Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part VI: A Woman of Extremes

It’s been awhile since I’ve put up a post about Euripides’ Medea. Previously, I wrote about how Medea counteracts the Athenian ideals of purity, connection with the divine, and hospitality for suppliants.

Now we shall also see that Medea challenges the positive quality of moderation, because she is a woman of extremes, one who is characterized—and made infamous—by the horrific murder of her own children, undertaken for the sake of vengeance. It almost does not need to be stated that any parent willing to go to such lengths must be regarded as extreme.

Vengeance on its own, however, is not necessarily an act of extremity. According to the traditional morality of the ancient Greeks, some would in fact find it reasonable and acceptable, if such words could be used in regard to violence, to seek vengeance upon an enemy (ekhthros/ἔχθρος) who has first given insult. However, to instead slaughter innocents—not to mention loved ones (philoi/φίλοι)—who have given no offense must be considered immoderate and extreme, even in the context of revenge.

When Medea says to Jason that “you were not about to, having dishonored (atimasas) my bed, lead out a pleasurable life, mocking (engelon) me; and not the princess either; and not Creon, who, unpunished, gave the marriage to you: he was not about to drive me from this land”(1354-7: σὺ δ᾽ οὐκ ἔμελλες τἄμ᾽ ἀτιμάσας λέχη / τερπνὸν διάξειν βίοτον ἐγγελῶν ἐμοὶ / οὐδ᾽ ἡ τύραννος, οὐδ᾽ ὅ σοι προσθεὶς γάμους / Κρέων ἀνατεὶ τῆσδέ μ᾽ ἐκβαλεῖν χθονός), she is laying out a list of those who were involved in the insult of Jason abandoning her for a new wife (Creon’s daughter): those whom she considers ekhthroi (plural of ekhthros).

A Greek vase from the fourth century BC, depicting Medea brutally stabbing her son. Now in the Louvre.

Her own children are nowhere to be found in this list; indeed, she acknowledges that they are “philoi/φίλοι”(1250), but nevertheless they become the targets of her anger. Thus, she surpasses even the “proper” and “moderate” limits of vengeance.

The princess, like the children, is also an innocent victim who herself has little control over her marriage to Jason (a decision ultimately made by her father). The princess is portrayed innocently, as a young girl taking joy in a beautiful new outfit (1156-66).

Then, moments later, the poison Medea has placed on the clothes take effect, and the princess’ death is described in graphic detail, followed by Creon’s death as he desperately clings to his daughter (1167-1221).

The horror of these descriptions, as “her flesh drips away from her bones, like the resin of a pine tree, through the unseen bite of the drugs”(1200-1: σάρκες δ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ὀστέων ὥστε πεύκινον δάκρυ / γνάθοις ἀδήλοις φαρμάκων ἀπέρρεον), heightens the extremity of Medea’s revenge.

This moment is brought into contrast with Athens, for the girl in her new dress is said to be “stepping gracefully” in the same manner as do the Athenians “through the bright pure air”—the same adverb recurs in both places: abron/ἁβρὸν (1164) and abros/ἁβρῶς (830). The innocent girl, equated with the purity and moderation of the Athenian climate, is destroyed by Medea’s act: such aspects of Athens can no longer maintain their integrity in the presence of such an extreme figure.

That’s all for now! Next time, we will examine Medea’s extreme nature in greater detail and determine what exactly drives her to such extremes.


Sources

Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press. See note on line 1164.

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