f all the seductive, sinister and transgressive women who have haunted the Western imagination, none has a reputation more lurid than Medea's. Judith, Salome, Jezebel, Delilah, Lady Macbeth -- these murdered or betrayed grown men, but Medea's crimes are yet more chilling: credited with having slaughtered her younger brother, she is also said to have sacrificed her own two children out of revenge for rejected love.
The Greek myth -- so old it is spoken of as ancient by Homer -- has many variations, but it goes roughly as follows. Aeson, king of Iolcus in Thessaly, had his throne usurped by his half brother Pelias. Aeson's son Jason was saved, and sent away to be educated by the centaur Cheiron. Grown to manhood, he arrived at the court of Pelias to claim his birthright, but Pelias said he would surrender the throne only on condition that Jason bring back the Golden Fleece from Colchis -- a demand which was thought to be the equivalent of a death sentence, as Colchis, situated at the extreme end of the Black Sea, was thought to be unreachable.
The Golden Fleece was the skin of the flying ram which had rescued Jason's ancestors, Phrixos and Helle, from threatened murder at the hands of their stepmother. Arrived safely at Colchis, Phrixos in gratitude sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece up in the temple of the war god Ares. Jason had either to refuse the quest and give up all hope of the throne, or accept it and endanger his life. He chose the latter course, and summoned fifty heroes from all over Greece to his aid. These were the Argonauts -- named after their ship -- who after many perils and adventures arrived at last at Colchis, a "barbarian" kingdom with strange customs -- where, for instance, men's bodies were not buried, but suspended in sacks from trees. There Jason demanded the Golden Fleece as his by inheritance.
Aeëtes, King of Colchis, set more impossible conditions: Jason must harness two fire-breathing brazen-footed bulls, defeat the earth-born warriors that would spring up after he had sown a field with serpents' teeth, and slay the deadly dragon that guarded the Fleece. Jason was ready to admit defeat when he was seen by Princess Medea, daughter of Aeëtes, granddaughter of Helius the sun god, priestess of the Triple Goddess of the Underworld, and a powerful sorceress renowned for her ability to heal as well as to destroy. Overcome by love for Jason, she used her occult knowledge to help him surmount the various obstacles and to obtain the Fleece, in return for which Jason swore by all the gods to remain true to her forever. Together with the Argonauts, the two lovers set sail by night; but once the alarm was raised, King Aeëtes and the Colchians followed them.
Here traditions differ. Some say Jason killed Medea's younger brother Apsyrtus with a spear as he stood in a pursuing ship; others, that Medea herself murdered the boy, dismembered him, and scattered the pieces in the ocean. The grieving Aeëtes had to collect them and was thus delayed, and so the Argonauts escaped. In any case, the two needed to be purified for the death of Apsyrtus, and went to the island of the enchantress Circe, Medea's aunt and a daughter of Helius. After several more escapades -- Medea, for instance, did away with the usurping King Pelias by tricking his own daughters into killing him, thus making Jason's own kingdom an even unhealthier place for him to be -- the two, now lawfully man and wife, were welcomed at Corinth by its King, Creon.
It's at this point that the story turns from romantic adventure to tragedy. For Jason, forgetting both his debt of gratitude and his vows to all the gods, forsook his loyalty to Medea. Some say he was swayed by the insinuations of Creon -- why live with such a dangerous woman, so much wiser and more powerful than yourself? -- others, that he was overcome by a new love; others, that he was impelled by ambition; but in any case he decided to repudiate Medea, and to marry Creon's daughter Glauce, thus becoming the heir to Corinth. Medea herself was to be banished from the city.
Medea, torn by conflicting emotions -- sorrow for lost love, wounded pride, rage, jealousy, hatred -- concocted a horrible revenge. Pretending to accept Jason's decision and to wish for peace between them, she sent a bridal gift to Glauce -- a beautiful but poisonous dress, which, when the rays of the sun hit it, burst into flame, whereupon Glauce in agony threw herself into a well. Some say that the people of Corinth then stoned Medea's children to death; others, that she herself killed them, either to save them from a worse fate or to pay Jason back for his treachery. She then disappeared from Corinth, some say in a chariot drawn by dragons. Jason himself, abandoned by the gods whom he had forsworn, became a wandering vagabond and was at last crushed by the prow of his own rotting ship.
This story has been retold time and again over the past two and a half millennia. It has been used as the source for poems, plays, paintings, prose fiction, and operas, of which last there are twenty-four at least. Each artist has chosen among the variant traditions, and some have made their own changes and additions. For instance, we owe the slain children -- two, not fourteen, as earlier versions had it -- to the oddly sympathetic play by the Greek tragedian Euripides; and the many operas in which Medea sets fire to the temple of Hera and burns herself to death borrow this fiery finish from the seventeenth-century French dramatist Corneille. The poet Ovid is most interested in the eye-of-newt dimension, and spends much time on moonlit sorcery; the Roman dramatist Seneca goes in for unbridled rhetoric and gore. William Morris, in his narrative poem The Life and Death of Jason, gives us a blushing, trembling, Pre-Raphaelite maiden, reduced to a weepy pulp by Jason's infidelity, and a blonde into the bargain; Charles Kingsley, he of Water Babies fame, tries for a muscular-Christian interpretation -- keep away from the bad women, lads, especially dark-haired witches! Each author has redone Medea in the light of his or her own age and its concerns; and so does Christa Wolf.
Her attack is head-on and original. Others before her have condemned Medea's main crimes -- fratricide, infanticide, and the murder of the bride-elect Glauce by toxic frock -- or viewed them as partially understandable under the circumstances, but Christa Wolf's Medea flatly denies that she committed any of these crimes at all. Drawing on the insights of modern anthropology, Wolf sets Medea in a period in which the old goddess-centered religions are being overwhelmed by new patriarchal god-ruled ones, in which kings are flouting the rights of queens, and in which former customs -- including human sacrifice and the yearly dismemberment of the king in a fertility ritual -- are falling into obsolescence, although they still have enough true believers to be resurrected by various rulers for their own purposes, most often the solidification of power. The murder and dismemberment of Apsyrtus, then, are seen to have a kinship with, for instance, the death of Orpheus, torn to pieces by Maenads at the Spring Festival; and Medea's betrayal of her father Aeëtes, and the aid she gives to Jason, are not ascribed, as usual, to an overwhelming passion caused by a shaft from naughty Cupid's golden bow, but to her secret knowledge of her father's role in the murder of his own son and dynastic rival.
In Wolf's version, Jason is beloved, true, but later: this Medea is no helpless slave of sexual passion. At first Jason is largely the means to an end -- Medea's escape from blood-smeared Colchis in search of a higher and more humane civilization. Jason's betrayal of her is also Corinth's betrayal of her idealistic quest, and her contempt for his behavior is the contempt of the disillusioned nineteenth-century colonial arriving in Paris or London to find that the imperial promises of a nobler life ring hollow.
But Medea is neither an anthropological retelling of myth in the style of Mary Renault, nor a simpleminded story of men-versus-women, of a sensuous moon-and-earth religion versus a cold and abstract sky theology. It is a study of power, and of the operations of power, and of the behavior of human beings under pressure when power squeezes them tight.
Wolf begins her story in Corinth, at the moment when Medea has been rejected by Jason and the forces ranged against her are coming fully into play. Medea and the band of Colchians who have escaped with her are immigrants and refugees among the Corinthians. The Colchians have brown skin and woolly hair, in contrast to the pallid Corinthians. They keep to themselves in their own quarter, following their own customs and leading the marginal and often squalid life of exiles, and are viewed as aliens and therefore as ideal scapegoats for anything that might go wrong. Medea, as their princess and erstwhile leader, a healer and wise woman -- one step away in reputation from sinister witch -- is particularly exposed. Jason's position is ambiguous: a ruler in his own right, he cannot however claim his kingdom, and holds whatever power he possesses at the whim of King Creon, who is using Jason to further his own ambitions. Medea's star is falling, Jason's is rising, and the courtiers and hangers-on at the Palace -- even Medea's friends and her former pupil -- engage in a Machiavellian dance, as each one approaches and retreats. Shall they further their own careers by hastening her decline, shall they lend her a small and furtive helping hand, or shall they stand by and watch passively? Does Medea still have the power to retaliate, or has she been rendered harmless? Fear, admiration, envy, lust and hatred waltz hand-in-hand, for whatever else she is, Medea is not a nobody: beautiful, high-ranking, reckless, intelligent and skilled, she cannot be simply dismissed.
Medea herself is the wise child who knows too much and can't keep her mouth entirely shut about the Emperor's lack of clothing. One of the things she knows is the real manner of her brother Apsyrtus's death, which Creon is now trying to pin on her by means of a whispering campaign. Another thing she knows is the dirty little secret of Corinth itself. She's been down into the dark places, down into the cellar, and has discovered that Corinth, with its wealth and grandeur and snobbery, and its pretensions to a higher form of civilization, is no better than Colchis: deny and conceal the fact as it may, its power too is founded upon the sacrifice of children. Like many a civilization before and after it, Corinth rests on the oppression of the weak and the death of the innocent. So much knowledge is dangerous; but Creon and his toadies cannot confront Medea with what she knows without admitting that they know the same thing themselves, and the thing itself is unspeakable. Cat watches mouse, but which will turn out to be which?
Wolf's intention in this gripping retelling is signaled by her initial quotation from Elisabeth Lenk: "...the walls around time-periods are extremely close to one another. The people of other centuries hear our phonographs blaring, and through the walls of time we see them raising their hands towards the deliciously prepared meal." This tale is about Medea, yes; but it is also about us. Like J.M. Coetzee's extraordinary novel Waiting for the Barbarians, which is about an imagined empire but also about the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, and like Ryszard Kapuscinski's tour-de-force The Emperor, which is about the last days of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie but also about the corrupt communist regime in Poland, Wolf's Medea stirs up uneasy resonances. At one moment we're identifying the dark-skinned Colchians with, perhaps, the Turks in Germany, or those of African descent in Europe and North America, or the Jews; at another, we seem to be in the atmosphere of distrust and betrayal that characterized the collapse of the East German hegemony, when to back-stab first appeared to be the only defense against having the knife plunged swiftly into your own spine. Yet again, we're in the era of big business -- our own time and place, here and now, when capitalist mini-kingdoms form and dissolve unseen within the walls erected around them by large corporations, when chieftains' heads roll bloodlessly, lopped off over lunch by faithless right-hand men, when pretexts abound and true texts get shredded, when spies are everywhere and even the watercoolers have ears.
Medea is no two-dimensional allegory. Like a tunnel full of mirrors, it both reflects and echoes. The question it asks the reader, through many voices and in many different ways, is: What would you be willing to believe, to accept, to conceal, to do, to save your own skin, or simply to stay close to power? Who would you be willing to sacrifice? Hard questions, but the posing of them is the troubling yet essential task of this tough, ingenious, brilliant and necessary book.
Read Bold Type's previous feature on Margaret Atwood.
Copyright © 1998 Margaret Atwood.