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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Overwhelming crimes

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In Greco-Roman antiquity there are several myths that tell us some overwhelming crimes.

Men and women are beings with an enormous emotional complexity. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by absolute altruistic heroic actions, others, facts of an incomprehensible cruelty shake us. Certainly, infanticides are especially frightening, in which a crazed father or mother with an incomprehensible cold blood kill their own helpless children in what seems like an infringement of the most sacred laws of nature. It also happens now, in modern times, sometimes, but we can’t imagine what emotional lack may be the cause for these events, for these so overwhelming crimes.

In Greco-Roman antiquity are several the myths that narrate us some of these crimes. In their intuition or deep analysis of human behavior, the ancient Greeks also approached to these horrendous acts that sometimes happen, although they used literary myths for it.

This is the case of Philomela, daughter of Pandion, king of Athens, who was raped by Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne, mad with passion due to her beauty and insensitive to her pleas. So she could not tell it to her sister, he cut her tongue and locked her. But Philomela embroidered patiently her sad story on a cloak and, this way, she managed her sister Procne to know about Tereus's evilness. The two sisters, oh dreadful madness! planned a hideous revenge. Procne killed her own son, whose resemblance constantly reminded her to her husband, and the two sisters dismembered and cooked him for the criminal father. When he finished the meal, Tereus asked where his son was, and the crazed sisters answered him "that his son was already with him." Overwhelmed the gods themselves, they wanted to end this crime succession becoming Tereus into a hoopoe, Philomela into a swallow and Procne into a nightingale.

Probably the most famous mythical story is certainly that one referred to Medea, daughter of Aeetes, king of Colchis, who was a sorceress. Madly in love, she helped Jason and the Argonauts in their conquest of the famous golden fleece (fleece or sheepskin), betraying her own countrymen. Jason took her and promised to make her his wife in order to thank her for her help. After many adventures, when they reached Corinth, Jason, missing his word, breaks with Medea to marry the princess Glauca, daughter of the King Creon. The sorceress Medea sends Glauca a dress as a wedding gift that sets her alight as a torch when she puts it on her shoulders. The revenge on Jason is much crueler if possible: mother and abandoned, humiliated and mad lover, she kills the two children she had had with him to make the unfaithful lover suffer.

Medea is the title of one of the most well-known tragedies of Euripides, and since ancient times it has always been a usual topic for the different arts. There are more than a dozen operas on this subject, from Charpentier´s in 1693 to Oscar Strasnoy´s in 2000.

Medea is also the title of a film by Pasolini in 1969; it is the famous Maria Callas who plays the mythical figure in it. In this film, Pasolini opposed the two components of ancient culture and even of human behavior, the magical and irrational world of Medea to the rational and coldly calculated world of Jason.

Medea is still shown again and again on stages throughout Europe.

Next, I am going to reproduce a small part of the final dialogue between Medea and Jason. Perhaps this small piece persuades the reader to read the whole text of the tragedy:
JASON. - ... Having married me and having had children with me later, jealous because of my bed affairs and my new wife, you killed them. There is no Greek woman who dared to this, and yet, I preferred to marry you instead of them – hated and fatal marriage for me-, lioness, and no-woman, naturally wilder than the Tyrrhenian Scylla ...  

MEDEA. - You were not supposed to, having dishonored my bed, lead a pleasant life, laughing at me; not the princess, or that one who sought you marriage, Creon, shouldn’t have sent me out of this land with impunity. And now, if you please, call me lioness and Scylla who lives in the Tyrrhenian land. In your heart, as I should do, I’ve hit you back.

JASON. - You also suffer and you share my troubles too.

MEDEA. - Know it well: the pain releases me, if there’s no joy for you.

JASON. - Oh my children, such an evil mother you had the misfortune to have!

MEDEA. - Oh my children, how you have died due to your father’s foolishness!

JASON. - But it wasn’t my right hand that killed them.

MEDEA. - But it was your outrage and your recent wedding.

JASON. – You feel it was right to kill them because you are jealous of my bed affairs?

MEDEA. - You think that’s a little pain for a woman?

JASON. - If she is wise, yes, but for you it is the greatest misfortune.

MEDEA. - (Pointing to the dead bodies). They no longer live. This will bite you.

JASON. - They live, alas, as geniuses avengers of your head.

MEDEA. - Gods know who started the trouble.

JASON. - They certainly know your abominable soul.

                                        (Medea, 1336 …-1373)


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