Alex Rover | December 18, 2022


A character from Greek mythology, Medea (Medea, in ancient Greek Μήδεια

She plays a determining role in the myth of the Argonauts and is responsible for the parricide of Pelias.

The name Medea has been linked to the Greek verb μήδομαι

It is related to the Indo-European root *med-, *mēd- which is applied to medicine in Latin, Avestic and Celtic in the name of the Irish physician god Airmed.

The common version of the myth (Euripides, Apollonius)

In its classical version, notably from the tragedy of Euripides and Apollonius of Rhodes, the legend of Medea, particularly dark, consists of a succession of murders punctuated by a series of escapes across Greece.

The story of Medea begins with the arrival of the Argonauts in Colchis, led by Jason, who have come to recover the Golden Fleece from his uncle Pelias, King of Iolcos. The Fleece is held by the king of Colchis, Aetès, father of Medea and brother of Circe, who agrees to give it to Jason on condition that he accomplishes three tasks: tame two enormous bulls with hooves and horns of bronze, spitting fire from their nostrils; force the two beasts to plow a field with a plow; and finally, sow a bag of dragons” teeth in the furrows, which will then germinate and give birth to an army of phenomenally powerful warriors. In reality, Aeetes has no intention of giving up his treasure and thinks he is sending Jason to his certain death by setting him these insurmountable tests.

But Medea, his daughter, has fallen madly in love with Jason. She secretly finds him and offers to use her magic powers to help him. Faced with Jason”s suspicions, Medea confesses that she loves him and sets the condition that he take her with him and marry her. Seduced, the hero accepts and thus manages to accomplish the tasks that have been set for him. He thus tames the bulls after having been made invincible thanks to an ointment provided by Medea. After having ploughed the field and made the army of warriors rise from the ground, he throws a stone in the middle of them, on the advice of Medea, so that they believe to be attacked by their own companions and kill each other to the last.

Jason now claims his due from Aeetes. But the latter, furious, not only refuses to give the Golden Fleece to Jason but threatens him with death. Jason, Medea and the Argonauts take the Golden Fleece and flee to Colchis. Medea has taken Absyrtos, her younger brother (or half-brother, depending on the version), with her as a hostage. Éétès launches out in pursuit with his fleet. Medea then facilitates the escape of the Argonauts by killing and butchering Absyrtos, her own brother. Possessed by a murderous passion, she cuts him up into pieces which she scatters behind her, thus delaying the pursuers who stop each time to recover the pieces of his remains and offer the heir to the throne a dignified burial. Jason, Medea and the Argonauts thus lose their pursuers and return to Iolcos.

Back in Iolcos, Jason notices that Pelias has taken advantage of his absence to kill his father and get rid of his family. Mad with rage, he asks Medea to help him take his revenge. She then goes to find the four daughters of Pélias and pretends to be an envoy of Artémis (the goddess of the hunt, but also of wild nature, of the moon and of childbirth), charged with offering a new youth to their old father. Faced with the incredulity of the young girls, the magician prepares a cauldron of boiling water, throws some magic herbs into it, and has an old ram brought to her, which she slits and cuts into pieces, which she then throws into the pot. A few moments later, a young lamb emerges from the boiling water. Medea then gives the magic herbs to the amazed daughters of Pelias, telling them to do the same thing with their father. These go to the apartments of their father, to whom they submit Medea”s idea. Pélias, horrified by the proposal and furious that his daughters are so naïve, drives them away without mercy, despite their insistence. Blinded by their desire to make their father young again, they gird him, immobilize him then slit his throat. They then dismember his body before throwing the pieces into boiling water mixed with magic herbs. Pelias never comes out of this broth and his daughters are cursed by the Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance, for this patricide.

Medea is denounced by the daughters of Pélias, Jason and her are banished from Iolcos by Acaste, the son of Pélias. They then take refuge in Corinth, where they are welcomed by king Creon. Jason and Medea live peacefully for a few years, protected by the king. They have together two boys : Merméros and Phérès.

Alas, one day Jason falls in love with Creon”s daughter, Creuse. The king, having no heir, willingly accepts this union, rejoicing that the handsome and strong Jason will become his successor. Jason then repudiates Medea and marries Creuse in second marriage.

Medea is devastated: the man for whose love she has killed her brother, betrayed her father, her country, her people, the one she has always followed out of passion, has finally gotten rid of her. Moreover, rejected since always by the Corinthians because she was a foreigner, she is chased out of the city with her two children. Mad with rage and pain, Medea takes her revenge by killing her rival: she offers Creuse a magic tunic which, as soon as she puts it on, ignites, burning the wearer as well as her father, and then burns the royal palace. Possessed by a murderous madness and despite the attempts of her nurse, Medea stabs Merméros and Phérès, the children she had had with Jason, taking revenge for her betrayal, just after having left the burning palace.

Threatened with death by the Corinthians, Medea finds refuge with Aegeus, king of Athens. The latter yearns for a son and agrees to marry her after Medea promises to give him an heir. A child, Médos, will indeed be born soon after, for whom Médée hopes a royal destiny.

However, the arrival of Theseus, son of Aegeus, in Athens upsets her plans. After several unsuccessful attempts to remove him, Médée succeeds in convincing her husband that Thésée is an impostor and that he must be poisoned. However, the drama is narrowly avoided: Aegeus recognizes at the last moment his son with his sword and the sandals which he had bequeathed to him. Thwarted, Medea then seizes the treasure of Athens, stealing a great quantity of diamonds. In her flight on her chariot of fire pulled by cobras, she lets half of this royal treasure escape.

Médée and her son Médos then head for Colchis, whose throne is then occupied by Persès, who had dethroned her father Éétès after the flight of the Argonauts. She kills him and restores the power to her father Aeetes. The end of Medea”s life is not well known, because Euripides” version does not specify anything about her death nor about the end of her life.

Variants of the myth

It seems that the first variants of the myth were not all so negative for the character of Medea.

The earliest mention of Medea”s stay in Corinth is found in the fragments of the Corinthians by Eumelos of Corinth. From this occurrence, the Corinthian episode comes to a disastrous end, with the death of the children of Medea and Jason, without Medea being a murderer for all that. At Eumelos, Helios offered the throne of Corinth to his son Eetes. Medea, then queen of Iolcos with Jason, is called by the Corinthians to govern the city directly in place of the legates of Colchis, with the agreement of Etes. There does not seem to be any dispute between this one and Jason, who is crowned king of Corinth with his wife. It was in the temple of Hera in Corinth that the two children of Jason and Medea died, during a spell cast by their mother to make them share the immortality that she derived from her divine ancestry. The accidental death of their children leads to the separation of Medea and Jason, who returns to Iolcos.

Creophylos of Samos, contemporary of Homer and Eumelos, attributes the murder of Creon to Medea, but according to him the murder of the couple”s children is the work of partisans of the king of Corinth.

A similar version mentioning the murder of Medea”s children by Corinthians is also reported by the late Greek philologist Parmeniscus. According to him, the Corinthians rose up against Medea because they refused to be ruled by a foreign female magician and systematically slaughtered the fourteen children of the queen, who had taken refuge in the temple of Hera. The goddess, consequently, would have punished the City by an epidemic of plague. Since this time, every year, seven girls and seven boys of the Corinthian aristocracy had to serve in this temple to carry out expiatory ceremonies there. The rite would have lasted until 146BC, with the defeat of the Achaean League and the capture of Corinth by Rome. It seems indeed that the cult of Hera in the Heraion of Perachora included expiatory ceremonies for the children of Medea, without her being accused of the murder.

Two other poets, also predating Euripides, Ibycos and Simonides of Céos, also present Medea in a much more favorable light. According to them, after her death, the magician is even welcomed in the Elysian Fields or in the Islands of the Blessed, where she becomes the wife of Achilles.

On an Apulian scroll crater from the Painter of Darius (ca. 340 BC – 320 BC), there is a variant of the myth that Medea went to Eleusis. On this crater now in the Princeton University Museum, Medea is in the temple of Eleusis, as evidenced by the inscription ΕΛΕΥΣΙΣ ΤΟ ΙΕΡΟΝ. Arthur Dale Trendall”s interpretation of the vase suggests that it relates to the mythological tradition in which Medea would not have killed her children.

For Jean Haudry, the murder of the children by their mother reflects an earlier legend transmitted by Pausanias, who held it from Eumelos: initially, Medea would have tried to immortalize her children at their birth by depositing them in the temple of Hera in Corinth. But this attempt failed, perhaps, because of Zeus, to whom Medea had refused, and Jason separated from her because of this failure. It is probably to Eumelos that we owe the end of the story, located in Corinth.

Alain Moreau argues that Medea is probably a double of Hera: in the course of the story, she appears as her instrument, or even her human double. He notes that she also has features in common with Demeter: like the latter, she tries in vain to immortalize, she uses a chariot harnessed to winged dragons. Both of them unite with mortals whose names are close. He concludes that Medea is a hypostasis of Demeter, “the Mother of the Earth”.

In psychoanalysis, Medea”s murderous revenge gave rise to the Medea complex.

For the German physician and alchemist Michael Maier, Medea represents “reason with excellent advice”. He attributes to Medea, a magician, the art of medicine or poison.

Christa Wolf

The German novelist and essayist Christa Wolf refers to sources that predate the classical texts, and absolves the character of any murder. Medea is a free and foreign woman, who is accused of being a magician as soon as her presence disturbs.

The mute queen Merope reveals to Medea the founding murder of the city. The hidden burial vault contains a child”s skeleton, that of Iphinoe, the first daughter of Creon and Merope, killed on Creon”s orders, who feared his arrival as head of the city.

This revelation breaks the silence, the false oblivion, the fear. The plague takes hold of the city. The people look for a culprit and find him in the foreigner, quickly banished by Creon, and who must leave her children. She entrusts them, furiously, to the goddess Hera, in her temple. The people stone them, and accuse Medea of having killed them.

Infanticide, fratricide and regicide, the character of Medea has inspired many artists, in all fields and at all times.

External links


  1. Médée (mythologie)
  2. Medea
  3. ^ Hesiod Theogony 993–1002
  4. ^ a b Euripides, Medea line 788
  5. étymologie du nom Médée.
  6. Théogonie, 956-962.
  7. Hérodote, Enquête, VII, 62.
  8. Bibliothèque historique, IV, 55, 6-7.
  9. Apolonio de Rodas, Argonáuticas 4.1665-1689.
  10. DIODORO SÍCULO: Biblioteca histórica, IV, 50 – 52; HIGINO: Fábulas (Fabulae), 24. Diodoro excluye a una de las hijas de Pelias, Alcestis, de tomar parte en la muerte de su padre.
  11. Biblioteca mitológica, I, 9, 28.
  12. EURÍPIDES: Medea. Alianza.
  13. 1 2 MANTO (англ.)
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