Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mixed Medea

I've always been fascinated by Medea. She has to be one of the most complex and interesting female characters in all of Greek myth. Is she:

a) A strong-willed, independent woman striking out against the patriarchy

b) Jason's willing love slave turned woman scorned, whose fury hell hath no equal of

c) An evil, sadistic sorceress, hell-bent on perfecting betrayal into an art form. A sort of Hellenic Morgan le Fay

d) A dupe of the gods

e) Schizophrenic

f) All of the above?

What brought this on, you wonder? Well, Diane Wakoski has a radiant poem about Medea over at Agni Online, all moonlight and silver:

Perhaps bathed in his
wreath of golden decisions,
shimmering as he rowed his ship in the arms
of Apollo’s furled musings,
perhaps he felt manly for taking
her back with him,
for not abandoning her
after she helped him to murder her brother Apsyrtus so
that the Argonauts could
escape, and perhaps he even admired her silver body
under the mantle of dawn, after making love on the ocean that widened her
against her own people.

- Diane Wakoski (read the full thing here)

Wakoski glosses over this murder of Apsyrtus - she doesn't deny Medea's part in it, but she mentions it as a sort of off-hand fact - Ovid, in Tristia, has a more graphic description:

In the vessel that warlike
Minerva built, the first to sail uncharted seas,
heartless Medea, in flight from the father she'd deserted,
made landfall (so goes the story) off this coast.
The look-out from his hilltop espied her pursuer, told her:
'A stranger approaching - from Colchis - I know the sail!'
Panic among the Minyans. They cast off the cable, quickly
hauled in the anchor. All this while,
too-conscious of her deserts, Medea struck her breast with
the hand that had dared already, would dare again
so many unspeakable acts. Though her heart remained audacious
the girl was thunderstruck, her face dead white,
and when she too glimpsed the approaching sail - 'My father's
caught us', she cried, 'we have to find some trick
to delay him - ' Then, while searching in every direction
for an answer, her eye
chanced to alight on her brother. Aware now of his presence
she whispered: 'I've got it! Kill him, and we go free!'
At once, with the boy still ignorant, unsuspecting,
she drove a sword through his innocuous heart,
hacked the corpse from limb to limb, scattered the fragments
all over the countryside, a hard job to collect,
and - to make sure Papa saw them - stuck her brother's bloody
head and blanched hands up on a high crag: thus
their father would be held up by this fresh grief, would gather
the lifeless fragments up, delay his grim

- Ovid, Tristia III.9 (7-33), translated by Peter Green

Good fun.

P.S. I'm not too happy about the "innocuous heart" bit. The original reads:

Protinus ignari nec quicquam tale timentis
innocuum rigido perforat ense latus

Actually, the whole thing in Latin is:

Nam rate, quae cura pugnacis facta Mineruae
per non temptatas prima cucurrit aquas,
impia desertum fugiens Medea parentem
dicitur his remos applicuisse uadis.
Quem procul ut uidit tumulo speculator ab alto,
"hospes," ait "nosco, Colchide, uela, uenit."
Dum trepidant Minyae, dum soluitur aggere funis,
dum sequitur celeres ancora tracta manus,
conscia percussit meritorum pectora Colchis
ausa atque ausura multa nefanda manu;
et, quamquam superest ingens audacia menti,
pallor in attonitae uirginis ore fuit.
Ergo ubi prospexit uenientia uela "tenemur,
et pater est aliqua fraude morandus" ait.
Dum quid agat quaerit, dum uersat in omnia uultus,
ad fratrem casu lumina flexa tulit.
Cuius ut oblata est praesentia, "uicimus" inquit:
"hic mihi morte sua causa salutis erit."
Protinus ignari nec quicquam tale timentis
innocuum rigido perforat ense latus,
atque ita diuellit diuulsaque membra per agros
dissipat in multis inuenienda locis.
Neu pater ignoret, scopulo proponit in alto
pallentesque manus sanguineumque caput,
ut genitor luctuque nouo tardetur et, artus
dum legit extinctos, triste moretur iter.


antonia said...

Do you know the Christa Wolf book on Medea? Not uninteresting.

Falstaff said...

antonia: No, I haven't. Thanks for the tip.

samira said...

She's really the most tragic character in Greek myth, I think. Apart from all of the things you mentined, I think the saddest part is she's married to someone who isn't as intelligent as she is. And thinks he is.