Women in Ancient Greek Literature

Contrary to their representation in Greek history, women are portrayed as powerful in Greek literature. In drama and myths, Greek women are mainly viewed as destructive goddesses and wives, who would rather bring forth violence and revenge than to submit themselves to their men or to the fixed rules of their culture. At other times, they display their power by aiding others. Greek mythology presents us the glory and power of women is rule. Euripides’s Medea especially exemplifies the strength and vindictiveness of his eponymous heroine, which run counter to the social expectations for women of his time.

Women are shown as powerful in Greek literature through one fundamental source – Greek mythology. Athena, for example, is the goddess of wisdom who springs from the head of Zeus through the process of parthenogenesis. She is born fully armed and carries Zeus’s aegis. One of the most notable goddesses in Greek mythology is Hera. She is Zeus’s wife and sister. Hera is a very powerful goddess known mostly for her jealousy: “Because of Zeus’s unfaithfulness, it made no difference to Hera how reluctant any of them [Zeus’s conquests] were or how innocent; the goddess treated them all alike. Her implacable anger followed them and their children” ( Hamilton 28). Of course, Hera manages to show her “soft side” by helping Jason in his quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece. With the help of Aphrodite, Hera manages to have Aphrodite’s son, Cupid, make Medea, the daughter of the Colchian King, fall in love with Jason. Medea “knew how to work very powerful magic, and could undoubtedly save the Argonauts if she would use her dark knowledge for them” ( Hamilton 123). The sorceress Medea “tricks the daughters of Pelias into killing their father, thus winning revenge for Jason just as she had won for him the Golden Fleece”(Caldwell, 83). Medea also killed her brother during the quest. Some people would consider Medea to be a crazy woman because she committed these horrific acts in the name of love.

Euripides’s Medea play features a strong dramatic character and the plot centers on feminine pride. It’s inversion of traditional female roles which still strikes a modern note. The story takes place after the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. With the help of Medea, Jason manages to retrieve the Golden Fleece, and in return, marries her. After living with Medea as his wife for many years, Jason leaves her. Rather than accepting this decision, Medea takes full vengeance on Jason by killing his new bride and father-in-law, as well as the two children she and Jason have had together. At the end of the play, Medea then rides off in a chariot drawn by dragons. She is able to do this because Medea is both a sorceress and a descendant of the Sun god Helios.

In the beginning of the play, “her long speech develops as an attack against the unfair conditions married women suffer in society: she persuades the chorus of the righteousness of her revenge” (Pucci 61) against Jason for leaving her for another bride:

Women of Corinth, I have come outside to you

Lest you should be indignant with me; for I know

That many people are overproud, some when alone,

And others when in company. And those who live

Quietly, as I do, get a bad reputation. (lines 215-219)

In this scene, Medea complains about what Jason has done to her and even wishes to die. However, as she begins to criticize the tradition of marriage, Medea’s frame of mind changes, and finally, she is determined to take revenge. She seems to rely on the idea of fairness in the sense of doing “what’s right”. For that reason, “this notion implies faithfulness throughout life, and though unsupported by any judicial system (in Athens and in most Greek cities divorce was legal and in practice was frequent), it was probably upheld both by religious feelings and by epic and mythical representations” (Pucci 63). Emotions, in general, are not to be judged by any means of a judicial system i.e., no court can override how you actually feel in the moment. Medea’s examination of the idea of marriage is a basic depiction of two individuals faces each other in a terrible circle of helplessness and blindness. Medea strongly believes that a woman cannot “say no to her marriage. / She arrives among new modes of behavior and manners, / And needs prophetic power, unless she has learned at home, / How best to manage him who shares the bed with her” (lines 238-242). In Greek history, it was typical that there were arranged marriages. Although Medea’s marriage was not arranged, she clearly states that when a woman gets married, there is the possibility of her dignity being tainted if she were to be divorced.

Later, Medea argues that she has helped Jason to pass the tests her father established for him in order to win the Golden Fleece. In addition, she mentions the sacrifice she has made in fleeing her father and homeland, as well as the role she has played in King Pelias' death. Jason denies his debt to her, however, by claiming that Aphrodite is the one who has helped him to find a safe passage home from Colchis:

My view is that Cypris as alone responsible

Of men and gods for the preserving of my life.

You are clever enough – but really I need not enter

Into the story of how it was love’s inescapable

Power that compelled you to keep my person safe. (17)

He defends his choice to remarry as the best decision for the both of them because, to him, marriage with a king's daughter will guarantee a better life for his children. One can see that this is not a plausible argument. To have a man tell his woman that he is leaving her for the sake of their children is purely ludicrous. He also hopes that Medea will be thankful to him for this action if she is able to see beyond her jealousy. It’s pretty clear that “men justify their mastery by adducing their life of risks and toils, but they forget the pains and the dangers to which women are exposed” (Pucci 67). To Medea, her revenge against Jason is by an extreme form of justice. With her involvement in an unfair institution called marriage, she sees herself as a victim of Jason.

To show that she is even more powerful, she aids Aegeus by offering him some drugs that will cure his sterility in exchange for sanctuary in Athens. Fearing ridicule, she is proud of her reputation as one who can “help her friends and hurt her enemies.” The appearance of Aegeus marks a turning point in the play, since we see that Medea moves from being a victim to an aggressor after she secures his promise: “Only through her alliance with the ironically well-meaning Aegeus does Medea emerge with the confidence of an established power to assert with terrible simplicity that she will kill her children” (Corti 31). By siding with Aegeus, it boosts up Medea’s reputation as being a powerful woman since she agreed to help cure Aegeus’s sterility. Because of that, her assistance gave her an excuse as to abandon the life that she was currently living.

Medea professes great love for her children, but Euripides gives us some reason to suspect her sincerity. She does not hesitate to use the children as weapons in her battle with Jason, and from the outset, she displays little real concern for their fate. From the very beginning of the play, Medea is a less than ideal mother. Her first words about the children are hostile: “Ah, I have suffered / What should be wept for bitterly. I hate you, / Children of a hateful mother, I curse you / And your father. Let the whole house crash.” (lines 115-118). In her statement, she clearly expresses her discontentment being a mother. As Medea plots her revenge, her overriding concern is not her children but her reputation: “Having accepted a code exalting freedom and mastery, Medea chafes in the role of the trapped and dominated subject. The single most essential attribute of her characters is a cruel conscience that mirrors the adamant imperatives implicit in her world and will not allow her to accept the inglorious role of homeless mother with dispossessed children” (Corti 30). Medea’s conscious would not allow her to be the kind of mother that was forced to have her children being taken away by her husband.

In general, this play can be read as a continuous wish that the children of Medea and Jason did not exist. Likewise, “the most spontaneous and gratuitous representation of hostility toward children in the entire play is, indeed, the reaction of Jason’s new bride when his children show up: ‘But then she covered her eyes and turned her pale cheek away from the children, disgusted at their entrance’” (Corti 33). Medea sees her children with disgust because to her, it is like seeing her husband in miniaturized form. Rather than having to kill Jason for his betrayal, Medea instead kills his new bride and the two children, just to see him suffer. After all, “the only power Medea knows is the power of the victor; all she has learned of her own ‘poor passions’ is that they have made her a loser” (Corti 54). Again, she is more concerned with her reputation and her revenge against Jason. After she kills her children, Medea reveals her real concern. She often speaks of her children's uncertain future since their blood is not completely Greek, and therefore, Medea fears that they will be ridiculed. In the play, Jason criticizes Medea for being foreign, not a well-behaved Greek woman:

And then came aboard that beautiful ship, the Argo.

And that was your beginning. When you were married

To me, your husband, and had borne children to me,

For the sake of pleasure in the bed you killed them.

There is no Greek woman who would have dared such deeds… (43)

In addition, the allies of Corinth will seek horrible vengeance against the children. Medea cannot bear the thought of her enemies annihilating her children. Ironically, she decides to prevent this grief by killing them herself. To most people, this action would be understandable because it would seem that she is violating the norm of being a good mother. At the end of the play, she revels in Jason’s agony over their death. When Jason demands the bodies of the children in order to bury them, Medea refuses. Instead, she will bury the children herself. Medea also plans to set up a holy feast and sacrifice to the goddess Hera in order to atone for her sin. It was the same Hera that asked the Goddess of Love to help Jason win the Golden Fleece by using Medea as their “pawn.” Medea will then retreat to Athens, and she also predicts that Jason will die without merit.

Medea is probably the strongest non-Olympian woman in all of Greek mythology. Although Jason promises loyalty to Medea before the gods, she is demonized later classical tradition in the play of Euripides the critical portrayal of her murderous act of her children. Therefore, Medea represents certain characteristics of culture that Greek society repressed: “Because Medea is concerned with her suffering, her consciousness surfaces through the specific repressions, emotional strategies, and maneuvers that the voice stages in the discourse of pity or self-pity” (Pucci 74). Euripide’s Medea was quite popular partly because of the fact that the main character displays an amount of aggressiveness that was contrary to the meek subsequent behavior of women in ancient Greece. Nevertheless, the play is a classic that shows how powerful a woman can be in Greece. If someone were to ask Medea how she feels about being a mother and wife, she would quickly respond: “What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time / Living at home, while they do the fighting in war. / How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand / Three times in the front of battle than bear one child” (lines 250-253).

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