Historical Context in The Medea
Euripides lived during Golden Age of Athens from 484 BCE—406 BCE. Euripides was a sophist, a philosopher who taught rhetoric in order to instruct people on how to live their lives. Sophists were particularly interested in the relationships among language, truth, and perception in determining what was convention and what was the true nature of something. Euripides’s plays had particularly controversial, radical ideas.
The Medea won third prize at the Dionysia festival in 431 BCE, the same year that the Peloponnesian War began. The Peloponnesian War was a struggle between Greece and the Peloponnesian Legion led by Sparta in which Sparta tried to weaken the Greek Empire, which had begun to amass significant power in the region. The war caused social and political upheavals and challenged institutions of democracy that shaped Greek society. Some of these tensions are revealed in Medea and other plays written during this time.
Historical Context Examples in The Medea:
"A good Greek land hath been Thy lasting home, not barbary...." See in text (The Medea)
Consider that a Greek audience would agree with the sentiments Jason expresses here even though the chorus implies that sympathy should lie with Medea’s cause. Athens was considered the cradle of Western Civilization in the time of Euripides and Greece was considered more advanced politically, socially, and academically than the rest of the world. The kingdom of Colchis, from which Medea sailed with Jason after helping him steal the Golden Fleece, was viewed by the Greeks as a land of uncivilized barbarians. Jason’s reasoning that he did Medea a service by freeing her from a life of savagery is one that would resonate with Euripides’ audience.
"Yet underneath . . . nay, all the tale of it Were graceless telling; how sheer love, a fire Of poison-shafts, compelled thee with desire To save me...." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Eros (God of Love), son of Aphrodite, is portrayed as a boy with a golden bow who shoots arrows of desire at mortals and immortals alike. Not even Zeus can resist these arrows. Here, in reaction to Medea’s claim that she is responsible for her husband’s fame and for saving his life, Jason argues that it was Aphrodite’s son Eros that is responsible for her actions, and therefore he is relieved of all fault for remarrying and forsaking her. Jason finds a way to discredit all of Medea’s actions and relieve himself of any debt to her.
"I saved thee. I saved thee— Let thine own Greeks be witness, every one That sailed on Argo..." See in text (The Medea)
Notice how Euripides plays down Medea's powers as a sorceress by not explicitly stating how she helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece with magic. Here Medea calls attention to all she has done to help Jason achieve the success she is largely responsible for, going as far as to state that he owes his life to her.
"How can any man, whose eyes Are wholesome, seek to rear his children wise..." See in text (The Medea)
A reference to the common Greek idea that education made men less vigorous, this line also seems to speak to the idea presented by Creon that being too clever or cunning makes an individual wicked. Medea’s cleverness leading to the tragic outcome of the play is an example of a situation where cunning becomes harmful.
"Her lord, if he be wearied of the face Withindoors, gets him forth;..." See in text (The Medea)
Respectable Athenian women were expected to stay inside their homes, having very little contact with the outside world except during religious festivals. Medea laments the state of womankind and resents that men who are wearied by staying indoors may go out and seek a merrier place among their peers . The Medea boldly explores the inferior place women held in Athenian society at a time when the concept would have seemed revolutionary.
"Phœbus..." See in text (The Medea)
Phoebus was another name for the Olympian Apollo, the god of art, prophecy, and plague.
"Medea appears on the roof, ..." See in text (The Medea)
In ancient Greek theater, the actor playing Medea would have been hoisted onto the roof or suspended over the stage using a crane. This same technique was used for actors playing gods in other plays. Medea’s use of the crane symbolizes her goddess-like status. Not only has she defeated Jason and claimed her revenge, she has achieved a divine position by doing so.
"clinging to Creon..." See in text (The Medea)
Medea replicates the actions of a suppliant, or someone who makes a plea to someone in power. A suppliant often knelt and took hold of the knees of the person in power to show their lower status.
"And the voice of my brother's blood..." See in text (The Medea)
Medea laments the sacrifices that she made to secure Jason’s escape from Colchis and acquisition of the Golden Fleece. She remembers the shores of her mother’s home and her brother’s blood, a reference to the story of the Golden Fleece in which Medea kills and dismembers her brother to stop her father’s army from pursuing Jason and the fleeing Argonauts. This lament shows either that Medea regrets her choices and brutal actions, or that she is mortified by her actions because of Jason’s treachery.
"Would God no Argo e'er had winged the seas To Colchis through the blue Symplêgades:..." See in text (The Medea)
The Nurse begins the play situating this play in the Greek mythos. The Argo is the ship from the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, a well-known myth in Ancient Greece. King Pelias of Iolcus sends Jason and a band of heroes called the Argonauts to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Medea’s father King Aeetes in Colchis. The Argonauts face many challenges on their journey to Colchis including the Symplegades, a pair of rocks that clashed together whenever anyone went through them. Jason’s ability to navigate these challenges proved that he had divine help and that he was a great hero. Establishing this history gives the story an authoritative tone and aligns it with other famous tragedies.
"Orpheus..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a brilliant musician and poet. He was believed to play music so perfect, so melodic, that he could charm both living and inanimate objects. When his love and bride to be Eurydice was bitten by a snake and killed, Orpheus traveled to the underworld to ask Hades and Persephone to return his love to life. He played music so beautiful that Persephone allowed Eurydice to leave the underworld, under the condition that Orpheus would not look at her before they reached the world of the living. He led Eurydice out of the underworld and turned to embrace her as soon as he had crossed the threshold of Hades. Unfortunately, Eurydice had not yet stepped into the light, and she disappeared as soon as he laid eyes on her.
"My fathers' father, the high Sun..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Medea is a descendant of Helios, the god of the sun. Helios sends his chariot pulled by dragons to save Medea from Jason’s wrath. A god suddenly and unexpectedly intervening in the action of a play is a literary trope called deus ex machina, or the god in the machine. It generally occurs when it seems that the protagonist has no hope of escape. When Greek tragedies were performed, an actor playing a god would be physically lowered onto the stage by a machine—typically a crane— hence the name of the trope.
"Erechtheus..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Erechtheus was the king of Athens and founder of the polis. He was born of the earth. When the god Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena and she rebuffed him, she wiped his semen off her thigh with a bit of wool that she cast to the earth. From this wool, Gaia, goddess of the earth, became pregnant and produced Erechtheus. Athenians saw themselves as the children of Erechtheus, the man reared by their patron Athena.
"Maia's..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Maia is the mother of Hermes, the god of transitions, boundaries, and travelers. The chorus references these two figures from mythology to wish Aegeus a safe journey home.
"Pittheus..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Pittheus was the king of Troezen. He was Dia and Pelops’s son and the grandfather of Theseus. He was a renowned intellectual who could interpret the complicated words of oracles. Aegeus seeks him to decipher what the oracle of Delphi told him about his future children.
"old encaverned stair...." See in text (The Medea)
Delphi was the location of Apollo’s temple and the famous oracle. The “encaverned stair” is likely a reference to the theater at Delphi that lay near the temple. The theater was built into the natural slope of the mountain and had six stair cases that divided the colossal stands built to hold 4,500 spectators.
"AEGEUS..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Aegeus is the king of Athens. He and his three brothers divided the government into four parts and gave Aegeus kingly power. He had two wives but could not produce an heir. He traveled to the Oracle at Delphi to for advice and she told him a cryptic prophecy that he needed help deciphering. Medea and Aegeus eventually married when she fled to his kingdom for protection and had a son named Medus.
"mine own ancient Serpent..." See in text (The Medea)
In mythology, Medea also helps Jason steal the fleece from a giant serpent's protection by charming the serpent.
"To yoke with yokes the bulls of fiery breath, And sow that Acre of the Lords of Death;..." See in text (The Medea)
In the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Medea helps Jason succeed at a humanly impossible task. The challenge was to yoke together two bulls with fire for breath and bronze feet. After yoking the beasts together, Jason would plow a field and plant dragon’s teeth in rows. From the dragon’s teeth would rise as fearsome army of warriors that Jason would have to cut down as they sprouted from the ground. In the story, Medea makes an ointment that makes Jason invincible for a day.
"Loves of man, what curse is on your wings..." See in text (The Medea)
By this, Medea means Cupid, the god of love. In mythology Cupid created havoc among gods and mortals because any being pierced by his arrow mortal or immortal fell into uncontrollable desire. Medea claims love is a curse because it is all consuming, which is ironic because Medea is a character completely consumed by her emotions (in the play her thirst for revenge,) until she is rectified.
"Hecatê..." See in text (The Medea)
Hecate was the goddess of the crossroads, witchcraft, magic, necromancy, and poison. Hecate was associated with torches, keys, serpents and daggers, and thought to live in the underworld. Here, Medea prays to Hecate to help her with her murderous plot to poison Jason, Glauce, and Creon.
"To God, to Faith..." See in text (The Medea)
By “god” the chorus refers to Zeus, the king and father of the gods and the god of the sky, rather than the Christian God. Notice how the translator’s monotheistic religious context permeates the language he uses when he translates this text. Similarly, what he names “Faith” is translated in other versions of this text to “Themis,” the goddess of divine order, fairness, or law. Murray uses the word “Faith” to describe “God’s” daughter because these two words fit together in the Christian faith, much like the gods Zeus and Themis would in an ancient Greek context.
"Troth..." See in text (The Medea)
The noun “troth” means truth or loyalty that one pledges when they make a vow. The Virgin of Troth is another name for Themis, the goddess of divine order, fairness, and law.
"Virgin of Righteousness..." See in text (The Medea)
The “Virgin of Righteousness” is Themis, the goddess of divine order, fairness, and law. Themis was thought to enforce human law and custom, especially the keeping of oaths. Medea prays to her because Jason has broken his oath.
"What have they to do, Babes, with their father's sin?..." See in text (The Medea)
Medea curses her children from within the house and the nurse questions how these innocent creatures could be connected with their father’s sins. This line touches on the Greek concept of kleos. Kleos is renown or glory that a father can pass on to his sons. The son was responsible for living a life that honored his father’s kleos. This concept aligned one’s father’s actions with one’s own identity. Thus, Jason’s sins reflect onto his children.
"banishment..." See in text (The Medea)
Banishment, or exile, was the most extreme punishment in ancient Greece comparable to a death sentence. Without her place in society as a protected wife and mother, a woman in exile was forced to beg and live as a nomad. Unlike men, women often could not find work or anyone to take them in. King Creon seeks to banish Medea and her children to protect his daughter and her new husband, Jason.
"Of father, and land, and home, forsook that day For this man's sake,..." See in text (The Medea)
When Jason and the Argonauts reached Colchis, the goddess Hera asked Aphrodite to make Medea fall in love with Jason so that the powerful sorceress would protect him in his impossible quest. Medea betrayed her family to give him an ointment that would make him invincible during his challenge, and she warned him when her father Aeetes was going to have him killed after he defeated the challenge. She secured the Golden Fleece and helped the Argonauts escape Colchis and Aeetes’s pursuing army by killing and dismembering her own brother so that her father would have to stop the pursuit to collect the pieces of his body. The nurse references this story to remind the audience how much Medea has sacrificed for this man who has betrayed her.
"Medea calleth up the oath they made,..." See in text (The Medea)
The family was the central unit of Greek society. The concept of oikos, or the importance of the family, is a theme seen in many Greek tragedies and Roman epics. Upholding oikos, remaining loyal to one’s family and performing one’s familial duties, was not only important but socially reinforced. Those who broke oikos were publically shamed or punished, especially women who broke their vows. Jason’s betrayal of Medea would have been seen as a betrayal of oikos and therefore her plans of revenge against him would have been supported by the gods and her society.
"Jason doth forsake My mistress and his own two sons, to make His couch in a king's chamber...." See in text (The Medea)
Once they arrived in Corinth, Jason forsook his vows to Medea and sought the hand in marriage of Glauce, Creon’s daughter. Jason wanted to marry Glauce to gain power and access to the throne.
"Hunted for that fierce sin, to Corinth here With Jason and her babes. ..." See in text (The Medea)
After Medea kills King Pelias, Jason is not restored to the throne. Instead, Pelias’s son took the throne and banished Jason and Medea. They fled with their children to Corinth, where Creon the king offered them shelter.
"The daughters of King Pelias, knowing not, To spill their father's life..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Jason returns to Iolcus with the Golden Fleece and the sorceress who helped him obtain it, Aeetes’s daughter Medea. Despite his vow, King Pelias refuses to turn over the crown when Jason completed his mission. Medea then devises a plan to secure the throne for her lover. She tricks King Pelias’s daughters to kill him by telling them that she can restore his youth and strength. She kills a sheep and places it in pieces in a pot, says a spell over the pot, then a young lamb bounces from the pot. King Pelias’s daughters kill their father and cut him up, but when they place him in the pot, Medea does not bring him back to life, restored to youth.
"King Pelias' vow,..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, King Pelias, Jason’s uncle, usurped Jason’s father and stole the throne of Iolcus. He vowed that if Jason could retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis he would return the rightful throne to his nephew. Pelias made this vow because he believed the task would be impossible to complete. When Jason returned with the fleece, the surprised King refused to give up his throne as he had promised.
"riven pine in Pêlion's glen Shaped that first oar-blade..." See in text (The Medea)
In Greek mythology, Pelion is a mountain in Thessaly full of trees. The wood of these trees was believed to be the wood the Argonauts used to make their famous ship The Argo to transport them on their mission to Colchis.