BMCR 2006.07.52


, Medea. Gods and heroes of the ancient world. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. xii, 147 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 041530069X £12.99.

This is one of the first books published in the new series ‘Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World’, and, I believe, the first book on a ‘hero’. For the ‘gods’, Ken Dowden’s ‘Zeus’ and Carol Dougherty’s ‘Prometheus’ are already available. The series is edited by Susan Deacy who explains that the masculine terms ‘god’ and ‘hero’ have been used mostly for the sake of convenience. The series is clearly aimed at a wide audience and assumes no knowledge of the ancient world. According to Deacy, the series seeks a middle ground between previous scholarly focus either on individual figures or on a broader polytheistic context (xi). Each volume in the series is to address three main issues: 1) why the figure merits attention; 2) key themes associated with the figure; 3) the reception of the figure after Greece and Rome.

Judging from Griffiths’ volume, the series will have a very broad appeal, and although aimed at a general and non-specialist audience, G. is impressive in her ability to give workable academic references throughout while remaining extremely readable. A particular strength of this book is the depth of classical scholarship which it conveys in an accessible and enjoyable format. G. further touches on many theories pertinent to the study of classics, each time explaining the central principles concisely and with authority. Also impressive is the way in which G. steers the reader through the mythological complexities of Medea’s persona spanning centuries, indeed millennia, yet always managing to connect varieties in detail to the broader dynamics of the figure of Medea. G. resists slipping into a reductive linear approach to myth and offers rather synoptic readings of Medea’s different facets in a remarkably clear way. This is all the more admirable when one considers the enormous breadth of material covered, both literary and artistic.

Within the three main sections, G.’s book is divided into nine chapters. The first of two chapters under section one introduces the figure of Medea and the difficulties involved in the concept of ‘myth’ giving a brief mythic biography of Medea outlining the main events associated with her and explaining her genealogy. The justification for choosing Medea as a subject is clear, as G. shows, in the lasting strength of her appeal. The second chapter gives an overview of the mythological sources in chronological order, touching on Hesiod, Mimnermus, Eumelus, the Nostoi, Pindar, the fifth century tragedians, Apollonius Rhodius, Callimachus, Ennius, Ovid, Seneca, Valerius Flaccus, Apollodorus, Hyginus, Diodorus Siculus, Orphic Argonautica and visual art. The issues of oral and literate transmission are also addressed.

The second section on ‘key themes’ is the longest section of the volume, comprising five chapters. These deal with folktale motifs and structuralism, witchcraft, children and divinity, ethnicity, gender and philosophy, Euripides’ version of the myth and the myth’s transition from Greece to Rome. Given that G. has done extensive work on the portrayal of children and childhood in Greek society, it is not surprising that the discussions of children, infanticide and magical rejuvenation are particularly rich and stimulating. G. argues that ‘[t]here is no firm evidence to support Corti’s psychoanalytical reading in which she argues that the myth of Medea is about society’s innate hostility towards children’ (p.48), and rightly warns against applying psychoanalytical readings to an ancient context. G. also draws interesting parallels between the figures of Medea and Heracles as infanticidal parents who meddle with the boundaries of life and death and thus lose access to ‘normal’ immortality achieved through having children. The parallel is supported by visual evidence and this is an especially striking example of G.’s successful contextualisation of the figure of Medea, but it should be noted that G. uses this approach throughout her treatment, drawing attention to numerous other parallel myths and explaining how they relate to those surrounding Medea.

In her treatment of witchcraft, G. highlights the problems of using such terminology in an ancient context and emphasises the power of speech and song associated with magic, the female and Medea. Relevant too is Medea’s access to superhuman magic through her ancestry. Here, the complex issue of Medea’s status in relation to the gods is dealt with very sensitively, taking into account Medea’s connections with Hecate, and giving the explanation of ‘heroine’ status as being between mortal and divine. In tackling issues of gender and ethnicity, G. explains the geographical mindset of the ancient Greeks and the context of Greek tragedy as a male creation with an all male cast. She also summarises certain feminist readings of Medea before explaining the influence of Medea in neoplatonism, stoicism and in the Chaldean oracles.

An overview of the figure of Medea in lost tragedies by all three tragedians forms a healthy introduction to the Euripidean treatment, with an emphasis on the probability that Euripides invented the infanticide, or at least that it was not present in other versions. This chapter (6) seems to focus on problematic issues in Euripides: Medea’s escape with punishment (which will again be relevant in G.’s discussion of Christian attitudes to the figure of Medea in chapter 8), Medea’s internal debate, and the disturbing role of Aigeus for an Athenian audience. In charting the transition of the myth from Greece to Rome, two themes are key for G.: the issue of metamorphosis and the relationship between language and rationality. Particular attention is given to Apollonius Rhodius, of course, where Medea’s emotions become all important, to Ovid, to Seneca, and to Valerius Flaccus. In Heroides 12, G. suggests that Medea’s inability to write about her brother’s murder may indicate that the power of writing is one she does not control (p. 93), in contrast to her control of speech. Seneca’s Medea becomes the child-killer in essence through the immortal words ‘Medea nunc sum’ at the point of infanticide, while that of Valerius Flaccus is, by contrast, very sympathetic and very Roman in her reverence towards her father. The presence of Medea on Roman sarcophagi is shown to point to Medea’s liminal status, although the focus of these is generally Kreousa rather than Medea herself.

Section three, ‘After Greece and Rome’, contains two chapters which give brief overviews of Medea’s Nachleben after Rome, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, respectively. Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, William Morris, Corneille and Grillparzer all find a place here, as does Medea’s endurance in art. The use of Medea’s image in nineteenth century Britain to highlight the injustice of British social legislation and the suffragette movement is discussed, as is the story of Margaret Garner, a slave who killed her children to spare them a life of slavery. The final chapter confesses to being highly selective and directs the reader to further material on the subject. Medea’s relevance to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is shown in various ways, through political drama whether South African or British, and through what G. calls ‘personal drama’ mentioning here Kennelly, Carr and Ninagawa. The Medeas presented on film by Pasolini, Dassin and Von Trier are all shown to relate to broader elements of the Medea myth.

The book concludes with a look at some revisionist readings (by Christa Wolf and Jane Cahill), an explanation of the continued interest of scholarship in Medea, and, with the example of Medea Benjamin, a political activist from San Francisco, the caveat highlighted throughout the volume that the myth is used for a specific purpose in each different context. This is followed by an excellent guide to further reading, a list of works cited, and an extremely useful index.

It is difficult to find fault with this volume. One feels that the series editor (Deacy) is a little left of centre in attempting to place the series in the context of scholarship on classical religion (x-xi, referred to above). It seems to be rather a genre of its own, reaching across disciplines all while retaining a focused classical base. After reading the consensus on spelling in the series forward (xii), it seemed unnecessary to have this repeated in the introduction (p. 3 and n.1). Each chapter ends with an overview, but the subsections in each chapter are so short themselves that one occasionally felt the overview was unnecessary, but this may have been a stylistic requirement of the volume. In chapter five, G. might have mentioned the Persian Wars which formed a catalyst for the Greek vs. barbarian dichotomy which developed so strongly in the fifth century B.C. This would have worked well with the breadth of context supplied in the rest of the volume. In chapter 6, I am not sure I agree with the statement that the Corinthian women in Euripides’ play are ‘unfeminine’ because they support Medea’s revenge against Jason and the princess before the revelation of the planned infanticide (p. 74). I would suggest that it is rather a feature of tragedy that female chorus and female protagonist are shown to stick together, arguably another demonstration of the manifestation of male fear of women which G. deals with most succinctly. There were very few typographical errors. On p.47 ‘In her escape from Iolkos…’ should have read ‘In her escape from Kolchis…’. On p. 94, Latin is quoted along with the translation which seems odd and arbitrary. Nowhere else is Greek or Latin quoted. On p. 123, the date and place of publication of Schuchard and Speck is missing.

In sum, this is a well executed, wide ranging, and extremely readable volume. It gives a masterful survey of representative attitudes to the myth of Medea through the millennia and highlights throughout the salient features of Medea’s persona and the malleability of myth. Apart from bringing together different scholarly approaches and views in a highly accessible format, G. also finds space within the constraints of the volume to offer insights of her own, especially in chapter four, as mentioned above. This book will be indispensable reading for any student of the figure of Medea and a first port of call for anyone interested in the mythic transformation of Medea through the ages.