The character of Medea is a part and parcel of the segment of Ancient Greek mythology connected with the story of the Argo and Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. In this myth, Medea is a sorceress-princess of Colchis, who betrayed her own family for the love of Jason and assisted him in acquiring the Golden Fleece (Machemer 123-125). At the same time, in its Euripidean interpretation, Medea represents an archetype of the vengeful woman whose trust has been breached by a man whom she used to consider her most faithful companion, and who is now ready to go to great lengths to avenge herself. Simultaneously, the plot of Medea reflects the patriarchal character of the Ancient Greek society and the distrust for outstanding women exhibited by Euripides’ contemporaries.
The main mystery of Medea’s plot is the interpretation of the protagonist’s decision to kill her own offspring. Unlike the murder of Creon and Glauca precipitated by Medea’s deadly gift of the Sun-God’s golden robes and coronet, the killing of Jason’s sons would appear to be absurd and irrational. After all, they were supposed to follow Medea in her enforced exile in accordance with Creon’s decree, and, from Medea’s own words, one may surmise that she felt deep love and sorrow for the fate of her own children. Furthermore, as Rabinowitz claims, the original myth of Medea may not have included the narrative of her children’s murder; thus, the latter would be Euripides’ own innovation (146). However, the moderns’ ability to conceive of such a deed may be hampered by our lack of understanding of the Ancient Greek concepts of honor and revenge, which should thus be addressed to dispel any possible confusion.
As discussed by Machemer, the concept of honor and of the saving one’s own face in front of one’s peer played far more important part in the Ancient Greek society than it does in ours, with the latter’s praise for individualism and nonconformity (142-143). For Euripides’ contemporaries, honor and faithfulness to one’s commitments and, most important of all, to the oaths carried out in the mystical presence of the merciless Underworld deities was everything; the destruction of one’s honor implied the veritable civil and spiritual death of the individual in question (Machemer 143). Thus, Jason’s abrupt decision to take a new wife from Corinth’s royal household and to diminish Medea’s status to that of a mere concubine must have been felt an intolerable insult and the true destruction of her honor and position.
For a patriarchal society Euripides’ audience was accustomed to, Jason’s decision and, in particular, his own arguments for the latter as presented in the concluding scene of Part 1 of the play may have seemed rather rational and convincing. Jason’s claim that his “Action / Was wise, not swayed by passion, and directed towards / Your interests and my children’s” (Medea 558-560) may be understood only in the Athenian legal context of a husband as a legal guardian of his wife, whom he could even arrange a new marriage for, provided that the terms would be lawful – as it was the case even with an illustrious Pericles (Machemer 139). Thus, from the point of view of the Athenian patriarchal society, Jason’s speech may have been based on the sound arguments, while for our contemporaries, as McDermott points out, it would be merely a “feeble self-justification” (79) of an egoist and political schemer, ready to betray his wife and companion’s trust in order to secure an important political position for himself and his sons. Medea, on the other hand, would be viewed as suffering from the irrational and characteristically womanly passion of jealousy, or, as Jason himself suggests,
…But you women
Have reached a state where, if all’s well with your sex-life,
You’ve everything you wish for; but when that goes wrong,
At once all that is best and noblest turns to gall. (Medea 569-572)
Thus, Jason alludes that Medea’s rage and desperation are caused by her subliminal urges and jealousy for his new young bride. Such a stereotype may have been reinforced by Medea’s own sarcastic remark that “You’re an ageing man, and an Asiatic wife / Was no longer respectable” (591-592), as well as from the initial scenes of the play where Medea shows the features of a distraught woman that would be familiar to the male Athenian audience Euripides’ play was performed to. However, as it would be evident from Medea’s calculating plans and masterful manipulations of both Creon and Aegeus, she was far from the hapless victim she hoped her adversaries would take her for. On the contrary, Medea’s revenge was an expression of the outcry that was caused by the particularly different kind of betrayal that was more familiar – and unsettling – to the 5th century B.C. Athenians than mere philandering: the overturning of the “life and death” union “formed…for the purposes of overthrowing a common enemy by the force of arms” (Machemer 145).
One should not forget that, according to the myth, Medea’s marriage with Jason was conceived as the result of the need to combine their forces in order to deliver the Golden Fleece from the hands of Medea’s father, Aeëtes, king of Colchis. As Medea is quick to remind Jason in the scene of their mutual recrimination, she saved his life in several perilous situations in the course of the Argo’s quest. Medea aided Jason in mastering the “fire-breathing bulls” and the deadly warriors that sprang from the seeds given to Jason by Aeëtes; by the power of her sorcery, Medea killed “the serpent that kept watch over the Golden Fleece”; finally, she orchestrated the terrible murder of Pelias, King of Iolcus, by his own daughters’ hands (Medea 475-485). In return for these audacious and horrible deeds, she was entitled to the marriage to Jason, which was cemented by the oaths the breaking whereof was, from Medea’s, and generally Ancient Greek, perspective, tantamount to kin-murder (Rabinowitz 137) – which would ironically, and tragically, be the form of her reprisal against Jason the oathbreaker.
Medea’s revenge and gloating prophesy that Jason “Shall die an unheroic death, your head shattered / By a timber from Argo’s hull” (Medea 1387-1389) would thus reflect the Underworld and Olympian deities’ propensity to inflict punishment upon those mortals that dared to defy their own oaths – a common theme in much of Ancient Greek mythology. In particular, it is telling that, despite Medea’s horrific murder of her children, she is not only left unpunished for her crime, but is actually rescued by the chariot of the Sun-God, her ancestor, from Jason’s and Creon’s household’s revenge. Thus, while the murder of her children would be abhorrent both to the moderns and the Ancient Greeks themselves, from the “demonic” (Machemer 146) perspective, the murder of Jason’s sons was a just retribution for the treachery he exhibited in breaching his sacred oaths. Furthermore, Machemer alludes that Medea’s murder of her own children might have been a “delayed retaliation for the earlier death of Medea’s brother back in Colchis”, administered by Jason with Medea’s aid and connivance (146). Therefore, the mythological background of this episode attests to the merciless logic the Greeks ascribed to their gods.
However, Medea’s murder of her children may have had a more earthly aspect to it, as well. In the scene preceding the news of Creon’s and Glauca’s death from supernatural poison, Medea claims that “I’ll not leave sons of mine to be the victims of / My enemies’ rage” (1060-1061). Indeed, Jason later remarks that he intended to rescue his sons “Before Creon’s family / Murder them in revenge for this unspeakable / Crime of their mother’s” (1300-1301). The revenge logic of Medea would have applied to the reasoning of Corinthian nobles that was kin to the dead Creon as well; McDermott mentions that the earlier versions of the myth Euripides may have built upon indeed included the narrative of children of Medea’s murder by the Corinthians thirsty for revenge (39). Paradoxically, Medea’s murder of her children and her appropriation of their bodies, in Ancient Greeks’ opinion, might have saved them from the terrible fate of the abuse of their corpses by her enemies and allowed their souls to receive the funeral rites needed to properly enter the realm of Hades. While this reasoning is indeed despicable, it might not have seemed as such from the viewpoint of the centrality of one’s family honor and religious obeisance that would be adopted by the play’s original audience.
The Euripidean interpretation of Medea is thus completely steeped into the patriarchal society’s overarching concerns with honor and saving of one’s face. The only (but crucial) difference between Medea and Jason is that the first one is a woman, and thus her honor would be automatically considered to be of a diminishing value in comparison with that of her husband (Machemer 141). Furthermore, Medea lacks the force of arms she might have used to confront Jason had she been a man; instead, she has to rely on her strategic cunning and deceit, as well as on the terrible forces of sorcery, which would be considered a defining quality of a dangerous and magical woman by the Athenians of that time.
Had Medea been an ordinary woman, even of an aristocratic or royal descent, she would have had to content herself with powerless curses and wails that are frequently mentioned by Nurse and Tutor in the beginning of the play. However, as the grand-daughter of the Sun-God and the favored priestess of Hecate, she is able to manipulate all her adversaries, make a willing dupe of Aegeus, king of Athens, by extracting an oath of protection from the latter, and triumphed over her enemies. Thus, Medea would be the mythological incarnation of the fears Euripides’ male audience may have secretly harbored with regard to the willful and intelligent women some of them may have supposed to dominate.