Ancient Myth and the Darker Side of Mother’s Day
Moms are the best. Except when they’re bad. Then they’re the worst.
Being obsessed with ancient Greece, I refer almost everything I see, read, and hear back to ancient Greek literature and history. Mother’s Day is no exception.
Unfortunately, there are very few good mothers—or even adequate mothers—in ancient Greek literature. Instead of shining examples of matronly love and care and compassion, we get a regular carnival of horrors.
So here’s to the bad mothers, the mad mothers—the mothers of ancient Greek tragedy: Agave, Jocasta, Clytemnestra, Medea.
Agave was the mother of Pentheus, the King of Thebes. Pentheus, in all his bull-headedness, refused to recognize the divinity of Dionysus, the god of wine and madness. He took him to be a cult leader merely impersonating a god. That’s the tricky thing with new religions—you just never know.
As Pentheus sat fuming in his castle over the popularity of this new cult leader, all the women of Thebes—including Agave herself—were participating in a wild party on a mountaintop. There was singing, there was dancing, and yes, there was alcohol.
Pentheus, enraged at the upstart god and his female followers, decided to spy on them to see what they were up to. He was discovered, however, and the women—their reason clouded by the god—took him for a lion and tore him apart. Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, climaxes with Agave joyfully brandishing a spear with her son’s head stuck on the end:
Ho, all ye men that round the citadel
And shining towers of ancient Thebe dwell,
Come! Look upon this prize, this lion’s spoil,
That we have taken—yea, with our own toil,
We, Cadmus’ daughters! Not with leathern-set
Thessalian javelins, not with hunter’s net,
Only white arms and swift hands’ bladed fall
That caught the angry beast, and held, and tare
The limbs of him!
Now let’s meet Clytemnestra.
Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces that invaded Troy. Agamemnon was away from home for ten long years—and you can hardly blame Clytemnestra for being unfaithful. Ten years is a long time.
But to further sully her name, Clytemnestra conspired with her lover to kill Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. Unlike Agave, she cannot claim temporary insanity—nor does she want to. Instead, she seems to wallow in her own sadism:
I struck him twice, and twice
He groaned, then died. A third time as he lay
I gored him with a wound; a grateful present
To the stern God, that in the realms below
Reigns o’er the dead: there let him take his seat.
He lay; and spouting from his wounds a stream
Of blood bedewed me with these crimson drops.
I glory in them, like the genial earth
When the warm showers of Heaven descend, and wake
The flowerets to unfold their vermeil leaves.
Now for Jocasta.
You can’t but help feel sorry for Jocasta. Her son was snatched from her arms just after she gave birth to him and left to die on a mountaintop because her husband—another King of Thebes—feared a certain vile prophecy would come to fruition. In so many words, the prophecy said that the boy would one day kill his father and bed his mother. Forced to swallow her grief, Jocasta acquiesced to the boy’s murder.
But through some not-so-simple twists of Fate, her son ended up being saved by a shepherd, killing his father in a roadside scuffle, becoming King of Thebes after freeing the city from the rampages of the Sphinx, and marrying the recently-widowed queen. The prophecy had been fulfilled.
As the truth slowly unravels in Sophocles’ excellent play, Oedipus Rex, Jocasta begs her husband/son:
Do not, by the gods
I beg thee, do not, if thy life be dear,
Make farther search, for I have felt enough
Already from it . . .
O! would to heaven that thou mayest never know
Or who, or whence thou art!
But he doesn’t listen. In a fit of despair, Jocasta does away with herself—too afraid to face the ugly truth.
Lastly, there’s Medea.
Medea is most notorious for killing her kids. What mother could be so cruel or crazy to kill those to whom she gave life? It fits the very definition of unnatural.
Chalk it all up to love gone wrong. Jason, of Argonaut fame, had promised to love her forever ever since she helped him gain the Golden Fleece. Medea had betrayed her family and killed her own brother (which may have been an early sign that she was not indeed a keeper) in order to save Jason. So romantic, no? All for love.
But Jason, portrayed by the playwright Euripides as a duplicitous, rationalizing cheat—a “typical male,” some would say—decides to dump Medea and wed the daughter of a wealthy king, despite having fathered a couple kids with Medea.
Medea’s pretext is that she fears Jason’s new wife will have her children eliminated, since they’d be rivals to the throne. But it’s pretty clear that Medea’s main motive is jealousy:
Women, my mind is clear. I go to slay
My children with all speed, and then, away
From hence; not wait yet longer till they stand
Beneath another and an angrier hand
To die. Yea, howsoever I shield them, die
They must. And, seeing that they must, ’tis I
Shall slay them, I their mother, touched of none
Beside. Oh, up and get thine armour on,
My heart! Why longer tarry we to win
Our crown of dire inevitable sin?
Take up thy sword, O poor right hand of mine,
Thy sword: then onward to the thin-drawn line
Where life turns agony . . .
So why bring all this up in the first place?
First of all, mothers tend to be romanticized and put on a pedestal by popular culture. Of course, the idealization of moms is understandable. Most of us feel a special connection to our mother. Maybe not on the Oedpius Complex-level, but we definitely feel closer to our moms than our dads. But as a card-carrying contrarian, I feel the need to counter-act this Hallmarky-type phenomenon.
Second, since I’m obsessed with ancient Greek mythology, literature, and history, I seize every opportunity to promote the reading and study thereof.
And last, if ancient myths and stories signify, as many psychologists and philosophers assert, some kind of archetypal influences in the collective unconscious or whatever, then these bad mothers of ancient Greece can tell us a lot about who we are—and who are mothers are—even today.
So which one is your mom? Agave, the alcoholic religious fanatic? Clytemnestra, the adulterous cougar? Jocasta, the acquiescing truth-avoider? Or Medea, the jealous schizoid?
I hope none of them.
Happy Mother’s Day.Further reading: The Bacchae by Euripides; Oedipus Rex by Sophocles; Agamemnon by Aeschylus; Medea by Euripides