Change Writ Large: Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses   

Lyn Straka

University of Florida

Though the length and central position of the Medea episode indicate that Ovid meant it to stand out among the many stories in the Metamorphoses, commentators have tended not to interpret the story as a coherent whole.  Some (e.g. Anderson (1972) focus on the events in Colchis (7.1-158), which they rightly see as the first of Ovid’s variations on the theme of a young girl in love.  Others  (e.g. Wise 1982, Rosner-Siegel 1982) pursue various lines of thought through the entire episode, but omit portions of the episode in order to make their points. I suggest that this long and central episode is a structural signpost for interpreting the entire poem. In this episode Ovid focuses our attention on the changes that are the substance of his poem by writing them large, substituting changes on the cosmic scale for simple metamorphosis. Furthermore, he uses the character of Medea as one model for confronting the changes about which he writes.

In the proem to Book I, Ovid promises tales of metamorphoses, changes of form, which indeed make up the bulk of the stories in the poem. Such simple changes of form occupy only 43 of the Medea episode’s 424 lines. Furthermore, those metamorphoses occur in a geographical excursus; Medea plays no part in any of the metamorphoses, all of which occur outside the time-frame of her story. The kinds of changes Ovid emphasizes in this episode are on a much larger scale. Medea can send rivers back to their sources, summon winds, make the earth tremble, and dim the sun (7.199-209). In short, she can control the four elements that are the substrate of the physical universe.  Her rejuvenation of Aeson (7.162-293) shows that Medea can even control time.  This characterization of Medea as potent to effect cosmic change climaxes at 7.294-6, where her power is seen to be so great that the god Bacchus asks her aid to rejuvenate his nurses.

Beginning with her intentionally unsuccessful rejuvenation of Pelias at 7.297ff., however, Ovid traces what seems to be a gradual decline in Medea’s powers to the point where she flees Athens in ignominy and disappears from the poem. In fact, her power does not decline; what Ovid is concentrating on in the latter part of the story is that aspect of Medea’s character which renders her power ultimately insufficient: furor.

The notion of furor as governing power of Medea’s actions is introduced at 7.10-11. It reappears, linked specifically to her power to effect change, at 7.406ff., where Ovid devotes eleven lines to an account of aconite, Medea’s poison of choice. The plant is the concrete form of rabida ira; Medea’s use of it marks her as someone driven by furor.  At the beginning of the Medea episode, furor is described as an unsatisfactory guiding force; in the end it proves to be her undoing as an agent of cosmic change.


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