Greek Tragedy & Heavy Metal, Pt. 3: Euripides

Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BCE) is the Vincent Van Gogh of Greek literature. His innovative approaches to the art of Attic tragedy were little appreciated during his lifetime, and even mocked by comedians such as Aristophanes, and he earned few first-place victories in the tragic competitions at the Dionysia festival. However, it was only after his death that his genius came into vogue, and his dramatic technique would inspire subsequent tragedy and comedy both. His popularity in the remainder of antiquity, which persisted well into the Byzantine era, partly accounts for the fact that while only seven complete plays apiece survive of Aeschylus and Sophocles, 19 of his 95 total plays have survived the ravages of history. 

Aristotle, while preferring Sophocles, nevertheless calls Euripides “the most tragic” of playwrights. Indeed, his plays are packed with strong emotions, violent death, a sense of helplessness both against the cruelty of gods and mortals alike, and against the irrational instincts that overpower our rational faculties. Such elements in and of themselves did not necessarily alienate Euripides’ audience and critics, but they were combined with a creativity and novelty that many were not ready for. Euripides experimented with poetic meters, playing something like jazz or prog rock for those used to classic(al) styles. Rather than sticking to the elevated language of the tragic genre, his characters spoke, and looked, more down to earth and identifiable with the everyday citizen rather than as larger-than-life, noble heroes and heroines. Showing the influence on Euripides of contemporary philosophers and sophists, these characters used this language to engage in highly rhetorical debates over the nature of justice and religion. Finally, Euripides’ portrayal of the Olympian gods as petty, brazen, selfish, and immoral beings earned him accusations of blasphemy and atheism. He was an artist and thinker ahead of his time, who despite his inclusion among the Athenian intelligentsia, led a lonely, introverted existence, and his unpopularity eventually drove him out of town, to where he spent his final days at the court of the Macedonians. 

Euripides - Wikipedia
Bust Euripides. Roman marble copy of c. 330 BCE Greek original. Rome.

Given Euripides’ iconoclastic and irreverent approaches to the tragic stage, one would think his plays readily adaptable to heavy metal music. However, this potential remains largely untapped. Most of Euripides’ plays remain too obscure to grab the attention of metal bands. Yet this may also be due to many of the plays’ focus on the heroism and plight of women, such as Trojan Women, Hecuba, Andromache, Hippolytus, and Iphigenia at Aulis. Traditionally, metal’s reception of classical antiquity has privileged the male heroes. They infrequently cast mythical and historical women as the protagonists in their songs, more often portraying them as antagonists, as we have seen with both Medusa and Cleopatra. This is not to say there are examples of protagonistic women in metal, Antigone being our most recent example along with the two aforementioned. The two exceptions to this dearth of Euripidean metal are Medea and the Bacchae, to which we now turn. 

Medea was the first tragedy I read in the original Greek, and for many this is the first, if only exposure to Euripides in any language. Its title character, equally magnetic and repellant, is one of the most powerful and complex in all of classical literature, male or female. Her backstory, which Euripides’ audience knew as they entered the Theater of Dionysus in 431 BCE, is familiar to readers of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica and/or viewers of Jason and the Argonauts, a tale itself with a number of heavy metal adaptations. Medea is the princess of the eastern kingdom of Colchis (on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Georgia), the daughter of Aeetes and thus granddaughter of the sun god Helios. As a priestess of the chthonic goddess Hecate, Medea is also adept in the arts of magic. When Jason and the Argonauts put in to Colchis in their quest for Aeetes’ Golden Fleece, Jason’s patron goddess Hera persuades Aphrodite to send her son Eros on a sniper mission, in order to make Medea fall in love with Jason and therefore assist him in his quest. For Aeetes would not surrender the fleece unless Jason succeeds in the impossible task of yoking two fire breathing bulls, sowing a field with dragon’s teeth, and defeating the warriors that spring up therefrom. Medea is so overcome by passion that she is willing to betray her family and escape with Jason as his betrothed. She gives Jason a magical ointment that makes him invincible, and charms to sleep the dragon that was guarding the fleece. The two lovers flee Colchis with the Argonauts as Aeetes pursues. In the process Jason and Medea capture her brother Apsyrtus, butcher him, and throw his body parts overboard for their grieving father to stop and collect. 

Jason and Medea reach Iolcus in Greece, where his uncle Pelias still refuses to give up the throne despite being brought the fleece as agreed. Medea then plots his murder by persuading Pelias’ daughters that, if they cut up their father into bits and threw the bits into her witch’s brew, he would emerge rejuvenated. This is a lie. Yet so shocked were the citizens of Iolcus by this act that they drove Jason and Medea out of town, and they migrate to Corinth where they settle down and have children. 

Georges Moreau de Tours, L’Assassinat de Pélias par ses Filles. 1878.

This sets up the events that immediately precede Euripides’ play. Jason, whose marriage to a foreigner offered him no political prospects, repudiates Medea and weds Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. The play begins with Medea’s reaction to this rejection, where she addresses the chorus of Corinthian women with one of the most iconic speeches in all of classical literature:

Of all things that have life and mind, we women are the most wretched creatures. First we must purchase a husband with an abundance of money, and receive a master over our bodies. For this is a yet more woeful evil than evil. And here is the greatest trial, whether you receive a bad man or good. For divorces give women no good repute, nor is it possible to refuse a husband. Arriving into new customs and laws, one must be a prophet, not having learned at home how best to deal with her bedfellow. And if we perform these tasks well and our husbands live with us without resenting the marriage yoke, our life is enviable. But if not, we might as well die. A man, whenever he’s tired of dealing with people indoors, goes outside and delivers his heart from vexation, turning to a friend or age mate. But we are forced to look at one person only. They say that we, living at home, have a life free from danger, while they fight with a spear. Their thinking is wrong. I would rather stand with a shield three times than give birth once! 

Medea 230-251, my translation

Following this, Medea remarks that unlike the women of the chorus, her own status as not only an immigrant (and a “barbarian” immigrant at that) as well as her reputation for being “clever” (sophos) bring additional social challenges. Indeed, Medea’s fame as a wise and willful sorceress is held against her when king Creon arrives and commands her to go with her children into exile, so that he and the royal family may feel safe from her. She begs him to allow her one day to get her affairs in order, which he reluctantly grants. Medea now has all the time she needs to exact her revenge on Jason by killing the princess, her father, and even the children Medea had with Jason. In a feigned gesture to persuade the princess Glauce to intercede with her father to at least let Medea’s children stay, Medea sends the children to the princess with gifts of a robe and crown. However, these items contain a deadly poison, and when Glauce puts them on her skin begins to melt and she dies a ghastly, excruciating death. When Creon rushes in he embraces his daughter’s corpse, and he too dies as a result of contact with the toxin. Jason hurries to confront Medea, but it is too late. Despite several moments in the play where she hesitates to proceed with her filicidal plan, she puts her own children to the sword, and the play ends as she flies away to Athens, borne by her grandfather Helios’ chariot drawn by winged dragons. 

A Guide to Euripides' Medea | Getty Iris
Medea flees on her dragon chariot as Jason (left) looks on, and her dead sons (right) lie on an altar. Policoro Painter. Lucanian red-fire calyx. c. 400 BCE. Cleveland.

The Medea shocked its Athenian audience, as it would seem that Medea’s murder of her children was a Euripidean innovation on the myth. While some modern readers see in this play the mind of a proto-feminist who exposes the condition of women as that of an oppressed second class, Athenian contemporaries accused Euripides of brazen misogyny for portraying mythical women as schemers and murderers with unbridled passions. The comedian Aristophanes, through the female characters in his own plays, alleged that Euripides made the men of Athens suspicious and fearful of their own wives. Euripides’ own views are hard for us to discern, as all we have are his characters, and we cannot assume he speaks through any of them. Regardless of what her creator might have thought of his creation, the Medea of her eponymous tragedy is an irresistible force of nature who is at the same time all-too-human in her passions and doubts. In a play without any personal intervention by the gods, Medea usurps the divine apparatus and orchestrates the entire plot in order to punish Jason’s betrayal, using her powers of persuasion and witchcraft to achieve total victory and, like the gods, suffer no penalty for her crimes. In admiration or horror, we cannot take our eyes off Medea. 

The first song ever written on Medea is by the Greek heavy metal band Northwind. Their 1987 album Mythology was the first heavy metal record devoted entirely to classical themes. “Medea” is a third-person meditation on Medea’s actions and character throughout her mythological career:

Jason betrayed Medea in a king’s way
He would marry a queen
Medea was asked to go away
Pain shows all over her skin

She was good when
she betrayed her father
And had the nation
on his knees

She was good when
she killed her brother
To take a place among
the kings of Greece

Now Medea’s bad, Medea’s old
Bad and old lady
Medea’s bad, Medea’s old
Jason wants a young bride
Didn’t wonder if she could

The pain of birth is now forgotten
The knife cut tender throats
The bride suffered a death so rotten
The poet kept all notes

The sun will give her shadow no shape
Insane eyes will meet no laughing boys
No one will ever disturb her mad escape
Pain and hatred are no toys

She will hear her children
Cry for life
She’ll always wonder if she’s right
Logic for her
Is now out of sight
Jason’s led out of his mind

Revenge is so sweet
Forgets what she did
She wants Jason
on his knees
Just for a day

It’s no more yesterday
You know what I mean
Face the pain you caused
The pain is all yours

The song begins much as the play, when Medea’s enslaved nurse reports to the audience of Jason’s new marriage and Medea’s mental and physical state. We are invited to sympathize with the rejected wife, as the song then reflects, and in an ironic tone, on the paradoxical morality of Medea’s actions from Jason’s perspective. He had no qualms with her betrayal of Aeetes or the murder of Apsyrtus, but now he rejects her because she is old. The song largely ignores, perhaps rightly, the political calculus that Jason alleges is behind his choice to marry Glauce, and instead casts him as a shallow fellow who only loves women who are young and beautiful. However, this song is far from a justification of Medea’s actions, as it proceeds to characterize the killing of her children and of the princess in quite judgmental terms: she abjures her motherhood as she cuts the “tender throats,” while Glauce’s death is “so rotten.” The remark that “the poet kept all the notes” alludes to Euripides’ account, through a messenger speech, of the graphic details of Glauce’s death scene. At this point, the narrator treats Medea with contempt, attributing her deeds to an irrational thirst for revenge, to see Jason “on his knees / just for a day.” While Euripides portrays Medea in frequent moments of doubt as to whether she could follow through with her infanticidal plan, Northwind transfer that doubt to after the deed, assured that the memory of her children will always haunt her, and she will live the rest of her life in regret. To Northwind, killing the children was far from the necessary course or logical outcome of the myth. Looking at Medea from the perspective of an everyday Greek, Northwind match the viewpoint of Euripides’ chorus of Corinthian women, who at first sympathize with Medea, but react negatively to the outcome of her scheme. Like the original Athenian audience, Northwind, while having no love for Jason, ultimately condemn the Colchian sorceress. 

While Northwind acted as Euripides’ chorus, later adaptations play the role of Medea herself. As we have seen with other artists who give figures such as Medusa and Cleopatra a voice, these are often bands fronted by women. Benighted Soul are a French symphonic metal band whose song “Medea’s Anger” was released on their 2008 EP Anesidora. The track begins with an address to Jason, which, like the Northwind song, alludes to the betrayals and fratricides she committed for Jason’s sake: “Did you forget all that I have left behind, that I’ve sacrificed?” She vows vengeance on her erstwhile husband: “You will suffer my revenge.” Despite this resolution, the song’s refrain channels the same inner conflict that Euripides’ Medea experiences. Yet while that Medea expressed it through monologue, Benighted Soul perform it with two separate vocalists:

“Medea hear my voice.” I can’t!
“You have to do this.” Get out!
“There’s no other way.”
You’re not my conscience voice!
“You have to kill them,
Kill them!”

While the rest of the song is sung cleanly by lead vocalist Géraldine Gadaut, the quoted lines of this refrain are delivered in rough, death metal style vocals by bassist Jean-Gabriel Bocciarelli, representing an inner demon who urges Medea to kill her children. This inner dialogue is an inversion of the classical model, where Medea hesitates due to the voice of her conscience, like the daimon of Socrates who only speaks to him to prevent him from sinning. Benighted Soul’s Medea explicitly denies that this is the voice of her conscience, but some external entity that attempts to possess her. Rather than a perpetrator in spite of her conscience, this casts Medea more as a victim of a spirit of vengeance not unlike that which plagues the House of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Ultimately this spirit wins out, and she addresses her children apologetically: “What could I do but release all this rage inside of me, all these sufferings? / Angels of mine, you were my greatest hope, but I can stand your eyes no more / ‘Cause they’re your father’s pride.” Controlled by her demonic rage, Medea claims her actions are the inevitable result of what she suffered at Jason’s hands. Killing them is the only way to take revenge on him, not only to make him suffer, but to erase her memory of him. While Euripides does not represent Medea’s psychology as influenced externally and supernaturally, Benighted Soul’s representation of Medea’s anger is essentially Euripidean, comparable to the divinities that influence characters like Phaedra (Hippolytus), Orestes (Orestes), and Pentheus and Agave (Bacchae). Euripidean tragedy frequently dwells on the power our irrational passions often hold over our sense of logic and moderation, and heavy metal also frequently explores the extremes of humanity’s violent and bestial instincts. Benighted Soul do not go so far as excusing Medea’s actions, but through this song they make her point of view comprehensible, if not relatable. 

We now come to the centerpiece of our discussion of the Medea, a whole concept album devoted to her by the Dutch symphonic metal band Ex Libris, titled Medea after the play. The band’s website states that the album is on “the Greek tragedy of Medea and her lover Jason.” They mean tragedy in a broader sense, as the record traces her whole mythological journey from her love at first sight of Jason in Colchis to the bodies of her dead children lying on her lap. This final image correspond to the lyrics of the final song “From Rebirth to Bloodshed”: “Cradled within my heart lay the treasures from my womb.” This is also the image depicted on the cover artwork, in which Medea cradles her dead children while still holding a bloody dagger, tears rolling down her anguished face. This illustration sets the tone for how the album portrays Medea. She does not relish the deed, but commits it out of necessity. 

The first half of the album covers the events of the Argonautica. The first song “Medea” covers the beginning of Jason and Medea’s romance as she helps him steal the golden fleece and escape with her from Colchis. The track gives a strong impression of how strong a character Ex Libris’ Medea is. She introduces herself in the manner of a classical Greek hero, with a desire to be the best and for her name to live on forever: “I Medea will not be dethroned / Where I go my name shall be known.” Mythologists would call this Medea a hero-impersonator, who like Clytemnestra and Atalanta transgresses gender roles and aspires to masculine power and privilege, often with a negative result. “Murderess in Me” covers Aeetes’ maritime pursuit and Medea’s murder of her brother Apsyrtus, which she commits in brutal fashion with no sense of regret. Perhaps foreshadowing the murder of her children, she claims that sentiment only gets in the way of one’s purpose: “Do I believe in memories when memories cloud my belief?” The fourth song, “My Dream I Dream” can be read as Medea’s wedding vows to Jason: “Caress me in a life and our love grow old / Through the years that pass us by / Vow yourself to us, raise me up with love.” Those familiar with the whole tale will feel the tragic irony in these words, as Jason will break these vows and their love will not last to old age. The relative brevity of this marriage (despite the production of children: “This journey will entwine us as we create a new life”) is suggested in abrupt fashion as the very next track, “Song of Discord,” synchronizes with the start of the Euripidean leg of her relay. 

“Song of Discord” is a duet between Ex Libris’ vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen and guest vocalist Damian Wilson, which corresponds to the scene in the Medea where Jason and Medea have their first conversation since he married Glauce. The track begins with sung exchanges, with Jason’s lines in parentheses:

Your love saved me! (Your love enslaved me!)
Dear old friend
(I come to thee at last to say that you are now banned from this land and heart)
Hush my love (Medea, I beg you)
Lay down your rage (be gone from my sight)
Let our love ignite! (We will not reunite)
Your love saved me, your love embraced me!
(Medea you enslaved me)
Liar! (Killer!) Vulture! (Robber!) Cursed be the bones of thy fathers!

Jason takes the role of Creon in proclaiming Medea’s exile from Corinth, while Medea takes this opportunity to desperately beg for Jason to take her back. The exchange of “Your love saved me! (Your love enslaved me!)” is a curious reversal of the myth as it was Medea’s love that saved Jason from Aeetes, while Medea was functionally enslaved to her passion for Jason through the machinations of goddesses. Instead, Medea suggests that their romance liberated her from the control of her family, while Jason alleges that his love for Medea made him subordinate to her, and he desires a relationship where he is in command. The song then transitions to a spoken-word dialogue between the vocalists that resembles the stichomythia of Attic theater delivered in the iambic trimeters that resemble spoken Greek. It sticks closely to Euripides’ version of the conversation, where Jason blames Medea’s excessive show of anger for the king’s decision to exile her, and alleges that he had her and the children’s best interests at heart in trying to provide for them in their exile. In short, Jason finds Medea’s outspokenness and display of emotion unacceptable. Medea, on the other hand, denounces Jason as a shameless coward with no gratitude for the sacrifices she made for him. She also acknowledges that her passion had overcome her good sense: “My love for you was greater than my wisdom!” Following this acrimony, they return to sung verses and end the song by singing in tandem “Is it love that kills us now?” According to Ex Libris, the story of Medea is a lesson in the dangers that love can lead to, especially when it motivates betrayal. 

In “A Mother’s Lament” Medea addresses her children and turns inward, voicing her regret for ever having loved Jason. The refrain laments “Oh father! My betrayal, betrayed me now! / Oh brother! My betrayal, betrayed me now! / This cruel man, my equal, makes me a vow!” She acknowledges that, in a Dantean contrappasso, her acts of betrayal are now being punished by being betrayed, and that she and Jason are now alike as traitors. This crime passes also to her children: “Traitor blood runs in their veins.” Reflecting an ancient Greek notion expressed in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the sins of the father are visited upon his sons, as Adam’s original sin is inherited by all his descendants. With this song we see the sense of guilt Medea holds, and even of the justice of what she has endured. We also get the first hint of her children’s fate, as she will take on the responsibility of reversing a family curse lest it continue in the next generation. 

In “Daughter of Corinth” Medea directs her vengeance on Creon’s daughter Glauce: “Jason may not feel for me but his bride you’ll never be.” If Jason will not have her, he cannot have anyone. It is in this song that, as we have seen in previous adaptations, Medea externalizes her spirit of vengeance into some embodied entity that directs her actions: “My revenge is a treasured friend and you will not escape me.” This statement also suggests Medea’s loneliness, alienated from her family, her husband, and even her children. Those children’s fate is sealed in the final track, “From Rebirth to Bloodshed.” Here Medea unleashes her unfettered rage at Jason: “Filthy scum! You shattered my world! / Your bloodline dies, I will be heard!” By eliminating Jason’s bloodline, Medea plays on the anxieties of ancient Greek society, the concern to sire sons who would not only inherit the household, but also maintain the cult of the family ancestors. With this act, Medea also, as we heard her declare in the opening track, secures her immortal fame:

Abandoned I no longer cherish fate
Born through love, my sons will die through hate
A mother’s heart I will possess no more!
Revenge is mine and mine alone
I Medea will not be dethroned!

As the spirit of vengeance becomes her only companion, Medea abjures her motherhood, confident that her act will bring undying fame, even if it is infamy. However, the final lines, which correspond to the album artwork as noted above, betray a tone of, not necessarily regret, but pain at this act of filicide: “My treasures lay cradled, cradled in this bloodshed / Medea a tale told from birth to bloodshed.” Here Euripides is audibly echoed: “I bewail the sort of deed that I must do now, for I will kill my own.” (Med. 791-793)

Ex Libris’ Medea brings to life a forceful heroine who is as resolute as she is reflective. She is conscious of her own sins, but determined to leave her mark on history rather than accept the status of a marginalized victim of male heroes. While Euripides’ Medea appeals to Zeus as the champion of her cause, Ex Libris’ Medea thinks in purely secular terms, neither blaming the gods for her falling in love, nor subordinating herself as the instrument of divine vengeance. She maintains her agency in her determination to finish on top. Nevertheless, she acknowledges the costs and sacrifices needed to achieve that goal, admitting that hatred is an isolating emotion. Is her solitude worth it?

Not all bands who sing from Medea’s point of view are necessarily fronted by women, as in the case of the Greek heavy/power metal band Battleroar and their song “The Curse of Medea” on their 2014 album Blood of Legends. Musically, the song trudges along at a moderate pace accompanied by Gerrit Mutz’s mournful vocals. The song is a monologue delivered by Medea to her children. In the first two stanzas she laments the extent of her suffering and expresses her wish that she herself could die: “I am a wretched suffering woman / Oh how I wish that I could die.” Evidence of Battleroar’s direct reading of Euripides, the song opens with the very first lines that Medea delivers in the play: “Oh, I am wretched and miserable in my sufferings / Ah me, how I wish I could die!” (Med. 96-97) In the song she also cries “What gain is life to me?” which corresponds to the line in the play “what gain is there for me to keep living?” (Med. 145)  Yet halfway through the song her thoughts turn from suicide to homicide when reflecting on the situation at hand: “I did bind that accursed one / By these strong oaths to me / Oh to see him and his bride / Brought of utter destruction.” These are all but a direct quotation of the Euripidean Medea (Med. 161-164). Her reference to the marital oaths is key to Medea’s theological reasoning in the play, as she repeatedly claims to act with the blessing of Zeus, the god who punishes oathbreakers. In the next stanza she adds another theological dimension to her revenge: The fierce black fury of my wrath / A bitter cry of mortal lamentation / I call on to the cursed traitor / You’ll pay for this humiliation.” Much like Benighted Soul in “Medea’s Anger,” Battleroar conceive of her vengeful spirit as an external force that drives her, as one of the Furies. Ironically, these are goddesses who punish those who murder their own kin, as Medea is about to do. But Battleroar place them in the role of Zeus in the play, as the guardians of oaths.

So far, her anger and need for retaliation seem warranted, until the song reaches the three-quarter mark. Here the pace picks up and the vocals turn vicious as she declares “Poor children, your mortal blood is mine.” While Euripides’ audience was likely not yet familiar with any version of the myth in which Medea kills her children, nevertheless from the very beginning the play he dropped heavy hints that the filicide would occur. Battleroar, on the other hand, do not prepare the listener for this result, intending a shocking finale to this dirge of lamentation. Despite this, Battleroar’s “Curse of Medea” is one of the most faithful adaptations of the Medea in metal, and shows how even the text of Greek tragedy needs little alteration to be suitable metal lyrics. 

The most recent reception of Medea in heavy metal comes from the Greek black metal band Kawir, a group devoted entirely to ancient Greek mythology and religion. Their 2019 album Αδράστεια (Adrasteia) coheres around the concept of retribution (Adrasteia is an epithet of the goddess Nemesis), especially retribution involving women. Such is suggested by the cover artwork, which features the 1878 painting The Murder of Pelias by His Daughters by Georges Moreau de Tour (seen above). Pelias’ daughters murdered him after being tricked by Medea into believing that if they butchered him and threw them into her cauldron, he would emerge rejuvenated. Such was Jason and Medea’s retribution on the king who refused to give up his throne despite their delivery of the golden fleece.

Kawir - Adrasteia | Iron Bonehead Productions

Feminine retribution is featured in each song: Athena’s denial of immortality to Tydeus for his cannibalism of Melanippus’ brains (“Tydeus”); Hera’s transformation of Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions for copulating in her temple (“Atalanti”); the punishment of the daughters of Danaus in the Underworld for murdering their 50 husbands on their wedding night (“Danaides”); Aphrodite’s punishment of the women of Lemnos who denied her worship, and so she made them repugnant to their husbands whom they subsequently all murdered (“Limniades”). The final track is “Medea,” translated from Modern Greek below by Dr. Ioulia Kolovou:

Medea, the daughter of Aietes, who cut up Apsyrtos
And scattered his parts in the Black Sea
Medea the witch,
Medea, fratricide, poisoner.
Medea abominable, Medea sorceress,
Medea the enchantress, Medea of the black soul.

The daughter of Hecate, in a dank cave
In a distant land was joined in matrimony to the conceited Jason
In Corinth she was crowned queen with a crown of blood.
She gave Glauce gifts of death; she wiped out Mermeros and Pheres
She who gifted them life, grants death as her final gift
She cuts out their lives with a blood-dripping hand, tainting the fruit of her womb.

Justice does not dwell in the eyes of mortals without you knowing what they are hiding in their hearts. You hate them at first sight even if they haven’t done you any wrong.

Monstrous Medea, Medea the witch,
Medea the enchantress, Medea of the black soul,
Medea Murderess.

To Kawir, Medea fits the archetype of the heavy metal witch, an evil sorceress from Hell. “Daughter of Hecate” (rather than of Aeetes’ wife Idyia) is a hellenizing equivalent of “child of Satan.” The heavy metal witch is viewed with a sense of awe, both idolized for her antagonism to established religion and morality, but also feared for her threat to masculine hegemony. Often this witch is sexualized, her attractiveness paralleling her magical enchantments. But Kawir’s Medea does not possess these qualities, unless we read too much into the word “enchantress” (πλανεύτρα). Rather, this Medea resembles another formidable figure eulogized by heavy metal bands ever since Venom did so back in 1982: Elizabeth Bathory. This sixteenth-century Hungarian countess tortured and murdered scores of young women, and rumors spread that she bathed in the blood of her victims in order to retain eternal youth and beauty. Kawir’s Medea, like Bathory, is pure evil, bathed in blood, and a sadistic serial killer who shows no remorse in slaying her own brother, or children, or people who had done her no wrong (like, you know, Jason). Such unmitigated evil exerts an allure upon the listener, drawn to her tale as to a horror film. Kawir’s Medea is not a protagonist, an anti-hero, or even a villain who sees their cause as just. She is the embodiment of metaphysical evil, whose motives defy our comprehension. That is the key to her magnetism.

In terms of direct adaptations of Euripidean tragedy, Medea has a monopoly in heavy metal, with one exception. There is a single band who adapts Euripides’ final play, Bacchae, about the revenge of the god Dionysus on the city of Thebes for rejecting his divinity. While there is only one band who directly engage with this play, Dionysus is in fact one of the most popular Greek gods invoked in heavy metal music. A search in Metal Archives for “Dionysus” in lyrics renders 87 results, with roughly as many for “Bacchus.” As the god of wine, Dionysus is readily incorporated into the pantheon of a heavy metal subculture that celebrates indulgence and drunkenness. But Dionysus is much more than that: he is the divinity of spiritual and sensual liberation, who encourages the release of our irrational, bestial instincts, and to step outside our everyday personas and experiment with new identities. Heavy metal culture also traditionally deals in that currency, whether in lyrics, imagery, or the choreography of a concert, where musicians and fans often dress in special clothing, indulge in alcohol and other substances, and headbang and mosh themselves into a frenzied state, while the music itself induces a spiritual high. Finally, Dionysus is often depicted in metal as an avatar of Satan, a god of liberation from the ethical codes of established society. 

Dionysus’ reception in heavy metal is an essay by itself, and here I will focus only on the reception of the Bacchae by the American symphonic power metal band Lumus, in a tetralogy of songs on their 2012 album Bacchus Curse. The album artwork features a mask of Dionysus dripping with blood, which suggests the band’s debt to the play itself. 

The background to the play is the origin of Dionysus, conceived by Zeus’ liaison with a mortal woman, the Theban Semele. Hera, ever jealous of Zeus’ philanderings, typically punishes the victims of her husband’s sexual conquests, and she tricks Semele, now pregnant, into doubting whether her lover was actually Zeus and into asking Zeus to swear by the river Styx (an unbreakable oath) to grant her any wish. When he swears and she discloses that her wish is that he reveal himself in his true divine form, he has no choice but to comply. Like the Ark of the Covenant, the radiance of Zeus’ divinity causes Semele to burst into flame and die. Zeus rescues the fetal Dionysus and sews him into his thigh, so that when he comes to term he is born as a full god rather than a demigod. After various adventures growing up Dionysus eventually sets out for the East, spreading the gospel of his divinity, collecting an entourage of various beings, including female worshippers called maenads or bacchae. He eventually returns to Greece and his hometown of Thebes, where he discovers that Semele’s sisters, including Agave, have spread the report that Semele lied about her affair with Zeus, and that she was struck by his thunderbolt for this falsehood. Thus, anyone claiming to be the son of Zeus and Semele cannot be a god. 

The play itself begins with Dionysus addressing the audience of these events, and reporting also that he has punished the women of Thebes, Agave included, by putting them under his spell, so that they all abandoned their homes and fled to the mountains to engage in his orgiastic rites. Aside from song and dance, these rituals include the violent dismemberment of wild animals, termed sparagmos in Greek. Dionysus also vows vengeance on the young king of Thebes, and Agave’s son, Pentheus, who has banned the cult of Dionysus from infecting his city. Dionysus takes on human form as a priest of himself, and is deliberately arrested by Pentheus’ men. However, he escapes from prison and convinces Pentheus that rather than sending his army against the crazed women in the mountains, he dress up as a woman and spy on them to observe their secret rituals. Pentheus’ curiosity gets the better of him, and he proceeds with the plan. But the women detect him, and in their hallucinations think he is actually a lion. They proceed to tear Pentheus apart, and his mother Agave rips his head off and carries it back to Thebes in triumph to display it to the horrified Thebans. Only at this point does Agave come to her senses and realize what she has done, and learn the hard way the proof of Dionysus’ godhood. 

Bacchae - Euripides - Summary - Study Guides
Pentheus dismembered by the Bacchae. Painted by Douris. Attic red-figure kylix, c. 480 BCE. Fort Worth.

Interpretations of this dark and violent play have traditionally split into two contradictory readings. Some read it as a play like Hippolytus or Trojan Women that presents an unsavory view of the Olympian gods as selfish, petulant, and irascible beings who disregard all human codes of morality. This is the interpretation of many of Euripides’ contemporaries, who accused him of atheism for suggesting that such gods were not worthy of worship, and that a religious cult like that of Dionysus is incompatible, or even antithetical, to a progressive, civil society. Others see in this play proof that the tragedian was a true believer (or at least had recanted his skepticism late in life), and advocated the social and psychological benefits of the cult of Dionysus. Thus the play is a lesson in the dangers of suppressing one’s passions in favor of a life of pure rationality. One message that is clear in this play is that, as we see in Medea and other of Euripides’ plays, the irrational side of human nature is a powerful force that cannot always be controlled. 

Though heavy metal is often antagonistic to religion per se, and despite the parallels that can be drawn between Dionysus and Christ, Dionysus represents to these artists an alternative to Abrahamic faith and, as discussed above, something more like Satanism or neopaganism. That said, Lumus’ “Bacchus Curse” quartet is more like Euripides’ play in that it does not seem to favor either interpretation. 

The first song, “Curse” is a spoken-word prologue delivered by Dionysus, much like the beginning of the play; but here, he addresses Agave rather than the audience:

“Agave, daughter of Kadmos: hear me. I am Dionysus. I come before you twice born: once out of fire and lightning, and again from the thigh of Zeus himself, but you refuse to acknowledge me? Agave, My mother’s sister, you should have been among the first. Know me now, and know the anger of a god! I could lift you to the heights of Olympus, heights no mortal has ever seen. You will see the world through my eyes, and enlightenment will be yours for an instant. But you will return to earth. And when you return, you will return an exile and a murderer and no matter how far you wander you will find not forgiveness, nor relief from your guilty conscience. Know me. And cry my name with the voice of despair!”

The words, delivered by a male voice, are set to string music, and as the track approaches its ending the narrator’s voice is joined by those of two others to form a chorus of sorts. Unlike in the Bacchae, here Dionysus’ wrath is limited only to Agave, with no mention of Pentheus or the rest of Thebes. He is more explicit than his Euripidean counterpart in delineating Agave’s punishment. 

The next track, “Possession” is the first true metal song, and begins with the lead vocalist Charlotte Von Camp chanting a hymn to Dionysus:

Cup unending
Nectar divine
He lifts the veil
Pierces darkness
For mortal eyes
Severs memory
Tethers ego

He binds my flesh
Ecstasy and madness hand in hand
Bridled by the god at his command
My master bridles me
His mortal vessel

A temple flooded in the deluge
My blood turns to wine
All my life is washed away
In the power

As the vocals and song title suggest, these are the words of Agave as she is under Dionysus’ spell. She describes her possession by the god in Faustian terms, for it brings her secret knowledge, but at the cost of her autonomy, as in her loss of rational control she surrenders her will to him. It is a paradoxical liberation and enslavement, analogous to the common heavy metal trope of laying down your soul to Satan in order to free yourself from established moral constraints. Yet in this ecstatic possession, Agave loses not only her autonomy, but also her identity, forgetting who she is. 

This dissociation is key to the events of the next song, “Maenad.” Here, Agave is addicted to Dionysian ecstasy, and describes the experience in quasi-sexual terms: 

Kiss of silken sunshine
Cool caresses on the breeze
Everything he touches comes alive
Take me on the hillside
Plunge into the woodland floor
Wrap me in your power. Give me more 

This ecstatic state leads to the song’s climax, where Agave engages in the sparagmos ritual and rips apart what she takes to be a lion, presenting its head to the Thebans in triumph:

The beast will sacrifice his blood to sate our rite.
Our hands will tear him limb from limb with awful might.
The lion’s head is cut. He’s dead outside the wall.
The glory of the kill I share with one and all.

This leads to the final track, “Furies,” in which the tragic heroine experiences her anagnorisis, her recognition of the truth:

Sea blue eyes piercing
Right through mine
Panicked face, your last moment
Carved in time

Your frightened stare reveals my guilt
I feel it clawing at my insides
I’ll never find relief

Bloody Butcher
Murderer, Filicide
Wretched Mother
End of my only son.

Dripping red bladed fingers
Cut like knives
Hands of pain, hands of sorrow
Sick inside

With godlike power in my arms
I ripped his body into pieces
Can never make amends

Like blackened angels in the sky
The furies cries pursue me onward
Their taunting never ends

Agave experiences what Dionysus had predicted at the beginning of the tetralogy, that Agave would suffer eternal guilt for murdering her son. She takes responsibility for her crime, more so than in the Bacchae, where she blames Dionysus: “Dionysus destroyed us, I now understand.” (Bac. 1294) And here Lumus introduce an element from other tragic plays such as the Libation Bearers and Orestes, the vengeful Furies who pursue those who murder their own kin. It is these that drive her into exile from Thebes, much as they drove Orestes from Argos. 

Lumus’ Bacchus Curse retells the story of the Bacchae from Agave’s perspective, as both the victim of Dionysus’ wrath but also the guilty profaner of his divinity and murderer of her son. Despite this method of storytelling in Agave’s voice, we still come away with the same ambiguity as those who read the play: is this a condemnation of Dionysus, or a cautionary tale and endorsement of his cult? Agave does not commit atrocities for believing in absurdities, for this god is very real, and must be worshipped not because he is good, but because he is powerful. This was a fact about Greek religion that separates it from Abrahamic faiths. The album artwork suggests this, as Dionysus’ bloody mask is against the background of a rugged, natural scene with clouds scattered by lightning. Nature and its power, whether in our external world or within our psyche, is neither good nor evil, but a fact of existence that must be respected, lest we suffer dire consequences. 

Euripidean tragedy, with its tales of revenge, irrationality, and graphic death, pushed the envelope of Athenian drama in the fifth century, never achieving popularity until the next century. Such was the case with heavy metal music. Much as Aristophanes ridiculed Euripides for his corrupting influence on society, so heavy metal in the 1980s led to the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center and the allegation that this music was corrupting the youth. Only in this new century has the genre become respected, and like Euripidean drama, is now the object of academic study. So long as audiences are drawn to tales of horror, sensuality, and retribution, Euripides and heavy metal will continue to indulge this morbid fascination.

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