In Greek mythology, Hippolyta or Hippolyte (Ἱππολύτη) is the Amazonian queen who possessed a magical girdle she was given by her father Ares, the god of war. The girdle was a waist belt that signified her authority as queen of the Amazons.
Origin and character
Hippolyta appears in the myth of Heracles. It was her girdle that Heracles was sent to retrieve for Admeta, the daughter of king Eurystheus, as his ninth labor.
When Heracles landed the Amazons received him warmly and Hippolyta came to his ship to greet him. Upon hearing his request, she agreed to let him take the girdle. Hera, however, was not pleased, as was often the case with Heracles. To stop him, Hera came down to the Amazons disguised as one of their own and ran through the land, crying that Heracles meant to kidnap their queen. Probably remembering all too well what Theseus had done, the Amazons charged toward the ship to save Hippolyta. Fearing that Hippolyta had betrayed him, Heracles kisses her for about two minutes then hastily killed her, ripped the girdle from her lifeless body, and set sail, narrowly escaping the raging warriors.
An alternate story of Hippolyta's death involved her sister, Penthesilea. Penthesilea had killed Hippolyta with a spear by accident when they were hunting deer; this accident caused Penthesilea so much grief that she wished only to die, but, as a warrior and an Amazon, she had to do so honorably and in battle. She therefore was easily convinced to join in the Trojan War, fighting on the side of Troy's defenders, where she was killed by Achilles, who almost immediately afterward regretted doing so.
After Heracles obtained the girdle, Theseus, one of Heracles' companions (along with Sthenelus and Telamon), kidnapped Antiope, another sister of Hippolyta. The Amazons then attacked the party (because Heracles' enemy Hera has spread a vicious rumour that Heracles was there to attack them or to kidnap Hippolyta), but Heracles and Theseus escaped with the girdle and Antiope. According to one version, Heracles killed Hippolyta as they fled. In order to rescue Antiope, the Amazons attacked Athens but failed, with Antiope dying in the onslaught in some versions.
Hippolyta and Theseus
Hippolyta first encounters Theseus, king of Athens, who was accompanying Heracles on his quest against the Amazons. When Theseus first arrived at the land of the Amazon they expected no malice, and so Hippolyta came to his ship bearing gifts. Once she was aboard Theseus abducted her and made her his wife. Thereafter Theseus and a pregnant Hippolyta returned to Athens. Theseus' brazen act sparked an Amazonomachy, a great battle between the Athenians and Amazons.
Though Hippolyta gave birth to a son, Hippolytus, to Theseus, she was cast off when Theseus courted Phaedra. Scorned, Hippolyta went back to the Amazons, while Hippolytus had problems of his own with his new stepmother.
In one version, Hippolyta's death is a direct result of Theseus' marriage to Phaedra. With an army of Amazons behind her, Hippolyta returned to Athens and stormed into the wedding of Theseus and Phaedra. She declared that anyone partaking in the festivities would perish, but in the melee that ensued she was killed, either accidentally by Penthesileia or by Theseus' men.
Some sources paint Theseus in a more favorable light, saying that Hippolyta was dead before he and Phaedra were wed.
Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream
In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hippolyta is engaged to Theseus, the duke of Athens.
In Act I, scene i Hippolyta and Theseus discuss their fast-approaching wedding, which will take place under the new moon in four days. Theseus declares to Hippolyta that, although he "wooed her with his sword" (which probably occurred when Theseus met the queen of the Amazons in battle), he will wed her "with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling" and he promises to begin a celebration that will continue until the wedding (I.i.19).
Hippolyta is then fairly absent in the play, appearing only with Theseus and very rarely speaking, and only then in an insignificant manner. This continues until Act V, scene I, in which she and Theseus discuss the preceding events, namely the magical romantic confusions that the Athenian youths report from the night before. While Theseus is skeptical about the veracity of their tale, Hippolyta questions whether they would all have the same story if the night's adventures were indeed imagined. Rather, she argues, the youths' agreement on the way the night's events unfolded proves that things occurred just as they say. This is close to her final significant contribution to the play.
The fact that Hippolyta stands up to Theseus when she disagrees with him in Act V is extremely significant. In Shakespeare's time, it was common practice for the wife to be the submissive, silent partner in a relationship. Hippolyta's role in her relationship with Theseus is indeed striking.
Ellen Rogers of Madonna University delves further into the significance of Hippolyta's role in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She states that the play is unusual in its portrayal of strong women, perhaps the most extreme case being that of the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. In the Elizabethan age in which women are dependent on men, Hippolyta comes from a tribe of incredibly strong empowered women. Not only this, but she is the leader of this group in which men are actually dependent on the fearless women who protect them.
Rogers argues that Shakespeare uses the character of Hippolyta to enlighten his audience, who probably had negative preconceptions about the Amazonian race. As Louis Mont rose notes: "Amazonian mythology seems symbolically to embody and to control a collective anxiety about the power of a female not only to dominate or reject the male but to create and destroy him." However, Hippolyta attracts Theseus with her feminine allure and charm, to such a degree that Theseus is completely smitten with her. Despite her forceful nature, she becomes the object of Theseus' passion. Rogers states that by marrying Hippolyta, Theseus is laying down his sword, "the weapon which gave him power and authority over her," and essentially surrendering to her. By the end of the play, Hippolyta has actually added to her power, becoming the queen of a new realm, Athens.
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