For Medea, Love is Fear, and Love is Fire
By Rebecca Onken
Medea is, for many (classicists and armchair consumers alike), the quintessential classical witch. Her powers dazzle. Her escapades are many and run the gamut of moral acceptability: she ensures Jason’s success in attaining the golden fleece by means of wondrous “medicines,” returns the blush of youth to an ailing old man, orchestrates the murder of a different old man, kills roughly three family members, and spirits away from her crimes on a chariot drawn by dragons. Her status as a mighty and morally grey (if not outright villainous) venefica, a witch or poisoner, suffuses our perception of her. And yet, here, at the beginning of her tale, in Metamorphoses 7, Ovid chooses to introduce Aeetias, Aeetes’ daughter, Medea, as a young woman at the mercy of her own feelings. Her opening narration, full of pathos and self-debate, spans a weighty sixty lines at the outset of this book in the Metamorphoses. We hear her thoughts, feelings, and rationalizations about the situation right after Ovid informs us about only the bare facts of the Argonautic journey. In this excerpt, we grow to understand how her nascent love for Jason truly does burn with the full vis, force, of all-consuming ignes, fires. The reader hears how Medea would rather return herself to the realm of sanity, but the sheer strength of these feelings makes that impossible. She is consumed, indeed, she is movit, moved, by this stranger and all that he is. It does not matter if she is invitam, unwilling; the love that will claim lives, assure Jason’s victory, and ultimately cause Medea immense regret has already taken hold of her. In this way, Ovid lays the groundwork here of not only the reasons for Medea’s villainy but the underlying tragedy of it too. At the outset of her story, she was seized by an earnest mirum, miracle, of love, but the reader cannot escape their own knowledge that Medea will be betrayed. There is a profound inevitability to it, a dramatic irony that exposes the very core of Medea, a core that is emotional, earnest, and ultimately infelix, unlucky. By stripping away her layers, Ovid asks his audience to recognize that, at heart, Medea is a young girl who fell in love with a handsome, heroic boy. Perhaps most importantly, he shows us that not even an all-powerful witch can escape the thrall of love.
multaque perpessi claro sub Iasone tandem 5
contigerant rapidas limosi Phasidos undas.
dumque adeunt regem Phrixeaque vellera poscunt
lexque datur Minyis magnorum horrenda laborum,
concipit interea validos Aeetias ignes
et luctata diu, postquam ratione furorem 10
vincere non poterat, ‘frustra, Medea, repugnas:
nescio quis deus obstat,’ ait, ‘mirumque, nisi hoc est,
aut aliquid certe simile huic, quod amare vocatur.
nam cur iussa patris nimium mihi dura videntur?
sunt quoque dura nimis! cur, quem modo denique vidi, 15
ne pereat, timeo? quae tanti causa timoris?
excute virgineo conceptas pectore flammas,
si potes, infelix! si possem, sanior essem!
sed trahit invitam nova vis, aliudque cupido,
mens aliud suadet: video meliora proboque, 20
deteriora sequor. quid in hospite, regia virgo,
ureris et thalamos alieni concipis orbis?
haec quoque terra potest, quod ames, dare. vivat an ille
occidat, in dis est. vivat tamen! idque precari
vel sine amore licet: quid enim commisit Iason? 25
quem, nisi crudelem, non tangat Iasonis aetas
et genus et virtus? quem non, ut cetera desint,
ore movere potest? certe mea pectora movit.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7: 5–28
And much occurred to the Argonauts under famous Jason; at last
They had reached the swift waves of muddy Phasis;
And whilst they come to the king, Aeetes, and beg for the Phrixean fleece,
The dreadful law of these daunting labors is given to the Argonauts.
Meanwhile, Aeetes’s daughter takes powerful fires into her heart,
And she, having struggled for a long while, was unable to conquer the furor
Inside with reason alone, and said, “In vain, Medea, do you fight this:
Some god, I don’t know who, thwarts you, but this thing would be wonderful,
Or certainly something that feels like this, which is called love.
For why do the orders of my father seem too harsh to carry out?
(For they are too harsh!) Why do I fear that he, whom I have only
Just now finally seen, may perish? What is the cause of so much fear?
Cast out the flames conceived in your virginal heart, if you can,
You unlucky woman! If I could do this, then I would become more sane;
But this new force drags me, unwilling, and love persuades one thing,
Reason another: I see and sanction the better, yet
I follow the worse! Why, royal virgin, do you burn for a stranger,
And conceive of marriage in a foreign land? This earth can also
Give you what you could love! Whether he lives or dies is
In the hands of the gods; nevertheless, let him live! And I prayed for this,
Although without the presence of my love; for what has Jason done wrong?
Whom, except for someone bitter, would not Jason’s youth and nobility and
Virtue touch? Whom, if these other qualities were lacking, would not
his mere looks move? He has certainly moved my heart.”
Rebecca Onken is a Post-Baccalaureate student of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania.