Medea: Force Of Nature
By Laura Moreno
Medea was not your typical Grecian woman. She possessed aspirations that allowed her to dream beyond what was expected of her. A woman with the stature, outspokenness, and abilities that Medea possessed was bound to have difficulty adhering to the social norms of Ancient Greece. It is impossible to explore Euripides’ Medea without expanding our modern lens to encompass what daily life was like under the patriarchal rule of Ancient Greece.
Women of Ancient Greece had very few rights in comparison to the male citizens. They were unable to vote, own land, or inherit. They had no legal personhood and were assumed to be part of the oikos (household) which was led by its male master. And instead of being treated as a permanent member of the oikos to which they were born, they were seen as liabilities because they depleted the household's resources. They were merely transitory members of their father’s home, anticipating the wedding day, exchange of the dowry and completion of the marriage contract in an effort to restore his household.
A woman’s place was in the home and her purpose in life was the rearing of children. Young girls grew up in the care of a nurse and spent most of their time in the gynaikon (the women’s quarters of the household). Growing up, a girl would receive training that prepared her for her future station as a wife and mother. Her domestic duties consisted of helping to care for her younger siblings, preparing her to care for her own future child(ren). She might have also been taught how to read and write, but only enough to enable her to manage the household of her future husband.
Young women had a little more mobility and were able to travel to the local fountain house as a way to socialize with other women. They could attend speeches and participate in religious festivals, but if they were outside of their home they were expected to be inconspicuous and have their heads and faces covered. Contact and conversing with non-familial men was highly discouraged.
A woman’s only value to society was her ability to give birth, preferably to boys. Women were secluded, subjugated, and muted. These, of course, are general descriptions. Considering the role of women in Ancient Greece, these accounts are most likely from a male author’s perspective since very few written documents by women exist today and focus primarily on life in Athens. Other options for women at this time were slave, priestess and prostitute; their life expectancy was between 35 and 40 years old.
It’s undeniable that Medea and Jason’s relationship was a love match and with that would have come certain freedoms within their household, allowing her to exist as her authentic self. She not only aided Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece but killed her brother, allowing them to flee Colchis, and later she tricked King Pelias’ daughter to kill him after he denied Jason the throne following his Golden Fleece victory. She also gave Jason not one but two sons. She did all that was expected of her. She proved herself both loyal and exceptional but it still wasn’t enough and she was discarded. She was intelligent and skilled, both considered masculine traits. She was cunning, easily able to manipulate the men in her life, and this was one of the main reasons Creon and Jason did not trust her to stay in Corinth. Her past manipulations, even if they were for the man she loved, made it difficult for anyone to feel sympathy for her, alienated by her capabilities. And when Aegeus agreed to aid her it was not for her company but instead transactional with her promise to bear him an heir, securing her place as a commodity. But even with all this working against her, Medea showed a strong maternal love and connection to her children. She truly believes she is meant to be a dutiful mother and wife but that goes against her very core. She is unable to accept Athenian societal norms and the betrayal by the man she loved. A woman of her strength and wisdom is left with no choice.
The contrast between men and women depicted by Euripides illustrates how Medea does not fit into the mold of a normal Grecian woman. Euripides also illustrates how the men in her life continue to box her in and strip her of her freedoms, rendering her powerless. She’s described as a wild animal by some. How would one react when backed into a corner? How do you survive when your air supply is being cut off? Love allowed Medea to escape her father and live outside of societal expectations. Love was the only thing that could release the women of Greece from the patriarchal restraints bestowed upon them at birth. So what happens when love is lost or, in Medea’s case, stripped away suddenly? What is left for her?