Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part IV: Impurity

In Euripides’ Medea, the first strophic pair of the third choral ode creates a beautiful image of Athens as a harmonious place of purity, knowledge, and virtuous moderation, characteristics enhanced by the Athenians’ close relationship with the divineThese qualities, though, are brought into question by the opening of the second strophic pair of the choral ode:

πῶς οὖν ἱερῶν ποταμῶν
ἢ πόλις ἢ φίλων
πόμπιμός σε χώρα
τὰν παιδολέτειραν ἕξει,
τὰν οὐχ ὁσίαν μετ᾽ ἄλλων;
So how will a city of sacred rivers, or a land which grants guidance to friends, accept you, the child-killer, one who is impure among others? (846-50)

Here, the positive characteristics of Athens mentioned earlier are again brought to mind: the sacred rivers recall the “flows of the Cephisus,” from which Aphrodite draws out water in the first strophic pair, while the idea that Athens “grants guidance to friends”—that it provides protection to deserving suppliants—recalls the Aegeus scene.

With the defense of suppliants in mind, the Chorus narrows its focus to the specific suppliant Athens is about to grant refuge to: Medea, who is instantly identified with impurity, a force precisely opposed to the pristine, pure environment of Athens.

That she will find sanctuary in Athens seems impossible, for she is οὐχ ὁσίαν (ouk osian), unclean or impure, with the sense of being contrary to divine law. She is polluted with religious miasma as a result of an unholy act: the murder of her children.

A scholarly book concerning miasma, or “pollution,” in ancient Greek religion.

And yet, she will continue to dwell “among others”(μετ᾽ ἄλλων/met’ allon). She will bring her corrosive pollution beside the inhabitants of Athens who “walk through the bright pure air.” She will enter Athens as an impure suppliant, spreading her miasma among the other suppliants, those who are actually deserving of Athenian aid.

Medea conveys her impure self into Athens and disrupts its pure environment by using one of its great traditional qualities—its respect for suppliants—as a method of protecting herself. She, therefore, calls into question and corrupts the moral standing of Athenian hospitality.

Since Medea’s impure pollution is a consequence of acts contrary to the divine, the idea of Athens as a sacred city in harmony with the divine starts to break apart in the presence of this unholy figure.

In these few lines, Medea begins to counteract several of the qualities which are known to make Athens great: its purity, its defense of suppliants, and its close relationship with the divine. Next time, we will examine in further depth how Medea manipulates the institution of supplication for her own benefit.

Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press.  Notes to line 850.

Most, G. W. 1999. “Two problems in the third stasimon of Euripides’ Medea, Classical Philology 94: 20-35.

Parker, R. 2005. “The Greek concept of pollution,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary: Oxford University Press.


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