SIN and ORDER: One Perspective

Michelle Saylor
April 24, 1996

Infidelity, murder, betrayal, and conspiracy all play an integral part in the story of the relationship between Jason and Medea. Jason is guilty of all four acts and Medea involves herself in three. Yet, perhaps, in the eyes of Dante, Medea might fall further into the realm of Dis than Jason. But, should she? And, is Dante's view of Jason and his sentence in Hell appropriate?

From Dante's perspective, crimes of passion or desire are the least abhorrent and consequently deserve minimal punishment in comparison to what he believes are the more serious offenses. These sinners, the carnal, the gluttonous, the hoarders and wasters, along with the wrathful and sullen fall just below the virtuous pagans in Dante's hell. In some way, they represent a loss of self control, of reason gone amiss, as each plunges into a personal world of self indulgence. To Dante, those that succumb to the pleasures of the 'will' deserve an eternity less painful than those who fall into emotional or psychological despair. Yet, like the sins that constitute placement deeper in the bowels of Hell, all represent a punishment equal to or reflective of the sin as it existed in life. For example, the carnal are banished to an eternity of being whirled about by the wind (Dante) forever lusting after what they sought in life. They reach for shadows that were once the bodies they desired. However, in Hell the only thing they feel is the passion they lost.

Next, Dante describes the sinners who dwell within the walls of Dis. Confined to the city of Hell are the heretics and those who commit acts of violence against either their neighbors, themselves, or God, art, or nature. With the exception of possibly the heretics, these are the souls whose sins resemble animal behavior. Violence without consideration, striking out at another in anger, frustration, hatred or selfish ambition is inherent in the nature of these actions. Accordingly Dante interprets them as being less detrimental to one's being than crimes of thought and meditation.

In Dante's view the next circle of sin consists of acts of fraud. He classifies these sinners as seducers and panderers, flatterers, simoniacs, fortune tellers, grafters, hypocrites, thieves, evil counselors, sowers of discord, and counterfeiters or falsifiers. These are the souls who in life betrayed the confidence of another. They preyed on other people solely for gain and knowingly deceived without concern for their victims' psyche or physical being.

Yet Dante does not stop here. He further complicates fraud by adding the realm of compound fraud. Souls found in this circle of Hell did not betray just a stranger or acguaintance, but rather twisted the confidence of someone who loved and/or respected them. They defiled their own kin or country. They either took advantage of guests or of a host, perhaps within his own home. And, falling closest to the pit of Hell (and Lucifer) are those souls who betray the confidence of their lord or benefactor. All these unfortunate shadows of life are those who consciously sought to gain by lying to or by committing an act of treachery against someone who holds a special place in their life; someone who, in some way, they are bound to. Perhaps, Dante situates them closest to Satan because he considers them to be the least feeling or sympathetic to human interaction-- they are most like the devil himself!

In Dante's conception of Hell, it seems, each soul is ultimately responsible for his own placement in Hell based upon his or her willful actions in life. They do not appear sentenced by chance but rather by some universal code. Dante judges each soul and banishes it to the circle that best represents its most horrid action. However, if this is truly the case, why does Dante place Jason with the panderers and seducers (Dante p.157) instead of further down in the pit?

Jason's simplest sin, in Dante's eyes, may be his carnal quest for King Creon's daughter. Dante assigns Jason the crime of a seducer since he seeks to draw the princess to him and wed her for his own gain. "He thought of ambition only" (Hamilton p.128). In euripedes' account of their lives, Jason tells Medea that he plans to marry the king's daughter so he (they) might "live well, and not be short of anything" (Euripides p.18). Now, if this is the only sin Jason commits, Dante may be accurate in his placement; however, Jason harbors a slew of harsher sins in his bosom and his eternal resting place deserves to be further down within the funnel of Hell.

In his pursuit of the Golden Fleece, Jason arrives with his fellow Argonauts at the land of Colchis. There, after they travel to the palace, they are met by guards who "[lead] them courteously within and [send] word to the king of their arrival" (Hamilton p.123). The king in turn, "came at once and bade them welcome" (Hamilton p.123). As is proper protocol for the time, King AEtes offers them a place to bathe and provides them with food and drink. He makes them comfortable in every manner possible. King AEtes opens his palace to Jason. It is not until after Jason and the others have refreshed themselves that King AEtes asks who they are and the nature of their visit. It is only then, when he discovers the reason for their visit, to return the Golden Fleece to Greece, that King AEtes becomes angry.

He expresses his dissatisfaction to Jason and concocts a "trial of courage" (Hamilton p.124) for Jason to attempt. If Jason is successful, the Fleece is his. Failure is death. Although to Jason, the challenge may appear insurmountable (which is the king's intent), it is, however, the command of the lord of the land and meant to be obeyed. King AEtes is initially courteous and welcoming to Jason. He provides him with physical comfort and allows his ship a place to dock. Yet, Jason scorns the king and chooses to circumvent the king's challenge and ensure his own success. He enlists the help of the king's own daughter, Medea. She provides him with magic herbs that allow him eventually to destroy the army he faces and to subdue the dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. Jason is free to carry it away. Although he satisfies the king's premise, he disobeys his instructions and in essence betrays his host. This deed alone throws Jason into Dante's third round of circle nine: Ptolomea.

Couple this conduct with Jason's promise to Medea before she spins her magic. Ovid recounts the story of how Jason asked for Medea's help and how he "grasped her hand and in low tones besought / Her aid and promised marriage" (Ovid VII 90-91). He swears his allegiance to her:

          Never by night and never by day will I               
          forget you.  If you will come to Greece,             
          you shall be worshipped for what you have            
          done for us, and nothing except death                
          will come between us...You [will] be [my]            
          own wedded wife when once [we are]                   
          back in Greece.                                      
                                   (Hamilton p. 125)            
And, in turn, Medea pledges her heart and her help. As a result, Jason wins the famous Fleece and sails home with both "his prize, and with her too,/His second prize, who gave him mastery" (Ovid VII 156-157). Medea is Jason's benefactor.

Once settled in the land of Corinth and two children later in their relationship, Jason grows tired of Medea. The king of Corinth has a daughter whom Jason seeks to possess (never mind his ties to Medea). "He thought of ambition only, never of love or gratitude" (Hamilton p.128). Medea is furious with Jason's actions and her anger reigns upon him. Medea confronts Jason with his betrayal of her and their children. "And you forsook me, took another bride to bed,/Though you had children" (Euripides p.16). She recounts their story and her help with his retrieval of the Golden Fleece along with her part in the conspiracy and death of Pelias. She reminds Jason of her betrayal of her family and country for his sake and how "[she] killed, and so gave [Jason] the safety of the light" (Euripides p.16).

Jason's response is one of denial and self empowerment. After all, it was not Medea who helped him. She was only the tool in Cypris' hands. "Cypris was alone responsible/Of men and gods for the preserving of my life/...You have certainly got from me more than you gave" (Euripides p.17). Even if Medea's intervention is the result of the gods, it is of little relevance considering Jason's pledge to her. If his words were simply lies to further himself, at the minimum he is a flatterer (circle eight, Bolgia two); "he said, 'because her loveliness must surely mean that she excelled in gentle courtesy'" (Hamilton p.125).

But, if his promise is sincere, then he betrays his benefactor, the woman to whom he owes his life. In this case, the only proper place for Jason's soul is in circle nine, round four: Judecca. Jason also, fleetingly, admits Medea was somewhat helpful to him, "In so far as you" (he does not mention Cypris) "helped me, you did well enough" (Euripides p.17). Juxtapose this event with the exile of not only Medea but also his sons. Jason does not offer to take custody of his sons and bring them into the royal household. Not only does he betray Medea but also his children, his kin. He attempts to buy them off by offering Medea money prior to the start of her exile. It is Medea who persuades Jason to take their children and not banish them (though she has no intention of following through with permitting him to take them).

     Medea:   Beg Creon that the children may                 
     Jason:      not be banished.                             
     Medea:   I doubt if I'll succeed, but                    
                 still I'll attempt it.                       
              Then you must tell you wife to beg              
                 from her father                              
                 that the children may                        
                 be reprieved from banishment.                
     Jason:   I will, and with her I shall certainly          
                                            (Euripides p. 30)
Even if one is to discount all his other deeds and focus only on this last one, Jason appears to be abandoning his sons, if not for Medea's contrivance. He is, in essence, betraying his kin. According to Dante, he should, therefore, fall into circle nine, round one: Caina. Medea's judgment is, perhaps, a more accurate summation of Jason's sins than Dante's, "Surely in many ways I hold different views/From others, for I think that the plausible speaker/Who is a villain deserves the greatest punishment" (Euripides p.19).

It is ironic that Medea's conviction of Jason is so strong. If Dante were to sentence Medea in his Inferno she too would have a very long fall. Obviously guilty of betrayal to her kin, Dante might place Medea in circle nine, round one: Caina. But, she commits a crime before the murder of her sons that is even harsher from Dante's perspective. She is guilty of treachery to one's benefactor. Prior to her exile she begs King Creon to permit her to stay a few more hours, until morning, so she might make proper provisions for the safety of her children. Creon, in an act of mercy, grants her request.

          Medea:  Allow me to remain here just for              
                this day,/So I may consider where               
                to live in my exile, And look for               
                support for my children, since their            
                father/Chooses to make no provision             
                for them...                                     
          Creon:  There is nothing tyrannical about             
                my nature,/And by showing mercy I               
                have often been the loser./Even now             
                I know that I am making a mistake./             
                All the same you shall have your                
                will.  But this I tell you,/That if             
                the light of heaven tomorrow shall              
                see you,/You and your children in               
                the confines of my land,/You die...             
                                           (Euripides p. 12)

And, it is in this short span of time the Medea plans and successfully carries out the murder of the king's daughter, and indirectly, Creon's death too. Medea should, by Dante's standards, spend her eternity in circle nine, round 4: Judecca.

Jason's and Medea's afterlives appear destined to be entwined as much as their relationship is on earth. Perhaps, rather than saying, "...and nothing except death will come between us" (Hamilton p.125) Jason's promise to Medea should be, "...and nothing [including] death will come between us." Applying Dante's concept of sin and judgment, it seems, both Jason and Medea are guilty of the most hideous of transgressions, betrayal of one's benefactor, and both deserve to torment each other for eternity in the pit of Hell.

                           Works Cited                         
 Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Penguin,
 Euripides. Medea. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Dover, 1993.
 Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and        
     Heroes. New York: Penguin, 1969.                          
 Ovid.  Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D. Melville. New York:          
     Oxford UP, 1986.                                          

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