What was Euripides thinking?

Mention Medea and the inevitable response is – ah yes, the person who killed her children. Although the children would be killed, the knowledgeable audience attending the performance at the Dionysia in 421BCE would have expected a different story, there were three possible versions: they would die, by mistake, during a sacrifice to give them immortality or by the hands of the Corinthians or by friends of Creon in an act of revenge. What would have startled the audience was Medea’s words “Ah me, I groan at what a deed I must do next. I shall kill my children: there is no one who can rescue them” (792). Any sympathy Euripides’ engendered for Medea would have been instantly dispelled as the audience were transported to the horror scenario of a woman, a foreign woman, a witch who had betrayed her family and country and and killed her brother to be with Jason, a mother who kills her children (a rare event in myth) has now left the oikos and entered the world of men. She debates and argues and, having decided on a course of action she implacably sees it through.

Why does Euripides unexpectedly change the myth?

The answer can be found with the 1976 horror film Carrie which is based on the 1974 Stephen King book of the same name. There is no evidence that Stephen King, the screenwriter, director or producers were influenced by Medea but the similarities between the characters are striking. Both had ‘supernatural abilities’, both were isolated, bullied and humiliated, both have been turned into monsters by exacting an horrific revenge, both killed members of their family, both killed children and both avoided having to answer for their actions. The killing of children destroys a household’s present at the same time ensures the children’s future has been removed.

Whilst acknowledging the problematic nature of modern and ancient comparisons there are fundamental commonalities between Greek tragedy and this twentieth century horror film. From a writing and production perspective the aim of the exercise is to be successful whether that success is based on winning the Dionysia or attendance levels with the resulting gross income. It is difficult to argue that both the ancient and modern audience would not be horrified: Euripides by developing audience sympathy and then, apart from the killing of Glauce and Creon, changing the expected myth with Medea abandoning the oikos , entering the world of men and the slaughter of the children by their mother and Carrie with the mass burning of her classmates and teachers and then crucifying her mother. So, the need for success and the horror and disquiet felt by the audience precipitated by the actions of the characters are universal and cross cultural.

It is the relevance, to the audience, of Carrie that points to the reason for Euripides’ decision to change the myth. In 1992 David Skal developed a theory, published as a book The Monster Show in 1994, that monsters and horror was linked to social anxieties and upheaval.

Skal concluded that changes in the monster subject reflected different types of conflict: physically disfigured heroes after World War One, fractured figures based on contemporary art and avant garde cinema of the time after World War Two, monsters from space during the Cold War and zombies and mutants after Vietnam. Skal developed the theory by recognising similarities and themes with wider crises where trauma can last for decades. These include characters who act as metaphors for economic and class conflict in the Great Depression of the 1930s¸ demon children stemming from thalidomide, birth control, abortion, body-transforming special effects with the development of plastic surgery industry, renewed fascination with vampires during the rise of the AIDS epidemic and haunted property reflecting the breakdown of the household in the 1980s. At the end of the 1960s political demographics were changing from the post second world war expectations. The American dream of the nuclear family with one breadwinner was under threat. Because of the need for a second income, two income families became more common with the rise of feminism empowering women. The future was therefore not going to resemble the past. Whilst this would have been frightening to the post-year war generation and the middle class who were losing ground, the realisation that the future may not be as good as the past was equally frightening to the younger generation. These fears were articulated through two iconic horror films of the time: Carrie and The Amityville Horror.

The creation of this specific type of monster and horror used as a lens to view the past shines a light on the social anxieties and tensions of the time. Alliances were breaking down and conflict with the old ‘cold war’ enemy of Sparta was becoming inevitable – 421BCE, the year of Euripides’ Medea performance was the year hostilities of the Peloponnesian War commenced. This, within itself, may not have been seen as a time when the household social structure was changing and the future may not be as good as the past. For this it is necessary to travel back twenty years to a social change that had more dramatic effects: the Periclean Citizenship Laws which affected a large percentage of the population, family units and children. Prior to the Citizenship Law there is evidence that more stringent requirements for citizenship was being put in place which resulted in around five thousand people being sold into slavery and the number of citizens falling to approximately fourteen thousand. After the decree the law affected all status of citizens: marriage alliances, inheritance and even Pericles himself whose son with his mistress Aspasia should not have been granted citizenship. It is also likely that the reduction in citizen numbers would affect the numbers that could be called on for military service. Therefore, the effects on citizens, the oikos and demos were profound. These effects would have been more keenly felt, feeding into concerns, with the growing possibility of an all-out war with Sparta.

So, with Tragedy being the vehicle that social, ethical, religious and philosophical questions were confronted in fifth century BCE Athens, the reason Euripides changed the myth was to highlight the anxieties stemming from the social upheaval of the Citizenship Laws in the context of impending conflict. Using Skal’s theory, the worry that family cohesion, oikos and polis was changing for the worse and the future was looking uncertain has eerie parallels with mid-twentieth century America and highlighting these concerns are articulated by similar monsters and horrors.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this very interesting read. The links you have shown between life and drama are thought-provoking and I believe valid. I shall read it all again of course to appreciate fully the result of your research.

    Liked by 1 person

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