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Medea Was Not A Child-Killer

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I should have been told this when I last studied ancient Greek drama at an all-girl school. That's what I felt after reading a couple of Kerry Greenwood's "Delphic Women" series, imaginative retellings of Ancient Greek myths, Medea and Cassandra. The latter of course is about the fall of Troy, told through the view of the female seer and Diomenes, a healer with the attacking barbarian Achaeans, among whom is the clearly psychopathic Achilles. (Yes, it does turn things around rather, not just from point of view.)

But it was Medea that particularly struck me, not so much for the retelling in the first person, but for the author's afterword:

This seems to have been the story, according to such diverse authorities as the travel writer Pausanius, Apollodorus, Kreophylas, Parmeniskos and an anonymouse but learned commentator on Pindar. Medea, grand-daughter of Helios (the Sun) held Corinth in her own right. Jason was her consort. He decided to marry Glauke and Medea arranged her murder. Recklessly, she also managed to start a fire which killed Creon, king of Corinth and father of Sisyphos, and possibly a number of other people – but not Jason, regretably. Medea fled with her children to the temple of Hera on the hill, and either the kin of Creon or the Corinthian women flocked to the temple and stoned her children to death – in the temple.
They either would not or could not touch Medea, and she left Corinth and went to stay with Herakles, thence to Delphi and after that to various other places before she went home to Colchis to put her father on the throne.

Looking around, I found that the Jason in these accounts is far from the myth that has proved so popular in the West in recent centuries:

Jason does not want to go; in fact, the voyage terribly depresses him. He dislikes everything about it. He is "utterly un-heroic" (often described as amêchanos, "helpless"). Once he is lurching on his way, though, he does want to succeed, and chooses nonheroic means to do so, exploiting love and preferring circumvention to the more usual heroic confrontation (136). Opportunistic when he is not depressed, Jason will be pious, if success requires piety, or treacherous, if piety fails.[1]

Greenwood says that the turn-around in the story is entirely due to Euripides, who was paid five talents to write his play this way by the city of Corinth in an early piece of what turned out to be hugely effective propaganda that almost killed the old story of its culpability in the death of children.

Of course we are in the realm of myth here, not history, although there are probably scraps of it hidden in there somewhere. Still, it is interesting that one of the great tales of our culture started out so differently. Greenwood attributes the triumph of the child-killer version to Euripides' brilliance, which is undoubtedly part of the story. But it is also not hard to see how a tale that demonises a goddess worshiper, a strong, powerful "action woman", while playing up the male hero won out over one with a female hero and a weak and venal male villain.

Interestingly, however, in other places the older legend has survived in strength to the current day. Wikipedia notes that: "Medea is considered a great hero in today's Georgia. She is revered and emulated by both Georgian men and women." (Colchis, her home city, was in the west of the modern nation.)

What about the Greenwood books? Well these are very much "popular" retellings – great fun, as her books usually are, but a little too close to the romance genre for my taste. She writes a much better detective novel with her Phyrne Fisher series. (The heroine named of course for the famous Greek courtesan.)

[1] Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, Leonard Baskin, Michael Simpson, Apollodorus; University of Massachusetts Press, 1976, pp. 63-64.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.