Medea's killing of her children is symbolic in several ways. First, the boys are a pretty clear representation of Medea and Jason's marriage, as they are the product of what was once a loving relationship. Medea feels like Jason has betrayed and soiled that marriage by taking a new wife, so she's out to destroy every last remnant of it. It's surprising she doesn't burn down the house, too. Instead, Medea satisfies herself with slaughtering her kids in the house where they were born, sacrificing them on the altar of revenge.
As we mentioned in "What's Up With the Ending?", the murder of the sons could also be a symbolic act of feminine revolt. Medea is put upon by the male-dominated society around her – banished by Creon, deserted by her husband. She could be seen as rebelling against the role of mother, in which women were often trapped. There's nothing wrong with being a mother; the problem comes when that's all you're allowed to be. Also, it's probably no coincidence that Medea's final act of revolution is to kill two young boys. You could interpret the murder as the destruction of the next generation of potential oppressors. In the end, the slaughter of Medea's sons seems to be a symbolic act of bloody resistance.
Gods and Goddesses
Divine entities are often used in Greek drama for symbolic purposes. Indeed, the gods themselves are said to have been symbols of natural or emotional forces that were beyond human comprehension. Using the name of a god or a goddess would have brought up very specific meanings for the Athenian audience. In Medea, Euripides, like his contemporaries, invokes the names of the gods often. Let's take a second to analyze a few of Euripides's shout-outs to the gods:
First there's Helios, the Sun god. In the translation we used, by Paul Roche, Helios is mostly referred to simply as the Sun. He was said to have ridden his shining golden chariot (the sun) across the sky each day. Helios is probably the most significant god in the play. He's Medea's grandfather. Helios was a Titan, one of the older and more primitive gods, which were later replaced by more "civilized" beings. Medea's "barbaric" behavior could be seen as a result of her relation to this volatile and primal force of nature.
The Sun god is also the only divine presence to directly affect the action of the play.Several of the gifts Helios has given his granddaughter are used in key plot points. The golden diadem and gossamer gown which Medea gives to Creon's daughter were both originally from Helios. When the gown and crown shoot out flames, it's like the Sun itself is attacking the Princess. The dragon-drawn chariot that serves as Medea's get-away car is also a gift from her grandfather. When Medea flies away in this junior version of Helios's flaming chariot, it's as if the Sun god has symbolically sanctioned her vengeful actions.
Apollo was the god of many things, including reason, poetry, the arts, and prophecy. Like Helios, he was also a Sun god. Apollo was part of the second generation of gods who, led by Zeus, replaced the Titans. What's interesting is that Apollo never totally replaced Helios in the Greek imagination. They existed side by side as gods of the Sun. (We wonder if they ever argued over who got to drive the flaming chariot that day.)
By using the names of both Sun gods, Euripides seems to symbolize the basic conflict at the heart of the play: Greek reason vs. "barbarian" passion. To the Greek Jason it's perfectly rational that he marry Glauke. It gives his family, including Medea and her children, wealth, power, and security. Medea's wild passion doesn't allow her to accept this rationale. To her, it's much more basic. She just sees her husband marrying some other woman and responds with "barbaric" violence.
This idea of Apollo being on Jason's side is strengthened when the Chorus basically accuses the god of chauvinism. They sing:
The ballads of ages gone by
that harped on the falseness
Of women, will cease to be sung […]
If only Apollo,
Prince of the lyric, had put
in our hearts the inventions
Of music and songs for the lyre
Wouldn't I then have raised
up a feminine paean
to answer the epic of men? (58)
The Chorus asks Apollo why he hasn't blessed any women with the art of poetry. If he had, then perhaps the depictions of women in Greek tradition would have been a great deal more sympathetic. This is, of course, a pretty ironic thing for a male playwright to have his characters say, especially since his female protagonist is notoriously unsympathetic. Still, this passage helps support the theory that the Apollo of Medea is firmly on the side of men and is symbolic of Jason's side of the argument.
It's no surprise that Medea, a symbol herself of feminine revolt, mostly prays to goddesses rather than gods. Besides, Helios, her grandfather, she prefers to gain strength from the female side of the pantheon. Most important of all to Medea is Hecate, who Medea describes as "the goddess who abides in the shrine of my inner hearth – the one I revere most of all the gods" (57). Hecate is a lot like Artemis, who Medea also calls upon. Both goddesses represent nature and are virgins. Both are potent symbols of girl-power, making them ideal figures for Medea to call upon.
Hecate, however, is a much older goddess than Artemis. Like Medea's grandfather Helios, Hecate was a Titan. In some mythologies she is said to have helped Zeus overthrow her fellow Titans. It's interesting that, once again, Euripides shows Medea favoring the older, more primal deities, ones that might be cooler with her "barbaric" ways.
Like Medea, Hecate was also a foreigner. The Greeks created many conflicting mythologies about her as they tried to weave her into their pantheon. Hecate's cult is thought to have originated somewhere around modern day Turkey, which is the same area that Medea is said to have been from. The fact that Medea and Hecate originated from the same general area ties them even closer together.
By Euripides's time, Hecate had come to be associated with witchcraft. Though her name didn't have this connotation when she first showed up in Greece, to this day she is thought of as a goddess of witches. She's even been appropriated by modern Wiccans and Neo-Pagans. Once again this connection with witchcraft makes her a good fit for Medea, who has mad sorcery skills of her own.
In some mythologies, Hecate was seen as an avenger of women. When Medea calls on the goddess to bless her revenge, she symbolically summons the energy of all women ever done wrong by men. In a way this elevates Medea's bloody deeds above the level of petty revenge.
Though she is mentioned only once by name, Hecate is alluded to a couple of other times. The Chorus tells the story of the Trojan Queen Hekabe who, like Medea, killed her children. In some myths Hekabe became Hecate's dog after she threw herself into the sea. Also, Jason insults Medea by saying she's like the Tuscan Scylla, a sea monster that some said was the child of Hecate.