NOTE: This post is based on a lecture I recently gave for the Massachusetts Junior Classical League’s annual Classics Day. I had a wonderful time presenting to a group of students from grades 6-12. Presenting on a woman who is so important to me and whom I’ve spent so long studying was a difficult challenge, as it is difficult to fit in such a nuanced, complicated character into a mere 40 minutes, especially to young scholars who have not yet been introduced to her. Below, you may read an adapted version of what I presented. Please note that I understand that study on this particular character especially is complex and full of scholarly conflict; the outline below is rough, introductory, and, as most scholarship, a little biased.
WHO IS MEDEA?
Don’t believe everything you hear. Odds are, if you’ve heard of her, you may have heard some pretty nefarious stories. But which of those are “true”? How does a story about a mythical character become canon? How can one tragedy trying to spice up her story a bit define a woman’s identity for thousands of years to come? In short: how did Medea become “Medea”?
Folks, let’s chat. The most infamous stories about Medea take place in Corinth: After Medea helps the “hero” Jason snag the golden fleece from her father, assists in the death of her own brother to let the Argonauts escape, defeats a giant automaton for them, marries Jason, and has his two children, Jason strikes up a deal with King Creon of Corinth to marry his daughter, Glauce. Jason tells Medea as though she’ll be psyched for his good fortune, and is somehow shocked when she gets upset. Medea, distraught, plots her revenge. It’s not enough to kill Jason or to kill Glauce or to kill herself; Medea wants Jason to feel the most pain humanly possible. She wants to exact perfect vengeance. She wants to utterly destroy him. After much plotting, she devises the perfect plan: first, she’ll kill Glauce and Creon; then, she’ll kill Jason’s children.
The plan is obviously flawed: Jason’s children are Medea’s children. The thought of actually executing the plan causes her immeasurable pain. It takes all of the strength of will that she has to blind her maternal instinct with the vision of her vengeance, and finally, she follows through, lingering in Corinth long enough to see Jason’s reaction, and departing for Athens on a dragon-borne chariot of the sun.
It is the perfect revenge. In ancient Greece, an afterlife is uncertain and unknowable; you can’t rely on an afterlife to make this life worth while. All you can do is strive to accumulate as much glory as possible so that you can live on in your own glorious legacy. But a big insurance for living on in that glory is passing it down to your children. Progeny become known by their parents, and a mutual glorification ensues: the glory of parents lives on through the children; the children’s personal glory is amplified by the reputation of their parents; should the children in turn become glorious, they add to the glory of their parents. Progeny is a future, a sort of afterlife, that you can count on. Take that away, along with the possibility (via Glauce) of engendering more children, and your life is virtually over even if you stay alive. That, and the immeasurable pain of losing two children and the vision of your own future, create the perfect storm of vengeance.
But this story, the Corinth episode – the infamous tale of Medea, the only story of Medea that most people know – is just one version of one part of Medea’s myth. And what’s more: Euripides made it all up! According to the earliest versions of the Medea story, she never killed her own children, and certainly not for any vengeful purposes. When he wrote his Medea in 431 BCE, Euripides thought that the whole infanticide angle would add a complex new twist to an old story. He was right. But he probably didn’t expect it to become the quintessential element of Medea’s mythical identity.
So who was Medea, before she was a Murderous Mother? Let’s look at some other variants of the story.
First, Pausanias, writing in the 2nd c. CE, but about ancient local variants on different stories, discusses Medea in the context of a visit to Corinth and the “Well of Glauce” there. On the well, he writes:
Into this they say she [Glauce] threw herself in the belief that the water would be a cure for the drugs of Medea. [Nearby] is the tomb of Medea’s children. Their names were Mermerus and Pheres, and they are said to have been stoned to death by the Corinthians owing to the gifts which legend says they brought to Glauce. But as their death was violent and illegal, the young babies of the Corinthians were destroyed by them until, at the command of the oracle, yearly sacrifices were established in their honor and a figure of Terror was set up…. [Eumelus says that] when Corinthus, the son of Marathon, died childless, the Corinthians sent for Medea from Iolcus and bestowed upon her the kingdom. Through her Jason was king in Corinth, and Medea, as her children were born, carried each to the sanctuary of Hera and concealed them, doing so in the belief that so they would be immortal. At last she learned that her hopes were vain, and at the same time she was detected by Jason. When she begged for pardon he refused it, and sailed away to Iolcus. For these reasons Medea too departed, and handed over the kingdom to Sisyphus. (2.3.6-11)
To summarize, the old local Corinthian legends that Pausanias recounts tell a very different story about the death of Medea’s children from that portrayed in Euripides’ tragedy and discussed above. In one local legend, the Corinthians killed Medea’s children as revenge for her poisoning of Glauce; however, their own children started to be killed by the gods. The Corinthians had to set up a figure of Medea to which they made sacrifices. In Eumelus’ version, Medea, after making Jason king of Corinth, tries to make their children immortal at the sanctuary to Hera; when Jason finds out what she’s been doing – and that her efforts have failed – he leaves her, and Medea leaves Corinth as well. In these early local legends of Medea, it is *NEVER* Medea who kills her children. If she does have some part in killing them, it’s because she’s trying to make them immortal.
To look at another example, Pindar, writing in the late 6th/early 5th c. BCE in his 4th Pythian, writes about the impetus behind Medea’s union with Jason. The ode recalls:
But the Cyprus-born queen of sharpest arrows [Aphrodite] bound the dappled wryneck to the four spokes of the inescapable wheel [the iynx] and brought from Olympus that bird of madness for the first time to men, and she taught the son of Aeson to be skillful in prayers and charms, so that he might take away Medea’s respect for her parents, and so that desire for Hellas might set her mind afire and drive her with the whip of Persuasion. And right away she showed him the ways to accomplish her father’s trials, and she concocted with oil antidotes for terrible pains and gave them to him for anointing—and so they agreed to join with one another in a sweet marriage of mutual consent.
To clarify the events that Pindar recounts, Aphrodite uses the iynx (a sort of lovespell bird-wheel thing) to curse Medea and make her fall hopelessly in love with Jason so that she will help the Argonauts get the golden fleece. Here, Pindar has nothing to say about what happens in Corinth, but he depicts a much different Medea from the infamous image that follows her today. In Pindar, Medea is a respectable priestess with oracular powers who is a victim of Aphrodite’s whims. The worst thing Medea does in Pindar is betray her family. But even then, she doesn’t do it of her own free will; Pindar makes it very clear that the Gods are forcing her into these actions.
Having observed some non-murdery Medeas, we can make a few conclusions: in all of the previous versions of Medea, she is a powerful young woman who falls in love with Jason. She is inherently associated with the goddess Hecate, and has divine connections. Before Euripides’ tragedy, no story accuses Medea of deliberately murdering her children. So when Euripides debuts his Medea in 431 BCE, he adds a radical new change to a familiar myth.
Medea in Euripides is an incredibly complex character. She winds up murdering her children, but that doesn’t make her a character lacking sympathy for her audience. She struggles between her enormous emotions – pain, anger, deep sadness – and she only knows one thing for certain: she does not want to become an object of mockery for her enemies. She struggles with anger and frustration at the trials of being a woman in the world. She rallies against the fate that would befall her children if Jason would marry Glauce: certain disinheritance, a social death, a life without their mother, and possible execution by their future half-siblings. She feels an anger that is bigger than life itself, and she wails on stage in a visceral manner that almost immediately garners the whole-hearted empathy of the chorus of Corinthian women. Medea carries this empathy right up until the point when she decides upon her path of vengeance – and even then, all the Chorus wants is for her to get a hold of her better senses, to turn away from something so unfathomably, frighteningly painful.
But Medea’s struggle with complex, all-consuming emotions that are larger than herself underscores another, equally important side of her identity: she is volatile, she is clever, and she is dangerously powerful. In his play, Euripides goes to explicit lengths to demonstrate to his audience the fear and discomfort one should carry when watching Medea unfold. Her plan is executed in the most graphic, violent terms possible. Even though the image of Glauce and Creon’s deaths are not carried out on-stage, the messenger speech creates such a vivid and disturbing image of their demise that our immediate instinct is revulsion and fear. Medea, however, finds courage in the news, feels emboldened by her success, and seems to even delight in the efficacy of her designs. It may help to look at some (slightly edited for the sake of graphic qualities) quotes from Euripides:
Messenger: Suddenly there was a terrible sight to see: the color drains from her face; her step unsteady, she tries to go back, trembling from head to foot, and barely manages to stumble into her seat and avoid falling on the ground. … a twofold trouble was warring against her: the crown of gold around her head was spewing out an eerie stream of ravenous fire, and the fine robes, gifts from your children, were eating away the poor girl’s beautiful flesh. … her poor father in ignorance of the tragedy suddenly bursts into the room and throws himself on the body… when he stopped his weeping and wailing he wanted to raise up his old limbs but was held back by the fine robes like ivy by the shoots of laurel. The struggle was hair-raising. He wanted to get up on his feet but she held him fast. If he tried to use force she tore the aged flesh from his bones. After a time he was exhausted and the poor man let go of life. He was not strong enough to fight the disaster. They lie dead together, child and aged father beside her. A tragedy that makes you want to cry (Lines 1166-1220).
As mentioned above, Medea takes courage in these lines; they motivate her to go through with the integral and most difficult part of her plot: to kill her children. But before she executes this plan, and before she hears how successful she has been already, Euripides expounds on the vacillating emotions she experiences through the delivery of a pained and conflicted monologue:
Medea: No! By the avengers down in Hades! There is no way that I will leave my children to be abused by my enemies. [They must die. And since they must, I who gave them birth will kill them.] The plan is underway and there is no escape. The crown is on her head; dressed in the robes, the royal bride is in her death throes; I am certain of it. Now I shall set out upon a most sorrowful road and I shall send them on one more sorrowful still. I want to speak to my children. Dear children, give your mother your right hand to kiss. Oh dearest hand, dearest mouth, and form and noble face of my children, may you be happy, but there. Your father has ruined everything here. Oh sweet embrace. Oh soft skin and lovely breath of my children. Go, go on. I am no longer able to look at you. I am overcome by wrongs. I understand what evil I am about to do but my wrath is stronger even than my thoughts, which is the cause of the greatest wrongs of humankind (Lines 1058-1080).
We know that Medea is going to follow through on her plans; however, Euripides ensures that we also know that Medea herself isn’t so sure – we are privy to her inner turmoil, and see how much she struggles with the prospect of quelling her maternal instincts in favor of the call to vengeance.
After its debut, Euripides’ image of Medea as a dangerously powerful child-murderer seizes the myth canon. In consequence, subsequent writers will either amplify her ominous image or struggle to fight against it; one such author who attempts to rescue the identity of Medea in favor of returning to the archaic image of an innocent but skilled girl manipulated by love is Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica in the 3rd c. BCE.
The Argonautica is essentially the story of a bunch of seaborne frat boys going on adventures together, featuring the all-stars of Greek Heroism. To summarize Medea’s part in the work, Jason meets Medea at Colchis, where he has arrived to – you know the story already – steal the golden fleece from Aeëtes, Medea’s father. Athena and Hera, big Jason fans, get Aphrodite to help them help Jason by asking Cupid to strike Medea with an arrow. Medea, helplessly in love with Jason, agrees to betray her family and help him win the golden fleece. Throughout her initial appearance in Apollonius, however, Medea struggles between her burning, uncontrollable passion for a stranger she’s just met – a passion she doesn’t even understand, and finds troubling – and her fear of betraying her family and becoming an outcast in her own home. She doesn’t know why she feels compelled to help jason; she only knows that she cannot physically stand the notion of his certain death should she decide to remain loyal to her father. The audience sees her struggle and sympathizes with Medea. She, like all of us, is a victim of the gods. There is no accountability in her action except that of Athena and Hera, so hell-bent on saving Jason that they are willing to sacrifice the innocence of a priestess to Hecate. Like in the rest of her iterations, Medea is incredibly powerful through her association with Hecate; it is this power which makes her useful to Jason, and which serves as a remnant of her identity in Euripides. She is still powerful, but she is also innocent. Her power is being used against her, and the audience has no feeling that this poor girl, constantly grieving the fact that she is forced to make an impossible choice, could possibly execute such terrifying vengeance.
While Apollonius struggles to “rescue” the young Medea, other later authors will take the image of Medea as a powerful woman skilled in potions and run with it – even going so far as to transform her identity. A literal transformation of Medea’s character comes in the seventh book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The actual “metamorphosis” that occurs in the Medea episode has long been something of a question; unlike most of the stories in his epic, Ovid’s Medea episode lacks a concrete “metamorphosis” into another object or animal. Personally, I view her metamorphosis as that of a young priestess of Hecate skilled in potions transformed into a full-blown evil witch. Ovid takes us on the whirlwind journey from Colchis, where Medea is an innocent young girl pushed by the fire of passionate love to save Jason and betray her family (familiar by now?) to some more troubling tales. Her awesome power is shown for all of its might in the impressive scene where Medea rejuvenates Aeson, Jason’s father, through a risky and literally death-defying potion; however, this scene precedes the harrowing Peliades episode, which is a twisted, horrifying inversion of the same spell that returned Aeson to his youth. In the Peliades episode, Medea happens upon the daughters of Pelias, a man who refused to yield power to Jason. In excruciating, graphic detail, Ovid describes how Medea embarks on unasked for vengeance on behalf of her husband by tricking the daughters of Pelias into murdering their own father under the belief that he will undergo the same rejuvenation process that was so successful for Aeson. For Aeson, the process involved draining the old man’s blood to refill his veins with magic potion; for Pelias, on the other hand, Medea convinces the girls to slit their father’s throat, only to plunge his aged body into a boiling cauldron, no potion to speak of. Medea spends the remainder of her appearance in the Metamorphoses flying over the Mediterranean world, occasionally coming to earth to commit some nefarious deed. A mere six lines is given to the infamous Corinth episode:
At length, upborne by the snaky wings, she reached Corinth of the sacred spring. Here, according to ancient tradition, in the earliest times men’s bodies sprang from mushrooms. But after the new wife had been burnt by the Colchian witchcraft, and the two seas had seen the king’s palace aflame, she stained her impious sword in the blood of her sons; and then, after this horrid vengeance, the mother fled Jason’s sword (7.391-397).
In Ovid, the Corinth episode feels like a casual occurrence. Half of the discussion of Corinth is about Corinthian legend without any regard to Medea’s actions there. It is almost as if Medea is so twisted, powerful, and evil at this point in the Metamorphoses that her actions at Corinth are no longer shocking, but perhaps even typical. The brevity of the Corinth episode underscores just who Medea has become, both in Ovid and in the mind of Ovid’s audience generally: she is an evil witch, and her mythical reputation as such will remain unchanged until much later reception attempts to redeem her.
The final Medea iteration we will examine is that of Seneca in his tragedy, Medea, published around 50 CE. Seneca’s Medea is the evil witch of Ovid, amplified. Never has any Medea shown such a fervor, such a passion for vengeance; never has any Medea been so wholly consumed by the dark side of her chthonic associations with Hecate, the underworld, and magic. This Medea is perhaps the most powerful Medea of them all, capable of changing the very nature of the cosmos. She has the full forces of the darkest parts of hell supporting her, and she is willing to use them at any length to secure a perfect vengeance. Unlike Euripides’ Medea, who is clearly the biggest influence on Seneca’s tragedy, Seneca’s Medea conceives of her final vengeance immediately from the start of the play. Euripides’ Medea spends about half of the tragedy contemplating her next move; Seneca’s Medea, on the other hand, sees the murder of her children as the obvious action from the start. Like in Euripides, she is determined to destroy Jason to the best of her abilities; however, she is already willing and able to do so in ways that pose immense emotional difficulties to Euripides’ interpretation in 431 BCE. In lines 19-25, Seneca writes:
Medea: For the groom [Jason], may something worse remain. I want him to live: to wander through cities as yet unkown, his confidence, his livelihood destroyed; a refugee, frightened and with nowhere to call home, looked on, if he’s looked upon at all, with hatred; a notorious would-be guest, seeking shelter in someone else’s house. I pray he’ll wish we were together still. I now request the worst prayer of them all: that the children show the qualities of their father and their mother combined. My final vengeance is already born: and I have given it birth.
A similar contrast is the fact that Medea’s struggle with her emotions, while still present in Seneca, is much less convincing and sympathetic than that in Euripides. Medea lingers momentarily over her maternal instinct, but that instinct repulses her. It is as though she sees her maternal desire to protect her children as a disgusting inconvenience that she wants to be rid of. She bolsters her courage to follow through on vengeance by reminding herself of the images of deeds past; she reminds herself of the things of which she is capable, the things which have enforced her willingness to perform evil deeds. And she also uses these deeds as further fodder for her anger at Jason and her need for vengeance. But the struggle between her desire to be a mother and her desire to exact vengeance, the conflict that makes her so complex and potentially sympathetic, the turmoil that wins over the chorus in Euripides, is watered down if not entirely absent in Seneca. This Medea simply is not that Medea – this Medea, Seneca’s Medea, aspires to be the Medea that dominates the myth canon: a child-murdering, vengeful, evil witch. The infamous line, “Now I’m indeed Medea,” reveals so much of the aim of Seneca’s work: the murder of her children is what makes Medea into Medea. Without this detail, a detail that was unique to Euripides in 431 BCE, Medea is not recognizable as “Medea.” Euripides’ innovation, by Seneca, has become the defining characteristic of Medea’s mythical identity. The following lines demonstrate a palpable and pointed difference of character between the two tragic Medeas:
Medea: What power have untrained arms to dare great deeds? The bloodlust of a girl! Now I’m indeed Medea. My genius has grown with all these evils I have done. I’m pleased I killed my brother, took his head, and sliced his limbs. I’m glad I tore away my father’s secret source of potency, I’m glad I armed old Pelias’ daughters, had him killed… It is as if I were the sea: violent winds wage war, waves full of grief that rends the heart attack from etiehr side, the waters seethe in indecision. That is how my heart wavers… To their mother they are forever gone and lost, so they must be gone and lost to their father as well. My pain grows once again, my hatred boils, the old avenging fury reaches out for my unwilling yet so lethal hand…. I am as good as childless now it comes to penalizing him. I bore only two; but they’re enough to avenge my brother and father (908-958).
Medea in Euripides was conflicted, but she brought a new, sinister element to the mythical Medea character that remained canon throughout her mythical career. Seneca’s Medea reaches new heights of the sinister. She is a terrifying master of the dark arts, wielding and manipulating nature to her own dastardly ends. A trait of the first Medeas – her association with Hecate, her skill with potions – leads to this final Medea in Seneca: semi-divine master of nature able to obliterate whatever and whomever she sets her sights on.
When he wrote infanticide into his Medea, Euripides probably didn’t know that his “little innovation” would become canon. He certainly wouldn’t have expected the Medea of myth to take on such a solidified identity as an evil witch. But the popularity of this transformation, and the various attempts of authors to either build upon or rebel against it, indicate the incredible power that one work can have over an existing narrative. Who is Medea? Today, she has been adapted into new Medeas: notably, the works Beloved by Toni Morrison and Medea by Christa Wolf seek to reclaim her narrative. She has appeared on screen: Pasolini’s 1969 Medea stars a formidable Maria Callas in the titular role, reclaiming the sympathy and conflict of Euripides’ tragedy in new, subtle ways. But whatever Medea you look at, it is always a reworking of the Medea that Euripides launched on stage. When he premiered the tragedy at the City Dionysia in Athens, Medea came in dead last. But his Medea has lingered on, embedded in all of the Medeas to come after her.