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Medea's Exit: Dramatic Necessity through Inverted Ritual

Eric Dodson-Robinson

This paper makes a new argument for the dramatic necessity of Medea's spectacular exit at the conclusion of Euripides's Medea. Aristotle famously criticized the play's apo mēkhanēs ending (Poetics 1454a37-b8). Substantial scholarly contributions of the last fifty years have suggested various justifications and apologia, but the interpretation of the spectacle, its relation to and cohesion with the rest of the tragedy, and its logical and aesthetic merits remain controversial (e.g., Grube 1961: 164; Kitto 1961; Cowherd 1983; Worthington 1990; Konstan 2007). While many have considered the motif of the ‘subverted wedding’ in Medea (e.g., Seaford 1987: 121—23; Mueller 2001; Lee 2004: 273—275; Hopman 2008), they focus on Medea’s murderous preemption of Jason’s proposed wedding to Glauce without considering the final chariot scene or the parodic inversion of the wedding that Medea stages at the conclusion, in which Jason is the unwitting participant. Drawing on intra- and inter-textual and iconographic support, this paper argues that the necessity of the chariot exit follows from the logic of the inverted marriage ritual that Medea performs in the conclusion of the play.

The chariot of Helios that conveys Medea away from Corinth is the culmination of an inverted wedding. I describe the correspondences between the marriage ritual and the tragic inversion. While Medea's chariot clearly evokes martial connotations, in fifth-century literature and iconography the chariot is emblematic of initiatory rituals in general, and especially of the wedding (Avagianou 1990: 9; 115—16; Oakley and Sinos 1993: 44; Dodson-Robinson 2010: 13). In the Greek wedding, the function of the chariot is not only to convey the bride from her paternal oikos to that of the groom, but also to elevate the status of the newly married man and wife, who act the roles of mythic heroes and gods to whom they are typically compared in epithalamia (Hague 1983). In Medea’s reversal of the ritual, the dragon chariot belongs not to the groom, but to Medea’s paternal grandfather (Med. 1321). The chariot will convey her away from the house of Jason, into the sky, and eventually to Athens. The chariot in Greek weddings typically elevates both bride and groom in a reenactment of the hieros gamos, yet in Euripides’s tragedy, it elevates Medea above Jason, and her position on the mēkhanē transfigures her into a demigoddess. While Medea’s escape on the chariot is the most spectacular of the play’s ritual reversals, I briefly show how the structure of the conclusion inverts the structure of the marriage ritual. Conventionally, proteleia were prenuptial sacrifices offered by the bride. The murders of Jason’s children serve as horrific proteleia, mirroring Medea’s sacrifice of her brother. Jason’s demand that she open the door parallels the mock attempted rescue of the bride, which was a traditional part of the proper ceremony (Oakley and Sinos 1993: 31; 37). Finally, Jason’s comparison to Skylla (Med. 1343) parodies the eikasia, or comparisons to heroes and gods, that were part of the Greek wedding.

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Charioteering and Footracing in the Greek Imaginary

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