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Euripides' Medea: The Stranger in the House S. Georgia Nugent In his 1978 film A Dream of Passion, the director Jules Dessin revisits the tragedy of Medea. The film juxtaposes and contrasts theater and cinema, ancient and modern, Greek and American, in its exploration of an extended encounter between the characters played by Melina Mercouri—a Greek actress performing Euripides' Medea in Athens—and Ellen Burstyn—an American corporate wife and fundamentalist Christian, imprisoned for having murdered her children, because her husband was having an affair with a Greek woman.1 What remains constant, in the confrontation of the ancient and the contemporary narratives , is the horror of—and fascination with—a woman who would murder her own children.2 And, further, who would do so out of marital jealousy. This unspeakable crime seems to a modern audience— whether of the Dessin film or of the well-received 1982 performance of Robinson Jeffers' translation by Zoe Caldwell and Dame Judith Anderson—to be the very essence of Medea's myth, the heart of the legend. It would not have seemed so to Euripides' audience. For the killing of the children appears to have been a Euripidean innovation, explicitly counter to existing versions of Medea's tale. This paper will consider variant versions and aspects of Medea's legend which Euripides does not incorporate into his play; the ways in which that material, nevertheless , is reflected in Euripides' shaping of the myth both narratively and rhetorically; and the ways in which the fifth-century Athenian cultural context may have influenced that shape quite specifically. I Scholars of myth often distinguish between "myth" per se, as a bare sequence of narrative events and what may be called 306 5. Georgia Nugent307 mythopoiesis, which is the "making of the myth" into a particular artistic object—whether a play, poem, or other form. It is rare, however, that one can actually identify "myth" per se. Generally, there is not one single, unitary version of the story, but any number of variant versions which may include differing and even mutually exclusive narratives. In beginning to consider Euripides' Medea, I want to survey some variant versions of this myth which would have been available to Euripides. We find these variants mainly in the so-called scholiasts. Scholiasts were ancient scholars, many of them associated with the great library in Alexandria, who annotated classical texts.3 Their annotations and commentary may be considered the ancient equivalent of modern literary criticism. Not infrequently , the texts of scholiasts (or other ancient authors) have preserved variants of myths more familiar to us in a particular "canonical" version—like that of Euripides' Medea. One variant of the Medea myth is transmitted by the great Greek "tourist," Pausanias, who tells the following story: Medea was summoned to Corinth to be the queen of that territory because it was an ancestral property of her father's.4 Through her, Jason became King of Corinth. (At once, we see this is a very different version from that which Euripides gives us.) In this version , Medea, upon the birth of her children, secretes them in a temple of Hera, hoping thus to make them immortal. This attempt to immortalize her children clearly presents the farthest possible divergence from the murderous actions of Euripides' Medea. In another version of the myth, a scholiast on Pindar tells us that Medea averted a plague in Corinth by sacrificing to Demeter and the Nymphs.5 He adds as well that Zeus fell in love with Medea, but she refused him in order to avoid the anger of Hera. (In an ancient mythical version of blaming-the-victim of rape, the unwilling recipients of Zeus' erotic attentions must often endure not only impregnation by the god but also torture at the hands of his outraged spouse as, for example, in the case of Io—recounted in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.) Medea succeeds in refusing Zeus' prédation, and, in gratitude, Hera promises to make Medea's children immortal. Although we do not know the details, Hera apparently reneged on her promise, however, for this version adds that when the children died the Corinthians honored them under the name of mixobarbaroi ("half...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 306-327
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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