And we’re back! This week, we’re taking another deep dive into Ancient Greek mythology, to examine a witch so powerful, so wicked, that even her own family were subject to her evil wrath. This is the story of Medea, granddaughter of the sun itself, and the spells she cast to steal the Golden Fleece.
Some backstory: long before Medea enters this tale, trouble was brewing in the kingdom of Thessaly. Aeson, the rightful king, was overthrown by his half-brother, the villainous Pelias; Pelias assumed the throne, and killed as many of Aeson’s children as he could find. But, one of those children – Jason – escaped, and was trained as a hero by a centaur named Chiron. Some years later, Jason returned to Thessaly, and Pelias agreed to give up the throne if Jason could bring him the Golden Fleece. Jason agreed, bringing together a crew of famous heroes (including Orpheus and Heracles) to join him in his boat the Argo. Thus, Jason and the Argonauts sailed forth.
Eventually, after a number of incidental adventures, the Argonauts reached the kingdom of Colchis, where King Aeetes held the Golden Fleece. Upon hearing of Jason’s quest, Aeetes agreed to hand over the treasure – on one condition. First, Jason had to succeed in harnessing the Khalkotauroi: two fire-breathing bronze bulls which grazed in the king’s field. Jason immediately realised that the task was impossible, and hung his head in despair.
Now, here’s a difficult truth: in the pantheon of Greek heroes, Jason isn’t really that heroic. If he hadn’t had 50-60 Argonauts by his side (who are, remember, a crew of heroes and demigods), he probably wouldn’t have made it to Colchis in the first place. But, Jason’s one saving grace at this point in the story is that he once helped an old lady cross a river. That woman was the goddess Hera in disguise – and now Hera wants to help Jason succeed. So Hera speaks to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who in turn speaks to her baby son Eros (ie Cupid), god of desire, and promises him a magic golden ball if he’ll go and shoot a love arrow at Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes. Eros agrees – and so Medea is overcome with an absolute, burning desire to help out the new hero in town.
This is where the story gets really good. King Aeetes is the son of the sun-titan Helios, making Medea part-titan as well, and it turns out she’s channelled those innate powers into some particularly potent witchcraft. As described by the ancient poet Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica, Medea has succeeded in harvesting an extraordinarily rare plant: a purple flower on twin stalks, which only sprouts in blood spilled from the titan Prometheus. The root of the plant looks like newly-cut flesh; to harvest it, Medea had to travel deep into the underworld, gathering the dark sap in a seashell that she wears around her neck. Luckily for Jason, the so-called “charm of Prometheus” bestows two specific powers upon the user: immunity to cuts from bronze, and immunity to fire. With Medea’s magical assistance, the bronze Colchis Bulls don’t stand a chance.
So: Jason performs a sacrifice to Hecate, goddess of magic (which includes “pouring from a goblet the hive-stored labour of bees” – a beautiful line), and smears his body with the dark juice of the flower, after which he is able to yoke the bronze bulls and plough the king’s field. Understandably, King Aeetes is furious, and begins plotting a new scheme to ensure Jason’s downfall. Medea, fearing for Jason’s safety, flees the city, promising Jason that she will help him steal the fleece. She leads him to the grove of trees where the fleece is guarded by an enormous serpent, subsequently performing her biggest spell yet:
“But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful rise … and as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster … but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song … and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down.”
The serpent sleeps; the fleece is stolen; Jason, Medea and the Argonauts sail away; King Aeetes furiously gives chase. Infamously, Aeetes has a son, Apsyrtus, who leads the charge to recover the fleece: Medea, out of love for Jason, captures her brother, kills her brother, and then sprinkles the pieces of his body in the ocean so that her father has to stop and pick them up. That scene isn’t included in the version of the Argonautica I read, because in the 3rd century BC poets were already censoring Medea’s awful deeds. What a witch!
There are some more good stories from the long journey home (including one scene where Medea kills an enormous bronze warrior named Talos by summoning a pack of hellhounds), but the story is best concluded in the play Medea by Euripides, produced in the year 431 BC. Set some years after their quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the play sees Jason abandoning Medea to marry the princess of Corinth, thus exiling Medea and their two sons. Suffice to say, Medea is not impressed. She takes an enchanted dress and a golden coronet (left to her by her grandfather, the sun-titan) and sends them to the princess as a wedding gift; the coronet bursts into flames around the princess’s head, sending blood and fire dripping down her face, whilst the dress begins devouring her flesh, tearing at her skin with poisonous fangs. Afterwards, the king runs in and picks up his dying daughter, and the dress attacks him as well, melting the flesh directly from his bones.
And then things get even worse.
You see, at this stage Medea will do anything to hurt Jason, even if it means hurting herself. And so – and be warned, because this is pretty terrible – she enters her house, locks the door, and murders their two sons. Grandfather Helios sends Medea a chariot pulled by dragons to aide her escape, and so the witch is able to taunt Jason as she flies away with the bodies, gleefully denying him the chance to bury his children. And that’s the play. Medea gets away. There isn’t any punishment.
So… can we all agree that Medea is the wickedest witch of all time?
— Whoa, this was a big one! Hopefully it was worth the wait. The Year of the Witch is back with a vengeance! (Although it’s still nowhere near as vengeful as Medea.)
— Art credits: the first painting featured in this post is Medea (1868) by Frederick Sandys. The second painting is Jason and Medea (1907) by John William Waterhouse.
— Here’s a good question: what is the Golden Fleece, anyway? Well, one time the sea god Poseidon had a child with a nymph who was also a granddaughter of Helios, and that child was called Nephele. Nephele grew up and had kids of her own, and later helped them escape their wicked stepmother by turning herself into a golden ram with wings and carrying the children away on his / her back (the pronouns get confusing here, because rams are male). Nephele’s son later sacrificed the ram, which sent him / her back to Poseidon, and the son then left the fleece with his new family in Colchis, where it remained until Jason came to find it. Fun!
— An exciting detail: Circe makes a cameo in the Argonautica! I was a bit confused about Circe’s ancestry when I first wrote my post about her, but apparently she’s also a daughter of Helios, which makes her Aeetes’ sister, and Medea’s aunt. Anyway, Jason and Medea visit Circe after killing Apsyrtus, so that she can perform a ritual that absolves them of the murder. It should be really exciting to see these two great witches meeting each other, but Circe isn’t happy about the murder and Medea is completely overcome with shame, so unfortunately they don’t get to bond in any meaningful way.
— There are some cracking descriptions of Medea’s magic in the Argonautica. Here’s the paragraph where she takes down Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete:
“And with songs did she propitiate and invoke the Death-spirits, devourers of life, the swift hounds of Hades, who, hovering through all the air, swoop down on the living. Kneeling in supplication, thrice she called on them with songs, and thrice with prayers; and, shaping her soul to mischief, with her hostile glance she bewitched the eyes of Talos, the man of bronze; and her teeth gnashed bitter wrath against him, and she sent forth baneful phantoms in the frenzy of her rage.”
— The flower of Prometheus is just one of the magic herbs that Medea has collected; the Argonautica states that in her room she has “a casket wherein lay many drugs, some for healing, others for killing.” The punishment of Prometheus, by the way, is one of my absolute favourite Greek legends. It sees the great titan chained to a rock, with an eagle visiting him each day to eat his liver; because he’s a titan, the liver grows back each night, ready for the eagle to eat it again. This ties in neatly to the Medea story, because as the eagle flies home after each meal, blood drips from its beak onto the earth, allowing the magic flower to grow. Cool!
— That picture above is of a faux-Greek urn I made in a Year 8 art class. Seriously, I have always loved these stories.
— You might recall that when Odysseus and his crew came upon the Sirens, they were able to resist the alluring songs by stopping their ears with wax. The Argonauts found a different solution: Orpheus just played his lyre really, really loudly. One of the Argonauts still jumped overboard and died, but for the most part the plan was a success.
— I highly recommend the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey. It’s a hugely entertaining film, complete with iconic stop-motion monsters animated by Ray Harryhausen, but unfortunately Medea’s role in the story has been greatly reduced, to the point where she no longer even performs magic. Still, it’s marvellous fun, and this famous sequence with the skeleton warriors is really top notch:
— The play Medea is really gruesome, but it’s also remarkable for its progressive portrayal of the female protagonist: Medea is villainous, yes, but she’s also given the agency to pursue her own narrative, despite the machinations of Jason and the king. Best of all, Euripides clearly knew what he was doing. I’ll leave you now with this wonderful musing on gender equality, as first spoken by a “chorus of Corinthian women” more than 2000 years ago:
“Legend will now reverse our reputation;
A time comes when the female sex is honoured;
That old discordant slander
Shall no more hold us subject.
Male poets of past ages, with their ballads
Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion;
For Phoebus, Prince of Music,
Never bestowed the lyric inspiration
Through female understanding –
Or we’d find themes for poems,
We’d counter with our epics against man.
Oh, Time is old; and in his store of tales
Men figure no less famous
Or infamous than women.”