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Medea’s Choice

June 14, 2011

Baby, do you understand me now
Sometimes I feel a little mad
But don’t you know that no one alive
Can always be an angel
When things go wrong I seem to be bad
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

Baby, sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that’s hard to hide
And sometimes it seems that all I have do is worry
Then you’re bound to see my other side
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

If I seem edgy I want you to know
That I never mean to take it out on you
Life has it’s problems and I get my share
And that’s one thing I never meant to do
Because I love you

Oh, Oh baby don’t you know I’m human
Have thoughts like any other one
Sometimes I find myself long regretting
Some foolish thing some little simple thing I’ve done

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

Yes, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
~ Lyrics The Animals

Golden Fleece petrol logo, Australia, 1978

Medea, the Goddess Who Killed Her Children

Of all the ancient Greek goddesses, Medea remains one of the most popular despite her diabolical act of infanticide. The following transcript sourced at The Ark ~ ABC Radio National, a program that ended production in January 2009.

Dr Rachael Kohn was the host of this intriguing program about stories of belief, myth and magic.

Rachael Kohn:  Medea was beautiful, she married the man she loved, and then, she killed their children!

Hello, this is The Ark on ABC Radio National, with me, Rachael Kohn. Medea is a figure from ancient Greece, who’s had a lively reputation in Western literature and art. She was a symbol of evil, but also of power, a sorceress, and a goddess. Today she’s most interesting to feminists, and she regularly appears with the abortion issue.

Emma Griffiths is a lecturer in Classics at the University of Manchester, and for 15 years she’s been researching and reflecting on this troublesome female, Medea.

Emma Griffiths: Well she begins as part of somebody else’s story. The Greek hero, Jason, is sent on an apparently impossible mission to capture the Golden Fleece, and when he gets to Colchis he finds,Medea, who’s the princess, who falls desperately in love with him. She is the person who helps him to accomplish his mission to steal the Golden Fleece, and she leaves with him, supposedly to live happily ever after. They’re going to get married, and that we hope, is going to be the end of the story.

Unfortunately, when they get back to Greece, they have a number of other problems and Medea helps Jason in other situations, not least by causing the death of a number of characters in Greece.

The story, as it becomes most famous, takes place in Corinth, when Jason and Medea have settled there with their children, and Jason decides for whatever reason, that he’s going to have another wife. Medea is understandably somewhat unhappy about this, and ends up killing their children, to take revenge. She then flees and the story continues but it becomes rather less interesting for ancient audiences. The main focus is the fact that she kills her own children to take revenge for Jason’s infidelity.

Rachael Kohn:And that of course is how she is probably most remembered. But can you tell me, is Medea actually a goddess? She seems to be very human, apart from the fact that she kills her children, does she in fact have divine lineage?

Emma Griffiths:Absolutely. This is one of the most interesting aspects of her character, but as you say, her behaviour can often be seen as very human. But perhaps the extremity that she goes to, and certainly the methodology that she employs, owes a lot to her divine heritage. And in fact she is generally portrayed as being the granddaughter of the sun god, Helius, so in many of the stories she’s able to use Helius’ chariot, so borrowing the parents’ car sort of thing, and she’s related to one of the most famous sorcerers in Greek mythology, this is Circe, who captures the hero Odysseus.

So Medea does have that very strong divine background, and how far we see her as a goddess or as a mortal woman is where a lot of the interest in these stories comes from.

Still from "Medea", (Lars von Trier 1988)

Rachael Kohn:Now you mentioned sorcery, and that’s certainly part of her story. She seems to be a sorceress of sorts.

Emma Griffiths:Absolutely, yes. She used to have links to the very earliest traditions of magic in the ancient world, particularly in the Greek Mediterranean.

A lot of these skills, which today we would think of as medicinal, were seen in the ancient world as magical. She has knowledge of how to use medicinal herbs and so on. But she’s also connected with a lot of the primal forces of life and death. She’s shown as being able to bring people actually back to life, and rejuvenate them. So there are some very powerful forces involved in her story.

Rachael Kohn:And very contradictory themes there. On the one hand, killing her children, but also able to bring people to life.

Emma Griffiths:I think that that is one of the fundamental issues in her story, that she encompasses both aspects of life and death in one character. And it’s constantly trying to find a balance between the two when we’re interpreting her story.

Rachael Kohn:And are there other Greek goddesses, or Roman goddesses who kill their children? Are there other characters I guess in Greek and Roman mythology that do this?

Emma Griffiths:Well yes. She isn’t without parallel. The difficulty is that the majority of characters in Greek and Roman mythology who do kill their children, either do it when they’re mad, or they do it by accident, and such is the case of the Greek hero, Heracles, who’s driven mad and kills his children as part of that.

The only figure who is really parallel to Medea in terms of taking a deliberate decision to kill her children, would be Procne, and what’s interesting about this is that again, this is in a situation where a man is unfaithful.

In the story of Procne, her husband Tereus rapes Procne’s own sister, Philomela, and in revenge for this, Procne kills the child that she has with Tereus, and then it gets even worse, because she actually serves it up to him as a meal. So there are parallels for Medea’s extreme actions, that she is very much the one figure who seems to have caught the imagination of people in Greece and Rome and obviously in later centuries.

Rachael Kohn:One of the things you point out in your book about Medea is that she was never punished for her active infanticide.

Emma Griffiths:Yes, and that is particularly disturbing for modern audiences. It’s part of a pattern as well, that every time Medea commits some terrible atrocity, starting with the killing of her own brother, she manages to escape from it, and I think that that was part of the attraction for the ancient audience, that this was a character who seemed to be outside the general rules of natural justice.

Rachael Kohn:Well Emma, we’re talking there about mythology, but Medea appears in the writings of Greek authors such as Euripides who wrote a play about her in the 5th century BC. Was he just depicting a bad woman in the war of the sexes?

Emma Griffiths:Yes, well, it is sometimes interpreted like that, but the play itself is a lot more complicated, not least because we start off with a very strong statement of how difficult life can be for women, which is why some modern audiences have taken up Medea as a feminist icon.

As the play develops, however, we discover that a range of different characters all have different perspectives, and so the isn’t a single good character-bad character divide. Many of our sympathies are with Medea at the start of the play when we discover that Jason’s been unfaithful, and as the play moves on, and we discover exactly what she’s planning to do to take revenge, our sympathies shift away from her.

So I think that what Euripides is presenting is an examination of a difficult situation, if you like. He’s not really presenting us with a black and white set of answers. And that is one of the reasons why the play in particular, has been so influential, because it invites us to consider issues rather than simply saying Well this is the answer.

Rachael Kohn:The Stoic philosopher, Seneca wrote about Medea; how does his version compare to Euripides’?

Emma Griffiths:Well yes, there’s a long historical gap between Euripides and Seneca. Seneca’s writing in the early period of the Roman Empire, but Seneca’s Medea is in many ways different from Euripides’, because the Romans were far more interested in the spectacle that a witch could present, whereas Euripides’ heroine is a psychological figure, and we perhaps think about the situation she’s in, and how did she get into that.

In Seneca’s play the interest is far more in how does Medea act as a witch, what are the spells she uses, what are the charms that she uses. And so it’s in many ways a less subtle portrayal, which influences future audiences far more than Euripides does, because it’s so dramatic.

Rachael Kohn:Is Seneca then responsible for the way Medea is represented when Christianity gains dominance?

Emma Griffiths:I think that he certainly has an important part in this. There’s a long tradition of writers and artists throughout the Greek and Roman world who look at Medea, and throughout the Roman world she is presented very much as this terrifying witch figure. What’s interesting, when Christianity becomes the dominant force in the world, is that we would expect that Medea would disappear, that she would be impossible to fit into a Christian world view. But interestingly, St Augustine, whose writing of the late 4th century AD, actually mentions that when he was a young man, he sang something called ‘The Flying Medea’, as part of the competition, so people were still interested in her.

And one of the ways that I think she was fitted into a Christian world view, is as part of the demonisation of female sexuality, that she is the absolute exemplar of what happens when female sexuality is not controlled. So she was allowed to survive more as an anti-example, rather than being incorporated fully into the Christian world view.

Rachael Kohn:Yes, I can imagine her being contrasted to the Virgin Mary, for example.

Emma Griffiths:Absolutely. Yes. And she’s almost the negative image there.

Rachael Kohn:Emma, you also mention in your book, several examples of the way Medea enters western art and literature. She seems to have kind of had a revival in the 19th century.

Emma Griffiths:Absolutely, yes. And that’s due to a range of different reasons. One is the visual possibilities offered by this dramatic witch figure, she’s presented as very beautiful, but equally surrounded by this air of mystery. And I think for a lot of the visual artists in the 19th and early 20th century, that’s what catches their attention. But she’s also very important figure in the theatre.

If we think about Shakespeare’s plays, the interest that’s shown there in witchcraft and sorcery, owes a lot to ancient portrayals of Medea. I’m thinking particularly in The Tempest and obviously in Macbeth with the witches, and Lady Macbeth herself owe a lot to ancient ideas of Medea.

The most interesting aspect if we’re looking at Medea in terms of gender relations is really in the 19th century in relation to the British Divorce Act, which was mid-19th century, and Medea is often shown then in serious and comic plays, as though her story is really about the difficulties of divorce and the iniquities that women suffer, so I think Euripides would have been quite amused to see his story being used in that context.

Rachael Kohn:Well you mentioned feminist writers earlier on, and I wonder how do they treat this figure, who after all did kill her children. Have there been sort of revisionist or apologetic versions of the Medea story?

Medea ~ Bernard Safran

The Art of Bernard Safran

Emma Griffiths:Yes, it’s a difficult question, because in some ways Medea is the standard bearer for women standing up for their rights and not accepting being treated as badly as Medea feels she’s been, but as you say, it’s quite difficult to identify with a figure who kills her own children.

Some feminist writers have approached this and said, Well actually, when the circumstances are so extreme, you have to take extreme measures, but I think that that’s a viewpoint that most women today would find quite uncomfortable. And there have been other readings, more revisionist readings, would say that the way the story is presented, basically isn’t fair to Medea, and Christa Wolf’s novel in 1996, plays around with the story and says, Well basically, Medea was in a corner. She had her back against the wall, and she did what she did to survive. And Wolf’s explanation plays around with lots of ideas about ethnic identity, things that are relevant to human individuals, if you like, rather than just the idea of the woman killing her children.

So I think her story can be broadened out, so that it’s not simply about a woman taking revenge on an unfaithful husband, it can be seen as an examination of the problems that the individual faces trying to fit into society. And so she can be rehabilitated like that, but it doesn’t get us away from the basic problem that she does kill her children.

Rachael Kohn:Yes, well in Australia we’re currently engaged in the very public debate about an abortion pill, and I wonder whether Medea would be an appropriate figure to appear in cartoons in newspapers at the moment.

Emma Griffiths:Yes, right, I wouldn’t be surprised, and I’d certainly be interested to see how she’s interpreted. It’s obviously a very difficult issue, whether the mother actually has the ultimate control of the life of her children whether that’s before or after birth. I suspect that what we’ll see is very much a cartoon black and white version of Medea. The demonised woman, rather than the more complicated psychological picture that we see in some versions.

Rachael Kohn:Yes, well cartoons have a way of doing that. Emma, how did you relate to Medea yourself?

Emma Griffiths:For me, the meaning of the message at the moment is more to do with how women in the modern world define ourselves. Do we want to fight against injustices in our career, in our relationships and so on, or are there situations where to fight against something beyond a certain point, is going to result in a complete catastrophe. And perhaps what we need to do is take a step back and define ourselves in our own terms, rather than letting ourselves be categorised as mothers, wives, partners, and so on.

Rachael Kohn: Emma Griffiths lectures in the thriving Classics Department at the University of Manchester. Her book, Medea is part of the Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series published by Routledge. And you can find book details on our website.

Medea is no two-dimensional allegory. Like a tunnel full of mirrors, it both reflects and echoes. The question it asks the reader, through many voices and in many different ways, is: What would you be willing to believe, to accept, to conceal, to do, to save your own skin, or simply to stay close to power? Who would you be willing to sacrifice? Hard questions, but the posing of them is the troubling yet essential task of this tough, ingenious, brilliant and necessary book. ~ Essay by Margaret Atwood on Medea

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