Medea – The Enchantress (Greek Mythology)

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Medea was a powerful enchantress in Greek mythology, famous for the role she played in many adventures faced by Jason and the Argonauts on the quest for the Golden Fleece. Medea  appears in most myths as a sorceress and is often portrayed as a faithful follower of Hecate.

Medea’s Origins

Most ancient sources state that Medea was a Colchian princess, born to King Aeetes and his first wife, Idyia, the Oceanid. Her siblings included a brother, Apsyrtus, and a sister, Chalciope.

As the daughter of Aeetes, Medea was the granddaughter of Helios, the Greek sun god. She was also the niece of Perses, Titan god of destruction, and the sorceresses Circe and Pasiphae. Sorcery was in Medea’s blood as it was in that of the other female members of her family. She became a priestess to Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and her skills in sorcery were excellent, if not better, than those of her aunts.

Medea and Jason

Jason leader of Argonauts Greek myth

During Medea’s time, Colchis was considered to be an uncivilized land of mystery and it was here that Jason and the Argonauts sailed to find the Golden Fleece, a task that Pelias, the king of Iolcus had given Jason. If Jason was successful, he could claim his rightful throne as king of Iolcus. However, Pelias knew that fetching the Golden Fleece was not easy and he believed that Jason would die in the attempt.

When Jason arrived at Colchis, king Aeetes commanded him to complete several tasks to win the Golden Fleece. The two Olympian goddesses Hera and Athena both favored Jason and they sought the services of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, to make sure that princess Medea, daughter of Aeetes, would fall in love with him, and help him achieve the tasks given to him by Aeetes.

Aphrodite worked her magic and Medea did fall head over heels in love with the Greek hero. To win him over, she told Jason that would help him retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis if he promised to marry her. Jason did promise and Medea helped him and his Argonauts face each and every one of the deadly tasks that Aeetes had set to stop them taking the fleece.

Medea Helps Jason

One of the obstacles Jason had to overcome was the task of yoking Aeetes’ fire-breathing bulls. Jason successfully accomplished this by using a potion Medea made that would keep him from getting burnt by the fiery breath of the bulls.

The sorceress also told Jason how to make the Spartoi, the mythical people that were created from the dragon’s teeth, kill each other instead of him. She even made the deadly Colchian dragon fall asleep so that Jason could easily remove the Golden Fleece from its perch in the grove of Ares, the god of war.

Once Jason had the Golden Fleece safely aboard his ship, Medea joined him and turned her back on the land of Colchis. 

Medea Kills Apsyrtus

When Aeetes discovered that the Golden Fleece had been stolen, he sent out the Colchian fleet to track down the Argo (the vessel that Jason had sailed on). The Colchian fleet finally spotted the Argonauts, who were finding it impossible to outpace such a large fleet.

At this point, Medea came up with a plan to slow down the Colchian ships. She demanded the crew to slow the Argo, allowing the ship leading the Colchian fleet to catch up with them. Her own brother Apsyrtus was commanding this ship and Medea asked her brother to come on board the Argo, which he did.

According to various sources, it was either Jason who acted on Medea’s orders, or it was Medea herself who committed fratricide and killed Apsyrtus, cutting his body up into pieces. She then threw the pieces into the sea. When Aeetes saw his dismemebered son, he was devastated and ordered his ships to slow down so that they could gather the pieces of his son’s body. This gave the Argo enough time to sail away and escape the angry Colchians.

An alternate version of the story tells that Medea dismembered Apsyrtus’ body and scattered the pieces on an island so that her father would have to stop and retrieve them.

Jason Weds Medea

On the way back to Iolcus, the Argo visited the island of Circe, where Circe, Medea’s aunt, cleansed both Jason and Medea for killing Apsyrtus. They also stopped at the island of Crete which was protected by Talos, the bronze man forged by the Greek god Hephaestus. He circled the island, throwing rocks at invaders and ships and Medea, quickly using some potions and herbs, disabled him by draining all the blood from his body.

According to various versions of the myth, Medea and Jason didn’t wait to return to Iolcus to get married. Instead, they were married on the island of Phaeacia. Their marriage was presided over by Queen Arete, the wife of King Alcinous who ruled the island. When the Colchian fleet tracked the Argo down and came to the island, the King and Queen didn’t want to give the pair up, so King Aeetes and his fleet had to return home, defeated.

The Death of Pelias

Upon returning to Iolcus, Jason presented King Pelias with the Golden Fleece. Pelias was disappointed because he’d promised that he would abdicate the throne if Jason succeeded in retrieving the Golden Fleece. He changed his mind and refused to step down, regardless of his promise. Jason was frustrated and angry but Medea took it upon herself to solve the problem.

Medea showed Pelias’ daughters how she could make an old sheep turn into a young lamb by cutting it up and boiling it in a cauldron with herbs. She told them that they could turn their father into a much younger version of himself by doing the same thing. Pelias’ daughters didn’t hesitate to cut up their father, and boil the pieces of his body in a large cauldron but of course, no younger version of Pelias climbed out of the pot. The Peliades had to flee the city and Jason and Medea fled to Corinth since they were exiled by Acastus, Pelias’ son.

Jason and Medea in Corinth

Jason and Medea journeyed to Corinth, where they stayed for about 10 years. Some say they had either two or six children, but others said they had up to fourteen. Their children included Thessalus, Alcimenes, Tisander, Pheres, Mermeros, Argos, Medus and Eriopis.

Although Medea and Jason had moved to Corinth with the hope that they’d finally have a free and peaceful life together, trouble began to brew.

Medea Kills Glauce

In Corinth, Medea was regarded as a barbarian, just like everyone who came from the land of Colchis. Although Jason loved her at first and enjoyed being married to her, he began to get bored and wanted a better life for himself. Then, he met Glauce, the princess of Corinth, and fell in love with her. Soon, they were to get married.

When Medea found out that Jason was about to abandon her, she plotted her revenge. She took a beautiful robe and doused it in poison before sending it anonymously to Glauce. Glauce was amazed by the beauty of the robe and put on at once. In seconds, the poison burned into her skin and Glauce began to scream. Her father, King Creon, tried to help her remove the robe but when he held on to it, the poison began soak into his body as well and Creon dropped dead.

Medea Flees Corinth

Medea wanted to inflict even more pain on Jason so, as mentioned in some versions of the story, she killed her own children. However, according to the works of the poet Eumelus, she actually killed them by accident, burning them alive in Hera’s Temple since she believed that it would make them immortal.

After everything that had taken place, Medea had no choice but to flee Corinth, and she escaped in a chariot pulled by two deadly dragons.

Medea Flees to Athens

Medea next went to Athens where she met King Aegeus and married him after promising that she would give him a male heir to the throne. She kept her word and they did have a son together. He was named Medus, but according to Hesiod, Medus was said to be Jason’s son. Medea was now the Queen of Athens.

Theseus and Medea

It’s not exactly clear whether King Aegeus knew this or not, but he had already fathered a son named Theseus, long before Medus was born. When Theseus was old enough, he came to Athens but the king didn’t recognize him. However, Medea realized who he was and she hatched a plan to get rid of him. If she didn’t, Medus wouldn’t be the king of Athens after his father.

Some sources say that Medea convinced Aegeus to send Theseus on a quest to find the Marathonian Bull which was causing destruction in the lands around Athens. Theseus was successful in his quest.

Other sources say that because Theseus continued to live, Medea tried to kill him by giving him a cup of poison. However, Aegeus recognized his own sword in Theseus’ hand. He realized that this was his son and he knocked the cup from his wife’s hand. Medea had no choice but to leave Athens.

Medea Returns Home

Medea returned home to Colchis with her son Medus since she had no other option left. Her father Aeetes had been usurped by his brother Perses, so she killed Perses to make sure that Aeetes would take the throne again. When Aeetes died, Medea’s son Medus became the new king of Colchis.

It’s said that Medea was made immortal and lived forever in happiness in the Elysian Fields.

The Statue of Medea in Batumi

A large monument featuring Medea holding the Golden Fleece was unveiled in 2007 in Batumi, in Georgia. It’s believed that Colchis was located in this region. The statue is gold plated and towers over the city square. It features the Argo at its base. The statue has become a symbol of Georgia, and represents the prosperity, wealth and long history of Georgia.

In Brief

Medea was one of the most complex, dangerous, yet fascinating characters in Greek mythology, possibly the only one to kill so many of her own people. She embodies many negative characteristics, and commited many acts of murder. However, she was also propelled by a burning love for Jason, who eventually betrayed her. Medea isn’t a very popular character, but she did play an important role in many popular myths of ancient Greece.