Jason (Adam Levy) and Medea (Rachael Stirling) in Medea. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Medea is one of the most fascinating and complex characters in the whole of Greek mythology. She is the ultimate heroine, villain and victim, all rolled into one.
Medea was a high priestess, skilled in the art of witchcraft. Her father, King Aeetes, ruled over the land of Colchis. To the Greeks, the land of Colchis was a strange far away place at the end of the world.
The Greek god of war, Aries had placed a golden fleece in a grove in Colchis and charged Aeetes with protecting it. The fleece was guarded by a fearsome dragon. Aries had decreed that as long as the fleece stayed in Colchis, the land would prosper and its people would have good fortune.
One day, a Greek ship landed on the shores of Colchis. Aboard this ship, the Argo, was a Greek prince called Jason. On seeing Jason for the first time, Medea fell head over heels in love with him.
When Jason arrived at the palace he asked Aeetes to give him the golden fleece. Aeetes had no intention of giving up the fleece, so he set Jason an impossible task. Jason could take the fleece away with him if he could yoke two fire breathing bulls to a plough, plough a field and sow it with the magical teeth of a serpent that had been slain long ago by another Greek hero called Cadmus.
Medea knew that Jason would not be able to complete these tasks on his own. She offered him a bargain. If he agreed to marry her, she would help him win the fleece. Jason agreed. Medea gave Jason a lotion to rub on his skin that would protect him from the fiery breath of the bulls. With Medea’s help, Jason managed to yoke the ferocious bulls to the plough and planted the serpent’s teeth. The teeth instantly grew into an army of men who fought each other until every one of them was dead. When King Aeetes saw that Jason had successfully completed the task, he was furious. He broke his promise and refused to give up the golden fleece. He threatened to burn the Jason’s ship and massacre her crew.
Medea quickly led Jason and his men to the grove where the golden fleece hung. She soothed the fearsome dragon with her spells and potions. Jason unfastened the fleece from the tree in which it hung. He ran back to his ship with Medea and her younger brother Apsyrtus. Together they all set sail at top speed for Greece.
Aeetes, however, was not prepared to let the fleece go so easily. He sent his ships after Jason and Medea. Aeetes’ ships were faster than Jason’s and he soon caught up with the couple. Medea knew she had to do something drastic to stop her father and save her beloved Jason. She took hold of her brother Apsyrtus and cut him up into pieces. She then dropped the bloody pieces of his corpse into the sea, knowing that her father, stricken with grief, would have to stop to fish them out.
Medea and Jason were married on Corcyra with huge celebrations and over their wedding bed they spread the golden fleece. Together they sailed home to Greece.
When they arrived in Jason’s home town of Iolcus, Jason discovered that the king, Pelias, had murdered his parents and his brother. Furious with grief, Jason wanted to launch an immediate armed assault on the city. Medea, however, had a better idea. She told Jason that she could take the city single-handed. She instructed Jason’s crew to hide their boat, while she went to the city alone. When Jason and his crew saw a torch waved on the palace roof, they would know she had succeeded and the town would be theirs for the taking.
As Medea approached the city gates, she transformed herself into an old woman. She carried a statue of the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, with her. When she reached the gates, she announced that the goddess Artemis had come to reward Pelias for his piety. Pelias was a very old man and had no children. Artemis, Medea told him, had taken pity on him and would make him young again so that he could have more sons.
Pelias was a suspicious man. He didn’t believe Medea. So Medea said that she would prove the truth of the goddess’s promise to him. She transformed herself back into a young woman, right before Pelias’s very eyes. Next, she took an old ram and cut it up into thirteen pieces. She threw the pieces of ram into a boiling cauldron. Then, she plunged her hand into the boiling cauldron and drew out a live lamb.
Pelias was convinced. He lay down on a couch and Medea charmed him to sleep. She gave his three daughters knives and commanded them to cut him up into thirteen pieces like the ram. Then, she told the three girls to take torches up onto the palace roof and invoke the power of the moon to help the cauldron boil. When Jason and his men saw the torches, they rushed into Iolcus and took the town for their own.
Medea’s father had once been king of Corinth and it was to Corinth that Jason and Medea went next. Medea claimed the throne for herself and the people of Corinth eagerly welcomed Jason as their king. Medea and Jason decided to settle there. Medea bore Jason seven sons and seven daughters, and they all should have lived happily ever after.
Ten years passed, and Jason’s eye began to wander. He fell in love with Glauce, the young and beautiful daughter of king Creon of Thebes. He decided to divorce Medea and marry Glauce instead. Medea was furious. She still loved Jason deeply. She reminded Jason that the throne of Corinth was rightfully hers, not his. Jason laughed at her saying that the people of Corinth had more respect for him than for her, so he should be king still. Medea pretended to give in to Jason and agreed to leave the town without causing any trouble, but she had other plans.
On their wedding day, Medea sent Jason's bride a gift of a poison dress and a poison crown. When Glauce put them on, they burnt into her skin. Her father Creon attempted to rip the dress and crown off Glauce in order to save her, but he too became tangled up in the poisoned dress and they died together in each other’s arms. As a second form of revenge on Jason, Medea murdered all their children. Jason was furious and pursued Medea. Medea’s grandfather Helius, the god of the sun, saved her. Medea climbed into his winged chariot and escaped. Jason was left behind, brideless and childless.
Medea fled to Athens. The king of Athens, Aegeus, agreed to give her shelter and in return Medea offered to give him a son. Aegeus and Medea were married and they had a son called Medus. One day, however, Medea discovered that Aegeus had already had a son, Theseus, with another woman. Medea wanted her son Medus to be Aegeus’s only rightful heir. She invited Theseus to a banquet and put a deadly poison in his cup of wine. Aegeus discovered Medea’s plan and when Theseus raised his cup to make a toast, Aegeus dashed the poisoned wine from his hands.
Medea fled the city of Athens and sailed home to Colchis. Her father’s throne had been taken from him by his brother Perses. Medea won her father’s throne back for him and they were reconciled. Some people say that Jason then arrived in Colchis and was reunited with Medea, however, the truth is that Jason was punished by the gods for breaking his promise to Medea. He was doomed to wander homeless from city to city, hated by everyone. One day, he came across his old ship, the Argo. He sat down in its shadow to remember his past glories and mourn all the disasters that had befallen him. He was so upset, he decided to hang himself from the ship’s prow, but instead the ship’s prow suddenly fell off and killed him. Medea never died. She was made immortal and went to live forever in the happiness of the Elysian fields.