In Greek myth, Medea was the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis and the nymph Eidyia; her two grandfathers were the sun god Helios and the sea god Oceanus. Medea was a sorceress, renowned for crimes that seemed especially horrible to the Greeks since they were committed against the men of her own family.
The story of Medea is closely wound with that of Jason, the Greek hero and captain of the Argonauts, who came to Colchis in his quest for the Golden Fleece. According to Apollodorus of Athens, a second-century-BCE collector and recorder of myths, King Aeetes agreed to give Jason the fleece if he would first single-handedly yoke two huge fire-breathing bulls, plow a field with them, and sow the field with dragon's teeth. Jason would surely have been killed by the bulls had Aphrodite, the goddess of love, not caused Medea to fall hopelessly in love with him. The king's daughter secretly offered Jason her assistance, giving him an ointment to spread on his skin and armor that would make him invulnerable to wounds or flames for one day. In exchange, Medea asked him to take her away with him on his ship the Argo and marry her. Jason accepted the sorceress's offer, and the next day he used the ointment to successfully complete the task. After he had sowed the dragon's teeth, ferocious armed warriors sprang up. On Medea's advice, Jason threw a rock into the middle of the group to make them fight among themselves, giving him the opportunity to kill them all.
Aeetes, however, went back on his word and refused to give up the Golden Fleece. Instead, he planned to burn the Argo and kill its crew. Medea saved Jason again, leading him by night to the sacred grove where the fleece hung on a tree, protected by a giant dragon or serpent. She lulled the monster to sleep with her charms and drugs, allowing Jason to take the fleece. She then boarded the Argo with him, accompanied by her young brother Apsyrtus. According to Apollodorus, when Aeetes pursued the ship, Medea committed her first murder, chopping her brother into pieces and throwing them into the sea. Aeetes was forced to delay his pursuit while he collected the pieces of his son's body in order to give him a proper burial. As a result, Medea escaped on the Argo with Jason and the Golden Fleece.
The king of the gods, Zeus, sent a storm in punishment for the killing of Apsyrtus, and the Argo took shelter at the island of the sorceress Circe, Medea's aunt, who cleansed her niece and Jason, absolving them of blame for the murder. They continued to the island of Scheria, where Queen Arete married them, and then to Crete, where they were prevented from landing by a bronze giant, Talos, who protected the island by ceaselessly running around it. A nail in one of Talos's ankles kept all the ichor, or divine blood, in his body, without which he would die. Medea killed the giant by means of her magic, which caused the nail to come free.
When Jason returned home to Iolcus in Greece, he delivered the fleece to his uncle Pelias, who had usurped the throne of Jason's father, Aeson, and, according to Apollodorus, driven Aeson himself to suicide. When Pelias refused to give up the throne, Medea tried to help Jason by persuading Pelias's daughters that she was capable of turning their father back into a vigorous young man. To demonstrate, she killed and chopped up an aged ram and threw it into a boiling cauldron of water with magical herbs. A young lamb leaped out of the pot. The daughters then killed their father and threw his body into the cauldron. For Pelias, however, there was no magical reprieve. The people of Iolcus blamed Jason and Medea for Pelias's death. Pelias's son Acastus took the throne and forced Jason and Medea to flee to Corinth.
Jason and Medea lived in Corinth for 10 years, where Medea bore her husband two sons, Mermerus and Pheres. However, when King Creon of Corinth offered his daughter Glauce to Jason, Jason was quick to accept, and divorced Medea. In vengeance, Medea sent a poisoned dress to Glauce. It clung to her skin and burned her to death, and it also killed her father, who tried to rescue her. Most sources agree that Medea then murdered her own two small sons in order to complete her revenge on Jason. However, according to another version of the story, Medea fled Corinth, leaving her sons in the sanctuary of the goddess Hera. The citizens of Corinth stoned them to death. The ghosts of Medea's sons terrorized the city, taking the lives of its citizens' children until yearly sacrifices were established in their honor.
In this version of the myth, Medea took refuge in Athens after her escape. There she married King Aegeus and bore him a son, Medus. When Theseus, Aegeus's son by another union, arrived incognito in Athens, Medea persuaded Aegeus to allow her to poison him. At the last second, Aegeus recognized Theseus by the carved sword-hilt he carried, a family heirloom, and struck the poisoned cup out of his hand. Medea fled again. She returned to Colchis and discovered that her father had been deposed by his brother Perses, whom she killed, restoring Aeetes to his throne. This was her last recorded act. No one tells the story of her death, but Apollodorus and Apollonius say that she married the Greek hero Achilles and lived with him in a paradise known as the Isles of the Blessed.
Medea's story has inspired artists and composers through the ages. The myth has been reproduced in operas by Luigi Cherubini in the 18th century and Giovanni Mayr in the 19th century and by Rolf Libermann in the 20th, as well as in the score Medea, written for ballet by American composer Samuel Barber (1910–1981). French painter Eugène Delacroix and English painter John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) painted scenes from her life, and her story influenced Toni Morrison's novel Beloved (1987).
See also: ACHILLES; CIRCE; HECATE; JASON; THESEUS.
- The Library of Greek Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and Robin Hard, trans.
- The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin, 1993. .
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