Medea contemplates killing her sons Background and Images for the
Medea

Jason and the Argonauts: Pelias, son of Poseidon, had usurped the throne of Iolcus from his brother Aeson. To save the life of her son Jason, Aeson's wife had sent him away to be trained by the centaur Cheiron (Jason's family tree). After Jason grew up, he returned to Iolcus, seeking to regain the throne. Pelias promised to surrender the throne to Jason if he could steal the golden fleece from far-off Colchis, on the Black Sea. Jason summoned volunteers from all over Greece to accompany him on the quest for the golden fleece. A man name Argus crafted a special ship with the help of Athena; the ship was named Argo and the heroes on the expedition were called Argonauts.

Medea and Jason: The golden fleece was guarded by a dragon that never slept; it was the prized possession of the king of Colchis, Aeëtes, son of the sun-god Helios. When Jason and his crew arrived in Colchis after many adventures, Aeëtes set impossible conditions for handing over the fleece—Jason would have to yoke two fire-breathing bulls, use them to plough the Field of Ares, then sow the field with dragon's teeth which would immediately sprout into warriors who would attack him. The somewhat unheroic Jason had no idea how to accomplish this task, but the goddesses Hera and Athena prevailed upon Aphrodite to cause Medea, the daughter of Aeëtes, to fall in love with the handsome young Jason. Medea was an accomplished sorceress (as depicted in this nineteenth-century painting by Frederick Sandys or this 1893 painting by Evelyn de Morgan); her aunt was the famous Homeric sorceress Circe, who turned men into swine, and she was also connected with Hecate, goddess of witchcraft. That night Jason and Medea met secretly, and swore a solemn oath, marked with the traditional clasp of right hands, that Medea would aid Jason in return for becoming his bride (this oath is emphasized in two seventeenth-century etchings of the scene: by Antonio Tempesta and by Johann Wilhelm Baur). Medea gave Jason a magic salve that made him “hero for a day” by making him impervious to fire or weapons, and he was able to accomplish the tasks set by Aeëtes (this 1640 engraving depicts his exploits, while Medea kills her brother in the background). However, the king refused to surrender the fleece, so Medea gave Jason a potion that put the dragon to sleep, enabling Jason to steal the fleece. Medea left on the Argo with Jason, but later betrayed and killed (or enabled Jason to kill) her brother Apsyrtus, who was pursuing them. Some say she actually cut up her brother's body and scattered the remains over the sea to delay the pursuers (this drawing of a Greek vase painting shows Medea with the Argo; notice how she is dressed in clothing that the Greeks would immediately recognize as “barbarian”).

Medea, ram, daughters of PeliasWhen Jason and his new wife Medea returned to Iolcus with the golden fleece, however, Pelias, who had murdered Jason's parents while he was gone, refused to surrender the throne to his nephew. Medea ingratiated herself with the daughters of Pelias, who were concerned about his old age; she demonstrated her magic powers to them by cutting the throat of an old ram and boiling him in a cauldron with special herbs. They were amazed to see a frisky young lamb jump from the cauldron and scamper away. Thus persuaded by Medea, they cut the throat of their own father, and of course Medea did not rejuvenate him. Outraged by this deed, the people of Iolcus refused to make Jason king, so the couple moved to Corinth, where Medea bore Jason two sons. Jason, however, was not content with a quiet life, and his ambition led him to divorce Medea and marry the princess of Corinth. It is at this point in the story that Euripides’ play Medea opens. The princess is not named in the play (though commentators sometimes identify her as Glauce or Creusa); she is the only child of Creon, so Jason's action is the ancient equivalent of “marrying the boss's daughter,” making it possible for him to beome the next king of Corinth.

When reading the play, it is important to remember that the audience may not have been sure what was going to happen, since there were a number of variants of the Medea story. After the play, however, Euripides’ version became the dominant myth, as can be seen on a Roman sarcophagus dating from the mid-second century CE, now in Berlin. The elaborate relief sculpture on the sarcophagus closely follows Euripides’ plot: Medea uses her children to deliver the poisoned robe and diadem to the princess (on the pretext that she is begging that her children not be sent into exile); when the princess tries on the garments, they eat away at her flesh and destroy the king as well when he tries to help her; as Medea looks at her children, she struggles against the maternal impulse to spare them; finally, after killing the children to complete her revenge against Jason, Medea escapes in a chariot drawn by flying dragons put at her disposal by the sun-god Helios, her grandfather. This chariot was popular in ancient art (as in this vase painting) as well as in later illustrations (see these seventeenth-century etchings by Antonio Tempesta and by Johann Wilhelm Baur). What did not transfer to later representations was Medea's anguish at killing her sons; she shows no regret at all in this engraving or in Eugène Delacroix's sinister painting.

Misogynist or Feminist? From antiquity to the present, this play has been invoked to support attacks on women as well as defenses of feminism. Certainly one can find quotations to buttress either side:

            For in other ways a woman
Is full of fear, defenseless, dreads the sight of cold
Steel; but, when once she is wronged in the matter of love,
No other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood. (Medea, 263-66)
            It would have been better far for men
To have got their children in some other way, and women
Not to have existed. Then life would have been good. (Jason, 573-75)
Flow backward to your sources, sacred rivers,
And let the world's great order be reversed.
It is the thoughts of men that are deceitful,
Their pledges that are loose.
Story shall now turn my condition to a fair one,
Women are paid their due.
No more shall evil-sounding fame be theirs. (Chorus, 410-20)

But such quotes must always be considered in context, with particular attention to the characters who are uttering them and the situations in which they are spoken. Perhaps it is better to look at the play in more complex terms, not as an argument or position statement but rather as an exploration of some very complicated issues: What are the potential consequences when a society divides people into two separate and unequal gendered spheres? How important are children to individuals and society and what does this have to do with women's power or lack of power? What is the moral status of an ethic based on the principle of “helping friends and harming enemies”?

Medea after Corinth: According to mythology, Jason was a ruined man after losing his chance at kingship in Corinth, and he eventually died a very ironic death, crushed by the prow of the Argo as it fell from the unused, rotting ship. Medea escaped successfully to Athens, where she married Aegeus and bore him a son, Medus. However, although Aegeus was not aware of it, he had fathered another son on his way home to Athens. He had stopped to visit his old friend Pittheus, king of Troezen, and had slept with Pittheus's daughter Aethra. When he left Troezen, he told Aethra that if she bore a son, she should conceal his parentage. When the boy was grown, she should send him to Athens when he was strong enough to lift a huge rock and retrieve the sword and sandals that Aegeus had left there. Aethra did give birth to a son, Theseus, who became the great hero of Athens; this terracotta plaque shows Aethra pointing out the rock while Theseus lifts it to get the tokens, and this Attic cup illustrates many of Theseus's heroic exploits. When the young Theseus arrived in Athens, Medea realized immediately that he was the son of Aegeus and laid a plot to destroy him so he would not supplant her son Medus. She persuaded Aegeus that Theseus was a spy planning to assassinate the king and told Aegeus to give him a cup of poisoned wine during a banquet. However, at the last minute, Aegeus recognized the sword, knocked the poisoned cup to the ground, and acknowledged Theseus as his son and heir. Medea and her son, banished from Athens, went to Asia, where they became ancestors of the mighty kingdom of the Medes. According to some myths, Medea herself never died but was transported to live among the demigods in the Elysian Fields.

revised February, 2011
Barbara F. McManus
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