiming that she killed herself because Hippolytus took advantage of her while Theseus was away. The king reacts quickly and aggressively: he immediately curses his son, asking that his own godly father, Poseidon, end his life before the end of the day. On top of that, Hippolytus is banished from Athens, for those few hours he has left.
When our problematic protagonist returns, asking what all this commotion is about, the king launches into a tirade of his own, paralleling Hippolytus’ earlier misogyny: “young men — I speak from experience — are just as unstable as women whenever the Cyprian stirs up their youthful hearts; but it is to their advantage that they are male”. A curiously modern recognition of male privilege (even if he goes no way to change the situation), though again this comes from a similar place as the other assumptions of the third asexual myth. “But all men want sex…” people often begin; well, consider this a positive use of the hashtag #NotAllMen.
Hippolytus’ attempt to defend himself against Phaedra’s accusation of rape gives us an interesting insight into ancient asexuality, and ancient sexuality more generally in my opinion. “And there is one thing I have never touched — just where you fancy now you have me caught: to this day I remain a virgin. Of the act of love I know only what I hear in accounts or see portrayed, for being virgin in heart, I have no urge even to look at these things.” Regardless of whether we can use modern terms like “asexual” to map ancient identities, here is a clear-as-day self-identification of ‘someone who has no urge for sexual activity’, which, whether we call it “asexual” or not, is completely relatable, at least from my modern asexual perspective. More broadly, this is a reminder that sexuality, in many ways, relates back to desires (or “urges”, in Euripides’ language); and, regardless of what it means to be a-, homo-, hetero- or bisexual, the variety of “urges” has always been there. Regardless of people’s responses, following Myth 3, I’m not broken, or weird, or new, or “just being post-modern” (and neither are you).
Despite Hippolytus’ claims, Theseus is unrelenting. It is an unfortunately relatable response that the identity is dismissed as soon as there is anything that looks like evidence to the contrary, and this is our fourth asexual myth:
MYTH 4: “You’re not asexual, because you do [whatever activity]”
People conflate “acts” with “identities”, as though there is one singular way to “be” an identity. Once you appear to step outside the (apparently self-imposed) box, the reaction sounds like you have been caught out: “aha! I thought you said you were asexual!”, as though the whole identity was a lie, the set up to an ulterior motive. This is true for a whole host of identities, beyond sexuality, but I think there are certain minorities, particularly lesser known or relatable identities, which are often dismissed even at the assumption of evidence to the contrary — and that is exactly what the king is doing here. It is easy to imagine a Theseus who may have initially appeared to accept Hippolytus’ asexual tendencies, but secretly waiting for his son to trip up and reveal his “true colours”.
The exiled Hippolytus is escorted offstage by his former hunting companions. Not long after, a messenger comes to tell Theseus that his son has been struck down. A tidal wave sprung from the ocean, which frightened the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot and the bolted, pulling him over and trampling him. As a brief aside, it is interesting to note that this is the moment that post-classical artwork likes to recreate – the death of the queer transgressor.
In the play’s conclusions, Artemis appears to Theseus, revealing everything to the king: Phaedra’s love, the false accusation, the fact that he hastily killed his own son the moment he suspected he had been wronged… But also that this was all part of Aphrodite’s plan, that she – Love – is the real villain of the piece, and thus the Huntress was powerless to intervene.
Overall, it is a pretty grim story (it is, after all, Greek tragedy). It is a tale of morality, a tale of tempers, but also, as I hope I have shown, a tale of asexuality, and some of the assumptions people make about those of us who identify as asexual. I want to end on one last myth, which is covered by the whole of the play:
MYTH 5: “Asexuality is a modern invention”
The word, as an identity, may be so, but sexual diversity is a wide-ranging thing, and we have been around as long as anyone else, and have a right to our identity. We’re here, we’re queer, and we would like to not be trampled by horses, please.
Originally published by NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.