Does the sorceress Medea deserve her bad press or was she a casualty of ancient culture wars?
I recently saw Oxford University’s production of Medea at the Playhouse. Written by Euripides in the 5thcentury BC, Medea is a story of betrayal, murder and revenge which has a specifically feminine hallmark. The title character is a princess who murders her own brother for the sake of her lover, Jason (of Argonauts fame) before escaping with him to Corinth, forsaking her royal entitlement in the process.
As the play begins, Jason is about to leave Medea for the Corinthian princess Glauce. Medea, having none of this, then murders Glauce and Glauce’s father, King Creon, using her guile and skills in sorcery. Then, as a final act of vengeance on her faithless husband, Medea murders her two sons by Jason in cold blood.
It’s pretty dramatic, gruesome, stuff! A cautionary tale with a powerful message: beware dangerous women!
Behind the myth
The play is based on a Greek myth, and, as with all Greek myths, there are various versions of it. In some versions, it is Jason and not Medea who actually murders her brother. In some, it is not Medea who murders her children, but the people of Corinth who do the deed. In fact, Robert Graves says in in his Greek Myths that Euripides was bribed by the Corinthians with fifteen talents of silver to absolve them of guilt over the murder of Medea’s many children and to pretend in his play that Medea killed two of them instead[i].
So it’s worth unpicking this story a little further. The Greek myths were created at a time of enormous change in the ancient world – a change which heralded a seismic shift in the old order and redefined gender roles the next two and a half thousand years, right up to the present day.
Arguably, we are going through change of a similar magnitude today. Our collective mythology is, once again, on the move, and the narrative of who we are is changing on a pretty big scale. Our very biology is in question, let alone what it means to be male or female, and history is being over-written with a new narrative. Feelings run deep on all sides. I hope that from the culture wars of today a new way can emerge, and we don’t simply see the annihilation of one side by the other. The culture wars of Medea’s day, on the other hand, did have winners and losers, with the result that ancient ways which had endured for the longest time were lost to history.
A tale of two eras
Before the time of the Greek myths, the socio-religious order across the Mediterranean was based on goddess-worship. This system endured for millennia. The pinnacle of its evolution flowered into sophisticated cultures such as Minoan Crete. In these societies, inheritance was passed down the female line (matrilinear) and women were held in high regard. Royalty and status was conferred to men through their family relationship with women as brothers, uncles and sons, and the concept of fatherhood was not recognised in the way that we know it today. The great, male, heroes of Greek myth were not yet part of the collective psyche
The new era that the Greek myths did much to embed, was the way of the punitive father. It was carried in on waves of invasions by nomadic tribes from the desert steppes, with their harsh, male, sky-gods and literal worship of the sword[ii]. The concept of paternity, conquest and heroic masculinity vied with ancient earthy mother-right and worship of nature. It was a huge change which took a long time to take effect but, in the end, the new system won. Family heritage began to be traced down the male line and, for the first time women became marginal players in the cultural functioning of society.
Greek myths played an important part in telling the new story, overlaying older stories, symbols and customs with new meaning: something of the outer form was kept while the underlying message was altered. This did much to ensure goddess culture was supplanted with a new, masculine, authority and belief system.
In the Greek myths, sacred symbols of the goddess were portrayed as something monstrous, untrustworthy, threatening, something to be conquered or dominated by a male hero. Protective animals and figures such as the gorgon and the snake, became the petrifying Medusa and the Hydra. Feminine allure became lethal and treacherous in the form of Sirens, and skill with medicine became sorcery, to be feared in figures such as Circe - and Medea. Some of the goddess’ favourite creatures such as snakes, pigs and owls, to this day, are considered dirty, dangerous or ominous thanks to our inheritance from that time. What couldn’t be reviled could instead be commandeered. The lions which once adorned the goddess’ throne became a symbol, par excellence, of the brave, male hero.
Even when, outwardly, the new paternalism was in place, it was only millimetres deep, like a thin layer of dust on a far older form. This is shown by the draconian suppression of women in ancient Athens, surely an overreaction to long-held female power? It is also shown by the double signals of the age: the priestesses (and snakes) remaining at Delphi long after the oracle was taken over by Apollo; the enduring popularity of Demeter’s Eleusinian mysteries for men and women alike[iii], the hetaerae or ‘prostitute’ class of Athens who took part in, and even exerted influence on the cultural life of the city; the freedom and status enjoyed by Spartan women; the gorgon on Athena’s breastplate; the snake-festooned rods carried by Hermes and Asclepius, the original doctor, whose very name means mistletoe, once the cure all of the goddess; the very existence of deified femininity in the form of the Olympian goddesses. I could go on.
No, the old order was not yet fully expunged. Indeed, it still ran deep.
Bloodshed and betrayal
Medea was a figure caught between the two systems. That her royalty came down the paternal line, part of the new order, is a matter of myth, rather than a matter of historical fact. Her power, intelligence, skill and, especially, her depiction as a sorceress all link her to the older order.
In the older, matrilineal order Medea’s murder of her blood kin (her brother), would have been an unforgivable crime. There was no going back. In this and in following Jason to Corinth, Medea forsook any claim to her royal inheritance – all for love.
From Jason’s point of view, however, Medea, while useful in helping him fulfil his quest for the golden fleece, was clearly not so attractive without her royal inheritance. He felt it was right and proper to marry princess Glauce when the opportunity arose.
The second unforgiveable crime Medea commits is, therefore, against the paternal order: she deprives Jason of his blood line by killing her own children. It was an extreme rejection of the system she had sacrificed everything for and which had betrayed her. At a symbolic level, this can be read as atoning for the original crime, and it puts Medea firmly back in the service of the old order. The next phase of her life, lived under the protection of king Aegeus in Athens, sealed her reputation as a scheming sorceress and worker of magic, who worked against the paternal order by attempting to dispatch the emerging Greek Hero, Theseus, although in typically contradictory fashion, she also had a significant hand in his very existence.
The wicked witch
In the stories that we have inherited from Ancient Greece, it is Medea’s ‘witchiness’ that should catch our attention because we have taken on this archetype entirely, swallowed it whole, made it our own and built on it. The image of the witch is instantly recognisable to us. Given Medea’s terrifying reputation, it is pretty hard to do anything but put her in the category of wicked witch and run a mile. But if we do this, we miss something important. Medea’s myth served a powerful purpose for those telling it. If we see Medea as a tool of the new order, used to undermine the ancient authority of the goddess, we understand that in Medea’s most sinister qualities there might also be a clue as to the strengths of this, now lost, older order.
It is an order we would do well to try and understand better if we want to heal our relationship with each other and the earth, for these goddess societies are shown to have been peaceable, equalitarian, creative and highly advanced[iv].
Far from being primitive, Robert Graves asserts that the Minoan culture was so successful that it ‘was imported wholesale to Athens’, only without the mindset that produced the great goddess and her representatives it could not hope to emulate it entirely.
To quote Nicholas Platon, in his book, Crete:
“The fear of death was almost obliterated by the ubiquitous joy of living. The whole of life was pervaded by an ardent faith in the goddess Nature, the source of all creation and harmony. This led to a love of peace, a horror of tyranny and a respect for the law. Even among the ruling classes personal ambition seems to have been unknown; nowhere do we find the name of an author attached to a work of art nor a record of the deeds of a ruler.”
So, if we park tales of her murderous actions, what qualities are most reviled in Medea? Her witchiness? Skilled with nature, herbs and healing. Her scheming? Psychologically astute. Her cleverness? Educated, intelligent. Her refusal to be second best? A woman standing in their own, ancient, legitimate, inherited power.
Sadly, no-one today really has a hotline to the feminine power that was once taken for granted by our early ancestors. We are all children of paternalism and we see everything through this lens whether we are male or female. At the same time this ancient power slumbers on deep within all of our bedrock, it’s been there all along, and played its part even if it has gone incognito.
If we wish to understand it better, we must look hard.
[i] See P617 of Robert Graves’ ‘Greek Myths’, 1992 edition, published by Penguin Group
[ii] See p 49 of Riane Eisler’s ‘The Chalice and the Blade’ 1988 edition by Harper and Row
[iii] Children and even slaves could also be initiates at the Eleusinian mysteries
[iv] See all books listed in bibliography
Baring, A. & Cashford, J. (1993). The Myth of the Goddess. London, New York, Victoria, Ontario, New Delhi, Auckland, Rosebank. Penguin Group
Eisler, R. (1988). The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, London, Mexico City, São Paolo, Singapore, Sydney. Harper and Row.
Gimbutas, M. (1982) The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: 6500-3500 BC, Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York. University of California Press
Graves, R. (1992). The Greek Myths. London, New York, Victoria, Ontario, New Delhi, Auckland,Rosebank. Penguin Group
Platon, N (1966). Crete. London. Frederick Muller Limited
Reed, E. (1975). Woman’s Evolution. New York. Pathfinder Press
Shearer, A. (1996). Athene: Image and Energy. London, New York, Victoria, Ontario, Auckland Penguin Group
Thorsten, G. (1981). God Herself: The Feminine Roots of Astrology. New York. Avon Books.
The production of Medea:
A New Translation of Euripides MEDEA The Oxford Greek Play 2023. The play runs from 8-10th of November (Wed - Fri of 5th week). There are evening performances on all days, and matinées on Thursday and Friday.