Collectors of dinosaur bones and ammonites, nautilus shells, sawfish teeth, narwhal tusks and other such wonders used to display them in elaborate tableaux or augment them with fancy settings of jewels and gilt; they imagined fabulous stories for them, too. Then, in the more empirical mood of Victorian archaeology, adornment was stripped away and bones were displayed as bones, fossils as fossils, and projection or fabulation sternly dismissed. At least that was what scientists thought they were doing when they reconstructed the world of stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex. But the projective imagination is harder to quell than scientists care to admit, and the Greek names for stars, jellyfish, reptiles, shells keep sending one back to the ancient stories. When Freud surrounded himself with Greek figurines and other ancient curios (amulets, gems) and began reading the myths for what they revealed about the human psyche, he was experiencing the speculative, oracular power of these materials.
His view still holds very widely. While myths might be narrative fossils from unimaginably long ago – astonishingly, there is only one mention of anyone reading or writing anything in Homer – they offer themselves to us as rich objects for reverie and conjecture, becoming the ‘shore of dreaming’ (‘l’orée du songe’), as Roger Caillois called his own collection of stones. Like dream stones, the myths are puzzles, and they keep inviting new thoughts.
The story of Medea intersects with the myth of the voyage of the Argo; but it is the continuing electric power of her myth to disturb and shock, rather than elucidate, that accounts for its lasting presence. She is a daughter of a king of Colchis on the Black Sea, a princess from a country beyond the bounds of civilisation as the Greeks saw it. The golden fleece (of a magical sacrificed ram) is the sacred cult object of her country, guarded by terrible fire-breathing monsters (a colossal snake or a dragon – the sources vary), and Jason has been set the impossible task of fetching this treasure by the usurper of his father’s throne, who, like an evil queen in a fairy tale demanding strawberries be picked in snow, counts on his rival dying in the attempt. Jason builds the Argo, gathers together a band of heroes and sets out for the Black Sea.
Medea differs from other tragic heroes and heroines, from Oedipus or Antigone or Hecuba or Jason himself, in that she is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun, has vast secret knowledge and can work potent magic, and is therefore to a certain extent in charge of her destiny – an agent in her own story. She’s struck by love – and pity – at her first sight of Jason, brews potions for him to use to overcome the dragon and steal the fleece, and then elopes with him, cutting all ties to family, country, social status. Some sources say that when her father set out in pursuit of the lovers, Medea chopped up her little brother Absyrtus and scattered his butchered remains on the road, delaying her father, who stopped to gather them – dishonourable burial being an overwhelming horror in Greek myth. On their journey westwards across the Mediterranean, the lovers halt at Circe’s island to beg her to cleanse them of the pollution of their multiple crimes. Circe is Medea’s aunt, a daughter of the sun, and an even more effective enchantress than Medea, a witch with power over the Underworld who in the Odyssey turns the hero’s companions into pigs. But she has had a prophetic nightmare of walls running with blood, and tells Medea that she doesn’t have the power to purify them. Yet other sources list Medea’s dark arts, telling how, for example, she butchers and boils an old man alive after his daughters ask her to rejuvenate him in her magic cauldron.
Euripides’ tragedy establishes the two main pillars of her story. When she leaves Colchis, she enters Jason’s world as a stranger, and remains marked out irreversibly as an outsider. And when she’s no longer useful to him, he makes a dynastic marriage to a princess of Corinth; in revenge Medea poisons Jason’s new bride (‘murder by toxic frock’, as Margaret Atwood calls it) and kills the children she’s had with him. Ovid, Seneca and Shakespeare all draw greedily from this cup of horrors. In spite of her virulence, the figure of Medea commands our attention – and our sympathy. Dante put Jason in the Inferno for his treatment of her and few since have objected.
The myth was already old when Homer was writing; the audience at Euripides’ first production in 431 BCE didn’t need to be told her back-story when she stepped onto the stage. They wanted to watch her dilemma unfold again. (Euripides’ version was only given third prize at its first hearing.) The myths have become less familiar now and need programme notes and glossaries, but there’s still a sense that they’re generic scripts of the drives that move deep within us. And yet, mythical heroes and villains are markers of the boundaries of experience. Far from revealing the common desires of human beings, Medea, like Oedipus, is a figure of extreme and peculiar abomination, an aberration, the perpetrator of inhuman atrocity.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.