Seneca's Use Of Sacrifice In Medea

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Throughout the course of Seneca’s tragedy, Medea exhibits several egregious departures from traditional Roman religion. These departures are almost too numerous to be fully outlined here, but their occurrences can be roughly divided into prayer/speech and sacrifice/action. This first part will address prayer and religious language. Such departure is evident from the beginning of the play, where, as classics professor Harry Hine (1989) argues, “Seneca has created a conflict between Medea and the Chorus, who are competing for support of the gods” (Hine, p. 413). Hine observes the fact that both parties address “identical” deities and include mirroring language in their respective prayers but, of course, for opposite purposes – one is a curse,…show more content…
It is, first and foremost, critical to understand that Medea’s sacrifice of her children – as well as Creon and Creusa – are indeed sacrifices in the religious sense, not simply murders. At the climax of the play, she exclaims to her brother’s ghost “victima manes tuos placamus ista” (970-971). Classicist Celia Schultz (2010) states that Latin religious language included “victima” to refer to “sacrificial victim[s]” (Schultz, p. 530). Furthermore, “sacrifice”, Schultz (2010) argues, “has a recipient: it must be offered to…someone” (Schultz, p. 518). Medea’s sacrifice is consistent with this, for she, as classical philologist Eckard Lefèvre (1981) argues, “portrays the murder of her sons as a sacrifice to her dolor” (Lefèvre, p.35). Consequently, Medea’s sacrifice is consistent with the language and basic structure of normal Roman sacrifice, and understanding this distinction carries several implications for Medea’s usage of religion in the play and its inherent distortions. That Medea’s sacrificing humans is in fact a distortion of traditional Roman practice is superficially easily confirmed; under Roman tenets, “rites involving human sacrifice were illegal,” were “regarded as a monstrous perversion of legitimate animal sacrifice…and” were “utterly ‘foreign’” (Beard, North, & Price, 1998, p. 233-234). The operative word, however, is…show more content…
These distortions include her relationships with the gods as a mortal, and her role as a woman. A fundamental component of Roman religion, and something on much religious scholarship elaborates, is “the theme of reciprocity” between gods and humans (Ando, 2009, p. 33). As Thomas Martin (2012) explains, the act of sacrifice, among other rituals, served to express “recogni[tion]” of “the…asymmetrical” mortal-immortal relationship, one in which the divine held “overwhelming power” (Martin, p. 39). The Romans – and Greeks – understood their divinities to be capricious and not particularly loving, hence the obedience rituals were thought to afford (Martin, 2012, p. 39-40). Moreover, as historian John Scheid (2011) notes, “Roman sacrifice was, to ancient eyes, first and foremost, a banquet” by which the “superiority and immortality…and the mortality and pious submission” inherent to gods and man respectively might be evinced (Scheid, p. 270). Medea’s sacrifice lacks this reciprocity. Immediately before sacrificing her first child, Medea commands “Discedere a me, frater, ultrices deas manesque ad imos ire securas iube” (967-968). That she intends to sacrifice her children without the rightful authority of “ultrices deas” and instead under the supervision of her “frater” – and in some ways his being her sibling makes him an extension of
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