Hippolyta: Wonder Woman of Myth
By Danièle Cybulskie
With the new film version of Wonder Woman, popular interest in Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, has once again been piqued. In Wonder Woman’s origin story, her mother Hippolyta rules the hidden island of Themiscyra, aided by her sister, Antiope. In Ancient Greece, however, Hippolyta’s place in myth was multifaceted and varied from teller to teller, making it hard to pin it down definitively. Here are a few versions of this legendary queen’s story.
Several renditions of the legend introduce Hippolyta as queen of the Amazons when Hercules performs twelve labours to atone for the divine madness that led him to kill his own family. Hercules’ ninth labour is to bring back the girdle of Hippolyta, given to her by her father, Ares, as a reward for being the best warrior of her people. Although Hippolyta welcomes Hercules with generosity, Hera fatally intervenes. Appollodorus says,
Having put in at the harbour of Themiscyra, [Hercules] received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away….
Elsewhere, Appollodorus and Plutarch say that Hippolyta was carried off by Theseus during a war with the Amazons (with or without Hercules). In these accounts, the queen’s name is said to have been either Hippolyta or Antiope. Isocrates suggests that Hippolyta went willingly with Theseus, turning against her own people, but Pausanias says this was Antiope. According to Pausanias, Antiope was the sister of Hippolyta, and while Antiope was captured by Theseus, Hippolyta escaped, dying of a broken heart far from home. “The shape of her tomb” in Megara, he says, “is like an Amazonian shield.”
In the legends in which Theseus captures Hippolyta, whether or not there is an official marriage, Hippolyta gives birth to a son – Hippolytus – before she is killed, sometimes as a consequence of Theseus’ lust for Phaedra. (Phaedra, in turn, destroys Hippolytus and herself as a consequence of her own fatal lust.) The marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta may have its rosiest interpretation in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although even this version isn’t all that sunny. After all, Theseus says,
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries,
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling. (1.1.17-20)
Although not much is said of her exploits as a warrior, the understanding that threads through all the stories of Hippolyta is that she is a formidable warrior, a worthy opponent of Hercules or Theseus. The Amazons are always depicted as fierce fighters, never easily conquered, and to be foremost among them is to be a heroine among heroines.
Given the tragic nature of most versions of Hippolyta’s legend, it feels a lot more satisfying to picture her as she is in Wonder Woman: a wise and powerful Amazonian leader, mother of a superhero, and sister to the epic warrior, Antiope. With Wonder Woman’s box office success, perhaps we’ll see Hippolyta again as her legend continues to grow and change.
*Fun Fact: Hippolyta’s son, Hippolytus, was saved from death by the ministrations of the god of medicine Asclepius, featured in our next issue of Ancient History: “The Arts of Asclepius”.