Medea and the Homeric heroes
Fragment of my Ph.D. “Fate and freedom in Greek tragedy” ("Destino y libertad en la tragedia griega"), deposited in 2007, presented in 2008,
. University of Salamanca
Euripides showed us in his tragedies the terrible responsibility and the casualties that come along with the citizenship and the state duties, moreover when someone can not find a way out in any of these figures. However, a tragic destiny can come hand by hand with dignity and heroism (as I argued before, not always happens this way), reason why Euripides gifted Medea with her own survival, as he did as well with Iphigenia. According the same principles he gifted his Agamemnon with our understanding, supporting his terrible facts with both strong political and moral reasons.
The main question is if his tragedies, those of enforcement of duty, finally resulted something so strange and far from Greek mentality that several scholars are not even able to recognize a classical tragedy on it. We find plenty of Medea’s kind in the Iliad, but one big difference from Homer: the Homeric heroes are males, she is not.
Achilles could have easily avoided
However, Achilles has doubts, as Medea will have in Euripides’ play. Many times they are not quiet sure about doing what they know they must. Even Homer allows terrible anti-heroic words to be slipped out from Achilles mouth: he puts the human life over political and heroic obligations (IX, 401-405; 406-416). Patroclus’ reckless bravery reminds Achilles his debt with all
In an even worst situation we have Hector. His duty, his chosen destiny, means the destruction of his wife and son, as Andromache desperately reminds him (VI, 429-432). But Hector has already made up his mind, even when he despites his order of priorities (VI, 445-465). Hector disregards his love and his family because are on the way of his duty. To quit the fight is not an option, even when he knows the atrocious fate that is awaiting for his beloved ones.
Love is important in Homer, and so it is in Euripides (he puts in scene a marriage due to love, the love that Medea feels for Jason). Even in this point Euripides keeps it close to the poet. On the epic poetry, the tragedy does not relay on tricks, misunderstandings or ignorance, but on wisdom, on the knowledge about the miserable human condition, always on the edge (IX, 318-322).
Achilles neither does particularly like his life, but he does what he knows and what he must do. So does Medea. So Oedipus? I demonstrated that no. Oedipus is a puppet. He runs and runs to avoid his destiny, but everything in his life escapes to his control. Everything fools him. Does not matter how hard he tries. Medea is like Achilles, like Hector, not like Oedipus. “Medea” is a Homeric tragedy, hence the confusion of some of the critics. What if the main warrior in Homer, the most terrible killer, was a woman? That is what Euripides shows us. Medea murders her children in order to destroy her enemies, so did Hector. He leaves them to die while hurls himself into a lost battle, she killed them by herself.
Another clue about what Euripides owes to Homer is the archaic language that Medea uses, as well as the comparisons involving Medea and different animals. Instead the traditional comparison or women with bees, Medea appears as a lion, a proper Homeric and heroic metaphor. Only she deserves it from Euripides. Only she is the Homeric kind.
Medea and Achilles have totally accepted their places. Medea accepts her destiny as wife and mother when she became Jason’s partner and Achilles accept his destiny as a fighter, a Greek warrior. Likewise the both of them are going to quit their duties consequence of two acts of betrayal, Jason’s and Agamemnon’s acts. Only with the understanding of Medea under the Homeric pattern we can appreciate and notice her reasons and the freedom she achieves with her actions. On purpose, Medea abandoned her life to follow Jason as his partner. Also on purpose she will destroy him when he betrays her.
Let’s remember the lines 323-341 of the book IX of the Iliad. I am completely convinced that Euripides built Medea’s and Jason’s characters and relations following those of Achilles and Agamemnon. Jason and Agamemnon are a special kind of heroes: their victories and achievements are due to the intelligence and strength of others, Medea and Achilles. The same that Phoenix and Odysseus justify Achilles rage and understand him neglecting the fight (even when this is seriously debilitating the Greek army), Medea’s rage, actions and victims are totally justified by Jason’s violation of everything he sworn to her.
I am no the first noticing this resemblance among Medea and the Homeric heroes, but what I intend to demonstrate is that Medea is free only because her character is Homeric patterned, not democratic. For this reason Euripides needed a foreign woman. Medea is not Greek, but her culture does not seem so far from the Greek one (to bury the deaths, to honour the gods, to respect the vows). As Trojans and Greeks, they are different, but their cultures are pretty close. Even the moral of the story shows off Euripides’ accuracy to Homer: no human life is out of misery.
The freedom, in
Medea was always free. She was free when she decided to leave her original place, to betray her world and her family to helping and supporting Jason. She married him because she loved him. She was free when she embraced the democratic rules and way of life. She is free, at last, when she decides that she has enough of the democratic system. When Jason betrays and leaves her on her own, abandoned in a place where she does not have a way out, she decides to embrace again her primitive and pre-democratic values. When she plans her flight she does not behave as a beggar, she behaves as a warrior, as a political leader that must do her duty and look for political asylum because she is trapped in a hostile territory. Her criminal acts are her heroic duty, encouraged by a Homeric passion. She is fighting against a political system that wants to cancel her, she is a freedom fighter, and she is going to use her old weapons, the weapons that she decided to quit in order to fit in Jason’s world. To kill her children is her tragedy, so it was as well the tragedy of Agamemnon when he must sacrifice his daughter to
Williams is right (1993: 149-150) when he says that in Euripides, fatality has to do more with human actions, nor with mysterious and hidden necessities. Medea knows what she is doing, what she is loosing and what she is taking back. She acts according to her heroic duty, her past and her stolen rights. Barlow (1991: 44, 45) argues that the outcome of the play means a regression to the old gender stereotypes. I don’t think so. Euripides has Medea’s back till the end and to the last consequence of her actions, that is why he allows her to flee and survive all her enemies, giving her shelter in