Mythological Character (Classical Greek)
The French have a phrase—La Belle Dame sans Merci, usually rendered into English as 'The beautiful woman without pity.' Surely there can be few better examples of this idiom than Medea, the mighty sorceress who slew her own children to deny a bloodline to her faithless husband.
Medea is one particular belle dame who has fascinated novelists, playwrights, poets, and painters for a couple of thousand years. I suppose there is something inherently interesting about ruthless, but highly competent women.
Tragedy was all around her, but it would be hard to call Medea a tragic character; whatever her flaws, she always came out on top, and I suppose it is hard not to have a sneaking admiration for that.
And it all started with a flying sheep.
WARNING! This tale is quite grisly, containing an inordinate number of dismemberments (even for a Greek myth) and an exploding wedding dress...reader beware!
PROLOG: The Ram Flies Down to Colchis
King Aeëtes was a renowned sorcerer; it was whispered that his father was the sun god Helios. Aeëtes was the brother of Queen Pasiphaë of Crete and also of the sorceress Circe (a femme fatale who shows up in the Odyssey). One day, a magical ram came flying down to Colchis from the sky, bearing a boy named Phrixus on its back. Its wool shone like pure gold. I suppose that even in this strange era of heroes, monsters, and gods who walked among humans, this must have raised a few eyebrows.
Gold has long been seen as symbolic of the sun—people imagine the life-giving solar rays in its luster. Aeëtes naturally saw this as a sign from his godly daddy. The ram was sacrificed to Helios and its Golden Fleece was kept as a potent symbol of the King's majestic pedigree. As for the lad, Phrixus, he wound up married to one of the King's daughters, Chalciope.
But in far-off Thessaly, trouble was brewing.
ACT ONE: Bad Times in Old Thessaly
Jason, Prince of Iolcos (a province of Thessaly) returned home from his studies abroad, only to discover that his nasty uncle Pelias had grabbed the throne and thrown Jason's dad, King Aeson in the slammer.
In a lot of these myths, the villain makes a bargain with the hero: do this (seemingly impossible) task and I'll grant your request. The gods then step in to aid our hero and he completes the task. People considering a career in the exciting and fast-paced mythical being industry should, however, be aware that these transactions seldom work out very well—and reneging on one of these bargains may result in a very ugly fate. As we shall soon see, Jason was given two such offers in rapid succession.
Pelias offered Jason a task: bring back a certain wooly, golden prize from Colchis, and the throne is yours.
ACT TWO: The Voyage of the Good Ship Argo
Jason accepted the challenge and assembled a crack team of heroes and a wicked-cool boat called the Argo.
The adventures of this band of hearties, the so-called Argonauts, are recounted in Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, a book that is considerably more fun than it sounds.
So, the heroes made it to Colchis and met with King Aeëtes. Surprisingly enough, the king offered this young foreigner a series of tests including beating a dragon and sowing a field with its teeth, which immediately became armoured warriors who popped out of the ground in a very grumpy mood! Oh yeah, and the plough was pulled by gigantic, fire-breathing bulls. It was an odd time for everyone.
Finally, Medea comes into our story! A daughter of King Aeëtes, she was devoted to the dark underworld goddess Hekate, and, like her papa, she was hardly a slouch when it came to dark spells and sorcery.
Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods, was fond of young Jason, so she contrived to have Medea fall in love with the hero. With Medea's supernatural assistance, Jason breezed through the quest and the couple headed back to the Argo, Fleece and Argonauts in tow.
Aeëtes was extremely unhappy at this turn of events. The point of these quests is always that the heroes are supposed to fail. He sent Medea's brother in pursuit, while he brought up the rear with a detachment of soldiers.
Demonstrating the sort of ruthless ingenuity that would make her one of mythology's favourite femmes fatale, Medea captured her brother, dismembered his corpse and strewed the bits all over the place. Her regal father had to stop his men to pick up all of the bits in order that a proper funeral could be staged for the youth.
Back in Iolcos, Medea plotted with Jason to pull a particularly nasty prank on the usurper, Pelias. She put on a show of her magical talents. An elderly ram was chopped up and thrown in a pot with a magical elixir. Moments later, a young, strong one leapt out of the cauldron.
Pelias was hardly a young man, and the show had exactly the intended effect. He begged Medea to rejuvenate him. So, Medea had Pelias' daughters chop the old guy up and throw him into the cauldron. Unfortunately for the Pelias family, she left out some crucial ingredients and all his horrified kids got was a big pot of Pelias stew.
There are a lot of variations on this gruesome tale: the usurper is boiled alive, or his daughters chop him up in his sleep, so that his rejuvenation will be a surprise. At any rate, he met a horrible fate and his kids got to participate. Nasty, even by the standards of Greek mythology!
ACT THREE: Domestic Difficulties
Medea and her heroic hubby then settled down to a life of relative domestic bliss. They had some kids, most accounts say two, but some sources claim they had as many as 14. Then, Jason made a mistake—and when mythological characters screw up, they do so on an epic scale!
Jason decided to give up his dark sorceress and move her out of the city so that he could marry a girl named Glauke, the beautiful daughter of his ally, King Creon. This move was considered politically wise by his advisors, who must have been contenders for the Bronze Age Darwin Awards ... Seriously, Jase, angering the woman who has magical powers to aid or to kill...I can't imagine how that could go wrong.
If you are thinking that Medea did not take any of this treatment laying down you are way ahead of me.
Medea treated the blushing young bride's wedding dress with a special ointment. As Glauke's regal dad escorted her to the altar, the were both enveloped in a huge fireball. Hell hath no fury, indeed!
By the time Jason got back to the palace, Medea had killed (and, in some tellings, dismembered) their sons. He got there just in time to see her fly away in a dragon (or serpent) drawn chariot. Her grandpapa, Helios, had one of those distinctive vehicles.
Some variations of this tale say that Medea did not, in fact, kill her kids, but that she was forced to flee Iolcos, leaving them behind. When a plague broke out, they were all sacrificed to propitiate the gods. Later mythographers may have chosen to blame it on Medea.
This tale of child killing is a strange and unsettling part of a very weird narrative. Scholars seem to think that it is a re-telling of a sacrificial rite from before recorded history—burnt sacrifices, possibly children or young animals, were offered as servants to the great mother earth goddess and/or the sun god. It is certainly conceivable that accounts of burnt offerings mutated into a sordid tale of flaming wedding gowns and chopped-up children. Of course, disciples of Sigmund Freud had a field day with this myth, inserting all sorts of stuff about cannibal mothers, castration phobias, and that sort of thing. (Those Freudians! I'll bet they were great fun at dinner parties!)
ACT FOUR: From Athens to Colchis and Beyond (way beyond)
So our ruthless wizardress escaped to Athens, where she became the wife of King Aegeus. The couple had a son, whom they named Medus. When the King's long-lost son, Theseus showed up (unexpectedly—isn't it always the way??), Medea was pretty sure Medus would lose the birthright. She tried her best to convince her regal husband that this young man was an imposter, but to no avail. So, using a plan that her own father might have conceived, she got Theseus to go after the fabled Bull of Marathon. Of course, he won that (seemingly impossible) contest, and it wound up that Medea preferred to leave Athens than submit.
Defeated but unbowed, the sorceress travelled back to Colchis with her son, there they avenged the murder of King Aeëtes. I can't find any documentation on what she did to the perpetrators when she found them, but I am guessing that it may have involved a wee bit of flying limbs.
Medea and Medus lived a quiet life (if a woman like her can ever be said to live such a life) in Colchis for many years. When her time came, Medea did not go gently into that good night. Thanks to her divine family ties and her peerless knowledge of occult secrets, she flew straight up to Elysium, presumably on that cool chariot of her grandfather's. According to several sources, the last time we saw our belle dame sans merci, she was re-incarnated as the Italic tribal snake goddess who was known as Angitia.
'I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
'And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dream'd—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.
'I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—"La belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!"
—exerpts from John Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci
Much of this information has been gleaned from a (self-published) book on mythology I have written and am constanly in the process of revising.
among the references are:
Cotterell, Arthur and Storm, Rachel, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (Hermes House, London, 1999).
Graves, Robert, “The Greek Myths” (Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1983) revised and reprinted.