In the Medea, written by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC), we are presented with a tragic account of the doom of a classic hero, Medea.
Medea is a complex hero, I would argue that her story is more complicated than that of any other hero in the classical lexicon, beginning with the fact that Medea is a woman
Medea is a female hero in the Hellenic world where women had no standing and were not allowed a role in public life. Medea is also a foreigner, an alien in the Hellenic culture that is characteristically xenophobic.
Despite her status as a woman and an outsider, Medea is a person of power.
Medea comes to the Greek city of Corinth as the wife of Jason, captain of the Argos and leader of the Argonauts. In her capacity as Jason’s wife she has status.
In her native country Medea is a princess of royal blood and divine descent. She is the daughter of Aeetes, king of Colchis, who is the son of Helios, the divine sun, and Perse (Mother of all Persia).
Medea is only one generation removed from her divine progenitor, she is the niece of Circe
In the narrative of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea is the prime mover of the action, all of the characteristics of the hero are personified in her. She is a person of bold determination
Medea carries those qualities forward into her own narrative. She does not shirk from her mission to seek justice, for herself and her family even as she takes dramatic action against the social conventions of the Hellenic world in order to receive the justice she is looking for and accomplish her ends.
In the opening scene of Medea, the audience is informed of the conflict that is at the heart of the play.
The narrative is delivered by the woman who serving as wet-nurse to Jason and Medea's children, she tells us that Jason has betrayed his wife and offspring, by seeking the bed of a royal bride.
The background is this:
Upon arriving in Corinth with his family, Jason is a man without a country, an exile. He had left his own household to live with the King, Creon, and his daughter the princess Glauce.
Jason is a famous man, and a celebrated hero after succeeding in his quest to acquire the Golden Fleece. Creon was happy to have him at court, it enhanced his prestige.
Jason and Creon developed a solid relationship, and after a short time Creon offers Jason the hand of the Glauce in marriage.
Jason, of course, is already married, to Medea, who is herself a royal princess, though like Jason she is an exile, she is also a foreigner and she has no standing.
Glauce is Creon’s only heir, and if Jason were to marry her, he would then inherit the kingdom of Corinth. As such, Jason is eager for this arrangement to obtain.
Jason accepts the offer. He tells himself that this is in the best interest of both himself, Medea, and their children. He tries to convince Medea as well, telling her that as prince, and king of Corinth he would be in a much better position to provide for and protect both Medea and their sons.
Medea views this development as a crime against her and her children, as she is herself a person of royal and divine lineage. Her father was both a king, and the son of a god, Helios.
Medea sees Jason’s decision as both criminal, and a deep personal betrayal, because she risked her own life, she lost her position in her family, giving up her rights as a princess to aid Jason in his time of trial, escaping with him across the seas so that she might be his wife.
She risked everything for him out of love, and bore his children; now he proposed to set her aside, and make her the “second-wife,” essentially a servant to the princess Glauce.
Without the heroic action of Medea, Jason never would have obtained the Golden Fleece, neither would he have escaped from Colchis with it. He never would have become a figure of renown.
Without Medea, Jason would be a failure.
The narrative concerning the Argonauts, and their quest demonstrates that Jason’s success is delivered to him by the constant intervention of women; by goddesses and those descended from the god’s.
From the beginning of the narrative to the end Jason is watched over and looked after by Hera, queen of the god.
Hera persuades Aphrodite to send Eros, to instill in Medea a love for Jason, so that she would use her powers to help him against her father Aeetes.[i] This is an example of divine selection, and it is the first indication that Medea is a person of Heroic quality.
As a result of her being stricken by Love with a passion for Jason, Medea gives him a magical ointment, with that Jason agrees to marry her.
Jason is welcomed to the court of Aeetes. He and the Argonauts are received as guests, but there is no friendship. Aeetes knows that Jason is in Colchis to obtain the Golden Fleece, he also knows that Jason has the favor of Hera. He cannot simply kill or dismiss Jason.
Instead he presents Jason with a number of challenges, so impossible and dangerous that any normal person would be killed in the attempt, and Jason is a normal person. He is not a king, and he is not the offspring of the gods. His power simply lies in the fact that he is a leader of men, he is unique in this, among the Hellenic heroes of this age.
Medea applies the ointment she has promised him, ensuring that Jason is protected from the lightening and fire of the monstrous oxen that Jason is tasked with subduing, consequently he was able to yoke the beasts, and plow the fields he was tasked with plowing, by harnessing their strength.
Her part in their marriage contract is complete.
Without the anointing that Medea gave him, he would have been dead. This is evidence of her own personal power as a witch or sorceress.
The power of witch craft (a woman’s power), commonly viewed by Hellenistic cultures as something to be feared and shunned, serves here as the salvation of one of its greatest Hellenic heroes.
Jason receives credit for yoking the oxen, and plowing the field, but the power that made it possible was Medea’s.
Medea’s support of Jason allows him to secure the Golden Fleece. At that moment, with the fleece in their possession, Medea, Jason, and the surviving Argonauts are fugitives. They are deep in enemy territory, and their situation appears hopeless.
Once again, the prime mover of the succeeding events is Medea. She devises a plan for their escape. She abducts her younger brother and kills him, then has the body of the boy cut up into pieces. She tosses the pieces into the sea so that her father would have to delay his pursuit of the Argonauts to pick up the divided corpse of his son.
This is a gruesome scene. Medea has committed the crime of fratricide, she has also desecrated the body of the dead, but she has done this in order to preserve the life of her betrothed.
She has done committed these crimes out of love, a love inspired by the divine power of Eros. Therefore, Medea can be forgiven, even a crime as horrible as fratricide, under the power of Eros she could not be considered to be responsible for her actions, while under the laws of men, her allegiances had shifted from her father’s house to her husband’s.
As a result of Medea’ shrewd tactics, Jason and the Argonauts were able to escape the wrath of Aeetes and the Cholcians. It is Medea’s uncompromising heroism that leads them through the challenge.
Medea defies the world, and all traditions, nothing will stop her from achieving her ambition.
In keeping with the motif of the heroic journey, Medea then follows Jason across the sea.
Their journey is fraught with difficulty, but Medea triumphs over them all in order that she might be with Jason.
When they arrive in safe harbor, Jason honors his promise and formally takes the princess Medea as his wife. He takes the holy vows of matrimony, swearing his oath before Zeus, and all the other gods.
Everyone who enters into marriage places themselves under the governance of Hera, the goddess of marriage, wife to Zeus, queen of Olympus and all the gods.
By swearing to the vows of marriage, Jason binds himself to Medea forever.
He swears to Hera who had been his constant benefactor, to uphold the trust she held more sacred than any other.
Hera blessed them with children, and as a father Jason is obligated to look after their interests, to the greatest extent of his capabilities.
When Jason announces his intention to marry Glauce, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth,
Medea is betrayed, both in her person, and in her children.
The oaths that Jason swore as husband, and father, are holy obligations. By even entertaining the offer of marriage to Glauce, Jason has abrogated his obligation. When Jason announces that he has accepted the offer, Medea is right to feel that both she and her children have been irreparably wronged.
They are harmed by Jason's licentious union with the princess of Corinth. Any extramarital relationship that Jason has with the princess are a threat to her and her children!
In the eyes of Hera, this is a criminal violation of their marriage.
On account of these crimes Medea speaks out to the people of Corinth, in defense of herself, her children and their rights. She berates Jason, upbraids the king, and denounces the princess. Her speeches are effective. The people side with her, and this embarrasses the royal family.
I hear a cry of grief and deep sorrow. In piercing accents of misery she proclaims her woes, her ill starred marriage and her love betrayed. The victim of grievous wrongs, she calls on the daughter of Zeus, even Themis, lady of Vows, who led her through the night by difficult straights across the briny sea of Hellas.[ii]
Medea speaks out against her plight. She recounts her instrumental role in Jason’s accomplishments, and by invoking Themis, daughter of Zeus, who oversees the sanctity of vows, she makes a legal argument against Jason, Creon, and Glauce.
Medea presses her case in public, and this is contrary to the customs of ancient Greece.
In Euripides day, women did not lead a public life. They were strictly censured by their husbands. As was most often the case, a woman, even a princess, would not be granted any legal recourse unless they were represented by some influential male in their society.
Medea had no such representation. As a result of this breach of etiquette, and decorum Medea is threatened with exile by the king if she does not recant.
She does not, even while knowing that exile in a foreign land would mean certain disaster for her, and her children.
Medea's is courageous in her search for justice, demonstrating once again her innate heroism.
When Creon, king of Corinth issues the decree of exile against Medea, Jason comes to her and attempts to convince her to change her mind by seeking the pardon of the king and agreeing to his terms.
Jason has no intention of going into exile with her.
Jason argues that it would be to the benefit of everyone: to her, their children, and to himself (most of all) if she would accept his marriage into the royal family of Corinth, it would give them a position of security, in a place of strength and power.
He asks Medea to trust his judgement, believing that his judgment has proven to be of benefit to her in the past, which of course is a misreading of their earlier adventures.
Jason says to her:
In the first place, you have your home in Greece, instead of in a barbarian land. You have learned the blessing of law and justice, instead of the caprice of the strong. And all of the Greeks have realized your wisdom, and you have won great fame. If you had been living on the edge of the earth no one would ever have heard of you…I shall demonstrate, one, my wisdom; two, my rightness; three, my great service of love to you and my children…What greater windfall could I have hit upon, I an exile, than a marriage with a king's daughter? …What I have wanted, first and foremost was a good home where we would lack for nothing (well I know that the poor man is shunned and avoided by all his friends); and secondly, I wanted to bring up the children in a style worthy of my house, and, begetting other children to be brothers to the children born of you, to bring them all together and thus unite the families.[iii]
Medea does not relent. She listens to Jason's rationale, but she is not fooled by his clever argument. She looks into the future and she sees a life for herself as a second wife, something akin to chattel, a war prize brought back to Greece from his adventures abroad, nothing more than a trophy. She sees her children growing up in opposition to the children of the Glauce, and rightly views the princess as a threat to both her station, and her offspring.
In keeping with the times, Medea is right to presume that the Glauce would likely have them killed to prevent them from usurping the throne of Corinth.
It is not possible for Medea to view such a future as a boon or a benefit to either her or her children, in fact she sees it as the path to their destruction, as such it is not possible for her to agree with Jason that her life is better off, now, among the Greeks than it was before she left Colchis.
In Medea's perspective she has not met justice, nor received the benefits of law. In fact, she is being strong armed out of town because the king wants to wed his daughter to the heroic Jason, and Jason self-servingly wants the position.
The situation Medea is in, is the exact opposite of what Jason describes. He is deluded, and he is attempting to delude her. She is being treated lawlessly, according to the caprice of the strong.
Medea is in existential peril.
As a fugitive in a foreign land, with only her own resources to depend on, set against the power of a reigning monarch, Medea meets the criteria of the classical hero.
Medea has traveled far, risked everything, and endured terrible hardship, only to be forced to the brink of ruin by the man who had sworn to protect her, having taken an oath she was supposed to be able to trust.
Medea is enraged.
In her rage she determines to have retribution. Crimes have been perpetrated against her, they are continuing, and they are compounding. Medea appeals to the gods for vengeance, then acting with authority, she summons her “power,” fashions a plan that will bring destruction to her enemies.
Medea fabricates a “deadly device,” out of a “godly gift.” A dress of spun gold more, beautiful than any other, that had been given to her mother by the god Helios. Her use of this divine gift, transforming it into a weapon, is another element of the narrative that is in keeping with the heroic motif, portraying the hero as a person who has the ability to acquire such powerful resources.
Her use of this dress as the instrument of justice can also be viewed as divine sanction for her intentions.
If Medea's quest for retribution had not been approved of by the gods, it is unlikely that they would have extended their power into her and allowed her to make the murderous wedding gown.
Medea accomplishes her goal.
The gown destroys the both the princess Glauce who donned it, and her father the king, who touched it.
This is an example of heroic achievement.
Having accomplished her end Medea prepares to leave Corinth, a promised sanctuary awaits her.
Before she departs, Medea slays her children, in what she considers to be an act of mercy.
Medea believes in her heart that no matter where her children would have grown up, their lives will be cursed. She believes that the world will judge them and hold them accountable for her actions in Corinth, even though Medea believes that Jason is the one who is ultimately accountable for the entire crime.
She murders her children with Jason watching in dismay, but before Jason can take her to task for what she has done, Medea is transported away by her divine grandfather, Helios, in his golden chariot.
This ending operates as an allegory, stating that Medea is in the right.
The conclusion to this part of Medea’s story follows the heroic motif that the hero will escape the danger of her trials.
The intervention of Helios indicates that the gods approve of Medea, and what she has done.
If the gods had not approved, then Medea would surely have been brought low for such a terrible deed.
Medea escapes to Athens, where she marries the Aegeus its king, achieving a more exalted status as queen.
In all of the heroic narratives criminal behavior is met by a lowering of status, while heroic behavior is rewarded by the exaltation of status.
Medea is a hero in the truest sense. She may not have been a battlefield hero like Achilles or Hector, but she was a person of great power who suffered much and came through her ordeal triumphant.