The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children

The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children

The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children

The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children

Synopsis

Corti focuses on the meaning and importance of the act of child murder in literary treatments of the ancient myth. She insists on the connection between the structure of tragedy and the psychology of abuse, arguing that the tragedy of Medea dramatizes the violent hostility toward children, which is always potentially present in patriarchal culture despite the conspicuous emphasis on positive descriptions of parental love in officially sanctioned discourse.

Excerpt

In the wake of the media sensation caused by the case of Susan Smith, a seemingly ordinary woman who was tried and convicted for the murder of her two small sons, it seems remarkable that the act of child murder should ever have been dismissed as an insignificant detail. Yet the literary treatment of such gruesome deeds presents peculiar difficulties for critical analysis. Denys Lionel Page, for example, in a venerable commentary on Euripides' Medea, asserted that "the murder of the children . . . is mere brutality: if it moves us at all, it does so towards incredulity and horror. Such an act is outside our experience, we--and the fifth-century Athenian--know nothing of it" (xiv). In denying the human relevance of the act of child murder, Page may seem to echo the indignation of Euripides' Jason, the distraught father who wails: "there is no Greek woman who would do this thing" (Medea, line 1339). Though recent references to Page's judgment express either respectful disagreement (McDermott 25) or frank astonishment (Simon 87), the fact remains that it was not until 1977 that P. E. Easterling actually argued, in an essay entitled "The Infanticide in Euripides' Medea," that the psychology of criminal and abusive parents might indeed have some bearing on the classic tragedy of child murder. There are, admittedly, various reasons that the blood-curdling central act of Euripides' Medea is more likely to be the focus of open debate today than it was in 1938, when Page articulated his remarkable position. Yet the retrospective affirmation of Jason's dubious claim remains noteworthy precisely because the Medea is full of references to myths about parents who kill their children, the stories of Ino and Erechtheus being only the most obvious examples (Medea, 1284, 824-25). Far from being persuasive, Jason's statement seems to function as the invocation of a taboo.

The idea of a taboo against infanticide is evident in Barbara Johnson's observation that "when a woman speaks about the death of . . .

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