One of the most haunting tragedies is Euripides’ Medea. Despite Medea’s cruelty - killing her own children she had with Jason and killing his new bride – there is something in her which evokes sympathy. It is of course thanks to Euripides’ mastery and psychological insight that the reader/spectator is not outright condemning Medea and the way he portrays her has led other authors to delve in her psyche. Seneca with far less mastery than Euripides has written a tragedy about her. I have read it years ago: it is rather pompous and not very appealing. More successful is Ovid who in his Heroides published imagery letters by heroines deserted by their lover.
In the following excerpt Medea is reminding Jason how she fell in love with him when he came with his ship the Argo to Colchas to capture the Golden Fleece and she enumerates the impossible labours her father ordered him to do. On hearing this, she decides to help him with her power as sorceress and to act against her father. She even killed her brother in order to help Jason. And what is her reward now?
Let this be warning to all male readers: never divorce when your wife happens to be Medea!
Ovid, Heroides XII, Medea Iasoni , 31-50.
tunc ego te vidi, tunc coepi scire, quid esses;
illa fuit mentis prima ruina meae.
et vidi et perii! nec notis ignibus arsi,
ardet ut ad magnos pinea taeda deos.
et formosus eras et me mea fata trahebant:
abstulerant oculi lumina nostra tui.
perfide, sensisti! quis enim bene celat amorem?
eminet indicio prodita flamma suo.
Dicitur interea tibi lex, ut dura ferorum
insolito premeres vomere colla boum.
Martis erant tauri plus quam per cornua saevi,
quorum terribilis spiritus ignis erat,
aere pedes solidi praetentaque naribus aera,
nigra per adflatus haec quoque facta suos.
semina praeterea populos genitura iuberis
spargere devota lata per arva manu,
qui peterent natis secum tua corpora telis:
illa est agricolae messis iniqua suo.
lumina custodis succumbere nescia somno
ultimus est aliqua decipere arte labor.
coepio coepi coeptum: to begin
mentis meae: both `my hart’ and `my senses’, as killing her children was an act of craziness.
perii: I was lost. Both in love and later in her actions.
nec notis ignibus arsi: I burnt (ardeo arsi arsum) by an unknown fire
pinea taeda: pine-tree
ad magnos deos: in honour of the great gods (The image is of a sacrificial fire)
aufero abstuli ablatum: to take away
lumen luminis (n.): eye
celo: to conceal, hide
emineo eminui: to be prominent (here: to be clearly visible)
indicio prodita: betrayed by its own evidence
dicitur…lex: in order to get the Golden Fleece.
ut dura ferorum insolito premeres vomere colla boum = ut premeres dura colla ferorum boum, insolito vomere
premo pressi pressum: to subdue
boum: gen. plur. of bos, bovis: bull
insolito vomere: not used to the ploughshare (vomer vomeris (n.)
taurus: bull, steer (taurus and steer must be related but the s gives problems for a satisfying reconstruction of a Proto Indo-European word. Possibly it is a very early Semitic loanword in Indo-European.)
per cornua: through their horns (cornu cornus (n.)
ignis: apposition to spiritus (breath)
aes aeris (n.): bronze (aere is a descriptive abl.: made of bronze)
praetentaque naribus aera: and plates of bronze stretching (praetendo + dat.) before their noses (naris naris (f.)
adflatus –us (m.): breathing
semina praeterea populos genitura iuberis spargere devota lata per arva manu, qui peterent natis secum tua corpora telis = praeterea iuberis spargere manu per lata arva semina genitura populos, qui peterent tua corpora telis natis secum
iubeo iussi iussum: to order, command
spargo sparsi sparsum: to strew
latus: broad, wide
semina genitura: seed producing
peto petii petitum: to strive after, attack
corpora: poetic plural
messis –is (f.): harvest
iniquus: hostile, deadly
lumina custodis succumbere nescia somno ultimus est aliqua decipere arte labor = ultimus labor est lumina nescia succumbere somno custodis aliqua arte decipere
custos custodis (m., f.): guardian (i.e. the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece)
lumina succumbere nescia somno: the eyes not knowing how to give way to sleep
aliqua arte: by some trick
decipio decepi deceptum: to deceive
Medea about to kill her children (Eugène Delacroix, 1862)
Translation by A.S. Kline: