Medea is the sorceress born to King Aeetes of Colchis and is said to be the granddaughter of Helios the god of Sun. Jason sought the golden ram’s fleece belonging to Aeetes’, in the process of earning the same as per conditions laid down by the King, Medea fell in love with Jason and assisted him in obtaining the fleece through her magical powers on the conditions that he married her. On obtaining the fleece, Jason fled the Kingdom with Medea and Absyrtis, her younger brother. To prevent Aeetes, from successfully pursuing them, Medea killed her younger brother and scattered his body in pieces so that her father’s men had to perforce stop to collect the pieces and give a decent burial to Absyrtis.
The couple then settled in Corinth and Medea bore two sons to Jason. When Jason decided to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth, Creon, and Medea killed her as well as her own children borne from Jason to spite him in the harshest possible way. After the killing she took refuge with Aegeus, the king of Athens and bore him a son Medus, but finally failed in killing the elder son of Aegeus, thereby again having to flee from her husband. Medus later became the king of Media. The mythological tale of Medea provides a perspective of the role of women in Greek society and their pursuit to break away from a life given to serving the needs of men be it in the role of the daughter, sister, wife or mother.
Viewing Greek Gender Role through the myth of Medea
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Medea’s struggle is that of a mythological woman in ancient times attempting to take control of her own life through a series of personal as well as public travails. The irony lies in it denoting, that to gain influence in society a woman has to be a force of evil, a sorceress with super natural powers granted as an exception rather than an emancipated position for all women folk. Medea thus embodies the opposite of the traditional gender role for women in Greek society rejecting the status quo, the stereo type of women being powerless and having to do the bidding of their male relatives and ultimately rules made by society for them.
The traditional role granted to Greek women in mythology is that of a, “helper maiden” (Clauss and Iles (Ed), 1997, 13). Some other views of gender roles indicate that women had a passive, domestic, emotional and somewhat irrational role to play while the male function was indicated as being active, reasonable, and rational and representing the public face. Medea attempts to carve an independent role not just for herself but for Greek women as a whole, however she is perhaps one of the few exceptions of her times and other women are unable to support her personal conviction.
In assuming an independent role for herself, Medea highlights to Jason that had he perhaps told her about his intent of second marriage, things would have been different, though Jason naturally scoffs at this suggestion of hers as,
“Oh yes, if I'd told you of the wedding,
I'm sure you would have lent me fine support.
Even now you can't stand to set aside
that huge rage in your heart.” (Johnston, Nd)
Medea highlights her fierce independence by rejecting the second non consensual marriage of Jason and also his offer to provide for her if she can only request him for help. She totally refuses to plead him, despite his generous offer, as Jason states,
“All right, but I call the gods to witness
I'm willing to help you and the children.
But you reject my goods and stubbornly
push away your friends, and that the reason
you suffer still more pain.” (Johnston, Nd)
Medea in relation to Peers
Medea’s attempt to review the role of women has been epitomized in the struggle against the stereo type, feminine role in Greek mythology. This role confined women to being a wife, a bearer of children and one who continues to be miserable both before and after matrimony. Unlike other women, who perhaps accept their fate, Medea laments that,
“First, we need a husband, someone we get
for an excessive price. He then becomes
the ruler of our bodies. ___
For a divorce loses women all respect,
yet we can't refuse to take a husband. __
But if the marriage doesn't work, then death
is much to be preferred. ___
We women have to look at just one man.” (Johnston, Nd)
Medea detests the role of the female as a womb for the children of her husband; however she assumed these thoughts only after she has been scorned by her husband who has taken another women. She represents a women scorned, thus,
“In other things
a woman may be timid—in watching battles
or seeing steel, but when she's hurt in love,
her marriage violated, there's no heart
more desperate for blood than hers.” (Johnston, Nd)
But then women in Greek society are not supposed to complain against such injustice. And her lament bore no fruit as in the classical Greek tradition, the women who rebels is expelled from society, thus Creon says,
“You there, Medea, scowling in anger
against your husband. I'm ordering you
out of Corinth. You must go into exile,
and take those two children of yours with you.” (Johnston, Nd)
To Medea this is dual injustice as she has lost her husband to another woman and for protesting has been expelled from Corinth. Women in Corinth as the King told Medea had to suffer in silence. They had to be redeemed by bearing children for their husbands, through charity, sober behavior and faith. This very lucidly highlights the Greek view that women have no right to protest in case their husband has abandoned them and have to suffer in solitude. The key issue is thus lack of choice to women while not for men.
Medea however succeeds in gaining power through her role as a sorceress. Thus by her knowledge of herbs and health potions, she is able to gain control of her adversaries as well as her loved ones. These potions have power to heal, denoted as magic in mythology. This is one element of power which has been invariably granted to women in Greece, given their greater knowledge of the value and utility of different types of herbs.
Another allusion to the power of women expressed by being a sorceress is Medea’s killings, first her brother, than Jason’s second wife and her own children. The power of causing death which is a negative influence is generally seen to be granted to the male in Greek mythology through his ability to wage war and victory. Medea aspires to and gains this power through her facility with potions, causing death with equanimity. This is the power of evil, so be it feels the scorned women, for perhaps in ancient Greece that is the only power that women could aspire for.
By assuming an active role in each of her joint encounters with Jason, whether it is in assisting him in gaining hold of the golden ram’s fleece, getting away from her father, seeking a second marriage or in getting her son Medus a say in the kingdom of Athens, it is the active role played by Medea, rather than normal passivity which is associated with women in Greece which is significant. Medea is so dominantly active, that she even gives an impression to Jason that in case he had sought her consent to marry a second time; she would have perhaps accorded him the same.
This active position is undertaken through the path of evil, as a sorceress. This was perhaps natural given the times in which Medea lived, representing exception rather than the aspirations of a large proportion of her gender who were perhaps satisfied to remain within the confines of the traditional role granted to them by society of looking after the home and hearth. This route of evil to gain power as a woman may be faulted but perhaps it has to be placed in the context of Medea as a woman having no other option in ancient Greece.
1. Johnston, Ian. (Translation). No Date (Nd). Euripides Medea. http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/euripides/medea.htm
2.Clauss, James J. Johnston, Sarah Iles. Eds. 1997. Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
3. Foley, Helene P. 2002. Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
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