Medea Questions and Answers

Euripides

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Medea questions.

How does Medea inform contemporary psychology?

The ancient Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides would not be of much interest to modern readers were it not for the fact that it dramatizes a conflict which has existed throughout history and is readily observable today, although abandoned wives are less likely to murder their children than they are to hate and reject them. Just as Sigmund Freud named the Oedipus Complex after the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, because Freud believed that every man has a unconscious wish to kill his father and marry his mother, so the play Medea has given its name to what psychiatrists call the Medea Complex. This psychological complex is defined in Segen’s Medical Dictionary as follows:

MEDEA COMPLEX Murderous hatred by a mother for her child(ren), driven by the desire for revenge on her husband; it is a reference to Medea of Greek mythology, who kills her children. 

It is easy enough to understand how a change from love to hatred could come about. We can imagine the feelings of a woman who has been abandoned by her husband. She is left to raise his children by herself. They are not only a burden to her financially, but they make it extremely difficult for her to marry again. Few men are willing to take on an entire family and raise another man’s children. If the children happen to be boys, as they were in Euripides' tragedy, they can remind their mother of the unfaithful husband she has come to hate, and the hatred she feels for him may be transferred to them

Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd.
              William Congreve, 1697

A perfect modern example of the Medea Complex to be found in modern literature is D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Rocking Horse Winner.” The story opens with the following brilliant description of a mother’s thoughts and feelings:

There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.

No matter how hard Paul tries to win back his mother’s love, the boy is unable to succeed. He miraculously and magically accumulates a fortune in order to buy her love and ends up killing himself in the attempt. The story closes with the following pathetic exchange between Paul and his mother.

“I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure—oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!
“No, you never did,” said the mother.
But the boy died in the night.

 

How does the Medea complex derive its origins from the play?

According to the British Journal of Psychiatry, a common psychosis exists in women which has been given the name "The Medea Complex," after the ancient Greek play Medea by Euripides (480-406 B.C.). In the article titled "The Medea Complex: The Mother's Homicidal Wishes to Her Child, by Edward S. Stern, (April 1948), the author summarizes four symptoms of this condition.

The situation in which the mother harbours death wishes to her offspring, usually as a revenge against the father, is described and named the Medea complex.
It is shown that there is considerable resistance against admitting these thoughts to the consciousness of the mother or any other person, but that they are of general occurrence.
The Medea complex causes many marital difficulties, e.g., dyspareunia, prevention and interruption of pregnancy, failure of breast feeding, and other disordered domestic relations.
It explains such matters as baby farming, disposal to others, and neglect of children, unjust accusations of cruelty to children such as blood libels, and acts of covert and overt cruelty to them.

A recent book dealing with a flagrant case of the Medea complex is a memoir titled A Child Called "It," by Dave Pelzer, a man who endured incredibly shocking physical, mental and verbal abuse from his mother for many years. The book is covered in eNotes. 

The article in The British Journal of Psychiatry suggests that death wishes against the sons as revenge against the father "are of general occurrence." The mother's point of view is not hard to understand. She falls in love with a man and bears one or more of his children. Then when he decides to leave her, she feels violated in more ways than one. First she is stuck with raising his children, and second, the fact that she has one or more children makes it difficult, if not impossible, for her to get married again. Since the father is not available as the object of her hatred, she could make her children the objects of "displaced aggression," as the classic Medea did in Euripides' play.

It would appear that women suffering from the Medea complex are far more likely to abuse sons than daughters. No doubt the boys remind them of their fathers. With daughters the mother is more likely to try to turn the girls against their father, or even to turn the girls against men in general. 

In a famous American criminal case, Susan Leigh Vaughan Smith was sentenced to life in prison in 1995 for murdering her two sons, ages one and three, by pushing her car into a lake with the two small boys strapped in their car seats. The case gained worldwide attention due to her assertion that a black man carjacked her and kidnapped the two boys. She will not be eligible for parole until 2024.

As with the Oedipus complex, a term borrowed from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (497/6-406/5 B.C.), the ancient Greek authors seem to have had a deep understanding of human character long before the time of men like Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung.