In Defense of Medea

In Euripides’ Medea (431 BCE), Medea’s wrath against Jason’s betrayal was so fierce that the phrase “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” might have been written with her in mind.

In the play the ever-ambitious Jason finds it effortless to desert his foreign-born wife, Medea, and two sons for an advantageous marriage with the Princess of Corinth.

Using her sorcery against Jason—for a change—Medea kills both her rival and her rival’s father, King Creon—at whose connivance the ill-fated union between Jason and his daughter was hatched.

Jaason and Medea, by John William Waterhouse, 1907

These two murders seem rational, even justifiable. After all, not only was Medea being replaced by someone younger, blonder and more socially elevated but to add insult to injury, the king was banishing Medea—from her adopted home in the city-state of Corinth. Can you blame her for being furious?

But… Medea crosses the line into depravity with the cruel slaying of her two young sons whose only sin was being borne from Jason’s seed.

In a move that hurt her as well as him, punishing her errant husband by killing their two boys seems both extreme and unjustifiable. In the dramatic conclusion of the play Medea is suspended aerially and rises triumphantly above the stage as the deux ex machina—god from the machine.

Looming large against her human adversaries, with her two dead children in tow, she is seated majestically in a dragon-drawn golden chariot sent to her by her grandfather—the Titan sun god, Helios.

Looking up at her in helpless resignation, a bewildered Jason curses Medea as a “hateful thing….utterly loathed by the gods,” but like much of what Jason utters throughout the play, he is wrong.

In fact, quite the contrary is true.

Instead of cursing Medea and defending Jason, the gods are squarely on her side and silent to Jason’s inadequate pleas.

Though she has killed four people—two of them her own children, Medea is blessed with support from her Titan and Olympian forbears.

Displaying her divinity for the world to see, she rises above the troubles and the carnage—which she herself created—of the human world and flies onto the safety and asylum awaiting her in Athens.

The audience is incredulous, how can the gods support a monster who kills her own children out of a sense of primal revenge?

The chorus, who has the last word in the play states: “…the gods accomplish many startling things. What we expect does not take place, and the gods make way for what we don’t expect.”

Alas, the indifferent gods are blind at dispensing human justice. But before we ourselves dispense justice unfairly, it is important to have some background on the mythology hovering around Medea lo these thousands of years.

The bones of the story come to us in fragments and precede Euripides by hundreds of years.

In fact, Jason and the Argonauts are adventures “well known to all” in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BCE).

The first time we hear from Medea is in Hesiod’s Theogony (8th-7th century BCE) as a divinity who falls in love with a mortal “conquered in love thanks to golden Aphrodite.”

Then we discover she has a son named Medeius who was raised in the mountains by one of the Centuars. Evidently then, Medeius goes on to become an adult as the last line reads “…great Zeus’ will was done.”

No longer the barbarian, the next time we hear from Medea she is made queen of Corinth.

In his poem Corinthiaca, Eumelus, (ca 8th-6th centuries BCE) reveals that Jason becomes king through his marriage to Medea.

From this same source, Pausanias (510-461 BCE) reports that in an effort to immortalize the children she bore Jason, Medea concealed them in Hera’s temple and was saddened by the result. The implication being that somehow the children died. Jason blames her for the children’s passing and leaves Medea, who then hands over the kingship to Sisyphus.

Many believe that this accidental infanticide gave Euripides the idea for making Medea a child-slayer.

Although her children may have died in some of the myths, it is interesting to note that Euripides was the very first to burden Medea as a filicide.

Then, from the poet Creophylus, who was—according to Plato—a contemporary of Homer, the Corinthians’ are culpable for the children’s murder.

In the myth, as punishment against Medea for killing King Creon, the Corinthians kill her children. That the Corinthians might kill her children is something that Medea often alludes to in the play as a reason for killing them more humanely herself.

The most complete pre-Euripidian history of Jason and the Golden Fleece comes to us from Pindar in his Fourth Pythian (462 BCE).

In it he narrates the adventures of the Argonauts in detail. When he discusses Medea, he mentions her sorcery and Aphrodite’s love magic to help Jason seduce Medea “so that he might take away her respect for her parents.”

Her uncontrollable love for Jason forced Medea into acting against her better interests in securing the Golden Fleece for this virtual stranger.

It is important to note that all the myths about Medea share her being cast as a victim whose feelings for Jason were preordained by the gods, hence out of her control.

But who are Jason and the Argonauts and what is the Golden Fleece? And just how does Medea get involved?

In a myth that is believed to have predated the Trojan War (ca 1300 BCE), Jason’s father, King Aeson, is overthrown by his half-brother Pelias on the Greek mainland, in the city-state of Iocolus (modern Volos).

In order to win back the kingship, King Pelias challenges Jason to take the Golden Fleece—a fleece from a golden winged ram which symbolizes the crown—located on the outermost edge of the ancient world, in Colchis (modern Georgia) by the Black Sea.

Agreeing to the quest, Jason assembles a band of heroes— prominent among them are Heracles and Orpheus—called the Argonauts named after their nimble ship the Argo.

Embarking on seafaring adventures rivaling those of Odysseus, the crew finally arrives in the wealthy state of Colchis where the precious Golden Fleece is hanging in the sacred grove of the war god, Ares.

Jason and Medea, by Christian Daniel Rauch, 1818

Jason intends to take the Golden Fleece as his own but before he can do this, Colchis’ King Aeetes—son of Helios, the Titan sun god—tasks Jason with three seemingly insurmountable burdens.

First, he must yoke himself to fire-breathing oxen and plow a field with them, then he has to sow the teeth of a dragon onto this same field, and finally, he has to overcome the ever-sleepless dragon which guards the Golden Fleece. In other words, Jason does not have a prayer.

But Jason has a champion in the form of Zeus’s wife, Hera. In the only selfless act of his life, Jason helps Hera—in the guise of an old lady—cross a treacherous ravine. Like all great goddesses, Hera never forgets and comes to Jason’s aid in his impossible mission.

At Hera’s behest, Aphrodite asks her son Eros to pierce Medea’s heart with an arrow shot with undying lust for Jason.

Granddaughter of Helios, priestess of Hekate, sorceress and semi-divine Princess Medea unknowingly becomes a hapless pawn in Jason’s perilous quest.

Indeed, Jason would have been a mere legendary postscript if Medea had not come to his aid every step of the way.

Although it is against the will of her father—King Aeetes—one by one she removes the intractable obstacles that stand in the way of Jason’s pilfering Colchis’ Golden Fleece.

It was Medea who provided the ointment that protected Jason from the fire-breathing oxen.

After that hurdle was breached, it was Medea who helped Jason sow the field with the teeth of a serpent.

Being a sorceress, it was Medea who predicted that the serpent’s teeth would sprout into an army of warriors then it was Medea who proceeded to tell Jason how to defeat them. Throw a rock in their midst she instructed him, not knowing from where the rock came, they attacked each other instead of Jason.

And lastly, it was Medea who crafted a potion which put the ever-vigilant dragon guarding the Golden Fleece into a deep slumber. It was only then that Jason beat the serpent.

Or did he? Some myths posit that it was Medea herself who killed the watchful serpent. It must have come as no surprise to the ancient Greeks that the land from which Medea sprung was also home to the Amazons. Fierce and fervent, she more than a little resembled the legendary female warriors.

Be that as it may, by the powerful magic of Medea, the Golden Fleece was Jason’s. Enthralled with lovesickness for Jason, Medea goes against the wishes of her father, her family and her homeland in providing aid to the plunderer.

But the story does not end there.

In an effort to convince Medea that the Golden Fleece remain in Colchis, her brother Absyrtus meets up with the couple. Ever-rapacious, Jason has no intention of returning his much fought-for spoils.

Indeed, the couples’ unhappy fate was sealed when Medea stood by in resigned horror as Jason slew Absyrtus. Neither ordained by the deities, nor a murder borne of revenge, it was simply a murder of convenience—Absyrtus stood in the way of Jason’s self-indulgent quest.

In his seminal Argonautica, Apollonius of Rhodes (3rd century BCE) recounts how after Jason slew Absyrtus, he hacked the wretched body into pieces scattering them into the sea so that King Aeetes would be distracted into finding his son’s mutilated body and thwarted from pursuing the fleeing couple as they sailed away on the Argo.

Hereafter it was clear that nothing good could spring from Medea and Jason’s doomed union.

From there they set sail to Jason’s home of Ioclous to present King Pelias with the Golden Fleece. Tenaciously, Pelias still refuses to give up the crown to Jason.

Determined to take it back, Jason persuades Medea to talk Pelias’ daughters into using sorcery to make their aged father young again, though in reality making Pelias young again was the very last thing Jason wanted.

After convincing the daughters to cut their father into pieces Medea fails to use her sorcery to bring him back to life again. Deeply distressed at the dire consequences of their act, the daughters and the son—who upon his father’s death is now king—run Jason and Medea out of Iocolus.

Once again, the couple flees. Permanent exiles, both are turned away from their homelands. This time they land in Corinth where Jason and Medea settle down with their two sons, that is until Jason leaves them for the Princess of Corinth—his primary object being the ever-elusive king’s crown.

This is where Euripides begins the story. Although his plays deal with the heroic age in the mythical past, of the Greek tragedians Euripides was famous for dramatizing issues relevant to fifth century BCE Athens. One of the social conventions Euripides took on was the lack of parity between the sexes.

As background, in ancient Greece marriage was transactional between the father of the bride and the bride’s prospective groom.

Medea at the Urn, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1873

Women, including mothers, were wholly excluded from the decision-making process. In order to achieve maximum reproduction, women were wed young; brides were typically between thirteen and fifteen-years of age with the prospective grooms nearly twice that.

Moreover, marriage was patrilocal meaning that when a girl married, she moved from her father’s home to her husband’s, sometimes miles away from her natal home and family.

Once married, not only were women confined to the domicile, but they were considered lifelong minors whose every move was directed by their husbands.

Further, as we see in Medea, in ancient Greece it was not unusual for a husband to desert his wife for no other reason than growing tired of her. Conversely, a woman could never divorce her husband regardless of how badly she was treated by him.

It is in this milieu that we find an inconsolable Medea. As if in mourning, she is wringing her hands, pulling her hair and beating her breasts.

In a state of deep lamentation, she curses her husband for leaving her and calls on the gods to witness the suffering he is putting her through, “Oh, my father! Oh, my country! In what dishonor I left you, killing my own brother for it,” she cries.

Unlucky Medea was struck by a love-spell for an unworthy man who encouraged her to act against not only her family but her better interests.

Although Euripides ultimately turns Medea into a child-slayer—forsaking her family for the love of an undeserving man makes her an extremely sympathetic character and one with whom the chorus strongly identifies throughout much of the play.

When Medea speaks to the women of Corinth, she speaks for every woman when she delivers the lines:

“Of all the things which are living and can form a judgment, We women are the most unfortunate creatures. Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required for us to buy a husband and take for our bodies a master; for not to take one is even worse. And now the question is serious whether we take a good or bad one: for there is no easy escape for a woman, nor can she say no to her marriage….”

Medea’s words reflect how unbalanced the institution of marriage was for women. Moreover, not only is the chorus sympathetic to Medea’s plight, but throughout the play they quietly endorse her plans for revenge against Jason.

Still, as difficult as it was being a woman living in ancient Greece, Medea was also laden with the role of foreigner, another issue relevant to 5th century BCE Athens.

Although the notion of Greek identity slowly began to take form with the advent of colonizing into foreign lands beginning in the 8th century BCE; it was not until the war against Persia at the beginning of the 5th century BCE that Greeks began defining themselves vis a vis everyone else. Questions of ethnic identity and foreign assimilation were common topics in fifth century Athens.

To understand how deeply seated Greek ethnicity was becoming, in 451 BCE, twenty years before Medea was written, a law was passed in Athens restricting citizen rights to children born of both an Athenian mother as well as an Athenian father.

A bias against foreigners was even baked in the word “barbarian” which comes to us from the Greek word “barbaroi” which meant babbler and was an onomatopoeic term labeling foreigners as ‘bar-bar’ speakers.

Derisive and mocking to those who spoke a language other than some dialect of Greek, foreigners were ridiculed as being inferior, savage and unworthy in every way to their Greek counterparts.

Woeful about the struggles of being a refugee in ancient Greece, Medea further laments to the Corinthian women:

“Yet what applies to me does not apply to you. You have a country. Your family home is here. You enjoy life and the company of your friends. But I am deserted, a refugee, thought nothing of by my husband—something he won in a foreign land. I have no mother or brother, nor any relation with whom I can take refuge in this sea of woe.”

Brought to a foreign land, with a strange language and customs, Medea represents the precarious existence of all foreigners in ancient Greece.

But for the ill-fated love of Jason, Medea lost her family, her homeland and her good name. In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason has often been compared to a Greek invader, plundering the resource-rich Colchis and fleeing with its two most valuable possessions: the Golden Fleece and Medea.

 

Medea Sarcophagus, 140-150 AD, Berlin, Germany

Exploited and cast aside, although Medea plays the role of the vanquished, she proves not to be easily pillaged.

Unlike traditional Greek women, known for their obedience and acquiescence, Medea is strong-willed and fierce; more an avenging Achilles fighting for honor and her good name than a Penelope who is content to stich away the years while her husband wanders abroad.

In truth, it was because of her speaking out against the crime Jason and the House of Creon perpetuated on her that the king exiles Medea and her two sons; demonstrating how easy it is for a sovereign to banish a barbarian.

But Medea should count her herself lucky, the ever-oblivious Jason blathers:

“It’s my view that you got much more out of my being saved than I ever did. First of all, you are living in Greece, not some foreign country. Here you find justice and the rule of law.”

Tone-deaf words to the freshly banished Medea. But Jason is not just heedless about human relations, the primary reason for his ultimate downfall is his carelessness and hubris in his relations with the gods.

In our modern world, we do not take seriously the notion of time-honored oaths. Yet oaths were the very foundation in which the ancient world stood. To those who were pious, oaths were of absolute importance and their breach earth shattering.

Throughout the play, we hear from both Medea and the chorus about how Jason broke his oaths by marrying the princess. But what oaths are they referring to? Truth be told, Medea was not passed from her father to her husband like her Corinthian counterparts but came into the union on her own sovereignty.

Because of her semi-divine status, the alliance between the star-crossed couple came into being outside the boundaries of societal norms and resembled something more akin to a treaty between two countries rather than a marriage.

The union took its form in a series of sacred oaths sanctioned by the gods.

The importance of sacred oaths is demonstrated in the play when Athens’ King Aegeus is stunned when he hears from Medea about Jason’s deception and Creon’s complicity. Sympathetic to Medea’s plight, Aegeus agrees to provide her sanction in Athens upon banishment from Corinth.

Then time and again the chorus echoes the importance of the oaths made to the gods:

“Wronged, she calls on the gods. On the justice of Zeus, the oath sworn, which brought her away to the opposite shore of the Greeks.”

Although the gods could give a royal fig about the various and diverse infidelities of mortal marriages, they care profoundly about the oaths sworn to them. And Jason’s betrayal of Medea is also a betrayal to the gods with whom he swore his faith when he pledged to be with her.

But Jason is a materialist. Self-centered and vain, he cares more about status and creature comforts than about gods and basic human decency.

Taking him to task, Medea upholds:

“Whether you think the gods whose names you swore by, then have ceased to rule and that new standards are set up, since you must know you have broken your word to me.”

Characteristically dismissive of Medea’s words, Jason boasts that his marrying the princess was

“A clever move….what luckier chance could I have come across than this. An exile to marry the daughter of the king.”

Just as he used Medea to get the Golden Fleece, so he is now using the princess to get the illusory crown.

Yet Jason is not alone in his impiety and greed. He has company in the form of King Creon and the princess.

As a sovereign, Creon knows full-well the importance of oaths but ignores them at his own peril when he carelessly orchestrates the match between the Greek-hero and his daughter.

As for the princess, her vanity was her undoing. Enticed by gold she does not lack, the princess blanched when she saw her stepsons but the messenger recounts that upon noticing the glittering frocks they were carrying her countenance brightened:

“She, when she saw the dress, could not restrain herself….She took the gorgeous robe and dressed herself in it and put the golden crown around her curly locks.”

More greedy than wise, perhaps the princess should have thought twice about accepting the gilded gifts from a sorceress notorious for her expertise in black arts.

Once worn, the exquisitely gilded poisoned garment and crown ignited and burned away her flesh which then began to drop off. When the king, her father tries to save her by pulling apart the garment from her body, he himself is ignited.

Alas, they both died most ignominiously; the flesh fallen from their bones, stripped of all their personal identity which in life they too-conspicuously revered.

As horrific as their deaths are, the chorus still stands resolutely by Medea’s side.

“Heaven, it seems, on this day has fastened many evils on Jason, and Jason has deserved them.”

 

But what the chorus will not support is what the gods ultimately sanction—the murder of the innocent children.

Why then did Medea kill her beloved children? The reasons are complex and manifold. Time and again throughout the play, Medea ruminates about killing them.

“I lost heart, my friends, as soon as I saw their beaming faces. I can’t do it. So much for my plans!….But wait! Can I really bear to be laughed at and let my enemies go unpunished? I have to steel myself. I can’t be weak and let those tender thoughts take over.”

As a mother, she loves them and agonizes over them, but as an avenging deity defending the sanctity of oaths, justice must prevail. Once the king and his daughter are killed the process is set in motion.

Surely, the Corinthians will take revenge on her by killing the children, so she must beat them to it and kill them herself more humanely.

Although female, Medea has masculine, duty-bound traits which call to mind Greek heroes like Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter for a Greek victory over the Trojans. In a sense the children’s deaths are also a sacrifice to the gods who preside over oaths. In the name of all that is holy, Medea must erase all traces of her blasphemous relationship with Jason and she does this by erasing her sons.

About his sons, Jason is blatant at implying they are his alone. When he describes his plans to sire more children with the princess, he vainly quips:  “You need no children” indicating that as a mother Medea was a mere incubator for them. Patriarchal to its core, in ancient Greece children were born to reproduce the father’s line so by killing the children, Medea denies Jason a future; a legacy that will continue long after his death. But not only does she remove the two sons from his lineage, she removes all possible future children by having killed his young wife as well.

By destroying Jason’s progeny, she more than kills Jason, she erases him. Yet by killing the children Medea loses something in the process as well—her humanity.

In the final scene, looking larger than life in her dragon-drawn golden chariot from on high, Medea is transformed from a feeling and passionate woman into an avenging goddess who cares more about settling scores than about basic human decency.

Medea, by Henri Klagmann, 19th century

When Jason discovers what she has done, looking up at her the fallen prince bellows: “You abomination, most hateful of women to the gods, to me!”

Never one to take responsibility for his actions, in an uncharacteristic moment of self-reflection he retorts: “I was wrong to have brought you with me from Colchis.”

At long last, is this superficial and haughty man finally learning introspection and humility? In fact, at the end it is as though Medea and Jason have traded places. Now it is she who exhibits imperial hubris and unfeeling arrogance and he, the passionate wronged.

When Jason begs to at least bury the children, she will have none of it. In order to atone for the blood guilt, Medea establishes a holy feast and sacrifice in the children’s honor in Corinth.

“I will bury them myself bearing them to Hera’s temple on the promontory, so that no enemy may evilly treat them by tearing up their grave.”

As if the children’s death was not punishment enough for Jason, Medea goes on to predict his ignoble death.

“As is right, you will die without distinction, struck on the head by a piece of Argo’s timber.” Perhaps a fitting end for the profane and unheroic hero.

Though symbolically dead already, Jason laments: “Oh wretch that I am, how I long to kiss the dear lips of my children.” Now he longs to kiss them yet then he had no qualms about leaving them for the princess, Medea retorts.

Cursing Medea and calling on the gods to bear witness, Jason has the last word. But as it happens his words fall on the deaf ears of the unforgiving gods he never revered, while Medea flies away to the safety and sanctuary of a tranquil Athens.

The largely male Athenian audience—perhaps resembling the wayward Jason—must have been squirming in their seats at Medea’s flight to safety and ultimate redemption by the gods.

What’s more, although Medea has Euripides to thank for making her a child-slayer, the truth is up until its tragic end, her character—the empowered victim—is not only compelling but brutally sympathetic as well.

Perhaps too bitter a reality pill for many in the Hellenic audience to swallow, alas, Medea was not well-received in ancient Greece.

For his troubles, Euripides earned third prize in a three-way contest at the Dionysia festival of 431 BCE. But Euripides has the last laugh. In its twenty-five-hundred-year history, Medea has stood the test of time.

Over the years it has been one of the most popular of all plays from the ancient world and is as relevant today as it was in 431 BCE. Its themes of ambition, betrayal and greed along with the ever-omnipresent issues of misogyny and xenophobia have made Medea a story for all time.

In Defense of Medea, Read the original publishing at  Classical Wisdom 

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