For Jason, she betrays her father, kills her own brother, and abandons her home of Colchis. In Corinth, she murders her sons as vengeance against Jason and then escapes in a serpent-drawn chariot sent by the sun-god Helios. King Aegeus of Athens grants her sanctuary. But when she nearly tricks Aegeus into poisoning his own son, Theseus, she flees again. In this final flight, Medea breaks free of Greek mythology, unconquered to the last.
It is a unique fate for a woman who murders her sons. Greek mythology is not so kind to
its heroes. They do not die peacefully with past glories dancing in their head. Wine had soured in Jason’s mouth when a rotted spar from his ship Argos strikes him, the unfaithful husband, dead. King Aegeus throws himself from the high acropolis of Athens, believing Theseus defeated. Theseus lives long enough to see his beloved wife and son into their graves. Hercules burns himself on his own funeral pyre, accidently poisoned by his wife, before Zeus allows him into the stars. Odysseus’s son murders him; Oedipus is blinded; and Antigone, hounded into insanity.
Medea is no heroine, but neither is she a Minotaur to be vanquished. Instead, she is elemental – a wind that drives demi-gods to victory or to the bottom of the sea. What element she signifies is revealed by the men around her, the men who use Medea. When she enters the stage, Medea is ruled by her heart from the first. Jason wields that love to achieve his goal: stealing the golden fleece from Medea’s father. Without Medea’s power, Jason will not succeed. She tells him how to defeat each of her father’s traps, and when the lovers escape Colchis, it is Medea who dismembers her brother to prevent the King from following.
And Jason uses Medea as much as he can. He marries Medea and asks that she regenerate his aging father into a full vibrant life. Medea gives Jason healthy sons. Having borne him two legitimate heirs, though, Jason considers Medea a spent force to be cavalierly disposed once she is no longer useful. He throws Medea over for the daughter of the King of Corinth. The King of Corinth, at least, has the sense to banish Medea; Jason never considers that the power he used to capture the golden fleece and his future might take it from him.
Medea laments the position of a wife, forced aside, but she is not powerless. She strikes a deal with King Aegeus to save herself: She will give him sons. Aegeus sees Medea as the power through which he can ensure his dynasty continues. Medea fulfills her end of the bargain, a bargain Aegeus revokes when his own long-lost son, Theseus, arrives. Like Jason, though, Aegeus cannot end Medea – she escapes with their son.
While Medea is “passion” and an “anti-mother,” this simplifies her. She is the power of progeneration. She promises a future. Her fire protects Jason and regenerates his father to good health. She grants Jason two male heirs, a precious gift when children were not certain to survive to adulthood. She gives the same to King Aegeus. When Medea seeks to destroy, she cuts off that same future, beginning in Colchis. Medea kills her brother, her father’s heir. She kills Jason’s sons. She kills the King of Corinth’s daughter. She tries to destroy Theseus as well, so that her children with Aegeus are the future.
And here lies the genesis of her immortality. As dangerous as she may be, without Medea – without the power to progenerate – there is no future for kings or paupers. Jason and Aegeus used Medea to advance their cause, conscious that same power could destroy it. The power itself, though, one might try and tame the wind.
Figure 1: Medea by Alphonse Mucha, 1898. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
Figure 2: Here, Medea saves Jason’s father Aeson. By Girolamo Macchietti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=154202. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
Featured Image: Medea by Artemisia Gentileschi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54717055
This article is drawn from the following sources:
“Medea,” Encyclopedia Mythica. Encyclopedia Mythica, 3 Mar. 1997. Web. 14 May 2018.
Worthington, Ian. “The Ending of Euripides’ ‘Medea,’” Hermes, 118 Bd. H. 4 (1990), pp. 502-505. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4476790).
Flory, Stewart. “Medea’s Right Hand: Promises and Revenge,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 108 (1978), pp. 64-74.