Medea: Aliens, Barbarians, and One Bad Mother

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of the biggest things I love about Greek Tragedy is the sense that once things are set in motion, there isn’t anything that can be done to stop them.

    Protagonists/Antagonists cease to be moral agents but become forces of nature. Any of the supporting cast that may retain moral agency can’t stand up to the winds blown by the main characters. Once set in motion, everything has to play out. Medea is the perfect example of this.

    It’s easy to look back in the past and say “well, if this were different, if Jason had done this instead, if that were different” and come up with a different chain of events… but, given the setup, this stuff *MUST* play out the way it did.

    I suspect that that’s why the children had to be murdered as well. Not even Euripides could stand up to the winds Medea was blowing. Once the thought occurred to him, he had no choice but to put words to paper and slaughter the children by her hand.

    God, I love the Greeks.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Jaybird, Something that fascinated me about Medea this time through is how ambivalent the Chorus is- sometimes they try to stop Medea by telling her the dangers of intemperate rage. Other times, they basically suggest she’s right and Jason is getting what he deserves. After she kills the kids off-stage, you expect them to bemoan the tragedy, but they almost seem indifferent.

      I usually like the Chorus for the thing you’re talking about- in most Greek tragedies, they’re there from the beginning reminding us that these characters are totally doomed.

      And that sense of a character being caught in an infernal machine and things getting worse the more they kick against it seems to me to have been preserved in noir. Certainly it was there in No Country for Old Men- once Josh Brolin picks up the money, it’s all over for him. Usually it’s the average guy who gets involved with the wrong dame or pulls the wrong con and nothing they do can make things right.Report

  2. Avatar Jim says:

    “Medea embodies Freud’s “the return of the repressed”.
    I like this observation. It also explains why what women represented in Greek culture was suppressed – they reperesented the opposite of reason, a threat to reason and manliness, almost sub-human.
    The same dynamic works in pre-Christian Celtic cultures, but it’s valued. Women and their male social equivalents, Druids, were valued exactly because they spoke from beyond.

    In fact this is the same flip-flop you see in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, with the Romantics valuing women not becasue they thought they were the equals of men, but superior – more natural, more spontaneous, more wild….Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      @Jim, It’s interesting how often the image of irrationality and pre-civilized chaos as embodied in women occurs in world literature. A number of the texts I’ve read for this project have had advice or asides to the effect that, “they might be pretty, but stay away from them because they’re dangerous”. On one hand, it’s easy to shrug your shoulders and think, “Well, men wrote all this stuff”. But I still wonder what the underlying psychological dynamic could be. Where does the fear come from?Report

  3. Avatar Mr. Prosser says:

    ” 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,” Robert Wright has an interesting take on this in The Evolution of God. I don’t have the book in front of me but I remember him writing that the original exhortations to be kind to the stranger in the Old Testament meant kindness of other Jews from different towns. Paul’s demands for kindness meant taking in a Christian stranger from another city, not just any stranger. Our interpretation came along much later. Also, King Aeetes lost the fleece because he originally provided hospitality to Jason and his men. Finally, I remember reading somewhere, Hamilton?, that Medea killed her children because she knew they would be enslaved or killed anyway. There have been interesting discussions concerning killing loved ones rather than letting them suffer worse fates.
    Jaybird, I like your comparison to No Country for Old Men. What really got Moss in troulble was not taking the money and running but returning to the scene with water for the wounded man. Destroyed by an act of humanity.Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      @Mr. Prosser, I think it definitely goes both ways, right? Because it seems to me that a number of old stories warn about being a lousy guest too- with the great examples being the Iliad and the Odyssey. It’s an interesting point about it being the Jews who are protected in the Bible, because I do remember it being either angels or chosen people who are protected, so that makes sense. Also this is in line with a number of the Greek stories about supplicants in which the real problem is that these people have a god- usually Zeus- protecting them. Of course, with the Jews, God asks much more of them as believers than the Greek gods ever do.Report

      • Avatar Mr. Prosser says:

        @Rufus, That’s true and I think it’s in line with the idea that tragedy is that events are set in motion through a belief nothing can be done because the protector seems to have abandoned them, an act of despair, that the tragic events are inevitable.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      @Mr. Prosser,

      the original exhortations to be kind to the stranger in the Old Testament meant kindness of other Jews from different towns.

      This doesn’t explain why God commands Jonah to save the Assyrians, or why Boaz is rewarded for his generosity to Ruth the Moabite, let alone why it’s shown that the House of David descends from a Moabite. As Isaac Asimov pointed out, that’s like saying that George Washington (or perhaps Robert E. Lee) had a black grandmother.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      @Mr. Prosser, Finally, I remember reading somewhere, Hamilton?, that Medea killed her children because she knew they would be enslaved or killed anyway. There have been interesting discussions concerning killing loved ones rather than letting them suffer worse fates.

      I was lucky enough to have been assigned Medea and Beloved back to back in college and got a very different vibe from both books.

      Medea struck me as being a “hell hath no wrath/thin line between something something” story… Medea, when betrayed, became Death, the destroyer of worlds. If she had the wherewithal to destroy the city, she would have done that too.

      Beloved struck me as an act of desperation and defiance. Rather than allow her children back into hell, she tried to end them (and succeeded with one).

      I’d say that Medea’s children were means to an end (hurting Jason) while Sethe’s children were ends in themselves and Sethe was haunted in a way that we never saw with Medea (not that we were given opportunity to).

      (Serious digression: I see more in common between Sethe and Orestes in Sartre’s The Flies than between Sethe and Medea.)

      Anyway.

      Jaybird, I like your comparison to No Country for Old Men. That comparison is all Rufus (though I very much like the comparison too… pity that the movie didn’t have a dang ending.)Report