Analysis of the Medea Myth

In Greek myth, Medea is something of a paradox: on the one hand, we sympathize with her for her suffering at the hands of her disloyal husband, Jason, who abandons her for Corinthian King Creon‘s daughter, the beautiful young princess Creusa (or Glauce), and for the abusive treatment she suffers as a foreigner, a ‘barbarian,’ and an exile. On the other hand, we are horrified at the wickedness she is capable of: fratricide, treason against her father, King Aeëtes (out of a capricious falling-in-love with Jason), and–as if immolating Creon and Creusa with a cursed, poisoned robe weren’t cruel enough–Medea, by Euripides‘ innovation, commits a double filicide on her and Jason’s sons (although some scholars believe Neophron was the one who added this horror to her list of sins).

This paradox of Medea, arousing extremes of sympathy and antipathy, are representative of contradictory feelings many have towards foreigners: sympathy for their plight as second-class citizens, and the antipathy of xenophobia. Medea as the representative of all foreigners living in a land hostile to them, whose suffering can sometimes drive them to commit criminal, even atrocious acts, is therefore a story most relevant to our times, as I plan to demonstrate.

I will be examining her story primarily from three sources: the Medea of Seneca and of Euripides, and the 1969 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which is based on Euripides’ Medea. What is only incidentally examined in the two classical tragedies–that is, not only the plight of the foreigner, but also the relationship between imperialist plunderers and the countries they plunder–is developed more in Pasolini’s film (in his demythologizing of the source material), as I will also try to demonstrate.

A major contrast between what Euripides and Seneca wrote, and what Pasolini presents on the screen, is precisely that. In the former two, we have excesses of words–long, poetic speeches that are the hallmark of ancient Greek and Roman drama. In Pasolini, we have a relative dearth of dialogue; he is more interested in presenting vivid spectacle (rather like Michelangelo Antonioni, as we see in Blowup, La Notte, and The Passenger) than in providing plot and dialogue.

Medea is, as the daughter of Aeëtes, also the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. It can be said that she derives her ardour from the heat of the sun. She is also a sorceress, her magical abilities therefore making her an object of fear, exacerbating the xenophobia she already has to suffer, and, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, providing her with the power to do the very kind of evil that people are afraid she’ll do.

Jason as a child has been raised by the wise centaur Chiron, to keep the boy safe from his uncle Pelias, the usurping king of Iolcus who otherwise might want to kill Jason out of a fear he’ll be a threat to his power. Pasolini’s film begins with Chiron educating the boy; first we see him as a centaur, then, when Jason (played by Giuseppe Gentile) has come of age, Chiron is seen as fully human. (Such a representation of Chiron isn’t completely without precedent, for there are traditional Greek representations of him with human front legs, demonstrating his unique status as a centaur.) In the context of Pasolini’s atheistic demythologizing of the narrative, then, Chiron as a centaur represents the fanciful imagination of Jason as a child, while human Chiron as seen in Jason’s adulthood represents his loss of that childhood imagination. Put another way, the half-human, half-bestial Chiron represents the not-yet-developed reason of Jason’s childhood; the fully-human Chiron represents adult Jason’s fully developed reason.

Pasolini’s Chiron (played by Laurent Terzieff) admits to having lied to young Jason, who isn’t his son, as he’s previously said. He emphasizes to the boy that everything is sacred, that nothing in nature is ‘natural,’ that gods inhabit everything in nature. The sacred, however, is a mix of good and bad, that the gods love and hate. Again, Chiron admits to being a liar and to being too poetic. He predicts that, when fully-grown Jason goes to Pelias to demand his right to the kingdom, that the usurper will demand that he first fetch him the Golden Fleece. Finally, we see fully-human Chiron admit to adult Jason that there are no gods: his talk of gods inhabiting everything in nature has been another lie. Myths are essentially lies, in the opinion of atheistic Pasolini.

That we see centaur Chiron with Jason the child, and later, human Chiron with adult Jason, a mentor who admits to having told the boy poetic lies, represents the shift from an earlier, poetic, metaphorical use of language (as Northrop Frye discussed in The Great Code) to the later prosaic, descriptive kind of language (Frye, pages 24-28, 31-32). Analogous to this shift in language is also what his change from half-human, half-horse to fully human represents: a shift from animalistic primitivism–and its belief in myths, gods, magic, etc.–to a more advanced civilization lacking in gods. This contrast between god-fearing and godless, between the mythically and non-mythically oriented, between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilization,’ will be especially apparent in the Corinthian attitude towards Medea as seen especially in the film.

Since Pelias assumes Jason will never succeed in getting the Golden Fleece, he shrewdly claims he’ll give his kingdom to Jason if he gives Pelias the Fleece. Pelias doesn’t realize, however, that Jason will get crucial help from a woman whom Eros (according to Apollonius of Rhodes) will hit with one of his love-arrows…Medea.

One interesting point to mine for meaning in is how some writers, such as Apollonius of Rhodes and Seneca, regarded the Argo as having been the first ship (in Greek mythical history). The implication of this first boat, as regards sailing off to a distant land to steal the Golden Fleece, is that Jason’s mission can be seen to represent the beginnings of imperialist plunder.

The choral ode at the end of Act Two of Seneca’s play deals with this mythologizing of the dawn of imperialism:

Glorious were the ages our forefathers saw
when deception was far distant.
Each person lived an unambitious life, at home,
then growing old on ancestral farmland,
rich with a little, they knew no wealth
except what their native soil brought forth.
The world was once divided into strict partitions,
but those were broken by the pinewood ship,
which ordered the ocean to suffer a beating
and the sea, once inviolate, to turn into
one of our reasons to fear. […]
What was the prize for this journey?
The Golden Fleece,
and Medea, greater evil than all the sea,
a worthy cargo for the world’s first boat.
Now at last the sea has yielded and obeys all laws.
Now there is no need of a ship made by Pallas’ hand,
rowed back by kings, a well-renowned vessel–an Argo.
Any old skiff can wander the deep.
All boundaries are gone and the cities
have set up their walls in new lands;
the world is a thoroughfare, nothing remains
where it was. [Seneca, Act II, lines 329-339, 361-372]

In fact, the ending of this choral ode was famously quoted by none other than that exemplar of colonialism, Christopher Columbus, in his Book of Prophecies:

The ages will come, in faraway years
when Ocean will set free the links of Nature
and the great earth lie open, and Tethys will open,
new worlds, and Thule will be no longer
the end of the earth. [Seneca, Act II, lines 373-379; the original Latin can be found here]

So Medea and the society of Colchis can be seen, in relating Euripides’ and Seneca’s plays to our world, as representative of the Third World of today; for though imperialism in its capitalist form of course didn’t exist in the ancient world, class conflict did, in the analogous form of the master vs. slave contradiction. Recall Marx’s words: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The Corinthians’ regarding of Medea and the Colchians as barbarian has its parallel in the modern world, with Western imperialists’ racist labelling of those in developing countries as ‘uncivilized,’ or not considered “decent,” and using such labelling to justify taking over their land and stealing their resources for the imperialists’ enrichment. Pasolini’s film, in its vivid, graphic depiction of the Colchians performing a human sacrifice, with an exotic soundtrack of music from such places as Tibet and other parts of the Orient, emphasizes the foreign contrast between mythically-oriented, ritualistic Colchis and ‘civilized’ Corinth. The ‘civilized’ countries could cite this human sacrifice as proof of the lack of civilization in Colchis while turning around and stealing from the Colchians, or exiling Medea, and not considering their own behaviour as, in its own way, equally cruel.

In his atheistic treatment of the Jason and Medea myth, Pasolini largely removes the supernatural elements, replacing them with characters’ perception of, and belief in, a divinity that isn’t physically there. So instead of seeing Eros shoot a love arrow into the heart of Medea (played by Maria Callas in her only film role, also in which she doesn’t sing), she sees Jason’s arrival, and it’s love at first sight, expressed through her falling on the floor on her back.

Similarly, in Pasolini’s film, we don’t see her use her magic to help Jason plough the field with the fire-breathing bulls; nor do we see her use her magic to help him defeat the army of warriors that grew from a dragon’s teeth sown in the ploughed field; nor do we see her use her magic to put to sleep the dragon that guarded the Fleece. Instead, she simply has her brother, Absyrtus (Apsirto, played by Sergio Tramonti), steal the Fleece and take it with her by chariot to Jason and the Argonauts.

The film portrays Apsirto as rather weak-willed and dim-witted, for he shows no resistance to Medea’s wish for him to help her commit what his family and all of Colchian society would deem an act of the most abominable impiety. He just smiles like a fool and does her bidding without question. Indeed, when Aëetes and his men chase her and her brother to retrieve their prized Fleece, she raises an axe to kill Apsirto, but he shows not the slightest ability to defend himself.

Her helping Jason to steal the Fleece, a coveted possession that can be seen to represent the natural resources of a developing country, can in turn be seen to represent the puppet leader of said developing country collaborating with its imperialist oppressor.

In the film, when Medea finds herself outside of Colchis with Jason and the Argonauts, and therefore in a land foreign to her own, she feels alienated from it. The men all set up tents, but do not pray to the gods to bless them. Such irreligiousness is inexplicable to her.

She thus goes through a spiritual crisis. She runs about the land, which is barely covered in any vegetation, and calls out to her gods of the sun and earth; they do not seem to hear her in this strange, foreign land.

Jason returns to Iolcus and gives Pelias the Fleece, but the king feels no obligation to keep his promise and give Jason his rightful place on the throne. Unlike in the original myth, in which Medea schemes to have Pelias’ own daughters kill him, the Jason of Pasolini’s film simply accepts not regaining the throne, telling his uncle that the Fleece is of no use, value, or meaning outside of Colchis. Of course not: its meaning exists only for those who believe in it; in Pasolini’s godless world, the Fleece cannot mean anything outside of the Colchian culture that reveres it.

Pelias’ wives strip Medea of her black priestess robes and jewellery, replacing them with humble clothing similar to their own, the clothing of a wife. Medea has lost her gods, the Fleece’s value is no more, and she is now a mere housewife. Still, she’ll bear these losses, as long as Jason remains true to her…

She and Jason live in Corinth for ten years. Various sources say the couple have had anywhere from one to fourteen children. In the plays by Euripides and Seneca, and in Pasolini’s film, they have two sons.

Now, with this family living in Corinth, Medea is not the only foreigner–all of them are. In fact, Jason finds himself and his whole family in danger of Acastus, son of Pelias, who wants revenge for the killing of his father (for which, recall, Medea is responsible), and who has driven all of them out of Iolcus.

Jason can find only one practical solution to his predicament as an exile: marry Creusa, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, and thus abandon Medea. This new marriage should at least give protection to him and their two boys…and with this scorning and rejection of Medea, the tragedies of Euripides and Seneca begin.

Pasolini’s film only subtly shows Medea’s realization that her husband is abandoning her for another woman, a disloyalty grown out of his fickle nature rather than a need to protect himself and their sons from Acastus, who doesn’t figure in the film. She goes to Corinth with her nurse (played by Annamaria Chio), who is reluctant to go because she knows what Jason is about to do; Medea sees a kind of dancing competition among suitors as to who will win the princess’s hand. Jason is participating in the dance with the other men, and Medea takes the shocking hint.

Euripides’ play opens with a long speech by the nurse, who describes Medea’s anguish on learning of her husband’s betrayal. Seneca’s begins with Medea herself giving the long, anguished speech.

Comparisons and contrasts can be made between the Medea plays and a couple by Shakespeare with regard to the theme of revenge, namely, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Medea is disenfranchised both as a foreign “barbarian” and as a woman; Shylock, in TMOV, is disenfranchised for being a foreigner and a Jew in Venice. Because of their ill-treatment, both Medea and Shylock are pushed over the edge and driven to commit violent, horrible acts. As a result, both characters are sympathized with and abominated for what they do (Medea) or at least intend to do (Shylock). Shylock is allowed, at the end of TMOV, to live, but he has been financially and spiritually destroyed. In the end, though Medea physically gets away scot-free to Athens on her grandfather’s solar chariot, she can be said to have destroyed her own soul by her double filicide. Shylock is punished for his sins; Medea is punished by her sins.

As far as comparisons, or really, contrasts with Hamlet are concerned, Medea clearly shows its protagonist (if such a violent woman can be called such–i.e., a sympathetic character) to be firmly resolved in her wish not only to get revenge on and kill Creusa and Creon, but also to kill her two boys. In contemplating the double filicide, she wavers somewhat in her guilt, as can be seen in the Seneca, but she goes through with it all the same. She’s firmly resolved to commit all the killings in Pasolini’s film, too.

But in Hamlet, as we all know, the Danish prince delays his revenge all the way to the bitter end, when he’s been pricked by “the point envenom’d,” and only when he knows he’s going to die does he finally get his revenge on his uncle Claudius. A number of characters either in Hamlet or referred to in the play take (or want to take) their revenge more decisively than the Dane does: namely, they are Laertes (Act IV, Scene v, from line 109), Fortinbras, who is slowed down in his revenge only by a vast stretch of land to traverse, and Pyrrhus, who hesitates only briefly before killing Priam to avenge his father, Achilles (Act II, Scene ii, lines 444-491). And certainly, Medea is much quicker to revenge than Hamlet is.

Now, Colchis, Iolcus, and Corinth can be contrasted in terms of how “barbaric” vs ‘enlightened/’progressive’ they are. Colchis, as we already know, represents ‘primitive’ society, that of the developing world. Iolcus, with its usurping, double-crossing King Pelias, represents the unapologetically imperialistic part of the world, that which takes from other countries (i.e., the Golden Fleece), that which enriches itself at the expense of others, and feels no remorse for that foreign policy. In our modern world, Pelias is the conservative.

Corinth, however, is more like today’s liberal world. Creon would take in Jason and his sons; taking in Medea, however, would be crossing over the line for him. As we on the left know, liberal generosity has its limits, to put it mildly. As a manifestation of modern liberal thinking, social democracy would improve the lives of those within one’s own country, and has no qualms about taking from the Third World to enrich itself. Creon’s treatment of Medea, and of Jason and their sons, can be seen as symbolic of this liberal double standard. We’ll take care of the needy among us, and a select number of foreign refugees, but anyone outside of these must fend for themselves.

In Euripides’ play, Medea laments the miserable existence of women. She says,

Of all the sentient creatures of the earth, we women are
the most unfortunate. First there is the dowry: at such
exorbitant expense we have to buy a husband–pay
to take a master for our bodies. And as the seasons pass,
if he prove false, then are we twice abused…
…All our hopes and striving lean
on this one thing: whether the husband that we take
turns out good or ill. For marriage is the only choice
we have, and divorce discredits women utterly.
We leave the house we knew, the dear comfort of familiar
ways. We must enter the husband’s world, accommodate
strange practices, the habits of his house, and figure out–
oh, hardest yet–how best to deal with his whims, for little
in our past prepares us for this task of satisfying him. […]

A man when he is bored at home, or irritated by
the burdens of domestic life, goes out into the streets,
or to the baths, debates philosophy for sport, diverts
himself with games and friends, and does what pleases him.
Our lives are monotone: for on one man we’re forced
to fix our gaze. Men say we lead an easy life,
safe at home while they risk all at the point of a spear.
What do they know? I would rather stand three times
in battle with shield and spear than give birth once. (Euripides, lines 252-256, 259-267, and 273-281)

Medea might want to pause before preferring to fight three battles, and risk a violent death on the battlefield, to giving birth to a child; then again, I as a man should pause before presuming that risking one’s life to give birth, especially without modern medicine, as would have been the case with women in Medea’s time, would be preferable to going to war. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I suppose.

While the patriarchal aspects of the sources of Medea’s suffering are so obvious as not to need much further comment (beyond how her leaving of Colchis and her family, to be with her new husband, Jason, is symbolic of patrilocal culture), I suspect we could be dealing at least in part with matrilineal customs, too. After all, though Jason is working to secure the safety of his and Medea’s sons in Corinth, threats of exiling the boys as well as Medea also loom over the course of the play. See, for example, in Euripides’ play, lines 976-977, where Medea says, “Do I not have the children? And aren’t we–they and I–/now exiles in need of friends?”

If descent in their world were patrilineal, the boys’ association with their father would ensure their safety without question; after all, only Medea, with her magic, is a threat to Creon and his daughter. The boys’ matrilineal association with Medea would make them as much foreigners as she is, and this association would threaten them with exile as well as her. Finally, Jason is marrying into Creon’s family, not Creusa into his family; his entrance into Creon’s family is thus matrilocal.

In Act Four of Seneca’s play, the nurse and Medea give detailed descriptions of the scorned wife preparing her “uncanny rites” (Seneca, line 680) and magic spells. In Pasolini’s film, we see Medea looking out of a window at the sun, her grandfather (as she, in this atheistic production, imagines it to be: she can easily be understood to be imagining the sound of Helios’ voice), and does something rarely seen in the film…she smiles. Then she assembles her ladies-in-waiting, including her nurse, who is ever-reluctant to participate in Medea’s violent plans, and chants with them, pacing back and forth ritualistically, to prepare the spell to make lethal her gift of a gown, necklaces, and a tiara for Creusa.

The film shows Medea’s revenge on Creusa (played by Margareth Clémenti) and Creon (played by Massimo Girotti, who incidentally was also in Last Tango in Paris) twice: first, as a vision Medea has of the gown literally burning the princess and king; then, as the actual revenge carried out, with Creusa looking at herself in the mirror fearfully while wearing the gown, identifying with Medea and her suffering, and then killing herself in remorse, with Creon following after and imitating her suicide.

Pasolini’s atheistic, demythologized representation of Creusa’s demise can be interpreted along Lacanian lines. Her beholding of herself in the mirror while wearing Medea’s gown, necklaces, and tiara can be seen as her looking at her ideal-I in the specular image. The ideal wife for Jason isn’t Creusa, but Medea. Creusa sees herself dressed like Medea and knows she cannot measure up to Medea’s ideal, because she cannot replace the woman who ought still to be Jason’s wife. Therefore, Creusa cannot marry him. The pain she feels from having caused Medea such pain, a pain Medea has projected onto Creusa in the form of the gift of clothes, is a metaphorical burning of her entire body, her entire self. That metaphorical fire is the fire of suffering caused by desire, the desire to have a man who isn’t hers for the taking.

After the killing of Creusa and Creon comes the atrocity of Medea’s killing of her two sons. Seneca has them killed onstage. Pasolini doesn’t show the killings, but he slowly builds up the suspense leading up to the implied act; this leading-up includes Medea’s last moments as a mother with the boys, bathing them and holding them lovingly. Seeing the boys naked as she bathes them reinforces our sense of their vulnerability and helplessness; seeing her cuddle with each of them after their baths is a touching moment that reinforces how heartbreaking it is to know she is also planning to kill them, given that we watchers of the film know the original myth.

Euripides shows Medea, having already killed them, on Helios’ sun-chariot, a subversion of the notion of the deus ex machina, which is normally used to resolve a difficulty in the plot, in a contrived manner, through divine intervention. To use this plot device is actually rather lazy writing, as having a god resolve a problem is conveniently far easier than doing so through human effort, which requires the writer to devise a thoroughly thought-out solution him- or herself.

The deus ex machina appearance of Medea resolves her problem of where she, as an exile and a murderess, is to go to escape punishment. Earlier in Euripides’ play, Aegeus, king of Athens, has promised her he’ll let her live in Athens if she uses her herbs to cure his infertility. So she will go there and be safe, never punished for her crimes, since Aegeus knows nothing of them. He will also marry her.

Using the deus ex machina for her, however, is a perversion of the purpose of the plot device, since it’s meant to resolve difficulties and thus prevent tragedy. In Medea’s case, she uses it just after aggravating the tragedy, not preventing it, and ensuring that her victims won’t receive justice. After all, the chthonic religion that she adheres to resorts to revenge, not to justice, to settle grievances (the Furies, for example, were chthonic deities of vengeance). Recall that Hecate, one of the prominent chthonic gods, is one to whom Medea prays to aid her in her revenge in, for example, Seneca’s play (Act IV, lines 833-842).

In killing their boys, Medea has done to Jason what he’d initially planned to do to her: deprive a spouse of a family, a country, and a future. She kills the boys not to hurt them, but to hurt him. Now Jason has lost not only a family to marry into and thus to protect him from the dangers of exile and avenging Acastus, but he’s also lost the future of his family line through the boys’ deaths. In destroying Jason’s hopes of patrilineal descent, Medea’s revenge can be seen as a proto-feminist act.

The ambiguity over whether we’re dealing with a matrilineal or patrilineal society could be resolved by imagining that Medea, like Aeschylus‘ trilogy, the Oresteia, represents a transition from lineal descent by the female to that by the male, and therefore also represents a conflict between the two. Just as we see in Medea a mythologized beginning of imperialist plunder, so do we see in the play a mythologized beginning of the patriarchal family’s oppression of women.

That we see the mythological origins of the imperialist plunder of ‘primitive’ societies coinciding with the origins of the oppression of women is significant, for Friedrich Engels, in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, also noted the coinciding of the end of matrilineal society with the end of primitive communism…and therefore the beginning of not only patrilineal society, but also societies based on class conflict.

Now, one cannot go on plundering, oppressing, and mistreating the poor, women, the landless, and developing societies indefinitely without expecting some eventual form of horrifying karmic retribution. For we should see the excesses of Medea’s revenge as just such a retribution, a dialectical shift from the oppressor hurting the oppressed to vice versa.

In our modern world, we shouldn’t be too surprised at this or that terrorist attack in, say, New York City, London, Madrid, Paris, or in Israel. We may lament the deaths of these victims (as we do Medea’s sons), but when we allow the existence of governments that cause mayhem in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World, and when we as First Worlders benefit from such oppression (as Jason, Creon, and Creusa were meant to benefit from a marriage that would undo Medea; or as Pelias planned to benefit from the theft of the Golden Fleece), when karma gets back at us, we shouldn’t pretend to be shocked by such violence.

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

Euripides, Euripides, 1 (Medea, Hecuba, Andromache, The Bacchae), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998

Seneca, Six Tragedies, New York, Oxford University Press, 2010

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