A.R. 3.616-632: Inside Medea’s Mind

Prototypically, narrative involves not only a temporal sequence into which events are slotted in a particular way, and not only a dynamic of canonicity and breach; more than this, stories represent – and perhaps make it possible to experience – what it is like to undergo events within a storyworld-in-flux. Narrative roots itself in the lived, felt experience of human or human-like agents interacting in an ongoing way with their cohorts and surrounding environment.
(Herman 2009: 21)

The Argonauts have reached Colchis and Jason has had his audience with the king, Aeetes. The request for the Golden Fleece was not well-received and a perilous challenge set: one of them must yoke the fire-breathing oxen, plough the field of Ares, sow the serpent teeth, and slay the warriors that spring from the earth. Succeed in this trial and the fleece will be theirs. Likelihood of avoiding immediate immolation? Zero. However, on the voyage towards Colchis the Argonauts rescued the shipwrecked sons of Phrixus, themselves heading from Colchis to Greece, the land of their father. The eldest of them, Argus, has proposed the only viable path to success: magic. They must enlist the aid of the king’s daughter, Medea.


That’s the abridged situation as the Argonauts experience it. The reader has a little more information to add to ongoing speculation and trial risk-assessment. At the opening of Book 3, we were for the first time transported to Olympus and there witnessed a conversation between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Securing Medea’s assistance was Hera’s plan, and her plan to accomplish that plan was to secure the assistance of Eros. When Aeetes raged at the audience, Medea was there watching. We saw Eros fly into the hall, take aim and shoot (see Measuring Arrows in Time). We saw Medea ‘infected’ with love for Jason.

Now, Argus has returned to the city to petition his mother, Chalciope. She, the narrator tells us, is afraid lest (a) Medea is too afraid of their father Aeetes or (b) she’ll agree to help and be caught. And at this point, the frame switches to Medea herself (on Contextual Frame Theory, see Stockwell 2002).

Deep sleep gave the girl respite from her pain,
as she sank in bed. But quickly they disturbed her,
deceitful dreams, destructive dreams, a mourner’s dreams.
The stranger, she imagined, submitted to his trial,
but not at all eager to take home the fleece,
no, with no will for the ram to Aeetes’ city
he came; he came for her, to take to his home,
his wedded wife. She imagined that with the bulls
she herself contended and found the task a breeze
–  but her parents made light of their promise,
for not to their daughter, but to him they set
the yoking of the bulls. On both sides the quarrel broke,
father’s and strangers’; both entrusted to her
the decision, whatever she desired in her heart.
And she chose the stranger ­– straightaway – scorning
her parents. Terrible pain took them; they screamed
in rage, and at their clanging, sleep released her.
A.R. 3.616-632

Those opening two lines (616-7) shift us to the girl and to her room. The first word of v. 616 κούρην ‘girl’ makes Medea ‘textually overt’ and the first word of v. 617 λέκτρῳ ‘in bed’ locates her in the frame.

κούρην δ᾽ ἐξ ἀχέων ἀδινὸς κατελώφεεν ὕπνος
λέκτρῳ ἀνακλινθεῖσαν. ἄφαρ δέ μιν ἠπεροπῆες,
οἷά τ᾽ ἀκηχεμένην, ὀλοοὶ ἐρέθεσκον ὄνειροι·

A.R. 3.616-8

Our attention is immediately drawn to ‘Girl’ but she is not the subject here. She is the object acted upon by ὕπνος ‘sleep’. She is passive, lying back in bed, vulnerable to ὄνειροι ‘the dreams’ which follow sleep. A stripped and linear re-ordering would look as follows:

ἀδινὸς ὕπνος κατελώφεεν κούρην.
Thick/deep sleep rested the girl.

ἠπεροπῆες, ὀλοοὶ ὄνειροι ἐρέθεσκον μιν.
Deceitful, destructive dreams agitated her.

However, in the order of the verse, each line begins with reference to the object and ends on and gives prominence to the subjects ‘Sleep’ and ‘Deceitful … Dreams’ which subject her. ‘Deep’ is a common enough qualification and the image of a sleeping girl being given release from emotional and/or physical distress by sleep seems almost pleasant. But a thick sleep putting her unconscious, rendering her vulnerable to nightmares? Oppressive? Or Insidious? ‘Deceitful’, ‘the kind that affect a girl mourning/in torment’, ‘destructive’: these are the narrator’s evaluations, guidelines to our dream-reading. Three lines of set-up for the reader but also a ‘set-up’ for Medea.

τὸν ξεῖνον δ᾽ ἐδόκησεν ὑφεστάμεναι τὸν ἄεθλον,
[620] οὔτι μάλ᾽ ὁρμαίνοντα δέρος κριοῖο κομίσσαι,
οὐδέ τι τοῖο ἕκητι μετὰ πτόλιν Αἰήταο
ἐλθέμεν, ὄφρα δέ μιν σφέτερον δόμον εἰσαγάγοιτο
κουριδίην παράκοιτιν. ὀίετο δ᾽ ἀμφὶ βόεσσιν
αὐτὴ ἀεθλεύουσα μάλ᾽ εὐμαρέως πονέεσθαι·

A.R. 3.619-24

We pause on a threshold then in line 619, former object becomes subject and we shift again, over that threshold and down into her dreaming mind. Medea was there when Jason met Aeetes, her father. Now her dreaming mind is processing events Medea witnessed; interpreting them, forming hypotheses, projecting event sequences. ‘She imagined …. She imagined’: the verbs signpost what follows as her focalization, the perceptions of our new enactor, the ‘dreaming girl’.

In order to keep track of the different states of mind of characters as they progress through a narrative, the notion of enactors has been developed. A character might consist of several enactors of that character: versions of the character at different points in the narrative. When a primed and currently textually overt character recalls her younger self, or imagines herself in a different hypothetical situation, then a new enactor of that character becomes available for reference. Enactors are bound to different frames, and cannot exist in the same frame at once except in supernatural, fantasy or science-fictional stories.
(Stockwell 2002: 157)

The ‘dreaming girl’ enactor in the dream frame is very different from the Medea asleep in bed. She is decisive, she has powers, and she is a creative reader. The narrator directed our attention to the sleeping girl; the dreaming girl directs her and our attention immediately to τὸν ξεῖνον ‘the stranger’, or better, her stranger. This is her stranger; and she reads his mind. He wants her.

οὔτι μάλ᾽ ὁρμαίνοντα … ‘not at all very eager …’
οὐδέ τι τοῖο ἕκητι … ‘not at all for its sake …’

Negative, negative, and then the positive affirmation: ὄφρα δέ μιν σφέτερον δόμον εἰσαγάγοιτο ‘to take her to his homeland’. His longing is not for the fleece. He has no wish for that. His own mind, his own desire is set on her, to take her home. Why? Her mind-reading runs over the line in enjambment. He came to make her his κουριδίην παράκοιτιν ‘his lawfully-wedded wife.’ μιν σφέτερον δόμον ‘her his home’ – already they could not be closer.

In the hall of Aeetes, no mention was made in the text that Jason had seen Medea. She saw him, for sure, when Eros’ arrow pierced her. She could not stop looking at him. The dreaming girl’s first thought (ἐδόκησεν) is to make her his thought (and the Jason is thinking about her, but because Argus has told him of her magic). Her second thought (ὀίετο) is to save him (which the Jason would also find agreeable). She shifts from past motivation (the reason for the stranger’s arrival) into securing their future. The bulls will kill him, but not her. And so, she projects herself into an imagined future and stands in his place. μάλ᾽ εὐμαρέως ‘very easily’: for the dreaming girl, the contest is a no-contest. She imagines it done and it is, in a verse and half. Then, her dream sours.

[625] σφωιτέρους δὲ τοκῆας ὑποσχεσίης ἀθερίζειν,
οὕνεκεν οὐ κούρῃ ζεῦξαι βόας, ἀλλά οἱ αὐτῷ
προύθεσαν· ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρα τοῦ νεῖκος πέλεν ἀμφήριστον
πατρί τε καὶ ξείνοις· αὐτῇ δ᾽ ἐπιέτρεπον ἄμφω
τὼς ἔμεν, ὥς κεν ἑῇσι μετὰ φρεσὶν ἰθύσειεν·

[630] ἡ δ᾽ ἄφνω τὸν ξεῖνον, ἀφειδήσασα τοκήων,
εἵλετο· τοὺς δ᾽ ἀμέγαρτον ἄχος λάβεν, ἐκ δ᾽ ἐβόησαν
χωόμενοι· τὴν δ᾽ ὕπνος ἅμα κλαγγῇ μεθέηκεν

A.R. 3.625-32

Aeetes was angry with Jason. Now he is angry with her. Her mental projection is breaking down. It’s not ‘right’. It was supposed to be him. σφωιτέρους τοκῆας … οὐ κούρῃ … ἀλλά αὐτῷ ‘her parents … not to the girl … but to him’ (625-6): family versus the stranger and the girl stuck in the middle. Her dream splits open in νεῖκος, ‘strife’ and ‘separation’. On one side the father, on the other the strangers. The dreaming girl needs to regain control and she has them give it to her. αὐτῇ δ᾽ ἐπιέτρεπον ἄμφω ‘to her both sides entrusted’ – ‘It’s your decision, Medea. Your choice. Listen to your heart.’

It’s a decision that dreaming girl has no difficulty making: ‘she straightaway the stranger’ (630). She predicts her parents’ response, she models the dreadful pain (ἀμέγαρτον ἄχος, 631) that takes them, but the noise she generates for them is loud, angry, incoherent. It breaks her immersion. It breaks the dream-state. v. 632 returns us to the previous frame and previous enactor, ‘Medea asleep’ now ‘Medea awake’ and reverting to object ‘her sleep with the noise set loose.’ Sleep put her under and Sleep lets her go. Her dream is contained, an immersive experience encircled by ὕπνος. It’s something she has to be freed from or create a disturbance within sufficient enough to return her to the waking world, where we have versions to reconcile and an enactor to update. A dream of strangers, a girl estranged, and in relation to its models a little strange itself.

Homeric Sleep and Dreams

Genres can [be] described as contexts that define the degree to which the consciousness factor must be foregrounded for a story to count as a prototypical instance (or “standard case”) of that narrative kind. What it’s like, in other words, is likely to be coded in a more explicit way in a Henry James novel, or for that matter in a tale of the supernatural like Monica’s, than in a narrative that, like Hemingway’s, seeks to innovate upon the literary system precisely by omitting or suppressing narratorial reports of characters’ attitudes, dispositions, and emotional states. But different degrees of explicitness or detail in the representation of consciousness should not be confused with the option either to evoke what it is like for human or human-like agents to undergo experiences in storyworlds or else to factor out that dimension altogether.
(Herman 2009: 142)

We have observed that it is ὕπνος that acts on Medea. ὕπνος is commonly a release; it brings respite from pain (though that proved misdirection in our passage!). εὖτε τὸν ὕπνος ἔμαρπτε, λύων μελεδήματα θυμοῦ, | λυσιμελής was the sleep Athena poured on Odysseus (‘As sleep took its hold on Odysseus, loosening the cares of his heart and relaxing his body’, Od. 20.56-7, trans. Hammond). And the sleep Athena granted Penelope provides a model for our frame setting; both positioning of enactor and staging of location.

ἔνθ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἄλλ᾽ ἐνόησε θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη·
κούρῃ Ἰκαρίοιο κατὰ γλυκὺν ὕπνον ἔχευεν,
εὗδε δ᾽ ἀνακλινθεῖσα, λύθεν δέ οἱ ἅψεα πάντα
αὐτοῦ ἐνὶ κλιντῆρι·

Od. 18.187-90

Then the bright-eyed goddess Athene thought of one more plan. She shed a sweet sleep over the daughter of Ikarios. Penelope sank back there on the bed and slept, and all her limbs were relaxed. (trans. Hammond)

Penelope’s sleep is sweet (γλυκὺν), and on that occasion, she does not dream. Elsewhere she does; of her twenty geese and the eagle that kills them, a dream she relates to the disguised Odysseus (Od. 20. 535-553). On the tradition of the presentation of dreams, Martin West (1997: 185) writes, ‘In poetic narrative they serve dramatic purpose, filling the recipient with hope, encouragement or alarm, or providing him with guidance on actions he should undertake.’ He divides them thus: the message dream in which a deity delivers information and the symbolic dream which is prophetic and requires interpretation. Penelope’s dream manages to combine prophecy and interpretation when the eagle explains its own symbolism. A talking eagle fails to assure her though and her narrating the dream to Odysseus leads her into the twin gates theory.

‘Friend [Stranger], dreams are puzzling things, their message hard to fathom – not all that they promise men is fulfilled. There are two gates for insubstantial dreams to come through: one is made of horn, and one of ivory. Those that come through the gates of sawn ivory, these are the dreams that delude and speak of things that will not be: while the dreams that come out through the polished horn prove their truth in all reality for any man who sees such a dream.’ (Od. 19.560-67, trans. Hammond)

For the Odyssey’s attentive reader, ἠπεροπῆες in the Argonautica’s text might serve as a trigger that recalls Penelope’s explication of theory and such a reader might then enter Medea’s dreamworld mindful of gates of ivory. Destructive dreams? Gods have sent them too.

ἥδε δέ οἱ κατὰ θυμὸν ἀρίστη φαίνετο βουλή,
πέμψαι ἐπ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι οὖλον ὄνειρον·

Il. 2.5-6

This seemed the best plan to his mind, to send to Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, a destructive dream.

Zeus, eager to punish the Achaeans, sends a messenger dream to Agamemnon. The dream, taking the form of Nestor, enters the mind of the sleeping king and persuades him to initiate a battle that will go badly. The Homeric narrator intrudes to leave the reader in no doubt as to that outcome.

ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας ἀπεβήσετο, τὸν δ’ ἔλίπ᾽ αὐτοῦ
τὰ φρονέοντ᾽ ἀνὰ θυμὸν ἅ ῥ᾽ οὐ τελέεσθαι ἔμελλον.
φῆ γὰρ ὅ γ᾽ αἱρήσειν Πριάμου πόλιν ἤματι κείνῳ,
νήπιος, οὐδὲ τὰ ᾔδη ἅ ῥα Ζεὺς μήδετο ἔργα·

Il. 2.35-8

So speaking it went away, and left him there thinking in his heart things which would not come to pass. For he actually thought that he would take Priam’s city on that very day. What a fool! He knew nothing of the deeds which Zeus was planning.

Who sends dreams to Medea? In my reading, it is the dreaming Medea’s perception but is it her conception? Ζεὺς μήδετο: ‘Zeus was devising/planning/contriving’. Μήδομαι (mēdomai) Medea. Who medeas Medea? We could flick ahead.

                                ὧς γὰρ τόδε μήδετο Ἥρη,
ὄφρα κακὸν Πελίῃ ἱερὴν ἐς Ἰωλκὸν ἵκοιτο
Αἰαίη Μήδεια λιποῦσ᾽ ἄ πατρίδα γαῖαν.

A.R. 3.1134-6

For so Hera contrived this, that she would come to holy Iolcus to be a bane to Pelias, Aeaean Medea, leaving her native land.

Could we imagine ὄνειροι as a bunch of messenger dreams sent by Hera, acting out parts on the stage of Medea’s mind, playing at ‘parents and stranger’? Possibly. The degree to which tradition, intertexts and spoilers adjust the reading also depends upon how rigid or flexible we are as readers in updating our epic schema and pre-existing dream script. There are similarities, clearly, but is Medea’s dream a messenger dream or a symbolic dream? Or is it her dream? Is it ‘what it’s like’ to be inside her mind at that point in the narrative, in that frame?

To explore that more fully, we’d need to look at our experience of her up until this point in the narrative. We’d have to look at Eros’ shot and analyse the presentation of its effect to create our mental model of Medea’s emotional state prior to the dream. That emotional state we can then update. Just as she does. Upon waking, she speaks aloud to her empty room. She evaluates the dream-experience. She self-updates. And in Part 2 (because there’s always a Part 2), we’ll extend the narrative into speech and subsequent action, comparing e.g. the decisiveness of ‘dreaming girl’ with the vacillations of the woken and still processing Medea. For now, I’ll finish with the translation of ‘what happened next’.

Up she started, shaking, afraid; round and around
she scanned her room’s walls. She steadied just barely
her heart in her chest and heaved out a deep sigh.
‘I’m a coward. How worried bad dreams have made me!
I fear it brings some terrible evil, this journey
of heroes – my thoughts made flighty by the stranger.
Let him court an Achaean girl in his own land far away;
virginity should be my concern, my family, and my home.
All the same, no longer apart, and heart set like a dog’s,
I’ll question my own sister. She might beg me
to help in the trial, since she is in pain for her sons
–  that may quench the bitter pain in my heart.’

She spoke, stood up and opened the bedroom doors,
barefoot in her slip. She longed to go to her sister
and to cross over the threshold into the court.
But in the vestibule, she paused, stuck long to the spot,
shut out by her shame. She turned around again, again
she turned back – she went inside again, again
she went back – and there and back, ferried on useless feet.
Whenever roused by desire, her shame held her back;
when held back by shame, a wild longing stirred her.
Three times she tried, three times she checked. The fourth
she whirled round and fell, face down, on her bed.

As when in her room, a bride mourns the young husband
to whom brothers and parents gave her as companion,
and still she does not mix with all her attendants
out of modesty and shame, but curled in a corner weeps.
Some fate destroyed him before each had enjoyed
what the other had. And though her insides are on fire
when staring at the widowed bed, she cries in silence
lest the married women scoff at her and mock.
Like her Medea lamented.
A.R. 3.633-64


Herman, D. (2009) Basic Elements of Narrative, Oxford.
Stockwell, P. (2002) Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, London.
West, M. (1997) The East Face of Helicon, Oxford.

Further Reading on the Web

the living handbook of Narratology – Experientiality
Mind-modelling and classroom interaction
Foregrounding in ‘Gormenghast’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’
Feeling for others and understanding them through literature
Navigating the intentional world: stories, viewpoints, and social cognition
The Phenomenological We

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