Magic in Euripides' Medea


a) This is a very controversial theme, much debated by eminent critics: -

Page (1938) emphasises the magical context of the Medea myth:
"Because she was a witch, she could escape in a magic chariot" (xxi).

Knox (1977) says:
"In the play Euripides wrote, Medea has no magical powers at all."

b) Points to bear in mind:

i) Language

"magic" and "witch" do not translate any words used by Euripides. "Witch" in particular is a later, Roman or medieval Christian idea - not a 5th century B.B. concept. Medea, says Knox, is a pharmakis - a woman who deals in love charms, drugs and poisons. In her case, this ability has been enhanced by her proverbial sophia ("wisdom"). This does not make her a "witch".

Similarly magic. This is not a Euripidean term, but a slick but vague word we use to explain any puzzling phenomena for which Medea apparently is responsible.

ii) The nature of magic

In this play "magical" events overlap with the natural sphere of pharmacy and the supernatural sphere of religion. Where does pharmacy end and magic begin?
Where does magic end and divine intervention begin? Take for example Medea's promise to Aegeus to help him beget children, by means of her pharmaka. The overlap of science and magic must have been even more hazy to Euripides' audience than to us. What they called "magic", or could not explain, we call science (e.g. a thunderbolt).

A balanced approach needs to consider the context and the text of Medea.

a) The context
The entire background to the myth is steeped in the supernatural: