Medea: Aliens, Barbarians, and One Bad Mother
We can’t completely condemn Medea: after all, she was seduced and manipulated by the Corinthian warrior Jason, tricked into using her magic to win the golden fleece for his people, betraying her family and killing her kin, and then dragged to a land where she was considered a barbarian by people inferior to her demigoddess self. She bore him children, quietly mourning the life she abandoned. And then, leveraging her powerlessness as an exile, and looking to improve his own lot, her beloved pushed her aside in order to marry the princess. Naturally, Medea would be consumed by rage.
But we can’t really side with her either: rage must be tended to like a cooking fire, lest it burn out of control. The Princess of Corinth didn’t force Jason astray; yet she was roasted like a marshmallow by Medea’s poison. Medea’s children were not to blame; yet she murdered them in order to hurt their father- a change to the myth added by Euripides. Surely Medea could have gotten direct vengeance on Jason, maybe Bobbitted his manhood, without murdering innocent children. Contrary to some readings, Euripides doesn’t want her to have our sympathy.
But in tragedy, it seems to me, that it has become somehow impossible for the characters to live their lives; their needs are too greatly at odds with the needs of their society in a way that can only be reconciled by death.
A noteable theme here is that life is particularly unfair for women. As Medea famously explains, their freedom is sold for a dowry and then they must hope against hope that their husband isn’t a shit heel like Jason. Divorce brings a woman shame, but marriage is seldom better than the alternative. Euripides is expert at detailing this lousy situation, and thus poking a stick at his Athenian audience’s uneasy conscience. Remember Aeschylus, just a generation earlier, arguing that civilization is founded on the submission of women- Athens instituted on a matricide. Aeschylus might well accept such submission as a natural order; however, he also shows it as based in fear of female power, which, by the way, really is strong enough to bring down the polis.
Medea embodies Freud’s “the return of the repressed”. Everything pre-civilized that was exiled from Greek society comes back to destroy it in her. Pier Paolo Pasolini picked up on this theme and added a scene to his great film of Medea, in which a satyr details the plight of the banished primitive/magical barbarian in terms that, one suspects, the Marxist filmmaker intended to evoke the colonial third world. Euripides is more subtle, but clearly aware that the founding of this new civilization required setting the Greeks apart from everything that came before and erecting a barrier to keep back the pre-civilized past like an oil slicked tide. His humility is in recognizing the futility of this effort.
Or maybe it’s just cynicism. Who in this play is relatively likeable? Jason is a faint shadow of a warrior; a hollow, social-climbing schmuck, he seems an indication of how pessimistic Euripides was about heroics on the eve of Athens’s disastrous entry into the Peloponnesian War. We’ve fallen a long way from the Homeric heroes, whose greatness was out of proportion to their society, to Jason, a shallow putz who fits in all-too-well with the Corinthian pissants.
Medea is greater than the Greeks, but as an alien, she’s taken as a barbarian. Euripides is also skeptical about how societies treat strangers. The Greek view of “barbarians” seems much harsher after the Persian War, and yet the belief that Zeus demands protection of suppliants still lingers. Creon has a duty to treat Medea with kindness; but the fear of the outsider as destroyer is particularly acute here- and also correct: Medea really has the power to destroy the ruling family and she does so, immolating the princess via poisoned diadem in Euripides’s grotesque parody of feminine vanity, while her burning body clings to her royal father like napalm. It’s hard to tell if Creon’s mistake was in being too kind to an exile or too cruel, or if there’s any right answer.
We still have no idea what to do with exiles. Most ethics call for mercy towards suppliant outsiders. The Bible, of course, is unequivocal on this point (as on most points): believers must give hospitality to wandering stranger. All the societies in the Old Testament that fail this test are destroyed, with the Sodomites, of course, being the definitive example of lousy hosts. The fear that animates these stories, in which god-blessed travelers are set upon by their hosts who then reap the whirlwind, comes from the reality that traveling in foreign lands often did mean taking one’s life in one’s hands, a fact necessarily borne in mind by the tribes of Israel. But the Christian, and Muslim scriptures also, as well as countless myths of polytheism, call for believers to give succor and hospitality to visiting strangers.
Euripides realizes how difficult this duty is to fulfill. Our first and strongest loyalties are to our neighbors and the reason that hospitality has to be encoded as a moral imperative is because it doesn’t come naturally. American Judeo-Christians probably have no place whatsoever in joining the call to arrest and deport “illegals”- yet balancing the ethical demand to offer hospitality and the need to preserve something of one’s own that seems threatened, clearly makes it hard to the Scriptures on this one. And, perhaps, offering succor to strangers requires us to not only fearing the wrath of God or gods, but also to feel safe that those gods will protect us from harm. Ultimately, this is a supremely difficult question and arguments about what to do with exiles, immigrants, refugees, and aliens would be much more civilized if people of either opinion recognized how hard it is to come to the right conclusions and how reasonable it is to come to conclusions other than their own.
The Corinthians choose poorly- accepting Medea as a suppliant until she acts up and then exiling her once again. The snubs against her are insufferable and part of the perennial appeal of the play is that there’s something especially delightful about watching a snubbed woman get revenge. A snubbed man’s vengeance is par for the crime reports; but a vengeful woman has to use cunning and deceit to overcome the more physically powerful in a way that we’ve found delightful from the Old Testament to Kill Bill.
But there are rules. We want the vengeful female to lash out only against the wicked, or if she does turn against the innocent to be brought down. Violent dramas require the order of the world to return in the end, the monster to be destroyed. But Euripides gives us none of that. Medea does horrible things and gets away. The world is not righted and the murder of the children gives the feeling that the future has been made obsolete.
Finally, Euripides seems to think that human civilization isn’t worth mourning. Jason is a creep, the Corinthians are self-satisfied nothings, Creon is a coward, and Medea is just as deluded as everyone else in the play, and only earns our sympathy for her brief moments of lucidity: she realizes her behavior is horrible, but can’t stop herself. Readers often focus on her gender, but Euripides seems to think human pathologies and weaknesses are universal and unavoidable. The tragic sense, then, is that humans can create vast civilizations by mastering and overpowering all of nature, but cannot overcome the profound flaws of their own nature.