Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part II: Wisdom and Harmony with the Divine

Last time, I wrote about the Athenian characteristics of purity and moderation as depicted in the third stasimon of Euripides’ Medea. This time, I will move on to Athenian wisdom and Athens’ relationship with the divine, but still keep in mind purity and moderation in respect to erotic desire, as both those elements will come up again.

As I said before, Athens in the ancient days was thought to have a moderate climate, and it was believed that one of the benefits of this moderate climate was to produce a greater level of intelligence and wisdom among Athenians; though the exact Greek words for this mental acuity are not always the same in all sources (Plato in the Timaeus uses phronimotatos/φρονιμωτάτος, while Hippocrates uses synesis/σύνεσις), it is nevertheless fitting for the Athenians to be described as “nourishing themselves on most famous wisdom”(827-8: φερβόμενοι / κλεινοτάταν σοφίαν).

What I have translated as wisdom is in Greek sophia/σοφία, which more broadly stands for knowledge in all manner of arts and skills, extending from crafts like weaving, sculpting and metalworking to other intellectual pursuits such as poetry and rhetoric.

A Roman-era sarcophagus (2nd century AD) depicting the nine Muses

But the strophe goes further, pushing Athenian sophia towards perfection, for “they say that the nine pure Pierian Muses, gave birth to fair-haired Harmony”(831-4: ἁγνὰς / ἐννέα Πιερίδας Μούσας λέγουσι / ξανθὰν Ἁρμονίαν φυτεῦσαι)—that is to say, it is in Athens that the arts of sophia, represented by the Muses who inspire them, come together in perfect harmonious alignment.

The other two previously mentioned Athenian elements of purity and moderation recur in connection with sophia, reinforced by the presence of divine forces.

For purity, it is notable that the “pure”(agnas/ἁγνὰς) Muses (Mousas/Μούσας) of Athenian sophia give birth to Harmony in the air, the same “bright pure air” through which the Athenians walk.

As far as moderation in matters of sexual passion is concerned, it is said in the antistrophe that, having blown moderate winds over the land, Aphrodite “sends Desires, seated beside Wisdom, as fellow workers in all types of excellence”(843-5: τᾷ Σοφίᾳ παρέδρους πέμπειν Ἔρωτας, / παντοίας ἀρετᾶς ξυνεργούς)—recalling the many crafts encompassed by Athenian wisdom.

This pathway of Athenian virtues is possible through the guidance, close presence, and cooperation of divine beings, from Aphrodite to personified Wisdom to the Muses, who bring forth another personified virtue in the form of Harmony. There must be no doubt, then, that the Athenians live in close connection with these divine forces, for they are “children of the blessed gods”(825: θεῶν παῖδες μακάρων).

Next time, we will move on to discuss Athens’ reputation for respectful treatment of suppliants and its support of the traditional custom of hospitality.


Sources

Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press. See notes on lines 827-34.

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