A royal descendant of the gods, Medea is a tragic, but also vilified figure from Greek legend. The lover of Jason, she was known for multiple murders – though some less popular versions of her legend do ascribe these killings to either Jason or accident. The worst, and most famous, of her crimes were recorded within Euripides’ play ‘Medea’ – the murder of her two children. The play was first performed in 431 BC.
“My life is over, dear friends. I’ve lost all joy. I want to die. The person who was everything to me, my own husband, has turned out to be the worst of men. This I know is true. Of all things with life and understanding, we women are the most unfortunate.”
Medea was a princess, and the wife of Jason of the Argonauts. Her talents were essential to Jason’s famous retrieval of the golden fleece, which had been under the protection of her father, King Aeëtes of Colchis.
Jason was a prince who had been sent on a seemingly impossible mission by his uncle, and current King of Iolcos, Pelias. King Pelias wished to rid himself of his nephew, and the threat to his usurped throne. On his ship, the Argo, Jason and his crew made it to Colchis, but it would not be so easy to retrieve the fleece from Aeëtes. Jason managed to convince Aeëtes to promise him the fleece if Jason completed a series of tasks. These tasks seemed impossible, but Jason had help. Jason had Medea.
Medea was the granddaughter of the sun god, Helios. She was a priestess, sworn to Hecate, goddess of magic, and a powerful sorceress. She was also quickly seduced by Jason and agreed to help him. First, Aeëtes ordered Jason to plough a field using two bull who breathed fire. Medea made Jason a magical ointment that made him impervious to fire. Then, Jason was told to plant dragon teeth in the ploughed field – then to battle and defeat the warriors that grew from these teeth. Again, he succeeded with Medea’s advice. Though he had completed the tasks, Aeëtes refused to produce the fleece. Medea led Jason and his men to the sacred grove where the fleece was kept. Though it was guarded by a fearsome dragon, Medea gifted Jason with another potion, one which sent the dragon to sleep.
Fleece retrieved, the Argonauts left Colchis, accompanied by Medea, who Jason swore to marry in return for her help. They also took with them, Apsyrtus, Medea’s younger brother. Pursued by Aeëtes, Medea slew her brother and cut him into pieces, strewing his limbs on the road behind them. Aeëtes was slowed, stopping to gather up his son’s body and Medea and Jason escaped.
They returned to Jason’s home, Iolcos where Jason hoped to reclaim his father’s throne, having learnt that his parents’ deaths had come at the hands of his uncle. Medea offered to get revenge for him. She went to Pelias and told him she was a mighty sorceress and would be able to return him to his youthful form. Intrigued, Pelias demanded a demonstration.
Medea brought in an old ram and cut it into pieces, throwing them into a boiling cauldron. She then managed to produce a young lamb, which she convinced them all was the old ram made young again. Pelias was convinced and allowed himself to be cut into pieces and placed inside the pot. Unsurprisingly, no young Pelias emerged. For their actions, Medea and Jason were banished from Iolcos.
The married couple set up shop in Corinth, living there for many years, and Medea bore Jason a varying number of children (depending on myth) which include two young sons. And this brings us to the beginning of Euripides’ famous play, ‘Medea’, which tells the story of Medea’s revenge after Jason decides to put her aside for a younger, more advantageous bride.
Despite seeing first-hand how Medea treated those she wished vengeance on – or even just those she needed out of her way –Jason decided to marry Glauce. Glauce was the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth and so, in marrying her Jason would become the king’s heir. Clearly, this was an enticing prospect to a man who had never managed to become king of his own country and had spent his life in exile.
Medea, however, was distraught. She refused to eat or sleep, deriding Jason as an oath breaker. She had severed all ties with her homeland, her father and her siblings in order to be with Jason. She had committed terrible crimes in his name, and now he repaid her with unfaithfulness. Medea did not only curse Jason, but also Glauce. This was to be her undoing. Creon knew of Medea’s previous murders, and her strong witchcraft. Afraid that she would follow through with he threats, he ordered her exiled, her two young children with her. He made one mistake. Driven by pity at Medea’s begging, he allowed her one more day within the city to prepare herself and her children for exile.
Medea, of course, instead prepared her revenge.
A visit from Jason roused her anger further. When she again insulted him for abandoning her and their children after all the help she had given him, Jason derided her in turn. He told her that she had bought the exile upon herself, speaking threateningly of the king and his daughter. What’s more, he told her that he did not credit her with saving his life, or helping him in any way, because her help had only come after the gods made her fall in love with him. He even claimed that his marriage to Glauce was strategic and would have secured their children’s safety. After all, their half siblings would be royalty. Now, because of Medea’s actions, their sons were to go into exile.
Almost as soon as Jason had left, Medea began her plan. She sent Glauce a beautiful gown and accompanying tiara, under the guise of using them to bribe the girl to not exiling Medea’s sons. She even used the boys as messengers, sending them to the palace with the fine gifts, and instructing them to make sure Glauce took them from the boy’s own hands. When the young woman put on the gown and fine crown, the poisons embedded in them began to burn. Rushing to the sound of her screams, Creon stumbled upon a corpse. Despairing, he clutched his daughter to him, becoming entangled in the gown, and the poison took him too.
As one final blow to Jason, Medea then murdered their two children.
Though Jason attempted to attack Medea, she had once been gifted a fine flying chariot by her grandfather, Helios. She stepped inside it and flew away, taking the bodies of her children with her.
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