From Lucy to Medea: a Journey in Myth

by Barbara Bollig on 22 May 2018

Barbara Bollig                                                                                                                                                              
Erasmus Programme, 2014

My interest in literature was more or less always there; as a child I devoured Preußler’s Krabat and Harry Potter - and learned to love Goethe as a teen. But it was only during my studies to Barbara Bolligbecome a teacher that I developed a particular curiosity and fascination for women’s and gender studies, postcolonial studies, and all things Medea. I was lucky enough to pursue those interests during my year at Lucy Cavendish and the University of Cambridge as an Erasmus student of English. I found myself in the luxurious position of being able to focus on studying what suited my interests best and to solely focus on literary studies for the year, allowing me to gain insights into topics I was not familiar with, participate in discussions with a multitude of incredible scholars, and make friends just as crazy about their studies as I was.

Since returning to Germany, I received my Master of Education degree to teach English and German in sixth form colleges, as well as my Master of Arts degree in English Literature and Media Studies. I graduated from the University of Trier with a thesis on “Transcultural Appropriations of the Medea Myth” in German, Mexican, Australian, and Canadian contemporary plays, and I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Modern German Literature and Media Theory at the University of Hagen, an institution of distance education, also focusing on Medea and theories of mythology. Here, I teach courses e.g. on (post-)colonial depictions of Africa in German contemporary novels and theories of identity construction and abjection, to students between 25-80 years of age, an incredibly enriching experience. I am working on my academic career by publishing articles on, for example, Medea and varying implications within a range of reworkings of the myth surrounding her persona - and presenting my work at international conferences. In my students, I aim to increase awareness of and the competence to discuss challenges and topics like the ones mentioned above, hoping to help the development of critical thinking and a certain sensitivity for global as well as personal issues through literature and literary theory – because what we need more than ever these days are people in all walks of life with knowledge of and the ability to adapt to and tackle challenges of minorities, cultures, and life in general, in a manner more focused on solutions than on destruction.

For me, Medea is one of the most fascinating personae in literature. In modern discourses Medea tends to be seen as a mere ‘urban legend’, her gruesome deeds lingering on in the memory of many cultures, from Mexico to central European literatures. She is the murderess of her brother, her ‘love rival’, and, possibly most significantly, her own children – she is presented as an example of particularly ‘bad’ motherhood. However, this representation lacks detail; it is unscrupulously one-sided and paints a picture of the Colchian woman as one of the most demonic female figures in ancient European tragedy.  The catalysts of her unfathomable actions lie within as well as without herself, her psyche, her very being. Motifs such as the revenge of a woman scorned and the notion of her turning against her own children to wipe the unfaithful Jason’s seed from the earth recur, however the pitiful betrayal and the love of a grieving mother render the picture of the furious half-goddess of unjust carnage. Medea’s complexity makes her ‘devilishly human’. She is the embodiment of a vehement action, enabling her to carry out the deeds she does and revolt against her suppressors – one might go as far as to call this a proto-feminist act.

Since the Enlightenment at the latest, Medea has found her way back into German literature and continues to fascinate theorists and writers alike: a mother’s infanticide, a barbarian’s’ revolt against political norm, patriarchy, alterity, and the xenophobia of various cultures – but, most prominently, her tragedy evolves around ascriptions of gendered norms in antiquity and modernity alike. Medea has been appropriated to be a figurehead of feminist activism, a psychological complex has been named after her, she has been portrayed as the ultimate other and depicted as evil in plays drawing on colonialist juxtapositions of subject and object. The mythological woman remains relevant for contemporary debates on the psychological stigmatization of women driven into action beyond that which is expected, women breaking through oppression, women fighting against the still existing notion of a certain infallibility of (especially) men’s behaviour and abuses of power.

Fuelling debates evolving around gender and implications of alienation in multicultural societies, the Colchian priestess still is an incredibly politicized entity in the discussion of modern versions of her story: eluding indisputable judgement of her actions in the prelude to the infanticide, contemporary literature sometimes construes her as both form and function, emphasizing the shortcomings of political systems, nations, families. Her partly affective, partly calculated behaviour, the fascinating versatility of the mythological narrative, as well as the betrayals she is confronted with, make her relatable – to a certain degree at least. Literature, and with it narratives of Medea, especially contemporary ones, are microcosms of the challenges we face in our everyday lives, or at least of those that many women are confronted with in various contexts.

With this rich bouquet of motifs, Medea is not only a literary character bearing incredible significance in our day by opening up realms of attributions of monstrosity, barbarism, and motherhood for discussion within literary studies. Works evolving around her underline her importance as a representative for omnipresent negotiations of femininity, emancipation, and, as evinced in most recent debates such as #MeToo and the abhorrent rise of extremist nationalist notions in politics around the globe, discussions regarding the place of the female, the transcultural, and the diverse in cultures and cultural studies. Medea and her myth with all its versions in many ways are at the core of deliberations of the positions of women in various contexts, making her all the more mesmerising to me.

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