The Medea Myth: A Brief Summary
By Robert B. Shimko, Ph.D.
In Greek mythology, Medea was a princess of Colchis (and granddaughter of the sun god Helios) who fell deeply in love with the adventurer Jason. Her name is derived from a root meaning “cunning,” “planning,” or “cleverness.” She is typically depicted as a sorceress and a priestess of the goddess Hecate. In her use of magic to help and/or hurt a male hero figure, she resembles her aunt, the enchantress Circe. The most famous aspects of her mythology center around two events: 1) how she used her magic powers to help Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, and 2) how, after Jason betrayed her, she took ghastly revenge.
The core version of Medea’s story was first presented by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, in his account of Jason and the Argonauts in his epic work Theogny (c. 700 BC). There are, however, numerous other stories that contain versions of Medea’s tale, including Euripides’ play (431 BC). What follows is an attempt to collate the key elements of Medea’s mythopoetic biography.
Medea was the daughter of King Aeëtes and Queen Ildya of Colchis. The number of Medea’s siblings varies from version to version of the myth. As a young woman, Medea first encountered Jason when he arrived at the king's palace seeking the Golden Fleece. Aeëtes had no intention of allowing Jason and his men to take the Golden Fleece, but he pretended that he would do so if Jason successfully performed a series of difficult tasks. According to some accounts, Hera, queen of the gods, persuaded Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to make Medea fall in love with the young hero. Other accounts say that Aphrodite persuaded her son Eros to shoot a love arrow “up to the feathers” into Medea’s heart.
Aeëtes challenged Jason to yoke a pair of fire-breathing bulls in order to plow a field, then sow the field with a dragon's' teeth, and then fight the armed warriors who grew from the planted teeth. In return for his promise to marry her, Medea gave Jason a magic ointment to protect himself and his weapons from the bulls' fiery breath and told him how to confuse the warriors by throwing a rock amongst them so that they would fight one another instead. Aeëtes then presented Jason with one final challenge: he had to kill the ever-sleepless dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. Once again Medea aided Jason, giving him herbs that lulled the dragon to sleep so he could kill it (in other versions, she enlists Orpheus to sing the dragon to sleep). Thus, with Medea’s assistance, Jason accomplished the last of the daunting tasks.
Jason finally captured the fleece and, as he had promised, sailed away with Medea and the Argonauts. In one version of the myth, Aeëtes sent his son Absyrtus after them, and Jason eventually killed him. In another version, more closely related to Euripides’ play, Medea took her brother Absyrtus with her as she and Jason fled, and when they were nearly overtaken by her father, she murdered her brother, cut his body into pieces, and scattered them. Aeëtes then stopped to gather up the pieces of his son’s body while Medea and Jason made their escape.
Eventually the Argonauts arrived back at Jason’s home city-state of Iolcus, which was then ruled by Jason's uncle Pelias. Pelias had gained the throne by killing Jason's father, King Aeson, and refused to give it up. Medea conspired to have Pelias' own daughters kill him. She told the daughters that she could turn an old ram into a young ram by cutting up the old ram and boiling it. As Medea had predicted, a living young ram jumped out of the cooking pot. Excited by this magic trick, the girls cut their father into pieces and threw them into a pot, expecting him to emerge rejuvenated. Pelias, of course, did not survive, much to the horror of his daughters. An alternate version of the story has Medea slit the throat of Jason’s living father Aeson, who does manage to come back to life as a much younger man. Pelias’ daughters then slit his throat in an attempt to help him regain his youth, but he simply dies. In both accounts, following the horrific death of Pelias, the angry inhabitants of Iolcus drove out Medea and Jason.
Medea and Jason eventually married and settled in Corinth, where they attempted to raise a family. This happy time of tranquility together ended when Creon, the king of Corinth, offered Jason his daughter Glauce in marriage. Eager to please the king and to advance his own standing, Jason abandoned Medea and prepared to marry Glauce. Medea took her revenge by sending Glauce a poisoned wedding dress that burned her alive. Creon was also killed when he rushed to try to save Glauce. By some accounts—including Euripides’, who may have invented this trope—Medea then also killed the children she had borne to Jason. With her revenge accomplished, Medea flew to Athens in a golden chariot pulled by dragons, a gift sent by her grandfather Helios, the sun god. In Euripides’ version, she compounds Jason’s grief by taking the children’s bodies with her so he cannot touch them.
The Athenian king Aegeus agreed to protect Medea if she would agree to marry him and successfully bore him children. They produced a son, Medus, who became the heir apparent to the Athenian throne. However, Aegeus was unaware that he already had sired a son, Theseus, from a previous marriage. When Theseus came to Athens to claim the throne, Medea, hoping to preserve her own son’s inheritance, plotted against Theseus and planned to kill him with a cup of poisoned wine. However, just as Theseus was about to drink the wine, Aegeus recognized the sword that Theseus carried as his own from an earlier time, realized that Theseus was his son, and saved him at the last moment. Aegeus then drove Medea and Medus out of Athens. In one version of the Medea myth, presented by the Greek historian Herodotus, Medea and Medus settled in Iran and lived among the ancient Aryans, who changed their name from the Aryans to the Medes.