Medea: victim or villain? This question has baffled scholars and leisurely readers alike for centuries. Jason and Medea met in their youth and were besotted with each other at first sight. From there, the two of them left destruction in their wake, all in the name of “love”. How many had to suffer as a consequence of their relationship?
The myth of Jason and Medea gives one much to interpret. Since the myth has been taken up by many storytellers, it has become an endlessly shifting tale. There are many alternative versions, each shedding new light on the characters and how storytellers have perceived them. One thing is certain, in myth: hell hath no fury like Medea scorned…
Jason and Medea: The Beginning
The myth of Jason and Medea takes place in Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica. The narrator calls to the Muse of love poetry, Erato, to inspire him to tell the story: “Come now, Erato, stand by my side, and say next how Jason brought back the fleece to Iolcus aided by the love of Medea. For thou sharest the power of Cypris, and by thy love-cares dost charm unwedded maidens; wherefore to thee too is attached a name that tells of love.”
Jason had come to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. The legend was that the Golden Fleece had magical properties: the ability to increase the bountifulness of the land, the fruition of crops, and the health of a nation. Jason was seeking it because the King of his hometown, Pelias of Iolcus, said that he would only give up his throne to Jason, who was the rightful heir, if he could retrieve the Fleece.
At that time, Medea was a princess of Colchis. Her father was King Aeetes, and he was the son of the sun god Helios. This made Medea the granddaughter of the sun god, and he later gained a larger role in her life, in another myth.
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The Plot of the Goddesses
The three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, conspired together to help Jason with his quest. Hera particularly favored Jason because she had a bad history with King Pelias. By helping Jason she could harm Pelias’s position.
Hera and Athena convinced Aphrodite to be a party to their plans. Hera implored Aphrodite, “… just quietly bid thy boy [Eros, god of erotic love] charm Aeetes’ daughter with love for Jason. For if she will aid him with her kindly counsel, easily do I think he will win the fleece of gold and return to Iolcus, for she is full of wiles.”
Aphrodite assented, and so she sent Eros to Colchis. When Jason arrived, he and his crew walked to the city, in awe of the beautiful land around them. When reaching the citadel, King Aeetes and his household came out to greet the travelers. In disguise, Eros shot Medea with an arrow of fiery passion.
“Speechless amazement seized her soul. But the god himself flashed back again from the high-roofed hall, laughing loud; and the bolt burnt deep down in the maiden’s heart like a flame; and ever she kept darting bright glances straight up at [Jason], and within her breast her heart panted fast through anguish, all remembrance left her, and her soul melted with the sweet pain. [As] the flame waxing wondrous great from the small brand consumes all the twigs together; so, coiling round her heart, burnt secretly Love the destroyer; and the hue of her soft cheeks went and came, now pale, now red, in her soul’s distraction.”
(Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica Book 3)
Magic of the Sorceress
Upon meeting Aeetes, Jason requested the Golden Fleece to complete his quest. However, it was not that easy. Aeetes demanded that in compensation for the Fleece, Jason must first complete a series of challenges. Now, Medea’s greatest fascination — before she met Jason — was with the magical arts. She is often depicted in myth as a priestess of the goddess Hecate, who had power over magic, crossroads, and doorways and who was known for her role in repelling evil spirits.
“The goddess Hecate taught [Medea] to handle magic herbs with exceeding skill all that the land and flowing waters produce. With them is quenched the blast of unwearied flame, and at once she stays the course of rivers as they rush roaring on, and checks the stars and the paths of the sacred moon.”
(Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica)
This power and magical ability would allow Medea to aid Jason in his impossible tasks.
In the myth presented by Apollonius, Medea was first torn apart by indecision. Her anguish was often compared to the pain of fire, which both illustrates her intense personal pain, but also the potential for widespread destruction. If uncontained, Medea’s anguish had the power to inflict a burning destruction on all those around her.
Medea’s indecision was due to this key dilemma: if she were to help Jason, this would be an act of betrayal against her father. However, with the curse of love upon her, if she did not help Jason, she herself would be compelled to suicide, from seeing the love of her life perish.
“And she thought now that she would give him the charms to cast a spell on the bulls, now that she would not, and that she herself would perish; and again that she would not perish and would not give the charms, but just as she was would endure her fate in silence. Then sitting down she wavered in mind…”
The agony of indecision is said to have compelled Medea to help Jason — the pain of potentially seeing him die, and the desire to stop that pain was too overwhelming. When the pain was almost too much, Medea’s thoughts turned to suicide. However, the goddess Hera quickly struck the fear of death into her heart and an ardent love of life.
“But suddenly a deadly fear of hateful Hades came upon her heart. And long she held back in speechless horror, and all around her thronged visions of the pleasing cares of life. She thought of all the delightful things that are among the living, she thought of her joyous playmates, as a maiden will; and the sun grew sweeter than ever to behold, seeing that in truth her soul yearned for all.”
Yoking the Oxen of Fire and Planting the Skeleton Seeds
Filled with the resolution to stay alive and assist Jason, Medea helped him for the first time. The first task assigned to Jason was to yoke a pair of fire-breathing oxen, and then control them long enough to plow an entire field. Medea was doubtful that Jason would be able to survive the encounter with the oxen. Their breath was too hot to withstand, and many before him had perished.
Medea had a special ointment, which when applied to the body, would make one impervious to flames for some time. This ointment had come from the blood of the Titan Prometheus, who had first given fire to mankind allowing it to advance exponentially in technology and life. Medea gave this ointment to Jason, and so he was successfully able to yoke the oxen and then plow the field.
Jason’s next task was to plant the seeds of a dragon. When the dragon’s teeth were sown in the ground, Earthborn soldiers erupted from the soil. Luckily for him, Jason had been forewarned about this by Medea. Her advice was to throw a rock into the assembly of newborn soldiers, and in the confusion, they would attack each other. The ruse worked, and Jason survived. But back in the citadel, King Aeetes was waiting to give him another impossible task.
The Night Before the Final Task
“Now do thou thyself, goddess Muse, daughter of Zeus, tell of the labour and wiles of [Medea]. Surely my soul within me wavers with speechless amazement as I ponder whether I should call it the lovesick grief of mad passion or a panic flight, through which she left the Colchian folk.”
(Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica Book 4)
In Apollonius’ version of the myth, his narrator questions the motive for Medea’s next action: her elopement with Jason, and her flight from Colchis. At this point, Medea knew that if she helped Jason with his next task, her father would know of her betrayal. Like her fellow heroine, Ariadne, who had helped the hero Theseus escape the Labyrinth from under her father’s nose, Medea knew that her father would not forgive her for her betrayal. So, Medea resolved that she would have to flee with Jason.
At night, Medea crept in the darkness onto Jason’s ship, where the crew and Jason himself were contemplating the last task. She asked Jason for protection and loyalty in return for her help. Jason was quick to agree.
Rejoicing, Jason went one step further and promised to marry Medea, making an unbreakable, solemn oath in the name of the King and Queen of the Gods: “Lady, let Zeus of Olympus himself be witness to my oath, and Hera, queen of marriage, bride of Zeus, that I will set thee in my halls my own wedded wife, when we have reached the land of Hellas on our return.”
Alas, Jason’s promise was not to last…
The Sleepless Dragon
For the final task, Aeetes challenged Jason to kill the sleepless dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. Still in the cover of night, Jason and Medea approached the grove where the Golden Fleece was perched on a giant oak tree. The dragon heard them coming and began to attack.
However, Medea began to sing a powerful melody, drawing on the magical aid of Zeus, king of the gods, and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The dragon put up a fight against the power of the sleeping spell, but Medea used magical herbs as she got closer to the dragon. She threw the herbs over the dragon’s eyes, and so he was compelled to sleep for the first time in his life.
“Aeson’s son (Jason) followed in fear, but the serpent, already charmed by her song, was relaxing the long ridge of his giant spine, and lengthening out his myriad coils, like a dark wave, dumb and noiseless, rolling over a sluggish sea; […] the potent scent of the charm cast sleep; and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down.”
At this point, Jason snatched the Fleece, and ran back to the ship, calling Medea to come with him. Together they crept back to the ship, and Jason clutched the Fleece, fearing that they would come across someone who would try to take it. His power to claim back his throne was in his hands and he did not want to risk losing it.
Jason and Medea Set Sail
By this time, Aeetes had discovered Medea’s treachery. He ordered his soldiers to pursue Jason’s ship and to capture Medea so that he could exact his vengeance. The leader of the chosen crew was Apsyrtus, the brother of Medea. Jason and Medea were determined not to be hindered from their elopement, so they plotted together to kill Apsyrtus, and so began their destructive madness.
“Ruthless Love, great bane, great curse to mankind, from thee come deadly strifes and lamentations and groans, and countless pains as well have their stormy birth from thee. Arise, thou god, and arm thyself against the sons of our foes in such guise as when thou didst fill Medea’s heart with accursed madness. How then by evil doom did she slay Apsyrtus when he came to meet her?”
The two ships harbored at an island, and Jason’s crew set up an ambush for Apsyrtus. Even though Medea had agreed to the murder, it appears in the myth that she showed some last-minute regret and guilt. When Jason pounced on her unsuspecting brother, she turned aside and hid her face with her veil, so that she would not see her brother’s blood split. Her guilt was useless to her brother though, and this murder caused the anger of the gods. Jason then chopped up the body of the prince, so that Aeetes would be delayed in his pursuit. The King stopped chasing Jason and Medea to locate all the parts of his son’s body, so that they could bury him in his entirety.
Return to Iolcus
Following this bloodshed, Jason and Medea continued their travels to Iolcus. They stopped at the island of Crete, but it was guarded by the automaton, Talos. Using her drugs and magic, Medea drove him mad, and he bled to death from a wound to his ankle. It appeared that Medea was becoming murderous in her attempts to flee her home and find a new one.
Once back in Iolcus, they found Jason’s father, Aeson, very old and on the verge of death. Medea used her magic to invigorate him with youthful life. Seeing the old man in such a state of health, the daughters of King Pelias asked for the same treatment for their father. King Pelias was the King who had dethroned Jason’s father and taken his place as King. He was also the one that had commanded Jason to get the Golden Fleece.
On their return with the Fleece, Pelias still refused to give up the throne. Medea told Pelias’ daughters that the way to invigorate Pelias with youthful life was to cut him up into pieces and boil him in a pot with special herbs. Medea deceitfully demonstrated the process with a lamb but she had sneakily produced a live lamb at the end. The daughters, believing Medea, excitedly chopped up their own father. This next murder meant that Jason and Medea had to flee Iolcus for Corinth.
Medea’s Hellish Wrath
By this time, Jason had begun to resent Medea. Medea had performed all these monstrous acts under the compulsion of Hera’s magic, but Jason did not know this, and neither did Medea. The magic of Hera had begun to turn Medea insane.
Due to this, when Jason was offered Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth, as his wife, he took the offer. This marriage would give Jason even more power and wealth, which he had lost due to his exile from Iolcus. However, his choice yet again caused the anger of the gods, as he had taken an oath of loyalty to Medea, and he had done so while invoking the gods in his promise.
When Medea heard of Jason’s betrayal, she began to plot her revenge. She sent the bride-to-be, Glauce, a beautiful dress as a wedding present. Unbeknownst to Glauce, this dress was covered in poison on the inside. When Glauce put the dress on, she was burnt alive. Glauce’s father attempted to save her, but his contact with the poison killed him too.
“Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate. Incurable, in each, the wounds they make.” – Euripides, Medea.
Jason and Medea: Medea’s Final Madness
Here, the myth tends to change depending on the version you read. During the time they had been together, moving through towns and traveling the sea, Jason and Medea had had two sons. In one version, Medea was punished for the murder of Glauce by the citizens of the town, who took her children and killed them.
In another version, Medea is so full of rage and anguish at Jason’s betrayal that she decides to eradicate Jason’s line. By doing this, she irrevocably hurt Jason, and despite the grief it caused herself, the pain it inflicted on Jason was worth it to her.
“Hate is a bottomless cup; I will pour and pour.” – Euripides, Medea.
Finally, another version of the myth claims that Medea knew that Jason’s marriage to Glauce would mean that she and her children would be exiles. In Euripides’ version of the myth, Medea is pressured to leave the city by the king. Therefore, Medea chooses to murder her children as a mercy, as she believed that death was better than slavery or the wanderings of exile.
In any case, Jason and Medea’s flight from her hometown left countless deaths and violence in their wake. Their relationship had flared from ardent love to repulsive abhorrence. Left behind is a message of the power of passion, and its great capacity to turn into a hateful rage, fuelled by the same wrecking force.
“I know indeed what evil I intend to do, but stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.” – Euripides, Medea