Week 2: Character Context & Varying Versions
Hey everyone! This post commemorates the end of the first official reading week for my project. While I originally planned to finish skimming all three of my contemporary fiction sources, I had a few bumps in the road. Turns out that one of my sources, The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, is out of print (the one thing Amazon doesn’t have in stock), and the closest available copy is in a Sacramento library. But, through the literary powers of Link+, the copy is in transit and should be here by next week.
I’ve started skimming my other text, Salvage the Bones, and have taken note of the Medea references I have encountered so far. My final text, Circe, focuses more on the title character: the daughter of Helios, powerful sorceress, witch of Aeaea, and aunt of Medea. As much as I love this novel, I’m having trouble connecting it to postcolonial and race theory, lenses that I’m planning to study for the first two texts. I’ll look for potential connections across the theories in the upcoming weeks, but to quote a famous cooking show, this novel might be on the Chopping Block.
This Past Week:
While I didn’t finish skimming my contemporary texts, I’ve done a lot of reading on the context of Medea, including the tale of Jason and the Argonauts and interpretations of Medea by other ancient authors. Without further ado, I’ll try to simplify the abundance of information I’ve taken note of.
Background to Medea:
Before I discuss the main ancient text I’ll be referencing for my project – the play Medea by Euripides – I’ll briefly cover the events leading up to the play.
The Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes described Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece in his epic poem, the Argonautica, which was written two hundred years after Euripides’ play and provided a backstory to Medea.
The myth begins with Jason, the prince of Iolcos until his uncle, Pelias, stole the throne. In exchange for his kingdom and inheritance, Jason was told to bring the Golden Fleece to Pelias. Jason assembled a large crew, called the Argonauts, and pursued the Fleece in Colchis, the home of Medea. Upon arriving, Aeetes – the king of Colchis and Medea’s father – charged Jason with three impossible tasks in order to win the Fleece. Knowing that Jason wouldn’t be able to complete the tasks alone, Medea used her powers of sorcery to aid him.
“Apollonius, Argonautica 3. 771 & 778
“Wretch that I am, I’m for trouble, one way or the other –
my mind lacks any resource, there’s no sure remedy
for this pain of mine, it burns without cess . . .
Let the contest destroy him, then, if it’s his destiny
to die on that ploughland! [referring to one of the challenges Jason must overcome to win the Golden Fleece] For how could I set up my magic drugs and parents not know it? What tale can I tell them?”
The above excerpt expresses Medea’s heartache and frustration in being unable to aid Jason without betraying her family. Yet even if he died during the challenge, as she laments, she would still be plagued by these feelings. She imagines alternatives, like helping him obtain the Fleece and then killing herself, but dispels this thought after considering the rumors that would spread after her death and how her name would be mocked in her kingdom:
“There’ll be nods and winks, reproaches
at my expense, the whole city will broadcast my fate
far and wide, my name will be common coin, bandied
to and fro, with vile insults, on the lips of our Kolchian
women– ‘This girl who cared so much for some foreign
man that she died, this girl who shamed home and parents.’”
Swept in a flurry of emotions, she goes to the extreme and almost poisons herself, though stops before making that fateful choice. Some versions say that she fell in love with Jason on her own accord, whereas others say that the goddess Hera made her fall in love in order to aid Jason. In either case, Medea helped Jason win the Fleece and ran away with him, in turn betraying her father and homeland.
An interesting detail in the above excerpt demonstrates the mutual understanding of a “foreigner.” Just as the people of Colchis consider Jason as “some foreign man,” the citizens of Corinth (the setting of Euripides’ play) dislike Medea because of her status as a “barbarian” and foreigner. This idea of the cultural “other” creates many conflicts between Jason and Medea’s relationship as their union is socially unaccepted, thereby exacerbating Jason’s desire to rebuild his social status and incentivizing him to leave Medea in Euripides’ play.
(Now back to the story) With the Fleece in hand, Medea and Jason sail away from Colchis with the Argonauts, though Aeetes is in pursuit and aims to bring Medea back. To escape Aeetes, Medea kills her brother and throws his remains into the sea, knowing that her father will stop to provide him with a proper burial (let the killing spree commence).
On their way back to Jason’s home of Iolcos, they have a few more deathly encounters which Medea solves with magic (think Harry Potter but Greek). They finally return to Iolcos where Jason demands the throne from Pelias, but plot twist, he refuses (*shocked gasp*). Medea, ever the cunning sorceress, tells Pelias’ daughters that she can restore their father’s health by cutting his body and boiling its pieces in a cauldron of herbs. With beneficent intentions, the daughters follow her instructions but end up killing their father. The people of Iolcos don’t take this too lightly, so Jason and Medea leave for Corinth and establish a home there, eventually having two sons. This is where Euripides’ play begins.
I’ll try to keep this summary short.
The basic premise is that Medea and Jason have been living in Corinth for a few years and raising their sons in a relatively peaceful life. However, the stories of Medea’s crimes have reached Corinth and the citizens aren’t too comfortable living with someone they consider to be a “barbarian” who also possesses supernatural powers beyond their comprehension. Most also do not consider Medea and Jason’s marriage to be official since Jason is still considered Greek, or “civilized,” whereas Medea is a “foreigner,” who killed her own brother and whose father disapproved of her marriage. With the ancient social norm in mind, Jason seeks to secure his status in this new kingdom by marrying the princess Glauce (also called Creusa in some versions). Everyone in Corinth is delighted by this, except Medea, for obvious reasons. She confronts Jason about all of the ways in which she’s helped him, reminding him that she betrayed her family and kingdom to join him. Prioritizing his own reputation, Jason pushes Medea aside and weds Glauce. Medea, no longer blinded by her love for Jason, is now fueled by wrath and vows to hurt him (and a few others along the way). She sends poisoned gifts to his new bride, effectively killing both Glauce and her father (death count: 4+). Still seeking to hurt Jason, she considers killing their two sons. Most versions I’ve seen depict an internal conflict she faces as a mother and wife; she wants to hurt Jason deeply and destroy his legacy, though knows that her children are innocent. In Euripides’ play, her anger for Jason overpowers her senses and she kills the children, taking their bodies with her as she leaves Corinth in a dragon-pulled chariot sent by her grandfather, the Sun (pretty dramatic ending).
While this is the central ancient telling that I will be using as a comparison, I’ve looked into a few other popular versions of the story as well as interpretations by other notable authors like Seneca and Ovid. Euripides was the first to introduce the idea of infanticide to Medea’s story, shocking audiences and making it the infamous version we know today.
Seneca’s play was written in response to Euripides’ version, though shares more similarities to Ovid’s telling, the latter surviving through certain fragments but mostly being lost to history. In a paper analyzing Seneca’s Medea, Gianni Guastella compares Medea’s infanticide to that seen in Seneca’s Thyestes and Ovid’s “account of Procne and Philomela;” in all three cases, the killing of sons injures the father by ending family lineage.
Another theme seen in Seneca’s Medea is the reversal of marriage; specifically, Medea says that she wants her dowry back, referring to valuable assets that the bride’s family gives to the groom upon marriage. The line holds more significance when considering the unusual nature of her marriage to Jason, since her father neither approved of the union nor gifted away her dowry. Instead, it can be understood that Medea’s “cost” of marriage was what she, herself, had handed over to Jason: her assistance with sorcery, abandoning her home, and killing her brother. By demanding her metaphorical dowry back, she means retribution for what she has lost, and obtains it by destroying Jason’s new married life.
Once she has disclosed her plans of vengeance to the audience, she states one of her most famous lines in Seneca’s play, “Medea nunc sum,” (Now I am Medea). This can be interpreted in many ways; one is that Seneca is directly responding to Euripides’ inclusion of infanticide, understood as, “Now I am [the] Medea” which the audience expects. Another interpretation is that she is reclaiming her identity from before her marriage, and she is allowing herself to rise to her full potential as an independent and powerful sorceress without fearing others’ opinions or limiting herself to Jason’s requests.
Another key difference in Seneca’s play, as highlighted in a paper by Cleasby, is Jason’s justification for leaving Medea. While Euripides emphasizes Jason’s desire for status and social acceptance, Seneca’s version offers a secondary justification where Jason fears the vengeance of Acastus, Pelias’ son. In this version, Acastus is angered by Medea’s trickery in killing his father (or just feels socially obligated to gain vengeance), and seeks to hurt both Medea and Jason. In an effort to save his own skin, Jason marries Glauce to signify that his loyalties have shifted away from Medea and that she is solely responsible for Pelias’ death. In contrast, Euripides never mentioned Acastus, instead characterizing Jason as, “faithless because of selfish ambition rather than from fear,” (Cleasby, 13).
Ovid’s tragedy titled Medea has not survived, though she has many references throughout his other works. Rosner-Siegel analyzes sections that have been found and translated, noticing that Ovid highlights Medea’s more human qualities rather than obsessing over her powers of sorcery. In the tragedy, however, Jason only values Medea for her magical abilities and takes control of her misguided love by asking her to aid him in certain ways, like rejuvenating his aging father, Aeson. In such cases, Medea is forced to, “revert to her former magical self, a self which she – and Ovid – have thus far successfully underplayed,” (Rosner-Siegel, 8).
Ovid also focuses on her transformation (metamorphosis) into a witch, characterized as an independent woman acting in self-interest, or occasionally with malicious intent. The process is gradual as she initially uses her powers to aid Jason without giving up her human characteristics, but as the journey progresses, she becomes more reliant on them and begins to realize her own strength, revealing the signs of her growing independence and rejection of Jason.
That was a lot of info, but hopefully you found the vengeful enchantress interesting. Over the next few days, I’ll continue to read through my contemporary texts and will start reviewing the major theories to connect them. Stay tuned for next week’s post involving vase art, Met Opera, and the role of women in antiquity.
Thanks for reading!
- Euripides. Medea. Norton Critical Editions, 2018
- Britannica, The Editors Of Encyclopaedia. “Jason”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Feb. 2023, Https://Www.Britannica.Com/Topic/Jason-Greek-Mythology. Accessed 16 March 2023.
- Guastella, Gianni. “Virgo, Coniunx, Mater: The Wrath Of Seneca’s Medea.” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2001, Pp. 197–219. JSTOR, Https://Doi.Org/10.1525/Ca.2001.20.2.197. Accessed 16 Mar. 2023.
- GreekMythology.Com, The Editors Of Website. “Medea”. GreekMythology.Com Website, 08 Apr. 2021, Https://Www.Greekmythology.Com/Myths/Mortals/Medea/Medea.Html. Accessed 15 February 2023. Https://Www.Greekmythology.Com/Myths/Mortals/Medea/Medea.Html
- Cleasby, Harold Loomis. “The Medea Of Seneca.” Harvard Studies In Classical Philology, Vol. 18, 1907, Pp. 39–71. JSTOR, Https://Doi.Org/10.2307/310551. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.
- Hardgrave, Robert L. The Journal Of Asian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1983, Pp. 191–92. JSTOR, Https://Doi.Org/10.2307/2054659. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.
- Rosner-Siegel, Judith A. “Amor, Metamorphosis And Magic: Ovid’s Medea (Met. 7.1-424).” The Classical Journal, Vol. 77, No. 3, 1982, Pp. 231–43. JSTOR, Http://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/3296973. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.