Classical Greek Mythology

Euripides, Medea, and Dionysus

Is Euripides faithful to the original myth?

Medea’s killing of her children is a radical change made by Euripides to the original myth. In the traditional story the children are left behind in Corinth. By making this change, Euripides emphasizes his particular interest in the myth, the agonizing inner passions of a woman trapped in a patriarchal system such as the one represented by his audience. But his mythos also centers on a conflict the audience would have felt between whatever sympathy they might have had with Medea and a horror at the acts of what they would have seen as those of an irrational and barbaric foreigner. In short, the audience is left in a quandary without the cathartic social redemption or purgation provided by The Oresteia of Aesychlus or Oedipus the King of Sophocles.

Perhaps Euripides understood better than the other playwrights the meaning of Dionysos, whose festival, the City Dionysia, was the setting for all their plays. Dionysos was, after all, seen as a foreign god of unknown, probably Eastern origins. His characteristics of passion, ecstasy, and wildness, are decidedly non-Apollonian, really non-Greek. Medea was more Dionysian than Greek, and Euripides’ play expresses this fact.

The same can be said of Bacchae, which takes its title from Bacchus, another name for Dionysos.


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