The Barbarian Paradox: The Contradictory Portrayal of Medea and Dionysus in Euripides Open Access

Vickers, Ruby (Spring 2023)

Permanent URL:


In this thesis, I explore how Euripides constructs the figure of the paradoxical barbarian through two examples: Medea in the Medea, and Dionysus in the Bacchae. I aim to expand upon Edith Hall’s important analysis of the concept of the barbarian by examining how Euripides engages with it and how his portrayal of barbarian characters changes over time. I argue that Euripides’ presentation of Medea and Dionysus is instrumental in their perception as barbarian characters, both for a Classical Greek audience and in modern reception. I explain how Euripides uses binary categories and themes not to show the barbarian as the antithesis of Greek, but rather to expose that the dichotomies which Medea and Dionysus embody are not as clear cut as we may think. Thus, Euripides offers a nuanced view of these characters who interact with barbarity and Greekness to express the barbarian paradox.

            I begin in chapter one by examining what makes these characters barbarian, and how the perception of them is impacted by their proximity to Greekness. In chapter two, I explore how the barbarian nature is inseparable from being gendered, and thus how the attempt to fit Medea and Dionysus into the gender binary merely emphasises their existence outside of and between traditional norms and expectations. In chapter three, I analyse Euripides’ use of animal imagery in constructing their identities as complex barbarian characters, especially in comparison to other figures in both plays. Finally, in chapter four, I look at how the playwright contrasts mortal and divine nature. I end with a note of my observations on madness and sanity in both texts and how this impacts the perception of Medea and Dionysus.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter One: Foreign Origin and Proximity to Greece 8

I. Medea’s Mythical Origin 9

II. The Duality of Dionysus 14

III. East and West 18

Chapter Two: Male, Female, and Ambiguous Gender 22

I. Medea the Hero 23

II. Dionysus the Transformer 30

III. Gender Boundaries 35

Chapter Three: The Human and the Animal 38

I. Medea the Lioness 39

II. The Bull of Misfortune 45

III. Lioness Versus Bull 51

Chapter Four: The Mortal and the Divine 54

I. Medea’s Apotheosis 55

II. Divine Dionysus 57

A Note on Madness and Sanity 61

Concluding Thoughts 65

Bibliography 68

About this Honors Thesis

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
  • English
Research Field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files