The myths that involve Medea have been interpreted by some specialists, principally in the past, as part of a class of myths that tell how the Hellenes of the distant heroic age, before the Trojan War, faced the challenges of the pre-Greek "Pelasgian" cultures of mainland Greece, and the Aegean and Anatolia. Jason, Perseus, Theseus, and above all Heracles, are all "liminal" figures, poised on the threshold between the old world of shamans, chthonic earth deities, archaic matriarchies, and the Great Goddess and the new Bronze Age Greek ways.
Medea figures in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, a myth we know best from a late literary version worked up by Apollonius of Rhodes in the 3rd century BC and called the Argonautica. But for all its self-consciousness and researched archaic vocabulary, the late epic was based on very old, scattered materials.
Medea was the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, and is most often described as a priestess of Hecate. She is related on her father's side to Helios the sun God, and to Circe, the witch who Odysseus famously encounters.
Medea's role began after Jason arrived from Iolcus in Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece as his own. In a familiar mythic motif, King Aeetes of Colchis promised to give it to him only if he could perform certain tasks. First, Jason had to plough a field with fire-breathing oxen that he had to yoke himself. Then, Jason had to sow the teeth of a dragon in the ploughed field (compare the myth of Cadmus). The teeth sprouted into an army of warriors. Jason was forewarned by Medea, however, and knew to throw a rock into the crowd. Unable to decipher where the rock had come from, the soldiers attacked and defeated each other. Finally, Aeetes made Jason fight and kill the sleepless dragon that guarded the fleece. Medea put the beast to sleep with her narcotic herbs. Jason then took the fleece and sailed away with Medea, who had fallen in love with him. (Some accounts say that Medea only helped Jason in the first place because Hera had convinced Aphrodite or Eros to cause Medea to fall in love with him.) Medea distracted her father as they fled by killing her brother, Apsyrtus. She is said to have dismembered his body and tossed the limbs into the sea, knowing her father would stop to retrieve them for proper burial. In the flight, Atalanta was seriously wounded, but Medea healed her.
According to some versions, Medea and Jason stopped on her aunt Circe's island so that they could be cleansed after the murder of her brother, relieving her of the blame for the deed.
The Argo then came to the island of Crete, guarded by the bronze man, Talos (Talus). Talos had one vein which went from his neck to his ankle, bound shut by only one bronze nail. According to Apollodorus, Talos was slain either when Medea drove him mad with drugs, deceived him that she would make him immortal by removing the nail, or was killed by Poeas's arrow (Apollodorus 1.140). In the Argonautica, Medea hypnotizes him from the Argo, driving him mad so that he dislodges the nail and dies (Argonautica 4.1638). In any case, when the nail is removed, Talos's ichor flows out, exsanguinating and killing him. After his death, the Argo lands.
While Jason searched for the Golden Fleece, Hera, who was still angry at Pelias, conspired to make him fall in love with Medea, who she hoped would kill Pelias. When Jason and Medea returned to Iolcus, Pelias still refused to give up his throne. Medea conspired to have Pelias' own daughters kill him. She told them she could turn an old ram into a young ram by cutting up the old ram and boiling it (alternatively, she did this with Aeson, Jason's father). During the demonstration, a live, young ram jumped out of the pot. Excited, the girls cut their father into pieces and threw them into a pot. Pelias did not survive.
Having killed Pelias, Jason and Medea fled to Corinth.
In Corinth, according to ancient historian Didimos, the Corinthian King Creon convinced Jason to desert Medea for Glauce, Creon's daughter. Medea poisoned Creon and fled to Athens, but, unable to take her children with her, she left them to Jason's care; Creon's family killed the children out of revenge.
Alternatively, Jason married Creusa, daughter of Creon. Medea got even by giving Creusa a cursed dress that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on, a transformation of the mythic element in the story of Heracles and Nessus.
The tragic situation of Medea, abandoned in Corinth by Jason, was the subject matter transformed by Euripides in his tragedy Medea, first performed in 431 BCE. In this telling, Medea kills her own children before her flight to Athens.Euripides was revolutionary in his retelling of Medea's myth because he was the first one to show that she hadn't killed her children because she was crazy or a barbarian, but because she was extremely distressed and furious at Jason for leaving her to marry a princess. Filled by a need for revenge, she sends Glauce a poisoned dress and crown that burn her to death. Creon tries to save her by tearing the dress away, but fails, and burns alongside his daughter in the process. She then kills her two sons, knowing it is the best way to hurt Jason. Some contemporary critics of Euripides accused him of accepting a gift of 5 Attic talents, a huge sum, by wealthy Corinthians who wanted no part of the blame for the children's death.
Fleeing from Jason, Medea made her way to Athens and married Aegeus. They had one son, Medus. Her domestic bliss was once again shattered by the arrival of Aegeus' long-lost son, Theseus. Determined to preserve her own son's inheritance, Medea convinced her husband that Theseus was a threat and that he should be disposed of. As Medea handed Theseus a cup of poison, Aegeus recognised the young man's sword as his own, which he had left for his newborn son years earlier to be given to him when he came of age. Knocking the cup from Medea's hand, Aegeus embraced his son.
Medea, forced to flee once more, left with Medus, and together they founded Media.
Some say Medea married Achilles in the underworld.
Medea in music
Luigi Cherubini composed the opera Médée in 1797 and it is Cherubini's best known work, but better known by its Italian title, Medea.
Darius Milhaud composed the opera Médée in 1939, text by Madeleine Milhaud (his wife and cousin).
American composer Samuel Barber composed his Medea Ballet Suite Op. 23 in 1947 and derived from that "Medea's Dance of Vengance" Op. 23a in 1955.
Medea in literature
- Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica;
- Apollodorus]], Bibliotheke I, 23-28;
- Ovid, Metamorphoses VII, 1-424;
- Ovid, Heroides XII;
- Euripides, Medea.
Medea on film
In the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts, Medea was portrayed by Nancy Kovack. In the 2000 Hallmark presentation Jason and the Argonauts, Medea was portrayed by Jolene Blalock.
In 1970, the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini directed a dramatic version of Medéa which featured the opera singer, Maria Callas in the non-singing role of Medea.