Note. Considerable Greek is quoted here, but all of it is translated.

No sooner is Medea assured of sanctuary in Athens than she exclaims to the women of the chorus,

      νῦν καλλίνικοι τῶν ἐμῶν ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι,
      γενησόμεσθα… (764)[1]

      now victorious over my enemies, friends,
      will I be….

Here the form of the word translated “friends” shows them to be female and the persons addressed.[2] I have kept the interesting Greek placement of “enemies” and “friends” at the cost of some awkwardness and unclarity, which may not have been worth paying, because in the Greek the syntactical roles of the adjacent nouns are sharply distinguished by their different cases. Another translation:

      now glorious victory over my enemies, dear ladies,
      will I have…

A little later, having laid out her plans, Medea justifies them in an echoing line (it ends with the same two words):

      οὐ γὰρ γελᾶσθαι τλητὸν ἐξ ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι. (797)

      For it is not endurable to be laughed at by one’s enemies, friends.

Victory for herself will deny laughter to her enemies, and in the Greek the first part of this line (the five syllables before the caesura), meaning literally “for not to be laughed at,” takes the place of the corresponding part of the previous line (the five syllables before the caesura, with the same scansion), meaning “now victorious.”

Triumphant enemies can be expected to laugh, in view of the reason Athena in Sophocles’ Ajax offers Odysseus for seeing his troubled rival:

      οὔκουν γέλως ἥδιστος εἰς ἐχθροὺς γελᾶν; (Ajax 79)

      Isn’t laughing at enemies the sweetest laughter?

For the sound is dreaded. Mighty Ajax (Aias), newly fit to be mocked, cries out in apprehension, “Ay me, the laughter!” (οἴμοι γέλωτος, Ajax 367)[3], and a moment later imagines addressing his enemy Odysseus: “What a big laugh you’re having in your delight!” (ἦ που πολὺν γέλωθ’ ὑφ’ ἡδονῆς ἄγεις, Ajax 382). Thinking Orestes dead, Sophocles’ Electra laments, “Our enemies are laughing” (γελῶσι δ’ ἐχθροί, Electra 1153), and his Antigone like Ajax cries, “Ay me, I am laughed at!” (οἴμοι γελῶμαι, Antigone 839), while Euripides gives us Heracles’ wife Megara preparing to die nobly rather than ignobly, for (she says) “affording laughter to enemies [is] to me a greater evil than death” (ἐχθροῖσιν γέλων / διδόντας, οὑμοὶ τοῦ θανεῖν μεῖζον κακόν, Heracles 285).

The fear of laughter is related to the sense of shame (αἰδώς, aidōs) that urges Homeric warriors to fight: “Put in your hearts, each of you, [the fear of] shame and reproach” (ἐν φρεσὶ θέσθε ἕκαστος / αἰδῶ καὶ νέμεσιν, Iliad 13.121), adjures Poseidon. Shame demands that one acquit oneself nobly, thereby earning glory even in defeat, as Hector tells Andromache (Iliad 6.440). But laughter, as Medea and the others conceive it, seems close to the Homeric exulting (verbs εὔχομαι, ἐπεύχομαι) over a fallen enemy, even one who has fought well, as in Achilles’ vaunting over Asteropaeus, who has actually wounded him before being slain (Iliad 21.166, 183). Indeed, while she appeals (successfully) to Creon’s sense of shame (326, 349), and rails at Jason for displaying “the greatest of all sicknesses among men, shamelessness” (ἡ μεγίστη τῶν ἐν ἀνθρώποις νόσων / πασῶν, ἀναίδει’, 471), whenever she mentions laughter it is with clear reference either to “enemies” (383, 797, 1049) or to her enemy Jason (404, 1355, 1362). (Cf. her own anticipatory delight at 1135. The laughter or smiles at 1041 and 1162 are different in nature.) The sting of her shameful treatment is the jubilant laughter it would arouse.

It is the thought of such laughter that is decisive in forming and maintaining her resolve. This determines her choice of the “direct route” of poison (τὴν εὐθεῖαν [ὁδόν], 384), inspires her to face the “contest of courage” (ἀγὼν εὐψυχίας, 403), nerves her to “have dared to do the most unholy deed” of killing her children (τλᾶσ’ ἔργον ἀνοσιώτατον, 796, 1049), and confirms her in the necessity of what she has done (1360, 1362).

If defeat and mockery would be painful for any hero, still imagined laughter seems to prick and drive Medea especially. Why is it so hateful to her? She gives herself a reason in the “contest of courage” passage:

                              οὐ γέλωτα δεῖ σ’ ὀφλεῖν
      τοῖς Σισυφείοις τοῖσδ’ Ἰάσονος γάμοις,
      γεγῶσαν ἐσθλοῦ πατρὸς Ἡλίου τ’ ἄπο. (404)

                              You must not incur laughter
      by this Sisypheian marriage of Jason’s,
      (you that are) sprung from a noble father and from Helios.

A consideration Homeric in weight, the dignity of her great lineage—which she will cite three more times (746, 954, 1321)—here affronted by the Corinth of tricksy Sisyphus! Yet this appeal to genos (family) feels rather generic, what any heroic personage might say. Likewise a betrayal by a faithless lover, even one who has benefited from his beloved’s sacrifice, is hardly something novel. Of course it brings Medea to decry the injustice already done her (165, 265, 314, 582, 692—to take only references involving -dik-); knowing that such iniquity is native to mankind, she seeks to forestall any more (219), and hails the justice of Zeus (764); still, her fury calls for a more specific understanding.

Perhaps it can be found in considering how acutely she feels her status as a stranger, a foreigner, a dependent guest, inferior participant in the business of giving and getting hospitality that is so important in the society the poets depict. She is a xenos (ξένος, also xeinos, ξεῖνος), which term can signify host as well as guest. She herself has been both, for the more precarious position was not always hers: when Jason came over the Black Sea—the Axine (a-xe(i)nos, inhospitable), or by euphemism Euxine (eu-xe(i)nos, hospitable)—to Colchis, he was unwelcome to, or at least harshly treated by, Medea’s father Aietes, so that she can be regarded as having played the true host to a difficult guest. Devoting herself to him, she condemned herself to dependency on a man who was always out for himself. Her history from this point, as she reminds Jason of it (502), is of one exiled over and over again. “Now where am I to turn?” (νῦν ποῖ τράπωμαι; 502), she asks with bitter sarcasm, and proceeds to show that there is nowhere. She has made herself an outcast from her home in Colchis, then from Jason’s uncle’s home in Iolcus—in each case, for his sake (for the second see 508)—and now she is banished from Jason’s bed, and is being driven out of his new father-in-law’s city.

The depth of her feeling is already revealed in her first speech onstage (214), in which she has undertaken to win the support of the chorus: the foreigner in the city, she observes, and the bride in her husband’s house, both must find their way as strangers. First she suggests that she risks blame merely for being unfamiliar to the women of Corinth, who (as people are liable to do) may hate her merely upon seeing her, without troubling to learn what lies beneath the appearance. Condemning such dangerous ignorance, she alludes as well to the way a stranger’s ignorance can make him, or her, obnoxious to the city. She goes on to address the plight of a bride, subordinate, under constraint, an ignorant stranger in a strange house; and narrowing down further to her own case, she declares,

      ἐγὼ δ’ ἔρημος ἄπολις οὖσ’ ὑβρίζομαι
      πρὸς ἀνδρός, ἐκ γῆς βαρβάρου λεληισμένη,
      οὐ μητέρ’, οὐκ ἀδελφόν, οὐχὶ συγγενῆ
      μεθορμίσασθαι τῆσδ’ ἔχουσα συμφορᾶς. (255)

      I, abandoned, cityless, suffering outrage (hubrizomai < hubris)
      at the hands of my husband; taken as plunder from a barbarous land,
      no mother, no brother, no kinsman
      have I with whom to find refuge from this disaster.

Every stranger among men, or in a city, is an unwelcome exile; a wife’s case is worse by nature; her own is worst of all, she has been uniquely isolated by that villain Jason, “worst of men” (κάκιστος ἀνδρῶν 229, cf. 452, 465, 488). And there is still more to her pain of not belonging, for reputed clever as she is—a charge easily laid against the stranger with a history—she suffers the resentment that is the portion of anyone who presumes to know (296).

Now just how wicked is it to mistreat the xenos? The locus classicus for this question is the Odyssey, which is deeply concerned with questions of hospitality. There the two model hosts Nausicaa and Eumaeus both declare that

                              πρὸς γὰρ Διός εἰσιν ἅπαντες
      ξεῖνοί τε πτωχοί τε       (Odyssey 6.207, 14.57)

                              from Zeus are all
      strangers and beggars

— πρὸς Διός (pros Dios), “from Zeus,” “with Zeus,” “under the protection of Zeus.”[4] Thus the father of gods and men (πατὴρ ἀνδρῶν τε θεῶν τε) himself, no lesser god, is known to stand against ill-treatment of a guest. His authority is despised by that worst of hosts the Cyclops, who dismisses Odysseus’s invocation of “Zeus of the strangers” (Ζεὺς … ξείνιος, 9.270); this contemner, already unsociable, will suffer the extreme isolation of blindness.

At Ithaca, where young men rule the hall as the Cyclops rules his cave, the drama is founded upon an elegant double reversal of roles: the suitors are guests who play hosts; Odysseus, properly their host, plays the guest. His mistreatment at their hands is accompanied by laughter, as they are a merry lot; indeed, fully half of the instances of laughing in the Odyssey are theirs. The majority of the other laughs directly pertain to them, and the few that do not still are closely related to the abuse of hospitality that is their essence. Here is a brief survey of the 26 references to laughter (i.e., γελάω and related words in -gel-, and καγχαλάω).[5] The cases in which the laughter occurs in company that can be expected to share in it are marked with one asterisk; where it is explicitly shared, with two.[6]

The suitors themselves

13, or half, are by one or more of them: 2.301*, 16.354*, 18.35*, 18.40**, 18.100**, 18.111**, 18.350**, 20.346**, 20.347**, 20.358**, 20.374**, 20.390**, 21.376**.

Directly related to them

2 are by the women they have corrupted: 18.320**, 20.8**.
2 are by Penelope, foreseeing their doom or about to tempt them: 17.542*, 18.163.
1 is by Telemachus, foreseeing their doom: 21.105.
2 are by Eurycleia, triumphing over them: 23.1, 23.59*.

Indirectly related

1 is by Odysseus, triumphing over his wicked host, the Cyclops: 9.413 (inward laughter).
1 is by Odysseus, referring to behavior like that of the suitors, when seeking to distinguish his host the swineherd from them: 14.465 (imagined laughter).
4 are by gods, enjoying or not the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite in the bed of her husband Hephaestus: 8.307*, 8.326**, 8.343**, 8.344 (potential laughter).

Let us consider some characteristics of the 14 cases of laughter explicitly shared, 12 of them by the suitors or their women, the other two by the gods. (Trans. Murray, rev. Dimock.)

Suitors

18.40 they all sprang up laughing [at the beggars’ quarrel]
18.100 the lordly suitors raised their hands, and died with laughter [at the defeat of Irus—translation revised]
18.111 the suitors went inside, laughing merrily [at Odysseus’s victory]
18.350 jeering at Odysseus, he made laughter for his companions [—translation revised]
20.346–347 among the suitors Pallas Athene aroused unquenchable laughter [at the speech of Telemachus], and turned their wits awry. And now they laughed with lips that seemed not theirs
20.358 they all laughed merrily at him [Theoclymenus]
20.374 all the suitors, looking at one another, tried to provoke Telemachus by laughing at his guests
20.390 they had made ready their dinner in the midst of their laughing [at the guests]
21.376 all the suitors laughed merrily at him [Telemachus]

Women

18.320 the maids broke into a laugh [at Odysseus], and glanced at one another
20.8 the women came out from the hall [past Odysseus],… making laughter and merriment among themselves

Gods

8.326 the gods… stood in the gateway; and unquenchable laughter arose among the blessed gods as they saw the craft of wise Hephaestus [which had entrapped Ares and Aphrodite]. And thus would one speak, with a glance at his neighbor
8.343 laughter arose among the immortal gods [at Hermes’ wit at the expense of the adulterers]

There are at least three points to notice. First, the laughter regularly has an acknowledged target. Secondly, the members of each group are not distinguished from one another. Thirdly, in each of the three classes of cases it is mentioned once that the members looked at one another. These common features argue the social solidarity against outsiders that laughter evidences. The suitors are a single body, they laugh at anyone who would challenge it. The women have learned from them. The uninvolved gods join in mockery of the transgressors. Laughter unites and excludes. Thus the merry sound of comradeship is the external evidence of belonging that corresponds to the silent inner misery of an outsider.[7] It is the public sign of contempt for the strangers’ god.

Of course, the mocking wooers of Odysseus’s wife are unsuccessful because she does not join them. Her husband has only to restore to power the order, the inner harmony, which her silence has kept in being. Medea’s case is far worse than his: like him long denied any fixed abode, she has now been expelled from the companionship Jason provided, for he has gone over to the ones who are at home. This means nothing more or less than that he has determined to laugh together with them at whoever does not belong. But the laughter of his party would ratify Medea’s undeserved transformation from welcoming host to repudiated guest. Heard in her mind’s ear, it is her spur to action: only by stilling the new union, she knows, can she escape the wretchedness of being outside it.

CODA

If Medea’s condition as xenos matters as much as I am claiming, that word ought to be reinforced by others related in sound and sense—for this is poetry, remember.

Before we ever hear from her, we are given a report of her speech:

      Μήδεια δ’ ἡ δύστηνος ἠτιμασμένη
      βοᾶι μὲν ὅρκους, ἀνακαλεῖ δὲ δεξιᾶς
      πίστιν μεγίστην… (20)

      Medea, poor wretch, in dishonor,
      cries out “Oaths! [horkous],” invokes [Jason’s] right hand’s [dexias]
      mighty pledge…

Here the word for “right hand,” dexia, is itself often used to mean the pledge or assurance that is confirmed by oath. This initial appeal is echoed in her final exchange with Jason. He pleads,

      οὔτοι νιν ἡμὴ δεξιά γ’ ἀπώλεσεν. (1365)

      It wasn’t my right hand, you know, that killed [the children].

Medea replies,

      ἀλλ’ ὕβρις οἵ τε σοὶ νεοδμῆτες γάμοι. (1366)

      No, your hubris and your new-won marriage.

That is, he didn’t raise his physical dexia against his children, he despised his symbolic dexia given to her. So she will not let him bury the children, and in his utter ruin he curses her, calling upon a Fury and Justice; but she mocks him:

      τίς δὲ κλύει σοῦ θεὸς ἢ δαίμων,
      τοῦ ψευδόρκου καὶ ξειναπάτου; (1391)

      What god or power divine will hearken to you,
      false to oaths [pseudorkou] and deceiving of strangers [xeinapatou]?

The language recalls line 21, “oaths” recurring but xein– replacing dexias. This is no accident. It was by dexia that Medea became a participant in xenia, the relation of hospitality. The words are not dissimilar in sound, and dexia like xenia suggests that what links men separates them, much as laughter does. Hands pledge truly or falsely, indicate a connection or its lack (370, 1320), pass gifts that please or slay (956, 959, 973, 982), greet or kill (899, 902 (ὠλένη), 1281, 1309, cf. 1412), and bury the departed (1378).

And there is another word that chimes with these two. To greet, to offer hospitality, is to receive, to accept, the stranger. The verb for this is δέχομαι, dekhomai, which usually (11 of 13 times) occurs in the aorist (6 times) or future (5 times), with stem -δεξ-, –dex-, rather than the present stem ‑δεχ-, ‑dekh– (2 times). With one exception (773, where the chorus receives words from Medea), every occurrence (of either stem) refers either to Medea receiving hospitality (386, 505, 713) or aid (175, 617, 924) or else to the princess receiving her gifts from Medea (958, 973, 978, 979, 1004, 1154). So I suggest that the stem ‑dex‑ of dekhomai here belongs in the same family as xenos and dexia.

I’ll venture just a little further. The letter xi, which our three words share, often appears as a marker of the aorist and future of a Greek verb. Now as Smyth’s grammar tells us, “The aorist expresses the mere occurrence of an action in the past” (§1923), while the future, of course, expresses what is to come. Perhaps xi can be regarded as suggesting past and future rather than present. If so, it may have special significance for Medea, whose existence in the present aims only to control the future in view of the past. As she has lost her “here,” so also her “now” has no substance of its own any more.

To conclude, here is a passage in which “hand” (χείρ, kheir, not dexia), xenos, and dekhomai with dex‑ all appear. Jason speaks to Medea:

                  ἕτοιμος ἀφθόνωι δοῦναι χερὶ
      ξένοις τε πέμπειν σύμβολ’, οἳ δράσουσί σ’ εὖ. … (612)

                  (I am) ready to give [you money] with ungrudging hand (kheri)
      and to send sumbola to my guest-friends (xenois), who will do well by you. …

She replies,

      οὔτ’ ἂν ξένοισι τοῖσι σοῖς χρησαίμεθ’ ἂν
      οὔτ’ ἄν τι δεξαίμεσθα, μηδ’ ἡμῖν δίδου· … (616)

      I would not make use (khrēsaimeth’) of your guest-friends (xenoisi),
      nor would I accept (dexaimestha) anything, don’t give it to me; …

Observe that xen + saim produces dexaim. And what are sumbola? They are “tallies,” a tally being one of the two halves of a bone or coin which two guest-friends, xenoi, would break between them, each keeping one piece as proof of identity—things joined and separated, received and accepted as assurances, fitting together like right hands.


[1] I cite the number of the first line of a quotation, or else that in which a keyword occurs.

[2] The lines are preceded by ὦ Ζεῦ Δίκη τε Ζηνὸς Ἡλίου τε φῶς, “O Zeus and Justice of Zeus and light of Helios [the Sun],” which is an invocation or call to witness rather than a direct address.

[3] He cries oimoi, i.e. oi moi, which translates well into English, if not into current American, as “ay me,” as in Milton’s “Ay me, I fondly dream” (Lycidas 56) and “Ay me, another inward grief awak’t (Samson Agonistes 330) or Tennyson’s “Ay me! ay me! the woods decay and fall” (Tithonus 1, first version). Ay rhymes with decay. Ajax’s γέλωτος is a genitive of explanation, a special case of the genitive of cause.

[4] By the way, Nausicaa, who in mythical chronology comes later than Medea, takes up and develops her praise of marital harmony, with reference to friends and enemies: Odyssey 6.182, Medea 241, cf. 14.

[5] Thus not words meaning “smile” (-meid-) or “mock” (-kert-). Are there other words for “laugh”? A few times some would have γελάω mean “smile,” but the authorities disagree as to when. E.g., at Iliad 15.101 does Hera “laugh with her lips” (Murray) or smile (Cunliffe)? At Odyssey 17.542 does Penelope laugh (Murray) or smile (Cunliffe)? —On the general subject of laughter in Homer see Stephen Halliwell, Greek Laughter, chap. 2.

[6] Eurycleia’s laughter is suppressed at 23.59 by Penelope, only because she does not yet (πω) know it is justified. At 8.307 Hephaestus bitterly summons the gods to view a laughable scene.

[7] On a different case of sound and silence in Homer, see “The Problem and the Art of Writing” in Jacob Klein, Lectures and Essays.