Heroes and Anti-Heroes

19 Medea

Inside a frame of sun rays, Medea rides in a chariot drawn by two serpentine dragons.
Medea in her dragon chariot, red-figure krater, ca. 400 BCE (Cleveland Museum of Art)


Medea was born in Colchis, an ancient kingdom located in the west of the present-day nation of Georgia that was also the home of the Golden Fleece. Medea was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, the son of Helios, the sun god. Her father was a sorcerer, as was her paternal aunt, Circe. Another one of her paternal aunts was Pasiphae, the queen of Crete and mother of the Minotaur. Medea herself was a priestess and witch who understood and could harness the magical powers of herbs and potions. She makes many appearances throughout Greco-Roman mythology and literature, including in tragedy and epic.


When Jason and the Argonauts arrived in Colchis to steal the golden fleece, Aphrodite caused Medea to fall in love with Jason. Under Aphrodites’ influence, Medea used her magic and her cleverness to help Jason complete the tasks given to him by her father, Aeëtes (see chapter 18). Jason promised to marry Medea in exchange for her assistance.

Once Jason had stolen the Golden Fleece, he and Medea set sail back to Greece with the rest of the Argonauts. They kidnapped Medea’s younger brother, Absyrtus and took him on board with them. King Aeëtes pursued them.

The Murder of Absyrtus

As Aeëtes and his fleet began to gain on the Argo, Medea killed Absyrtus and chopped him into pieces. She flung the pieces of his body over the side of the ship.  Aeëtes was forced to pause his pursuit of the ship to collect the pieces of his murdered son. He returned to Colchis to give Absyrtus a proper burial and by the time he set out to pursue Medea and Jason again, the Argo was long gone.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 1.9.24.


Zeus was angry at the crew for the murder of Absyrtus, so Hera blew them off their course, sending them to the waters around Italy to protect them from Zeus’ wrath. The beam of the ship, which possessed the ability to speak, told the crew that they could not return home until they had been purified of Absyrtus’ murder by Aeëtes’ sister, Circe, an enchantress who lived on an island called Aeaea. They found Circe, and she performed the proper sacrifices and purification rituals. After this was done, Circe asked who they were, and Medea explained the story to her. Circe was appalled to learn that her niece had stolen the Golden Fleece. She ordered the Argonauts to leave her island.

The Sirens

Now that the Argo’s crew had been purified of the murder, Hera helped them make their journey to Iolcus. They passed the Sirens, who are described as birds with the heads of women. The Sirens had the ability to sing so wonderfully that any sailor who heard their song would jump out of the boat and swim toward their island where they would die of starvation. Luckily, the Argonauts had Orpheus amongst their crew.  Orpheus played a song that rivalled the song of the Sirens and allowed the Argo to pass unharmed. The Argo also traveled past Scylla (a monster with dogs for legs) and Charybdis (a whirlpool that would suck up water and then regurgitate it). The crew would have surely perished if it were not for Thetis, a sea nymph, and her sisters, who guided the Argo through the waters. Thetis would later become the bride of one of the Argonauts, Peleus, and the mother of the hero Achilles.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 1.9.25.

The Daughters of Pelias

The Argonauts returned to Iolcus with the Golden Fleece, bringing with them Jason’s new wife, the Colchian princess Medea. Jason suspected that his uncle would not hand over the kingship, so the group stayed outside the city while trying to figure out what to do. Medea came up with a plan. Using her magic, she disguised herself as an old woman and went to the palace, claiming to be a priestess of Artemis who had come to rejuvenate the king. When she transformed herself from an old woman into her real, youthful form, Pelias agreed to allow her to bring back his youth. Medea told his daughters that they needed to cut their father into pieces and boil him in her cauldron, along with some magical herbs, in order for the process to work. The girls were skeptical, but Medea convinced them by performing the procedure on a ram. When a little lamb leaped from the cauldron, they agreed to cut their father into pieces. But, when the daughters of Pelias tried this, their rejuvenated father did not spring out of the cauldron, but instead died in the boiling water.

See Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 1.9.27.

Jason and Medea in Corinth

On the far left, are Medea, Jason, and their two children. The next section depicts the courtship of Jason and Creusa, followed by Jason and Creusa in suffering after Medea poisoned them. On the far right is Medea, escaping on her chariot drawn by two winged serpentine dragons.
Story of Medea and Creusa, Roman sarcophagus, ca. 150 CE (Altes Museum, Berlin)

One of the Argonauts, Pelias’ son Acastus, became king after his father’s death and exiled Jason and Medea for the brutal killing of his father. The king of Corinth, Creon, offered them a home in his kingdom on account of the fame that the expedition of the Argo had brought to Jason. There they lived peacefully for about ten years, and they had two sons. Eventually, however, Jason grew tired of living with a barbarian witch who brought him no social standing. Creon offered his daughter, named either Glauce or Creusa, in marriage to the hero. Jason divorced Medea and married the princess.

Medea was devastated and most of all angry at Jason’s betrayal. After all, she had helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece, she had helped him sail safely back to Greece, and she had helped him punish Peleus for seizing the throne; she had also born him two sons. But Medea was not about to suffer in silence. She hatched a plan to hurt Jason in every way possible. She sent her sons to deliver wedding gifts for the princess: a tiara and a beautiful dress. As soon as the princess put them on, however, they burst into flames. Her father, hearing her screams, ran to help, but once he had touched her he could not pull away, and he burned alive alongside his daughter.

Medea’s sons, because they were accessories to the murders, were in danger as well. Some versions say the Corinthians killed the boys, leading their spirits to later avenge themselves by punishing the city. However, the more prominent version, popularized by Euripides, has Medea herself killing the children to take revenge on their father. Medea, who was the granddaughter of the Titan sun god Helios, asked for and received her grandfather’s chariot (drawn by four winged horses) to help her escape. Medea flew to Athens in Helios’ chariot and went to live with King Aegeus.


Euripides, Medea (trans. D. Kovacs, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek tragedy, 431 BCE

This play was first performed at the City Dionysia festival in Athens in 431 BCE. The trilogy that it was part of won 3rd place in the tragic play competition that year.

Euripides’ version of the Medea myth begins after Medea and Jason have been living in Corinth for many years.

[content warning for the following source: graphic depiction of death (1135-1220), infanticide, discussion of suicide, misogyny and xenophobia]

Enter the Nurse from the central door of the skene.


Would that the Argo had never winged its way to the land of Colchis through the dark-blue Symplegades! Would that the pine trees had never been felled in the glens of Mount Pelion and furnished oars for the hands [5] of the heroes who at Pelias‘ command set forth in quest of the Golden Fleece! For then my lady Medea would not have sailed to the towers of Iolcus, her heart smitten with love for Jason, or persuaded the daughters of Pelias to kill [10] their father and hence now be inhabiting this land of Corinth, [separated from her loved ones and country. At first, to be sure, she had, even in Corinth, a good life] with her husband and children, an exile loved by the citizens to whose land she had come, and lending to Jason himself all her support. This it is that most rescues life from trouble, [15] when a woman is not at variance with her husband.

But now all is enmity, and love’s bonds are diseased. For Jason, abandoning his own children and my mistress, is settling down in a royal match, having married the daughter of Creon, ruler of this land. [20] Poor Medea, finding herself thus cast aside, calls loudly on his oaths, invokes the mighty assurance of his sworn right hand, and calls the gods to witness the unjust return she is getting from Jason. She lies fasting, giving her body up to pain, [25] wasting away in tears all the time ever since she learned that she was wronged by her husband, neither lifting her face nor taking her eyes from the ground. She is as deaf to the advice of her friends as a stone or a wave of the sea: [30] she is silent, except sometimes when she turns her snow-white neck and weeps to herself for her dear father and her country and her ancestral house. All these she abandoned when she came here with a man who has now cast her aside. The poor woman has learned at misfortune’s hand [35] what a good thing it is not to be cut off from one’s native land.

She loathes the children and takes no joy in looking at them. And I am afraid that she will hatch some sinister plan. For she has a terrible temper and will not put up with bad treatment (I know her), and I fear [40] she may thrust a sharpened sword through her vital organs, [slipping quietly into the house where the bed is spread,] or kill the royal family and the bride-groom and then create some greater disaster. For she is dangerous. I tell you, no man who clashes with her [45] will find it easy to crow in victory.

Enter Tutor by Eisodos [side entrance] A, escorting the two sons of Jason and Medea.

But see, her boys are coming home after their games. They have no thought of their mother’s troubles: it is not usual for young minds to dwell on grief.


Aged slave of my mistress’ household, [50] why do you stand alone like this at the palace-gate, complaining of your troubles to your own ears? How can Medea not need your service?


Old attendant to the children of Jason, to loyal servants it is a disaster when the dice of their masters’ fortunes [55] fall badly: it touches their hearts. So great is the grief I feel that the desire stole over me to come out here and speak my mistress’ troubles to the earth and the sky.


What? Has the poor woman not yet stopped moaning?


[60] Your ignorance is enviable. Her misfortune is still beginning and has not yet reached its peak.


Poor fool (if I may speak thus of my masters), how little she knows of her latest trouble!


What is it, old man? Do not begrudge me the news.


Nothing. I am sorry I said as much as I have.


[65] I beg you: by your beard, do not conceal this from your fellow-slave! I will keep it a secret if I must.


As I approached the gaming-tables where the old men sit, near the holy spring of Peirene, I heard someone say (I was pretending not to listen) [70] that Creon, this country’s king, was going to exile these children and their mother from the land of Corinth. Whether the story is true I do not know. I could wish it were not so.


But will Jason allow this to happen [75] to his sons even if he is at odds with their mother?


Old marriage-ties give way to new: he is no friend to this house.


We are done for, it seems, if we add this new trouble to our old ones before we’ve overcome those.


[80] But you, hold your peace, since it is not the right time for your mistress to know this, and say nothing of this tale.


O children, do you hear what kind of man your father is towards you? A curse on him!—but no, he is my master. Yet he is certainly guilty of disloyalty towards his loved ones.


[85] As what mortal is not? Are you just now learning this, that each man loves himself more than his neighbor, [some fairly, others for the sake of gain,] seeing that their father does not love these boys because of his bride?


Go into the house, children, all will be well. [90] And you, keep them as far off as you can and do not bring them near their mother in her distress. For I have seen her turn a savage glance at them, as if she meant to do something to them. And she will not let go of her wrath, I am sure, before she brings it down on someone’s head. [95] But may it be enemies, not loved ones, that feel her wrath!


(Within) Oh, what a wretch am I, how miserable in my sorrows! Ah ah, how I wish I could die!


Just as I said, dear children. Your mother is stirring up her feelings, stirring up her anger. [100] Go quickly into the house, and do not come into her sight or approach her, but beware of her fierce nature and the hatefulness of her wilful temper. [105] Go inside as quickly as you can.

Exit Tutor and children into the house.

It is clear that she will soon kindle with even greater passion the cloud of lament now rising from its source: what will her proud soul, so hard to check, [110] do when stung by this injury?


Oh, what sufferings are mine, sufferings that call for loud lamentation! O accursed children of a hateful mother, may you perish with your father and the whole house collapse in ruin!


[115] Oh, woe is me! Why do you make the children sharers in their father’s sin? Why do you hate them? O children, how terrified I am that you may come to harm. The minds of royalty are dangerous: [120] since they often command and seldom obey, they are subject to violent changes of mood. For it is better to be accustomed to living on terms of equality. At any rate, may I be able to grow old in modest state and with security. [125] For moderate fortune has a name that is fairest on the tongue, and in practice it is by far the most beneficial thing for mortals. But excessive riches mean no advantage for mortals, and when a god is angry at a house, [130] they make the ruin greater.

Enter by Eisodos B a group of Corinthian women as Chorus.


I have heard the voice, I have heard the cry, of the unhappy woman of Colchis: is she not yet calmed down? Tell me, old woman, [135] for I heard from a servant of her shouting within the house, and it is no joy I feel at this house’s misfortunes since I have shared the cup of friendship with it.


The house is no more: it has perished. [140] For the husband is held fast in a royal marriage, while the wife, my mistress, wastes away her life in her chamber, her heart in no way soothed by the words of any of her friends.


Oh! May a flash of lightning pierce my head! [145] Are there any other benefits for me in life? Ah, ah! May I find my rest in death and leave behind my hateful life!


Did you hear, O Zeus and earth and light of the sun, what a wail the miserable [150] woman utters? What is this desire you feel for the bed of death, the bed we should not approach, foolish woman? Death will come all too quickly: do not pray for it. [155] But if your husband holds another marriage-bed in honour, do not anger yourself on his account: Zeus will be your advocate in this. Do not grieve excessively or weep over your husband.


[160] O mighty Themis and my lady Artemis, do you see what I suffer, I who have bound my accursed husband with mighty oaths? May I one day see him and his new bride ground to destruction, and their whole house with them, [165] so terrible are the wrongs they are bold to do to me unprovoked! O father, O my native city, from you I departed in shame, having killed my brother.


Do you hear what she says, how she calls on Themis invoked in prayer, daughter of Zeus, [170] who is deemed guardian of men’s oaths? It is not possible that my mistress will bring her wrath to an end in some minor deed.


Oh, how I wish she could come face to face with us and receive the sound [175] of our words to her, on the chance that somehow she might give up her angry temper! May my good will never desert my friends! [180] But go now and bring her out of the house. Tell her that here are friends, and hurry before she harms those inside. For this grief of hers is charging powerfully forward.


I will do so. But there is doubt whether I shall persuade [185] my mistress. Still, I will make you a further present of my labor, though she glares at the servants with the look of a lioness with cubs when any of them approaches her with something to say. [190] You would be right to call men of the past foolish, not at all wise: for while they invented songs for festivities, banquets, and dinners and added pleasant sounds to human life, [195] no one discovered how to put an end to mortals’ bitter griefs with music and song sung to the lyre. It is because of these griefs that deaths and terrible disasters overthrow houses. It would have been a gain for mortals [200] to cure these ills by song. Where there are feasts of plenty, why do they raise the loud song to no purpose? The abundance of the feast at hand provides mortals with its own pleasure.

Exit Nurse into the house.


[205] I have heard her cry full of groans, how she utters shrill charges against the husband who betrayed her bed. Having suffered wrong, she raises her cry to Zeus‘ daughter, Themis, goddess of oaths, the goddess who brought her [210] to Hellas across the sea through the dark salt-water over the briny gateway of the Black Sea, a gateway few traverse.

Enter Medea with the Nurse from the house.


Women of Corinth, I have come out of the house [215], so that you don’t find some flaw in me. For I know that though many mortals are haughty both in private and in public, others get a reputation for indifference to their neighbors from their secluded manner of life. There is no justice in mortals’ eyes [220] since, before they get sure knowledge of a man’s true character, they hate him on sight even though he has done them no harm. Now a foreigner must be quite compliant with the city, nor do I have any words of praise for the citizen who is stubborn and causes his fellow-citizens pain by his lack of breeding. [225] In my case, however, this sudden blow that has struck me has destroyed my life. I am undone, I have resigned all joy in life, and I want to die. For the man on whom everything I had depended, as I well know—my husband—has proved the worst of men.

[230] Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate. First at an exorbitant price we must buy a husband and master of our bodies. [This misfortune is more painful than misfortune.] [235] And the outcome of our life’s striving hangs on this, whether we take a bad or a good husband. For divorce is discreditable for women and it is not possible to refuse to marry. And when a woman comes into the new customs and practices of her husband’s house, she must somehow figure out, since she has not learned it at home, [240] how she shall best deal with her husband. If after we have spent great efforts on these tasks, our husbands live with us without resenting the marriage-yoke, and our life is enviable. Otherwise, death is preferable. A man, whenever he is annoyed with the company of those in the house, [245] goes elsewhere and thus rids his soul of its boredom [turning to some male friend or age-mate]. But we must fix our gaze on one person only. Men say that we live a life free from danger at home while they fight with the spear. [250] How wrong they are! I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.

But your story and mine are not the same: you have a city and a father’s house, the enjoyment of life and the company of friends, [255] while I, without relatives or city, am suffering outrage from my husband. I was carried off as booty from a foreign land and have no mother, no brother, no kinsman to shelter me from this disaster. And so I shall ask from you this much as a favor: [260] if I find any means or method to punish my husband for these wrongs [and the bride’s father and the bride], keep my secret. In all other things a woman is full of fear, incapable of looking on battle or cold steel; [265] but when she is injured in love, no mind is more murderous than hers.


I will do so. For you will be right to punish your husband, Medea, and I am not surprised that you grieve at what has happened.

Enter Creon by Eisodos B.

But I see Creon coming, ruler of this land. [270] He will have some new decisions to report.


You, Medea, scowling with rage against your husband, I order you to leave this land and go into exile, taking your two children with you, and instantly. I am the executor of this decree, [275] and I will not return home again until I expel you from this land.


Oh, I am undone, wholly lost! My enemies are making full sail against me, and there is no haven from disaster that I can reach. [280] Still, though I am ill-treated, I will ask you: Why are you exiling me, Creon?


I am afraid (no need to lie) that you will do some deadly harm to my daughter. Many signs of this combine: [285] you are a clever woman and skilled in many evil arts, and you are hurting with the loss of your husband’s love. And I hear that you are threatening—such is the report people bring—to harm the bride, her father, and her husband. So I shall take precautions before the event. [290] It is better for me to incur your hatred now, woman, than to be soft now and regret it later.


Ah me! This is not the first time, Creon, but often before now my reputation has done me great harm. No man who is sensible ought ever [295] to have his children educated beyond the common run. For apart from the charge of idleness they incur, they earn hostility and ill-will from their fellow-citizens. If you bring new wisdom to fools, you will be regarded as useless, not wise; [300] and if the city sees you as greater than those with a reputation for cleverness, you will be thought frustrating. I myself am a sharer in this lot, for since I am clever, in the eyes of some I am an object of ill-will, [others find me retiring, others the opposite, [305] others an obstacle, yet I am not so very wise,] while you on the other hand fear me. What harm are you afraid of? Have no fear, Creon, I am not the kind of person to commit crimes against my rulers. What injustice have you done to me? You married your daughter [310] to the man your heart told you to. It is my husband I hate, while you, I think, acted with perfect good sense in this. And now I do not resent your prosperity. Make your marriage, all of you, and may good fortune be with you. But let me stay in this land. For although I have been wronged, [315] I will hold my peace, yielding to my superiors.


Your words are soothing to listen to, but I am afraid that in your heart you are plotting some harm. I trust you much less than before. A hot-tempered woman—and a hot-tempered man likewise— [320] is easier to guard against than a clever woman who keeps her own counsel. No, go into exile at once—speak me no speeches—since my resolve is fixed and there is no way you can remain in our midst since you are hostile to me.

Medea kneels before him in the attitude of a suppliant, grasping his knees and hand.[1]


Do not, I beg you by your knees and by your newly-wedded daughter.


[325] You waste your words. You will never win me over.


But will you banish me without the regard due a suppliant?


Yes: I do not love you more than my own house.


O fatherland, how I think of you now!


Yes, after my children it is much the dearest thing to me.


[330] Oh, what a curse love is to mortals.


I think that depends on the circumstances.


Zeus, do not forget who has caused all this sorrow!


Go, foolish woman, and rid me of my trouble.


Trouble I have already. I have no need of more.


[335] In a moment you will be thrown out of the country by my servants.


No, no, not that, I beg you, Creon!


Woman, it seems you are bent on causing me annoyance.


I accept my exile: it was not exile that I wanted reprieve from.


Why then are you still applying force and clinging to my hand?


[340] Allow me to remain this one day and to complete my plans for exile and to ensure some provision for my children, since their father does not care to do so. Have pity on them: you too are a parent, [345] and we might expect you to be well-disposed towards them. I do not care if I myself go into exile. It is their experience of misfortune I weep for.


My nature is not at all a tyrant’s, and by showing consideration I have often suffered loss. [350] And now, though I see that I am making a serious mistake, nonetheless, woman, you shall have your request. But I warn you, if tomorrow’s sun sees you and your children within the borders of this land, you will be put to death. I mean what I have said. [355] Now stay, if stay you must, for one more day. You will not do the mischief I fear by then.

Exit Creon by Eisodos B. Medea rises to her feet.


[Unhappy woman,] O dear, crushed by your misfortunes, where will you turn? What protector of strangers will you find, [360] what house, what land, to save you from disaster? Medea, a god has cast you into a hopeless sea of troubles.


In every way the situation is bad: who will deny it? [365] But it is not thus—do not imagine it—that things <will turn out in the end if I have any power in my arts>. There are still struggles for the newly-wedded pair, and for the maker of the match difficulties that are not unimportant. Do you think I would ever have fawned on this man unless I stood to gain, unless I were plotting? [370] I would not even have spoken to him or touched him with my hands. But he has reached such a level of folly that, while it lay in his power to check my plans by banishing me, he has permitted me to stay for this day, a day on which I shall make corpses of three of my enemies: [375] the father, his daughter, and my husband.

Now since I possess many ways of killing them, I do not know which I should try first, my friends: shall I set the bridal chamber on fire, [or thrust a sharp sword through their vitals], [380] creeping into the house where the marriage-bed is spread? One thing, however, stands in my path: if I am caught entering the house and plotting its destruction, I will be killed and bring joy to my enemies. Best to proceed by the direct route, in which I am [385] the most skilled, and kill them with poison.

So be it! Now let us suppose they have been killed. What city will receive me? What friend will give me a safe country and a secure house and rescue me? There is no one. And so I will wait a short time yet, [390] and if some tower of safety appears, I will go about this murder by stealth. But if hard circumstances force me into the open, I will take the sword and, even though I am sure to die for it, kill them with my own hand, going to the very limits of daring. [395] By the goddess I worship most of all, my chosen helper Hecate, who lives in the inner chamber of my house, none of them will hurt my heart and smile at it! Bitter will I make their marriage, [400] bitter Creon‘s marriage-alliance, and bitter my banishment from the land! Come, Medea, spare nothing of the arts that you are mistress of as you plot and contrive! Into the battle! Now it is a contest of courage. Do you see what is being done to you? You must not suffer mockery [405] from this Sisyphean marriage[2] of Jason, you who are sprung from a noble father and have Helios for your grandsire. But you understand how to proceed. And furthermore we are women, unable to perform great deeds of valor, but most skillful architects of every evil.


[410] Backward to their sources flow the streams of holy rivers, and the order of all things is reversed: men’s thoughts have become deceitful and their oaths by the gods do not hold fast. [415] The common talk will change so that women’s ways will have a good reputation. Honor is coming to the female sex: no more will women be maligned [420] by slanderous rumor.

The poetry of ancient bards will stop recounting our faithlessness. Phoebus lord of song never gifted our minds [425] with the glorious strains of the lyre, or else I could have sounded a hymn in reply to the male sex. The long expanse of time can say many things of men’s lot [430] as well as of women’s.

But you sailed from your father’s halls, passing with love-maddened heart between the twin rocks of the Euxine. [435] On strange soil you now live, you have lost your marriage-bed, your husband’s love, poor wretch, and you are being driven from this land an exile without rights.

The magical power of an oath has gone, and Shame is no more [440] to be found in wide Hellas: she has taken wing to heaven. You have no father’s home in which to find an anchorage, unhappy woman, and another, a princess, greater match than yourself, [445] holds sway in the house.

Enter Jason by Eisodos B.


Not now for the first time, but often before as well, I have seen what an impossible evil to deal with a fierce temper is. Although you could have kept this land and this house by patiently bearing with your superiors’ arrangements, [450] you will be exiled because of your foolish talk. Not that it bothers me: go on, if you like, calling Jason the worst man alive. But as for your words against the ruling family, count yourself lucky that your punishment is exile. [455] For my part I have always tried to soothe the king’s angry temper, and I wanted you to stay. But you would not stop your folly and always kept insulting the ruling house. For that you will be exiled.

Still, even after this I have not failed my loved ones [460] but have come here in your interests, woman, so that you might not go into exile with your children penniless or in need of anything: exile brings many hardships with it. Even if you hate me, I could never bear you ill-will.


[465] Vilest of scoundrels—for that is the worst insult my tongue can speak against your lack of manly worth—have you really come to see me when you have made yourself my worst enemy [to the gods, to me, and to the whole human race]? This is not boldness or courage— [470] to wrong your loved ones and then look them in the face—but the worst of all mortal vices, shamelessness. But you did well to come, for it will relieve my feelings to tell you how wicked you are, and you will be stung by what I have to say.

[475] I shall begin my speech from the beginning. I saved your life—as all the Greeks who went on board the Argo with you witnessed—when you were sent to master the fire-breathing bulls with a yoke and to sow the field of death. [480] The dragon who kept watch over the Golden Fleece, sleeplessly guarding it with his sinuous coils, I killed, and I raised aloft for you the fair light of escape from death. Of my own accord I abandoned my father and my home and came with you to Iolcus under Pelion, [485] showing more love than sense. I murdered Pelias by the most horrible of deaths—at the hand of his own daughters—and I destroyed his whole house. And after such benefits from me, o worst of men, you have betrayed me and have taken a new marriage, [490] though we had children. For if you were still childless, your desire for this marriage would be understandable.

Respect for your oaths is gone, and I cannot tell whether you think that the gods of old no longer rule or that new ordinances have now been set up for mortals, [495] since you are surely aware that you have not kept your oath to me. O right hand of mine, which you often grasped together with my knees, how profitless was the suppliant grasp upon us of a scoundrel, and how we have been cheated of our hopes!

But come now—for I will share my thoughts with you as a friend [500] (yet what benefit can I expect to get from you? Still I will do it, for you will be shown up in an uglier light by my questions) —where am I now to turn? To my father’s house, which like my country I betrayed for your sake when I came here? Or to the wretched daughters of Pelias? A fine [505] reception they would give me in their house since I killed their father. This is how things stand: to my own people I have become an enemy, and by my services to you I have made enemies of those that I need not have harmed. That, doubtless, is why you have made me so happy in the eyes of many Greek women, [510] in return for these favors. I, poor wretch, have in you a wonderful and faithful husband if I am to flee the country, sent into exile, deprived of friends, abandoned with my abandoned children. This is splendid praise for a new bridegroom, [515] that his children are wandering as beggars, and she who saved him likewise.

O Zeus, why, when you gave to men sure signs of gold that is counterfeit, is there no mark on the human body by which one could identify bad men?


[520] Terrible and hard to heal is the wrath that comes when kin join in conflict with kin.


It appears, woman, that I must be no mean speaker, but like the good helmsman of a ship, reef my sail up to its hem and run before the storm [525] of your tiresome prattling. Since you so exaggerate your kindness to me, I for my part think that Aphrodite alone of gods and mortals was the savior of my expedition. As for you, I grant you have a clever mind—but to tell [530] how Eros forced you with his inescapable arrows to save me would expose me to ill-will. No, I will not make too strict a reckoning on this point. So far as you did help me, you did well. But in return for saving me [535] you got more than you gave, as I shall make clear. First, you now live among Greeks and not barbarians, and you understand justice and the rule of law, with no concession to force. All the Greeks have learned that you are clever, [540] and you have won renown. But if you lived at the world’s edge, there would be no talk of you. May I have neither gold in my house nor power to sing songs sweeter than Orpheus if it is not my lot to have high renown!

[545] Thus far I have spoken to you regarding my labors: for it was you who started this contest of words. As for your reproaches to me against my royal marriage, here I shall show, first, that I am wise, second, self-controlled, and third a great friend to you [550] and my children.

Medea makes a gesture of impatience.

No! Hold your peace! When I first moved here from the land of Iolcus, bringing with me many misfortunes hard to deal with, what luckier find than this could I have made, marriage with the daughter of the king, though I was an exile? [550] It was not—the point that seems to irk you—that I was weary of your bed and smitten with desire for a new bride, nor was I eager to rival others in the number of my children (we have enough already and I make no complaint),  but my purpose was that we should live well—which is the main thing— [560] and not be in want, knowing that everyone goes out of his way to avoid a penniless friend. I wanted to raise the children in a manner befitting my house, to father brothers to the children born from you, and put them on the same footing with them so that, by drawing the family into one, [565] I might prosper. For your part, what need do you have of any more children? For me, it is advantageous to use future children to benefit those already born. Was this a bad plan? Not even you would say so if you were not angered by the matter of sex. But you women are so far gone in foolish belief that if all is well [570] in bed you think you have everything, while if some misfortune in that domain occurs, you regard as hateful your best and truest interests. Mortals should, you know, have children from some other source, and there should be no female sex. [575] Then mankind would have no trouble.


Jason, you have organized your arguments very skillfully, but I think, even though it may be imprudent to say so, that in abandoning your wife you are not doing right.


I realize I have far different views from the majority of mortals. [580] To my mind, the plausible speaker who is a scoundrel incurs the greatest punishment. For since he is confident that he can cleverly cloak injustice with his words, his boldness stops at no dishonesty. Yet he is not as wise as all that. So it is with you. Do not, therefore, give me your misleadingly attractive arguments [585] and oratory, for one word will lay you out: if you were not a scoundrel, you would have gained my consent before making this marriage, not done it behind your family’s back.


Fine support, I think, would you have given to my proposal if I had mentioned the marriage to you, seeing that even now [590] you cannot bring yourself to lay aside the towering rage in your heart.


It was not this. You thought that in later years a barbarian wife would discredit you.


You may be quite sure of this, that it was not for the sake of a woman that I married the royal bride I now have, [595] but as I have just said, because I wanted to save you and to father princes as brothers to my children, to be a pillar of support for the house.


A prosperous life that causes pain is no wish of mine, nor do I want any wealth that torments my heart.


[600] Do you know how to change your prayer and seem wiser? Pray that you may never consider advantage as painful nor think yourself wretched when you are fortunate.


Go on, insult me! You have a refuge, but I go friendless into exile.


[605] You yourself chose that. You have no one else to blame.


How? By taking another wife and abandoning you?


By uttering unholy curses against the royal family.


Yes, and I am a curse to your house too.


I will not argue any more of this case with you. [610] But if you wish to get some of my money to help the children and yourself in exile, say the word, for I am ready to give with a generous hand, and also to send tokens to my friends, who will treat you well. [615] You would be a fool not to accept this offer, woman. Forget your anger and it will be better for you.


I will accept no help from your friends nor will I take anything from you, so do not offer it. The gifts of a dishonourable man bring no benefit.


At any rate I call the gods to witness [620] that I am willing to help you and the children as much as I can. But you refuse good treatment and obstinately rebuff your friends. This will only make your pain greater.

Exit Jason by Eisodos B.


Go: it is clear that you are seized by longing for your new bride as you linger so long away from the palace. [625] Go, play the bridegroom! For perhaps—and this will prove to be prophetic—you will make such a marriage as to cause you to weep.


Loves that come to us in excess bring no good name or goodness to men. [630] If Aphrodite comes in moderation, no other goddess brings such happiness. Never, o goddess, may you smear with desire one of your inescapable arrows and let it fly against my heart [635] from your golden bow!

May moderation attend me, fairest gift of the gods. May Aphrodite never cast contentious wrath and insatiate quarreling upon me and [640] madden my heart with love for a stranger’s bed. But may she honour marriages that are peaceful and wisely determine whom we are to wed.

[645] O fatherland, o house, may I never be stripped of my city, never have a life of helplessness, a cruel life, most pitiable of woes. [650] In death, O in death may I be brought low before that, ending the light of my life. Of troubles none is greater than to be robbed of one’s native land.

We ourselves have seen it, and it is not from others’ [655] report that I can tell this tale. For no city, no friend has taken pity on you who have suffered the most grievous of sufferings. May that man die unloved who cannot [660] honour his friends, unlocking to them his honest mind. To me at any rate he shall never be a friend.

Enter by Eisodos A Aegeus, the aged king of Athens, in a travelling costume.


Medea, I wish you joy: no one knows a better way than this to address a friend.


[665] Joy to you as well, Aegeus, son of wise Pandion! Where have you come from to be visiting the soil of this land?


I have come from the ancient oracle of Phoebus.


Why did you go to earth’s prophetic center?


To inquire how I might get offspring.


[670] Have you really lived so long a life without children?


I am childless: it is the act of some god.


Do you have a wife, or do you have no experience of marriage?


I am not without a wife to share my bed.


What then did Phoebus tell you about children?


[675] Words too wise for mortals to interpret.


Is it lawful for me to hear the response?


Most certainly: it calls for a wise mind.


What then did the god say? Tell me, if it is lawful to hear.


‘Do not the wineskin’s salient foot untie. . .’


[680] Until you do what or come to what country?


‘. . .until you come to hearth and home again.’


And what were you in need of, that you sailed to this land?


There is a man named Pittheus, king of Troezen.


The son of Pelops and a man most pious, they say.


[685] It is with him that I wish to share the god’s response.


The man is wise and experienced in such matters.


What is more, he is the closest of all my allies.


Well, good luck be with you, and may you obtain what you desire.


(Noticing Medea’s distraught demeanor) But why is your face dissolved in tears?


[690] Aegeus, my husband is the most dishonourable of men.


What is this you say? Tell me the details of your unhappiness.


Jason wrongs me, though he has suffered no wrong from me.


What has he done? Tell me in detail.


He has put another woman over me as mistress of the house.


[695] Surely he has not dared such a shameful act?


He has indeed. Once he loved me, but now I am cast off.


Was it some passion, or did he grow tired of your bed?


A great passion. He has been unfaithful to his family.


Pay him no mind then since, as you say, he is dishonourable.


[700] His passion was to marry a king’s daughter.


Who has given his daughter to him? Tell me the rest.


Creon, who rules this land of Corinth.


But it is quite understandable, then, that you are distressed.


I am finished. Furthermore, I am being exiled from the country.


[705] By whom? This is yet another misfortune you speak of.


It is Creon who exiles me from Corinth.


Does Jason agree to this? I do not approve of that either.


He pretends not to, but he is ready to put up with it.

Medea kneels before Aegeus in the posture of a suppliant.

But I beg you by your beard [710] and by your knees and I make myself your suppliant: have pity, have pity on an unfortunate woman, and do not allow me to be cast into exile without a friend, but receive me into your land and your house as a suppliant. If you do so, may your longing for children [715] be brought to fulfillment by the gods, and may you yourself die happy! You do not know what a lucky find you have made in me. I will put an end to your childlessness and cause you to have children, for I know the medicines to do it.


Dear woman, for many reasons [720] I am eager to grant you this favor: first, for the sake of the gods, then for the children you promise I will have. For, on account of that, I am completely undone. But here is how matters stand with me: if you come to my country, I will in justice try to act as your protector. [725] This much, however, I tell you in advance: I will not consent to take you from this land. But if you manage by yourself to come to my house, you may stay there in safety, and I will never give you up to anyone. You must go on your own, then, from this land. [730] I wish to be blameless in the eyes of my hosts as well.


It will be so. But if you were to give me a promise of this, I would have all that I could want from you.


Do you not trust me? What is your difficulty?


I trust you. But Pelias‘ house is hostile to me, [735] and Creon as well. If you are bound by an oath, you will not give me up to them when they come to take me out of the country. But if you have made an agreement in mere words and have not sworn by the gods, you might become their friend and comply with diplomatic requests. For I am weak, [740] while they have wealth and royal power.


You have shown much prudence in your speech. Well, if you like, I do not object to doing this. Not only is this plan safer for me, since I can show your enemies some pretext, [745] but your own case is more secure. Name the gods I must swear by.


Swear by the plain of Earth, by Helios, my grandfather, and by the whole race of gods all together.


To do what or to refrain from what? You must say.


That you yourself will never banish me from your land [750] and that, if any of my enemies ask to take me, you will not willingly give me up as long as you live.


I swear by Earth, by the holy light of Helios, and by all the gods that I will do as I have heard from your lips.


That is good. But what punishment do you call down on yourself if you do not abide by your oath?


[755] The punishment that befalls the impious among mortals.


Go your way with joy. For all is well, and I shall come to your city as soon as I can, when I have accomplished what I intend and gained what I wish.

Exit Aegeus by Eisodos A


May Hermes, Maia‘s son, patron of travellers, [760] bring you safely to your house, and may you accomplish what you have set your heart on, Aegeus, since in my eyes you are a generous man.


O Zeus and Zeus‘ justice, o light of the sun, [765] now, my friends, I shall be victorious over my enemies: I have set my foot on the path. Now I may confidently expect that my enemies will pay the penalty. For this man, at the very point where I was most in trouble, has appeared as a harbor for my plans: [770] to him will I tie my cable when I go to the city of Pallas Athena.

Now I will tell you all of my plans. Hear, then, words that will give you no pleasure. I will send one of my servants and ask [775] Jason to come to see me. When he arrives, I will speak soothing words to him, saying that I hold the same opinion as he, that the royal marriage he has made by abandoning me is well made, that these are beneficial and good decisions. [780] I will ask that the children be allowed to stay, not with the thought that I might leave my children behind on hostile soil for my enemies to insult, but so that I may kill the princess by guile. I will send them bearing gifts, [785] [bearing them to the bride so as not to be exiled,] a finely-woven gown and a diadem of beaten gold. If she takes this finery and puts it on, she will die a painful death, and likewise anyone who touches her: with such poisons will I smear these gifts.

[790] This subject, however, I now leave behind. Ah me, I groan at what a deed I must do next. I will kill my children: there is no one who can rescue them. [795] When I have utterly confounded the whole house of Jason, I will leave the land, in flight from the murder of my own dear sons, having committed a most unholy deed. The laughter of one’s enemies is unendurable, my friends. Let that be as it will. What do I gain by living? I have no fatherland, no house and no means to turn aside misfortune. [800] My mistake was when I left my father’s house, persuaded by the words of a Greek. This man—a god being my helper—will pay the price of his deeds to me. He will never from this day see his children by me alive, nor will he have children [805] by his new bride since that wretch must die a wretched death by my poisons. Let no one think of me as weak, contemptible, untroublesome. No, quite the opposite: hurtful to foes, to friends kindly. [810] Such people live a life of greatest glory.


Since you have shared this plan with me, and since I wish to help you and uphold the laws of society, I urge you not to do this deed.


It cannot be otherwise. I excuse you for speaking [815] thus since you have not suffered as I have.


Yet will you bring yourself to kill your own offspring, woman?


It is the way to hurt my husband most.


And for yourself to become the most wretched of women.


Be that as it may. Until then all talk is superfluous. (To the Nurse) [820] But you, go and fetch Jason (for I use your service on all errands of trust). Tell him nothing of my intentions, if you are loyal to your mistress and a woman.

Exit Nurse by Eisodos B, Medea into the house.


From ancient times the sons of Erechtheus have been favored; [825] they are children of the blessed gods sprung from a holy land never pillaged by the enemy. They feed on wisdom most glorious, always stepping gracefully [830] through the bright air, where once, they say, the nine Pierian Muses gave birth to fair-haired Harmonia.

[835] Legend tells that Aphrodite, filling her pail at the streams of the Cephisus, blew down upon the land temperate [840] and sweetly blowing breezes. And, always dressing her hair with a fragrant garland of roses, she sends the Loves [ Erotes ] to sit at Wisdom’s side, [845] joint workers in every kind of excellence.

How then will this city of holy rivers, or this land that walks at the side of gods, host you, the killer of your children, stained with their blood, [850] in the company of her citizens? Think about the slaying of your children, think what slaughter you are committing! Do not, we beg you by your knees and in every way we can, [855] do not kill your children!

How will you summon up the strength of purpose or the courage of hand and heart to dare this dreadful deed? [860] When you have turned your eyes upon your children, how will you behold their fate with tearless eyes? When your children fall as suppliants at your feet, you will not be able to drench your hand in their blood [865] with a hardened heart.

Enter Medea from the house, then Jason by Eisodos B accompanied by the Nurse.


I have come at your request. For though you hate me, you will not fail to obtain a hearing from me. What more do you want from me, woman?


Jason, I beg you to forgive [870] what I said: it is reasonable for you to put up with my anger since many acts of love have passed between us in the past. I have talked with myself and reproached myself thus: ‘Foolish creature, why am I raving and fighting those who plan things for the best? [875] Why am I making myself an enemy to the rulers of this land and to my husband, who is acting in my interests by marrying a princess and fathering brothers for my children? Will I not cease from my wrath (what has come over me?) when the gods are being so kind? [880] Do I not have children? Is it not true that we are exiles and in need of friends?’ These reflections have made me realize that I was being very foolish and was being angry for nothing. So now I approve and I agree that you are acting with sober sense [885] by contracting this marriage-alliance for us. It is I who am the fool, since I should be sharing in your plans, helping you carry them out, standing by the marriage-bed, and taking joy in the match I was making with your bride. But we women are, I will not say bad creatures, [890] but we are what we are. So you should not imitate our nature or return our childishness with childishness. I give in: I admit that I was foolish then, but now I have taken a better view of the matter. Children, children, come here, leave the house, [895] come out.

The children enter from the house with the Tutor.

Greet your father, speak to him with me, and join your mother in making an end to our former hostility against one dear to us. We have made a truce, and our anger has vanished. Take his right hand. Ah, how I think [900] of something the future keeps hidden! My children, will you continue all your lives long to stretch out your dear hands so? Unhappy me! How prone to tears I am, how full of foreboding. And as I now at long last make up the quarrel with your father, [905] my tender eyes are filled with tears.


(Darkly) From my eyes too a pale tear starts. May misfortune go no further than it has!


I approve of this, woman. Nor do I blame your earlier resentment. For it is natural for a woman to get angry [910] when a marriage of a different sort presents itself to the husband. But your thoughts have changed for the better, and though it took time, you have recognized the superior plan. These are the acts of a prudent woman. Children, your father has given anxious thought [915] and has secured for you—with the gods’ help—abundant prosperity. I think that some day with your new brothers you will hold the very first place in the land of Corinth. But grow to manhood. The rest your father will see to, with the help of whatever god it is that smiles on him. [920] May I see you as fine strapping lads coming to young manhood, victorious over my enemies!

Medea turns away weeping.

You there, why do you dampen your eyes with pale tears and turn your white cheek away, and why are you not pleased to hear these words from me?


[925] It is nothing. I was thinking about the children.


But why, poor soul, do you lament over these children?


I gave birth to them, and when you prayed that they might live, I felt pity for them wondering whether this would be.


Have no fear! I will take good care of that.


[927] I will do so. I will not distrust your words. But a woman is by nature female and prone to tears.

But of the reasons for our conversation, some have been spoken of, others I will mention now. The rulers of this land have resolved to exile me— [935] and it is all for the best for me, I am well aware, that I do not stay where I am in your way or that of the country’s rulers, for I am thought to be an enemy to this house. Therefore I, for my part, will leave this land in exile. But in order that the children may be raised by you, [940] beg Creon that they not be sent into exile.


I don’t know whether I will win him over, but I must try.


Well, then, tell your wife to ask her father that the children not be exiled.


Most certainly, and I think I will persuade her.


[945] Yes, if she is a woman like the rest. But I too will lend a hand in this. I will send her gifts, gifts I know well are more beautiful by far than any now among mortals [a finely-woven gown and a diadem of beaten gold] [950] by the hand of my children. (To her servants) One of you servants, quick, bring the garment out to me.

One of the servants goes into the house.

(To Jason) She will have not one happiness but countless, getting in you an excellent husband to share her bed and possessing clothes which my grandfather [955] Helios gave to his descendants.

The servant returns with the gifts.

Take this bridal dowry, children, into your hands. Take and give it to the happy royal bride. It will be no hated gift that she receives.


Silly woman, why do you deprive yourself of these things? [960] Do you think the royal house needs gowns or gold? Keep them, don’t give them away. For if my wife holds me in any regard, she will value my wishes more highly than wealth, I am quite sure.


Not a word! They say gifts win over even the gods, [965] and gold is more to mortals than ten thousand words. Her star is on the rise [heaven is enhancing her lot, she is young and on the throne]. And to free my children from exile I would give my life, not merely gold.

Now, children, when you have entered the rich palace, [970] entreat your father’s new wife, my mistress, and beg her that you not be exiled. And give her the clothes: this is the most important thing, that she receives the gifts into her hands. Go with all speed. And may you have success [975] and bring back to your mother the good news she longs to hear.

Exit Jason and children, accompanied by the Tutor and the Nurse, by Eisodos B.


Now no longer can I hope that the children will live, no longer. For already they are walking the road to murder. The bride will accept, will accept, unhappy woman, ruin in the form of a golden diadem; [980] about her fair hair with her own hand she will place the finery of Death.

Their charm and heavenly gleam will entice her to put on the gown and the circlet of fashioned gold. [985] But the bridal bed she lies in will be among the dead. Such is the trap, such the death, she will fall into. She will not escape destruction.

[990] And you, unlucky bridegroom, married into the house of kings, completely unaware, you bring destruction upon your children’s life and upon your wife a dreadful death. [995] Unhappy man, how wrong you were about your destiny.

Your sorrows next I mourn, unhappy mother of the children, who mean to kill your sons because of your marriage-bed. [1000] Your husband wickedly abandoned it and now lives with another as his wife.

Enter the Tutor with the children by Eisodos B.


My lady, your sons here have been saved from exile, and the princess has been pleased to take the gifts into her hands. From that forgiveness, the children have peace.

Medea turns away and weeps.

Ah! [1005] Why are you standing in distress when your fortune is good? [Why have you turned your face away and why do you show no pleasure at this news?]




This is not in tune with my news.


Alas once more!


Do I in ignorance report some mishap [1010] and wrongly think my news is good?


You have reported what you have reported. I find no fault with you.


Why then is your face downcast? Why do you weep?


I have every reason, old man. The gods, and I in my madness, have contrived it so.


[1015] Cheer up: one day your children will bring you home.


Before that there are others I will bring home, wretch that I am.


You are not the only woman to be separated from her children. We mortals must bear misfortune with resignation.


I will do so. But go into the house [1020] and provide the children with their daily needs.

Exit Tutor into the house.

My children, my children, you have a city and a home, in which, leaving your poor mother behind, you will live from now on, without me. But I will go to another land as an exile [1025] before I have the enjoyment of you and see you happy, before I have tended to your baths and wives and marriage-beds and held the wedding-torches aloft. How wretched my stubbornness has made me! It was all in vain, I see, that I brought you up, [1030] all in vain that I labored and was wracked with toils, enduring harsh pains in childbirth. Truly, many were the hopes that I, poor fool, once had in you, that you would tend me in my old age and when I died dress me for burial with your own hands, [1035] an enviable fate for mortals. But now this sweet imagining has perished. For without you I will live out my life in pain and grief. And you will no longer see your mother with loving eyes but pass into another manner of life.

[1040] Oh! What is the meaning of your glance at me, children? Why do you smile at me this last smile of yours? Alas, what am I to do? My courage is gone, women, ever since I saw the bright faces of the children. I cannot do it. Farewell, my former [1045] plans! I will take my children out of the land. Why should I wound their father with their pain and win for myself pain twice as great? I will not: farewell, my plans!

But what is coming over me? Do I wish to suffer mockery, [1050] letting my enemies go unpunished? Must I put up with that? No, it is mere weakness in me even to allow such tender words to enter my heart. Children, go into the house. Whoever is not permitted to attend my sacrifice [1055] will feel concern for them: I will not weaken my hand. [Oh! Do not, my angry heart, do not do these things. Let them go, hard-hearted wretch, spare the children. If they live with me in that other place [ Athens ], they will make you happy. By Hell’s avenging Furies, [1060] I will never leave my children for my enemies to outrage. They must die in any case. And since they must, the one who gave them birth will kill them. These things are settled in any case and cannot be undone.]

The children begin to move toward the house.

[1065] Already the crown is on her head and the royal bride is perishing in the robe, I know it well. But—since I now go down the road of greatest misery and send these down one unhappier yet—I want to say farewell to the children.

The children return to Medea.

Give me [1070] your right hands to kiss, my children, give them to me. O hands and lips so dear to me, o noble face and bearing of my children, I wish you happiness—but in that other place. What is here, your father has taken away. Oh, how sweet is the touch, [1075] how tender the skin, how fragrant the breath of these children! Go in, go in. I can no longer look at you but am overwhelmed with my pain. And I know well what pain I am about to undergo, but my wrath overpowers my calculation, [1080] wrath that brings mortal men their gravest hurt.

Exit the children into the house followed by Medea.


Often before, I have engaged in discourses subtler, and entered contests greater, than are right for a woman to take part in. [1085] No, we too possess a muse, who consorts with us to bring us wisdom: not with all of us, for it is in some small group, one woman among many, that you will find with a share in the Muse. [1090] I say that those mortals who are utterly without experience of children and have never borne them have the advantage in good fortune over those who have. For the childless, because they do not possess children [1095] and do not know whether they are a pleasure or a trouble to mortals, hold themselves distant from many griefs. But those who have in their house the sweet gift of children, them I see [1100] worn down their whole life with care: first, how they will raise their children well and how they may leave them some livelihood. And after that it is unclear whether all their labour is expended on worthless or worthy objects. [1105] But the last of all misfortunes for all mortals I will now mention. Suppose they have found a sufficient livelihood, suppose the children’s bodies have arrived at young manhood and their character is good: yet if their destiny [1110] so chances, off goes death carrying the children’s bodies to Hades. How then does it profit us that, for the sake of heirs, the gods cast upon mortals, in addition to their other troubles, [1115] this further grief most painful?

Enter Medea from the house.


My friends, for a long time now I have been expecting the event, waiting to see how matters in that quarter will turn out. And look, here I see one of Jason‘s servants coming. His agitated breathing [1120] shows that he is about to announce some fresh disaster.

Enter Messenger by Eisodos B.


[You that have done a terrible deed unlawfully,] Medea, run for your life. Take ship, take chariot, and flee.


What event calls for my fleeing thus?


[1125] The princess and her father Creon have just been killed by your poisons.


A splendid report you bring! From now on I will regard you as one of my benefactors and friends.


What? Can you be in your right mind and not mad, woman? [1130] Can you commit an outrage against the royal house, and then rejoice at the news and not be afraid?


I too have something that I could say in reply to your words. Do not be hot and hasty, friend, but tell me: how did they die? You will give me [1135] twice the pleasure if they died in agony.


When your two children came with their father and entered the bride’s house, all of us servants who were troubled by your misfortunes were glad. For our ears buzzed with the loud report [1140] that you and your husband had brought your former quarrel to an end. And someone kissed the hands and another the blond heads of the children. And I myself for very joy went along with the children into the women’s quarters. Here the mistress we now honour instead of you, [1145] before she saw the two children, had eyes only for Jason. Then she veiled her eyes and turned her white cheek away, disgusted at seeing the children come in. But your husband [1150] tried to take away the girl’s angry mood and said, ‘You must not be unkind to your kin but must cease your anger and turn your face towards us again, finding those whom your husband finds near and dear, near and dear to yourself as well. Receive these gifts and ask your father [1155] to grant these children release from their exile for my sake.’

When she had seen the clothes, she immediately agreed to all her husband asked, and before your children and their father had gone far from the house, she took the multi-colored gown and put it on, [1160] and setting the gold crown on her hair, she arranged her hair in a bright mirror, smiling at the lifeless image of her body. And then getting up from her seat she paraded about the room, her white feet making dainty steps, [1165] entranced with the gifts, glancing back again and again at the straight tendon of her leg. But thereafter there was a terrible sight to behold. For her color changed, and with legs trembling she staggered back sidelong, and by falling on the chair [1170] barely escaped collapsing on the floor. And one old woman among the servants, thinking, I suppose, that a frenzy from Pan or one of the other gods had come upon her, raised a loud shout to the god, until she saw the white foam coming between her lips and her eyes [1175] starting out of their sockets and her skin all pale and bloodless. Then indeed she raised a wail in answer to her former shout. And at once one servant went to her father’s house, another to her new husband to tell of the bride’s misfortune: the whole [1180] house rang with the sound of drumming footsteps.

And by now a sprinter, putting his legs in swift motion, would be reaching the finish-line of the two-hundred-yard course, when the poor woman wakened from her silence, opened her eyes, and gave forth a terrible groan. [1185] For she was being attacked with a double pain. The golden circlet about her head shot forth a terrible stream of consuming fire, and the fine-spun gown, gift of your sons, was eating into the wretched girl’s white flesh. [1190] And all aflame she leapt from the chair and fled, tossing her hair this way and that, trying to shake off the diadem. But the gold crown held its fastenings firmly, and when she shook her hair, the fire only blazed up twice as high. [1195] She fell to the floor, overwhelmed by disaster, barely recognizable to any but her father. Her eyes no longer kept their usual form nor did her shapely face, and from the top of her head blood dripped, mingled with fire, [1200] and her flesh dropped from her bones like resin from a pine-torch, torn by the unseen jaws of the poison, a dreadful sight to behold. And we were all afraid to touch the corpse, taught well by the event we had seen.

But her poor father, ignorant of the disaster, [1205] stumbled upon her body unprepared as he entered the chamber. And at once he groaned aloud and threw his arms about her, kissed her and said, ‘O unhappy child, which of the gods has destroyed you so shamefully and has robbed me of you, me, an old man [1210] at death’s door? Oh, may I die with you, my child!’ But when he had stopped wailing and lamenting and wished to raise up his aged body to his feet, he stuck fast to the fine-spun dress, as ivy clings to laurel-shoots, and a terrible wrestling ensued. [1215] For he wanted to rise to his knees, but she held him tight and prevented him. And if he used force, he would rip his aged flesh from his bones. Finally the poor man gave up and breathed his last, for he could not overcome the disaster. [1220] They lie dead, the daughter and her old father [nearby, a disaster that calls for tears]

As for your fate, I will say nothing: you will know soon enough the punishment that will visit you. As for our mortal life, this is not the first time that I have thought it to be a shadow, [1225] and I would say without any fear that those mortals who seem to be clever and workers-up of polished speeches are guilty of the greatest folly. For no mortal ever attains to blessedness. One may be luckier than another [1230] when wealth flows his way, but never blessed.

Exit Messenger by Eisodos B.


It seems that fate is this day fastening calamity on Jason, and with justice. [O poor woman, daughter of Creon, how we pity your misfortune: because of your marriage to Jason [1235] you have departed to the halls of Hades.]


My friends, my resolve is fixed on the deed, to kill my children with all speed and to flee from this land: I must not, by lingering, deliver my children for murder to a less kindly hand. [1240] They must die at all events, and since they must I, who gave birth to them, will kill them. Come, put on your armor, my heart. Why do I put off doing the terrible deed that must be done? Come, wretched hand, take the sword, [1245] take it and go to your life’s miserable goal. Do not weaken, do not remember that you love the children, that you gave them life. Instead, for this brief day forget them—and mourn after: for even if you kill them, [1250] they were dear to you. Oh, what an unhappy woman I am!

Exit Medea into the house.


O earth, O ray of the Sun that lightens all, turn your gaze, O turn it to this ruinous woman before she lays her bloody murderous hands upon her children! [1255] They are sprung from your race of gold, and it is a fearful thing for the blood of a god to be spilt upon the ground by the hands of mortal men. O light begotten of Zeus, check the cruel and murderous Fury, take her from this house [1260] plagued by spirits of vengeance.

The labour of bearing your children has come to naught, it was to no purpose that you birthed your dear offspring, you who left behind the inhospitable strait where the dark-blue Symplegades clash. [1265] O unhappy woman, why does anger fall so heavy upon your mind and one rash murder follow another? Terrible for mortals is the stain of kindred blood. For the murderers are dogged by woes equal to  their deeds, [1270] sent by the gods upon their houses.


(Within) Help!


Do you hear the cry, the children’s cry? O wretched and accursed woman!


Oh, what shall I do? How can I escape my mother’s hands?


I know not, dear brother. We are done for.


[1275] Should I enter the house? I am determined to stop the death of the children.


Yes, in heaven’s name, stop it! Now is the time.


We are now close to the snare of the sword.


[1280] Hard-hearted wretch, you are, it seems, a stone or a piece of iron. You mean to kill the children you gave birth to with a fate your own hand deals out.

One woman, only one, of all that have been, have I heard of who put her hand to her own children: Ino driven mad by the gods when [1285] Hera sent her forth to wander in madness from the house. The unhappy woman fell into the sea, impiously murdering her children. Stepping over the sea’s edge, she perished with her two children. [1290] What possible further horror now remains? O womankind and marriage fraught with pain, how many are the troubles you have already created for mortal men!

Enter Jason by Eisodos B.


You women who stand near the house, is Medea inside, she who has done these dreadful deeds, [1295] or has she fled? She will have to hide herself beneath the earth or soar aloft to heaven if she is not going to surrender to the royal house. Does she think that having killed this land’s ruling family [1300] she will escape from this house unscathed?

But it is not so much about her that I am concerned, as about the children. She will be punished by those she has wronged, but I have come to save my children’s life, that no harm may come to them from the next of kin, [1305] avenging on them their mother’s impious crime.


Poor Jason, you have no idea how far gone you are in misfortune, or else you would not have spoken these words.


What is it? Surely she does not mean to kill me as well?


Your children are dead, killed by their mother’s hand.


[1310] What can you mean? You have destroyed me, woman.


You must realize that your children are no more.


Where did she kill them? In the house or outside?


Open the gates and you will see your slaughtered sons.


Servants, remove the bar at once [1315] so that I may see a double disaster, these children’s corpses <and her who did the deed, so that for these children’s murder> I may exact punishment.

Jason tries to open the doors of the house. Medea appears aloft in a winged chariot upon the mechane [crane], which rises from behind the skene [backdrop].


Why do you rattle these gates and try to unbar them, in search of the corpses and me who did the deed? Stop your labour. If you need anything from me, [1320] speak if you like. But your hand can never touch me: such is the chariot Helios my grandfather has given me to ward off a hostile hand.


O detestable creature, utterly hateful to the gods, to me, and to the whole human race, [1325] you brought yourself to take the sword to your own children and destroyed my life with childlessness! And having done this can you look on the sun and the earth, when you are guilty of a most abominable deed? Death and ruin seize you! Now I am in my right mind, though I was insane before [1330] when I brought you from your home among the barbarians to a Greek house. A great curse you were even then, betrayer of father and of the land that nourished you. But the avenging spirit meant for you, the gods have visited on me. For you killed your own brother at the hearth [1335] and then stepped aboard the fair-prowed Argo. It was with acts like these that you began. But now when you were married to me and had borne me children, you killed them because of sex and the marriage-bed. No Greek woman [1340] would have dared to do this, yet I married you in preference to them, and a hateful and destructive match it has proved. You are a she-lion, not a woman, with a nature more savage than Scylla the Tuscan monster. But since ten thousand insults of mine would fail [1345] to sting you—such is your native impudence—be gone, doer of disgraceful deeds and murderer of your children! Mine is a fate to bewail: I will never have the benefit of my new bride, nor will I be able to speak to my children alive, [1350] the children I fathered and raised, but have lost them.


Long would have been the speech I had made in reply to these words of yours if Father Zeus did not know clearly what kind of treatment you have had from me and how you have repaid it. You were not going to cast aside my bed [1355] and then spend a pleasant life laughing at me, no, nor the princess either, nor was Creon, who offered you his daughter, going to exile me with impunity. Call me a she-lion, then, if you like, and Scylla, dweller on the Tuscan cliff. [1360] For I have touched your heart in the vital spot.


Yes, and you also have grief and are a sharer in my misfortune.


Of course, but the pain is worthwhile if you cannot mock me.


Children, what an evil mother you got.


Children, how you have perished by your father’s fault.


[1365] It was not my hand, you know, that killed them.


No: it was the outrage of your new marriage.


Did you really think it right to kill them because of a marriage?


Do you imagine that loss of love is a trivial grief for a woman?


For a woman of sense, yes. But you find everything a disaster.


[1370] But the children are dead: this will wound you to the core.


They live, alas, as spirits to take vengeance on your crimes.


The gods know who struck the first blow.


Yes, they do indeed know your horrible heart.


Hate on! I detest the hateful sound of your voice.


[1375] And I of yours. To part will be easy.


How? What will I do? For that is very much my wish as well.


Allow me to bury these dead children and to mourn them.


Certainly not. I will bury them with my own hand, taking them to the sanctuary of Hera Akraia,  [1380] so that none of my enemies may outrage them by tearing up their graves. And I will enjoin on this land of Sisyphus a solemn festival and holy rites for all time to come in payment for this unholy murder. As for myself, I will go to the land of Erechtheus [1385] to live with Aegeus, son of Pandion. But you, as is fitting, will die the miserable death of a coward, struck on the head by a piece of the Argo, having seen the bitter result of your marriage to me.


May the Fury that punishes your children’s death, and [1390] Justice the murderous, destroy you utterly!


What god or power above will listen to you, who broke your oath and deceived a stranger?


Pah! Unclean wretch! Child-murderer!


Go home! Bury your wife!


[1395] Yes—robbed of my two sons—I go.


Your mourning has yet to begin. Wait until old age.


O children most dear.


Yes, to their mother, not to you.


And so you killed them?


Yes, to cause you grief.


Alas, how I long for the dear faces of my children, [1400] to enfold them in my arms.


Now you speak to them, now you greet them, when before you pushed them away from you.


By the gods, I beg you, let me touch the tender flesh of my children!


It cannot be. Your words are spoken in vain.


[1405] Zeus, do you hear this, how I am driven away and what treatment I endure from this unclean, child-murdering monster? But with all the strength I have, I make my lament and invoke the gods, [1410] calling the heavenly powers to witness that you killed my sons and now forbid me to touch them or to bury their bodies. Oh, I wish I had never had them, never seen them dead at your hands!

Medea with the corpses of her children is borne aloft away from Corinth. Exit Jason by Eisodos B.


[1415] Zeus on Olympus has many things in his treasure-house, and many are the things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men expect is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such is the outcome of this story.

Exit Chorus by Eisodos B.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0114%3Acard%3D1


Ovid on Medea

The story of Medea and Jason was a favourite of the Roman poet Ovid. We have two extensive treatments of the myth by him that survive: one from his epic poem, the Metamorphoses, that details the events from their meeting in Colchis through Medea’s flight to Athens; and another from his collection of poems called the Heroides, a series of hypothetical letters from famous mythological heroines to their male lovers. The Heroides poem, Medea to Jason, focuses on Medea’s reaction to the news that Jason is divorcing her in order to marry the princess of Corinth. One of the texts that has been lost to time is Ovid’s tragic play, the Medea.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 7 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

In this section from the seventh book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the first meeting of Jason and Medea in Colchis, through the event in Corinth and Medea’s flight to Athens.

[1-73] And now the Argonauts were ploughing through the sea in their ship, built in Thessalian Pagasae. They had visited Phineus, king of Thracian Salmydessus, living out a useless old age in perpetual blindness, and the winged sons of Boreas had driven the birdlike Harpies from the presence of the unhappy, aged man. At last, after enduring many trials, under their famous leader, Jason, they reached the turbulent river-waters of the muddy Phasis, in the land of Colchis. While they were standing before King Aeëtes, of Aea, requesting the return of the Golden Fleece, taken from the divine ram that carried Phrixus, and while extreme terms were being imposed, involving daunting tasks, Medea, the daughter of the king, conceived an overwhelming passion for Jason. She fought against it for a time, but when reason could not overcome desire, she debated with herself.

‘Medea, you struggle in vain: some god, I do not know which, opposes you. I wonder if this, or something, like this, is what people indeed call love? Or why would the tasks my father demands of Jason seem so hard? They are more than hard! Why am I afraid of his death, when I have scarcely seen him? What is the cause of all this fear? Quench, if you can, unhappy girl, these flames that you feel in your virgin heart! If I could, I would be wiser! But a strange power draws me to him against my will. Love urges one thing: reason another. I see, and I desire the better: I follow the worse. Why do you burn for a stranger, royal virgin, and dream of marriage in an alien land? This earth can also give you what you can love. Whether he lives or dies, is in the hands of the gods. Let him live! I can pray for this even if I may not love him: what is Jason guilty of? Who, but the heartless, would not be touched by Jason’s youth, and birth, and courage? Who, though the other qualities were absent, could not be stirred by his beauty?

“He has stirred my heart, indeed. And unless I offer my help, he will feel the fiery breath of the bronze-footed bulls; have to meet that enemy, sprung from the soil, born of his own sowing [ the Spartoi ]; or be given as captured prey to the dragon’s greed. If I allow this, then I am born of the tigress: then I show I have a heart of stone and iron! Why can I not watch him die, and shame my eyes by seeing? Why do I not urge the bulls on, to meet him, and the wild earth-born warriors, and the unsleeping dragon? Let the gods also desire the better! Though it is not for me to pray for, but to bring about.

Shall I betray my father’s country? Shall some stranger be saved by my powers, and unhurt because of me, without me, set his sails to the wind, and be husband to another, leaving Medea to be punished? If he could do that, if he could set another woman above me, let him die, the ungrateful man! But his look, his nobility of spirit, and his graceful form, do not make me fear deceit or forgetfulness of my kindness. And he will give me his word beforehand, and I will gather the gods to witness our pledge. Why fear when it is certain? Prepare yourself, and dispel all delay: Jason will be forever in your debt, take you to himself in sacred marriage, and through the cities of Pelasgian Greece, the crowds of women will glorify you as his saviour.

Carried by the winds, shall I leave my native country, my sister, my brother, my father, and my gods? Well then, my father is barbarous, and my country is savage, and my brother is still a child: my sister’s prayers are for me, and the greatest god is within! I will not be leaving greatness behind, but pursuing greatness: honour as a saviour of these Achaean people, familiarity with a better land and with cities whose fame is flourishing even here, the culture and arts of those places, and the man, the son of Aeson, for whom I would barter those things that the wide world owns, joined to whom I will be called fortunate, dear to the gods, and my head will be crowned with the stars.

What of the stories of mountains that clash together in mid-ocean, and Charybdis the bane of sailors, now sucking in, now spewing out the sea, and ravenous dog-headed Scylla, yelping over the Sicilian deeps? Well, holding what I love, clinging to Jason’s breast, I shall be carried over the wide seas: in his arms, I will fear nothing, or if I am afraid, I will only be afraid for him.

But do you call that marriage, Medea, and clothe your fault with fair names? Consider instead, how great a sin you are near to, and while you can, shun the crime!” She spoke, and in front of her eyes were rectitude, piety, modesty: and now, Cupid, defeated, was turning away.

[74-99] She went to the ancient altars of Hecate, daughter of the Titan Perses, that the shadowy grove conceals, in the remote forest. And now she was strong and her passion, now conquered, had ebbed, when she saw the son of Aeson and the flame that was dead, relit. Her cheeks flushed, and then her whole face became pale. Just as a tiny spark that lies buried under the ashes, takes life from a breath of air, and grows and, living, regains its previous strength, so now her calmed passion, that you would have thought had dulled, when she saw the young hero, flared up at his visible presence.

It just happened that Aeson’s son was more than usually handsome that day: you could forgive her for loving him. She gazed at him, and fixed her eyes on him as if she had never looked at him before, and in her infatuation, seeing his face, could not believe him mortal, nor could she turn away. So that when, indeed, the stranger grasped her right hand, and began to speak, and in a submissive voice asked for her help, promising marriage, she replied in a flood of tears. ‘I see what I am doing: it is not ignorance of the truth that ensnares me, but love. Your salvation is in my gift, but being saved, remember your promise!’

He swore by the sacred rites of the Triple Goddess [ Hecate ], by the divine presence of the grove, by the all-seeing Sun, who was the father of King Aeëtes, his father-in-law to be, and by his own good fortune, and by his great danger. Immediately, as he was now trusted, he accepted the magic herbs from her, and learnt their use, and returned to the palace, joyfully.

[100-158] The next day’s dawn dispelled the glittering stars. Then the people gathered on the sacred field of Mars and took up their position on the ridge. The king was seated in the middle, clothed in purple, and distinguished by his ivory sceptre. Behold, the bronze-footed bulls, breathing Vulcan’s fire from nostrils of steel. At the touch of their heat the grass shrivels, and as stoked fires roar, or as broken limestone, that has absorbed the heat inside an earthen furnace, hisses explosively, when cool water is scattered over it, so the flames sounded, pent up in their heaving chests and burning throats. Still the son of Aeson went out to meet them.

As he came to them, the fierce creatures, with their iron-tipped horns, turned their terrible gaze towards him, pawed the dusty ground with their cloven feet, and filled the air with the steam of their bellowing. The Minyans were frozen in fear. He went up to the bulls, not feeling their fiery breath (so great is the power of magic drugs!), and stroking their hanging dewlaps, with a bold hand, yoked them together, and forced them to pull the heavy blade, and till the virgin field with the iron plough. The Colchians were stunned, but the Argonauts increased their shouting, and heightened his courage.

Then he took the dragon’s teeth from the bronze helmet, and scattered them over the turned earth. The soil softened the seeds that had been steeped in virulent poison, and they sprouted, and the teeth, freshly sown, produced new bodies. As an embryo takes on human form in the mother’s womb, and is fully developed there in every aspect, not emerging to the living air until it is complete, so when those shapes of men had been made in the bowels of the pregnant earth, they surged from the teeming soil, and, what is even more wonderful, clashed weapons, created with them. The Pelasgians’ faces fell in fear, and their courage failed them, when they saw these warriors preparing to hurl their sharp spears, at the head of the Haemonian hero. She also, who had rendered him safe, was afraid. When she saw the solitary youth attacked by so many enemies, she grew pale, and sat there, suddenly cold and bloodless. And in case the herbs she had given him had not been potent enough, she chanted a spell to support them, and called on her secret arts.

He threw a boulder into the midst of his enemies, and this turned their attack, on him, against themselves. The earth-born brothers died at each other’s hands, and fell as in civil war. The Achaeans cheered, and clung to the victor, and hugged him in eager embraces. You also, princess among the Barbarians, longed to hold the victorious man: but modesty prevented it. Still, you might have held him, but concern for your reputation stopped you from doing so. What you might fittingly do you did, rejoicing silently, giving thanks, for your incantations, and the gods who inspired them.

The final task was to put the dragon to sleep with the magic drugs. Known for its crest, its triple tongues and curved fangs, it was the dread guardian of the tree’s gold. But when Jason had sprinkled it with the Lethean[3] juice of a certain herb, and three times repeated the words that bring tranquil sleep, that calm the rough seas and turbulent rivers, sleep came to those sleepless eyes, and the heroic son of Aeson gained the Golden Fleece. Proud of his prize, and taking with him a further prize, the one who had helped him gain it, the hero, and his wife Medea, returned to the harbour at Iolchos.

[159-178] The elderly Haemonian mothers and fathers bring offerings to mark their sons’ return, and melt incense heaped in the flames. The sacrifice, with gilded horns, that they have dedicated, is led in and killed. But Aeson is absent from the rejoicing, now near death, and weary with the long years. Then Jason, his son, said ‘O my wife, to whom I confess I owe my life, though you have already given me everything, and the total of all your kindnesses is beyond any promises we made, let your incantations, if they can (what indeed can they not do?) reduce my own years and add them to my father’s!’ He could not restrain his tears. Medea was moved by the loving request, and the contrast with Aeëtes, abandoned by her, came to mind. Yet, not allowing herself to be affected by such thoughts, she answered ‘Husband, what dreadful words have escaped your lips? Do you think I can transfer any part of your life to another? Hecate would not allow it: nor is yours a just request. But I will try to grant a greater gift than the one you ask for, Jason. If only the Triple Goddess [ Hecate ] will aid me, and give her assent in person to this great act of daring, I will attempt to renew your father’s length of years, without need for yours.’

[179-233] Three nights were lacking before the moon’s horns met, to make their complete orb. When it was shining at its fullest, and gazed on the earth, with perfect form, Medea left the palace, dressed in unclasped robes. Her feet were bare, her unbound hair streamed down, over her shoulders, and she wandered, companionless, through midnight’s still silence. Men, beasts, and birds were freed in deep sleep. There were no murmurs in the hedgerows: the still leaves were silent, in silent, dew-filled, air. Only the flickering stars moved. Stretching her arms to them she three times turned herself about, three times sprinkled her head, with water from the running stream, three times let out a wailing cry, then knelt on the hard earth, and prayed:

‘Night, most faithful keeper of our secret rites;

Stars, that, with the golden moon, succeed the fires of light;

Triple Hecate, you who know all our undertakings,

and come, to aid the witches’ art, and all our incantations:

You, Earth, who yield the sorceress herbs of magic force:

You, airs and breezes, pools and hills, and every watercourse;

Be here; all you Gods of Night, and Gods of Groves endorse.

Streams, at will, by banks amazed, turn backwards to their source.

I calm rough seas, and stir the calm by my magic spells:

bring clouds, disperse the clouds, raise storms and storms dispel;

and, with my incantations, I break the serpent’s teeth;

and root up nature’s oaks, and rocks, from their native heath;

and move the forests, and command the mountain tops to shake,

earth to groan, and from their tombs the sleeping dead to wake.

You also, Luna, I draw down, eclipsed, from heaven’s stain,

though bronzes of Temese clash, to take away your pains;

and at my chant, the chariot of the Sun-god, my grandsire,

grows pale: Aurora, at my poisons, dims her morning fire.

You quench the bulls’ hot flame for me: force their necks to bow,

beneath the heavy yoke, that never pulled the curving plough:

You turn the savage warfare, born of the serpent’s teeth,

against itself, and lull the watcher, innocent of sleep;

that guard deceived, bring golden spoil, to the towns of Greece.

Now I need the juice by which old age may be renewed,

that can regain the prime of years, return the flower of youth,

and You will grant it. Not in vain, stars glittered in reply:

not in vain, winged dragons bring my chariot, through the sky.’

There, sent from the sky, was her chariot. When she had mounted, stroked the dragons’ bridled necks, and shaken the light reins in her hands, she was snatched up on high. She looked down on Thessalian Tempe far below, and sent the dragons to certain places that she knew. She considered those herbs that grow on Mount Ossa, those of Mount Pelion, Othrys and Pindus, and higher Olympus, and of those that pleased her, plucked some by the roots, and cut others, with a curved pruning-knife of bronze. Many she chose, as well, from the banks of the Apidanus. Many she chose, as well, from the Amphrysus. Nor did she omit the Enipeus. Peneus, and Spercheus’ waters gave something, and the reedy shores of Boebe. And at Anthedon, by Euboea, she picked a plant of long life, not yet famous for the change it made in Glaucus’ body.[4].

[234-293] Then she returned, after nine days and nine nights surveying all the lands she had crossed, from her chariot, drawn by the winged dragons. The dragons had only smelt the herbs, yet they shed their skins of many years. Reaching her door and threshold, she stopped on the outside, and under the open sky, avoiding contact with any man, she set up two altars of turf, one on the right to Hecate, one on the left to Youth. She wreathed them with sacred boughs from the wildwood, then dug two trenches near by in the earth, and performed the sacrifice, plunging her knife into the throat of a black-fleeced sheep, and drenching the wide ditches with blood. She poured over it cups of pure honey, and again she poured over it cups of warm milk, uttering words as she did so, calling on the spirits of the earth, and begging the shadowy king and his stolen bride, not to be too quick to steal life from the old man’s limbs.

When she had appeased the gods by prayer and murmured a while, she ordered Aeson’s exhausted body to be carried into the air, and freeing him to deep sleep with her spells, she stretched him out like a corpse on a bed of herbs. She ordered Jason, his son, to go far off, and the attendants to go far off, and warned them to keep profane eyes away from the mysteries. They went as she had ordered. Medea, with streaming hair, circled the burning altars, like a Bacchante, and dipping many-branched torches into the black ditches filled with blood, she lit them, once they were darkened, at the twin altars. Three times with fire, three times with water, three times with sulphur, she purified the old man.

Meanwhile a potent mixture is heating in a bronze cauldron set on the flames, bubbling, and seething, white with turbulent froth. She boils there, roots dug from a Thessalian valley, seeds, flowerheads, and dark juices. She throws in precious stones searched for in the distant east, and sands that the ebbing tide of ocean washes. She adds hoar-frost collected by night under the moon, the wings and flesh of a vile screech-owl, and the slavering foam of a sacrificed were-wolf, that can change its savage features to those of a man. She does not forget the scaly skin of a thin Cinyphian water-snake, the liver of a long-lived stag, the eggs and the head of a crow that has lived for nine human life-times.

With these, and a thousand other nameless things, the barbarian witch pursued her greater than mortal purpose. She stirred it all with a long-dry branch of a fruitful olive, mixing the depths with the surface. Look! The ancient staff turned in the hot cauldron, first grew green again, then in a short time sprouted leaves, and was, suddenly, heavily loaded with olives. And whenever the flames caused froth to spatter from the hollow bronze, and warm drops to fall on the earth, the soil blossomed, and flowers and soft grasses grew.

As soon as she saw this, Medea unsheathed a knife, and cut the old man’s throat, and letting the old blood out, filled the dry veins with the juice. When Aeson had absorbed it, part through his mouth, and part through the wound, the white of his hair and beard quickly vanished, and a dark colour took its place. At a stroke his leanness went, and his pallor and dullness of mind. The deep hollows were filled with rounded flesh, and his limbs expanded. Aeson marvelled, recalling that this was his self of forty years ago.

[294-349] Bacchus saw this wondrous miracle from heaven’s heights, and realising from it, that the Nymphs of Mount Nysa, who had nursed him, could have their youth restored, he secured that gift from the witch of Colchis. There was no end to her magic. Phasian Medea, pretending to a sham quarrel with her husband, fled as a suppliant to Pelias’ threshold, he who had usurped Aeson’s throne. There, the king’s daughters received her, since he himself was weighed down by the years. The lying Colchian soon won them over by a skillful show of friendship, and when she told them of one of her greatest gifts, the removal of Aeson’s many years, and lingered over it, hope was aroused in Pelias’ daughters that similar magic arts might rejuvenate their father.

They begged her, and told her to set a price however great. She was silent for a moment, and appeared to hesitate, keeping the minds of her petitioners in suspense by a show of solemn pretence. When, eventually, she promised to do it, she said ‘To give you greater confidence in my gift, your oldest ram, the leader of your flocks, will by turned into a young lamb again, by my magic drugs.’ Straight away the woolly creature, worn out by innumerable years, was dragged forward, his horns curving round his hollow temples. When the witch had cut his wizened throat with her Thessalian knife, hardly staining the blade with blood, she immersed the sheep’s carcass in the bronze cauldron, along with her powerful magic herbs. These shrank its limbs, melted away its horns, and, with its horns, the years. A high-pitched bleating came from inside the vessel, and while they were wondering at the bleating, a lamb leapt out, and frisked away, seeking the udder and milk.

Pelias’ daughters were stunned, and now the truth of her promise had been displayed, they insisted even more eagerly. Three times Phoebus had unyoked his horses, after their plunge into the western ocean, and on the fourth night the stars were glittering in all their radiance, when the deceitful daughter of Aeëtes set clear water, and herbs, but ineffectual ones, over a blazing fire. And now the king and his guards also were deep in death-like sleep, achieved by her incantations and the power of her magic spells. The king’s daughters, at her command, crossed the threshold, with the Colchian witch, and stood around his bed. ‘Why do you hesitate, so timidly?’ she said. ‘Un-sheath your blades, and let out the old blood, so that I can fill the empty veins with new! Your father’s life and youth are in your hands. If you have any filial affection, if those are not vain hopes that stir you, render your father this service, banish old age with your weapons, and drive out his poisoned blood with a stroke of the iron blade!’

Urged on by these words, the more love each had for him, the quicker she was to act without love, and did evil, to avoid greater evil. Nevertheless they could not bear to see their own blows, and turned their eyes away, and with averted faces, wounded him blindly with cruel hands. Streaming blood, the old man still raised himself on his elbow, and, though mutilated, tried to rise from his bed. Stretching his pale hands out among the many weapons, he cried ‘Daughters, why are you doing this? What has made you take up weapons against your father’s life?’ Their strength and courage vanished. But as he was about to utter more words, the Colchian witch cut his throat, and plunged his torn body into the seething water.

[350-403] She would not have escaped punishment had she not taken to the air, with her winged dragons. Through the high sky, clockwise, she fled, over the shadowy slopes of Pelion, Chiron’s home; over Othrys and the places made famous by the ancient fate of Cerambus, who, aided by the nymphs and changed to a winged scarab beetle, lifted into the air, when the all-powerful sea drowned the solid earth, and so escaped un-drowned from Deucalion’s flood. She passed Aeolian Pitane on the left, with its huge stone serpent image, and Ida’s grove where Liber concealed, in the deceptive shape of a stag, the bullock stolen by his son. She passed the place where the father of Corythus, Paris, lay, buried under a little sand; and where Hecuba, changed to a black dog of Hecate, Maera, spread terror through the fields with her strange barking.

She flew over Astypalaea, the city of Eurypylus, where the women of the island, of Cos, acquired horns when they abused Hercules, as he and his company departed: over Rhodes, beloved of Phoebus: and the Telchines of the city of Ialysos on Rhodes, whose eyes corrupted everything they looked on, so that Jupiter, disgusted with them, sank them under his brother’s ocean waves. She passed the walls of ancient Carthaea, on the island of Ceos, where Alcidamas, as a father, would marvel, one day, that a peace-loving dove could spring from the body of his daughter, Ctesylla.

Then she saw Lake Hyrie, and Cycnean Tempe, made famous suddenly by a swan. There Phylius, at the boy Cycnus’ command, brought him birds and a fierce lion he had tamed. Ordered to overcome a wild bull as well, he did overcome him, but angry that his love was rejected so often, he refused to grant this last gift of a bull, when asked. Cycnus, angered, said ‘You will wish you had’ and leapt from a high cliff. All thought he had fallen, but changed to a swan he beat through the air on white wings, though his mother, Hyrie, not knowing he was safe, pined away with weeping, and became the lake that carries her name.

Near there was the city of Pleuron, where Combe the daughter of Ophius, on flickering wings, escaped death at the hands of her sons, the Aetolian Curetes. And then Medea looked down at the fields of Calaurea’s isle, sacred to Leto, whose king and queen were also changed to birds. On her right was Cyllene, where Menephron lay with his mother, as though he were a wild beast. Further on she sees the Cephisus, the river-god lamenting his grandson’s fate, changed by Apollo into a lumbering seal, and the home of Eumelus, mourning his son Botres, reborn as a bird, the bee-eater, in the air.

At last, the dragon’s wings brought her to Corinth, the ancient Ephyre, and its Pirenian spring. Here, tradition says, that in earliest times, human bodies sprang from fungi, swollen by rain. After Jason’s new bride Glauce had been consumed by the fires of vengeful Colchian witchcraft and both the Isthmus’ gulfs had witnessed flame consuming the king’s palace, Medea impiously bathed her sword in the blood of their sons. Then, after performing this evil act, she fled from Jason’s wrath. Carried by her dragons that are born of the Titans, she reached Pallas’ citadel of Athens. This once knew you Phene, the most righteous, and you old Periphas, both flying in the air, as birds, the eagle and the osprey: and Alcyone, granddaughter of Polypemon, resting on strange new wings. It was Aegeus who gave Medea sanctuary there, damned thereafter by that one action: and not content with taking her in, he even entered into a contract of marriage with her.

[404-424] Now Theseus came to Athens, Aegeus’s son but as yet unknown to him. He, by his courage, had brought peace to the Isthmus between the two gulfs. Medea, seeking his destruction, prepared a mixture of poisonous aconite [monkshood/wolf’s bane] that she had brought with her from the coast of Scythia. This poison is said to have dripped from the teeth of Cerberus, the Echidnean dog. There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays. Cerberus, provoked to a rabid frenzy, filled all the air with his simultaneous three-headed howling, and spattered the green fields with white flecks of foam. These are supposed to have congealed and found food to multiply, gaining harmful strength from the rich soil. Because they are long-lived, springing from the hard rock, the country people call these shoots, of wolf-bane, ‘soil-less’ aconites. Through his wife’s cunning Aegeus, the father, himself offered the poison to his son, as if he were a stranger. Theseus, unwittingly, had taken the cup he was given in his right hand, when his father recognised the emblems of his own house, on the ivory hilt of his son’s sword, and knocked the evil drink away from his mouth. But she [Medea] escaped death, in a dark mist, raised by her incantations.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph7.php

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved


Ovid, Heroides 12, “Medea to Jason” (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Latin epistolary poem, 1st century BCE

Ovid’s Heroides are a series of hypothetical letters from famous mythological heroines to their male lovers. This one, called Medea to Jason, focuses on Medea’s reaction to Jason divorcing her in order to marry the princess of Corinth.

Scorned Medea, the helpless exile, speaks to her recent husband,

surely you can spare some time from your kingship?

Oh, as I remember, the Queen of Colchis found time

to bring you riches, when you sought my arts!

Then, the Sisters [ Moirai ] who spin mortality’s threads,

should have unwound mine from the spindle:

Then you might have died well, Medea! Whatever

life’s brought since that time’s been punishment.

Ah me! Why was that Pelian ship [ the Argo ] driven forward

by youthful arms, seeking the ram of Phrixus [ Golden Fleece ]?

Why did we of Colchis ever see the Thessalian Argo,

and your Greek crew drink the waters of Phasis?

Why did I take more pleasure than I should in your golden hair,

and your comeliness, and the lying favours of your tongue?

If not, once your strange ship had beached on our sands,

and had brought your brave warriors here,

Aeson’s son [ Jason ] might have gone unmindful, unprotected by charms,

into the fiery breath, and burning muzzles, of the bulls!

He might have scattered the seed, and sown as many enemies,

so that the one who sowed fell prey to his own sowing!

What great treachery would have died with you, wicked man!

What great evils would have been averted from my head!

There’s some kind of delight in reproaching your ingratitude

for my kindness: I’ll enjoy the only pleasure I’ll have from you.

Ordered to turn your untried ship towards Colchis,

you entered the lovely kingdom of my native land.

Medea was there what your new bride is here:

as rich as her father is, my father was as rich.

Her father holds Corinth, between two seas, mine all

that lies to the left of Pontus, as far as the Scythian snows.

Aeëtes welcomes the young Greek heroes as guests,

and Pelasgian bodies grace the ornate beds.

Then I saw you; then I began to know what you might be;

that was the first ruin of my affections.

I saw and I perished! I burnt, not with familiar fires,

but as a pine torch might burn before the great gods.

And you were handsome, and my fate lured me on:

the light of your eyes stole mine away.

You sensed it, faithless one! For who can easily hide love?

Its flame is obvious, displaying the evidence.

Meanwhile rules were laid down for you: to yoke the strong necks,

first, of fierce bulls to the unaccustomed plough.

They were the bulls of Mars, more cruel than just their horns,

also their exhalations were terrible with fire,

their hooves were solid bronze, and bronze coated their nostrils,

and these too were blackened by their breath.

Besides that, you were ordered to scatter seed to breed a nation,

through the wide fields, with dutiful hands,

who would attack your body with co-born spears:

a harvest hostile to the farmer.

Your last labour, by some art, to deceive the guardian [dragon]

that knows no sleep, and make its eyes succumb.

So said King Aeëtes: all rose sorrowfully,

and the shining benches were pushed from the high table.

How far, from you, then was the kingdom, Creusa’s dowry,

your father-in-law, and that daughter of great Creon.

You leave, downcast. My wet gaze follows you as you go,

and my shaky voice murmurs: ‘Farewell!’

Though I reached the bed, made up in my room, stricken grievously,

how much of that night for me was spent in tears.

Before my eyes were the bronze bulls, the impious harvest [ the Spartoi ],

before my sleepless eyes was the serpent.

Here is love, here fear – fear itself increased my love.

It was morning and my dear sister entered my room

and found me, with scattered hair, lying face downwards,

and everything drenched in my tears.

She prays for help for the Minyans; one asks, the other obtains;

what she requests for Aeson’s son, I give.

There’s a wood, dark with pine and oak branches,

the sun’s rays can scarcely reach there;

in it, there is – or was for certain – a temple of Diana;

there a golden goddess stood made by barbarian hands.

Do you know it, or has the place been forgotten, along with me?

We came there; you began to speak first, with false words;

‘Fortune indeed has given you the means of my salvation

and my life and death are in your hands.

It’s enough to destroy me if you were to delight in that;

but it will be more honour to you to help me.

I beg you by our troubles, which you can lighten,

by your race, and the divinity of the all-seeing Sun,

your grandfather, by Diana’s triple face and sacred mysteries,

and if my people’s gods have worth, those too.

O Virgin, take pity on me, take pity on my men,

grant me your services for all time!

If, perhaps, you do not scorn to have a Pelasgian husband –

but can it be so easily granted me, and by which of my gods? –

let my spirit vanish into thin air, if any bride

enters my bed, unless that bride be you.

Let Juno share in this, who oversees holy matrimony,

and that goddess in whose marble shrine we stand!’

This passion – and how much of it was words? –

moved a naive girl, and our right hands touched.

I even saw tears – or were they partly lies?

So I quickly became a girl captivated by your words.

And you yoked the brazen-footed steeds, your body un-scorched,

and split the solid earth with the plough, as you were ordered.

You filled the furrows with venomous teeth, instead of seed,

and warriors were born, armed with swords and shields.

I, who gave you the charms, sat there pale of face,

when I saw these men, suddenly born, take up arms,

until the earth-born brothers – marvelous happening! –

with drawn swords, joined battle amongst themselves.

Behold the sleepless guardian, coated with rattling scales,

hissed, and swept the ground with his writhing body.

Where was the rich dowry then? Where was the royal bride

for you then, and that Isthmus splitting the waters of twin seas?

I, the woman who has come to seem, at last, a barbarian to you,

who am now poor, who am now seen to be harmful,

subdued those burning eyes, with sleep-inducing drugs,

and safely gave you the fleece you carried away.

My father is betrayed, kingdom and country forsaken,

for which, it is right, my reward’s to suffer exile,

my virginity becomes the prize of a foreign thief,

my most dearly beloved sister, with my mother, lost.

But Absyrtus, my brother, I did not abandon you, fleeing without me.

This letter of mine is lacking in one thing:

what I dared to do my right hand cannot write.

So should I have been torn apart, but with you!

Yet I had no fear – what was to be feared after that? –

believing myself a woman at sea, already guilty.

Where is divine power? Where are the gods? Justice is near us

on the deep, you punished for fraud, I for credulity.

I wish that the clashing rocks, the Symplegades, had crushed us,

so that my bones might cling to your bones!

Or ravening Scylla might have caught us, to be eaten by her dogs!

Scylla is destined to harm ungrateful men.

And Charybdis, who so often swallows and spews out the tide,

should also have sucked us beneath Sicilian waters!

You return safe to the cities of Thessaly:

the golden fleece is placed before your gods.

Why speak of the daughters of Pelias, piously harming him,

and carving their father’s body with virgin hands?

Though others blame me, you must praise me,

you for whom I was forced to be so guilty.

You dared – oh words fail themselves, in righteous indignation! –

you dared to say: ‘Depart from Aeson’s house!’

As you ordered, I left the house, accompanied by our two children,

and, what will pursue me always, my love of you.

When suddenly the songs of Hymen came to my ears,

and the torches shone with illuminating fire,

and the flutes poured out the marriage tunes for you,

but a mournful funeral piping for me,

I was afraid, I hadn’t thought till now so much wickedness could be,

but still I was chilled through my whole body.

The crowd rushed on, continually shouting: ‘Hymen, Hymenaee!’

the nearer they came the worse it was for me.

The servants wept apart, and hid their tears –

who wants to be the bearer of such evil news?

It would have been better for me not to know what happened,

but it was as if I knew, my mind was sad,

when the younger of our sons, ordered to be on the lookout,

stationed at the outer threshold of the double doors, called to me:

‘Mother, come here! Jason, my father, is leading the procession,

and he’s driving a team of gilded horses!’

Straightaway, tearing my clothes, I beat my breasts,

nor was my face safe from my nails.

My heart urged me to go, in procession, among the crowd,

and to throw away the garlands arranged in my hair.

I could scarcely keep myself from shouting, my hair dishevelled,

‘He’s mine!’ and taking possession of you.

My wounded father, rejoice! Colchians, forsaken, rejoice!

My brother’s shade, in me find offerings to the dead!

I abandon my lost kingdom, my country, my home,

my husband, who alone was everything to me.

Thus, I could subdue serpents and raging bulls,

but I could not subdue this one man.

And I’ve driven off wild fires with skillful potions,

but I’ve no power to turn the flames from myself.

My charms and herbs and arts forsake me,

nor does the goddess, sacred Hecate, act with power.

The day does not please me. I’m awake through nights of bitterness,

and gentle sleep is absent from my miserable breast.

What cannot make me sleep made a dragon sleep.

My cures are more use to others than myself.

My rival clasps that body that I saved

and she has the fruits of my labours.

Indeed, perhaps when you wish to mention married foolishness,

and speak in a way that suits unjust ears,

you invent new faults in my face, and my manner.

Let her laugh, and lie there, lifted up on Tyrian purple –

she’ll weep, and, scorched, she’ll surpass my fires.

While there are blades, and flames, and poisonous juices,

no enemy will go unpunished by Medea.

If by chance my prayers move your breast of steel

now hear these humble words from my heart.

I’m as much a suppliant, to you, as you often were to me,

nor do I hesitate to throw myself at your feet.

If I’m worthless to you, consider the children we have:

a dread stepmother, in my place, will be cruel to them.

And they’re so like you, and touched by your semblance,

and as often as I see them, my eyes are wet with tears.

I beg you, by the gods, by the light of the Sun, my grandfather’s fire,

by my kindness to you, and by our two children, our pledges,

return to the bed for which I, insanely, abandoned so many things!

Add truth to your words, and return the help I gave you!

I don’t beg your help against bulls, or warriors,

or that a dragon sleeps conquered by your aid:

I ask for you, whom I deserve, who gave yourself to me,

a father by whom I was equally made a mother.

You ask, where’s my dowry? I numbered it on that field

that was ploughed by you, in taking the fleece.

My dowry’s that golden ram known by its thick fleece,

that you’d deny me if I said to you, ‘Return it.’

My dowry is your safety; my dowry’s the youth of Greece.

Cruel man, go; compare this to the wealth of Corinth.

That you live, that you have a wife and powerful father-in-law,

that you can even be ungrateful, all that’s due to me.

Indeed, what’s on hand – but why should I be concerned to warn you

of your punishment? Great anger teems with threats.

I’ll follow where anger takes me. Perhaps I’ll regret my deeds:

I regret having been concerned for an unfaithful husband.

Let the god see to that, who now disturbs my heart.

Assuredly I do not know what moves my spirit most.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Heroides8-15.php#anchor_Toc524696649

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved

Art and Symbolism

Medea, holding a knife, stands with her back to her family. Behind her, two children are playing, and behind them is an elderly Jason.
Medea preparing for the murder of her children, Pompeii fresco, 1st century CE (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)

In Greek art, Medea could be portrayed either as wearing extravagant ‘Eastern’ garments (Phrygian cap, boots, and a garishly decorated dress), or in typical Greek clothes.


Jason grabbing the fleece from a tree. The drakon hangs down from the tree. Medea stands to the right, her head veiled.
Jason and Medea, Roman sarcophagus, 2nd century CE (Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Altemps, Rome)

The scenes in which she most often appeared are the deception of the daughters of Pelias, and the escape on the flying chariot. She is also is regularly depicted preparing for the murder of her children, as above, or actually killing them.


The front of a ram rears out of a cauldron. Medea stands to the left of the cauldron and gestures at it, while turning to look behind her at a seated old man. To the right of the cauldron stands a young woman, one of the daughters, and Jason, who is kneeling to stoke the fire.
Medea boiling the ram, black-figure hydria, ca. 500 BCE (British Museum, London)
A ram rearing out of a cauldron. Medea stands to the left of the cauldron holding a cup and waving a hand over the ram. An aged Jason stands to the right of the cauldron, one hand extended and leaning on a staff with the other.
Medea boiling the ram, red-figure hydria, ca. 480 BCE (British Museum, London)
The head and front legs of a ram emerge from a cauldron. Medea and a seated old man are to the left of the cauldron, and two identical young women, the daughters, stand to the right.
Medea boiling the ram, black-figure amphora, ca. 500 BCE (British Museum, London)
Inside a frame of sun rays, Medea rides in a chariot drawn by two serpentine dragons.
Medea in her dragon chariot, red-figure krater, ca. 400 BCE (Cleveland Museum of Art)























Jason and Creusa, both lavishly dressed, stand side by side. Medea approaches holding a garment draped over her arm and a box to present as gifts.
Medea giving gifts to Creusa, red-figure krater, ca. 390 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)


Media Attributions and Footnotes

  1. A "suppliant" (ἱκέτης) in ancient Greece had a more formal definition, such that if someone performed the gestures of supplication towards someone, they would be honour-bound to respect the suppliant's need.
  2. Sisyphus was famed for his trickery and for cheating death. He was also from Corinth, like Creon and Glauce.
  3. Adjective derived from the river Lethe, a river of the Underworld associated with forgetfulness and drowsiness.
  4. Refers to a fisherman, whose story is recounted in books 13 and 14 of Ovid's Metamorphoses


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