Medea by Seneca.

Medea by Frederick Sandys (1868). 
The Medea story is another one of my favourites from the Ancients (so far I've read versions by HesiodEuripides, Ovid, Apollonius of Rhodes, and even Geoffrey Chaucer), and I must say Seneca did an excellent job with it. The story goes like this: Jason was ordered by King Pelias to retrieve the Golden Fleece. On his journey he met and seduced Hypsipyle before abandoning her (which is referred to in Dante's Inferno), and then in Colchis he was helped by Medea, a sorceress and the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis to get the golden fleece. They fall in love and Medea, to distract her father, kills her brother Absyrtus, and she runs away with Jason, now exiled from Colchis. They have children together, and eventually settle in Corinth having been exiled from Iolcus after Medea uses her magic to manipulate the daughters of Pelias, Jason's uncle, to kill him. But, and this is no surprise given Jason's track record, he eventually abandons Medea in favour of Creusa (or Glauce as she is known in Ancient Greek literature), the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.

This is where Seneca's play (written around 50 A.D.) begins. We see Medea mad with anger, jealousy, and fear of being abandoned in a country that is not her own and being unable to return to Colchis. It begins with Medea (this speech is translated by Emily Wilson):
O gods of marriage! Juno, childbirth goddess,
and you, Athena, who taught Tiphys how
to harness the first ship that would subdue the waves,
and Neptune, cruel master of the ocean deep,
and Titan, portioning the world's bright day,
and you, whose moonlight sees all secret rites,
Hecate triple-formed - all gods Jason invoked
when he swore to save me; and gods who better suit
Medea's prayers: Chaos of endless night,
kingdoms that hate the gods of heaven, blaspheming powers,
master of the melancholy realm, and queen -
abducted, but he kept his word to you. Now let me curse:
Come to me now, O vengeful Furies, punishers of sinners,
wild in your hair with serpents running free,
holding black torches in your bloody hands,
come to me, scowling as you did old old
when you stood around my marriage bed. Kill his new wife,
kill her father, and all the royal family.
What is worse than death? What can I ask for Jason?
That he may live! - in poverty and fear.
Let him wander through strange towns, in exile,
hated and homeless, an infamous guest, begging a bed.
Let him want me as a wife, and want - the worst I could pray for -
children who resemble both their parents.
Now it is born, my vengeance is delivered:
I mothered it. - But why this weaving of words,
this pointless whining? Will I not attack my enemies?
I will hurl the torches from their hands, the light from heaven.
O Sun, my grandfather, do you see this? Are you still there?
Do you still ride your chariot, as usual, through the sky,
and not turn back towards the east, trace back the day?
Give me the power to ride my father's horses through the air,
Grandfather, give me the reigns, and let me guide
with flaming harnesses the fiery team.
Let Corinth, whose twin shores now block the gulf,
burn up in flames and join two seas in one.
Just one more thing: I have to take the torch
to the marriage room myself; after the prayers,
I will be the one to kill the victims on the altar.
Find out a path to vengeance even in the entrails,
my soul, if you are still alive, if you retain
any of your old strength. Amway with feminine fears,
dress up your mind like your own cruel home.
All the horrors witnessed back at home by the Black Sea,
Corinth will see now. Evils to make
heaven and earth both shudder equally
are what my mind revolves: wounding, murder, death
creeping through my limbs. But all this is too slight,
I did those as a girl. Let weightier rage swell up:
now I have given birth, my crimes ought to increase.
Take on the armour of anger, prepare for destruction
possessed by fury. The tale of your divorce
must match your marriage. How should you leave your man?
The same way that you married him. Enough delay.
A family formed by crime must be broken by more crime.
This speech, quite frankly, is terrifying, and this energy and rage is continued throughout the play making it exhausting and disturbing. Medea seeks revenge quite clearly on Jason, as well as Creusa and the King of Corinth who exiles her. Jason infuriates her further by trying to placate her, and she finds a robe to give to Jason and Creusa as a wedding present, a robe which she poisons and enchants (as her nurse describes), and will bring destruction to Creusa. Her fury continues, manifesting in a fierce fire at the palace that cannot be put out. When Jason finds her, she has killed one of his sons: in front of him, she kills the other and escapes in a chariot pulled by a dragon, leaving Jason to mourn his losses.

It is an incredible play, brilliant in fact, and we see Medea not as evil but driven insane by her former deeds and for love of Jason. She is as much of a victim as she is a perpetrator. Medea's strength in Seneca's play sets her apart from the Medea of Euripides, I think (as does Seneca's clear blame for the gods involved in the tragedy); Seneca's version sees her as infinitely more powerful, passionate, and vibrant making it, for me, all the more enjoyable. This is rather unpopular: Euripides' play is generally seen as more superior, but I adored Seneca's and recommend it to everyone

And that was my sixth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Georgics by Virgil (and I'm still yet to see a short story or essay!).

Comments

  1. My grandmother who was a very superior scholar used to swear by Seneca. She considered his work to be one of best in the ancient world and would give away copies as presents to everyone, whether they read or not; or liked Seneca or not. By your review, I can see much of what she could have liked. I must get to her collection soon! (She passed away when I was quite young and her stories are more hand me down!)

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    1. I pretty much feel the same about Seneca as you can tell :) Do read Medea at least, I think it's his best!

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  2. powerful language... i often wish i had a time machine to go back to those days and see how they actually lived; to see what the society was like that was able to produce such dramatic and violent literature... impressive stuff... tx.... (on second thought, maybe not: modern civilization has it's own terrors...)

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    1. Me too. I think Virginia Woolf wrote an essay about this sort of thing - On not speaking Greek, I think it was. I do recommend it :)

      And yes, modern civilisation... I saw again yesterday Jacob Reese Mogg is a favourite to be the next PM. That really did disturb me...

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  3. I've never read Seneca's version of Medea's sad story. From reading your post it definitely sounds like an improvement (for my taste, at least) on Euripides'.

    Medea is one of the great 'spurned women' of literature. Who else would go on that list...?

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    1. I immediately thought of Hester Prynne! There are none as striking as Medea, though :)

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