Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Book Seven has 865 lines on 43 pages.
In my lifetime of reading, there are large gaps in the list of books I believe I should have some introduction to. Admittedly, this belief comes from exposure to critical ideas about the “western canon.” My love of books and reading can never really be sated, there’s always more to learn and understand.
When one’s tribe is made up of well-read, erudite and eclectic readers, one cannot avoid the mention of characters and ideas which are centuries old.
Medea is one of those references. For as long as I can remember, her name has come up a lot. It was understood there was an important cultural reference being made when I read or heard about her, but I’d never really become familiar with her story. Until Ovid, of course.
I vaguely understood her as a signifier for feminism. Vaguely. Somewhere, more than likely in a Western Civ class, I probably read some of Euripides’ play about this woman who tried to take control of her life under the very heavy thumb of the Greco-Roman hierarchy. To even think of expressing ideas of independence for women was unheard of. It would have been shocking to see a portrayal of a woman visibly wrestling with the strictures of male dominance.
Ovid portrays Medea as a woman torn between passion and loyalty. Jason, the hero, arrives in town with his Argonauts to take the Golden Fleece, a symbol of authority and kingliness. Ovid’s audience would have been familiar with the symbolism of the fleece, but modern readers (or me, at least) have to dig a little deeper.
Medea’s father sets three tasks for Jason to do in order to take the fleece from the always awake dragon which guarded it. Medea’s conflict comes from being in love with Jason and wanting to use her sorcery to help him, and her loyalty to her father who is guardian of the Golden Fleece.
Within the first ten lines of Book Seven, Medea has fallen deeply in love with Jason. Her soliloquy is the first in Metamorphoses to reflect on her conflicting emotions. It took nearly half the book to get to some soul-searching.
… Desire and reason
are pulling in different directions, I see the right way and approve it,
but follow the wrong. I am royal so why should I sigh for a stranger,
or ever conceive of a marriage which takes me away from my home?
(lines 19 – 21)
Medea understands the intent of her father’s tasks, to kill Jason and keep the fleece at home. She feels loyalty towards her father, yet her love for Jason makes her want to see him survive.
Still fighting with herself over these diametrically opposed emotions, Medea convinces Jason to promise he will marry her when he has taken the fleece. In return, she will use her magic to help him complete the tasks successfully.
One of those tasks is to take the teeth of the dragon and plant them, then fight the warriors which grow from them. It was at this point I thought, “Again with the dragon’s teeth?” (See Book Three.)
Jason wins and he and his band of Argonauts sail off, Medea happily on board with her husband. When they reach Ioclos, Jason’s home base, Medea is asked to prove her love again by rejuvenating his father, Aeson, making him young again. Despite her protests, she is convinced.
Ovid attributes Medea’s eventual acquiescence to her own feelings of guilt for having betrayed and abandoned her own father to help Jason win the fleece.
The next story is about Medea killing Jason’s uncle Pelias, king of Ioclos. But Ovid glosses over the reasons for this. Either his audience was expected to know the story of Pelias’ treachery, or he felt it unimportant to relay. It’s not obvious from the text which it is.
And cruel Medea is, to the power-hungry king who is threatening the lands around him with war. Rumor had it he had also been disrespectful to Hera/Juno, and we already know how well she handles that.
Pelias’ daughters saw Medea rejuvenate Aeson and want the same for their father. Medea agrees to do this but tricks the girls into killing him themselves by stabbing him multiple times in order to draw his blood in what they think is part of the rejuvenation spell.
“with eyes averted, they blindly, wildly stabbed at their father.
Dripping with blood, he still was able to lift himself up
on his elbow. Though covered with gashes, he tried to get up from his couch,
and braving the circle of sword points round him, extended his pale arms.
What are you doing, my children?” he cried. “Who gave you those weapons to
murder your father?”
In disgust, Medea finishes the job and boils his “butchered limbs” in water. One of the questions I have about this whole affair is why Medea was the one to kill Pelias? Did she feel duty-bound to Jason to use the ruse of a rejuvenation spell to get in close enough to both sully the daughters by making them do most of the work, and then finish it off herself?
Most of the rest of Book Seven is filled with travelogues, the recounting of the plague at Aegina, the turning of ants into men who became the Myrmidions, repopulating Aegina after the plague. But it ends with the tragic love story of Cephalus and Procris. Trust does not last long in Ovid’s tales, and that always leads to tragedy.
After their marriage, Aurora tries to draw Cephalus away from Procris, but he will not give in, speaking only of how much he loves his wife. In a fit of jealousy, Aurora plants doubts in Cephalus’ mind about Procris’ devotion. This is the age old theme of “if I can’t have him nobody can.” Sadly, Aurora has planted enough doubt and he begins to wonder if his wife is truly faithful.
So he tries to trick Procris by disguising himself (with Aurora’s help). As time goes on and Procris remains faithful to her husband, Cephalus keeps upping the ante, offering enormous gifts if only she would go away with the stranger before her. Finally, of course, Procris breaks down and agrees. Cephalaus reveals himself, confesses to his trickery, and eventually forgives her for capitulating.
This is a theme which always makes my blood boil. Mozart’s Cossi Fan Tutte has been banned from my music library because this is the basis of the story. Men don’t trust their women and to prove them untrustworthy, the women are tricked by their lovers in disguise. When the women finally give in, usually after a great deal of time and offers of many lavish gifts, the men reveal themselves basically exclaiming, “I knew you couldn’t be trusted!” More cajoling occurs and everyone ends up laughing it off because, as cosi fan tutte is loosely translated, “Women are like that.”
To return to Cephalus and Procris, once they have made up, he goes hunting. In the mid-day sun, when Cephalus needed a break from hunting, he would rest and welcome the breeze which blew through the valley. He was overheard speaking to the breeze,
Come to me, beautiful breeze, steal into my breast, you’re so lovely. This heat
is burning me up. Relieve me I beg you, as only you can!
lines 813 – 814)
The busybody who overheard this scurried home to tell Procris that her husband was wooing another woman. Procris rushes out to hear for herself and hides in the bushes. Cephalus hears her noises and throws his spear which never misses, a gift from Procris, and kills her.
At least Ovid has the decency to show Cephalus crying at the end of this tale.