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Papers must be typed, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, in a standard font (such as Times New
Roman, 10, 11 or 12 pt). You do not need to attach a title page; instead, make sure that your name,
section number and the essay topic appear on your first page (top left-hand corner) – and don’t forget to
insert name and page number, on EVERY page! Please indicate which topic you are answering, and
include an interesting, relevant essay title above the main body of your text. Your essay should be written in
full sentences and proper paragraphs with all your sources properly documented (MLA format). Remember
to include a Works Cited page (MLA format).

HUM 210-050: World Mythologies
Topics for Second Short Essay
Due: Sunday, November 29 (11.59 pm)
Length: 3-4 pages
Papers must be typed, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, in a standard font (such as Times New
Roman, 10, 11 or 12 pt). You do not need to attach a title page; instead, make sure that your name,
section number and the essay topic appear on your first page (top left-hand corner) – and don’t forget to
insert name and page number, on EVERY page! Please indicate which topic you are answering, and
include an interesting, relevant essay title above the main body of your text. Your essay should be written in
full sentences and proper paragraphs with all your sources properly documented (MLA format). Remember
to include a Works Cited page (MLA format).
Choose one of the following topics and write a 3-4 page essay in response.
In the “The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu,” which one translator describes as “the most stunning tale ever
written in Irish,” the druid Cathbad utters prophecies concerning Derdriu both before and immediately after
her birth. These prophecies are sinister and troubling which the druid addresses to the newborn directly:
Much damage, Derdriu will follow
your high fame and fair visage:
Ulster in your time tormented,
demure daughter of Fedlimid
Cathbad closes his prophetic utterance with four enigmatic lines:
Harsh, hideous deeds done
In anger at Ulster’s high king,
and little graves everywhere
–a famous tale, Derdriu.
Derdriu possesses extraordinary beauty that is dangerous and deadly. Perhaps it could be said that Derdriu
herself is possessed by this beauty, and is a victim of its danger and its deadly effects. In later rewritings of
this ancient story, she becomes known as “Deirdre of the Sorrows.” Is this an appropriate characterization
of the heroine (or anti-heroine)? Remember to include evidence from the text to support your discussion.
We have explored the powerful and beautiful story, The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, in class. Just as
Cathbad, the druid, prophesied, Derdriu brings chaos and destruction to Ulster; by the end of the story, so
many of the Ulster heroes are dead, and thousands more are exiled to Connacht. Could this disaster have
been avoided in any way? Should Derdriu have been put to death at birth as so many of the Ulstermen
wanted? Perhaps Cathbad was correct so many years earlier: the beautiful Derdriu brings evil to Ulster. Do
we blame Derdriu for everything that happens? Is this young woman the embodiment of evil? What does
this disturbing story seem to suggest about women and women’s beauty? How do you interpret the tragedy
that unfolds in the aftermath of Cathbad’s prophecy and the birth of this child, so cursed with extraordinary
beauty? Please remember to include evidence from the text to support your discussion.
As the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu draws to a close, Derdriu is again kept prisoner by Conchobor, the king of
She was kept a year by Conchobor. In that time she never gave a smile, nor took enough food or sleep, nor
lifted up her head from her knees.
This is the vision of Derdriu of the sorrows. Her sorrow – her grief, her mourning for Noisiu, the man she
loves, is never ending. When the king sends musicians to lighten her sorrow with music, she responds with
poetry that speaks her sadness (16-17). If the king visits to comfort her, Derdriu can only respond with
poetry that expresses her anguish:
The thing most dear to me in the world,
the very thing I most loved,
your harsh crime took from me.
I will not see him till I die.
How does this situation end? Is there an end to Derdriu’s sorrow? At the very close of the narrative, we see
Derdriu riding in a chariot with Conchobor, and Eogan, king of Fernmag, who had killed Noisiu with his own
They set out the next day for the fair of Macha. She was behind Eogan in the chariot. She had sworn that the
two men alive in the world together would never have her.
“This is good, Derdriu,” Conchobor said. “Between me and Eogan you are a sheep eyeing two rams.”
A big block of stone was in front of her. She let her head be driven against the stone, and made a mass of
fragments of it, and she was dead.
To escape captivity, Derdriu kills herself. Is this an appropriate ending to this story? Could there be another
ending possible to this dramatic but tragic story? What does this ending reveal to us about Derdriu? What
do we learn about these two men, these two kings, Conchobor and Eogan? Please include evidence from
the text to support your interpretation.
Forgall Monach, Emer’s father, is instrumental in Cú Chulainn’s decision to go to Alba (or Scotland) to enjoy
advanced training in weaponry and all things in connection with the hero business from the famed warrior
woman Scáthach, or “The Shadowy One.” Explore the implications of gender in the legend of Cú Chulainn
where the young hero from Ulster is taught by these strange and “manly” women how to be the very best
fighter, the very best superhero possible. How do you understand and explain this paradox, that the
superheroic man learns his business from women? But what else happens in Scotland with these women?
What else does Cú Chulainn need to learn (and become?) before he’s ready to return to Ulster and marry
Emer? How do you explain the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Aife? Why does Cú Chulainn insist
that she bear him a son, and why does Aife agree to this? If Cú Chulainn isn’t interested in marriage with
any of the warrior women he encounters in Alba (Scáthach, Uathach, and Aife) then why does he want to
father a son with one of them? What is so important about a son for this young hero? Can you explain the
sexual activity with warrior women (and this includes his relationship with Uathach, Scáthach’s daughter)
that seems to be an aspect of his learning experience in Scotland? What does Cú Chulainn learn in
Scotland that he needs for his life as a fully fledged superhero and as an adult male in his community in
Ulster? Remember to include evidence from the relevant material we have read from The Táin to support
your discussion.
The following is an evaluation of the character whose disturbing story is immortalized in Euripides’s tragic
drama, Medea.
Of all the seductive, sinister and transgressive women who have haunted the Western imagination, none has
a reputation more lurid than Medea’s. Judith, Salome, Jezebel, Delilah, Lady Macbeth – these murdered or
betrayed grown men, but Medea’s crimes are yet more chilling: credited with having slaughtered her younger
brother, she is also said to have sacrificed her own two children out of revenge for rejected love.
Discuss this assessment of Medea – her murderous activities and the motivation for these – using one or
both of the texts relating to Medea’s story explored in class (Euripides’s Medea, Ovid’s “Letter from Medea
to Jason,” and if you have had the opportunity to watch Lars von Trier’s Medea, you can also refer to the
presentation of Medea in this film version of the story). Remember to include specific examples and
evidence from the texts you discuss to support your claims.
Addressing the Chorus, a group of Corinthian women, Medea comments on her current situation and offers
insight into her emotional state:
I am alone in Corinth, an outsider
in a strange city far from my family –
my only company a husband
who took me as plunder from some foreign campaign
and now dishonours me. I have no mother, no brother,
no kin to turn to, to shelter me from shame.
So I shall ask this one favour from you.
if I can think of any way, any plan,
to make my husband pay for all this hurt,
will you keep my secret?
A woman is too timid, too weak, they say, for war
— would faint at the sight of battle-steel –
but when she is injured in love,
when her bed has been defiled, she’ll have your blood.
(Euripides 15-16)
What does Medea reveal about herself in this speech which functions as a “confession” (of sorts) to the
Chorus? Does this adequately explain or justify the tragic events that unfold? Please include specific
examples from the text to support your discussion.
In the Introduction to his translation of Euripides’s Medea, Robin Robertson writes:
The subversion of stereotypes begins with the two central characters and percolates throughout the play, as
Euripides steers us through moral collapse and emotional torment. We come to Jason through his legend: as
the young intrepid hero and civilised Greek. Through the course of the drama the husband and hero is
exposed – to the undoubted discomfort of the male Athenian audience – as a calculating liar: insensitive, vain
and complacent…
Medea is quickly established, though, as a recognizably human figure: a resolute, devoted wife and mother;
victim of broken vows, deceived and humiliated by her husband. The importance she places on loyalty, honour
and status – and on the necessity for revenge when these three things have been denied her – mark Medea
the outsider as almost more “masculine” than Jason the Greek. What we are witnessing is a subtle transferal
of gender rules. Jason, the failing hero, is scheming, shallow and – increasingly – passive; Medea, on the
other hand, is empowered, ascendant and thoroughly active.
Discuss this provocative interpretation of the central characters in Euripides’s drama. (If you have had the
opportunity to watch Lars von Trier’s Medea, you can also refer to the presentation of Jason and Medea in
Lars von Trier’s powerful film version of the tragic story). Please remember to include specific examples
from the text(s) to support your discussion.
WEEK TEN: Euripides’ Medea (xi-xxi; 5-79) (October 25)
Some Introductory Notes
1.Brief Introductory Comments
This week we find ourselves immersed in the world of Classical Greek myth and legend, and we
encounter the very disturbing story of Medea, or perhaps we should say, the story of Jason and
Medea. The story as well as these two central characters are well-known within the context of
Classical Mythology. Jason is a hero, and his main claim to fame (at least before this particular story)
is his leadership of the expedition that retrieved the Golden Fleece. Jason was the captain of the
Argo, the ship full of other heroes (the Argonauts) who were more than willing participants in this
wonderful adventure that would bring back the Golden Fleece from Colchis to Greece (specifically,
Iolcis, one of the Greek kingdoms or City-States). Heroes need their quests, their adventures, in
order to be heroes: All for glory, boys! (as King Leonidas encouraged his men on the eve of the great
battle against the Persians that would result in death for each of these 300 Greek heroes – at least,
this is how King Leonidas was able to rouse up his men’s will to fight in the film 300!!). This week, and
also next week, we will be reading the story of Jason and Medea as it is presented in two texts:
Euripides tragic drama: Medea
Ovid’s poetry: Medea’s Letter to Jason
Let’s plan to spend some quality time on Ovid’s “Letter from Medea to Jason” this week as well as
Euripides’ drama. You may have noticed that there’s a second letter from Ovid’s Heroides (this is a
Latin term that means “heroines”), another letter: “Hypsipyle’s Letter to Jason.” I’ve indicated that this
is extra reading, so if you don’t have time, you don’t really need to read it through. Hypsipyle is
Jason’s first wife, the wife he unceremoniously dumps for the Colchian princess, Medea, who
provides the crucial assistance he needs to succeed in retrieving the Golden Fleece. This letter from
the very angry first wife (who also has several children with Jason) is, of course, dramatic and
passionate, and is worth reading if you have a little extra time.
It is necessary to know something of the “backstory” or the history of the relationship between Jason
and Medea in order to appreciate what is happening in Euripides’ drama, from the very opening lines.
The translator of the edition of Medea we are using for our class, Robin Robertson, has written an
excellent Introduction (xi-xxi), and you do need to read this before you start reading the play itself.
Robertson includes a short, but very good summary of the “backstory” that will give you more than
enough information to follow and understand the events that unfold in Euripides’ powerful and tragic
drama (xiii-xvi). You may have also noticed that I have posted another text on D2L (Apollodorus’
“Jason and the Argonauts”), and this will also provide the necessary information you need to follow
Euripides’ dramatic account. However, this is also “extra reading,” so please don’t feel that you have
to read this longer version of the “backstory,” Robertson’s introductory material should be sufficient.
As you read the backstory, check the maps posted on D2L. The first map shows the arduous journey
taken by the Argo – and the Argonauts – to reach Colchis and the Golden Fleece, but of course, this
is the adventure that brings Jason and Medea together. The second map shows exactly where the
Kingdom of Colchis is situated — on the shores of the Black Sea, a great distance from the
Mediterranean and the City-States where Jason and the various Argonauts live. Remember that
Jason originally comes from Iolcis, and he is, in fact, the rightful to the throne of this particular area.
But (check the backstory for details), Jason and Medea are not able to settle here, and end up in
Corinth, another Greek City-State, instead. By this stage, Jason and Medea are married, and they
have two young sons together.
2.Euripides’ Medea
Not much is known about Euripides who wrote this very disturbing tragic drama. However, he’s
thought to have lived from about 484-407 BCE, and is one of the very talented playwrights who lived
and worked in Athens, developing the type of drama we know today as tragedy. Euripides wrote
Medea, a tragedy of one act, in 431 BCE.
A few points to bear in mind as you read and think about Euripides’ Medea.
All characters in Greek drama were played by men, and all actors wore masks
Most of the action takes place elsewhere, and not on the stage in front of us. Characters meet
on the stage to discuss the action and its effects
The number of characters in Medea is limited, but the Chorus (which in this play is supposed
to be a “chorus” of Corinthian women – although these women would have all been played by
men) plays a very important role throughout the play. The Chorus always seems to be
present onstage (or is present for most of the play), and communicates with individual
characters (eg. Medea), or offers commentary, analysis and interpretation of the events that
are unfolding.
The stage is simple and bare – no complicated scenery or stage design necessary (except in
the final scene when Medea makes her escape by being carried through the air by the chariot
of the Sun-god, Helios). In the case of Medea, everything is happening on the stage in front of
Medea’s house. Medea and other characters (the nurse, the tutor, the boys) either enter the
house (and leave the stage), or come out of the house into the main stage area.
If the action – i.e. violence, the murder of the boys – happens offstage (inside Medea’s
house), the action that takes place on the stage in front of the audience is language: Medea
speaks with the Nurse, or Jason, or the Chorus. Medea murders her boys inside her house;
the audience hears the children scream and cry out for mercy, but we do not see the
violence, we do not see the mother murder her sons. After the murder, the audience
witnesses the final confrontation between the Medea and Jason, and we watch while Medea
is transported out of Corinth to the safety of Athens (where she will stay with King Aegeus)
with the bodies of her dead children.
Notice the power of language in Medea. We do not see the mother murder her children, and
we do not witness the excruciating deaths of the Corinthian princess, Jason’s new bride, and
King Creon, her father. But the verbal exchanges between Jason and Medea are violent and
provocative; we do not need to witness the bloody murder of children to understand the
violence, the explosive rage that has been festering in the woman who has been deserted by
the man she loves, and who is the father of her children. We listen to the exchange between
Medea and Jason and we witness emotion that is extreme, excessive, and out of control. We
witness madness, perhaps.
The play opens in medias res, or “in the middle of things.” When the play opens, the drama
is already well underway; there is no beginning, no gradual development, we find ourselves in
the middle of the action, which in this case means the breakdown of the relationship between
Jason and Medea. The play covers approximately 12-24 hours (at the most), the shocking
climax as this marriage comes violently undone. There is no closure, and no resolution.
3.Medea, Princess of Colchis
Notice that the title of the play is Medea, it is not Jason and Medea, it is simply, Medea. The play is
about her, it’s her story. Since we are dealing with an ancient patriarchal society, this focus on a
woman may seem unexpected, surprising. We need to understand the situation in which Medea finds
herself, and to be able to do this, we need to ask: Who is Medea? The situation is complicated. We
need to know the backstory, the past, in order to understand the present, and also Medea’s current
state of mind. Think about the following:
Where is Medea from? How has she come to be living in Corinth?
What do we know about Medea’s family? Yes, she’s a princess, a member of the royal family
of Colchis, but we need to bear in mind that Medea has supernatural connections. Her
grandfather is Helios, the Sun-god (How might this lineage manifest itself? What might we
associate with the sun that is evidenced in Medea?), and her aunt is Circe, the
goddess/enchantress (in Homer’s Odyssey, Circe transforms Odysseus’ men to pigs).
Why does King Creon want Medea gone from Corinth? What is he worried about, or perhaps
even fear about Medea? At this point, Medea herself mentions her “reputation.” What is
Medea’s reputation? How do the inhabitants of Corinth view Medea? What do they call her?
Are the Corinthians correct in their perceptions of Medea?
Who is Jason? We know from the backstory that he is a prince, and supposedly, a hero who has had
adventures, and accomplished heroic feats. But the story of the Golden Fleece raises another
question: Would there have been Jason, the hero who retrieved the Golden Fleece, without Medea?
What (if anything) does Jason owe Medea?
Marie Hines Cowan. Medea (2012)
Valentine Cameron. Medea the Sorceress (1880)
During the play, Jason confronts his former wife and the mother of his two sons, and as we observe
this confrontation and listen carefully to the exchange, consider the following:
What do we learn about this man? What is he like? How does he treat the mother of his
children, and why does he treat her in this manner?
Why has Jason decided to walk out on his marriage with Medea? What exactly does Jason
Jason denies that Medea helped him significantly in his quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
Does Jason undervalue the assistance provided by Medea? Does Jason owe Medea more
respect, appreciation and thanks for her role in helping him achieve his heroic status?
How does Jason rationalize or justify his decision to leave Medea and marry the Corinthian
princess? He seems to expect that Medea will accept this logic too, without question; but how
reasonable and how credible is this justification? What does this reveal about Jason?
John Waterhouse. Jason and Medea (1907)
5.Subversive Aspects of Euripides’ Medea
In his Introduction, Robertson offers the following insights that readers should consider very carefully:
Medea is a revenge tragedy that remains uniquely disturbing because it is so deeply subversive.
Throughout the drama, at every level, Euripides undermines stereotypes and preconceptions, and
manipulates our responses to the characters and their actions as deftly as Medea herself. This
destabilisation of expectation, combined with his close attention gender conflict and racial “otherness”
and his telling ironies and psychological insights, come together to make a play that shocked
contemporary audiences and still feels shocking today.
We need to investigate the suggestion that this play is subversive, especially when it comes to gender
and racial matters. Medea herself, our central character, is the embodiment of this subversion. She
may be the granddaughter of Helios, the Sun-god, but she is still a woman, and she is a very clever
woman, with skills that set her apart from most other women: she is familiar with the “dark arts” that
identify her as a “sorcerer” or, as some call her, a “witch.” But Medea in Corinth is a woman in exile, a
woman without a homeland, and without a family: she is alone, totally alone. She cannot go home,
she no longer has a home or family available to her. The Greeks are chauvinistic, convinced that
everything Greek is superior in every way; everything else is inferior, in fact, barbaric. Medea, from
the far east, from Colchis, is also the embodiment of “otherness.” She’s an exotic, strange, and
dangerous woman. She looks different, speaks and behaves differently, she is different. And she’s a
This bleak modernity is reinforced by the attention paid to Medea as an outsider: both as a woman in a
patriarchal society and a “barbarian” in “civilized” Greece. She is isolated from her own native land and
family and has sacrificed her lineage for Jason and his country – and lineage in fifth-century Greece was
a security more sought after than any love. Doubly disadvantaged as a female and a foreigner, she has
the further burden of complete dependency on her husband. When he exploits her vulnerability and
abandons her for a younger woman, therefore, that betrayal announces her complete social annulment.
Not only that: his impending marriage will also end her sons’ lineage. By overturning effortlessly the
gender and racial stereotypes – of the ethical Greek male and the perfidious female barbarian –
Euripides crucially shifts our sympathy to Medea.
Perhaps the most shocking and the most subversive element of Euripides’ presentation of this
foreigner, this barbarian woman, is the way in which she is designated as more heroic, even more
“masculine” than her husband, a famous Greek hero:
The importance she places on loyalty, honor and status – and on the necessity for revenge when these
three things have been denied her – mark Medea the outsider as almost more heroic, more “masculine”
than Jason the Greek. What we are witnessing is a trasferral of gender roles. Jason, the failing hero, is
scheming, shallow and – increasingly – passive: Medea, on the other hand is empowered, ascendant
and thoroughly active.
This is the very core of the subversion that permeates Euripides’ Medea. Perhaps Medea is not quite
so feminine after all; perhaps she is more heroic, more masculine than her husband, the Greek. This
allows us to appreciate the subversive elements of this play, and the complexity of both the heroine,
and the drama named for this foreign woman. This is an ancient text, over two thousand years old,
and yet the sense of contemporary relevance is powerful. Now read through the text itself very
carefully, be alert for these subversive elements, as well as the significance and effects of these. The
main character, our barbarian Medea, is especially complicated, beautifully written and presented in
Euripides’ tragic drama. She is just like one of us, and yet, as the granddaughter of the sun-god,
Helios, she is so much more; she is dangerous, she is fierce, and a force to be reckoned with.
Frederick Sandys. Medea (1868)
Evelyn de Morgan. Medea (1886)
Pelagio Pelagi. Medea Killing Her Children (1810-1815)
Alphonse Mucha. Medea (1868)
William Wetmore Story. Medea (1865-68)
WEEK ELEVEN: Ovid’s Heroides: Medea’s Letter to Jason (Nov 2)
Some Introductory Notes
1.Brief Introductory Comments
We continue our encounter with the very disturbing story of Medea, but we move from the tragic
drama of Euripides to the poetry of the Roman poet, Ovid, born in 43 BCE, and died in 17 CE. Ovid
(full name: Publius Ovidius Naso) was a prolific and versatile poet who enjoyed success and fame
during his own lifetime. This week we’re reading a section of his Heroides (or “Heroines”), a text
consisting of letters written by “heroines” to the men who have deserted them. The letter that we’ll be
reading and discussing is written by Medea to Jason, and it’s obvious that this is a letter written in the
heat of passion. Each of the letters in Ovid’s Heroides gives the heroine a voice; she speaks directly
to the man who has caused her emotional distress, and this time, we listen to the heroine speak about
her situation, her pain, in her own words, in her own voice. With his Heroides, Ovid offers these
heroines of myth and legend the opportunity to speak for themselves, about themselves, and this is
unique during the Classical period.
Ettare Ferrari. Ovid (1887)
2.Medea’s Letter to Jason
Euripides’ drama opens in medias res: the Nurse is on stage and is speaking to the audience,
providing the necessary background (backstory) to this critical moment in the unfolding of the tragedy
that is now escalating. Jason has left Medea, and has married the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth.
Ovid’s Heroides also opens in medias res: Medea addresses Jason directly, remembering details of
everything that she did for him so he could achieve heroic status, so he could become and be
remembered and celebrated as Jason the Greek hero who successfully retrieved the Golden Fleece
from Colchis. Medea’s memories provide the “backstory,” the background details that the Nurse
provides in Euripides’ drama. But, of course, in this text, everything that is remembered and retold is
from Medea’s perspective, and colored with her passion and her pain, past and present. Medea
reveals herself very clearly as she reveals the situation that first brought husband and wife together,
and then the current developments that have thrown the same husband and wife apart. By the end of
the letter — and there’s no clear or formal ending, the speaking just breaks off — it’s all too obvious
that Medea is busy planning revenge on the fickle Jason, and, in fact, all those who are participants in
this drama that has pulled apart those whom marriage vows and then children brought together.
My rage will give birth to massive menace.
I’ll go where rage takes me. I may regret what I do,
but I also regret looking out for my unfaithful husband.
I’ll leave that to the god who ow has my thoughts in a turmoil.
My mind is definitely devising something drastic.
(lines 208-212)
It’s not a long letter (not nearly as long as Euripides’ one act tragedy), but it’s long enough; we are
given insight into the speaker’s personality, the speaker’s present pain, as well as the past that
brought the speaker together with the husband and father of her children, who decided to desert her.
We do meet Jason in Euripides’ play, and we witness several encounters between the former
husband and wife. Jason is physically present on the stage, and the arguments are explosive; we
sense escalating and immediate danger. It happens, and the closing moments of the play show
Medea making her escape from Corinth in the Sun-god’s winged chariot, holding the bodies of her
two murdered sons. In Medea’s letter, however, danger is palpable, and violence feels imminent. It
hasn’t yet happened, but it is about to happen. We know from the “backstory” exactly what this
woman is capable of doing and accomplishing when inspired, or provoked, and those of us familiar
with Euripides’ version know exactly what she will do.
3.Medea’s memories, self-understanding, regrets…
As you read through Medea’s letter, think about the following:
How does Medea present herself as she confronts Jason about their current situation?
How does Medea remember Jason, as he was “back then” and how does she speak of this
same man, now? Is there a disjunct between her perceptions, her memories of then, and her
perceptions of now?
Does Medea blame this man who was her husband for her current predicament,
unreasonably? Or, does Medea appear to have good reason(s) for blaming Jason?
Eugene Delacroix. Medea About to Kill Her Children (1838)
Even from the opening lines of her letter, Medea seems to regret her initial meeting with the beautiful
blond-haired stranger from Greece:
Why did I find your blond hair and good looks
and your charming, lying tongue all too attractive?
But I did.
(lines 11-13)
It was then that I saw you and found out what you were;
that was the start of my mental collapse.
I saw you and died, I burned with a fire new to me,
Like a pine-torch burning on an altar to might gods.
You were handsome, I couldn’t resist what was fated
For me, and my eyes were ravished by yours.
You realized, you traitor. Who succeeds in hiding love?
It flares up clearly, giving itself away.
(lines 31-37)
Then, as the letter moves rapidly towards its ending, our speaker launches into the following:
I’m kneeling at your feet without hesitation.
If you despise me, show some thoughts for our boys:
a stepmother will be more cruel, a terror to sons of mine.
They really look like you, I’m touched by the resemblance,
and whenever I see them, my eyes fill with tears.
I beg you, by the gods, by my grandfather-the-Sun,
by the boys (our mutual pledges) and all I’ve done for you:
Be my husband again (I gave up so much for that, madly),
be true to your word and repay my help to you.
I’m not asking you to face bulls and warriors or to use
your powers to conquer and quiet a serpent;
I want you – I’ve earned you, you gave yourself to me
and I became a parent along with you.
(lines 185-198)
Medea begs Jason to be my husband again. This is shocking, suggesting that our speaker is
experiencing panic as she confronts the future as a woman alone, without husband, without family,
without support. Even this woman, who (as we know) is no ordinary woman, who has special skills,
who is the granddaughter of the Sun-god Helios, even this woman shows signs of fear and trepidation
as she faces an unknown future alone.
4. Gender in Medea’s letter to Jason
We noticed (and discussed) the very deliberate subversion and inversion of gender stereotypes in
Euripides’ dramatic version of Medea’s story. Here (Euripides’ Medea), we see Medea who is
determined and focused, who is able to strategize, plan and carry out these plans, alone. She is
intelligent, creative, driven, and passionate. Yet even Euripides’ Medea shows signs of excessive
emotional distress that could very well result in her own death:
Oh, let a flash of lightning pierce this skull!
What use is there in living?
Give me the freedom of death,
so I can leave behind this life I hate.
(lines 145-148)
As we know, it is not Medea who dies. Her two sons, her former husband’s new bride and father-inlaw, these will all die as a result of Medea’s passionate urge to inflict pain on Jason, so that he suffers
just as she suffers. If Medea manifests an early display of weakness that might seem (stereotypically)
passive and feminine, it doesn’t dominate or control and ultimately characterize Medea. She is the
killer at the end of the play. She makes plans, executes these, and in the closing moments of the play,
she escapes the turmoil she has created in Corinth, and will find a future for herself in Athens living
under the protection of King Aegeus.
In Ovid’s Heroides, Medea also demonstrates that she is determined and driven, and very capable of
executing plans that are bold, aggressive, and violent. This Medea seems very aware that she is
guilty of violent crimes in the past – which, she says, she committed for the man she loved, Jason:
Though others criticize me, you must praise me:
I’ve been forced to do wrong so often because of you.
(lines 131-132)
This same Medea exhibits at least some awareness that her current situation, her current suffering,
could be construed as some sort of retribution or justified punishment for the crimes she committed in
the past (for example, treason against her native land and her father (the King of Colchis), the murder
of her brother, the murder of Jason’s Uncle (Pelias) who had usurped the Kingdom of Iolcus, and so
on). But Medea’s thinking doesn’t stay stuck in this particular trajectory; she moves back to the
excessive emotions, the sheer rage, that drive her to the violence that she promises in the final lines:
My rage will give birth to massive menace.
I’ll go where my rage takes me. I may regret what I do,
but I also regret looking out for my unfaithful husband.
I’ll leave that to the god who now has my thoughts in turmoil.
My mind is definitely devising something drastic.
(lines 208-212)
These final lines confirm the fact that this Medea, like Euripides’ Medea, is not the stereotypical
woman. It is her outrage that drives her to kill, and to kill violently, and in this, Medea seems more
male than female, more masculine than feminine, more heroic than her husband. Jason, in
comparison to his Colchian wife, seems effeminate, ineffectual; poised on the brink of power through
his recent marriage to the Corinthian princess, Jason is feminized once Medea executes her plan to
punish him. He will have nothing left, and nowhere to go: no future, no family and no support. Jason
will be a broken man, as Medea rises up in the Sun-god’s chariot to start life yet again in Athens, with
King Aegeus.
Bernard Safran. Medea (1964)
It’s worth thinking very carefully about the following startling lines from Ovid’s Medea to understand
who and what she is:
So long as I have a sword and fire and magic potions
no enemy of Medea will escape vengeance!
(lines 181-182)
This is Medea as a “warrior woman” or virago! Or, quite simply, this is Medea masculinized. She seems
to be more man than woman, more masculine than feminine!
Franz Stuck. Medea Contemplating Slaying Her Children
However, in their discussion of the text, our translators do offer a very interesting point that needs to
be considered carefully, and that is the way in which Ovid “defines Medea as feminine by her role as
‘other’” (141).
The poet plays up her aspect as a sorceress and her foreign background, traits that portray the heroine
as strange or different, qualities which ultimately cast Medea in a negative light and, as a result, in a
feminine one. So repeated reference is made to Medea’s use of magic, and her ability or inability or
wield it…
With almost equal frequency Ovid draws attention to Medea’s otherness by allusions to her foreign
background. In the opening line of the letter Medea calls herself a princess of Colchis, pointing to her
status as a foreigner head on and suggesting that, even as this second-rate outsider, she still felt
obliged to help Jason.
Medea does draw attention to the fact that she is a foreigner in Corinth, and an exile from her beloved
homeland, Colchis. She is very aware of the way in which Jason, and all Greeks view foreigners:
I am now a barbarian in your eyes, after everything,
I now seem to you a pauper, and malignant;
(lines 105-6)
But then there is the matter of Medea’s excessive emotions, and this might also be another way in
which Medea might be categorized as “feminine,” perhaps even stigmatized as the excessively
emotional woman, the “hysterical female.”
Medea is irrational, mentioning her rage twice and claiming that her thoughts are in turmoil. In her eyes,
Jason is not only a bastard but also ungrateful and unfaithful. Lastly, she is menacing, threatening that
what she is preparing is going to be horrific (in her words, massive and drastic). Ovid has built Medea
up as heroic, more so even than Jason, so we may have anticipated a close with a masculinized
Medea, but the poet quickly dispels this notion, playfully offering up an extremely off-putting, negative,
and accordingly, incredible feminine portrayal of Medea.
5.But is Medea a feminist??
In the translators’ discussion of Medea’s Letter to Jason (the translators are: Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget
Reeves and Sarah Parker), we find the suggestion that Medea might be interpreted as some sort of
“feminist,” or perhaps we should say, “proto-feminist” (pp.140-141). This discussion is very brief, and,
unfortunately, is not explored or explained in any great depth. This suggestion, however, is made in
the context of the translators’ discussion of Medea’s presentation in Heroides xii (Medea’s Letter to
Jason), and the gender subversion encountered in Greek drama, including Euripides’ Medea. It would
be a good idea to take a few minutes to read these pages carefully (in fact, it would be a good idea to
read the translators’ commentary on Medea’s Letter to Jason in its entirety!).
6.Medea the childkiller
How do we respond to Medea’s acts of murderous rage and revenge, especially the murder of her
children? Think about the way in which our culture responds to women who kill their children – is
Medea any different from these women? What happens when a father kills his children? Is his crime
any different from that of a mother who murders her children? The following are comments from our
translators about Medea. Think about these comments carefully.
Medea is a pathetic creature, treated poorly by her husband, abandoned After everything that she has
given up and done for him, do you sympathize with her knowing that what she is about to do is so
awful? Do you suppose that killing one’s children was as horrible a crime in ancient times as it is today?
And what do you think specifically of a mother being the culprit?
Does this final crime suggest that Medea, the mother, is crazy, at least crazy enough to kill her own
children? Or is she simply a cold-blooded heartless killer?
Marilyn Belford. Medea and Sons (2007)

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