BMCR 1997.07.19

1997.07.19, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art

, , Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii + 374. $55.00 (hb); $17.95 (pb).

As James Clauss reminds us in the preface, this excellent collection of twelve essays on Medea grew out of a panel organized by Sarah Johnston for the 1991 meeting of the American Philological Association in Chicago. An excellent introduction by Sarah Johnston outlines the scope of this collection and provides a superb and concise summary of the twelve essays on Medea. According to Johnston, “Medea was represented by the Greeks as a complex figure, fraught with conflicting desires and exhibiting an extraordinary range of behavior” (6). After sketching Medea’s mythic history from antiquity to the twentieth century and her reception in literary and art history, Johnston explores how Medea’s complexity continues to challenge our imaginations, confront our deepest feelings, and make us realize “that behind the delicate order we have sought to impose upon our world lurks chaos” (17). Without specifying to which theories in the field of psychology she is referring, Johnston elaborates on the dichotomy of self and other which she identifies as a common element in many of the essays. A complex Medea figure unites “the opposing concepts of self and other, as she veers between desirable and undesirable behavior, between Greek and foreigner; it also allows [authors and artists] to raise the disturbing possibility of otherness lurking within self—the possibility that the ‘normal’ carry within themselves the potential for abnormal behavior, that the boundaries expected to keep our world safe are not impermeable” (8). The juxtaposition of self and other serves as the theoretical background against which Johnston contrasts the twelve essays of this collection.

In part one, entitled “Mythic Representations,” the first four essays trace the possible origins and developments of Medea as mythological figure. In part two, entitled “Literary Portraits,” the next four essays focus on the Medea figure in Pindar, Euripides, Apollonius, and Ovid. Part three, “Under Philosophical Investigation,” examines the influence Medea had on ancient philosophers who dealt with the effects of passion on the human psyche. The fourth and final part, “Beyond the Euripidean Stage,” features the influence of Euripides’Medea on ancient vase painting and the modern stage. The editors should also be commended for compiling a very useful and extensive bibliography of almost all works cited in the papers, an index locorum, and a general index. This collection of essays on Medea displays an amazing coherence for an endeavor of this kind, and paints a very coherent and complex picture of an influential mythological figure. Most authors in this collection also make illuminating cross-references to the essays of their fellow contributors. As with any well researched project on a literary theme, scholars as well as students ought to be very pleased with a most up-to-date publication such as this 1997 work. My only point of criticism would be to note that a project taking such a comprehensive approach should be familiar with the work of Jacques Lacan, and that it would have been helpful if the editors had included a psychoanalytic investigation of Medea’s passion. Nonetheless, I expect the present volume to become a standard textbook and an obvious starting point for any students of the Medea figure. A brief survey of the twelve essays will demonstrate the scope and the quality of this project.

Fritz Graf, known for his introduction to Greek Mythology (1993), opens part one of this collection on “Mythic Representations” with an essay entitled “Medea, the Enchantress from Afar: Remarks on a Well-Known Myth.” Distinguishing between “vertical tradition” (different versions of the same mythic episode, developed over the course of centuries) and “horizontal tradition” (different versions of the same mythic episode within the same time frame), Graf furnishes an overview of Medea’s episodes in Colchis, Iolcus, Corinth, Athens, and Persia. After analyzing the themes and variations within both of these traditions and noting the consistencies and tensions between them, Graf identifies two unifying elements that tie together all the stories about Medea: her foreigness and her initiatory role. “[S]he is a foreigner, who lives outside of the known world or comes to a city from outside; each time she enters a city where she dwells, she comes from a distant place, and when she leaves the city, she again goes to a distant place” (38). Medea’s representation as the other corresponds with Johnston’s introductory remarks that, as “a geographical and cultural stranger … repeatedly exiled within Greece,” Medea implicitly demonstrates how the outsider, the other, is a threat to the inside, to the self” (14). In Graf’s second unifying theme, he identifies Medea as being “connected with a whole line of narratives that clearly are associated with initiation rites” (42). We can understand Medea as “initiatrix” when she helps Jason to overcome the dangers he must undergo in his “initiation ritual” to acquire the fleece and claim the throne back home.

In “Corinthian Medea and the Cult of Hera Akraia,” Sarah Johnston argues that no single author invented the image of the murderous mother and that fifth-century authors inherited an infanticidal Medea from the mythical tradition. This mythical figure may have been an earlier goddess of the Corinthians who “evolved out of a paradigm found in the folk beliefs of Greece and many other Mediterranean cultures—the reproductive demon, who persecuted pregnant women and young children” (14). According to Johnston, the paradigm of the reproductive demon “is likely to have been associated with the Corinthian cult of Hera Akraia” (45). As a mother who lost her children because of Hera’s refusal to protect them and help nurture them to maturity, Corinthian Medea originally emblematized the results of Hera’s neglect and/or anger (64). According to Johnston, this loss would have caused Medea to become a reproductive demon that killed other mothers’ children. At the end of Johnston’s stimulating essay, however, she has to admit that the specific reasons why the Colchian and Corinthian Medea were joined together are beyond our secure recovery (67). In an excellent essay on “Medea as Foundation-Heroine,” Nita Krevans explores Medea’s role as founder of cities. With foundations in antiquity centering primarily on male founders, the traditional roles for heroines in myth include “that of the eponymous nymph, who brings to life the metaphor of woman-as-landscape” (72), “that of the dynastic heroine, mother of a founder or of a line of local rulers” (73), and that of “the missing girl … sought by a male kinsman (or kinsmen)” (74). Often foundations are associated with a mother’s heroic child, leaving little more than a footnote for heroines. Although some foundation stories portray Medea in these traditional roles, other appearances “form a striking exception when seen against this backdrop…. [F]or every version in which she seems to follow the normal scheme, there is a variant that portrays her as a defiant anomaly” (75). With the foundation of Tomi, for example, which is associated with Apsyrtus, “we arrive at a complete inversion of the ‘kidnapped heroine’ motif” (78). Medea is the kidnapping sister, not the victim. The inversion of the gender roles sees the female as kidnapper and the male as helpless victim. Likewise, (female) Medea appears as a powerful prophet of divine status who instructs future (male) settlers about the location and destiny of their colony (78-79). The presentation of Medea in powerful, masculine roles is virtually incompatible with female fertility (80). Although Medea’s prophetic powers and divine attributes challenge the traditional boundaries between male and female, most foundation tales focus on Medea’s “extraordinary capacity for destruction” which make her “a heroine not of foundation but of annihilation” (82). Jan Bremmer’s essay asks: “Why Did Medea Kill Her Brother Apsyrtus?” rather than any other family member. After examining the specifics of this “treacherous, sacrilegious, and brutal murder” (88) as it has been described in various ancient sources, Bremmer conducts a detailed comparison of Greek sibling relationships. He concludes that brother-brother relationships and sister-sister relationships were not as close as brother-sister relationships, and it was the opposite-sex relationships on which the Greeks placed the greatest importance. In ancient (and in contemporary) Greece, “brothers [are] supposed to guard the honor, and in particular the sexual honor, of their sisters” (95). Compared with same sex sibling relationships, “brother-sister conflicts are very rare in Greek Myth” (96) and the “close contact between sisters and brothers must have continued even after the sister’s marriage” (95). “[T]he brother was responsible for the sister, and she was dependent upon him” (100). Medea’s murder of her brother Apsyrtus had such a great impact because “Medea not only committed the heinous act of spilling family blood, she also permanently severed all ties to her natal home and the role that it would normally play in her adult life. Through Apsyrtus’ murder, she simultaneously declared her independence from her family and forfeited her right to any protection from it…. There was only one way for Medea to go, then: she had to follow Jason and never look back” (100). Bremmer concludes his convincing analysis with the assumption that Medea’s fratricide elicited great feelings of horror from the Greek audience—because we hardly find any artistic representations of Apsyrtus’ murder on Greek vases (100). In “Medea as Muse: Pindar’s Pythian 4,” Dolores M. O’Higgins suggests that Pindar presents Medea as a muselike figure. In archaic Greece, people distrusted human and divine females (103-104). “For the Greeks all women were no less than a race apart. Medea most fully exemplifies the potential disloyalty present in all wives, living as necessary but suspect aliens in their husbands’ houses” (122). Foreign, female intelligence—both Medea’s and that of the Muse—had to be appropriated before the male hero, Jason, or the male poet, Pindar, could use it to his own advantage (107-108). “Traditionally, the process of song making,” O’Higgins explains, “was a joint effort…. The human bard requires a song of the Muses” (108). Pindar relied on female Muses, to create his song, and at the same time, the Muses had the capacity to dangerously intoxicate or even paralyze the poet or his audience (110). For a fuller understanding of Pythian 4, it is important to realize that Pindar also presents Medea as powerful, prophetic female, “a Muse of sorts” (114). Pindar changes the traditional parameters of the poet “as the passive vessel for information” (117), and he appropriates his Muse by basically telling her what to sing about. Pindar also appropriates Medea, the former Colchian “Muse,” who first immobilized Jason’s opponents, but then has herself fallen victim to the poetic skills of Jason—or Pindar, as O’Higgins suggests (123). “Jason ultimately may have failed in harnessing the supernatural abilities of Medea, but Pindar has not; he tames the dangerous Muse,” O’Higgins concludes (126). In “Becoming Medea: Assimilation in Euripides,” Deborah Boedeker observes that the Medea figure was not yet firmly established when Euripides composed his play. “Besides the deliberate infanticide, alternative Medeas were still possible” (127), and even within a single episode, an author was able to and ultimately had to make choices in motivating and designing the story line. Boedeker suggests that Euripides gives his protagonist her overpowering presence and canonical status by employing poetic mechanisms, namely a series of similes and metaphors, to categorize his heroine initially. During the course of the play, “Medea is gradually dissociated from such apparently obvious definitions of what she is … [and] subtly assimilated to several figures in her own story, such as Aphrodite, Jason, and the princess” (128). Medea’s implicit assimilation to other figures by mutual resemblances in diction and action gives her “an almost unbearably focused power and allows her action a certain claim to reciprocal justice” (148). “She destroys her enemies by becoming more like them, ruins them for being too much like herself. Ultimately Euripides’ Medea expands to the point where she obliterates the other characters in her myth, fully transcending—and eradicating—her own once-limited identity as woman, wife, mother, mortal” (148). Medea’s self has been consumed by the other, Johnston concludes in her introduction (11), the former victim has turned victimizer—a development for which we can both pity and fear Medea. In “Conquest of the Mephistophelian Nausicaa: Medea’s Role in Apollonius’ Redefinition of the Epic Hero,” James J. Clauss argues persuasively that Apollonius assigns Jason to the traditional role of hero, and that Medea usurps the role of “helper-maiden,” contributing to the Argonautic expedition by helping him to complete the contest (149-150). Jason, however, is not an independent hero like Heracles, who completes his contests by himself, but “thoroughly dependent on the assistance of others” (151). Jason’s brand of leadership and heroism finds its expression in “his ability to make deals with foreigners” (155). Comparing Jason and Medea to Odysseus and Nausicaa, Clauss demonstrates that Jason’s contest is not of a military kind; Medea represents his real contest and she is completely charmed by Jason’s beauty and his diplomatic skills: “To conquer Medea is to win the fleece, the opposite of the usual folktale motif, which has the young hero perform the contest to win the bride” (167). The often clueless and all too ordinary Jason ultimately succeeds as he secures the golden fleece but Apollonius’ heroism is of a different kind, with a Jason relying heavily on Medea as a powerful and indispensable “helper-maiden” (175). The implicit comparison with Nausicaa reveals Medea’s otherness who “possesses the ability to create a Heracles or destroy a man of bronze” (176). Carole E. Newlands takes a comparative approach in analyzing the dissonant structure of the full Medea story in her brilliant essay “The Metamorphosis of Ovid’s Medea.” While his Medea is initially portrayed sympathetically as a young girl whose irrational passion drives her to help Jason, in the second part of Ovid’s narrative (7.7-424), Medea appears exclusively as a witch who has lost her human characteristics. After sketching Medea’s story of the young maiden turning murderess, Newlands compares the bipartite structure of Ovid’s narrative with other marriage tales in Metamorphoses 6, 7, and 8. By juxtaposing the myths of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus (6.424-676), Scylla and Minos (8.1-151), Procris and Cephalus (7.694-862), and Boreas and Orthyia (6.677-721) with the myth of Medea, Ovid approaches urgent moral issues and offers us varying studies of the female as victim and criminal without making moral judgments. “By splitting the Medea of the Metamorphoses into two incompatible types, Ovid suggests the difficulties and inconsistencies in the rewriting of the tradition (191). … But Ovid does not explain the reason for Medea’s transformation into a sorceress and semidivine, evil being” (192), he just offers us refracted images. “Ovid adds complexity to the story of Medea by juxtaposing it with stories that are simultaneously similar and different,” Newlands concludes (207). She continues by suggesting that “Ovid’s marriage group of tales illustrates how society both denies a woman power and rejects her when she uses it” (208). By presenting two very different Medeas, Ovid creates an open-ended story that leaves the ultimate judgment to the reader. John M. Dillon’s brief essay “Medea Among Philosophers” raises many questions for the reader—as Johnston acknowledges in her introduction (10)—without providing answers. Focusing on Medea 1078-1080, Dillon shows how Euripides’ text is employed in philosophical circles to buttress the argument of different philosophical schools (215). Galen and Platonist philosophers would view Medea’s subjugation of her reason to her passion as an argument that the human tripartite soul possesses an irrational part, whereas Chrysippus and the Stoics use Medea to argue for the unity of the soul (212). Medea remains “the paradigmatic example of a disordered soul” for ancient philosophers (218), Dillon concludes. Regrettably, none of the contributors to this collection employs a psychoanalytic approach in discussing Medea’s passion and the state of her soul. “Serpents in the Soul: A Reading of Seneca’s Medea” is an abbreviated version of chapter 12 of Martha C. Nussbaum’s book The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). In her fascinating essay, Nussbaum argues that as an author Seneca is “an elusive, complex, and contradictory figure, a figure deeply committed both to Stoicism and to the world, both to purity and to the erotic” (246). While “Seneca’s Medea provides a clear expression of the strongest and least circular of the Stoic arguments against passion” (223), the play—and tragedy in general—are “profoundly committed to the values that Plato and Stoicism wish to reject” (247). Medea’s problem is not her love per se but her inappropriate, immoderate love for Jason. However, as Seneca tells us, there is “no erotic passion that reliably stops short of its own excess” (221). He questions the Aristotelian notion “that we can have passionate love in our lives and still be people of virtue and appropriate action” (220). Seneca argues that passionate love creates “a life of continued gaping openness to violation, a life in which pieces of the self are groping out into the world and pieces of the world are dangerously making their way into the insides of the self” (222). Extrapolating from this argument, Seneca’s Medea claims that love may even include the wish to kill. According to Nussbaum, it is not surprising that love, anger, and grief lie close to one another in the heart; these are all judgments, differing only in the precise content of the proposition, that ascribe so much importance to one unstable external being (228). Echoing Lacanian ideas, Nussbaum writes: “Desire is the beginning of the death of the self” (232). Two minor images, that of the bridle and the wave, and a central image, that of the snake, recur throughout Seneca’s play, exemplifying Medea’s passionate love. While love challenges the virtue of Stoic morality, either way of living, a life of love or a life of morality, seems to be imperfect. In her conclusion, Nussbaum returns to Seneca’s concept of mercy as a possible source of gentleness to both self and other, even when wrongdoing has been found—until rage gives way to understanding (248). Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood takes our heroine beyond the stage and investigates the dramatic and iconographical explorations of the Medea figure. In “Medea at a Shifting Distance: Images and Euripidean Tragedy,” Sourvinou-Inwood demonstrates how Euripides’ Athenian audience would perceive Medea’s character through a series of shifting relationships. Euripides constructed Medea’s character in the course of the tragedy using the three schemata of “normal woman,” “good woman” and bad woman” (254). These schemata were important crystallizations of the ancient assumptions that helped Euripides direct audience response (255). Euripides created the Medea figure by deploying a series of what Sourvinou-Inwood calls “zooming devices” and “distancing devices.” Noticing a difference in representations of Medea in Greek dress and oriental dress, Sourvinou-Inwood suggests that Medea was wearing Greek dress throughout Euripides’ play but oriental dress when she appeared in the chariot after murdering her children (289-290). The oriental dress would have enhanced the effect of distancing Medea from the Greek “good” or “normal” woman. “The change in her costume is marked by Jason’s claim, after Medea has appeared in the chariot of the Sun at [ Medea ] 1339-40, that no Greek woman would have dared to do the dreadful thing she did” (291). The zooming and distancing of Medea, the alteration of Medea in oriental dress and Medea in Greek dress allows the exploration of male fears concerning women and deconstructs the oppositional relationship between the “good Greek male self” and the “bad oriental female other” (294-296). In the end, through a series of shifting relationships, Euripides’Medea allows the more complex perception that “the barbarian is not so different from the self” (296). The final essay in this fine collection offers a look at “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future.” And indeed, characterizing Medea as a revolutionary symbol, as the exploited other who may fight back, Marianne McDonald not only summarizes some of the other contributors’ main points in the closing essay but also provides a brief summary of the literary history of the various Medea dramatizations taking the reader into the twentieth century and beyond. This essay, which any scholar in comparative literature will appreciate highly, may also stimulate classicists to draw on the rich reception of the Medea theme in their teaching of the myth. McDonald contrasts the 1988 Medea play by Irish playwright Brendan Kennelly with an unpublished opera by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis which was performed in Bilbao, Spain in 1991 and in Athens in 1993. Kennelly deals with questions of imperialism, the exploitation of women by men, Ireland by England, and he shows us a victimized Medea who victoriously fights back. Theodorakis, in contrast, emphasizes the emotional element in Medea over the rational, and “evokes Euripides’ interpretative genius through the symbolic associations of the music” (317). McDonald views Theodorakis’ opera “as another splendid example of how a modern work can elucidate this ancient text” (314). If nothing else, McDonald’s presentation raises a certain curiosity to explore these two and other modern works dealing with the Medea theme. “The twentieth century is especially rich in reworkings of this myth” (297), she claims, and the publication of the most recent Medea novel by German writer Christa Wolf, Medea: Stimmen (Munich: Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 1996) serves as another good example to support her argument. “Both Kennelly and Theodorakis,” McDonald concludes this remarkable collection of essays, “bring Euripides into modern times and into modern nations. In their own ways, they are true to Euripides and aim at the heart” (323).