Episode 33: Woman the Barbarian

Euripides’ Medea is Ancient Greece’s most famous play. But what did it mean to the Athenians in 431 BCE who watched it on the Acropolis?

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Euripides’ Medea

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 33: Woman the Barbarian, on the play Medea by Euripides. Now, before we get started today – before Euripides stuns us with his tour-de-force, Medea I want to take a quick minute to tell you about another podcast. This podcast is called “The History of Ancient Greece,” and it’s by a wonderful guy named Ryan Stitt. Ryan’s degrees are in classical languages and ancient history, so he’s well qualified to tell you all about the Greco-Roman world. And both Ryan and I think that our two podcasts – Literature and History, and then The History of Ancient Greece, work really well together – for anybody who’s trying to squeeze some learning into his or her busy day and wants to know a bit more about Ancient Greece.

Now, if you listen to my show, you know stuff works here. I give you some background upfront, then I tell you the story of a work of literature, and then we take some time and discuss the work of literature in the context of the historical environment in which it arose. It’s a pretty good approach, but from a purely historical perspective, we often end up just kind of parachuting down into any given moment – you know – the period of Imperial Athens, or the early Peloponnesian War, and that kind of stuff – and not always moving chronologically. That, I think, is why Ryan’s podcast, The History of Ancient Greece, is a good partner for this sequence of my show. The History of Ancient Greece is a full scale, chronologically organized audio program – uh – free, of course – that begins with the lower Balkans during the Neolithic and moves forward from there, covering many subjects that are great to know – Ancient Crete, Mycenaean Greece, the birth of the Polis system, the birth of Sparta, the age of tyranny, and more recently, in great detail, the birth of Athenian democracy. This is all fascinating stuff, and Ryan covers it in clear, well organized shows.

So I just wanted you to know he was out there. Ryan has helped me promote Literature and History, and, if I can say this on the air, he’s a great guy, one of my buddies in the occasionally lonely world of sitting behind a podcasting microphone. And this is a twenty second song that I sung on the last episode of his podcast.

[The History of Ancient Greece Podcast ditty]

Right, so that is again The History of Ancient Greece, by Ryan Stitt, available wherever podcasts are sold – or – uh – given away for free. Right. Ladies. Gentlemen. Buckle up. It’s Medea time. [music]

Introduction: The Geographical Background of Medea

This episode will cover the play Medea, written by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides, and first produced in the city of Athens in the spring of 431 BCE. Medea is the story of a foreign princess, wedded to a Greek hero and living an alien land. Medea‘s central character is one of the most unforgettable figures in world literature. Its plot – a story of love, and injustice, and an unspeakable revenge, has captivated readers for thousands of years. What happens in Medea is so dark, so epic, and so intense that Medea was the most frequently staged work of Ancient Greek Tragedy in America in the twentieth century.1

In this show, I’m first going to give you some background – some essential facts that will help you jump right into this play. Then, I’ll tell you the story of Medea, using some quotes from the powerful translation by Philip Vellacott. And once we’ve explored the story of Medea, we’ll talk about what it might have meant to its original audience – those Athenians who watched it in 431 BCE, in late March or early April, on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis. [music]

To begin the story of Medea, I want to take us to a place. That place is the southwestern part of the modern day country of Georgia, on the eastern fringes of the Black Sea. Euripides, when he wrote Medea, was thinking about this place, thousands and thousands of miles away from the Acropolis of Athens, where his play was to be staged.

Classical Athens, by 431 BCE, when Medea was first staged, had built a huge maritime empire. If you dropped a gigantic boulder into the Aegean Sea, and tidal swells splashed up over every island, and almost every coastline, up into the Sea of Marmara, all the lands covered in water would form the shape of the Athenian Empire, a confederation of cities and territories that rimmed the Aegean Sea and a number of important islands on the west side of the Greek mainland, as well. It was an empire that saw the circulation of many goods, and many ethnicities, and the speed and success of the Athenian navy and trading vessels made the Aegean and Mediterranean worlds seem far smaller than they once had.

Ancient colchis and iberia andersen home of medea

The ancient kingdom of Colchis, located in the far southeast of the Black Sea, was Medea’s home.

Still, the Athenian Empire had fringes, and dark spots – places that Athens knew of, but hadn’t yet ventured into. There were inland kingdoms, and communities insulated from Athenian adventurers by natural barriers – natural barriers like mountain ranges, and swift rivers, and dense, impenetrable woodlands. And there were territories so far off that only a few Athenians had ever seen them – the unknown highlands beyond Macedon, for instance, or the desert of Libya, the waterways west of the Corsica and Sardinia, and the lands along the north, and east of the Black Sea.

In the 400s and the century afterwards, as Persian power waxed and waned in the east, Athenians began to spend increasing amounts of time exploring the Black Sea. Far to the east of the Black Sea, again in what’s now western Georgia, there was a kingdom called Colchis. Colchis, in the age of Euripides, was an unimaginably distant place – a realm so far to the east that it was sometimes thought of as the place where the sun rose. Still, the ever adventurous Athenians found themselves exploring even this remote kingdom. Between 401 and 399 BCE, a Greek mercenary leader named Xenophon ventured far into territories seldom explored by Greeks. Xenophon was employed along with ten thousand other soldiers of fortune by a Persian usurper to try and seize the throne of his brother. The expedition ended up being cancelled militarily – the Greeks never actually went to battle with any Persians. But Xenophon’s eastward expedition in 400 BCE or so did produce a book called the Anabasis, also known as The March of the Ten Thousand.

This book is essentially a military and travel record of a massive Greek force through modern day modern day Turkey, and Syria, and Iraq, and up through Armenia and Georgia – one of history’s first great travel narratives. Xenophon writes about many far off places in the Anabasis, including the southeastern Black Sea – the far country bordering Colchis, a land of fortresses and ravines, of wooden towns, and narrow descents, plentiful lumber and strange bee hives full of poison honey. Xenophon describes how upon reaching Colchis, the Greeks saw “Above them, on their right. . .a country of the sternest and ruggedest character, and on their left another river, into which the frontier river discharges itself. . .This was thickly fringed with trees which, though not of any great bulk, were closely packed. . .At this point they were confronted by a. . .mountain chain, and on it the Colchians were drawn up for battle.”2

Colchis, to Athenians of the 400s, was an exotic place – it was a broad valley between the Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus mountains, where cataracts and mountain streams descended into rushing rivers, where thick forests shaded rocky slopes. Even with ten thousand soldiers, the mercenary Xenophon was far from safe there. And when the later Greek writer Apollonius of Rhodes wrote of Colchis, he said that when one walked up the embankment from the river, one looked up into the trees and saw human corpses, by the hundreds, suspended from the foliage in strange sacks, because the Colchians, unlike the Greeks, hung their dead up in the trees.

Why are we talking about Colchis, this strange, ancient kingdom at the eastern end of the Black Sea, in the lowlands of modern day Georgia? We’re talking about Colchis because Colchis was the homeland of Medea. The legendary princess hailed from an exotic mountain kingdom, far to the east, a rugged country where conifers clutched the banks of whitewater streams. Medea wasn’t from the Aegean world. She was from far, far to the east. [music]

The Many Medea-Related Plays of the 400s BCE

So now you know where the main character of Medea is from – that far away, dark, exotic, eastern territory known to the Ancient Greeks as Colchis. Now, let’s talk a bit about the legend of Medea.

In this podcast so far we’ve dealt with a number of works of Greek tragedy based on earlier myths. If you were writing plays in the city of Athens in the 400s, a large part of your output would have been based adaptations of old stories – old stories that almost everyone in your city knew. As you know from earlier episodes, sequels and prequels are popular in modern cinema, and they were popular in Ancient Greek Theater, as well – tellings and retellings about what happened to the principal characters of the Trojan War after the Trojan War ended, about what happened before and after a legendary war in the city of Thebes. Ancient Athenians adored these sequels, and prequels, and adaptations. Their principal characters – egomaniacal King Agamemnon, for instance, or the doomed monarch, Oedipus, and his children – their principal characters were known to audiences, and tragedians who used them understood an early version of branding and marketing.

Herbert James Draper, The Golden Fleece medea

Herbert James Draper’s The Golden Fleece (1904). Euripides’ audience would have known the legend of how before coming to Corinth with Jason, Medea almost singlehandedly enabled him to capture the Golden Fleece and bring it home.

One of the great stories circulating around Ancient Greece – one we haven’t touched at all yet, actually, was the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In a sentence, the story of the Jason and the Golden Fleece is a full scale epic about a handsome young Greek hero, Jason, travelling with his crew aboard a ship called the Argo all the way to the eastern Black Sea kingdom of Colchis, where he met the exotic dark priestess, Medea, who helped him recover the Golden Fleece. Euripides’ play Medea is about what happens once Jason, and his Argonauts, and his exotic new bride return home from their nearly ten thousand mile journey.

Now, if you were an Athenian, living in the mid to late 400s BCE, you would very likely know a bit about Jason, the Argonauts, the quest for the Golden Fleece, and Jason’s unforgettable wife Medea. The earlier Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote four plays about specific adventures the Argonauts had while on their journey.3 And Euripides’ contemporary, Sophocles, also wrote four plays on the subject of the myth cycle centered on Jason and Medea.4 Euripides – again our author for today – Euripides wrote two plays on the subject of Jason, the Argonauts, and those associated with them, and the surviving one is what we’re talking about today. So over the course of the mid to late 400s in Athens, at least ten plays related to Jason, Medea, and the Golden Fleece were staged at the city’s main theatrical festival, along with, it is reasonable to suspect, many more by tragedians whose names have been lost to history. Stories about Jason, Medea, and the Golden Fleece, in Euripides’ day, were a respectable little franchise.

The story of Jason and Medea is older than the 400s, though. All the way back in the 700s, Hesiod included Medea in his Catalog of Women. Fragments from the Archaic Greek poets Ibycus and Simonides tell Medea’s story, too. So Medea was, like Odysseus, or Achilles, or Heracles, an instantaneously recognizable character – an archetype that the average Greek obviously found vivid and entertaining.

Now, Euripides only tells part of Medea’s story – the end of it. But the Greeks who sat down around the vernal equinox of 331 BCE to watch the play Medea knew a lot about her. And that means – unless you and I want to be totally bewildered as the play opens – that means we need to do just a little bit of getting up to speed with Medea’s back story. Fortunately, the tale of Medea’s origins – even just in a quick summary, is a fantastic yarn. [music]

Backstory: Medea’s Role in Jason and the Argonauts

Medea, Medea, Medea. Medea is like a unique element on the Period Table. She might even need her own group – she’s not an alkali metal, she’s not a noble gas, nor a rare earth metal – she’s is just – Medea. Ask a Classics major about his or her favorite character from Greco-Roman mythology, and you will very often hear, “Medea.” Ask a casual theatergoer who’s seen a few Greek plays which character he or she remembers most vividly, and Medea will be at the top of the list. Look for strong female leads in ancient and Classical literature, and you’ll find Judith, and Esther, and Deborah in the Old Testament, and to a lesser extent Athena and maybe Clytemnestra and Antigone in Ancient Greek literature. But over all of these strong female leads stands Medea, a character with all of the lethal power of Judith or Athena, with the fearsome will of Antigone, and the intelligence of Esther and Clytemnestra, and with a certain black magic that’s all her own.

Jason and Medea - John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse’s Jason and Medea (1907) shows Medea as a younger woman, when she first met Jason in her homeland of Colchis. Euripides’ Medea is a decade or so older, and has been living abroad with her husband Jason in the Greek city of Corinth.

I’m going to tell you quickly about Medea’s appearance in the greater epic of Jason and the Argonauts. This epic may have gone through many iterations, but the surviving version that we have dates from the mid 200s BCE, and it was written by a scholar and polymath named Apollonius of Rhodes. Apollonius wrote Jason and the Argonauts in the city of Alexandria, and we will have two full episodes devoted to this terrific epic, and talk a bit about the period of Egypt’s history under Greek rule. But, for now, let’s just stick with the history of the character Medea.

About halfway through Jason and the Argonauts, which, again, we’ll get to soon, we have a pretty good idea of Jason’s character. He’s just – kind of – a dude. He’s not a hero, nor a coward. He makes blunders, and has fears, and asks his crew of Argonauts for advice, and takes the advice. The Argonauts, in turn, don’t have the larger-than-life qualities of Homeric heroes. They have a navigator, and a seer, and a spearman, and various heroes with various combat specialties. But they just kind of blur together. Don’t get me wrong – Jason and the Argonauts is a tremendous epic in ways entirely different than Homer. But halfway through the epic, as Apollonius takes you on a thrilling journey full of many harrowing adventures, your main focus isn’t, particularly, on the characters.

However, in the second half of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason and company reach the distant, dark, forested land of Colchis – that Caucasus mountain valley in modern day Georgia. And they meet Medea. And from there on out, Medea is at the center of the story. Although Jason is, at least on the surface, the hero of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea is the one who does everything heroic. She enables Jason to complete a deadly challenge involving plowing a field with fiery brass oxen and then defeating an army of men who spring up from dragon’s teeth. Medea enables Jason to do this by making Jason invincible using herbs and black magic. All Jason has to do is show up wearing a bronze helmet and no clothing, and he does what his girlfriend told him to do, and he completes the challenge. Later, when it comes time for Jason to defeat the terrible dragon and retrieve the Golden Fleece, Medea makes the serpent fall asleep, and then her boyfriend heroically hurries forward from where he was cowering behind her and peeing himself, and nabs the famous treasure. Even near the end of the epic, as the Argonauts reach the island of Crete and find that it’s guarded by an enormous metal giant, Medea takes one look at it and tells the Argonauts she can take it down – no problem – and then proceeds to do so.

Well, you need to know all of this before beginning the play Medea, I think. You need to know that in the ancestral myths about Medea and the Argonauts that Medea was the tacit nuclear weapon of Jason and his men. Medea was the reason that they succeeded. Medea was the priestess of Hecate, the goddess of magic, and crossroads, and the raising of the dead, and she could singlehandedly take down dragons and giants.

And there is something else you need to know about her before we jump into the Euripides play. You might be wondering, if Jason is just kind of an average Joe, and Medea is powerful, why is she interested in him? Why would she betray her family – she’s the daughter of the King of Colchis, by the way – anyway, why would Medea betray her family for some boatload of Greek dudes? And the answer is that Hera, and Athena, and Aphrodite all got together and decided that Medea needed to fall in love with Jason. Medea was hit by an arrow from Cupid – Eros in the Greek tradition, and thereafter fell deeply, irrecoverably in love with Jason. And Medea didn’t want to. Throughout Book 3 of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea tries to understand why she’s overcome with such powerful emotions for the Greek stranger, but she can’t resist him.

And so the paramount reason Medea is such a distinctive element in ancient literature is this. She is on one hand an extremely powerful human being – one who knows magic, and pharmacology, who can kill anything on earth and yet still possesses political intelligence and a sense of personal accountability, like a female Odysseus who belongs on a Black Sabbath album cover. But at the same time – and this is the really fascinating part – Medea is still a young woman – a virgin when we first meet her in Jason and the Argonauts, who finds herself overcome with love – and entirely vulnerable to her uncontrollable feelings. This is Medea in a nutshell – part demigoddess, and part lovely young damsel – part killer, and part helpless young lover.

So we’re about to meet her later in her life, once she’s an adult with two children, married to Jason, in the southern Greek city of Corinth. If you and I were Athenians, sitting on the benches at the Theater of Dionysus in 431 BCE and getting ready for the world premiere of Euripides’ play Medea, we would know most of this background. We’d know who she was, and that she was the real reason behind the Argonauts’ success, and we would know what she was capable of.

The main idea of this episode, which we’ll come back to several times, is in its title – Episode 33: Woman the Barbarian. The word “barbarian” actually comes to us from Ancient Greek – the ancient Greeks thought that foreigners who were yammering away in foreign languages sounded like they were saying, “bar – bar – bar,” and the name stuck. Medea, we need to remember as the story unfolds and things begin to intensify – Medea was an alien, a foreigner, and a barbarian. We today might have a general attitude of pluralism and equity across ethnicities. But Euripides’ audience, being between two wars and having fathers and grandfathers who died in the Greco-Persian wars, and also being at the summit of their city’s great power, were more likely to have distaste for all foreigners, and a jingoistic pride in their city. So Medea’s status as an alien and not a native citizen, while it might be charming and interesting to us – to Euripides’ audience, Medea would have been something else. A threat. An invader of Greece. A barbarian.

Let’s start the story now. The edition I’m quoting from will be the Penguin Books edition called Medea and Other Plays, first translated by Philip Vellacott in 1963.[music]

Opening: The Ill Portents of the Servants

Some years before, the young hero Jason had, with the aid of his powerful wife, captured the Golden Fleece and returned to his native city of Iolcus. Jason and Medea didn’t settle there, though. Iolcus was a small town, and though its bay was beautiful and its headlands rose strikingly up from the water, a returning hero and his bride needed a more prestigious place to live. And so Jason and Medea chose Corinth, a powerful city on the isthmus between Sparta and Athens, and there they found a house and started a family. Two sons were born to them – half Greek, and half Colchian, their eastern blood from the far off mountain kingdom of their mother.

For some time, the family had lived happily there, in Corinth, and Medea continued to love her handsome husband as the two babies grew into healthy children. But while Medea’s affection for her husband continued, her husband’s affections began to waver. Just as Jason had once embarked on a 10,000 mile journey for the Golden Fleece, wanderlust, and ambition stayed with him after the birth of his children. This is the situation as the play begins.

On the steps of Jason’s house in the city of Corinth, the family nurse stood, looking downward, numb with shock. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded haunted. “If only,” she said, in the opening line of the play – “If only they had never gone! If the Argo’s hull / Never had winged out through the grey-blue jaws of rock / And on towards Colchis!”5 Everything about the expedition, the nurse implied, had been a mistake. Medea and Jason should have never met one another. Medea should have never shown her husband such unwavering love and obedience. Because while Medea remained loyal to him, the nurse said, Jason had begun to pursue another woman.

There was, in Greece, a hostility toward marrying foreigners. Although Medea had gained the favor of the people of Corinth, she was still an outlander. For Jason, a man with political aspirations, and a desire for a great legacy, Medea’s foreign status was a distinct disadvantage. He had certainly loved the Colchian princess for what she was – a valuable aid to his heroic quest. But, then, Jason was older now. The things that facilitated furthering his reputation, and his wealth, and his legacy – these were worth holding onto. The things that didn’t – these needed to be cast aside. And so disregarding his marriage to his first love Medea, Jason had married a Corinthian princess. Her name was Glauce, and she was the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth.

This was not only a betrayal to Medea’s love of Jason. It was also a betrayal of their two sons. Because if Jason were to sire fully Greek children with the Corinthian princess, Glauce, it would mean that the children he had with the Colchian princess, Medea, were illegitimate, and dangerous threats.

Jason’s family nurse strickenly described Medea’s reaction to her husband’s treachery. Medea, the nurse said, had gone dead silent. She hardly moved, unless, the nurse said, it was to cry out bitter regrets to her homeland and father, whom she’d betrayed for Jason’s sake. And the nurse concluded, “I am afraid / Some dreadful purpose is forming in her mind. She is a / frightening woman; no one who makes an enemy / Of her will carry off an easy victory” (18).[music]

The Chorus Prompts Medea to Speak

De Morgan Medea

Evelyn De Morgan’s Medea. In every era that she is painted, Medea appears imperious and confident.

Jason’s family nurse was soon joined by another servant out on the steps of his house. This other servant was the tutor of Jason’s two sons. The nurse and the tutor spoke with the frankness of two slaves discussing the doings of their masters. The betrayal of Jason, the tutor said, had reached even more sinister dimensions. Jason had wed the princess of Corinth – and her father – again, Creon, the king of Corinth, wanted Jason and Medea’s sons banished. The nurse asked how Jason could have done such a thing, and the tutor shrugged. Jason had found a new love, he said. All of his past familial collections were supplanted by this.

The nurse and the tutor heard Medea speaking inside of the house, and told the children to be careful. Their mother, the old slaves said, was in a violent mood, and there was no telling what she’d do. Medea spoke again from inside the house, and the old slaves winced. The nurse again said that she was terrified of what Medea might do. Medea was not only powerful, and willful. She was also imperious, and used to giving commands, and not meekly obeying them.

Following these ominous predictions by the nurse, a group of Corinthian women appeared. These Corinthian women will be chorus of Euripides’ play – the group standard to Ancient Greek theater who, being the chorus, will remark on events and offer expository information about the play from here on out. So a group of Corinthian women appeared – again the chorus of the play Medea, and remarked that they had heard that Medea was suffering, and wanted to know why. The nurse explained the awful experience Medea was going through, and just then, the chorus heard Medea herself shrieking from indoors, crying that she wished fire would come down from the sky and shatter her skull.

The chorus of Corinthian women counseled Medea to temper her wrath. They told her not to pray for death – after all, husbands losing interest in wives was quite commonplace. Medea, they said, needed to get her grief, and her passion under control.

But Medea did not find their counsel to be relevant to her particular case. Still from behind closed doors, Medea prayed that she would see Jason and his new wife crushed into a pulp within their palace. She rued abandoning her father and helping Jason kill her brother at a crucial moment during the Argonauts’ journey back to Greece.

The nurse went into Jason and Medea’s house to offer her comfort her furious mistress, and after more dialogue within, Medea finally appeared onstage. Her eyes were red from crying, but she was calm, and she spoke lengthily to the women of Corinth. She said that she’d tried her best to conform to the ways of Corinth – to be quiet, and to not appear proud, or conspicuous. Only, all of the adjustments that she’d made, and the things she’d accepted for Jason’s sake – were for naught. Jason had left her, and she wanted to die. Following these remarks, Medea voiced one of the most famous speeches in classical literature, and again this is from the Philip Vellacott translation, published by Penguin Books.
Surely, of all creatures that have life and will [, said Medea], we women
Are the most wretched. When, for an extravagant sum,
We have bought a husband, we must then accept him as
Possessor of our body. This is to aggravate
Wrong with worse wrong. Then the great question: will the man
We get be bad or good? For women, divorce is not
Respectable; to repel the man, not possible.

Still more, a foreign woman, coming among new laws,
New customs, needs the skill of magic, to find out
What her home could not teach her, how to treat the man
Whose bed she shares. And if in this exacting toil
We are successful, and our husband does not struggle
Under the marriage yoke, our life is enviable.
Otherwise, death is better. If a man grows tired
Of the company at home, he can go out, and find
A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look
To one man only. And, they tell us, we at home
Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear
One child. (24).

Medea added that she had no family, now – all of Colchis was gone from her. And she said that they had to understand – the chorus had to understand this. Things were going to get very, very bloody. [music]

Medea Confronts Creon, King of Corinth

As Medea wrapped up her virulent speech, a new figure approached the entrance of Jason and Medea’s house. It was Creon, the King of Corinth. This, by the way, is a different King Creon than the one in Sophocles’ Oedipus plays – that guy was the King of Thebes. So King Creon of Corinth, not to be confused with King Creon of Thebes, appeared and made a proclamation to Medea.

Medea, Creon said, was henceforth banished from Corinth. Medea demanded to know why. Creon said that he wouldn’t mince his words. He was banishing her because he was terrified of her. Creon, the King of Corinth, was afraid that Medea would hurt his daughter, and himself, as well. He’d heard threats, and he knew that she was smart, and very dangerous.

Medea’s lip curled. Creon, she said, was not liked as a king, but Medea added that she herself had no ill will toward him. Of course, Medea said, she understood Creon wanted to marry his daughter Glauce to the prominent hero Jason – Creon believed what he was doing was best for his daughter. As for Medea, she said she didn’t begrudge Creon his happiness – her hatred was all toward Jason. She asked to remain in Corinth, and said she’d suffer in silence. But Creon said this wouldn’t work. She made his blood run cold, he said, being as quiet and calm as she was. Creon said that an angry and passionate woman was far less dangerous than a quiet and smart one, such as Medea was.

Creon repeated that Medea had to leave, but, after she begged him for just one more day – a day to settle her affairs and prepare for her son’s futures – Creon agreed. Creon said he wanted her gone by dawn the next day, and thus their agreement was reached.

Creon then left, and Medea turned to the chorus of Corinthian women. Throughout the play, she discloses her plans to them in powerful monologues, and she has a special confidentiality with them, since they are all females, and share some of the same core experiences.

So Medea told the chorus of Corinthian women she had no intention of going out quietly. She said she was going to kill the king, and the princess, and Jason himself, and mused about whether to burn them alive or stab them in the guts. She had to be cautious, she told them. She would use poison. She would try to poison them, and then would flee to a foreign city for asylum. But if this didn’t work, she’d murder her husband and his new wife with a sword. She told the women of the chorus that all women, while widely dismissed as useless, could be practitioners of all sorts of black arts.

The women of the chorus then sung a song about the future of women everywhere. A time would come, they sang, when women weren’t slandered and dishonored – when they weren’t maligned as faithless and deceitful – because these qualities, far more often, were men’s. The chorus agreed that Medea had little choice in seeking revenge at any cost, and just as their song came to its conclusion, Medea’s husband Jason appeared onstage for the first time. [music]

Jason Appears, Unapologetic

Jason was utterly unapologetic about his choices. He looked at the chorus, and then addressed his wife.
I have often noticed – [said Jason,] this is not the first occasion –
What fatal results follow from ungoverned rage.
You [, Medea,] could have stayed in Corinth, still lived in this house,
If you had quietly accepted the decisions
Of those in power. Instead, you talked like a fool; and now
You are banished. Well, your angry words don’t upset me;
Go on as long as you like reciting Jason’s crimes.
But after your abuse of the King and the princess
Think yourself lucky to be let off with banishment. (30)

The golden fleece and the heroes who lived before Achilles (1921) medea (14766908825)

Medea recollects helping Jason recover the Golden Fleece and abet his rise to prominence. Jason is ready to cast her aside.

Jason said he was still fair minded – he’d not desert her – in fact he’d make sure that Medea and their two sons had some coin in order to ease their path to wherever they ended up going, and he added that he bore her no ill will.

Medea’s eyes – eyes which had once killed a metal giant, grew coal black. She said that Jason was a grubby coward, and not a man at all. She said she’d begin at the beginning. In Colchis, she’d saved his life from fire breathing bulls. She’d killed the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. She’d forsaken her family for him, and when they returned to Greece she’d arranged for the grisly murder of his tyrannical uncle. She had done all this for him, and more – made him go from a mediocre nobody to having a reputation – and now he was leaving her? She said her existence would be a shame to him – that he would have to live with the disgrace of having abandoned the woman who had made him, and the children they’d had together.

This is the point at which you would hope Jason might say, “Oh, damn. Now that you put it like that, I’m – wow – yeah, you know what, I am so, so, sorry, Medea, you know what – I’m going to divorce Creon’s daughter immediately – and we can move back to Colchis, and I can see what it’s like living in a foreign land.” But, sadly, he says nothing like this. Instead, Jason denied that Medea had done anything for him at all. He owed everything to Aphrodite, he said. Aphrodite, after all, had made the powerful Medea fall in love with him – she was just acting under her helpless passion. And, in exchange for leaving the barbarous backwater of her homeland, Jason said, she had come to Greece, and where justice and law reigned supreme. As for the marriage with Creon’s daughter, said Jason, he had arranged it in everyone’s best interest. Their social position would be consolidated, and Medea could still be his mistress, and the boys would be brought up all together. Jason closed his speech with these words.
Even you [, Medea,] would approve [, he said,]
If you could govern your sex[ual]-jealousy. But you women
Have reached a state where, if all’s well with your sex life,
You’ve everything you wish for; but when that goes wrong,
At once all that is best and noblest turns to gall.
If only children could be got some other way,
Without the female sex! If women didn’t exist,
Human life would be rid of all its miseries. (34)

The chorus – rather diplomatically – told Jason that whatever truths there had been in his speech, he was nonetheless acting very wrongly. Medea reproved her husband for not being honest from the beginning, and said she knew what it was about. It was about this. Having a foreign woman for a wife was not thought of as reputable any more.

Jason stammered, repeating that all his efforts were to build a respectable foundation and future for their family. He said that he would offer her letters of introduction to friends abroad, and whatever she needed to ease her way into a new place. Medea scorned them, and, after Jason remarked that he had done his utmost to help her and their children, Jason took his leave.

The chorus sang a song about Medea’s plight, in which they prayed that they would never suffer from a mad desire like the one that had struck Medea from Aphrodite. They prayed that they’d not be abandoned and outcast like she was, and that they’d never have to miss their homeland. And just as everything seemed unutterably bleak, a new character arrived onstage. His name was Aegeus. And he was the King of Athens.[music]

Medea Bargains with Aegeus, King of Athens

Aegeus and Medea knew one another. Aegeus respected the eastern woman’s wisdom, and he sought advice about a prophecy he’d heard from the Oracle at Delphi. Aegeus, sad to say, found himself unable to have a son with his wife, and he had gone to the Oracle to help. After a short conversation about the prophecy he’d heard, King Aegeus of Athens asked Medea why she looked so pale and devastated. And Medea told King Aegeus everything – of her husband pitilessly leaving her for the sake of a more economically advantageous marriage. Aegeus, unlike Jason or the chorus of Corinthian women, immediately took Medea’s side. Aegeus said it was natural for Medea to be upset.

Medea saw that she might receive help from Aegeus, the King of Athens. She needed a place to live, she said, and in exchange, if he wanted children with his wife, Medea could make this happen. She was, after all, a sorceress who was exceptionally handy with drugs and potions. Aegeus said she could certainly have sanctuary in Athens. And Medea made him swear – she very, very deliberately made him swear – that no matter what happened, the King of Corinth would take her in, and he made a solemn oath to the gods. They clasped arms in friendship, and Aegeus left.

With the King of Athens gone, Medea turned to the chorus of Corinthian women and made a long speech. Everything was set, now, she said. She had a plan – a place for refuge. First, she would meet with Jason and pretend to forgive him for everything. She would send, by way of her sons, a dress and golden coronet to the Corinthian princess. But this dress, and this coronet, would be covered with a poison that killed at the touch. Having killed Jason’s new wife, she would then do something so sickening that it would cause anyone who’d taken her lightly to stop their tongues. She would kill her sons. Looking around at the shocked women of the chorus, Medea said, “Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; / The laughter of my enemies I will not endure” (41). Jason, she said, would have no sons with anyone. His rise to prominence, which she had caused, she would now destroy. [music]

Medea Tricks Jason

The women of the chorus were distraught. Medea would kill her own children? They asked. She couldn’t possibly do it, they said. If she did – if she killed her sons and fled to Athens – how could she expect to live there? For Athens was a peaceful place – it was a sacred place. The chorus begged her, desperately, not to kill her boys.

And just then, Jason arrived. He stiffly asked Medea what she wanted, adding that his offer to ease her banishment still stood. And Medea, gently and conciliatingly, told Jason exactly what he’d wanted to hear in the first place. Her anger had been unwarranted, she said. He had been perfectly right to seek out a different marriage – it would be the best for both of them, as well as their sons. Why, she should have even helped prepare Jason’s new marriage bed and chamber. Her, she said, folly had been great.

Jason and Medea’s children came out, and she invited them to revere their father. She told the kids that they had all made up, and, in a moment of breaking character, Medea turned to the side and wept, thinking of what was going to happen to the kids.

Jason said he was pleased, and that his and Medea’s sons, as well as the new sons that he’d have, would all grow up and become prominent citizens of Corinth. Medea couldn’t hide her tears, and told Jason that she thought it would be better – even through King Creon had said the opposite – that it would be better if her boys stayed in Corinth. Jason was not opposed, but he said King Creon might make an objection. And Medea said she had a suggestion. What if their two sons brought a beautiful gown and coronet to Creon’s daughter – and then – Creon’s daughter might be convinced to persuade her father to let the boys stay? Jason gawked a bit, but, under Medea’s steady efforts, conceded that the gifts might be brought to his new wife. And so Jason, and the two boys, and their tutor – and the fateful box with the deadly gown and coronet – all exited stage in the direction of the Corinthian palace. [music]

Medea’s Great Deliberation

The women of the chorus were again aghast. Medea, they realized, was going to go through with everything. The Corinthian princess would die. Only, this isn’t what happened. The tutor returned from the palace with the two boys and told Medea he had good news. Sure enough, the princess, receiving Medea’s gift, had persuaded the king to let Medea’s sons remain in the city of Corinth.

Medea was not happy. She’d poisoned the dress and coronet, after all, and expected to hear news of the princess’ bad death. Medea cried and voiced a tragic speech. She said she would never see them grow old, and never see them be married, and the little boys blithely played around the house’s steps. In a masterfully written dramatic monologue, Medea deliberated about the atrocity she was about to commit.
Dear sons, [she said, ] why are you smiling at me? You smile
At me – your last smile: why?. . .
Oh, what am I to do?
Women, my courage is all gone. Their young, bright faces –
I can’t do it. I’ll think no more of it. I’ll take them
Away from Corinth. Why should I hurt them, to make
Their father suffer, when I shall suffer twice as much
Myself? I won’t do it. I won’t think of it again. . .
What is the matter with me? Are my enemies
To laugh at me? Am I to let them off scot free?
I must steel myself to it. What a coward I am,
Even tempting my own resolution with soft talk.
Boys, go indoors. . .
Oh, my heart, don’t, don’t do it! Oh, miserable heart,
Let them be! Spare your children! We’ll all live together
Safely in Athens; and they will make you happy. . .
No! No! No!. . .In any case there is no escape,
The thing’s done now. . .
Now we must say goodbye. Oh, darling hand,
And darling mouth; your noble, childlike face and body!. . .
How sweet. . .
To hold you! And children’s skin is soft, and their breath pure. . .
I understand
The horror of what I am going to do; but anger,
The spring of all life’s horror, masters my resolve. (49-50)

And one last time, that’s the Philip Vellacott translation, published by Penguin in 1963 and available in a great little volume called Medea and Other Plays, needless to say, which I recommend. So, in the wake of Medea’s long, tortured deliberative speech, the chorus sung a song about parenthood – its burdens and its perils, and Medea saw a messenger coming.

The Bad Death of the Corinthian King and Princess

He was out of breath, and he was in a state of panic. She had to flee immediately. She had to go! The princess was dead, and King Creon had been killed – Medea had to flee. Medea made no move to leave, though. “Your news,” she said, “is excellent. / I count you from today my friend and benefactor” (52). The messenger asked if Medea were insane. She didn’t answer his question. Instead, she said asked the messenger to tell her all the details of their deaths, and emphasized that her pleasure would be greater of they’d died in excruciating pain.

The messenger told her the details. The Corinthian princess had been persuaded by Jason to accept his sons into the palace, and to accept Medea’s gift. And she’d been convinced that it was the right thing to do, and the Corinthian princess had dressed herself in the gown and coronet, and admired herself in a mirror. Only soon her skin changed color, and froth oozed from her mouth, and her eyes rolled up. It was an excruciating death. The coronet clung to her skull and dribbled droplets of liquid fire onto her face while the dress caused her flesh to melt away like the sap of a pine tree. When she finally died, she was unrecognizably mangled. When he arrived, King Creon took her grisly remains in his arms, and wept, and then found he was stuck to them – and the poison from her dress seethed into his skin until he, too, was a mess of molten flesh. In this gory fashion, the messenger said, the King and Princess of Corinth had died.[music]

The Final Horror and Clash

medea on red figure amhora circa 330 bce

A red figure amphora, discovered in Campania, showing Medea killing one of her sons, from about 330 BCE.

Having given his news, the messenger left. And after a short speech, Medea went into her house to do away with her children. The chorus remained onstage and sung a dirge, emphasizing the horror of what was happening. They asked why Medea had come from to Corinth from a far off, barbaric country – and why she must be so consumed with fury. At this, they heard the scream of a child from inside the house – children pleading for their lives, terrified and powerless.

The chorus sung its dirge, and in the house the children screamed, and suddenly Jason appeared, sprinting and out of breath. Where was Medea? he demanded. And where were his sons? For the Corinthians would surely exact revenge on his boys if they got a hold of them. The chorus told Jason he had worse problems than the Corinthians. And before Jason could open the house doors, Medea appeared on the roof. She was at the reigns of a chariot driven by dragons, and on either side of her were their dead sons. The chariot had come from her grandfather, the sun God Helios, and was there to take her to safety.

Jason said she was an abomination – that Medea was a living execration who never should have been brought back to Greece. He told her he knew he couldn’t reason with her, and to get out of his sight.

Medea told him, that the gods knew that she had made him, and how he had repaid her. But Jason growled that she would suffer dreadfully from the murder, and Medea replied, that indeed she would suffer, but she would bear this suffering to ruin his life. Jason told her he would have his sons’ bodies for proper burial, but she said she would never give them up. They would be buried elsewhere, she said, and the Corinthians would pray for them every year. As for Jason, Medea voiced a bleak prophecy. He would die alone, she said. His head would be broken from a stray timber, and he would not remembered as a hero. His desire for his children was meaningless, she said. He had been about to send them into exile. He would not touch them. She spurred the dragons, and the chariot began to lift.

Jason could do nothing. Brokenly, he said that he would bemoan that day’s events forever – that he wished he’d never met her or had children with her, and that she was a destroyer. And the chorus, with the chariot now gone from the stage, had little means to make sense of the bloody tragedy. “Many matters,” they said, “the gods bring to surprising ends. / The things we thought would happen do not happen; / The unexpected God makes possible; / And such is the conclusion of this story” (61). And that’s the end.[music]

Medea‘s Ending: The Mechane

Well, that sucker is what I call a play. Wow. That ending – with Jason crying and almost sinking to his knees with futility, with the chorus mumbling a couple of vague lines about unexpected turns of fate, and with Medea taking wing with her dead sons to Athens, where she’ll enjoy the political immunity promised to her by King Aegeus of Athens – that ending is one of theatrical history’s most famous endings – as famous as the corpse heap that closes Hamlet, gunshot at the end of Chekhov’s The Seagull and the slamming door at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Medea appears, above the house, probably suspended by what the Ancient Greek set designers called a mechane, or “crane,” and then she flies off with her dragons. Then, curtain. It’s possible that it was the first time the mechane was used in a theatrical production – that before Wonder Woman, and Superman, and the divine being at the end of Angels in America, the actor playing Medea was the first human being to fly in front of an audience.6 It’s an explosive ending. As I wrote this show, I wanted to quote every single line in the play’s last fifteen pages, because the final conversation between Jason and Medea – the furious insults he hurls at her and the way that she boomerangs them back with added metal and poison – this is one of literature’s greatest scenes of enraged, unmitigated, gnashing-teeth confrontation.7

Now, we would think that this titanic, and possibly technically innovative ending would have won Euripides the first prize in that year’s City Dionysia. After all, Medea, as I said before, was the most popular Ancient Greek play in the United States in the twentieth century. Wouldn’t the ancient Athenians find that it spoke to them, as well? And the answer is no – evidently they did not.

Euripides didn’t take first prize in that year’s competition. He didn’t even take second prize. He finished dead last. There are many reasons why this may have happened, and I think in exploring these reasons we can learn both about Euripides as well as Classical Athens.

So. Why didn’t Medea win? In considering why one of our favorite Ancient Greek plays, Medea, was a critical and popular failure in Ancient Greece in 431 BCE, I want to start with some stuff so obvious that it’s actually easy to overlook. The first thing is that Medea wasn’t presented in isolation. Medea was part of a set of four plays. Tragedians at the Dionysia always presented three tragic works and one satyr play – a lighter production with formulaic elements. Of the set of four plays that Euripides presented in 431, two are entirely lost.8

The third, entitled Philoctetes, which survives in fragments, is a play about a Greek fighter abandoned on an Aegean island who’s suddenly needed during the Trojan War. The Greek heroes Odysseus and Diomedes go and recover him, but the stranded Philoctetes is reluctant to join in their efforts. So maybe – we’ll never know – but maybe Medea, together with its two accompanying tragedies and one comedy – just altogether made for a messy, dissatisfying combination. Euripides was beat out that year by his rival Sophocles, who won second place, and by a playwright named Euphorion, who was the older writer Aeschylus’ son. It goes without saying that Sophocles is quite capable of writing masterful plays, and we can also suppose that Euphorion, who hailed from a proud literary family, was probably no pushover, either. So maybe competition that year was stiff, and maybe the accompanying plays with which Euripides packaged Medea made for an uneven or awkward set. That seems pretty reasonable. But there’s another possibility. Maybe Euripides’ original audience, watching Medea, found this classic play about a woman who causes a king and princess to both die gruesome deaths, and even murders her own children – maybe Euripides’ original audience found the play unappealing. Let’s talk about why. [music]

Euripides’ Historical Reputation as a Misogynist

As you can probably well imagine, a lot of people have responded to Euripides, and his portrayal of Medea over the ages. And probably the most famous response to Euripides in general was by a man who knew him – the younger comedic playwright, Aristophanes.

Aristophanes’ play Thesmophoriazusae is actually about Euripides – it’s a wall to wall satire of Euripides, and it’s also a vigorous lampoon of the sexual politics of Classical Athens. In this play, a group of women are angry at the playwright Euripides for his derogatory treatment of women, and these women plan to use an annual fertility festival called the Thesmophoria in order to plan their vengeance. And so in this Aristophanes play, about Euripides, the women proclaim,
I’ve been disturbed and annoyed for quite some time now
When I see our reputations getting dirtied
By Euripides, son of a produce-sales girl,
And our ears filled with all sorts of disgusting things!
With what disgusting charges has [Euripides] not smeared us?
Where hasn’t he defamed us?. . .
He’s told slanderous tales, so that no. . . man wants
To try matrimony.9

And again, that was a quote from Aristophanes’ play Thesmophoriazusae, which is a satire that essentially accuses Euripides of being a misogynist. So, if we look at that monologue, those lines, with their brazen accusation of misogyny placed on Euripides, are rather startling. Antifeminism is so pervasive in the plays of Classical Athens that it feels weird, at first, anyway, to hear a playwright accusing another playwright of having a pejorative view of women. Was Euripides really so well known for his antifeminism that he was actually a fitting subject for a full length satire? Actually, there’s some evidence that Euripides was. Let’s spend a minute talking about Euripides’ historical reputation as a great hater of women.

The Roman writer Aulus Gellius, who lived during the 100s CE – long after Euripides, obviously – but anyway, the later Roman wrtier Aulus Gellius wrote about the playwright Euripides in his travelogue of Athens – in a book entitled Attic Nights. Gellius wrote that:
Euripides is said to have had a strong antipathy toward nearly all women, either shunning their society due to his natural inclination, or because he had two wives simultaneously – since that was legal according to Athenian decree – and they had made marriage abominable to him.10

So, according to this later Roman historian, and Euripides’ contemporary, Aristophanes, Euripides had a staunch, and unapologetic dislike of women. In fact, misogynistic sentiments pervade many of Euripides’ plays. Women are maligned as “devisers of evil” in the play Medea. They’re called a “source of sorrow” in Euripides’ version of Orestes. Stepmothers are made to look wicked in Euripides’ plays Ion and Alcestis. In his play Hippolytus, the absurd notion is introduced that upper class women invented adultery.11

And the title character of the play Hippolytus, who is a chaste young prince who finds himself the object of his stepmother’s lusts, rails against the female sex. And this is a little sample of something that Hippolytus says – possible evidence of Euripides’ misogyny:
O Zeus, why, as a fraudulent evil for men,
Have you brought women into the light of the sun?
For if you wished to engender the mortal race,
There was no need for women as source of supply,
But in your shrines mortal men could have offered up
Either gold or iron or heavy weight of bronze
To purchase their breed of offspring, each paid in sons
According to his own gift’s worth, and in their homes
They could live without women, entirely free.
Yet now to our homes we bring this primal evil. . .
I hate clever women. . .An untalented woman
Through lack of intelligence stays clear of folly. . .
[W]omen are. . .unceasingly wicked.
Either someone should teach them to be sensible.
Or let me trample them underfoot forever. 12

Again from Euripides’ play Hippolytus. In Hippolytus’ estimation, then, women are, at best, stupid and silent, and it would be better if they didn’t exist. Throughout the plays of Euripides, and we have more plays by Euripides than any of the other tragedians of Classical Greece, by the way – throughout the seventeen surviving plays by Euripides, lustful women, and violent women, and angry harangues against women, are not hard to find. Therefore, it’s very possible, particularly considering that Aristophanes made fun of him for it, that Euripides, and his play Medea in 431 were just too misogynistic for theatergoing Athenians. [music]

Euripides’ Deviations from the Traditional Stories about Medea

Euripide Louvre Ma343 détail buste

A sculpture of Euripides in the Louvre. More of Euripides’ plays have survived from antiquity than have survived from Aeschylus, Sophocles or Aristophanes, and his works had a major influence on the New Comedy that began to flourish about a century after he lived.

Is the play Medea misogynistic? That’s a good question, and quite obviously, open to interpretation. But one of the things that we can do to answer it is to use some facts, and consider how Euripides adapted his version of Medea for the stage. Remember that Euripides’ version of Medea was a single man’s take on an old ancestral story – an adaptation of a myth that had been around before he came along. Now, anyone who does remakes, or sequels, or prequels, usually has some innovations of his or her own to add. Euripides had one. And here’s the kicker. Scholarship generally agrees that Euripides invented Medea’s murder of her children. It’s one of the most heinous crimes in Ancient Greek literature – particularly since Medea contemplates it, as you saw, and goes back and forth, and steels herself, and then enters her house and slaughters them with a sword. She kills them, in other words, in cold blood, and ignores their screams of protest and cries for help. Now this, evidently, was Euripides’ invention, and if we accept the opinion of Aristophanes, and Aulus Gellius, and consider a sizable quantity of evidence in Euripides’ seventeen surviving plays, Euripides’ portrayal of Medea as a child killer might substantiate the theory that he fiercely, and unequivocally hated women.

In making Medea a child killer, Euripides conscientiously invented a story for her that had not existed before. There were actually many stories about Medea. The Greek historian and geographer Pausanias, who lived during the mid 100s CE, recorded many of them. According to other sources – not Euripides, in other words – Medea’s little boys were killed by the Corinthians. Pausanias records how in an ancient poem called the Naupactia, one of Jason’s kids – a boy and girl, by the way, and not two boys, was killed by a lion. A different poem called the Cinaethon also stated that Jason had a boy and a girl. In another myth, Medea didn’t flee Corinth at all – she was invited to Jason’s homeland of Iolcus and asked to rule. In still another story, after having a son with King Aegeus in Athens, Medea travelled eastward and became matriarch of the Medes in modern day Iran. And in a final version – again noted by the historian Pausanias, Medea fled the city of Corinth, leaving her children alive, after trying to make them immortal.13

When you look at variants on Greek myths, they often take the shape of bundles of sticks, or bundles of ropes held together by a rubber band or rope – widely disparate but having some unifying element. The stories about Medea are no exception. But to repeat – the important thing for our purposes is that in writing about a child murdering Medea who burns the skin off her husband’s new wife, as well as the king, Euripides seems to have created a character far more violent, and malevolent, than Medea had traditionally been depicted. In his elaborate deviation from the traditional Medea stories, and in letting Medea get off scot-free in her chariot of dragons, Euripides may have written a play that was too misogynistic, too unorthodox, and too shockingly, unexpectedly violent, even for fifth-century Athens.14

Heroes and Helper Women

So that’s one take on Medea. We can call it the old fashioned approach – that Medea, in spite of the fact that wrong is done to her, retaliates with such gory, merciless excess that she ends up being repugnant, and Jason ends up seeming almost mildly tolerable in comparison, and the play’s end, which sees Medea flying to safety, is more or less the equivalent of a wicked witch hopping on a broomstick and riding off to wreck havoc on a new place. This interpretation of the play – which might well have been the one the classical Athens had, finds it neither morally satisfying nor philosophically intelligible. Fortunately for us, there are other cool interpretations of Medea we can consider.

Michele Desubleo - Ulysses and Nausicaa, 1654

Michele Desubleo’s Ulysses and Nausicaa (1654), in which Odysseus asks the Phaecian princess for help.

Medea, once again, was the most popular Ancient Greek play of the twentieth century in the US. And obviously, it wouldn’t have been so popular if its main character were nothing more than an appalling villain. Many modern readers of the play find the character Medea’s retaliatory violence, if excessive in its totality, at least justifiable in part. In other words, the innocent boys didn’t deserve slaughter. Nor did the practical monarch Creon and his blameless daughter. But Jason, who used Medea and then shamelessly, unapologetically ignored his marriage with her – Jason needed to understand that what he did was not fair to the wife who loved him so deeply. Something needed to be done. Medea grossly, atrociously overdid it, but at least she did something – something that wouldn’t ever be forgotten. This interpretation of Medea – of Medea as at least partly heroic, is a more common one today.

Let’s talk a little bit more about how we can think of Medea as heroic. The myths of Ancient Greece are full of stories about heroes and women who help them on their quests. Heroes, and women who help them on their quests. Now, there’s a word in literary criticism – from structuralism, actually – and this word is “mytheme.” It basically means a theme common to a group of myths that bundles them together in relation to one another.15 So Medea herself is a mytheme. But an older mytheme, as I said a minute ago, is the story of a hero who goes on a quest and receives aid from a foreign woman – a priestess, or oracle, or princess. Jason, in the old story of Jason and the Argonauts, has all of his most difficult labors completed for him by Medea. Odysseus receives help from the princess Nausicaa, and the witch Circe. The hero Theseus, in the labyrinth of Minos, gets help from princess Ariadne of Crete. Later, we’ll see the Roman hero Aeneas getting help from Dido. This mytheme – of a hero getting help from a resourceful foreign woman – is more pervasive in the epic Jason and the Argonauts than any of these stories. Because more than Odysseus, or Theseus, or Aeneas, Jason is as I said before just kind of an average guy. Without Medea’s help, he probably would have died in Colchis five times over, as well as on the way back to Greece.

This is all to say that if we want to interpret Medea’s vengeful desires as at least in part justifiable, there’s plenty of reason to do so. The mediocre pretty boy whom she helped rise to success is suddenly ready to forget the past and secure himself a patrician future in Corinth – and forget the gorgeous, powerful woman who traveled thousands of miles with him, and killed with him, and married him, and bore his children. If a human being ever owed another human being loyalty, Jason owed Medea everything.

So it could be, that for Ancient Greeks, it actually wasn’t any misogyny on the part of Euripides that made Medea unpalatable. Maybe it was the opposite. Medea’s desire for payback was a stark departure from the customary mytheme about a masculine hero who gets feminine assistance. Because in this mytheme, the female helper gets left behind. Odysseus leaves behind Calypso, and Nausicaa, and Circe, after sleeping with two out of three of them. Theseus abandons Ariadne on an island after she helps him through the labyrinth. Aeneas – though the Classical Greeks wouldn’t have known this one, but anyway, Aeneas discards Dido, and she burns herself alive on a pile of all the things that remind her of him. In short, if you were writing a myth in the Greco-Roman world about a swaggering male hero and a nice helper woman he encounters on his adventures, the nice helper woman, sooner or later, gets abandoned. Maybe this was why Euripides’ audience didn’t take too kindly to the play Medea. Maybe they would have liked it better if she’d hung herself, or poisoned herself, or stabbed herself, and conveniently paved the way for Jason’s uncluttered future.

But in talking about the play Medea, and its reception with its original audience, we have one final thing that we definitely need to consider. Medea isn’t just a woman. She’s a foreign woman. And because of specific historical events, and specific legislation that had been passed in Athens in the mid-400s BCE, Medea’s position as a foreigner would have been a special source of attention to Eurpides’ audience – maybe even more so than her murderous crimes. So in the last part of our analysis of Medea, I’m going to tell you a bit about marriage and citizenship laws in Athens during the life of Euripides, and why these laws may be the key to understanding the most popular Ancient Greek play of the 20th century. [music]

Woman the Barbarian

A few episodes back – in the one about Aeschylus’ play The Libation Bearers, we talked about the lives of women in Classical Athens. And we learned that patrician women, particularly, lived confined existences, that they were discouraged from unregulated socialization, and that marriage was a vehicle for the generation of offspring and transference of wealth. Marriage, in other words, may have incidentally resulted in love and tenderness between its participants, but its primary and instrumental purpose was a financial one. Thus, in the century after Euripides lived, an orator we call Pseudo-Demosthenes famously attested that as for Athenian men, “We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our person, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring.”16 In other words, mistresses were for sex and fun conversation, concubines were for sex, and wives were for sex and procreation, and moving money between generations.

That may have been one of the things about the play Medea that does not at all stand out for us, but would have been a source of interest to Euripides’ original audience. Medea loves her husband. She passionately, vociferously loves Jason. Now, she may love him as a result of the arrow from Eros that struck her when she first saw him in Colchis. But still, Medea adores her husband personally. In an era during which wives were thought of as sort of – bedroom fixtures – like night stands or lamps that occasionally had babies – a loving wife who demanded a monogamous husband might have been a curiosity onstage, maybe even something to be gawked at.

But even moreso, as I said a second ago, a foreign wife would have been a particular source of attention. We might see Medea as a loyal wife whose desire for a monogamous marriage is reasonable and justified. But Athenians – Athenians very possibly saw a passionate, hot blooded foreigner whose demands for fidelity are arrogant and misplaced.

Marbles and bronzes; fifty plates from selected subjects in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1914) (14779575844)

Pericles decreed that citizenship could only pass through generations when both parents were Athenian citizens, thus making marriage to a foreigner a huge economic disadvantage.

In 451, the famous statesman Pericles who stood at the helm of Golden Age Athens for decades – Pericles issued a decree on marriage. Twenty years before the world premiere of Medea, in Athens, a law was passed that citizenship could only be extended through means of a male Athenian citizen, and a female Athenian citizen. Prior to this regulation, male citizens could marry foreign women and pass citizenship on through them. But after 451, there was a serious and pressing economic reason for Athenian males to marry Athenian females. Without an Athenian mother and father, after 451, Athenian children had no place in the Assembly, and they had restricted rights to trial by jury, and they lost other prerogatives exclusive to Athenian citizens.17

Now, Athens passed this legislation in 451 because the city was getting so lavishly wealthy that its leaders wanted to carefully restrict how many new citizens were created, and this was a blunt force approach to doing so. The Athenians said anyone who wasn’t born from two citizens was not a citizen. And although this may have helped cinch up the silver coffers of the city’s patrician classes, who all married one another, anyway, it’s hard not to imagine all the middle class citizens who might have wanted to marry someone they met while abroad.

And so the plight of Jason might have been the plight faced by men in the audience who had been married to, or were still married to foreign women. In his youth, before he knew any better, Jason had joined himself with a beautiful and passionate foreigner. However, as Jason grew older and times changed, he saw that continued marriage to this foreigner would result in immediate and continuing disadvantages for his children and his legacy. And so – as many Athenian men may have, Jason shed aside his alien wife – who was really only for childbearing, anyway, and found himself a good, native bride. Now, I know they were in the city of Corinth in the play, of course, but still, Corinth is a large, developed city and Jason cites reasons for marrying a citizen that would have made sense in Euripides’ Athens.

I wonder how the vote in the Dionysia contest would have gone down if Euripides had written the following ending. What if Medea protested, but then eloquently backed down and accepted the position of mistress? What if she had used her drugs to make Jason’s new wife extra fertile, and the kids all grew up together? We would have found this ending quite dissatisfying. But Athenian men in 431 might have felt rather pleased by it – a didactic tale that taught that it was just fine to have wives and mistresses, that foreign women were somehow naturally subsidiary to Athenian ones, and that men could have sex with anything that moved, any time, any place, with impunity. That particular play might have gone over swimmingly with an audience of Golden Age Athens – it would have assuaged their discomfort and guilt at offering marriage and legitimate children only to Athenian women, when of course these men must have developed feelings for all sorts of women – uh – and, of course men – regardless of ethnicity and social caste.

But this isn’t what happens. Medea rips off her rival’s skin like wax, or like tree sap, the play says, and burns the princess’ face off with liquid fire. Medea goes into Jason’s house and hacks her children up and then steals their bodies. And then – as if in a final, fierce message to the audience, Medea travels to Athens. The message about foreign women in Athens is clear. They’re here. They’ve been here all along. They’re not going anywhere. And we can’t sweep them under the rug with some hemming and hawing about doing what’s best for the kids. If Euripides’ audience sat down in the spring of 431 expecting a version of Medea that gently did away with her, as the earlier legends about Medea seem to have, they got the opposite. In Medea, the outmoded foreign wife is not something that can be folded up and put into a closet. She is sentient, and expressive, and perceptive, and – even more frighteningly – smarter than kings and princesses, deadlier than epic heroes, and not particularly partial to forgiveness. And at the end of Medea, she’s heading to Athens. And she’s bringing her dragons.

Cold Rational Athenians and Passionate Outland Barbarians

To return to the main idea of this episode – which again I’ve named Woman the Barbarian – just as much as she was a seditious woman, Medea would have been a barbarian to Euripides’ original audience. A particularly troubling barbarian. I think this quality – the fact that she was a barbarian – more than the fact that she was an assertive woman, would have stood out to Athenians in 431 BCE. Medea was from a distinct place, and as an easterner, she lacked certain Greek qualities, the chief among these qualities being something called sophrosyne, or self control. Athenians believed in moderate, organized, carefully regulated lives – lives most ideally without a great deal of excess.18 In the mid 400s, Athenians had seen organization, prudence, and discipline, time and time again win out against other cultures. In the Persian Wars, their historically consequential decision to pour the city’s resources into a navy, at the cost of army or cavalry, was a calculated strategy that paid off in the end. In fact, as the Delian league increased in power and the Athenian empire ballooned up into the Aegean, Athens’ concentration on commerce, and technical innovation, and its ability to fend off foes on several fronts at a time – these abilities were the result of Greek discipline and intellectualism, and as the empire grew, Athenians needed these qualities more and more.

Medea - A. Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Medea (c. 1620). Medea’s combination of chilly deliberation and violent action made her a unique figure for Euripides’ audience.

To Athenians themselves, the thing that differentiated them from the unwashed, barbaric, inland masses was that quality called sophrosyne, or self-control. And while Medea is most certainly a play about the asymmetrical power relations between men and women – particularly foreign women who were no longer eligible for Athenian citizenship, Medea is also a play about Athens verses the rest of the known world. Jason, as scholars have pointed out, is coldly rational, and capable of studious decision making, and most famously the captain of a ship and a prolonged naval expedition. It’s not too much of a stretch to see this disciplined hero, with his speeches about abiding by his city’s rules, as an emblem of Athens. Medea, on the other hand, is the barbarian. She is, also, certainly capable of cold calculation, and deceptive maneuvering, and analyzing the impacts of her decisions. But everything that Medea does throughout the play is ultimately propelled by a passionate desire for revenge. Against the traditionally Greek notion of sophrosyne, or self-control, Medea is an ultimate nightmare – a being capable of using Greek discipline together with the wild incomprehensible bloodthirstiness of a foreigner. How could Euripides’ Athenians possibly like an ending in which, rather than the Athenian empire expanding and subsuming other regional cultures, a foreign culture instead arrived, subsumed, and won out?

In the ending of Medea, Euripides committed a mortal sin. Even in the six plays we’ve read so far, you might remember a pattern. Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy concludes with Orestes happily having found solace, in Athens, the abode of justice and clemency forever after. Sophocles’ Oedipus ends up buried peacefully near the city of Athens, his last moments overseen by the King of Athens. But in Euripides’ Medea, Athens, and everything it stands for, loses. That, I think, maybe more than misogyny, and maybe even more than thorny social commentary on marriage legislation, was why the Classical Greeks gave this play that we love so much their thumbs down.

Euripides, evidently, rarely hit the mark with his tragedies – maybe because he was willing to say things that others weren’t. Out of the fifty years in which Euripides competed in the City Dionysia, he won first place only four or five times. By the time Euripides was old, he was sufficiently unpopular in Athens that he went far north across the mainland, to the court of the King of Macedonia, to spend the last years of his life. There, closer to the threshold between civilized and barbarian, maybe, Euripides found a place that suited him better.[music]

Moving on to The Bacchae

Euripides’ surviving seventeen plays are full of things that we see in Medea – women being done wrong, and women trapped in bad marriages, for instance.19 But I think that another theme in Medea – that dichotomy between cold civilized rationalism on one hand, and hot blooded passion on the other – this dichotomy makes its way into Euripides’ most critically regarded play, The Bacchae.

In the next show we’re going to talk about The Bacchae, our eighth, and final work of Ancient Greek tragedy for this podcast, and one that was staged in the last years in the Peloponnesian War. The Bacchae is another dark and violent story, a tale about religious cults that were emerging as the 400s gave way to the 300s. The Bacchae depicts a real historical moment, in which the followers and evangelists of the cult Dionysus were clashing with rationalists and religious skeptics. And this final work of Ancient Greek tragedy is not only a snapshot of religious extremism stoked by decades of war and chaos. The Bacchae, with its story of murderous cults and blood sacrifices, is also a concise introduction to key religious practices and ideologies that began to pervade the world over the course of the rise of Rome, and have continued to do so, ever since. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ve got a comedy song coming up if you’re interested. If not, I’ll be bringing you The Bacchae very soon.

Still here? Okay. So, this time I got to thinking about what a good song about Medea would be. And I was thinking, what if a Russian rock band – who were super cool but whose English wasn’t so great – what if a Russian rock band wrote a really kicking song about Medea? A song with heavy riffs and guitar solos and lots of – uh – grammar problems, too. You know. Some people write songs about break ups and poetic musings on their own lives. And I have written an ESL Russian rock song about a 2,500 year old play. Well, why not. Anyway, this one is called “She Will Never Backing Down.” Hope it makes you chuckle, and picture Medea on a hard rock album cover, or something, and don’t worry – we’ll be seeing more of Medea very soon. Do svidanya!

1.^ “New versions of Euripides’ Medea were the only Greek tragedies to make a consistent mark on the nineteenth-century American professional stage, and in various incarnations the play has remained the most-performed Greek tragedy in the twentieth century.” Foley, Helene P. “Reimagining Medea as American Other.” Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. U of California, 2012, p.190.

2.^ Xenophon. Anabasis. Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition, pp. 94-6.

3.^ These include Argo, Lemnian Women, Phineas, and Hypsiple. Aeschylus had a particular interest in an early episode in Jason’s travels during which he and his crew encounter an island populated exclusively with women.

4.^ These include Sophocles’ plays Medea, Lemnian Women, Phrixus and Women of Colchis.

5.^ Euripides. Medea and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction by Philip Vellacott. New York and London: Penguin, 1963, p. 17. Further references will be noted parenthetically.

6.^ Graham Lev, in A Short Introduction to Ancient Greek Theater (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) writes that the production of Medea in 431 was the first known use of a mechane.

7.^ Richard Rutherford notes the scene as an example of an agon, or a rhetorical contest or debate such as the sophists taught their pupils, citing other similar confrontations in climactic lines between Theseus and Hippolytus in Hippolytus and Helen and Hecuba in Trojan Women. See Euripides. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Translated by John Davie, with an introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford. London: Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition, location 429.

8.^ The tragedy Dictys, probably about Perseus’ adopted father, is no longer extant. Nor is Euripides’ satyr play Theristai, of which we have no records.

9.^ Quoted in Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, pp. 103-4.

10.^ Gellius, Alus. Attic Nights, 15.20. Quoted in Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, pp. 103-4.

11.^ See Pomeroy p. 105 for a full summary.

12.^ Euripides. Hippolytus, 616-68 Translated by Judith Peller Hallett.

13.^ See Pausanias. Description of Greece. Nisyros Publishers. Kindle Edition, 1525-44.

14.^ It’s worth remembering, though, that Euripides’ Heracles also takes on a darker and more cursed persona than in traditional myths. Customarily, it was for murdering his family that Heracles had to complete the seven labors, but in Euripides’ play, Heracles has already completed his labors and happily returned home before he descends into madness and murders them.

15.^ Claude Lévi-Strauss writes that “the very core of our argument” in a 1963 essay is that “the true consistent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning. Relations pertaining to the same bundle may appear diachronically, at remote intervals, but when we have succeeded in grouping them together, we have reorganized our myth according to a time referent of a new nature corresponding to the prerequisite of the initial hypothesis. . .To put it in even more linguistic terms, it is as though a phoneme were always made up of all its variants” (Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” Quoted in Theories of Myth. Lancaster: Garland, 1996, p. 121).

16.^ Demosthenes. Against Neaira. 59.118-22.

17.^ See Thomas R. Martin. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Yale Nota Bene: Kindle Edition, Locations 1684-1693.

18.^ See the Introduction to Euripides. Medea and Other Plays. Translated by Philip Vellacott. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition, pp. 7-8.

19.^ Euripides’ surviving plays are full of women who suffer egregiously in marriage, and Euripides, scene after scene, lets women talk about this suffering. In Andromanche, the title character has to be married to the son of the man who killed her beloved husband and desecrated his corpse. In The Trojan Women, the Trojan princess Cassandra has to marry the Greek butcher king Agamemnon. In Orestes, Hermione has to marry the volatile man who once threatened to kill her. In Iphigenia in Tauris, we learn that Agamemnon killed Clytemnestra’s first husband and son before marrying her. In Hippolytus, poor Phaedra is married to Theseus, who has conquered her homeland of Crete and seduced and abandoned her sister. In all these extant Euripides plays, women in bad marriages spend plenty of time on camera, plainly suffering from the pangs of unions that they have been forced into, or compelled to remain in. They are not, in other words, the causes of their unhappy marriages – instead greedy, or overweening, or lascivious men have trapped them into sad, stilted lives. So while Aristophanes and Aulus Gellius, and Euripides’ own adjustments to the Medea story all suggest the playwright’s misogyny, plenty of internal evidence in his plays suggests on the contrary that Euripides thought a lot about women being adversely affected by marriage.