Medea

In his Argonautica, ancient Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes provides a rather romantic introduction of Medea as a young woman desperately in love. Unfortunately, this introduction quickly takes on a sinister turn and casts Medea as one of the most infamous and controversial figures in Greek mythology.

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Medea, by Jean-Jacques Pradier (1770-1852). Nationalmuseum , Stockholm, Sweden

To understand how a young girl in love can turn into a murderous woman who commits infanticide, it is helpful to look at the women who, over time, have been relegated to the role of ‘helper maidens’ in ancient heroic stories. A helper-maiden is typically personified as a young woman who, usually because of love, helps a hero in his quest. One of them is Ariadne. Ariadne was a priestess-princess and daughter of King Minos of Crete. Her father ordered the creation of a labyrinth by the engineer Daedalus. In the center of this labyrinth lived the Minotaur, half-human and half-bull and Ariadne’s half-brother. Ariadne fell in love with the young hero Theseus, a prince from Athens, who planned to enter the maze, to slay the Minotaur. Before Theseus entered the maze, Ariadne gave him a ball of string to help him find his way out.

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William Wetmore Story – Medea, 1866, marble, High Museum of Art

After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and escaped from the maze, he took Ariadne as his bride and they sailed back to his home, Athens. However, before reaching their destination, they stopped over at the island of Naxos. Fatigued, Ariadne fell asleep and was then left on the island Naxos by Theseus. Thus, the powerful woman who helped the hero and sacrificed her own family was reduced to a state of powerlessness.

Another helper maiden whose story has a tragic outcome, is Medea. Medea stepped onto the stage when the hero Jason came to Colchis to claim his inheritance – the throne of Iolcus – by retrieving the Golden Fleece, to fulfill one of the conditions tasked to him by his uncle King Pelias. Medea fell in love with the handsome hero and promised to help him on condition that Jason would marry her and take her with him on his adventures. Aeëtes, the king of Colchis and Medea’s father, promised to give Jason the fleece if Jason could perform certain tasks. Jason’s first task was to plough a field with fire-breathing oxen that he had to yoke himself. To help him with this task, Medea gave him an ointment to apply on himself and weapons to protect him from the bulls’ fiery breath.

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Medea by Paul-Jean-Baptiste Gasq (1860-1944) in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Jason’s second task was to sow the teeth of a dragon in the field. The dragon’s teeth sprouted into an army of warriors. This came as no surprise to Jason as Medea had already prewarned him about this and advised him to throw a rock into the crowd of warriors. Unable to determine where the rock had come from, the warriors attacked and killed each other.

Jason’s final task was to fight and kill the sleepless dragon that guarded the fleece. It was, again, Medea who came to Jason’s rescue by putting the beast to sleep with her narcotic herbs. Jason took the fleece and sailed away with Medea. As they fled, Medea distracted her father by killing her own brother Absyrtus, effectively severing her ties to her own family and putting herself in exile for the man she loved. It is perhaps difficult today to conceive of how horrible exile would have been for the ancient Greeks. As a person’s city-state was their home and protector, to wander without friends or shelter was considered a fate worse than death. For the sake of her husband, Medea committed herself to exile, sending herself far from her home without family or friends to protect her.

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Bartolomeo Guidobono – Medea rejuvenates Aeson

When Jason’s ship, called the Argo, reached the island of Crete, they found that the island was guarded by Talus. Talus was a giant bronze automaton who circled the island three times a day to protect Crete from pirates and invaders. Here the accounts differ slightly as, according to Apollodorus, Talus was slain when Medea drove him mad with drugs and deceived him by promising that she would make him immortal. However, in the Argonautica, Medea hypnotized him from the deck of the Argo, driving him mad so that he dislodged the nail fastened in his body and bled to death. It was only after Talus had died that the Argo was able to land.

Celebrating his return with the Golden Fleece to Iolcus, Jason noted that his father Aeson was too unwell to participate in the celebrations. Medea drew the blood from Aeson’s body, infused it with herbs and returned it to his veins to invigorate him. King Pelias’ daughters saw this and wanted the same cure for their father. However, Pelias had still refused to give up his throne for Jason. Medea told the girls that she could turn an old ram into a young ram by cutting up the old ram into pieces and boiling it in a cauldron full of magic herbs. After Medea cut up the old ram and put it in the herb filled pot, a young ram jumped out of the pot. Excited, Pelias’ daughters then dismembered their father and threw him into a pot, thus killing their own father. Having orchestrated the killing of Pelias, Jason and Medea fled to Corinth where they married and stayed together for the next 10 years with their children. In her advocacy of her husband’s interest in the throne, Medea had inadvertently turned Jason into an exile at Corinth, since due to her actions in Iolcus, Jason could no longer return home. Jason, the hero of the Golden Fleece had now become a wanderer. 

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Biagio d’Antonio (Florentine, 1472-1516), The Betrothal of Jason and Medea, 1487

After years of marriage, and perhaps frustrated by the lack of security in their exiled state, Jason abandoned Medea in favor of the king’s daughter Glauce. Accounts of what happened next vary. In Euripides’ version, Medea took her revenge by sending Glauce a dress and golden coronet drenched in poison. This resulted in the deaths of both the princess and the king, Creon, when he tried to save his daughter. To avenge herself on Jason, Medea then murdered two of her children herself. According to the poet Eumelus, Medea killed her children by accident. However, the poet Creophylus blamed the children’s murders on the citizens of Corinth. Nevertheless, Medea left Corinth and flew to Athens in a golden chariot driven by dragons. Despite the different variations, it is Euripides’ rendition of Medea’s infanticide which would become the standard for later writers.

In every version of her story, Medea’s means of achieving her ends involved a lot of cunning and trickery, However, one of her favored methods, which indicated her semi-divine status, was her use of drugs. Providing sleep and cure was considered a divine privilege. In fact, the concepts of sleep, death and rebirth were closely associated in ancient classical thought.

Frederick Sandys - Medea, 1866-1868.jpg
Frederick Sandys – Medea, 1866-1868

In Homer’s Iliad, Hera put Zeus to sleep to allow her to assist the Greeks in the Trojan War. Apart from his ability to heal, Apollo also had hypnotic powers and the ability to induce death through plagues. In his temple at Delphi, Apollo temporarily relieved Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father Agamemnon, from the menace of the Erinnyes (the female spirits, often three in number, who pursue and punish the doers of unavenged crimes) by putting them to sleep.

The special ability to make people sleep was gifted from the gods to several mortals. The most skilled out of these favored mortals was Medea. In his play, Euripides emphasizes Medea’s skills, cunning and cleverness. However, he also argues that it was these admirable traits which caused suffering for Medea herself. Aristotle considered the clever woman so distasteful that she is a subject unfit for drama. Aristotle’s statement reflects the typically ancient Greek attitudes. Euripides linked Medea’s cleverness to the theme of pride and of a woman’s position in the ancient Greek society. In Euripides’ play, Medea herself tells Creon that it is better to be born stupid as men despise clever women. Another difficulty that Medea faced was that, as a knowledgeable woman in the ancient Greek society, she had no real outlet for her gifts, as her force, intellect and will power all exceeded her station as a woman. Although they have some respect for her, the Greek men often treated her with contempt because of her gender and her ‘barbarian’ origins. Therefore, Medea occupied a strange position where she was a powerless woman surrounded by powerful men who were much less intelligent and resourceful than herself.

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Medea sits with a sword at her side whilst her children play. Fresco from 1st century AD

Written around 50 AD, Seneca the Younger’s play, Medea, picked up at the end of Medea’s tale when Jason had abandoned her for Glauce. Although most ancient Greek and Roman plays begin with a summary or introduction delivered by a chorus, in Seneca’s Medea, it is Medea herself who introduces the story with a monologue, thus cementing her power and control of the narrative. Her long, passionate monologue curses Jason and his new wife. As the story continues, Medea plans for revenge and threatens to destroy the palace of King Creon, the father of Glauce. After Creon orders Medea’s exile, Medea begs for mercy and is granted one more day in the city. As Jason refuses to let her take their children in her flight, Medea plans to kill her children. After she poisons a wedding rope that kills Glauce and Creon, Medea murders her children and throws their bodies down on Jason, despite his desperate pleas for her to spare them. The last image of the play sees Medea flying away in a dragon-pulled chariot while Jason questions the existence of the gods.

Medea has a divine lineage. She is the daughter of king Aeëtes of Colchis. Aeëtes was the son of sun god Helios and the Oceanid Perseis, one of the 3,000 daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. This makes Aeëtes the brother of Perses, Pasipae (the queen of Crete) and Circe (the enchantress renowned for her vast knowledge of potions and herbs).  Medea is known in most stories as a sorceress and is often depicted as a priestess of the goddess Hecate. This relationship is established by Euripides though Medea’s line: “by the mistress I worship… Hecate, dwelling in the inmost recesses of my hearth, no one will bruise and batter my heart and get away with it”. In this play, Medea’s ties to Hecate are seen as symbolic as Hecate is both revered and feared, which mirrors Medea’s own virtuous and evil qualities.

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1st century AD fresco, Medea plans the murder of her children, who are playing knucklebones.

Hecate was also one of the main deities worshipped in Athenian households as a protectress and one who bestowed prosperity and blessings on the family. By highlighting her relationship with Hecate, Medea presents an ideal quality of a wife in a true devotion to family and preservation of the oikosOikos refers to three related but distinct concepts of the family, the family’s property and the house. As Jason threatened to leave and destroy his household with Medea for a younger wife and more profitable marriage, Medea did what she could to protect her oikos. Despite the violent and negative stigma associated with both Medea and Hecate, they are known for a drastically different and more agreeable quality – that of protecting the oikos. The concept of protecting the oikos against foreign invasion is a ceremonial specialty of Hecate.

Although it might seem strange that Euripides’ Medea, who killed her children and escaped on dragons, is in fact the protectress of her family, the idea was not a new concept. Medea is seen throughout Apollonius’ Argonautica as an ideal wife archetype in Greek culture, while retaining direct correlations to Hecate in her willingness to defy the male members of her family and to kill anyone who came into Jason’s way. Even in Argonautica, Medea already challenges the default in ancient Greek society of male dominance in marriage by demonstrating the equal, if not greater, contribution on the part of the female in securing safety for the family.

Hecate with three bodies, Roman, 2nd century AD, marble - Galleria Borghese - Rome, Italy - DSC04794.jpg
Hecate with three bodies, Roman, 2nd century AD, marble

Medea’s most drastic defiance, the antithesis of the role of the passive innocent victim, and controversial action is undoubtedly the slaying of her children, as a result of Jason’s abandonment. As there was nothing that Jason could do to stop her, Medea forced the male figure to be the passive victim and divorced herself from the feminine role of motherhood. As virginity and motherhood cannot coexist in one person, one must be eliminated to make way for the other. Medea revokes her responsibility of motherhood in defiance to the unfair cultural system of the ancient Greeks who gave every rights and advantage to her husband.

Medea’s presenting the poisoned clothing to Glauce for her wedding ceremony is similar to Hecate’s own creation story, “The Dying Maiden” as the dead virgin who would finally become Hecate is posthumously adorned with the clothing of the goddess Artemis. The popular funerary practice of Hecate also involves bestowing clothing to the dead individual.

Pensive young female in black shirt holding palm in front of face while hiding from bright light

Medea’s character parallels that of Hecate again through Hecate’s identity as a foreign goddess in reference to the ‘Great Mother’ figure in Anatolia. Medea is also known as a foreigner, which the Greeks detest even before the events of Euripides’ Medea. The transition of Medea from her native Colchis to Greek society is similar to Hecate’s in the way that her reception is regarded as a hostile one. 

Euripides differed from his contemporaries in making his characters’ tragic fates stem almost entirely from their own flawed natures instead of from the whims of the gods. His depictions of women deserve particular attention. His plays present a long list of heroines who are fierce, treacherous or adulterous – but they are never passive. Although Euripides has forever ruined Medea’s reputation by his depiction of her murdering her own children to show the difficulties of women who are considered too clever for their own good, one may still thank him for not providing yet another innocent virgin heroine like Ariadne. Instead, he depicts a real woman with a complex personality who has suffered and becomes twisted through her suffering.

Gentle mysterious woman touching face in darkness

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