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Euripides. Medea.

Lecture 6B -- Medea Lecture


One great fear of the patriarchal Athenians in the audience for plays was a strong woman.  That's one reason there were so many dangerous women in the safe space of the theater.  We've met scary Clytemnestra and the scary Furies; now we see scary Medea.  Because powerful women leave chaos and destruction in their wake, the Athenians were reassured in the propriety of their project to make sure that women are not allowed to exercise authority.

Medea is a play set against a backdrop of a much larger story.  For that story, we need to read the Argonautica, the prequel written by Appollonius of Rhodes in Alexandria in the 200s B.C.  It relates the adventures of Jason and his men as the travel into the wilds beyond the pales of civilization (see map here).  There we first meet Medea, barbarian princess and witch, she falls in love with Jason and begins to help him fulfill his quest.  Without her, he probably wouldn't have returned to Greece at all, much less with the Golden Fleece.  Now with the acclaim and success he owes to her, he wants to send her away, marry the princess of Corinth, and become king someday.

We can better understand the stories we've been reading if we consider the work of Lévi-Strauss (the French scholar, not the blue jean dude).  He developed the structuralist approach to human thought, arguing that the human mind thinks using similar structures regardless of time, place, or level of civilization.  Mythic thinking seeks to resolve the contradiction between life and death (eros and thanatos for your Freud fans).  Each level above these coorelates to an item horizontally, but it also allegorically aligns with all the other items in the life or death poles.  Finally you reach a level where the gap can be mediated by a figure that can resolve the contradiction.  If we look at the Aeneid, we find these levels that include the Jason/Medea struggle.

Antony       —   Cleopatra
Aeneas  ——      Dido
Jason   ———   Medea
male   ————  female
civilized    —————    barbarian
human   ——————     animal
life       ———————     death

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