One characteristic of great writing is that it offers layers of richness that invite contemplation and inspire not only self-examination but an impulse to reach beyond the text. In the case of Linda Hogan‘s compelling new book, Indios, the text takes the form of a harrowing and luminous poetic monologue. It is a psychological, cultural, and spiritual tour de force, written in verse that is musical and direct, tactful (in the sense of “adroit and sensitive”), and free of the empty cleverness one finds in so much American poetry these days. Indios is also inventive in the way it uses Euripides’ Medea as a touchstone to explore the condition of Native American women. There are other figures in the background, but the Medea myth is there from beginning to end, so I’ve chosen to focus on it in these comments.
Euripides based Medea on a view that was certainly current in Greece at the time (431 BCE), namely that “barbarian” women were often monsters. He also suggests (through an all-female Chorus) that all women, even Greek women, harbored similar passions and a similar potential for evil. Linda Hogan, as we might expect, borrows from Euripides in order to unmask the destructiveness of his views. At every turn in Indios, Hogan critiques Western male attitudes toward women, toward so-called “primitive” cultures, toward the structure and purpose of marriage and social/political authority, and toward the nature of morality and ethics.
In the end, Hogan leaves us not as Euripides does, with a monster who escapes punishment in a dragon-chariot, but with the vision of a Native woman falsely imprisoned, unjustly deprived of her children, her culture, and her physical if not her spiritual freedom.
Before going on, let me nutshell the Medea myth that was as well known to Euripides’ audience as the Robin Hood myth is to us today. If you already know the story, skip the indented text below.
Medea was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, a kingdom between the easternmost shore of the Black Sea and the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Aeëtes was a child of the sun god Helios, making Medea the sun god’s granddaughter. (Significantly, perhaps, the tradition makes no mention of Medea’s mother.) But Medea was also the niece of Aeëtes’ sister, the enchantress Circe, and a devotee of Hecate, the “dark goddess” of crossroads and the new moon. Across the ancient world, Medea was viewed as a sorceress, powerful and wild.
Medea’s father owned a golden ram’s fleece, which came into existence (one tradition has it) after the god Poseidon changed himself into a ram, and his mortal lover Theophane into a sheep, essentially so that he could enjoy her in public and in private at the same time. From their animalistic union came the ram whose immortal aspect was his fleece made of gold. When the ram arrived in Colchis (the story doesn’t concern us here), it was sacrificed to Zeus and its golden fleece given in tribute to King Aeëtes. It became his most prized possession and was famously unattainable, being protected by his own forces and his daughter’s potent magic.
Enter Pelias, king of the Greek kingdom of Iolcus, who had usurped the throne from his half-brother Aeson. In the process, Pelias had murdered all of Aeson’s family—all but his newborn son Jason, whose mother had called upon her female friends to stage a scene of mourning by which she convinced the men sent to kill Jason that he had been stillborn. Raised in secret, Jason one day showed up in Iolcus and confronted Pelias with the fact that he, Jason, was the rightful king. Pelias, a first rate conniver, said he would yield without resistance, but only if Jason completed a glorious task. He would have to obtain the famous golden fleece and bring it back to Iolcus. Of course, Pelias fully expected Jason to be killed in the attempt. But Jason, being young and heroic, agreed to Pelias’s terms. He enlisted the help of heroes from all across Greece and built the gigantic ship Argo to carry him and his crew to Colchis.
Of course, Aeëtes wasn’t interested in turning over the golden fleece to this Greek interloper. But his daughter Medea fell in love with Jason and, in return for his promise to marry her, agreed to use her magic to help him. Jason snatched the golden fleece and fled Colchis in the Argo, taking with him Medea and her younger brother Absyrtis. Her father quickly raised his army and set sail after them. Then Medea intervened. She killed her brother, cut his body into pieces, and scattered them into the Argo’s wake. This forced Aeëtes to stop and collect Absyrtis’ butchered body so that he could give him a proper burial—a delay that allowed Jason and Medea to escape.
Once arrived back in Iolcus, Medea restored Jason’s by now aged father to youth, a process that entailed slitting his throat and filling his body with a magical potion. Then, posing as a traitor to Jason, she approached Pelias’s daughters and offered to restore their father to youth in the same way, presumably so that he could effectively oppose Jason’s demand for his throne. The daughters hopefully cut Pelias’s throat, but Medea failed to provide the potion. The way was now open for Jason to assume power. But once Pelias’s daughters revealed what Medea had done, the kingdom closed ranks around them, and both Jason and Medea were forced to flee.
The couple next settled in Corinth. (This is the episode on which Euripides based his play.) While Jason cultivated his political connections, Medea bore him two children. But when it came time for Jason to make good on his ambitions, he did so in the typical way: he abandoned Medea so that he could marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea feigned acceptance of the situation, but later gave Jason’s new bride-to-be a wedding gift: a beautiful robe and garland. However, Medea had laced the robe and garland with a poison, so that when Glauca put them on the flesh was seared from her body. Creon, attempting to tear the robe from his burning daughter, was burned to death as well. Having punished Jason and aroused the anger of the Corinthian public, Medea fled the kingdom in a chariot drawn by winged dragons, a vehicle provided by her grandfather Helios.
Here we reach a crossroads in the Medea myth. All the traditions agree that her children were murdered, but the accounts vary. The oldest tradition was that when Medea fled Corinth, she left her children in the sacred sanctuary of the Akraean, where she believed they would be protected. But the people of Corinth, enraged by Medea’s murder of Glauce and Creon, violated the Akraean sanctuary, then dragged Medea’s children away and murdered them. The second tradition held that Medea had murdered her own children in an act of revenge aimed at Jason; most scholars agree that this alternate version was probably invented by Euripides, or borrowed from a relatively contemporary source.
However Medea’s children met their end, she escaped from Corinth and sought asylum in Athens, where the aged king Aegeus welcomed her because she promised that she would magically enable him to have more children. Eventually Medea married Aegeus—perhaps a requirement of her magic—and bore him a son, Medus. But Aegeus already had a son, Theseus, who was therefore first in line for the throne of Athens. Medea tried to trick Theseus into drinking poisoned wine, but Aegeus discovered the plot and intervened, then drove Medea yet again into exile.
One tradition has it that Medea left Medus in Athens and returned to Colchis, where she discovered that her uncle Perses had overthrown her father; true to form, she responded by killing Perses and restoring her father to power. But according to Herodotus, Medea fled Athens with Medus and sought asylum among the Aryans who lived on the Iranian plateau; there, Medus eventually became king, and when he did, the Aryans honored him by changing their name to Medes.
No tradition brings us any word of Medea’s death.
It’s difficult to know how Euripides’ audience understood his play, but the Medea-killed-her-children plot struck a chord that resonated down through the generations to us today. One thing is certain: the male fear of women that is the psychological engine of Medea was alive and well in Ancient Greece.
Linda Hogan’s Indios suggests that this ancient fear has been replaced by something even more sinister: a blind will to power that seeks to vitiate freedom, imagination, and compassion. We see this will to power in the European conquest of America, a history that Hogan explores with such austere tenderness in this mythic narrative.
Spoiler Alert. This essay attempts to discuss Indios in depth, which means that details of the plot are revealed below. Personally, I feel that it’s something like discussing Hamlet. Would reading about Hamlet before you ever saw the play have ruined the experience for you? If so, you should avoid reading on from here.
Indios, as mentioned earlier, is a poetic monologue. It is spoken by the title character, Indios, and takes place in prison. An interviewer—not a journalist or a partisan seeking Indios’ release, but a researcher (evidently) named Clare Finley—has come to look into Indios’s story. The details of it, like all the details in Hogan’s poem, come to us via Indios herself: we overhear her story as told to Clare Finley, but Finley never speaks. There is the tantalizing possibility that Clare Finley is a figment of Indios’s imagination. Perhaps Clare (from the Latin for “bright” or “clear”) is simply a way for Indios to illuminate herself to herself; perhaps her last name, Finley (a Scottish name going back to the ancient Picts and meaning “white warrior”), indicates a ferocity that might make her sympathetic to Indios’s own warrior nature. (As I said, Indios inspires this kind of reaching beyond the text.) Whoever or whatever Clare Finley is, Indios freely opens up to her. She pours out memories, angers, sorrows, questions, flashes of philosophy, reminders of history forgotten or suppressed, and politics both social and sexual—all in a voice laced with restrained anguish and bitter humor.
Like Medea, Indios was raised by her father alone. “I never had a mother,” she tells Clare. But this echo of the Medea myth is accompanied by a dissent on a deeper level (a pattern that occurs throughout the book). Whereas Medea’s father was a son of Helios, the all-seeing sun god, Indios’s father is a son of the earth, and it’s from this rootedness that his power and authority derive. As Indios puts it:
My father could do anything.
He could build a shelter.
Together we grew corn.
He saw illness in a person.
He was a beautiful man.
We lived with our own people in our own world.
On the earth we came from.
My father could make a circle on the earth
And stand inside it and sing
The clouds toward us.
He was a sorcerer,
But powerless like all men against greater weapons.
Unlike Medea’s father, who controls a kingdom and owns a golden fleece, Indios’s father is a tribal man who owns nothing in any way Aeëtes would understand. He “owns” land only by caring for it, protecting it, honoring it—by embracing the fact that his life is inextricable from the life of the earth. On the other hand, both fathers are alike in being powerless against a greater weapon: a daughter’s impassioned heart.
While Medea betrays her father for love of the foreigner Jason, Indios falls in love with “a shining man” (clearly a leader of white invaders) who comes to Indios’s father with a proposal to buy the trees on his land. “My father said, No. We didn’t need money,” Indios tells Clare. “Selling the trees would have been the same / As trading away our sisters.” Soon Indios falls in love with the shining man, and her father notices but doesn’t intervene. In fact, he soon foresees that the influx of the shining man’s people is bound to push his own people off their land:
My father knew. He could see
The future was bleak for us,
That it was going to be a breaking time
And they would do as they anted
With our world, more of them every moment arriving
To take what they wish.
Despite my father’s resistance,
He knew it would be best to bring our worlds together.
Like Medea, Indios betrays her father by falling in love; but unlike Medea, she senses that her love is a self-betrayal as well. Like Medea, Indios falls for a fundamentally dishonest man who will betray her once he has gotten what he wants; but unlike Medea, Indios suffers a persistent doubt about his motives:
[O]ne day when the shining man saw me,
He, the man, sat thinking
Either that I was beautiful
Or he devised another plan
To marry me for what he wanted.
I will never know the reasons
For his ways, or if I was ever loved,
But devising is what the devious do—
And he was one of those.
I think there is nothing in either Euripides’ play or in the larger Medea myth as heartbreaking as this. Medea, whether a “monster” or not, never doubts her own actions. She knows she has been betrayed by Jason and triumphantly exacts her revenge. Indios, on the other hand, endures a more complex betrayal and does not triumph; she ends up in a physical prison that is also a prison of self-doubt.
Perhaps the key difference lies in the fact that Medea chooses to abandon her home ground, while Indios’s home ground is stolen from her. Medea’s self-exile is an embrace of her own power, which allows her to inhabit a wide variety of roles. She is a witch, a fratricide, a foreigner (“barbarian”), a mother, a betrayed wife, an avenger, a political force (literally a king-maker). For each role except that of fratricide there is an echo in Indios. But Linda Hogan presents these roles from a Native point of view. Instead of a witch, Indios is a healer. Her barbaric (the word Hogan uses is “savage”) nature is positive—the embodiment of her closeness to the earth, her respect for and deep knowledge of plants and animals. Indios is as much an exile as Medea, but Indios is exiled on the very land that once belonged to her people.
The crucial difference between Medea’s exile and that of Indios is reflected as well in their sense of identity. While Euripides shows Jason’s betrayal of Medea as making her only more deeply herself (that is, even more the monster she has always been at heart), Hogan shows Indios’s betrayal by the shining man as loss of identity. Medea’s true self grows ever more destructive as the story unfolds, but Hogan shows us Indios in the throes of bearing witness to her lost self—a solitary and painful process, but one that drives her desire to go on speaking to Clare. At the end of his play, Euripides’ monster escapes in triumph—an image expressive of the playwright’s male fear of the self-possessed female. Indios, on the other hand, is not self-possessed: the fundament of her identity, her native land, has been stolen, leaving her in a prison from which she cannot escape. In a surprising way, Euripides’ Medea is a brutal psychic romance; by comparison, Hogan’s Indios is classically tragic.
Earlier, in my nutshelling of the Medea myth, I mentioned the the fate of Medea’s children is a kind of crossroads. By that I mean that the nature of their deaths marks the intersection of an ancient, primal narrative and a later narrative with more misogynistic qualities.
The older story depends on Medea’s nature as a witch, the granddaughter of a god and the niece of Circe, another great witch. Medea’s capacity for brutality derives from her witch nature, which is the source of her evil acts, not from her feminine nature, which is the side of her that proves susceptible to a passion for Jason. It’s possible that the popularity of the myth has to do with the way it dramatizes the struggle between powerful, elemental psychic forces represented by the gods and the less powerful human passion that produces desire, love, and the family.
By having Medea murder her own children, Euripides expresses the male fear that the power of the gods can infect ordinary women. He shows this in her relationship with the Chorus of women, who are portrayed as having little use for either Jason or Creon; they could, after all, warn the men about Medea’s plans but choose not to intervene. Had they done so, the tragedy could have been avoided. Instead, Euripides treats us to a final apotheosis in which Medea takes off in a dragon-drawn chariot with the bodies of her murdered children beside her. A powerful woman not only triumphs, but does so in a parody of the deus ex machina—that moment in some ancient Greek plays where one of the gods descends from the skies and sets everything right. If ordinary women can essentially side with a monster, Euripides seems to be saying, we men had better watch our backs.
Hogan dissents from Euripides by showing that the deaths of Indios’s children result not from female “monstrosity” but from two very human impulses. First, Indios seeks to avenge herself on the shining man and the woman he has betrayed her with, not so much because of jealousy, but because she sees that her own children are growing to see themselves as white; that is, having been dispossessed of their land, they are now being dispossessed of their identities: their very selves are being stolen from them. After it becomes known that the new woman is pregnant with the shining man’s child, the woman’s father—”something of a king,” Indios says—sends a message to Indios:
… a message
Saying it will be a good marriage of gold and money,
A good position in the world
For your children and you will be cared for.
He didn’t even know my hame
Or that now my life counted for nothing in this world.
Indios’s marriage to the shining man is deemed illegal and she is sent into exile. Her betrayer and the new woman set about preparing for their own wedding. Then one day the king’s men arrive and take possession of Indios’s children. Sometime later she sneaks onto the grounds of her ex-husband’s home:
I hid behind the trees and underbrush
Like an animal to watch.
She dressed my daughter in a golden gown
And placed a crown of flowers on her head.
This is a clear echo of the gown and garland Medea uses to exact her revenge on Glauce. Indios continues:
I stepped out. What are you doing? I asked.
You never dressed her well, she said.
I took the crown of flowers away.
Mother, they smell so sweet, my daughter said.
I took them off her dark hair.
We have to leave the flowers behind
And we will get more.
You Indian! she said to me. You savage.
Again, there is no heartbreak like this in Euripides. Hogan has reclaimed, on behalf of the “ordinary” feminine, the powerful emotions dispossession produces.
Having her children stolen from her proves the last straw for Indios. In homage to Medea and in ironic imitation of her rival’s treatment of her daughter, Indios makes a gold-colored robe (since “they love gold”), woven entirely of the plants she knows so well:
There was something I have no name for inside of me.
I said I was spinning the sun. I was weaving
The glint of the webs that shine in morning light.
But of course the robe is poisonous. Indios will have her revenge on the new woman and, indirectly, on the shining man. We are deep into the echo/dissent pattern now. Indios echoes Medea’s revenge, but the motive is different. It isn’t just self-centered rage that Indios acts from, but rage against the ruin of her children’s sense of identity.
The pattern further complicates when the children ask if they can hand Indios’s gift to their future “mother.” Indios accompanies the children but indulges them. They hand the new woman the boxed up gift. And when the bride-to-be dons the robe, she dies just as Glauce dies in Medea. But here Hogan dissents again: it’s the shining man and not the new woman’s father who embraces her and is killed. Indios runs to the children then and pulls them into flight with her, but the men sent in pursuit by the king catch up with them and stone the children to death. Unlike Medea, Indios does not escape. She is convicted of murder and imprisoned in a jail built on what used to be her people’s land. Hogan presents her heroine in the end as dispossessed of everything but her memories.
There is something else—something that arises from the echo/dissent pattern that persists throughout Indios.
The Medea myth, both in its primal and its Euripidean form, has very little to say about love. Medea falls in love with Jason and violates all sorts of moral and social rules as a result; as for Jason, although it’s possible that he’s smitten with Medea early on, the truth is that his primary motive—like that of the shining man—is always his own advancement, and that motive leads him to follow the real rules of patriarchal society. According to these unspoken rules, fidelity in marriage is a convenient fiction, children are significant only as extensions of their father’s power, and love itself is merely a useful illusion.
As Indios explains to Clare Finley early on, she too sees love as an illusion:
Love is an old story,
One of kings who’s kingdoms fell
Because of love,
Or a beautiful woman,
A mysterious note, a death,
All for love.
And nearly all the women in this prison
Are here for love or its betrayal.
Many worlds have fallen
Just for love which changed to something else.
Love, for Indios, is illusory because it affects to be eternal. Love, Shakespeare tells us, “is an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” (Not exactly the sentiment of a man whose will left his wife “the second-best bed.”) Euripides and Indios know better. Like everything in the universe, love is subject to change.
This sounds awfully bleak. But oddly enough, it isn’t bleak at all. At the end of Hogan’s grand poem, Indios experiences a vision of the absolute fecundity of change. She tells Clare:
Listen, do you hear those wings? A bird is here.
A night hawk. No, not a bird.
What am I thinking?
It is the woman who always shuffles cards.
She shuffles and lays them out,
Then shuffles again.
She used to be a gambler.
She always won. She always won at cards
while I saw houses of them fall.
Until one reads the entire poem it’s hard to explain how powerful these lines are, because they’re the outgrowth of everything that went before. The passage echoes, yet again, the Medea, with its ironical deus ex machina of winged dragons. But here Indios quickly realizes that the sound of wings is really the sound of cards being shuffled and laid out by “the woman who always shuffles cards.” This wonan could be a Madame Sosostris figure with her “wicked pack of cards”—that is, a claire(!)voyant and fortune-teller. Or it could be the “Eternal Feminine” of which the Chorus Mysticus sings in the final lines of Goethe’s Faust: “All that is transitory / is only a symbol; / what seem unachievable / here is seen done; / what’s indescribable / here becomes fact; / Woman, eternally, / shows us the way.”
However vainly one seeks to define this final vision, it certainly involves the idea of chance—and even exalts it. It reminds of Henri Bergson’s vision of Time, which he describes in The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics:
The ancients […] imagined that Being was given once and for all, complete and perfect, in the immutable system of Ideas: the world which unfolds before our eyes could therefore add nothing to it; it was, on the contrary, only diminution or degradation; its successive states measured as it were the increasing or decreasing distance between what is, a shadow projected in time, and what ought to be, Idea set in eternity; they would outline the variations of a deficiency, the changing form of a void. It was Time which, according to them, spoiled everything. The moderns […] no longer treat Time as an intruder, a disturber of eternity; but they would very much like to reduce it to a simple appearance. The temporal is, then, only the confused form of the rational. What we perceive as being a succession of states is conceived by our intellect, once the fog has settled, as a system of relations. The real becomes once more the eternal, with this single difference, that it is the eternity of the Laws in which the phenomena are resolved instead of being the eternity of the Ideas which serve them as models. But in each case, we are dealing with theories. Let us stick to the facts. Time is immediately given. That is sufficient for us, and until its inexistence or perversity is proved to us we shall merely register that there is effectively a flow of unforeseeable novelty.
Early on in Linda Hogan’s poem, Indios tells Clare Finley: “Sometimes I forget Time. / It was not our invention.” So maybe Hogan would dispute my dragging Bergson in. Still, I think his view of Time aligns with Indios’s final vision—an image of the “flow of unforeseeable novelty” that, in Hogan’s view, springs from a universal feminine principle that draws us all into and through processes of creation and destruction. What we call “identity” may simply be the way each of us resists this principle—as Indios resists it by telling her story. By allowing us to share in that resistance, Indios creates a deep-structured relationship with the reader. We emerge from the poem as Clare Finley must emerge from prison after listening to Indios, both pained and illuminated by the experience.