Bridging the Gap with Epic: the Nurse in Euripides’ Medea


  • Ronald Blankenborg



This paper argues for a deliberately epic role for the nurse in Euripides’ tragedies, especially in his Medea. In that specific play, the nurse’s influencing of events resembles the omniscient characters familiar from narrative epic like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In Homer’s Odyssey, as in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the nurse tends to align either with the household norms, generally labelled patriarchal, or with the lady of the house left behind. In Choephoroi 748-62, the task, duties, and responsibilities of the nurse are sufficiently presented. In Aeschylean and Sophoclean drama, nurses act and speak within the limits of these duties and responsibilities, while in Euripidean drama the nurse’s role changes. Acknowledging the special position of the nurse’s contribution in Euripides’ Medea as discussed in Ian Ruffell’s “The Nurse’s Tale”, I link the changing and changed role of the wet nurse to the characteristics of epic behaviour: a certain amount of providence, combined with typically human indifference, and, ultimately, helplessness. She is the only one who, in lines 36-7 and 89-95, foresees the event that must have been a great unpleasant surprise (if not shock) for the audience: infanticide. It has been suggested that the nurse’s “epic” behaviour, speech, and foreknowledge develop in the context of the societal circumstances in 421 BCE; in other (lost) plays by Euripides, nurses are allegedly involved in the psycho-sexual problems of their mistresses. In Medea, however, the issue is infanticide. The level of transgression in Medea’s planned behaviour, I argue, is mirrored in the level of “epic” as shown in the nurse’s self-importance and presumptuousness. Her speech in the prologue equals prologues spoken by omniscient and influencing characters, e.g. Dionysius in Bacchae and Aphrodite in Hippolytus, as does her self-reflection in the course of the play.

Keywords: nurses in Greek tragedy; prologuing characters; double motivation; tragic transgression


[1] I thank the editor Rosy Colombo for her helpful comments and suggestions.






Monographic Section