Medea (Μήδεια) is one of the most controversial female heroines to have ever existed. In modern Greek, her name is given to women who end the lives of their children. We know Medea from ancient Greek mythology and specifically the Argonautica. But the character is widely known thanks to the theatrical play with the same name, presented by Euripides in 431 BC.
Medea’s Mythological Background
Medea is a mythological princess who lived in the city of Colchis, on the coast of the Black Sea, in an unspecified timeline. According to the legend, she was related to Circe, the witch who was keeping Odysseus captive in her island. Medea, just like Circe, practiced witchcraft and she worshipped the chthonic goddess Hecate. According to Hesiod, she was a divine being herself; not a mortal but not a goddess either.
According to the legend of the Argonautica, when Jason, prince of Iolcos, arrived in Colchis to obtain the golden fleece, goddesses Hera and Aphrodite intervened. They used their powers to make Medea fall madly in love with Jason. The princess would be willing to sacrifice everything for him. Indeed, with the help of Medea, Jason was able to take the golden fleece and return to the Greek city of Iolcos.
Since Jason ended up being denied the throne of Iolcos, he fled to Corinth along with Medea. There, they got married and had many children. In some variations of the myth, Jason and Medea had 14 children, most of whom were boys. In Euripides’ version, they have two boys. Jason and Medea were happily married for ten years, until another person entered the scene: the princess of Corinth, Glauce. It is worth remembering that Jason had married Medea because she helped him in his quest. Medea, on the other hand, was obsessively in love with Jason, after Hera’s and Aphrodite’s intervention.
According to the different variations of the myth, Medea lost both her husband and her children. Her husband broke his marital oath and married the much younger Glauce, and their children died prematurely. Poet Eumelus says in “Korinthiaka” that Medea caused the deaths by accident. The poet Creophylus mentioned that the children were attacked by the angry citizens of Corinth. It was the tragedian Euripides who changed the ending of the story, giving her a more active role. In Euripides’ version, Medea takes revenge.
Medea by Euripides (Theatrical Play)
The play “Medea” («Μήδεια») was performed for the first time at the theatrical festival of Dionysia in 431 BC. The characters include Medea, Jason, Glauce, King Creon of Corinth, king Aegeus of Athens, a messenger, an elderly nurse, a tutor, Medea’s children (two in this version), and a Chorus consisting of the women of Corinth.
The play starts after Medea has found out that Jason considers marrying the much younger princess of Corinth, Glauce. The back story is narrated by an elderly nurse. A tutor who converses with the nurse, helps unravel the events that caused the couple to break up.
“She (Medea) gave all sorts of help to Jason. That’s when life is most secure and safe, when woman and her husband stand as one. But that marriage changed. Now they’re enemies.”, the nurse says.
Jason, after being denied the throne of Iolcos, finds the opportunity to gain power by marrying the daughter of king Creon of Corinth. Medea is distraught. She wants to end her life. She refuses to eat and curses Jason and their two young sons, who are unaware of what is going on. Both the women of the Chorus and the nurse are trying to make her think logically and avoid acting aggressively towards those who have nothing to do with her husband’s actions.
“The person who was everything to me, my own husband, has turned out to be the worst of men. This I know is true. Of all things with life and understanding, we women are the most unfortunate.”, Medea replies, explaining the hardships of women’s lives at that time (no possessions, pains of childbirth, no participation in public life*).
The local king, Creon, enters the scene and tries to banish Medea and her children from Corinth. He is afraid she will try to take revenge for her husband’s actions. But Medea insists that, although she is mad against Jason, she has nothing against him or Glauce. She asks Creon to stay one more day in Corinth before she and her children leave the city. Creon, feeling bad for the woman, agrees and Medea focuses all her energy on her revenge plan, with the help of Hecate.
Jason then enters the scene and tries to defend his actions. He also denies that Medea helped him fetch the golden fleece, saying that it was goddess Aphrodite the one who assisted him. He also offers money to Medea, which she rejects.
“Erotic love with too much passion brings with it no fine reputation, brings nothing virtuous to men.”, the women of the Chorus conclude.
After Jason, another man enters the scene. He is Aegeus, king of Athens, who tries to find a cure for his sterility. Medea narrates her story to Aegeus and offers him potions to solve his problem. Aegeus feels sympathy for Medea and, wanting to thank her for her offer, he promises before the gods to offer Medea refuge in Athens in return.
Medea is then left alone on stage, where she reveals her plan to seek revenge on her husband. She will try to seem agreeable and nice; as if she has accepted Jason’s decision. She will ask him to keep the children in Corinth and raise them with his new family. She will use the children as a “trojan horse”. They will bear gifts that will kill Glauce and then their lives will end as well. Jason will be left alive and alone – his children and his young bride lying dead. He will know that he is the one who brought this tragedy into his life.
“Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; the laughter of my enemies I will not endure”, she says, shocking the women of the Chorus who warn her that such an action will make her unwelcome in the civilized city of Athens.
Medea follows her plan and Jason is very happy to raise his children with Glauce. She then has a dress and a coronet delivered to Glauce, which the princess accepts. But the dress and the coronet were drenched in a corrosive substance that killed Glauce and Creon who tried to save her.
At the same time, Medea decided to proceed with the murder of her own children and then leave with their bodies on a flying chariot which is pulled by her grandfather, the Sun. She has been wounded herself but this is a price she was willing to take to see Jason suffer. She refuses Jason to visit their sons burial grounds and leaves Corinth flying, cursing Jason to have an unheroic death. Jason and the Chorus are left wondering what are the plans of the gods, who often “contradict our fondest expectations”.
Themes and Critical Perception of Medea by Euripides
The theatrical play Medea did not win the hearts of the Athenian audience. People were shocked with the ending, since it was very different from the ones they were used to. That is why Euripides was placed in the third place, although the play is now considered as one of the best ancient Greek dramas.
Medea and the Place of Women in Ancient Greece
There are also numerous ways to understand and analyze the story. Euripides’ plays tended to focus on marginalized people, such as women in the ancient world. We have already seen this in his play called “Helen”, where he gives voice to Helen of Troy. In Medea, he highlights the difficulties women face in their lives (*) through the voices of the Corinthian women and Medea herself. He then refuses to give a passive role to Medea and offers her the opportunity to take revenge by committing the biggest taboo of that time -and of today-: ending the lives of her own children.
Medea vs. Jason: Emotions vs. Logic
But “Medea” is not a play that focuses only on the place of women in the ancient Athenian society. There is another theme that is often overlooked and that is emotion vs. logic. Medea represents emotion (both positive and negative) and Jason represents logic.
Medea jumps from being extremely in love with Jason to hating him and wanting to harm him in a matter of seconds. She is lead by her emotions and her actions are ruled by them. She helps a man she just met, Jason, steal her family’s treasure (the golden fleece) and leaves with him because she fell in love. She brings chaos and destruction when she is filled with anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions.
Her emotional distress grows at the sight of Jason who remains composed and calm throughout the play. The women of Corinth feel sympathy for her but remind her to find “the middle way”, as they say. This refers to the Greek concept of the golden ratio and being able to find the middle ground of two extremes. But Medea is unable or unwilling to do so.
Jason, on the other hand, represents logic in its absolute form. He married Medea because she helped him obtain the golden fleece. He then decided to remarry to gain power in the city of Corinth. He remains calm when talking to his distressed wife and tries to reason with her, which she finds infuriating. He seems rigid and cold; unable to understand Medea’s feelings. Jason finally breaks down and releases his emotions when Medea leaves the scene on a flying chariot.
With his play “Medea”, Euripides showcases how destructive uncontrollable emotions and rigid logic can be. How would things end if Medea was able to control her extreme emotional responses and if Jason could develop a strong emotional attachment to his wife? Or even if he persisted on remarrying, how would things have developed if he showed empathy towards Medea?
The play “Medea” is a reminder that extremities can lead to tragedies. It is important to find the golden ratio between emotions and logic. To not ignore our emotions, positive or negative, but learn how to control them. And lastly, Euripides reminds us that people who take revenge end up being as hurt, if not more, than those who receive it.
Medea by Euripides in an Essence:
- “Medea” was presented in 431 BC in the festival of Dionysia.
- It features a wife, Medea, taking revenge on her unfaithful husband, Jason, by killing everyone he cares for.
- Euripides was placed in the third position for his play “Medea”.
- The play contradicts previous mythological stories by giving Medea a less passive role – she is a victim and a villain.
- “Medea” is more than a story about romantic betrayal, jealousy, and revenge.
- The play showcased the difficulties women faced in the ancient world.
- The main theme is logic (Jason) vs. emotions (Medea) and the importance of finding the golden ratio.
- “Medea” also proves that revenge always backfires.
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