Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part VII: Honor and Erotic Passion

Time for more about Euripides’ Medea! Last time, we saw that Medea is a woman of extremes, but what drives her to such extremes in the first place? Here again is that quotation in which she lays out her motives:

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
(1354-7)
You were not about to, having dishonored my bed, lead out a pleasurable life, mocking me; nor the princess; nor Creon, who, unpunished, gave the marriage to you: he was not about to drive me from this land.

Medea’s murderous and extreme acts stem from her sweeping interpretation of the heroic code of honor, which demands that she use any means necessary—even the killing of her own children—to bring vengeance upon those who have dishonored (atimasas/ἀτιμάσας) her, before they can laugh (engelon/ἐγγελῶν) at her.

This motive does not stand alone, for it is mixed with an additional strand of sexual betrayal: she has been dishonored by Jason, specifically in respect to their bed (lexe/λέχη), that is, their marriage and sexual relationship.

The extremity of Medea’s acts cannot stand apart from erotic desires: a conclusion that matches the assessment made by the Chorus in the second stasimon (627-44) regarding the destructive nature of immoderate sexual passion. They are responding to Jason and Medea’s conflict with a desperate plea for Aphrodite only to send desire in moderation.

A Renaissance painting depicting the marriage of Jason and Medea.

Sexual jealousy, alongside her sense of being dishonored, appears as a motivation throughout Jason and Medea’s final confrontation, but most clearly at 1366-8: Medea declares that it was Jason’s “outrageous insult and newly-joined marriage”(ὕβρις οἵ τε σοὶ νεοδμῆτες γάμοι) which has led to the deaths of the children. Jason, in abandoning Medea and marrying another woman, has not only scorned their sexual relationship but also has committed an insult against her honor, by breaking their marriage oaths.

Asked if she “thought it worthy to kill them on account of a bed”(λέχους σφε κἠξίωσας οὕνεκα κτανεῖν), she does not deny it; she says that this—sexual betrayal—is “no small pain for women”(σμικρὸν γυναικὶ πῆμα τοῦτ᾽).

So, betrayal in matters of erotic passion, intertwined with the hard-line stance that Medea takes in avenging insults against her honor, pushes her to commit deadly, and extreme, acts of violence. In this way, Medea specifically counters the Athenian ideal seen in the third stasimon of moderation in matters of sexual desire.

Thanks for reading! In the next post, we will see how Medea appropriates Athenian wisdom (sophia) for her own advantage.

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