The Myth of Medea
Medea after Euripides
Medea, the Powerful
Hecate, Triple Goddess
Medea, the Terrible Mother
Medea is a name familiar to practically everyone. The associations vary but we all know her to be the murderess of her children. How can Medea’s story be put into the context of French feminism? In the following, I will introduce the reader to the myth of Medea, the different legends and literary works, the literary history and the many changes in the portrayal of her story and character. The interpretations of her myth in different epochs will throw a light on our collective understanding of a figure contested throughout the ages. While Euripides allegedly introduces the child-murder as an act of revenge, the new feminist-oriented works by such renowned authors as Christa Wolf try to lift the accusation of child-murder from Medea’s shoulders.
In the context of French feminism, and especially Julia Kristeva’s and Luce Irigaray’s writings, Medea is viewed in a completely different light. Starting from deconstructing the archetype of ‘mother’, they introduce the notion of a patriarchal system of thought which systematically puts woman in the passive, silenced place of ‘the other’, that which is not the universal, not the male. What Medea becomes in the light of such writing and such philosophical thought shall be analysed in this paper.
The Myth of Medea
The myth of Medea has a long-standing tradition. Usually Euripides is referred to as the first to write about Medea. However, it is important to note that he placed his drama into an already existing, rich tradition of legends surrounding Medea and those characters associated with her.
Medea’s legend does not actually start with her own character. In fact, it can be seen as part of ‘one of the earliest and most important Greek sagas, set before the Trojan War’, the story of the Argonauts.
Prince Phrixos, victim of a court intrigue, is to be sacrificed as the ‘Year King’ in order to make the land fertile again. Saved by a ram with golden fleece, he and his sister Helle fly away to the very end of the heroic world. While Helle falls into the sea, named Hellespond after her, Phrixos makes it to Colchis, an empire at the end of the world, where he sacrifices the ram in honour of the gods and leaves the Golden Fleece in the holy grove of Ares. Aia, the capital of Colchis, is promised to prosper as long as the fleece remains there. Thus, it becomes a treasured possession, perniciously guarded by dragons and other magical spells.
In Greek Thessaly, King Pelias of Iolcus steals his brother Aeson’s throne, and to ensure the legitimate heir Iason will never come to power he sends him off to Aia to find the Golden Fleece. In the case of his successful return with the fleece, Iason will be king of Iolcus. For this dangerous voyage, Iason and the most famous heroes of the time set out to the Black Sea upon their famous ship Argos. The different challenges they have to master make the story a rite-of-passage tale of young men growing up while trying to reach their goals.
When they finally arrive in Colchis, King Aeёtes is only prepared to hand over the fleece if Iason successfully accomplishes a series of trials and challenges: he must plough with fire-breathing bulls, sow dragon’s teeth, and kill the armed warriors which spring up from the ground. Finally, he must try and get the fleece from under the watchful eyes of a guarding dragon.
Naturally, Iason cannot accomplish any of this on his own. The king’s daughter by his queen Eidyia, Medea, who falls in love with the Greek hero, helps him to overcome all his troubles. This means, of course, that she acts directly against the interests of her father and his kingdom. Iason gets hold of the fleece and, now that she has betrayed her own people and family, Medea has no choice but to go with Iason. When they try to leave battle ensues and in the fray of it, Medea’s baby brother Apsyrtos is killed. She collects his bones and when her father pursues the Argo, she throws his bones into the sea and thereby stops her pursuers.
In Colchis, gods different from those in Greece are worshipped. As daughter of the king Medea is High Priestess in the temple dedicated to the triple goddess Hecate. She can do magic, she knows everything about herbs and spells, and naturally about the mysteries of life and death.
She is not only of a royal but also of a divine lineage: she is the sun god Helios’s granddaughter, and a descendent of Hecate herself. The great sorceress Circe is her aunt. Compared to the patriarchal, ‘civilized’ world of Greece, Colchis is a wild, barbarous country in the stage of transition from matriarchal to patriarchal social structure. For Iason, Medea is a wild, exotic, dark woman.
On their journey back, Medea and Iason marry and have two sons; the older one very much like his father, fair and Greek in aspect, the younger one dark and in his looks similar to Apsyrtos. When they finally arrive in Iolcus, Pelias is not prepared to hand over the throne. Medea cuts Iason’s old father Aeson into pieces and rejuvenates him by putting him into a cauldron with a magic potion in it. Pelias’s daughters also hope to help their ailing father but Medea changes the recipe and the daughters cut their father to pieces without being able to restore him to life. Fleeing from the charge of regicide, Medea and the Argonauts come to Corinth, where King Creon bids them welcome.
Soon afterwards, the king’s daughter Glauke is to be married to Iason, whose marriage to the savage Medea is, of course, an unsubstantial detail. Enraged by Iason’s betrayal and the king’s decree to exile her, Medea decides to kill Glauke, and her two sons for varying reasons; to save them from being killed by the Corinthians, to save them from being social outsiders forever, to revenge herself and hurt Iason. After the double child-murder she goes to Athens, founds the cult of her children, later heals and helps various heroes, and in the end returns to Colchis, where she has another child, Medos, and thereby becomes mother to the people of the Medes. While sleeping under the rotting Argo, Iason dies from a piece of wood falling on his head.
We find various relevant themes in the story. One of them is Medea’s ‘otherness’. All through the account of her story and that of the Argonauts, Colchis – her culture and people – are seen as uncivilized. Greece as role model for the ‘modern’, patriarchal world clashes with the ancient, matriarchal society of Colchis. Not for ought is Aia said to be the end of the world.
Later in Corinth, Medea’s main offence is that of being a stranger. And not only a stranger like Iason, who is after all of Greek birth, but a stranger from a world despised by the ‘civilized’ Corinthians. She and her children are the ultimate ‘other’; everything the citizens do not like is projected onto them. Especially her magical powers and extensive knowledge is a threat to the people and their king.
Another important motif is that of the self-sufficient, autonomous woman. Medea is powerful; she is the one who makes Iason succeed in his endeavours, and helps him out whenever he proves too weak. She is not quiet and submissive like Glauke but dominant, honest and out-spoken. As such, she threatens not only Iason in his position as husband but also King Creon and his whole kingdom. She becomes the archetypal example of the scheming, barbarian woman.
The last motif I want to mention is that of the gods and the stance they take in all of Medea’s doings. Interestingly enough, it seems that they are all on her side. Helios and Hecate can be expected to help their descendent and priestess, but it is also the other Greek gods who do not interfere with her actions. Hera who is patron goddess of marriage naturally takes her part against Iason, who does not honour his vows. The significance of the gods and their changing position in the myth of Medea shall be explained later.
‘Already in our earliest testimony, Hesiod’s Theogony, [Medea] is associated with the completion of Iason’s challenges in Aia.’ It appears that ‘Medea was clearly always conceived as a divine being’. In Pindar’s Pythian 4 and in Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica potions and charms are associated with Medea. Pherecydes and Sophocles mention that the Colchian princess ‘protected the Argonauts from the pursuit of the Colchians by killing her baby brother, Apsyrtus, and scattering his limbs either in the palace itself or at the later Tomis on the Black Sea coast’. Apollonius, however, has Medea plan the murder of the young man Apsyrtus, while it is Iason who actually commits the crime. In Iolcos, Medea rejuvenates Aeson and Iason, too. After the flight to Corinth and Iason’s betrayal, Medea does not simply kill her children: ‘in earlier tradition [before Euripides] Medea sought to make her children immortal, and in the historical period they were the object of cult in Corinth.’ Medea’s escape to Athens in the sun god’s chariot drawn by dragons is also a tradition going back at least to the fourth century BCE.
 Price and Kearns, cf Argonauts, p 49.
 It is believed that in ancient times the king or leader of a people was seen as embodiment of the land itself; if the harvest failed, or other natural disasters occurred, he was held immediately responsible for it and was given to the land as sacrifice.
 Cf Price and Kearns, Argonauts.
 Price and Kearns, Medea.
- Quote paper
- Dr.phil. J.S. Morgane (Author), 2008, Interpreting Medea, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/148601