Autochthony, Misogyny and Harmony:  Medea 824-45

Stephen A. Nimis

Miami University

            This paper takes a fresh look at the scholarly controversy over the significance of Euripides' Medea:  Is Medea a hero or a witch? Is Euripides a misogynist or a feminist? Does the play critique or confirm Athenian ideology? Earlier judgements by Page, Knox and Burnett have been modified by recent critics, including Rabinowitz 1993, Foley 2001, and many others, but the play resists a monolithic reading in terms of gender and politics.  I argue that the poet is representing antinomies of various kinds not in order to take sides, nor merely to raise questions, but in order to produce an "imaginative resolution" that exploits the aesthetic conventions of Attic drama.  I concentrate on the role of the chorus and especially the first two strophes of the third stasimon (824-45), which I argue present two contrasting views of the idealized city of Athens: the first homogeneous, male, autochthonous, and "unpenetrated" by foreigners; the second heterogeneous, heterosexual and reproduced by the mediation of women.  These two strophes crystallize many of the themes of the play and intimate a resolution in the aesthetic realm by its mention of "Harmonia," and by the visual enactment of a "utopian" social harmony by the cross-dressing chorus of young boys.

            Saxonhouse 1986, Loraux 1993, and Zacharia 2003,  have shown how central the idea of autochthony is in the Ion and Erechtheus of Euripides for dealing with the analogous problems of foreigners and women in Athenian democratic ideology.  These issues are central also in the Medea, where Aegeus' promise to the heroine of sanctuary in Athens in exchange for help producing legitimate heirs replays the necessity of allowing dangerous "outsiders" a limited role "inside" the political community .  The uncanniness of the Medea's theatrical scenario, where various oppositions become famously blurred (male and female, foreign and domestic, past and contemporary, Corinth and Athens) provides a context in which underlying contradictions in Athenian ideology can be mediated aesthetically. 

Original observations about the third stasimon include:

1.  The references to autochthony in the first strophe (Erechtheidai, theon paides, choras aporthetou) are balanced in the second by the mention of the Erotes and the intimation of an erotic relationship between Aphrodite and Cephisus (rhoais...aphussamenan), the father of Praxithea, who is in turn the self-sacrificing wife of Euripides' Erechtheus (fr. 360).

2.  Aphrodite provides a link between "fair-haired Harmonia" (the wife of Cadmus) and Praxithea, who play parallel roles in the founding myths of Thebes and Athens.

3.  The peculiar phrase stating that the Muses "produced" (phyteusai) fair-haired Harmonia (which grammatically could be read the other way around) is a pregnant metaphor in this context, since it combines the idea of reproduction by birth with the production of social and musical harmony.

4.  Although the suggestion by Winkler 1990 that the tragic chorus is a representation of the ephebic corps has won few adherents, a less controversial conclusion is to see the Medea's chorus as enacting simultaneously an aesthetic and social civic ideal (see also Bacon Arion 1995).

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