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Greek Tragedy: Medea of Euripides

This week in my Great Books project I read Euripides’ Medea.  As a child I read (and reread) several books about Greek mythology.  Even then I remember being disturbed by the story of Medea: the Colchian princess who falls in love with Jason and gives up everything to help him the Argonauts on their quest, only to be discarded by him as soon as they get back to Greece.  Now, reading Euripides’ treatment of the story, I have more context from Ancient Greek culture, not to mention my own adult love life, to apply to it.  The story still disturbs me.

As a play, Medea is rarely a crowd pleaser.  In its debut year it only took third place in the annual drama competition, losing out to SophoclesPhiloctetes and a play by Aeschylus.  I suspect the reason audiences have trouble with Medea is that Euripides did entirely too good a job capturing his themes:  betrayal, a painful break-up, madness, and vengeance that hurts the avenger as badly as their victim.  Great art is often disturbing on some level.  To the citizens of Athens, however, Medea would have been like one of those modern movies that are you think are brilliant but you never want to see again because they freak you out.

As it happens, the centuries immediately after the Golden Age were kinder to Euripides than they were to his rivals.  The reason that more of Euripides’ plays have been preserved than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles put together, and in better copies, is that learned Hellenes of the Seleucid era held them in high esteem and made them required reading in their schools.

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In Medea, Euripides takes a myth which was already ancient and casts it as a story which is as unfortunate as it is timeless:  an ambitious man sets aside the lover of his youth and mother of his children for a younger, better connected woman who is a better fit for his new career and lifestyle.  Jason isn’t a particularly evil or vindictive man.  He is happy to support Medea and her children, he just wants her out of Corinth before she embarrasses him with his new wife and father-in-law.  He tries to keep things amicable.  In his mind, he owes Medea nothing more than this.  He has already brought her to “civilized” Greece and made her famous, they have had some good times, and now she should be mature enough to step aside and let him live his life.

Have you ever been dumped by someone who liked you, but decided that you just didn’t fit into their career plans?  I have, and it hurts.  Anyone who remembers the pain of still being in love with someone who has fallen out of love with them can relate to Medea.  Even more, in a way, is the reminder of people I have broken up with who were truly in love with me, but with whom I saw no future.

Then Medea goes completely insane, murdering the other woman and her own children.  As atrocious as these acts are, they are also a bitter story of how strong the emotions of one-sided love can sometimes be–strong enough to push someone over the edge into madness.

Medea Abou to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

Medea About to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In our own culture, possibly in our own families, we have seen plenty of examples of ugly divorces in which a successful man leaves his “starter wife” for a new “trophy wife”, deciding that the alimony payments are worth it.  It would have been the same, if not worse, in Periclean Greece.  Foreign born women like Medea were not even legally allowed to marry Greek citizens, and so would have had none of the divorce rights of Greek women.  Even native women could be easily divorced by their husbands and had no claims to custody of their children or to property beyond their original dowry.  Concubinage was also common, and could hardly have been a comfortable situation for either the wife–replaced in bed by a younger woman–or the concubine who, in the words of Will Durant, “when her charms wear off, will become in effect a household slave, and that only the offspring of the first wife are accounted legitimate.”

We know that could and did attend the Athenian theater.  There must have been some rather tense households in Athens the night after Medea played.

Beyond this deeply personal and individual pathos, Medea symbolizes and older and larger conflict in Greek civilization.  The original societies of the Mediterranean, such as the Minoan Crete or Pelasgian Hellas, had been matriarchal.  Their religion had been much simpler and more shamanic, focusing on appeasing local fertility goddesses and earth spirits.  Many centuries before Euripides they had been conquered by the Dorians, a patriarchal Aryan people who worshiped the sky gods.  While is was dominated, the older culture was never completely destroyed.  Medea, a powerful barbarian shaman, symbolizes the old culture.  Jason, a “civilized” Greek aristocrat, is the new.  They are able to work together to achieve a common goal, but conflict is inevitable when the new culture turns on the old.

Medea is one of Euripides’ earlier plays.  I go now to read Hippolytus and Bacchae, from his middle and late periods, respectively.  I am curious to see how his style changed and whether he kept his disturbing artistic edge, or blunted it in an effort to win more popularity.