Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part I: Purity and Moderation

Last fall, I took a literature class in which I read the play Medea by Euripides in its original ancient Greek. This infamous tale of a vengeful wife who slays her own children to get back at her husband is a horrific yet gripping tale that reveals the dark side of humanity, no matter what language you read it in. But reading the tragedy in its original language brought it to life in all its viciousness, to a level impossible with a translation.

The Greek edition of the play we used.

In addition to discussing the play’s themes in class, we were encouraged to explore the text individually by writing papers investigating whatever topic related to the play that we found interesting. My friend Jonathan has already shared his essay, which discusses translation technique.

What follows is a modified version of my paper, in which I decided to focus on the portrayal of the city of Athens in the play because I noticed a a paradox: the playwright Euripides seems to shower praise on Athens as a perfect, wonderful place, but Medea, the child-murderer, is able to find refuge there, despite all the horrible acts she has committed.

Beginning with the third stasimon (the third chorus song, after the initial entrance song), where the praise is concentrated, I discovered that Athens seems to embody the following positive characteristics:

  1. Purity
  2. Virtuous moderation, especially in regard to sexual desires
  3. Mastery of knowledge and wisdom (in Greek, sophia)
  4. Harmony with the gods
  5. Hospitality and decent treatment of guests and suppliants

However, I soon found that when Medea attains refuge in Athens, she brings with her the exact characteristics necessary to systematically dismantle, subvert, and counteract all these positive qualities of the Athenians:

  1. Impurity
  2. Extreme behavior, motivated by sexual jealousy
  3. Manipulation of sophia toward destructive ends
  4. Alteration of divine powers toward chaotic purposes
  5. Corruption of the institution of hospitality

In this post, we will examine Athenian purity and moderation. In future posts, we will look at the other positive qualities of Athens, before moving on to how Medea disrupts those characteristics. All quotations of the text are my translations of the original Greek.

In the first strophe (a strophe is half-unit that makes up a stanza) of the third stasimon, the aspect of purity is best brought out by the description of the Athenians as “always walking gracefully through the very clear air”(829-30: αἰεὶ διὰ λαμπροτάτου / βαίνοντες ἁβρῶς αἰθέρος). λαμπροτάτου (lampratatou) is the superlative of λαμπρός (lampros), meaning “bright” or “shining,” but also “clear,” when describing air or water.

Modern-day view of the Athenian Acropolis. By Christophe Meneboeuf [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The superlative indicates a high degree of clarity within the Athenian atmosphere only possible with a lack of impurities—mist, fog, or vapors—which limit visibility: perhaps why Mastronarde (editor of the text we used) translates in his notes λαμπροτάτου αἰθέρος (lampratatou aitheros) as “bright pure air,” as if purity and perfect clarity were one and the same. This is no fleeting coincidence of the weather, for the Athenians are said to be always (αἰεὶ/aiei) living and walking (βαίνοντες/bainontes) through this pure air: purity, then, is an aspect of the Athenian climate—a permanent and lasting characteristic of Athens.

A side note: unfortunately, the purity of Athens’ air is not as permanent as one would like, because gradual climate change and modern pollution have altered the Athenian climate since the ancient days.

Mastronarde also construes the “bright pure air” as an allusion to the idea of a moderate, Athenian climate; he points to several other ancient sources making such references, but the connection in this strophe between a pure atmosphere and a climate of moderation is not immediately obvious.

A tenuous connection appears in Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, and Places 5, where it is suggested that the sun, in moderate climates, purifies harmful vapors and thereby causes the water to become clear (lampra/λαμπρά) and more enjoyable to drink, but no mention is made of air clarity, nor is the Greek text itself explicit about how the process even works.

Still, it is possible that the positive description of Athens’ pure climate might lead some audience members watching the play to think of other qualities associated with the Athenian climate, such as moderation. If this idea were brought to mind in the first strophe, it would then be reinforced by these lines of the antistrophe (the second half of the stanza):

τοῦ καλλινάου τ᾽ ἐπὶ Κηφισοῦ ῥοαῖς
τὰν Κύπριν κλῄζουσιν ἀφυσσαμέναν
χώρας καταπνεῦσαι μετρίους ἀνέμων
ἀέρας ἡδυπνόους.
They in celebration say that Aphrodite, having drawn out water at the beautiful flows of the Cephisus, blew down over the land moderate and sweet breezes of wind (836-40).

Though no explicit connection can be made, it is possible that the images and ideas hinted at above recur here: purity of air and water, and moderation of climate.

Venus de Milo, the famous statue of Aphrodite at the Louvre Museum.

Of course, there is a more obvious suggestion in this instance: that Athens—its climate and unique geographical environment represented respectively by the breezes of Aphrodite and the river Cephisus—is connected to the ideals of moderation.

The fact that the Athenians are blessed with the sweet winds of moderation by Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex, indicates that Athens is not just being extolled as a bastion of general moderation, but specifically moderation in the context of love and erotic passion.

That’s it for now! Next time, we will examine Athens’ harmonious relationship with the divine and the nature of Athenian wisdom (sophia).


Liddell-Scott Jones Greek Lexicon, available on the web here.

Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press. Note on lines 829-30.



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