Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part V: The Manipulation of Supplication

Last time, we saw how Medea disrupts several of the positive qualities valued by the Athenians. Today, we will examine in greater detail how Medea manipulates the institution of supplication, traditionally respected by Athens, for her own advantage. 

Medea supplicates Creon, the king of Corinth, just as he is about to banish her from his city; as a result, she buys enough time to accomplish her plans (324-51). She, as already mentioned in a previous post, also supplicates Aegeus to guarantee refuge for herself once the deadly mission is completed (709-758).

In both cases, the institution of supplication is distorted, for Medea conceals from Creon and Aegeus her true intentions: firstly, from Creon, that she plans to kill him and his daughter, the princess for whom Jason has abandoned Medea; secondly, from Aegeus, that she plans to commit multiple murders before escaping to his city. She conceals her true nature from both of them: she is no weak and helpless suppliant deserving of protection, but herself a possible threat to her benefactors.

She even uses the supplication of others as part of her plan: she asks that the princess “entreat her father”(942: ἄντεσθαι πατρὸς) and that the children “approach the princess as suppliants”(971: iketeuete/ἱκετεύετε) as they deliver gifts laced with deadly poison to her. Supplication, the sacred right of the innocent, again becomes just a tool by which Medea accomplishes her own murderous goals.

Medea, though she makes use of supplication as a tool of manipulation, herself does not answer the entreaties of the suppliants who would approach her, as the second strophic pair of the third stasimon makes clear.

As with any other topic dealing with the ancient world, there have literally been books written on the issue of supplication. Here is one of the recent ones. The cover image depicts the traditional supplication pose.

The Chorus themselves become suppliants first, begging her not to “slay the children, by your knees (γονάτων/gonaton) in every way possible”(853-5: μή, πρὸς γονάτων σε πάντᾳ / πάντως ἱκετεύομεν, / τέκνα φονεύσῃς). This is significant in that suppliants asking for aid would traditionally grasp the knees of the person being supplicated.

Then, the Chorus members imagine that Medea “will not be able, when the children fall down as suppliants, to moisten a bloody hand with a daring heart”(862-5: οὐ δυνάσῃ, / παίδων ἱκετᾶν πιτνόντων, / τέγξαι χέρα φοινίαν / τλάμονι θυμῷ), but of course this request is made in vain: Medea proceeds with her plans and slays the children; she does indeed “moisten a bloody hand,” incurring the impure pollution of blood guilt.

So Medea’s destruction of supplication as a sacred custom and viable moral law is complete, contrary to the Athenian defense of suppliants: she uses it as a tool for destructive, pragmatic aims, but ignores it when it is directed at her, slaying her own children when they themselves are the innocent and helpless suppliants whom she ought to protect.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.