This post by Brigit McCone appears as part of our theme week on Violent Women.
Discussing Greek tragedy, the philosopher Aristotle calls for women, being “of lesser character,” to be given a fitting representations on stage that conform to his society’s ideas of typical womanliness, “for it is possible for a woman to be manly in character, but it is not fitting for her to be so manly or terrifying” (Poetics, 1454a). Ancient Athens was a democracy of free men, where slaves and women were silenced. Its epic tragedies were written and acted by men alone, though they might wear the mask of women. Why then, in a society that considered women to be lesser in character and unfitting of “manliness,” should there be so many examples of fierce and violent womanhood on its stage? Aeschylus had the murderous Clytemnestra, Sophocles the pitiless Elektra, and Euripides produced the infanticidal Medea as well as hoards of murderous Bacchae, female followers of Dionysos who tore The Bacchae‘s hero limb from limb. The answer, perhaps, lies in the role of men in Ancient Athens, who were expected to reject emotionalism in favor of logic, and sacrifice their personal interests in favor of the state. The women of Greek tragedy are powerful, therefore, not because women were powerful in real life, but because these fictionalized characters were powerfully and cathartically voicing the emotional and personal causes that the male spectators had been encouraged to suppress in themselves. Female chaos is male catharsis. To our eyes, the violent uprisings of women like Clytemnestra, Elektra or Medea might well seem “manly and terrifying,” but they equally rise up against the self-sacrificing duty to the state and the rationalizing art of “reason” that Athenian men had been trained to consider manly. The male spectator gets cathartic release through the woman’s chaotic voicing of emotional rage and personal vendetta, but can disown it as a feature of her femininity. The woman, in turn, becomes the negative space of male self-image, not an image in her own right.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea was created in the aftermath of Italian fascism, another masculine cult of personal self-sacrifice in the interests of the state. Utilizing the operatic charisma of the legendary Maria Callas in a non-singing role, he harnesses the pitiless woman as an agent of chaos, rebelling against the dictates of the masculine state that urges her husband to discard her, in favor of a politically advantageous match. Killing his hopes of heirs by murdering her own sons to spite their father, as well as killing his bride and her father, the King of Corinth, Medea murders Jason’s future in punishment for his disregard of her feminine powers as high priestess of a barbarian nature cult. In Euripides’ original, a chorus of women who identified with Medea’s pain, while being horrified by the bloodiness of her revenge, helped to give her context as an emblem of the rage of suppressed and discarded women under Ancient Athenian patriarchy. Pasolini instead delves into the original myth to offer a portrait of Medea’s barbarian homeland and its values as an agricultural society close to the old gods. Opening with the boy Jason being told that he is not the son of Chiron, his centaur foster father, Jason by is initiated by the centaur into a tangled mythology that defines his destiny to recover the golden fleece from distant lands, as a symbol of eternal nature of “power and order.” The centaur gives an enigmatic warning: “The day Nature seems natural to you, it means the end.” A warning to curb his own natural impulses, or to avoid taking the “natural submissiveness” of woman for granted? Jason is alerted that the word is not “naturally” so, but the creation of fickle gods who hate as much as love. With his training by the mythical Old Centaur in the isolation of nature, he is more equipped to negotiate the wild values of Medea than men raised in the city. Yet he is guided in adulthood by a desecrated New Centaur, who takes the form of an clothed man and preaches that the gods are dead. It is when he seeks to assume his place in the city, upon his return, that he will lose his respect for Medea’s primeval power, earning the hate of the high priestess and, perhaps, of her gods.
The two Chirons
Medea is introduced in close-up, face enigmatically blank, as she is surrounded both by cricket-chirping nature and by the droning chant of ritual human sacrifice. Her willingness to sacrifice human life is therefore linked to the pitilessness of Nature, that is the flipside of its nurture. Embodying values of nature and barbarism in woman, and political ambition in man, is a rather traditional gendering, but the Medea myth is unusual in showing the woman triumphant as cruel Nature reigning supreme, rather than destroyed as punishment for her “unnatural” violence. The day Nature seems natural to you, it means the end. Feeding corn with the blood of the sacrificial victim and bidding him be “reborn with the seed” can also be read as Pasolini’s allowing his barbarians to echo the symbolically cannibal sacrament and resurrection narrative by which the faithful wed themselves to the Roman Catholic church. Medea’s hands are ritually chained before she prays, representing her weddedness to the order of her society. She collapses at the sight of Jason. In this highly stylized interpretation, not a word needs to pass between them to convince Medea to rob the fleece, or to brutally dismember her own brother with an axe to distract her pursuers. Her violence is unmotivated, except by the logic of myth or ritual human sacrifice, for that is the binding logic of her world.
Crossing the water to the world of Greece, where the gods are dead, Medea wanders wildly in a state of spiritual catastrophe such as Jason had experienced when swapping the magical Old Centaur for the desecrated New. Medea vainly seeks “foundation” in this new world, pleading to hear the voices of Earth, Sun, grass and stone, just as Jason recognizes that the golden fleece has been drained of its power when taken to a foreign land without true faith, where promises are broken. In some degree, the ritual sacrifice of her sons is therefore Medea’s only way to restore her sacrificial power as priestess, more than a simple act of petty vengeance against her unfaithful husband. Imagining herself restored to her faith as granddaughter of the sun, Medea performs her violence in her old priestess robes with a smile of exultation at her empowerment, mingled with tears because “woman is a weak creature who cries easily.” She thus uses society’s expectations of woman’s weeping weakness as a mask to hide the gruesome seriousness of her real purpose. Medea’s power recalls those societies where the masculine power of kings and warlords existed in balance with the feminine power of a priestess class, such as the Akkadian state which gave us the world’s first recorded author, Sumeria’s high priestess Enheduanna. Women like Enheduanna are examples that can be cited to argue that the “ancient world” of a woman like Medea had channels of specifically feminine spiritual power lost in Judaeo-Christian traditions. In these older traditions, according to Pasolini’s vision, nurture and sacrifice are integrally linked, joined in the figure of the loving yet murderous woman who embraces with her eyes open and her knife ready. Medea’s violence may disturb us, but she serves as a warning that woman’s nature should not be coded by man’s convenience, nor ever taken for granted. The day Nature seems natural to you, it means the end.
Brigit McCone loves Maria Callas but isn’t that into opera. Go figure. She writes and directs short films, radio dramas and The Erotic Adventures of Vivica (as cabaret alter-ego Voluptua von Temptitillatrix). Her hobbies include doodling and wondering what was so great about that Onassis guy.