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Reviewed by:
  • Medea
  • David B. Hollander
Emma Griffiths. Medea. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xvi + 147.

For those whose knowledge of Medea derives primarily from Euripides’ play, Emma Griffiths’s new introduction to this mythical Greek heroine/ villainess will provide a number of surprises. Here they will meet several different Medeas. The one who killed her children is, to be sure, featured prominently but other, less murderous versions of Medea also appear. In addition to Medea the witch there is Medea the “young, vulnerable girl overwhelmed by love” (p. 89). One Medea attempted to kill Theseus but another was a healer and Achilles’ wife in the afterlife. This book, part of Routledge’s series “Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World,” looks at a variety of Medeas as well as a number of different approaches to understanding her myth. It is geared toward (and is, indeed, ideally suited to) the upper level undergraduate course in mythology or classical drama.

Medea has nine chapters divided into three parts: “Why Medea,” “Key Themes,” and “After Greece and Rome.” Chapter 1, “Introducing Medea,” describes the aims of the book: to provide background information on Medea and “explore the myth and the source of its power” (p. 4). Griffiths briefly describes the major episodes in Medea’s story from meeting Jason at Kolchis and assisting him in his quest for the Golden Fleece to her unfortunate experiences at Corinth and subsequent flight to Athens. She emphasizes, however, that there is “no canonical version of the story” (p. 6). Chapter 2, “Mythology and Sources,” is primarily devoted to the many sources for the Medea myth, most notably fifth-century Greek tragedy but also a variety of earlier [End Page 93] Greek and later Greek and Latin texts including works by Pindar, Diodorus Siculus, Kallimachos, Ovid, and Seneca. Visual depictions of the myth also receive some attention. Griffiths emphasizes that she is not trying to present “a detailed account of the chronological development of the myth” (p. 12) or its sources and various incarnations.

The “Key Themes” section of the book begins with chapter 3, “Origins, Folktale and Structuralism.” It, along with the following four chapters, take up major issues related to the Medea myth or important approaches to its understanding. Chapter 3 looks at both general theories on the nature of myth and specific attempts to explain the development of the Medea myth. Griffiths discusses folktale analysis, particularly the “helper-maiden” story pattern, as well as structuralism and Lévi-Strauss. Here as elsewhere, she does not provide a comprehensive account of any particular theory or reading of the myth but merely outlines each approach and mentions some of the difficulties associated with it. This strategy should make the book more accessible for its target audience and more appealing to the teachers who assign it. Griffiths’s treatment of any particular question or theory does not preclude further class discussion by an exhaustive treatment of its merits. Students can consult the “Further Reading” and “Works Cited” sections at the end of the book for references to more substantive works on everything from Jungian archetypes to Medea in film.

Chapter 4, “Witchcraft, Children and Divinity,” looks at the most notorious aspects of the Medea myth. Griffiths notes that the “strongest image of Medea in the ancient world was undoubtedly that of the witch” (p. 41) but rightly observes that the term “witch” is rather problematic. She argues that the “witch” lies at the “intersection between two powerful discourses: concern about the divine, and concern about the position of women” (p. 46). This is what makes Medea so hard to categorize. She can be either killer or victim, mortal or divine and, indeed, “seems to exist outside the boundaries of classical Greek religion” (p. 54). Chapter 5 turns to questions of “Ethnicity, Gender and Philosophy” and seeks to examine “fundamental issues of self-image within Greek society, extending into a more philosophical consideration of what it is to be human” (p. 59). The figure of the witch continues to receive attention here as Griffiths notes that “witches have traditionally been linked with places or ethnicities different from the dominant culture” (p. 60) and discusses the...


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