Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.40

Bruno Gentili, Franca Perusino, Medea nella letteratura e nell'arte.   Venice:  Marsilio Editori, 2000.  Pp. 215.  ISBN 88-317-7508-1.  EUR 18.08 (pb).  

Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (
Word count: 3271 words

Medea nella letteratura e nell'arte is a collection of ten essays on Medea in literature and art that originated in a seminar held in Urbino in 1998. Following a short introduction by one of the editors, Bruno Gentili, the first paper examines Medea in literature prior to Euripides; the next four deal with the Euripidean play; the last five look at other literary and artistic representations of Medea's story, explicit and implicit -- Menander's Misoumenos, Apollonius' Argonautica, images of Medea in art before and after Euripides, the fate of Jason's sons in Euripides, Ovid, and Seneca, and three Medeas in twentieth century literature (Alvaro, Pasolini, and Wolf) -- but all with a close eye on the celebrated fifth century tragedy. Even a cursory read of this interesting assemblage of articles reinforces the impression of just how complete Euripides' hijacking of Medea's tragic story was. The book concludes with two indices: one of passages cited and the other of ancient names.

In the first paper, "Medea nell'epica e nella poesia lirica e tardo arcaica," Pietro Giannini provides a useful review of the fragmentary pre-Euripidean versions of Medea's role in Greek mythology. He begins from the position that stories about Medea descend from one tradition and not two (Corinthian and Thessalian) and that, from references in the Homeric poems, these stories can be assumed to have reached far back in time. On the basis of her genealogy and inclusion in the section of Hesiod's Theogony that deals with goddesses who slept with mortal men, Giannini concludes that Medea was in origin a "dea-maga," similar to Circe, a notion that is also supported by pre-Euripidean vase paintings, as Isler-Kerényi will demonstrate later in the book. What follows is a useful annotated review of Medea's mythic profile as seen in Pindar's Pythian 4, the Naupactica, Mimnermus, Eumelus, Pherecydes, Simonides, and references in later authors to archaic accounts. Giannini concludes by noting that Medea is a figure who is always on the run--from Colchis, Iolcus, Corinth and finally Athens.

Bruno Gentili's "La Medea di Euripide" follows neatly upon the first as the author focuses on those aspects of the earlier tradition that are alluded to in Euripides' play: Medea's curing of a plague (sic) at Corinth (11 ff.), the sacrifice of the children associated with the idea of making them immortal (1053 ff.), and the death of the children at the hands of the Corinthians (1059 ff. et passim). Euripides departed from earlier versions by having Medea choose to kill her children (a view, however, not shared by all). Yet, Medea's vengeance, according to Gentili, has ethical implications and a clear logic more complex than has been observed (a point argued at greater length in the next essay). What underlies Medea's reaction to her situation is the principle of dike as applied to the realm of love. The heroine's claim for satisfaction is not erotic (as line 151 has been wrongly interpreted in Gentili's view, an interpretation argued for in an earlier publication, to which he will return in a brief appendix at the end of the paper) but a question of justice. Like Medea, Jason also invokes dike at 537 ff. and 1390 but in a different sense. For Gentili, the "tragicità" of the play lies in the hopeless clash of two different interpretations of dike. Gentili aptly compares this opposition to that featured in the Eumenides: Apollo's argument for the sanctity of the bond of marriage (Medea and Jason) and the Eumenides' claim for the priority of blood relationship (Jason and the boys). In the Medea, as in other tragic and even comic plays, justice means different things to different people. Alongside Medea as executioner of conjugal justice stands Medea the tender mother, witch, priestess, exile, lover, and goddess; in short, Gentili concludes, the semidivine hero whose irreconcilable complexity provides the essence of tragedy.

In "Eros e Maternità. Quel che resta del conflitto tragico di Medea," Anna Beltrametti argues that what makes Medea's infanticide even more shocking is the process whereby the playwright leads his heroine toward a fully self-conscious choice. In this, Medea differs from Aeschylean characters who find themselves at the mercy of the gods and Sophoclean heroes who are "fragile monoliths"; instead Euripides' Medea is independent and dynamic. Both her passion and reason are engaged as she comes to devise and enact a plan that emerged logically from her circumstances. Jason, on the other hand, reveals an unheroic conventionalism that is xenophobic and scornful of any sexual relationship except one that is legitimate and aristocratic. At least Creon by comparison shows genuine concern for his offspring, Beltrametti observes. Medea, stuck between a world which she rejected and one to which she can never belong, has full knowledge of her situation in which she sees herself as a responsible agent. Like Gentili, Beltrametti directs our attention to Aeschylus' Oresteia and notes that Medea justifies her infanticide in the name of the marriage bond that exonerated Orestes' matricide. For Medea, she goes on to argue, marriage and family, which cannot be reduced to an alliance, begin and end with Eros. Medea repudiates maternity when she can no longer be a mother without being a spouse. While it is impossible to recover how Euripides' audience reacted to Medea's situation, Beltrametti states that we can at least measure our own responses to a figure "who does not belong to any history and seems to belong to ours" (p. 61).

Carmine Cartenacci, in "Il monologo di Medea (Euripide, Medea 1021-1080)," examines Medea's famous monologue, responding in particular to Diggle's athetesis of lines 1056-80. Cartenacci acknowledges that there are a number of objections to the lines. Nonetheless, several features of the second half of the monologue are shown to be closely associated with other passages in the play. First, essential aspects of the finale, he argues, would be incomprehensible without the second half of the monologue. These connections constitute not merely the reprieve of a motif but a compact and complex system of recollections between the exodos and the whole drama. Second, Cartenacci follows those who reject the traditional interpretation of the contrast between thymos (passion) and bouleumata (reason). The latter cannot mean "reason" but refers to specific resolutions (as noted by Gentili), including her plans for revenge. This interpretation of thymos and bouleumata finds confirmation in lines 872 ff. where Medea duplicitously explains to Jason that she has assuaged her anger (thymos) in conformity with his specific plans (bouleumata). In sum, Cartenacci suggests, Medea reveals no sharp opposition between passion and reason (a point made by Beltrametti). Euripides' tragic heroine is characterized by an indissoluble nexus of clear knowledge and morbid impulses and it is this monologue that gives voice and body to the overlapping of the two extremes of Medea's mind. Cartenacci concludes that the unexpected appeal to the thymos after the apparent final decision to act not only aptly reflects Medea's itinerarium mentis but also provides a brilliant theatrical effect whose excision would impoverish the play.

In "Norme di comportamento e valori etici nella Medea di Euripide (vv. 214-224)," Maria Grazia Fileni offers a close reading of the aforementioned lines. Fileni states that critics have read Medea's opening remarks as obscure, ambiguous, and extraneous but, she counters, they contain insights into human behavior in the context of the need for proper evaluation of a person's character with respect to the polis. The lines in question reflect Medea's concern for how she is viewed. As for the charge of being proud (semnos), she associates herself with those who are misunderstood because of their reserve. She also censures the injustice of those who hate someone without motive and based only on appearances. Regarding the need for foreigners to adapt themselves to their new city, Medea tried to ingratiate herself to the Corinthians by saving them from famine. Opposite the good foreigner, on the other hand, is the arrogant, rude and presumptuous citizen. Through these gnomic expressions, Medea attempts to define herself as the ideal foreigner but turns out to be the arrogant person she deprecates: the authadia Medea curses is what the chorus (sic) fears (102-4), what Jason accuses Medea of having (621-22), and what Medea curses in herself (1028). Medea shows little desire to engage in a dialogue with any of the characters or the chorus; her various statements and monologues reveal one who is self-sufficient. Fileni concludes, following an examination of authadia in other writers, literary and philosophical, that Medea effectively subscribes to a tripartite evaluation of virtues and vices similar to that seen in Aristotle (semnotes is the virtue while authadia and areskeia represent its excess and deficiency respectively) but reveals a different scale of values. From the point of view of a foreigner in a Greek city, areskeia is better than semnotes and authadia, but from a practical point of view, authadia allows her to achieve her vengeance.

In "La dike di Medea e la dike di Trasonide," Agnese Giacomoni compares the situation faced by Thrasonides in Menander's Misoumenos with that of Medea in the Euripidean play. Thrasonides fell in love with and freed the captive Cratea, who, despite his benefaction, came to hate her redeemer. The love-lorn soldier believes that Cratea has offended against dike by not returning his affection and decides to reestablish the moral equilibrium by heaping shame on his beloved. Though the word dike does not appear in the fragments, other words associated with this concept do: e.g., paschein, hybrizein, misein. Giacomoni likens Thrasonides in his erotic torment, obsessiveness, and desire for revenge to Medea. In particular, Medea's exhortation to herself at 401-9 is similar to Thrasonides' speech; especially notable is the use of the rare term eupsychia/eupsychos. Giacomoni suggests that Thrasonides concluded this fragmentary monologue with his plan of faking a suicide to cause Cratea great shame. His choice of method, hanging, a mode of death associated with women, is said to have been selected for its particular repugnance in the case of a soldier. Different from Medea in the Euripidean play, Thrasonides somehow succeeds, probably in some unexpected fashion. The feminization of the protagonist and the virile opposition of Cratea, as Giacomoni notes, flies in the face of traditional expectations, which is of course a salient quality of the Euripidean play.

Maria Rosaria Falivene, in "Un'invincibile debolezza: Medea nelle Argonautiche di Apollonio Rodio," asks whether Medea's claim of being amechanos at Arg. 3.771-777, given her abilities and the significance of her name, is sincere. That Medea can be correctly described as such, Falivene argues, is not only apparent in the narrative itself but is also specifically expressed by the narrator. She is amechanos in the company of her maids (3.948-51), when she returns home from her first meeting with Jason (3.1157-62), and when the Argonauts are about to leave Colchis (4.106-07). Medea's amechanie consists not in being clueless, however, but in lacking the specific means of having Jason without provoking the enmity of her father. Looking ahead to her life in Corinth, Falivene notes that Medea's amechanie will continue in her lack of a community to which she can turn; in fact her mechanai only serve to alienate her further from all society. Moreover, Jason is also characterized as amechanos especially in Apollonius but also in Euripides, and with the same meaning: one who lacks his own community. Falivene makes the interesting comment that it is their shared amechanie that brings the two together. For Medea, however, the ultimate source of her state is Eros, who is amechanos in another sense: one who makes others incapable of finding a way out. Falivene concludes by ascribing, without argumentation but not without justification, Apollonius' representation of love to the language of archaic Greek lyric.

Cornelia Isler-Kerényi, in "Immagini di Medea," offers a chronological study of Medea's representation in art. Portraits of Medea were initially positive. When her bust is shown between snakes (as early as ca. 630), her status as a chthonic deity is accentuated. From 520, Medea's rejuvenation of Aeson and Jason by means of a cauldron, which symbolizes the divide between life and death, became a popular theme, probably Corinthian in origin. Considering the provenience of many of the pieces, the vessel types, and the presence of either a ram or youth, Isler-Kerényi suggests that the theme of a good Medea, a "goddess of the cauldron," after 520 reflects the interests of the Etruscan market. Following the productions of Sophocles' Rhizotomoi and Euripides' Peliades (455), the cauldron no longer stands at the center of the scene and either it is empty or Pelias is being escorted there by his daughters, alluding to the tragic version of the death of Pelias. After 431, representations of the myth concentrate on the infanticide, the subsequent apotheosis of Medea, or Jason's taking of the golden fleece with Medea's help. The influence of Euripides is obvious. From the iconographic and literary traditions, Isler-Kerényi concludes that, before witch and infanticide, Medea was a priestess of the primordial age capable of rejuvenating a person or even of raising the dead, which was symbolized in the cauldron by artists whose market was primarily funereal.

"Il destino dei figli di Giasone (Euripide, Ovidio, Seneca)," by Gianni Guastella, illustrates the need to situate a mythic plot in its cultural context in order to appreciate it fully; the legend of Medea as told by Euripides, Ovid, and Seneca provides an appropriate test case. Beginning with Euripides' play, Guastella first examines Medea's status in Athenian society. As a female foreigner whose relationship with Jason was only formalized with the birth of the children, Medea would have been viewed as an irregular companion, and after Jason's betrothal to Glauce, she would be reduced to the status of concubine. The children are in even worse straits: either they would go with their mother to her father's home, which is now impossible, or go with their father, which would make them second-ranked sons. In Ovid's Heroides 12, Medea, in accordance with the rules of the genre, is a woman in love. But she also focuses her concern for the boys on the potential harm their new step-mother might do them. Given that at Rome children were viewed as the prime purpose for marriage and proof of the bond between the parents, Medea takes a greater interest in them than her Greek counterpart. This feature, Guastella argues, is even more to the fore in Seneca's play. In Euripides, Medea is an abandoned companion; here she is an abandoned wife and mother. Her situation has a decidedly Roman color: the children, the pignus that binds their relationship, follow their father into his new marriage, as would be the case in Rome. Jason's choice to marry Creusa arises from his pietas toward his sons. Medea's vengeance, in Roman terms, involves an attack against the offspring of the father who took them away from a divorced mother and put them under the jurisdiction of a new step-mother. For this reason, Guastella states, Medea left behind the bodies of the children for Jason to whom the children now belonged.

According to Giorgio Ieranò, in "Tre Medee del Novecento: Alvaro, Pasolini, Wolf," for twentieth century writers such as Corrado Alvaro, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Christa Wolf, and others mentioned in the essay, Medea serves an ideological/political program that is both melodramatic and didactic. In Alvaro's play Lunga notte di Medea (1949), Medea became a symbol of oppressed humanity, a refugee without a passport, no longer the terrible witch. The character of Jason also undergoes a significant transformation: he longs for political status, but, after he fails in achieving this and following the death of his sons, he laments the twilight of the heroic age and longs to return to Iolcus and stare at the sea from the place he once wanted to leave. Alvaro's Medea, a victim of the passage from primitive to political civilization, closely parallels Pasolini's Medea. For his cinematic representation of Medea (1970), Pasolini privileged the work of anthropologists such as Frazer, Lévy-Bruhl, and Eliade over the Euripidean masterpiece, which he reduced to an ambivalent role insofar as it provided him with access to the archaic world but also stood, in his understanding of the written word, as a traditional narrative convention separate from reality. In the course of the story, Pasolini's Medea undergoes a transformation from a mythical to a realistic character, and in the process the inarticulate sounds and barbaric music of Colchis are replaced by the words of Euripides set in Greece. Despite this dramatic change, Pasolini shows that ancient myth continues to inhabit a part of us that we cannot get rid of, as revealed in the two centaurs that reside within Jason.

In writing her novel Medea. Stimmen (1996), Wolf looked beyond Euripides to earlier accounts where Medea was a more benign figure. In fact, in her work Medea does not kill Apsyrtus, Glauce, or her children, who are instead torn apart by the Corinthians; she is not jealous nor does she hate Jason; she is not a witch but cures a plague in Corinth; and she finally had to leave Colchis for having attempted political reform. What Wolf's novel has in common with the other 20th century stories, Ieranò points out, is the enhanced status given to Creusa/Glauce, who for all three writers represents innocent humanity, the victim of obscure forces that live inside the human spirit. Ieranò concludes by noting: "The tragedy of Medea turns into that of Creusa. The sublime sufferings of the heroes melt into the mute grief of common humanity" (p. 194).

The papers gathered in Medea nella letteratura e nell'arte are individually excellent, well conceived and well written. All of the papers have made valuable contributions to our understanding of Medea in art and literature. Aside from the occasional point of disagreement (e.g., Giannini's insistence on a unitary tradition [p. 13] or Guastella's suggestion that children were less important to a marriage in Greece than Rome) or the occasional oversight (e.g., Medea is said correctly by Giannini [p. 21, cf. Fileni p. 86] to have freed the Corinthians from a famine, Gentili from an epidemic [p. 30], both citing the same source), my main criticism of the book is that the many and interesting points of intersection, a few of which I mentioned in the course of the review, have been left mostly unnoticed and unexplored. Apart from a couple of cross references buried in the footnotes, the authors come across as largely unaware of, or at least unwilling to respond to, the papers in this volume (e.g., Gentili describes Wolf's work as feminist [p. 31], an idea that Ieranò rejects [p. 191], making no reference to the latter's essay or vice versa). Nor are these points of intersection noted in the introduction, which I found unhelpful in preparing for the richness of the articles that followed. I would not have mentioned, perhaps even noticed, this shortcoming but for the fact that the authors so clearly take up some of the same important issues, due, I suspect, to the cross fertilization of ideas at the original conference and the fact that all of the papers engage Euripides' Medea in different ways and at different levels. Finally, there is a slight unevenness in the form of presentation (words in italics in the table of contents are printed with virgolette at the beginning of the papers; only Guastella's paper comes with a separate bibliography) or in the amount of citation (Falivene's paper has only 16 footnotes to Isler-Kerényi's 103), but these are nugatory infelicities in comparison with the numerous insightful observations offered throughout the book, many of which I was unable to include in my summaries.

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