Magic in Euripides' Medea
a) This is a very controversial theme, much debated by eminent critics: -
Page (1938) emphasises the magical context of the Medea myth:
"Because she was a witch, she could escape in a magic chariot" (xxi).
Knox (1977) says:
"In the play Euripides wrote, Medea has no magical powers at all."
b) Points to bear in mind:
"magic" and "witch" do not translate any words used by Euripides. "Witch" in particular is a later, Roman or medieval Christian idea - not a 5th century B.B. concept. Medea, says Knox, is a pharmakis - a woman who deals in love charms, drugs and poisons. In her case, this ability has been enhanced by her proverbial sophia ("wisdom"). This does not make her a "witch".
Similarly magic. This is not a Euripidean term, but a slick but vague word we use to explain any puzzling phenomena for which Medea apparently is responsible.
ii) The nature of magic
In this play "magical" events overlap with the natural sphere of pharmacy and the supernatural sphere of religion. Where does pharmacy end and magic begin?
Where does magic end and divine intervention begin? Take for example Medea's promise to Aegeus to help him beget children, by means of her pharmaka. The overlap of science and magic must have been even more hazy to Euripides' audience than to us. What they called "magic", or could not explain, we call science (e.g. a thunderbolt).
A balanced approach needs to consider the context and the text of Medea.
a) The context
The entire background to the myth is steeped in the supernatural:
- 2 of Circe's aunts were "magic", Circe and Hecate
- of the Argonauts, Orpheus could control birds and animals, Calais and Zetes had wings, Lynceus had supernatural sight, the Argo itself could talk
- the Golden Fleece was a mystical object · the tasks of Jason in Colchis required miraculous assistance (fireproof ointment etc)
- the Argonauts' journey - Scylla, Sirens, Charybdis
Conclusion: the whole context of the play is certainly supernatural (magic?)
b) The text
Medea relies only on her sophia and pharmaka (see Knox). However, Knox seems to ignore the fantastic and magical backcloth to the play, as well as Medea's practice of her pharmacy/magic, i.e. its actual, visible, physical effects as described particularly by the messenger (1157-1230)
Death of a Princess: (Medea 1157 - 1230)
1. The effects of the pharmaka on the princess are external
- the material of the robe begins to eat her flesh (1188-9)
- her head catches fire (1190-3)
Conclusion: whatever is killing her is not poison/drugs - these act invisibly and internally.
2. The princess' reactions to the effects of the pharmaka are the natural symptoms of conditions such as fever or hysteria:
- foaming at the mouth
- trembling limbs
3. Notice the passage of time in this episode. The princess puts on the robe and crown (1159-60), and then for 6 lines of the messenger's description (1161-6) - something which must have actually taken the princess longer to do than it did the messenger to describe - she sat down and began to arrange her hair in front of the mirror (still carefree enough to manage a smile), then stands up, apparently unhurriedly, and walks up and down the room, stepping lightly and happily, stopping frequently and looking back to satisfy herself that the garment was hanging well on her. It is only at this point (how long after putting on the gifts?) that the first effects of the deadly pharmaka begin to appear. Substances like acid or napalm (whose names Euripides did not know, but whose effect he has described accurately) do not have a delayed effect, they act on immediate contact. Where does this leave us?
- The actions of the pharmaka (burning) and the effects of the pharmaka (foaming at the mouth, etc) are natural
- The cause of these events, due to the clear delay (1161-6) is most definitely supernatural.
- While we may be witnessing the effects of napalm or radiation (see especially 1186-7), there is no natural explanation, even today, for the fact that they work only once the princess has put on the gifts - or their delayed action once she actually does so.
- Knox's twin explanation - "cunning and poison" are unsatisfactory here.
- A supernatural explanation is quite consistent with Medea's gradual transformation in the course of the play from woman into monster. We do well to remember also, that at the very end, her escape is supernatural, launched from that part of the stage building usually reserved for the gods.