In Greek mythology, Medea was an enchantress and witch who used her magic powers to help Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. Later, after Jason betrayed her, she used her witchcraft to take revenge.
The daughter of Aeetes, king of Colchis, Medea first saw Jason when he arrived at the king's palace to request the Golden Fleece. According to some accounts, Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to make Medea fall in love with the young hero.
Aeetes had no intention of handing over the Golden Fleece but pretended that he would do so if Jason successfully performed a series of tasks. He was to yoke fire-breathing bulls to a plow, sow a field with dragons' teeth, and then fight the armed warriors who grew from those teeth. In return for his promise to marry her, Medea gave Jason a magic ointment to protect him from the bulls' fiery breath and told him how to confuse the warriors so that they would fight among themselves. Following Medea's instructions, Jason completed the tasks he had been set.
Aeetes promised to hand over the Golden Fleece, but Medea knew that he would not keep his word. She led Jason and the musician Orpheus into the sacred grove where the fleece was kept, guarded by a vicious serpent. Orpheus sang the serpent to sleep, enabling Jason to escape with the fleece. Medea then joined Jason and the Argonauts as they set sail in the Argo.
Aeetes, having discovered the theft of the Golden Fleece, dispatched the Colchian fleet in pursuit of the Argo, and it proved an impossible task for the Argo to outpace the whole fleet.
Medea was then said to have concocted a plan that would delay the pursuit, and it was one that involved fratricide.
Slowing the Argo, Medea allowed the lead vessel of the Colchian fleet, a ship commanded by Medea’s brother Apsyrtus to pull alongside. Apsyrtus was then allowed to come on-board the vessel of the Argonauts.
In an unchivalrous act, Apsyrtus was then murdered, either by the hand of Medea, or by Jason, acting under the orders of Medea. The body of Apsyrtus was then cut up, and the individual body parts thrown overboard into the sea.
Aeetes, who had by then caught up with his fleet, ordered his ships to slow down and collect the body parts of his son. This slowing of the Colchian fleet allowed the Argo to sail away.
The journey back to Iolcus was a long and dangerous one; and had a number of stopping off points.
One such stopping of point was on the island of Circe. Circe was of course Medea’s aunt, and it was said that Circe absolved Medea, and Jason, of the killing of Apsyrtus.
A second stopping off point proved to be the island of Crete, and it was here that Medea perhaps helped saved the Argo and its crew. At the time Crete was protected by Talos, the bronze automaton, who circled around the island protecting it from invaders, and throwing rocks at unwanted ships. Medea, with the use of herbs and potions, disabled Talos, and perhaps, ensured that the lifeblood of the automaton drained away.
It was also said that Jason kept his promise to Medea on the return journey, with Medea and Jason being married. The marriage of Medea and Jason was said to have occurred upon the island of Phaeacia, which at the time was ruled by King Alcinous. The Colchian fleet had once again caught up with the Argo, but as Queen Arete had married Medea and Jason, Alcinous would not give the pair up, and so the fleet of King Aeetes returned home, empty handed.
Eventually the Argonauts arrived back at Iolcus, which was ruled by Jason's uncle Pelias. Pelias had gained the throne by killing Jason's father, King Aeson. Medea brought Aeson back to life by boiling his remains in a pot with magical herbs. In this way, she tricked Pelias's daughters into thinking that they could restore their father to youth by cutting him up and boiling him in a pot. Pelias died a gruesome death, and the furious inhabitants of Iolcus drove out Medea and Jason.
The couple married and settled in Corinth, where they raised several children. Their happy days ended when Creon, the king of Corinth, offered Jason his daughter Glauce in marriage. Anxious to please the king, Jason abandoned Medea and prepared to marry Glauce. Medea took her revenge by sending Glauce a poisoned wedding gown that burned her alive. By some accounts, before fleeing to Athens, she also killed the children she had borne to Jason.
The detailed story goes as follows:
It is commonly said that Jason began to tire of being married to Medea, for in Corinth Medea was perceived to be a barbarian, as were all those who came from Colchis. To make a better life for himself it was arranged that Jason would marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.
Now how Jason expected the sorceress Medea to take this engagement is unknown, but Medea reacted just as everyone else expected her to, with murderous intent.
Medea developed a deadly potion and then covered a robe with this poison, before secretly sending this robe to Glauce. Taken by the beauty of the robe, and of course unaware of its deadly covering, Glauce put the robe on, but immediately poison soaked into her skin, causing her to cry out in pain.
King Creon heard the screams of his daughter, and attempted to remove the robe, but in grabbing hold if it, Creon killed himself for poison also started to race through him.
Having killed Jason’s intended, Medea now to sought to inflict more pain upon Jason, for it was said that the Colchian sorceress killed her own sons, Memerus and Pheres; some say the other children, bar Thessalus, met the same fate, although it is not clear in ancient text.
Now some tell of how Medea did not commit filicide, with the death of Medea and Jason’s children be undertaken instead by the people of Corinth in revenge for the death of their king.
Nevertheless, Medea would now flee from Corinth without Jason, and some tell of how she called forth a chariot pulled by two dragons to aide her escape.
Aegeus, the king of Athens, agreed to protect Medea if she married him and bore him children. They produced a son, Medus (or Medeius), who stood to inherit the throne. However, Aegeus was unaware that he already had a son, Theseus, from a previous marriage. When Theseus came to Athens to claim the throne, Medea recognized him, persuaded Aegeus that Theseus planned to kill him, and prepared a cup of poisoned wine for the young man.
Just as Theseus was about to drink the wine, Aegeus recognized the sword that Theseus carried, realized that Theseus was his son, and knocked the cup from the young man's hand. By some accounts, Medea then fled to a region in Asia that came to be known as Media in her honor and whose inhabitants became known as Medes.
On some other accounts, the story goes as follows:
There was nowhere left in Greece that would welcome Medea now, and so Medea decides to return to her first home Colchis.
Colchis has changed greatly since Medea had first left, and Aeetes had lost the throne after the loss of the Golden Fleece, just as had been prophesised; his own brothers, Perse, had usurped Aeetes.
Medea would intervene to ensure that Aeetes was once again king, and thus through her sorcery, Perses is killed, and Aeetes is restored to the Colchian throne.
Aeetes would eventually die, but then Medus, Medea’s own son becomes king of Colchis, and the story of Medea ends.
- Heroides XII
- Metamorphoses VII, 1-450
- Tristia iii.9
Neophron, Medea (fragments from the play)
Hyginus, Fabulae 21-26
Pindar, Pythian Odes, IV
Seneca: Medea (tragedy)
Bibliotheca I, 23-28
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica
Gaius Valerius Flaccus Argonautica (epic)
Herodotus, Histories I.2 and VII.62i
Hesiod, Theogony 1000-2
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