Medea was a powerful sorceress and the daughter of a king, Aeetes of Colchis. Her part in Greek Mythology generally starts when Jason (and the Argonauts) came to steal the Golden Fleece, Aeetes' most prized treasure.

Medea fell for Jason and asssisted him in overcoming the challenges that lay between himself and the prize. Because of this traitorous action, she was forced to leave with Jason - and in order to delay their pursuers, she killed her brother and strewed the pieces of his body along their wake.

Medea was a devotee of the goddess Hecate, other sources say she was the goddess' daughter. In the context of her life with Jason, she exemplifies the other, the dark, mystical, powerful, destructive and antisocial side of femininity - she is a foreigner, in some accounts of darker complexion, has a strong will and is quick to anger.

The episode of her life that is most well known is the one dramatized by Euripedes. After she had borne two children to Jason, he courted a more suitable wife: the young, fair daughter of Creon, a neighboring king. When she discovers that they are to be married, and that Jason plans to divorce her (a good political move on his part, and also ridding him of a headstrong and difficult wife), she becomes, to put it lightly, extremely angry. She used her magic to impregnate with poison a headdress she sent to the bride, which caused the girl to burst into flames. Creon also succumbed to the poison when he went to embrace his daughter. When Jason returned home from this terribly botched attempt at a wedding, he found that Medea had murdered their children in order to complete her revenge. She escaped in a chariot drawn by winged dragons, with the children's bodies.

There are other stories of her violent escapades and intrigues: violence and betrayal seemed to follow her. Yet in the murder of her children, and in the huge powers she held, Medea became the perfect illustration for the psychoanalytic concept of the "phallic mother" - the figure with the power of life and death. Not that i advocate psychoanalytic theory.

The tradgedy of Medea has been retold many times since Euripedes. The poet Robinson Jeffers did a version which made it to Broadway in the Forties.

My favorite version, however, is Medea the Musical by a Bay Area Wunderkin John Fisher which is currently touring the country. The show is a delightfully layered and self-referential farce about a theater company which has decided for whatever reason to put on a musical version of Medea. The lead actor playing Jason is a self-identified gay who ends up sleeping with and confused about the lead actress playing Medea. The result is a surprising and deliciously postmodern, post-AIDS, post-Gay Power look at sexual identity and the Goddess of Love. Worth the price of admission just to see the Aphrodite number sung to the tune of Barry Manilow's Copacabana with the entire cast in huge Afro wigs which includes the chorus, "Yes, She's Afro, Aphrodite:/ The power of Venus enlarges the penis."

Medea and Her Humanity

Though it has been argued that in Euripides’ play, Medea, the title character progresses from distraught and slighted wife to inhuman Fury, the slayer of her own sons, she never truly loses her humanity. The life Euripides has given her to live is one of great passion, betrayal, disappointment and tragedy, and while we may never see her happy or in a state of emotional equilibrium, we do see her reacting to that life of myth in an undeniably human fashion. In everything she does, from her private outbursts and her dealings with the kings of Corinth and Athens to the very murders she commits, Medea asserts her humanity. If we are revolted by the murders that Medea performs in her rage and desire for revenge, it is not because those acts are inhuman. They are all utterly human: we are repulsed because we imagine ourselves doing those same things.

The play begins in the midst of domestic unrest. Jason, whom Medea has given up her family and her homeland to aid and to marry, has informed her that under the laws of his land, Corinth, they were never actually married, the presence of their two children notwithstanding. The first we hear from Medea is her offstage lamenting:

Oh, how unhappy I am, how wretched my sufferings— Oh, woe is me, I wish I could die! (Euripides, Medea, li. 95.)
She then extends her death wish to include her children, the “accursed children/ of a hateful mother,” and their father, Jason (li. 111-113). Suicidal and regretful, she berates herself endlessly for having left her native land. Her situation is extremely pathetic; she is alone in the world with nothing to help or cheer her. The emotions that Euripides arouses in the reader are first sympathy, and then fear. We fear for Medea, since she is alone and abandoned, and we fear for those around her, since we do not know yet what she will do in her grief.

Medea’s first words after her entrance are eloquent, intelligent and emotional, showing a deeply injured heart. She addresses the women of Corinth, eliciting their sympathy:

...In my case, this thing which has struck me so unexpectedly, has broken my heart. I am lost, I have forfeited all joy in living, my friends, and I want to die. For well I know that the man who was my everything has proved the vilest of all—my husband. (Medea, Li. 225-229)
She goes on to bemoan the plight of women, who must take a “master” for their bodies and suffer bad husbands all too often, and to underline her forlorn isolation in Corinth, a land in which she is a low class citizen since she is a woman and also a foreigner. (li. 233-60) The chorus of Corinthian women agrees that Medea is justified in her tumultuous flood of emotion, and in her thirst for revenge. Her grand talk has in no way overstepped the bounds of any normal emotional reaction to her extreme situation. Are there more human concerns than these of love, freedom, and loneliness?

From the first few pages of the drama, it is clear that Medea is a woman of great passion, but to what use will she put that fervor? It is convincing that at this point she does not know the answer herself. This is perhaps the closest she comes to appearing fragile, since she continues to gain intensity and strength as her plans develop. At this point, we see that she is driven by entirely human emotions. She is without hope, yearning to die, obviously so upset by her husband’s rejection of her unrestrained love that her heart is fit to break. Here is no shimmering goddess of sadistic revenge. Here is, instead, a wounded woman who has had her greatest trust betrayed.

Medea’s meeting with Creon, king of Corinth, shows her to be distraught but also in possession of her wits. Her way of gaining extra time in which to carry out her plot is extremely logical. When Creon enters the scene, he declares that he is afraid of what she may do to his daughter, Glauce—Jason’s new bride. To ensure the new couple’s safety, Medea is to leave Corinth at once, in exile:

I am afraid of you—I musn’t beat around the bush—afraid that you may do my child an incurable hurt. …I hear that you are threatening—so they tell me—to take some action against the husband and his bride and me, who gave my daughter to him. …It is better, woman, that I should be hated by you now than weaken and repent too late. (Creon, Li. 283-291)
By taking this very precaution, however, Creon gives Medea the information she needs to convince him to be more lenient with her: he makes it clear that his family is everything to him, and that he will do anything in his power to protect them, even saying later, “I love my family rather more than I love you.” (Li. 327) In weighing out loud the cost of his actions—that Medea should hate him—he also shows his unwillingness to be viewed as a tyrannical man. Medea makes use of these two facts in her ensuing entreaty. She immediately begs him to let her stay for one day before she begins her exile, so that she will be able to secure a haven for her children:
…Pity them. You too are a father, you have children. You are likely to be sympathetic to mine. …I weep for them, the victims of ill fortune. (Medea, Li. 340)
She calls upon his reason and his pity, so eloquently that he can not bring himself to refuse, for to do so would—he thinks—cause him to appear despotic. While saying himself that he may be making a mistake, Creon, believing that he is dealing with a woman and therefore someone who is driven solely by emotional responses, is swayed by her pathetic situation, his own desire to be looked upon as a benevolent sovereign, and his love for his family. It is through her ability to quickly change and form her arguments that Medea secures the time she will need to carry out her revenge.

Medea has a similar conversation with Aegeus, king of Athens. On his way home from a counsel with Apollo’s oracle at Delphi regarding his own unfortunate lack of progeny, he passes Medea. She pounces on this opportunity, explaining her wretched situation and then securing his word that he will give her asylum in Athens once she has left Corinth in exile.

Jason wrongs me though I did him no wrong. …He has a woman who supplants me as mistress of his house…and we, his former friends, are now dishonored. …Pity me…as I go into desolate exile and receive me in your country at the hearth of your palace. …I shall put an end to your childlessness—through me you will beget children. (Medea, Li. 692, 710-719)
Note the deliberate way in which Medea sets up a sympathetic kinship between herself and Aegeus, pronouncing them both “dishonored” by Jason’s betrayal. She then plays on his dear wish for children of his own by promising to be his fertile mate, should she come to Athens.

Yet again, Medea shows herself fully in control of her rational faculties. She is persistent about obtaining this safe haven because she knows that terrible things are in her future. She has formed a plan and knows the probable repercussions; Medea is not a stupid woman. Furthermore, she demonstrates her understanding of the importance of children, which becomes paramount later in the drama. What she displays most here is her dedication to the cause of avenging herself. Is this not a human emotion? If she were becoming a blind Fury, would she bother with this? If she were losing her humanity, what would be the motivation for this preparation? I see none. Rather, she is continuing to work out of the human need to survive, and the notion that though the heart shatters with treachery and wants to stop, one must go on living as well as one can.

So far I have dealt only with Medea’s grip on reality and her ability to think logically and thoroughly, but of course there is more than that to a person’s humanity. The monologue that Medea delivers after having sent her poisoned gifts to the palace is very powerful and perhaps the most emotional speech in the play. This tortured conversation that Medea has with her self about the fate of her children shows that, even at this late stage in the play and in her lethal plans, she is still without question a tormented mother, full of human love and conflicting emotion:

O children…you have a city and a home. You can leave me, your mother, in my misery and pass your whole lives far away from me. …O, what misery my willfulness is bringing me! …Alas! …Why do you smile this final smile of all? Aiai, what can I do? My heart’s steel shattered, women, when I saw my children’s bright eyes. I could never do the deed. Goodbye to my former plans. …Do I make myself ridiculous by letting my enemies go unpunished? I must face the deed. Shame on my cowardice.... …Ah, do not, my heart, do not do this. Let them be, poor heart—spare the children. Alive with us in Athens, they will make you happy. By the avenging fiends below in Hades, it will never come to pass that I leave my children for my enemies to insult. There’s no alternative—they must die. (Medea, Li. 1020-1060)
In this, the most difficult passage of the play, Euripides forces us to come face to face with one of the most horrifying thoughts possible: a mother debating the murder of her children. Her profound love is never in question. She is, rather, deciding what the future could possibly hold for her sons, whether they should live or die. What life could they enjoy as second-class sons in Creon’s palace, the bastard children of Jason? How could she bear to bring upon them a life of exile, and more of the rootlessness that she has so painfully endured? Medea must also weigh carefully, desperately, the value of her son’s lives, asking herself if they more or less valuable to her than the pain that Jason will feel upon the event of their deaths. Medea beseeches the world, the air, to answer her miserable question: can there be a rage so strong that it overrides the strongest and most natural love, that love of a mother for her children?

What can Euripides have meant by drawing a heroine so sympathetic and simultaneously horrible? He knew as well as we that humanity is not an easy thing to define. In Medea, he pushed the boundaries of human behavior so far that we question the very being, the humanity, of the heroine; we question whether we can allow her, in our minds, to keep her soul. We are so eager to deny her human status because we fear the possibility of unrestrained emotion, the potential for which lies in all of us. The violence that Euripides unleashes through Medea is at the core of every human soul. With our reason, that same consciousness that places us above mere animals, comes a danger and a complexity. Medea’s uninhibited actions stand as symbols for the pride, passion, and conflict that lie latent in every man and woman.

In Medea's first speech to the Corinthian women, I can't help seeing this modern scene before me:

A group of women are sitting on a stoop and hear the cries and lamentations of this forlorn woman. In hearing them talk about her, she quickly shows herself outside to her audience of women, who she feels will sympathize with her.

The first thing she does is equate herself with them, she is not "overproud" (217) to be seen and discuss her hardhsips.

Her next tactic is to assure her audience that even though she is a foreigner she is not a savage (I'd not approve of even a fellow countryman who...offends his neighbors) (223-224)

She then tells of her broken heart, and 'what woman could resist that?' (in quotes to show that this is historical thinking, not my own). She berates her husband and refers to her wrongs as wrongs to 'we' "we women are most unfortunate creatures" (231) and tells of the harships that women must suffer as a whole such as, no say in who to marry (234-235) and the pains of childbirth (250-251).

When that argument has run it's course, she turns to getting sympathy by reminding her audience that she is from another land, and she is now alone in a strange land with no family and no friends(251-).

With all her arguments for sympathy laid out, she then reels her captive audience in to what she begs of them: (258-263)

"This...is the service I would beg from you: If I can find the means...to pay my husband back...just to keep silent...."

And they agree, perhaps not realizing what mayhem she might be planning, because they underestimate the seriousness of her emotion, claiming that they are not suprised that she is "sad" (267-268), rather than "angry" or "vengeful"

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

References:
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.

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