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Who is Medea, and Why do So Many People Hate Her?

A reference for much of the information that follows:
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. Volume 2,156.e


Medea’s story begins before she was born.

In Thessaly, in the 9th century B.C., a king and queen named Athamas and Nephele had two children, a girl and a boy, named Helle and Phryxus. Athamus went through a mid-life crisis during which he lost interest in Nephele, and took a younger wife. Nephele feared the younger wife would mistreat the children, so she appealed to the god Mercury. Mercury gave her a ram with golden fleece. Nephele put her children on the ram’s back and the ram flew east toward Colchis, in northeast Turkey, where Aeetes, Medea’s future father lived. En route, Helle fell off the ram’s back into the sea. The spot where she fell was called Hellespont (now the Dardanelles.) The ram landed safely with Phryxus on his back. Phryxus sacrificed the ram to the god Jupiter and gave the golden fleece to Aeetes, who placed it in a sacred grove in Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, under the care of a sleepless dragon. Medea was born into this magic-filled kingdom. Her mother died giving birth to her, and her older sister nursed her. Her aunt Circe (famous for turning men into pigs in The Odyssey) taught her how to call upon the gods to aid her sorcery.

Meanwhile, in another kingdom in Thessaly, another king, Aeson, also had a mid-life crisis. Aeson decided to give up ruling his kingdom and turned the country over to his brother Pelias on the condition that Pelias would give the kingdom to Aeson’s son Jason as soon as Jason was old enough to rule. But when Jason came of age, Pelias pretended to be willing to turn over the throne, but suggested that Jason might want to have a glorious adventure first -- a quest for the golden fleece. Pelias pretended that this fleece was the rightful property of his family because he was a relative of Athamas.

Jason liked the idea and commissioned the biggest boat ever seen in Greece for the adventure. He hired Argus, a famous boat builder, to make him a boat that would hold 50 people. Normal Greek boats were simply hollowed out trees and small canoes. Jason was so pleased with this boat that he named it “Argo” after the builder. While Argus was building the boat, Jason recruited a band of heroes to accompany him: Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus, and Nestor were among these Argonauts.

When Jason arrived in Colchis, Medea was old enough to marry. Jason told Aeetes of his quest for the golden fleece. Aeetes consented to give Jason the fleece if Jason would yoke two fire-breathing bulls to a plow and sow a field with the teeth of a dragon, from which it was well-known that a crop of armed men would spring up and turn their weapons against their producer. Jason talked to Medea. He promised to marry her if she would give him success. They stood before the altar of Hecate and called the goddess to witness his oath. Then Jason accepted Aeetes offer. Medea gave Jason a magic charm by which he could safely encounter the breath of fire-breathing bulls and the weapons of the armed men. Her spells caused the dragon that guarded the fleece to sleep.

Though the fire that spewed from the bulls’ nostrils roared like a furnace and burned up the plants as they passed, Jason walked straight up to the bulls, placed his hands on their necks and spoke calmly to them as he slipped the yoke over them. At the ceremony afterwards, during which Aeetes gave Jason the fleece and Medea married him, Jason felt something was missing. His father, Aeson, now old and infirm was unable to come to the wedding. Jason asked Medea to use her arts to restore youth to his father -- he offered “take years from my life and add them to my father’s.”

Medea said she could give youth to his father without taking any years from her husband. Then she invoked Hecate of the underworld, Tellus who blesses the crops, and the gods of the woods and caverns and mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, and winds and vapors. While she spoke the stars shone brightly and a chariot drawn by flying serpents bore her aloft to distant regions where for nine days and nine nights she gathered the mystical herbs and stones she needed for her sorcery.

She erected altars to Hecate and Hebe, the goddess of youth. She appealed to Pluto and his stolen bride Persephone not to claim the old man’s life. Then she called white-haired Aeson forth and laid him on a bed of herbs like one dead. Beside him she made her brew. When the brew was done, she dipped in a dead olive branch, and when she pulled it out, it was covered with leaves and bore young olives. Where the brew dripped on the ground, grass sprang forth like spring. Seeing that all was ready, she put Aeson into a charmed sleep and slit his throat to let out all his blood. Then she poured her brew into his mouth and wound. Soon his hair and beard became black, his limbs muscular and strong. Aeson awoke and said he felt 40 years younger.

Medea’s father, Aeetes, did not want her to leave Colchis. Medea escaped in the night to go with her husband, Jason on the Argo. Her brother, Absyrtus, came after them. According to the religion of Medea’s father, it was essential to bury the bodies of the dead whole. To delay her father from following them and bringing her back, Medea killed her brother and chopped his body into pieces that she threw overboard, so her father would have to retrieve them.

One night, the Argo and a boat from Athens carrying Aegeus were stopped in the same harbor. Medea fell in love with Aegeus. But Aegeus was courting Aethra, daughter of another king also named Aeetes. Medea became jealous and cursed Aegeus to be childless. Then Aethra came to Medea as a sorceress and asked her to give her a child. Medea used her magic and Aethra became pregnant with Theseus, whom she named after the Theseus the Argonaut. Aegeus lost interest in Aethra before the child was born. He left his sword and sandals under a stone in Aeetes’ courtyard and told Aethra that if the child were a son, that when the son grew strong enough, he should roll aside the stone, put on the sandals and carry the sword to Athens to meet his father. Medea used her arts to watch over the child as he grew.

Meanwhile, Pelias still refused to give Jason the throne, when he returned to Thessaly. But he too wanted to be young like Aeson. Again Medea prepared her brew. She asked Pelias’ daughters to let his blood out. When they had done so, she and Jason were long gone -- off on another adventure. On this adventure, Jason behaved like Athamas before him. He lost interest in Medea and married Creusa, the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea sent a poisoned robe as a gift to Creusa, killing her. Creon, the King of Corinth retaliated by killing 13 of Medea’s 14 children and laid their bodies in the marketplace for all to see. Here is where the histories become confused. Even 400 years after these events, tourists were still avoiding Corinth. Nobody wanted to visit a country where the king killed children. So, in the 5th century B.C., the playwright Euripedes was hired to write a play blaming Medea for the deaths of her children. He reduced the number of her children from 14 to 2 and then in his play, had Medea stabbing her own children. This play convinced many people and this version of events appears in most mythology books available today. As she left Corinth, Hecate told Medea that the gods had only given her powers so she could help Jason -- because he, not she, was their favorite. And if she was leaving Jason, they would no longer help her sorcery. In fact, if she tried, they would curse her.

Medea fled Corinth with her one remaining child to Athens (one of the few cities in which she did not commit crimes for Jason) and sought out Aegeus. His son, Theseus had not come to Athens yet, so Aegeus thought himself childless. Medea married Aegeus and Aegeus asked her to have a child with him. Aegeus didn’t believe she had really cursed him. Medea asked her aunt Circe to give her a child for Aegeus. Circe said she’d talk to the gods. Expecting to be refused, Medea went to Turkey and became pregnant with Medeus.

Meanwhile, Theseus finally rolled away the stone and put on Aegeus’ sandals and sword and headed toward Athens. Along the roads, he killed many bandits and tyrants. As this play opens, Theseus is headed toward Athens.

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Click here to see Grippy and Cormo's play about a thoroughly modern Medea -- M'deah

This version takes place in academia, where people do still stab each other in the back.

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Click here to see Grippy and Cormo’s play Medea in Athens.