Oaths in Medea

ὦ μεγάλα Θέμι καὶ πότνι᾽ Ἄρτεμι,
λεύσσεθ᾽ ἃ πάσχω, μεγάλοις ὅρκοις
ἐνδησαμένα τὸν κατάρατον
πόσιν; ὅν ποτ᾽ ἐγὼ νύμφαν τ᾽ ἐσίδοιμ᾽
αὐτοῖς μελάθροις διακναιομένους,
οἷ᾽ ἐμὲ πρόσθεν τολμῶσ᾽ ἀδικεῖν.
ὦ πάτερ, ὦ πόλις, ὧν κάσιν αἰσχρῶς
τὸν ἐμὸν κτείνασ᾽ ἀπενάσθην.

O mighty Themis and my lady Artemis, do you see what I suffer, I who have bound my accursed husband with mighty oaths? May I one day see him and his new bride ground to destruction, and their whole house with them,  so terrible are the wrongs they are bold to do me unprovoked! O father, O my native city, from you I departed in shame, having killed my brother.

Eur. Med. 160

I am currently reading Euripides’ Medea and while reading I cam across this book which is available online and referenced by the Ancient World Online blog

AWOL – The Ancient World Online: Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece from Knowledge Unlatched

I have skimmed through the book which is a very comprehensive guide to oaths in Ancient Greece. For the purposes of the book it defines an oath as containing following three elements I have condensed this a lot but you always refer to the book to get the full details.

 1. The swearer makes a declaration about the past, present or future
 2.  The swearer specifies superhuman power(s) as witnesses.
 3. The swearer calls down a conditional curse on himself is the assertion is false or the promise is broken.

The illustration used to exemplify this is from the Medea. Medea gets Aegisthus to swear an oath that he will give her sanctuary. The curse is “the things that happen to those that are impious.” (ἃ τοῖσι δυσσεβοῦσι γίγνεται βροτῶν.). For the purposes of the play, this is an unbreakable oath. If Aegisthus had known what Medea intended to do – namely kill her own children – he may have not been willing to make the oath but once made he has to abide by it.

However this is not the only oath in the Medea. At the back of everything that Medea does is the fact that Jason by deserting her and marrying the king’s daughter has broken an oath. Jason gets the punishment meted out to those who break oaths with Medea herself acting as the avenging angel  or “Erinys”.

All this is discussed at various places in the book. However what is not clear – or perhaps so clear that it doesn’t need stating – is whether the oath that Jason swore to Medea was part of the normal marriage vows or an extra oath demanded by Medea. What the oath was is never made explicit in the Medea but the passage quoted above probably indicates that it was an extra oath and similar to the oath that Aegisthus swears to Medea. She has bound her husband with mighty oaths and that doesn’t sound like part of a normal marriage ceremony.

The oath that Jason made Medea although in the background is a major part of the dramatic force of the play. However it would be wrong to see the play solely as showing what happens to those that break their oaths. It is the breaking of the oath together with the relentless desire of Medea for revenge, a desire that transgresses all normal behaviour to the extent that she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness and children to get that revenge. In fact like all Greek drama, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that leaves us slightly dazed and exulted at the end of the play.

This is the full details of the book I referenced in this blog.

Authors: Sommerstein H. ,AlanTorrance C. ,Isabelle Book Series: Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ISSN: 16160452 ISBN: 9783110227369 9783110200591 Year: 2014 Pages: 475 Language: English 

Publisher: De Gruyter

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