Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Medea + Achilles: sometimes life imitates art

Achilles and Medea are married partners in the underworld realms of Elysium according to archaic Greek poets Ibycus and Simonides. This seems amazing to me. It's not exactly a match made in Heaven. But maybe it's not the marriage from Hell, either.

Pitt in Troy (2004) and Caldwell in Medea (1984).
She won one of her four Tony Awards for this compelling portrayal.
The Hellenistic scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica 4.805ff. preserves the attributed detail that were otherwise lost.
 ὅτι δὲ Ἀχιλλεὺς εἰς τὸ Ἠλύσιον πεδίον παραγενόμενος ἔγημε Μήδειαν πρῶτος Ἴβυκος εἴρηκε, μεθ᾿ ὃν Σιμωνίδης ["Ibycus and following him Simonides first said that Achilles reached the Plain of Elysium and took Medea to wife" Schol. in Ap. Rhod. 4.814-15a p. 293 Wendel = Ibyc. frg 291 Campbell and Simonid. fr. 558 Campbell]
This long forgotten pairing is not cataloged in Newman & Newman, Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology and shows up only in an occasional footnote.

Since Homer produced Achilles from the gloom for the interview with Odysseus, Achilles himself is no surprise inhabitant of any other poet's conception of the netherworld. But after what Medea did to her sons and her brother and her father... It's hard to fathom a worldview that puts her among the blessed company of Elysium. The only way I can reconcile this oddity is to figure that when Simonides and Ibycus wrote, Medea had not yet fallen into the disrepute she now so infamously shoulders.

Euripides may not have been the first mythographer to project Medea, the sorceress turned infanticide, in such appallingly terrible shades. His play of 431 BC that now narrates for the ages the activities of the world's most terrifying mother may have itself been a novelty. She may not always have been so despicable. Euripides may have bent public opinion against her.

Hesiod's Theogony seems to find something appealing about Medea, the slender-ankled (ἐύσφυρος, 960; no comment from West) daughter whom Idyia conceived of Aetes when she was "overpowered with longing by golden Aphrodite". Line Hesiod (ca. 725 BC) up beside Ibycus and Simonides as poets apparently attracted to Medea.

So, where does such a woman end up in the afterlife?
Everlasting marriage to Achilles seems pretty pleasant as a reward. Even if the Achilles role is not played by Brad Pitt, it would certainly seem that archaic poets' notion of Achilles was pretty positive. Yoking Medea to such a hero seems like a big positive.

When I was researching the perplexing details of Medea's eternal reward recently, I bumped into a real-life oddity. It turns out that two important Italian papyrologists named Medea Norsa and Achille Vogliano corresponded in the 1930's. My friend Francesca Longo Auricchio wrote a useful article documenting the correspondence in Papyrologica Miscellenea. Without suggesting that any amorous interaction existed between those two scholars, I do admit amusement over the literary potential.

Ovid's Heroides are literary fantasies that offer should-have-been correspondence between partners such as Dido and Aeneas or Acontius and Cydippe, a letter from Penelope to Odysseus or Sappho to Phaon. Invented correspondence between Medea and Achilles would have been a precious conceit by the Roman master of erotic poetry. Maybe the practical side of Ovid's realism intervened: Medea, after all, has got to be a neat generation older than Achilles. Achilles is the offspring of a union formed during the voyage of the Argo, when the ship and crew were on their way to Colchis. Medea is going to be at least 15 years older than Achilles. ... Details, details. Maybe somebody needs to write this poem: a pair of epistles ala Ovid's Heroides between Achilles and Medea.

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