Harming Your Friends to Harm Your Enemies: Reading Achilles in Euripides’ Medea

§1.1 Sophocles’ unique presentation of the hero as explained by Bernard Knox in The Heroic Temper provides an engaging and convincing model for Medea as a hero, but we can look even farther back in literary history to the influences of another, older, heroic tradition originating in Homer on Euripides’ heroine.[1] Scholars such as Helene Foley have mentioned connections between Medea and an older heroic tradition embodied in the Homeric Achilles in their work without exploring them in depth.[2] There are a number of similarities between Achilles as he appears in the Iliad —the ultimate hero—and Medea, both in circumstance, in the language used to describe them, and in the language used to describe their relationships with others. All of these components differentiate Achilles from other archaic heroes and their appearance in Medea makes it clear that it is Achilles alone of the Homeric heroes whom Medea is supposed to evoke. Furthermore, Gregory Nagy’s explanation of the Achilles figure and his relationship with Patroclus and the other Achaeans in The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry presents an excellent way of analyzing how Medea’s highly individualistic heroic identity complicates her relationships with those closest to her, specifically her children.

§1.2 Achilles and Medea’s circumstances have a great deal in common even in the absence of any shared linguistic elements. Both have suffered dishonor and betrayal at the hands of those who owe them the most gratitude and respect and both characters react to this dishonor by taking revenge with extreme measures that, while ultimately successful in harming those who dishonored them, also cause pain to themselves and those closest to them. These similarities are then strengthened as Achilles and Medea’s reactions and relationships are described in almost matching language.

§1.3 At the beginning of their respective works, both heroes are characterized by the extremity of their obstinacy and the damage it will cause.The proem of the Iliad explains how Achilles’ rage and his refusal to engage in war on behalf of the Achaeans is οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,/ πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν/ ἡρωων “destructive, which created countless sorrows to the Achaeans and sent many strong souls of heroes to Hades.” [3] Similarly, the Nurse in the opening of Medea says δέδοικα δ’ αὐτὴν μή τι βουλεύσῃ νέον·/ βαρεῖα γὰρ φρήν, οὐδ’ ἀνέξεται κακῶς /πάσχουσ’· ἐγᾦδα τήνδε, δεμαίνω τέ νιν “but I fear her, lest she should plan something unexpected; for her mind is hard, and she will not endure being treated badly; I know this one and I fear her” (Medea 37-39). These beginnings show the alarming force and destructive elements of Achilles’ and Medea’s natures. This impression is furthered by similes in which Medea and Achilles are compared to immoveable rocks or vicious wild animals, specifically lions, the animal traditionally associated with the figure of the hero.

§1.4 The Nurse compares Medea to hard rock and a lioness in the opening of the play before Medea’s entrance, creating an expectation that Medea’s response to being dishonored will be like that of Achilles, who is described with comparable similes in the Iliad. The manner in which the Nurse describes Medea during the first 213 lines of the play is essential to the reader’s understanding of Medea’s history and character. Medea is cast as a forceful, stubborn, and dangerous woman: a woman who is best compared to forces of nature and wild beasts. These terms closely echo those used to describe Achilles. As Deborah Boedecker argues, the Nurse’s claim that Medea ὡς δὲ πέτρος ἢ θαλάσσιος/ κλύδων ἀκούει νουθετουμένη φίλων “hears the advice of her friends as does a rock or the surf of the sea” (Medea 28-9) closely echoes Patroclus’ complaint to Achilles in Iliad 16, when the Achaean ships are about to be burned by the Trojans, that γλαυκὴ δέ σε τίκτε θάλασσα/ πέτραι τ’ ἠλίβατοι, ὅτι τοι νόος ἐστὶν ἀπηνής, “you [Achilles] were born from the silvery sea or craggy rocks, since your mind is so harsh” (Iliad 16.34-5). The similar language in these two passages demonstrates that Medea’s obstinacy has the same strange and terrifying quality for those near her as Achilles’ near-divine heroic wrath does.[4] This shared simile also prepares the reader to interpret other similes used to describe Medea’s rage in the context of Achilles’ actions.

§1.5 Achilles’ rage, once he does rejoin the battle at the end of the Iliad, is described twice in four books as like that of a lion, emphasizing the vicious savagery with which he pursues and kills the Trojans and mangles the body of Hector.[5] Thus when an enraged Medea is described by the words καίτοι τοκάδος δέργμα λείανης/ ἀποταυροῦται, “indeed she looks with a bull-like glare as a lioness with her cubs,” the reader refers back with alarm to the ruthless images of Achilles in battle, although Medea has yet to take action (Medea 187-8).[6] The impression that Medea’s lioness qualities make her likely to behave in the same way as Achilles when dishonored recurs at the end of the play, during which Jason twice accuses Medea of being like a lioness for killing her children—a comparison Medea accepts. As Medea flies away from Corinth with the bodies of her children, Jason is left devastated and utterly alone, his life in shambles thanks to Medea’s inhuman rage. Jason’s descriptions of Medea as a παιδοφόνου τῆσδε λεαίνης “this child-killing lioness,” (Medea 1407) and a λέαιναν, οὐ γυναῖκα “lioness, not a woman,”(Medea 1342) not only bring back to mind the Nurse’s speech and the general connection of Achilles to lion imagery, but also one particular simile from Iliad 18 in which Achilles is described as standing over the body of Patroclus,

ὥς τε λὶς ἠυγένειος,
ᾧ ῥά θ’ ὑπὸ σκύμνους ἐλαφηβόλος ἁρπάσῃ ἀνὴρ
ὕλης ἐκ πυκινῆς· ὁ δέ τ’ ἄχνυται ὕστερος ἐλθών,
πολλὰ δέ τ’ ἄγκε’ ἐπῆλθε μετ’ ἀνέρος ἴχνι’ ἐρευνῶν,
εἴ ποθεν ἐξεύροι· μάλα γὰρ δριμὺς χόλος αἱρεῖ·
as a well-maned lion,
whose cubs a hunter just snatched away by stealth
from the dense woods; the one who mourns returning too late,
and pursues the man’s footsteps, searching,
in the hope that he would ever find him,
for exceedingly piercing anger overpowers him

Iliad 18.318-22.

This description of Achilles as a lion mourning over his cubs is vividly recreated at the end of Medea, where Medea the lioness is indeed mourning her children, literally standing over their dead bodies in the chariot, keeping them from her enemies. Whereas in the Iliad simile the actions of the lion deprived of his cubs look ahead to Achilles’ actions avenging Patroclus, the lioness references at the end of Medea echo the Iliad simile and remind the reader that the very action that avenges Medea on her enemies is also the one that causes her the pain of losing her children.

§1.6 The comparison between this Achilles simile in Iliad 18 and Jason’s description of Medea as a παιδοφόνου τῆσδε λεαίνης “child-killing lioness” also reflects the complication of how Medea is avenged through the same act that causes her to mourn—through infanticide—whereas Achilles is avenged after mourning (Medea 1407). While it may seem backwards to pair the earlier image in which Medea is a lioness protecting her cubs to the image of Achilles as a murdering lion and then pair the image of the murdering Medea lioness with the protective Achilles lion later on, the context in which these similes occur demonstrates how they suit this unlikely pairing. When the Nurse refers to Medea as a lioness with her cubs, she is explaining how ferocious Medea could become after Jason’s betrayal. A threatened mother lion is one of the most dangerous possible animals, and one that if further provoked, could attack and kill. This image then clearly creates an echo back to the images of Achilles as a murderous lion—Medea the lioness with cubs has the potential to become as deadly as Achilles the lion, killing his enemies in battle with similar savagery.

§1.7 Context is equally important to understanding the relationship between the extended simile from Iliad 18 and Jason’s description of Medea as both a “child-killing lioness” and a λέαιναν, οὐ γυναῖκα “lioness, not a woman” (Medea 1342). Jason’s attack poses the difficulty of directly blaming Medea for killing their children—it brings the act of murder to the forefront as the primary lioness association, not the association of a lioness as an aggressive protector of her cubs. But when taken in context, this description shows us that Medea in Helios’ chariot, understood as a lioness, is in fact standing above and protecting her children’s bodies, from the Corinthians and from Jason. Moreover, although Medea is responsible for her children’s death, at this moment she is mourning them, just as the lion from Iliad 18 mourns over his cubs before seeking vengeance. Medea’s posture in this closing scene makes a distinctive connection to this image of Achilles, compressing the simile from a series of sequential events—the cubs are murdered, the lion mourns, lion seeks revenge—into one event and one short simile—the cubs are murdered, simultaneously achieving revenge, and causing mourning. While these sets of similes can also be effectively read by a reverse pairing—of Achilles murderous in battle with Medea the child-murdering lioness and of Achilles with cubs with Medea with cubs—the pairing that I presented above presents a richer picture that takes into account the context in which the similes arise and also reflects the way in which Medea’s relationship with her children both complicates and compresses the model of Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus, discussed next. This comparison of Achilles to a bereaved, avenging lion and Medea to an avenged, mourning lioness gains further credence when one realizes that the complex, close relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is mirrored in Medea’s relationship with her children.

§1.8 A final set of similes from the end of the Iliad suggests another way in which a reader can compare Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus to Medea’s with her children. At the opening of Iliad 16, when Patroclus begs Achilles to relent and help the Achaeans, Achilles asks him,

τίπτε δεδάκρυσαι, Πατρόκλεις, ἠΰτε κούρη
νηπίη, ἥ θ’ ἅμα μητρί θέουσ’ ἀνελέσθαι ἀνώγει
εἱανοῦ ἁπτομένη, καὶ τ’ ἐσσυμένην κατερύκει,
δακρυόεσσα δέ μιν ποτιδέρκεται, ὄφρ’ ἀνέληται;
τῇ ἴκελος, Πάτροκλε, τέρεν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβεις.
Why have you been crying, Patroclus, as a baby girl
who running by her mother asks to be lifted up
clinging to her fine robe, and holds her, hurrying, back
but crying the girl looks at her, so that she takes her up?
Like her, Patroclus, you let fall down soft tears

Iliad 16.7-11,

casting himself and Patroclus in the roles of a mother and child. This occurs again in Iliad 23, after Patroclus’ death, when Achilles’ mourning is described ὡς δὲ πατὴρ οὗ παιδὸς ὀδύρεται ὀστέα καίων/ νυμφίου, ὅς τε θανὼν δειλοὺς ἀκάχησε τοκῆας “as a father who mourns while burning the bones of his son, a bridegroom, who dying grieves his wretched parents” (Iliad 23.222-223). These two similes, which place Achilles and Patroclus directly in the roles of a parent and child, reinforce the lion and cubs simile discussed above by demonstrating the intensity of their connection. Explaining Achilles’ and Patroclus’ affection for one another in terms of family relationships, and not just animal emotion, sets a precedent within the Iliad for locating their heroic relationship in the domestic sphere, as Medea eventually does.

§1.9 Gregory Nagy provides an essential framework for understanding Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship in his explanation of Achilles’ name and of the Achilles figure as he interacts with Patroclus. Nagy also explains how the expectations of relationships founded on ties of φιλία (‘friendship,’ ‘love,’ ‘affection’) influence Achilles’ patterns of behavior. All together, Nagy’s arguments for an etymology connecting Achilles’ name to grief and his analysis of the unique nature of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, founded as it is on ties of φιλία, accounts for Achilles’ extreme actions at the end of the Iliad and for how those actions fulfill an archaic expectation that a hero is someone who causes pain to himself, his friends, and his enemies. Nagy’s arguments highlight the commonalities between Achilles’ complex personal relationship with Patroclus and Medea’s relationship with her children, explaining how those relationships relate to the conception of the archaic hero. Nagy supports Leonard Palmer’s etymology for Achilles’ name, which claims that when the name Akhil(l)eús is derived it means someone “whose laós has ákhos.” Nagy reasons that the concept of causing grief to a people (in a military context) is central to Achilles’ identity and role in Homer’s epic in two ways: he causes ἄχος (‘grief’) to the Achaeans through abstaining from war in the first half of the epic, and he causes ἄχος to the Trojans through his anger at Patroclus’ death in the latter part of the epic.[7] Patroclus’ central role in transforming Achilles’ anger is inextricably linked to his role as the one Achaean φίλτατος (‘dearest’) to Achilles.[8] It is Patroclus’ death that turns Achilles from the best of the Achaean warriors into a god-like force so powerful that only a river can attempt to stop his rampage.[9]

§1.10 Nagy explains why Patroclus, being most dear to Achilles, provokes Achilles’ transformation and how that sequence of events is foreshadowed in Phoenix’s story concerning Meleager and Cleopatra (a feminine and inverted version of Patroclus’ name).[.10] Phoenix, in attempting to convince Achilles to accept Agamemnon’s gifts and return to the war, tells Achilles the story of Meleager, doing all he can to stress the similarities between the two heroes so that Achilles will not repeat Meleager’s mistakes. As Phoenix explains, Meleager retreated from defending his home city against the Curetes after a family argument, abandoning the war. As his city became more and more desperate, different people beseeched Meleager to give up his anger and rejoin the fight. Beginning with the city elders, Meleager was begged by a variety of people within Aetolia to whom he owed allegiance, including his parents, who were all ὑποσχόμενοι μέγα δῶρον, “promising [Meleager] a great gift” in exchange for his returning to fight—a clear comparison to Agamemnon’s proffered gifts to Achilles (Iliad 9.576). Meleager rejects them all, even ἑταῖροι, /οἵ οἱ κεδνότατοι καὶ φίλτατοι ἦσαν ἁπάντων “his companions in arms, the ones who were most cherished and dearest to him of all” (Iliad 9.585-6). Phoenix tries to draw a comparison between Meleager and his ἑταῖροι and Achilles and himself in order to convince Achilles to relinquish his anger, accept Ἀγαμέμνων /ἄξια δῶρα “Agamemnon’s proper gifts” and return to battle before—like Meleager—he is forced to do so without gaining the glory and prizes formerly offered to him (Iliad 9.260-1). Phoenix has valid reasons for supposing Achilles will react favorably to this comparison, as Achilles called them οἵ μοι σκυζομένῳ περ Ἀχαιῶν φίλτατοι ἐστον “the ones who are dearest to me of the Achaeans, even angry as I am,” but Phoenix errs in drawing a direct comparison between the two passages (Iliad 9.198). In both contexts, the word φίλτατος is qualified and limited to a specific group—in the case of Meleager, to his ἑταῖροι, (‘comrades in arms’), and in the case of Achilles, to the Achaeans who remained with Agamemnon. In neither circumstance is the term applied broadly enough to identify the individual who is in fact the φίλτατος of all to either hero. In the story of Meleager, his true φίλτατος is his wife Cleopatra, and in the story of Achilles, his true φίλτατος is Patroclus. As Meleager can only be moved to action by the words of Cleopatra and by the harm he risks causing her, so Achilles will need to be impelled to action both by the one who is truly φίλτατος to him—Patroclus—and by the harm he causes Patroclus before he will help the Achaeans.

§1.11 This analysis of the way in which Achilles drives the action of the Iliad reinforces an interpretation of the hero as someone who causes grief to himself, his friends, and his enemies. Nagy explains how Achilles fulfills all of these requirements, and gives precedence to the influence that those closest to Achilles have on his actions.[11] It is only through indirectly destroying the person dearest to him that Achilles fully actualizes his κλέος (‘heroic glory’)—it is this action alone that causes sufficient harm to Achilles to motivate him to fully avenge himself on his enemies, the Trojans.

§1.12 A similar, but in some ways simpler, mechanism is at work in Medea; here too the word φίλτατος and those to whom it applies—her children—determine the tragic action and fulfill Medea’s heroic identity. Simpler in that here the act of revenge is collapsed into the same action as the one that causes pain: instead of causing her children’s death and then going out to avenge herself on her enemies in a direct replication of Achilles’ actions, Medea accomplishes both actions in one deed. But Medea is also more complicated in that while Achilles is responsible for Patroclus’ death through inaction, Medea is responsible for the death of her children through her direct action. Her direct culpability makes the harm she causes her friends more gruesome than that Achilles causes Patroclus. While Patroclus’ death may be because of Achilles’ suggestion he join the battle, Achilles himself was not the one to drive a spear into his friend, his hands are not stained with Patroclus’ blood. Medea’s direct culpability may seem to call into question her close ties to her children, but I believe it in fact affirms them. Were her children not dearest to her, their deaths would be of no consequence and would not be a source of heroic pain. It is because they are loved that the children’s death has the needed weight to drive the play and define Medea as a hero. Thus, Nagy’s investigation of how ties of φιλία motivate action in the Iliad is a useful way of tracing the influences of an older heroic tradition in Medea while also creating an interesting lens through which we can interpret her act of infanticide.

§1.13 Medea first mentions the possibility of killing her children during the monologue in which she plans her revenge against Jason, Creon, and his daughter. Immediately after explaining to the chorus how she will kill the princess, Medea moves on to the next step in her plan—the murder of her children. In a place in the speech that expects a description of how Medea will next harm Jason, this revelation comes as a surprise. She does, however, quickly explain why she believes she must kill her children and how that act will most harm Jason. A great deal of Medea’s language in this speech recalls the Sophoclean language discussed earlier, but a prominent description of her children as φιλτάτων to her, in which she elaborates how they are dearest to her, recalls the similar descriptions of Patroclus as φίλτατος to Achilles right after Patroclus’ death.[12]

§1.14 Although φίλος is a fairly common word encompassing a broad range of meanings from ‘friend’ in Classical Greece to ‘one’s own’ in the archaic period, the appearance of the superlative adjective φίλτατος consistently carries the specific meaning of ‘most dear’ and often applies to people who have a significant personal connection, either familial or of close friendship, to the speaker.[13] It is this particular application of φιλία that is pertinent to this argument. This usage of φίλτατος to mean ‘most dear’ is not unique to Homeric epic, but also appears in the works of the early tragedians; furthermore, when φίλτατος does appear in the context of personal relationships in Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides’ Alcestis it often refers to the obligations that those ties impose on the speaker.[.14] The selective usage of φίλτατος for those who are truly ‘most dear’ to the hero figure and the demands of that relationship remain constant in Medea. Out of the nine total appearances of φίλτατος in Medea, six of them refer to Medea’s relationship with her children, impressing upon the reader the importance of the children being φίλτατος to Medea and the importance of that relationship to the action of the play.[15] Medea’s children are the only people in the play who are described as such to Medea; not even when she laments the loss of her family in the opening of the play does she refer to them as φίλτατοι . The specific word φίλτατος brings to mind Achilles’ and Patroclus’ intimate relationship—repeatedly described with the same term—and its heroic context, but the application of φίλτατος to children, not to an adult friend or ally, emphasizes Medea’s maternal identity.

§1.15 This comparison of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to that of Medea and her children creates an effective parallel between the figures of Achilles and Medea that helps the reader understand how an archaic concept of the hero can operate within the maternal sphere. The intensity of Achilles’ and Medea’s respective connections is alike, as is the language with which it is described. But there are also key differences between the two that, in the Medea, compress the heroic pain and revenge presented in the Iliad to better suit the genre and familial context in which Medea operates. Patroclus and the children, unlike Achilles and Medea, do not share a broader identity besides being most dear to a hero. Besides the obvious age difference, the way in which Patroclus is dearest to Achilles differs from the way the children are dearest to Medea. The exclusivity of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship distances them from the more complicated family dynamics in Medea.

§1.16 Several features distinguish the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Not only are they exceptionally close, but because Patroclus is an exile he is severed from other important social ties—he relies entirely upon the favor of Achilles and Peleus. Possibly raised by Peleus, Patroclus has no other family or close friends outside of Achilles. Achilles, although not an exile, is a similarly isolated figure due to his superiority over other Greeks and privileged divine lineage. Thus the bond between these isolated figures stands out and Patroclus is most dear to Achilles alone. Other characters in the Iliad, notably Briseis, have affection for Patroclus, but none of them claim Patroclus as their φίλτατον.[16] This strict exclusivity to the φίλτατος relationship, however, is not present in Medea, for in Medea, another character does claim the children as his φίλτατοι, namely Jason. He laments them with that exact term at the end of the play, calling them his τέκνα φίλτατα “dearest children” (Medea 1397). Medea forcefully rejects this claim because of his betrayal, but her awareness that Jason considered the children most dear to him allows her to take advantage of his mistake in order to avenge herself. The Nurse clarifies how this network of claims to a φίλτατος relationship worked in the past and their current state during her introductory speech. Before, she states, Jason, Medea, and their children were φίλτατοι to one another, νῦν δ’ ἐχθρὰ πάντα καὶ νοσεῖ τὰ φίλτατα “but now everything is hostile and the things that were most dear are diseased,” (Medea 16). So while Jason may once have had a legitimate claim to the children as his φίλτατοι, his abandonment of Medea and his children to marry the Corinthian princess has violated that relationship and made it diseased. The chorus and Aegeus further affirm this perspective in their conversations with Medea.[17]

§1.17 Jason disagrees, arguing that he made his plans with his children in mind and that he wanted them to be raised like princes, not outcasts.[18] As unconvincing and unsupported as his argument is, it remains essential to Medea’s plans that Jason still considers his children his φίλτατοι. If Jason did not value his children, their death would be of no consequence to him and Medea’s suffering would be in vain. This added layer of complexity to her relationship with her children, and the fact that she is not the only one to claim them as most dear is at the center of her revenge and realized heroic identity. Because the children are claimed as most dear by both of their parents, Medea causes pain to herself, her friends, and her enemies when she avenges herself upon Jason, whereas Achilles must take multiple steps to seek vengeance. Patroclus is not most dear to anyone but Achilles, and thus his death causes deep pain to Achilles alone, but the death of Medea’s children instantaneously causes pain to all who consider them most dear, her friends and enemies alike. This adjustment to the relationship between φίλτατοι in the Iliad means that Euripides is able to implement a relationship and evoke a major heroic figure from epic in his characterization of Medea without losing the intense and concentrated action necessary for tragedy. The distinction between the two φίλτατος relationships does not weaken the association between Achilles’ use of the word to describe Patroclus and Medea’s use of it for her children, it shows Euripides engaging with and manipulating a source in a sophisticated way to suit his needs.

§1.18 The use of φίλτατος to describe the relationships of a character who shares many other traits with Achilles—and who likewise will cause the greatest possible harm to herself by harming those who are φίλτατοι to her—creates a strong connection to the Iliad, enabling us as readers to draw favorable comparisons between the actions of Achilles towards Patroclus and those of Medea towards her children. These points of comparison between Achilles and Medea allow us to see that Medea’s infanticide is not the irrational vengeance of a jealous wife, it is more complicated, it is a deliberate heroic action that is driven by the power of the connections of love that join Medea to her children. Because the children are loved, are most dear, their death is transformative for Medea and causes her the requisite pain that a hero must face. It is only through this most valued and powerful connection between those who are φίλτατοι that Medea—or Achilles—can actualize her heroism. Achilles, by sending Patroclus into battle dressed in his own armor, directly, although unintentionally, causes Patroclus’ death.[19] The grief and anger that beset Achilles when Patroclus dies creates the necessary environment for him to rejoin the war and beat back the Trojans. In this way, Achilles’ love for Patroclus causes extreme pain to himself, his friends (Patroclus), and his enemies (the Trojans).

§1.19 Medea recognizes, in a similar way, that it is through her love for her children that she will be able to remain faithful to her self-identity as a hero, causing that same threefold pain—to herself, her friends (her children), and her enemies (Jason). Her more direct and intentional role in the death of her φίλτατοι means that she approaches the act of infanticide and its aftermath with a great deal of awareness about how it will effect all involved. Regardless, she embraces these consequences, telling herself,

μὴ κακισθῇς μηδ’ ἀναμνησθῇς τέκνων,
ὡς φίλταθ’ ὡς ἔτικτες, ἀλλὰ τήνδε γε
λαθοῦ βραχεῖαν ἡμέραν παίδων σέθεν
κἄπειτα θρήνει·
do not be a coward, do not remember your children,
how they are most dear, how you bore them, but this
short day forget your children,
and mourn forever after

Medea 1246-9.

By forcing herself to temporarily forget her children’s importance to her, Medea is able to do intentionally what Achilles does accidentally—kill those most dear to her. In so doing, she knowingly brings about the same kinds of consequences to her enemies as Achilles does, harnessing the power of the close ties of her φίλτατοι and embracing her self-identification as a hero in the mould of Achilles. Her awareness of both the necessity of committing infanticide and the pain it causes her is clear at the end of the play, when she triumphs over Jason with the bodies of their children. Jason attempts to claim that the boys were his τέκνα φίλτατα “dearest children,” a fact that Medea immediately corrects, both saying that they were μητρί γε, σοὶ δ’ οὔ “[dearest] to their mother, not to you” and that she killed them with the purpose of σέ γε πημαίνουσ’ “making you suffer” (Medea 1397-8). Medea thus establishes the primacy of her relationship to her children while acknowledging how that relationship enabled her to avenge herself upon her enemies.

§1.20 Comparisons to Achilles add to our understanding of Medea’s heroism, crucially showing that even a character as powerful and larger-than-life as Achilles who seems starkly isolated from those around him is ultimately driven by his most intimate relationships and the damage he causes to them. Here we find a way to understand Medea’s infanticide as a heroic act, one that both accomplishes her revenge and propels her into a heroic, superhuman, sphere. Medea, although isolated and terrible, retains important ties to those closest to her, ties that determine her actions and heroic identity. This Achillean trajectory, which Medea follows, only functions if we acknowledge her claims to true motherly love as sincere. This love makes her children her most dear and makes their death as transformational as that of Patroclus. By reading this heroic influence in the play, Medea gains in poignancy and seems to reach a realm beyond human condemnation, because its actions exist the extreme ends of the human experience, where the heroic is at home. Medea as a hero-mother leaves us with the same sense of sadness for her destruction and the destruction to others, as does Achilles’ powerful and powerless rage at Patroclus’ death. While their actions perhaps fall outside of our ability to sympathize, they still leave us with admiration for their awe-inspiring force and overwhelming commitment to their values. Medea may leave the stage alone, stripped of all her closest ties, but she leaves with our understanding of her as a maternal hero, full of the pain and victory that belongs to Greek literature’s greatest heroes.


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