Medea: Misfit, Mother, Murderer

Classics Ambassador Esmé writes about one of the most haunting, complex and well-known figures in Greek mythology, literature and culture – Medea, priestess of Hecate, granddaughter of Helios, sorceress of Colchis.

Gender roles, still widespread today, were even more prominent in ancient Greece. Women were expected to marry from a young age, bear children and remain dedicated to their husbands; they were barred from the political sphere as well as many careers and were prevented from owning land or property. In the eponymous play by Euripides, Medea is shown to transcend society’s gender roles in several alarming ways: most notably by killing her children, thus contradicting the expected role of motherhood. She is also a dominant speaker and manipulator, a very masculine quality. Not only this, but Medea is in a powerful position at the climax of the play contrasting with the lack of power ancient Athenian women had. Despite this, Medea is still characterised as female. She is wrought with emotion (a feminine trait) and hatred against Jason and exhibits regret when contemplating killing her children. This emphasises her role as a mother and makes her a more sympathetic character. It can therefore be said that Medea exhibits traits that both conform with and differ from the typical gender roles of women. In fact, one could say that there is a shift in the gender roles Medea embodies.

Medea by Frederick Sandys

The first time Medea appears is offstage vocalising her anguish. While male figures were characterised through emotion, the focus on her frenzied state characterises her, in the Greek mind, as distinctly feminine. However, when she appears on stage, she is composed and speaks for long periods, contrasting with her previous shorter outbursts. This Medea is attuned to speaking like an orator – a more masculine gender role. Medea embraces this masculine role and utilises it to highlight the realities of living as a woman, stating she would rather fight on the battlefield thrice than bear a child once. This creates a double-edged quality to her character giving gender roles flexibility. 

It is significant that Medea is characterised as feminine in her plot to kill Jason’s new fiancé, Glauce (the princess of Corinth.) In this scheme, Medea sends her sons to the palace bearing gifts for Glauce. The gifts are poisoned, leading to Glauce’s death. This murder characterises Medea as feminine through the use of poison. In ancient Greece, poison was viewed as a feminine weapon, so it is notable that Medea then utilises poison in the play. This implies Medea is meant to be portrayed as a dangerous female figure. 

The poisoned gifts are brought to Glauce (Creusa) – a Lucanian red-figure bell-krater, ca. 390 BC (Louvre, Paris)

After this scene, Medea, desperate for revenge against Jason, entertains the idea of killing their children knowing this is the way to hurt him most. Her thirst and determination to kill is reminiscent of a raging warrior like Achilles. Conversely, we see the motherly Medea reluctant to kill her children and trying to talk herself out of the idea. In this conflict, we sympathise with the feminine Medea. This would likely be the case for an ancient audience who would find the masculine characterisation unnerving due to the expectation for women to adhere to the roles of wife and mother. By planning to kill her children, Medea is openly opposing her gender roles which would have been shocking. In her battle of wills, Medea’s masculine side triumphs. However, the love Medea still feels towards her children is present as she steels herself to kill them. This can be interpreted as the remaining feminine fragments of her character surfacing as she moves towards the masculine characterisation by rejecting her mothering role.

It is important to note that Medea kills her children using a knife, a masculine weapon, therefore cementing Medea’s masculine characterisation. The contrast with the feminine poison used against Glauce highlights how Medea’s characterisation has transformed from that point. When Medea kills her children, we lose the sympathy that was tied to her feminine characterisation. The infanticide is too horrific for the eyes of the audience and occurs offstage (as was the case with all violence in Greek theatre). All that can be heard is the crying of the children: “Where can I escape my mother’s hands?” This terrible cry provides a jarring juxtaposition as a “mother’s hands” are being used to slaughter children rather than nurture them, illustrating the denial of Medea’s feminine gender role and the acceptance of a new masculine one.

Another Lucanian vase, showing Medea in her dragon-drawn chariot (Cleveland Museum)

During the play’s climax, Medea can be found soaring through the sky in her grandfather Helios’ chariot, a visual play on Euripides’ common use of the deus ex machina to bring closure to a tragedy. This is the ultimate position of power emphasising the power Medea has gained, potentially due to her newly established masculinity. The fact that she is within the domain of gods indicates she is no longer fully human suggesting that by renouncing her femininity, Medea has become something unnatural. Medea’s renouncement of her femininity is reinforced as she no longer feels grief at the pain she has caused Jason, instead maintaining power over him. When he asks to bury their children, Medea refuses, saying that she will bury them herself. Her denying him the right to bury his children shows the extent to which these gender roles and power dynamics have transformed.

It is clear that Medea is a complex interweaving of both feminine and masculine characteristics. This makes her stand out since she does not fit neatly into the roles society provides. This abnormality allows us to question why Euripides has characterised Medea in this way. One could say this flexibility illustrates the daily struggles of womanhood. Through Medea’s characterisation as an orator, Euripides has explored a sympathetic portrayal of women’s struggles. Medea tells the chorus she “would rather face the enemy three times over than bear a child once” which illustrates the inequality and struggles ancient Greek women faced. Medea saying that fighting on the battlefield is preferential to giving birth could be a way of implying that ancient men had it easier. Medea’s position of power at the end of the play may have allowed the audience to question the role of women in society as well as reflect on their oppression.

While these aspects of Medea resemble a proto-feminist, as much as we may want to believe this hypothesis, it is unlikely that illustrating women’s inequality was Euripides’ primary intention. It is more likely Medea was intended to represent the ‘other.’  As a princess from Colchis, Medea would have been regarded as a ‘barbarian’ while as a Sorceress, she would have been viewed as a dangerous woman. The latter is what Medea’s transformation of gender roles illustrates. Medea is intelligent as seen in her revenge plots; she can think for herself, acting against the wishes of men. Not only is she intelligent, but Medea holds power over others through her speaking abilities linking to her orator characterisation which allows Medea to persuade the chorus and king Aegeus to take her side. Since the roles of women were so restricted, the idea of a woman having access to these powers would be unnerving.

Medea flees to Athens with her dead children, painting by Germán Hernández Amores

What makes Medea so disturbing is how she threatens the patriarchal norm. The key to a successful patriarchy was the existence of male heirs to carry on your family’s line and power. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Medea’s children are both sons, meaning that they would have been essential in carrying on Jason’s male line and maintaining the all-important patriarchy. This makes Medea’s act against Jason all the more potent. Not only is she killing his children, but she is destroying the power he holds in the next generation. This also makes Medea an uncomfortable presence for the ancient male audience as she has the ability to eliminate their power.

Medea’s character embodies a shift in gender roles, which generates discomfort in the play. As she does not fit into the gender roles of patriarchal society, she can be identified as threatening which makes her even more unnerving. The complexity of Medea’s character makes it difficult to pinpoint Euripides’ true intentions when writing her. What can be said is that the focus on gender roles provided a powerful narrative that is still entertaining and relevant today.