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A Double Faced Medea: “Viper”, or Human Creature? – by Pino Blasone

by Luca

No doubt, that of Medea is one of the most disconcerting and even contradictory female characters, in antique Greek mythology and Greco-Roman literature. So much, as to grow almost a controversial archetype in later European culture and Western civilization, fine arts or music included [footnote 1]. Still nowadays, the personage occurs to be animatedly debated. In a 1946 interview, the coreographer Martha Graham could affirm: “Every woman is [somewhat] Medea.” Provocatively, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan alluded to her like a vraie femme, moreover quoting a few Euripides’ lines where she appears in the role of a sage, who knew things in a way which may forerun the role of a modern analyst. After him and the North American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek considers her an irreducible antagonist, an “anti-Antigone” (famous heroine of the tragedy Antigone, by the ancient Greek Sophocles): “Two versions of femininity: Antigone can still be read as standing for the particular family roots against the universality of the public space of State Power; Medea, on the contrary, out-universalizes universal Power itself” [footnote 2]. However, the relevant myth was precedent to the tragedy Medea by Euripides, first performed at Athens in 431 B.C. In such an archaic version, she had been mainly regarded as a sorceress or thaumaturgical healer, nay as a rejuvenating one, not seldom dressed in an oriental fashion and represented with a lébes or cauldron, the favoured instrument of her magical skill. That is so, in the vascular Greek or Italic painting, or else – in an oneiric and surreal way – in an early modern fresco by Ludovico Carracci (see below: Fava Palace, Bologna, 1584; cf. also the much later Vision of Medea by J. M. W. Turner, Tate Britain, London, 1828). At the beginning at least, hers might have been a sort of natural and “white” magic, before degenerating into what is usually defined a “black” one. After Ovid, this is the image which still appears in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1, lines 12-14. Since its earliest apparitions, Medea’s story was strictly tied to that of Jason, the Greek Argonaut who fell in love with her in the far Cholchis on the Black Sea coast (partly, today’s Caucasian Georgia). In order to favour and avenge her lover, we must remember her first very bad act of witchery: the episode of Medea and the Peliades. Those were the young daughters to king Pelias of Iolcus, in Thessaly. Ingenuously, they believed to Medea’s deceitful suggestions concerning their sick father. So, the girls cut up his body and boiled its pieces in a cauldron, together with magical spices supplied by the sorceress, which ought to have revived and restored to youth the old guy. Just as it could be feared, he jumped out alive never more … Even better than to literary mythology, a fabulous episode like that sounds to pertain to folkloric tales. It is depicted in a Greek relief probably dating to the the 5th century B.C., or perhaps to a later Neoattic art and sculpture. That was a marble panel, component of a four scenes monument, representing Orpheus and Eurydice, Herakles in the garden of the Hesperides, Herakles with Perithoos and Theseus, and Medea with the Pleiades [footnote 3]. Of this latest artwork, we have two Roman copies: the former, in the Vatican Museums (“Museo Gregoriano Profano”); the latter, at the “Pergamon” Altes Museum in Berlin. In both of them – see below –, on the left side of the viewer Medea carries a box presumably containing her magic ingredients. In the middle, a Pleiade is portrayed while busy with the lébes/cauldron. On the right, the standing figure of another daughter of Pelias looks perplexed, with a hand holding an object near a cheek of her inclined beautiful head. Here, there is an odd difference. Whereas in the copy of the Vatican such an object is a kitchen knife, probably according to the original depiction, in that of Berlin we can notice it transformed into an olive twig. What we may suppose is that this relief had a funerary function. And, surely, a peaceful twig appears a better wishing symbol than a grim knife. Undoubtedly, in a context like that the image of a domestic knife drawn near a nice face shows up as a weird detail. It figures like the emblem of a perverse innocence, of a violence where and when it less may be expected, or of a classical catharsis at any rate: in the questionable sense that evil cannot not exist on earth – easily affecting unwary or passionate human souls –, but that even the impression of an extreme one can be opposed and neutralized by a disenchanted and compassionate mind. Long after that Euripides had charged Medea with the murder of her children born to Jason, in his Discourses the Stoic Epictetus wrote: “Why […] are you angry with the unhappy woman that she has been bewildered about the most important things, and is become a viper instead of a human creature? And why not, if it is possible, rather pity, as we pity the blind and the lame, those who are blinded and maimed in the faculties which are supreme?” (I 28) [footnote 4]. Further in the same work (II 17), the Greek philosopher will partially justify Medea, by showing how often human destructivity is also self-destructivity. She is a self-punisher, besides a revenger against her unloyal husband and his new family milieu, perceived as hostile against herself. After all, didn’t this abandoned and exiled mother kill a part of herself? Nay, self-harm is what Epictetus considers such an aberrant compulsion, that he makes her recite: “I will kill my sons; thus, I will punish myself too” (ἀποκτείνω μὲν τὰ τέκνα. ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐμα υτὴν τιμωρήσομαι). And Euripides’ Medea adds these words: “Oh, what a wretch am I, how miserable in my sorrows! Ah ah, how I wish I could die!” [footnote 5] (ἰώ͵ δύστανος ἐγὼ μελέα τε πόνων͵/ ἰώ μοί μοι͵ πῶς ἂν ὀλοίμαν;). That is a psychological figure, which in a conventional literary Greek was called Héautontimorouménos, a “punisher of himself” and sometimes potential suicide, declined into a female version in our case. What may remind us of some verse of a modern poem with the same title, by the French Charles Baudelaire in his collection Fleurs du mal: “I am the sinister mirror/ In which the vixen looks.// I am the wound and the dagger!/ I am the blow and the cheek!/ I am the members and the wheel,/ Victim and executioner!” [footnote 6] (Je suis le sinistre miroir/ Où la mégère se regarde.// Je suis la plaie et le couteau!/ Je suis le soufflet et la joue!/ Je suis les membres et la roue,/ Et la victime et le bourreau!). Epictetus’ more or less rhetorical indulgence was nearly an exception, as well as the romanticism of the Latin love poet Ovid in his “Letter from Medea to Jason” (Heroides, XII) [footnote 7]. It is a fact, especially after Euripides there was a literary crescendo in the ill fame of our heroine. In the epic poem Argonautica by the Hellenistic Apollonius of Rhodes, fourth book, there is the description of another horrible crime of which the young Medea would have become guilty. She concurred with Jason in killing her brother Apsyrtus, moreover dismembering his corpse and dispersing his limbs, in order to facilitate their flight by sea from the Colchis, after their theft of the much longed for “golden fleece”. A more empathetic attitude may be read in the poem Argonauticae by Valerius Flaccus, book VIII, where Medea’s nostalgic farewell to her homeland is one of the best pieces of Latin poetry. No wonder, in the Latin tragedy also titled Medea, composed by Lucius Annaeus Seneca in 61-62 C.E., the Roman Stoic author makes her exclaim, at the acme of her homicidal fury or mania: “Now I am Medea; my genius has grown through evils” (Medea nunc sum; crevit ingenium malis; line 910). Reliably, not even the Stoics shared the same ideas about, even if for either Epictetus or Seneca ethics was the main care, and they agreed in considering the passions of an emotional temperament as a source of existential suffering. So much has been written on the Medea by Euripides and that by Seneca, that we prefer to focus on Epictetus’ Discourses once more, where he addresses some advice to Medea, and to everyone in a situation like hers: “Do not desire the man [Jason], and nothing which you desire will fail to happen. Do not obstinately desire that he shall live with you. Do not desire to remain in Corinth. In a word, desire nothing than that which God wills. And, who shall hinder you? Who shall compel you? No man shall compel you any more, than he shall compel Zeus” (II 17). Now, we might agree with all this, except for a point: why, had Medea to leave Corinth, as a lonely exile? Just only for she was a foreigner, and the ambitious father of her sons was going to marry a daughter of the king of the town? Albeit an extreme one, that of the Caucasian princess is the most important negative example presented by Epictetus, in the books I and II of his work. Yet, it’s clear how there he decontextualizes the protagonist of Euripides’ tragedy, in order to support and generalize his own argument on the dangers of an irrational anger. In fact, Medea’s extraneousness with the society where she occurred to live seems to have been even broader than grudge and rage against her husband. Instead, the still classical philosopher ignores the detail that Medea was not Greek. Mostly, she was regarded as a barbarian witch, like that we can see depicted above, in a statue dedicated to her by an unknown sculptor already forerunner of the medieval Gothic style (Musée de l’Arles Antique; late Roman imperial age) [footnote 8]. Found along the Via Appia in Arles, southern France, this rare sculpture – see above – depicts Medea about to kill her children, a hand on the hilt of a sword. In particular, the expression of her face looks more beastly than human. So similar but different at once, from another Hellenistic masterpiece – see below –, a Roman fresco which portrays Medea while contemplating infanticide, from the Casa dei Dioscuri in Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples; before 79 C.E.). Here too, her hand is already on the hilt of a sword. She is standing in a corner of shade, while her unaware children are playing in daylight, within a room illuminated through an open door. Evidently, this time the lethal decision is not yet taken; so, the expression of her shaded face may well resemble a Hamletic mask [footnote 9]. We shall await a late Romantic, and Victorian epoch, for listening to a female author adopting Medea as a protagonist, in the 1879 monologue Medea in Athens by the English poetess Augusta Webster. She is represented as a middle aged woman now, accepted as a refugee by the king Aegeus of Athens, but her mind is irreparably troubled by remorse and delirious hallucinations. Medea, who has just learnt of Jason’s death, so speaks to his ghost, for the last time: “Thou, mock me not. What if I have ill dreams,/ Seeing them loathe me, fly from me in dread,/ When I would feed my hungry mouth with kisses?/ What if I moan in tossing fever-thirsts,/ Crying for them whom I shall have no more,/ Here nor among the dead, who never more,/ Here nor among the dead, will smile to me/ With young lips prattling ʽMother, mother dear’?/ What if I turn sick when the women pass/ That lead their boys; and hate a child’s young face?/ What if – Go, go; thou mind’st me of our sons;/ And then I hate thee worse; go to thy grave/ By which none weeps. I have forgotten thee.”

1. She was even mentioned byAugustine of Hippo, in his Confessions (3 6 11), in an exemplary albeit fabulous way: “Indeed, verse and poems or ʻthe flying Medeaʼ are more profitable. […] For, though I sang about ʻthe flying Medeaʼ, I never believed it, but verse and poems I can turn into food for the mind.” Instead, this pensive question has been put far more recently by Ruth Morse, in The Medieval Medea(Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 1996; p. 239): “Has she always been a model for what men fear?”

2. S. Žižek, in Death’s Merciless Love (, 2004; and elsewhere. Cf. J. Lacan, “The Youth of Gide, or the Letter and Desire”, article first published in 1958 (Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966; pp. 739, 761); and M. Nussbaum, “Serpents in the Soul: A Reading of Seneca’s Medea”, in Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, edited by J. J. Clauss and S. I. Johnston (Princeton University Press, 1997). Also, Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, Columbia University Press, 2000.

3. Cf. Peter E. Nulton, “The Three-Figured Reliefs: Copies or Neoattic Creations?”, in D. B. Counts e A. S. Tuck (edited by), KOINE: Mediterranean Studies in Honor of R. Ross Holloway, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009; pp. 30–34.

4. Eng. trans. from Greek by T. W. Higginson in The Works of Epictetus, New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1865.

5. Eng. trans. by D. Kovacs in Euripides, Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994; lines 96-97.

6. Eng. trans. by W. Aggeler in The Flowers of Evil, Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954.

7. Ovid too composed a tragedy Medea, today unfortunately lost. He wrote on the mythic character also in his poems Metamorphoses, Heroides VI and XII, and Tristia (III 9). A saying of Medea in Metamorphoses, Book VII, lines 20-21, has become almost proverbial: Video meliora proboque,/ deteriora sequor (“I see better things and approve,/ but I follow worse”). Cf. Stephen C. Russell’s dissertation, Reading Ovid’s Medea: Complexity, Unity, and Humour, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: McMaster University, 2011.

8. Paraphrasing the words of the character of Julis Caesar, in Caesar and Cleopatra by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, Act II, we might even comment: “Pardon her, Theodotus; she is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of her tribe and island are the laws of nature” (1901).

9. Medeas’ anguish and perplexity, along with the trouble of her condition of foreign woman in a stranger and hostile society, is well dramatized in The Long Night of Medea, by the Italian playwright Corrado Alvaro (1949). In the 1946 tragedy Médée, by the French dramatist Jean Anouilh, the action ends with the suicide of a nomadic Medea in the flames of her mobile home. Last but not least, two novels by female authors deserve to be mentioned here: Medea. Voices, by the German Christa Wolf (1995); Medea and her Children, by the Russian Ludmila Ulitskaya (1996).