Narratives and Ethics

3 Medea

Medea (selections)

by Euripides (c. 431 BC)



After the adventures of the Golden Fleece, the Greek hero Jason took his wife Medea into exile at Corinth. However, he then left her, seeking to advance his political ambitions by marrying Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.

The play opens with Medea grieving over the loss of her husband’s love. Her elderly nurse and the Chorus of Corinthian women (generally sympathetic to her plight) fear what she might do to herself or her children. King Creon, also fearing what Medea might do, banishes her, declaring that she and her children must leave Corinth immediately. Medea begs for mercy, and is granted a reprieve of one day, all she needs to extract her revenge. Jason arrives and attempts to explain himself. He says that he does not love Glauce but cannot pass up the opportunity to marry a wealthy and royal princess (Medea is from Colchis in the Caucasus and is considered a barbarian witch by the Greeks), and claims that he hopes one day to join the two families and keep Medea as his mistress. Medea and the Chorus of Corinthian women do not believe him. She reminds him that she left her own people for him, murdering her own brother for his sake, so that she can never now return home. She also reminds him that it was she herself who saved him and slew the dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece, but he is unmoved, merely offering to placate her with gifts. Medea hints darkly that he may live to regret his decision, and secretly plans to kill both Glauce and Creon.

Medea is then visited by Aegeus, the childless king of Athens, who asks the renowned sorceress to help his wife conceive a child. In return, Medea asks for his protection and, although Aegeus is not aware of Medea’s plans for revenge, he promises to give her refuge if she can escape to Athens.

Medea tells the Chorus of her plans to poison a golden robe (a family heirloom and gift from the sun god, Helios) which she believes the vain Glauce will not be able to resist wearing. She resolves to kill her own children as well, not because the children have done anything wrong, but as the best way her tortured mind can think of to hurt Jason. She calls for Jason once more, pretends to apologize to him and sends the poisoned robe and crown as a gift to Glauce, with her children as the gift-bearers.

As Medea ponders her actions, a messenger arrives to relate the wild success of her plan. Glauce has been killed by the poisoned robe, and Creon has also been killed by the poison while attempting to save her, both daughter and father dying in excruciating pain. She wrestles with herself over whether she can bring herself to kill her own children too, speaking lovingly to them all the while in a moving and chilling scene. After a moment of hesitation, she eventually justifies it as a way of saving them from the retribution of Jason and Creon’s family. As the Chorus of women laments her decision, the children are heard screaming. The Chorus considers interfering, but in the end does nothing.

Jason discovers the murder of Glauce and Creon and rushes to the scene to punish Medea, only to learn that his children too have been killed. Medea appears in the chariot of Artemis, with the corpses of her children, mocking and gloating over Jason’s pain. She prophesies a bad end for Jason too before escaping towards Athens with her children’s bodies. The play ends with the Chorus lamenting that such tragic and unexpected evils should result from the will of the gods.



Before MEDEA’s house in Corinth, near the palace Of CREON. The NURSE enters from the house.



Ah! Would to Heaven the good ship Argo ne’er had sped its course to the Colchian land through the misty blue Symplegades, nor ever in the glens of Pelion the pine been felled to furnish with oars the chieftain’s hands, who went to fetch the golden fleece for Pelias; for then would my own mistress Medea never have sailed to the turrets of Iolcos, her soul with love for Jason smitten, nor would she have beguiled the daughters of Pelias to slay their father and come to live here in the land of Corinth with her husband and children, where her exile found favour with the citizens to whose land she had come, and in all things of her own accord was she at one with Jason, the greatest safeguard this when wife and husband do agree; but now their love is all turned to hate, and tenderest ties are weak. For Jason hath betrayed his own children and my mistress dear for the love of a royal bride, for he hath wedded the daughter of Creon, lord of this land. While Medea, his hapless wife, thus scorned, appeals to the oaths he swore, recalls the strong pledge his right hand gave, and bids heaven be witness what requital she is finding from Jason. And here she lies fasting, yielding her body to her grief, wasting away in tears ever since she learnt that she was wronged by her husband, never lifting her eye nor raising her face from off the ground; and she lends as deaf an ear to her friend’s warning as if she were a rock or ocean billow, save when she turns her snow-white neck aside and softly to herself bemoans her father dear, her country and her home, which she gave up to come hither with the man who now holds her in dishonour. She, poor lady, hath by sad experience learnt how good a thing it is never to quit one’s native land. And she hates her children now and feels no joy at seeing them; I fear she may contrive some untoward scheme; for her mood is dangerous nor will she brook her cruel treatment; full well I know her, and I much do dread that she will plunge the keen sword through their hearts, stealing without a word into the chamber where their marriage couch is spread, or else that she will slay the prince and bridegroom too, and so find some calamity still more grievous than the present; for dreadful is her wrath; verily the man that doth incur her hate will have no easy task to raise o’er her a song of triumph. Lo! where her sons come hither from their childish sports; little they reck of their mother’s woes, for the soul of the young is no friend to sorrow.

The ATTENDANT leads in MEDEA’S children.

As the CHORUS finishes its song, MEDEA enters from the house.


From the house I have come forth, Corinthian ladies, for fear lest you be blaming me; for well I know that amongst men many by showing pride have gotten them an ill name and a reputation for indifference, both those who shun men’s gaze and those who move amid the stranger crowd, and likewise they who choose a quiet walk in life. For there is no just discernment in the eyes of men, for they, or ever they have surely learnt their neighbour’s heart, loathe him at first sight, though never wronged by him; and so a stranger most of all should adopt a city’s views; nor do I commend that citizen, who, in the stubbornness of his heart, from churlishness resents the city’s will.

But on me hath fallen this unforeseen disaster, and sapped my life; ruined I am, and long to resign the boon of existence, kind friends, and die. For he who was all the world to me, as well thou knowest, hath turned out the worst of men, my own husband. Of all things that have life and sense we women are the most hapless creatures; first must we buy a husband at a great price, and o’er ourselves a tyrant set which is an evil worse than the first; and herein lies the most important issue, whether our choice be good or bad. For divorce is not honourable to women, nor can we disown our lords. Next must the wife, coming as she does to ways and customs new, since she hath not learnt the lesson in her home, have a diviner’s eye to see how best to treat the partner of her life. If haply we perform these tasks with thoroughness and tact, and the husband live with us, without resenting the yoke, our life is a happy one; if not, ’twere best to die. But when a man is vexed with what he finds indoors, he goeth forth and rids his soul of its disgust, betaking him to some friend or comrade of like age; whilst we must needs regard his single self.

And yet they say we live secure at home, while they are at the wars, with their sorry reasoning, for I would gladly take my stand in battle array three times o’er, than once give birth. But enough! this language suits not thee as it does me; thou hast a city here, a father’s house, some joy in life, and friends to share thy thoughts, but I am destitute, without a city, and therefore scorned by my husband, a captive I from a foreign shore, with no mother, brother, or kinsman in whom to find a new haven of refuge from this calamity. Wherefore this one boon and only this I wish to win from thee,—thy silence, if haply I can some way or means devise to avenge me on my husband for this cruel treatment, and on the man who gave to him his daughter, and on her who is his wife. For though woman be timorous enough in all else, and as regards courage, a coward at the mere sight of steel, yet in the moment she finds her honour wronged, no heart is filled with deadlier thoughts than hers.


It is not now I first remark, but oft ere this, how unruly a pest is a harsh temper. For instance, thou, hadst thou but patiently endured the will of thy superiors, mightest have remained here in this land and house, but now for thy idle words wilt thou be banished. Thy words are naught to me. Cease not to call Jason basest of men; but for those words thou hast spoken against our rulers, count it all again that exile is thy only punishment. I ever tried to check the outbursts of the angry monarch, and would have had thee stay, but thou wouldst not forego thy silly rage, always reviling our rulers, and so thou wilt be banished. Yet even after all this I weary not of my goodwill, but am come with thus much forethought, lady, that thou mayst not be destitute nor want for aught, when, with thy sons, thou art cast out. Many an evil doth exile bring in its train with it; for even though thou hatest me, never will I harbour hard thoughts of thee.


Thou craven villain (for that is the only name my tongue can find for thee, a foul reproach on thy unmanliness), comest thou to me, thou, most hated foe of gods, of me, and of all mankind? ‘Tis no proof of courage or hardihood to confront thy friends after injuring them, but that worst of all human diseases—loss of shame. Yet hast thou done well to come; for I shall ease my soul by reviling thee, and thou wilt be vexed at my recital. I will begin at the very beginning. I saved thy life, as every Hellene knows who sailed with thee aboard the good ship Argo, when thou wert sent to tame and yoke fire-breathing bulls, and to sow the deadly tilth. Yea, and I slew the dragon which guarded the golden fleece, keeping sleepless watch o’er it with many a wreathed coil, and I raised for thee a beacon of deliverance. Father and home of my free will I left and came with the to Iolcos, beneath Pelion’s hills, for my love was stronger than my prudence. Next I caused the death of Pelias by a doom most grievous, even by his own children’s hand, beguiling them of all their fear. All this have I done for thee, thou traitor! and thou hast cast me over, taking to thyself another wife, though children have been born to us. Hadst thou been childless still, I could have pardoned thy desire for this new union. Gone is now the trust I put in oaths. I cannot even understand whether thou thinkest that the gods of old no longer rule, or that fresh decrees are now in vogue amongst mankind, for thy conscience must tell thee thou hast not kept faith with me. Ah! poor right hand, which thou didst often grasp. These knees thou didst embrace! All in vain, I suffered a traitor to touch me! How short of my hopes I am fallen! But come, I will deal with the as though thou wert my friend. Yet what kindness can I expect from one so base as thee? But yet I will do it, for my questioning will show thee yet more base. Whither can I turn me now? to my father’s house, to my own country, which I for thee deserted to come hither? to the hapless daughters of Pelias? A glad welcome, I trow, would they give me in their home, whose father’s death I compassed! My case stands even thus: I am become the bitter foe to those of mine own home, and those whom I need ne’er have wronged I have made mine enemies to pleasure thee. Wherefore to reward me for this thou hast made me doubly blest in the eyes of many wife in Hellas; and in thee I own a peerless, trusty lord. O woe is me, if indeed I am to be cast forth an exile from the land, without one friend; one lone woman with her babes forlorn! Yea, a fine reproach to thee in thy bridal hour, that thy children and the wife who saved thy life are beggars and vagabonds! O Zeus! why hast thou granted unto man clear signs to know the sham in gold, while on man’s brow no brand is stamped whereby to gauge the villain’s heart?


I am undone, and more than that, am banished from the land.


By whom? fresh woe this word of thine unfolds.


Creon drives me forth in exile from Corinth.


Doth Jason allow it? This too I blame him for.


Not in words, but he will not stand out against it. O, I implore thee by this beard and by thy knees, in suppliant posture, pity, O pity my sorrows; do not see me cast forth forlorn, but receive me in thy country, to a seat within thy halls. So may thy wish by heaven’s grace be crowned with a full harvest of offspring, and may thy life close in happiness! Thou knowest not the rare good luck thou findest here, for I will make thy childlessness to cease and cause thee to beget fair issue; so potent are the spells I know.


Lady, on many grounds I am most fain to grant thee this thy boon, first for the gods’ sake, next for the children whom thou dost promise I shall beget; for in respect of this I am completely lost. ‘Tis thus with me; if e’er thou reach my land, I will attempt to champion thee as I am bound to do. Only one warning I do give thee first, lady; I will not from this land bear thee away, yet if of thyself thou reach my halls, there shalt thou bide in safety and I will never yield thee up to any man. But from this land escape without my aid, for I have no wish to incur the blame of my allies as well.


It shall be even so; but wouldst thou pledge thy word to this, I should in all be well content with thee.


Surely thou dost trust me? or is there aught that troubles thee?


Thee I trust; but Pelias’ house and Creon are my foes. Wherefore, if thou art bound by an oath, thou wilt not give me up to them when they come to drag me from the land, but, having entered into a compact and sworn by heaven as well, thou wilt become my friend and disregard their overtures. Weak is any aid of mine, whilst they have wealth and a princely house.


Lady, thy words show much foresight, so if this is thy will, I do not, refuse. For I shall feel secure and safe if I have some pretext to offer to thy foes, and thy case too the firmer stands. Now name thy gods.


Thou art not the only mother from thy children bereft. Bear patiently thy troubles as a mortal must.


I will obey; go thou within the house and make the day’s provision for the children.

The ATTENDANT enters the house. MEDEA turns to the children.

O my babes, my babes, ye have still a city and a home, where far from me and my sad lot you will live your lives, reft of your mother for ever; while I must to another land in banishment, or ever I have had my joy of you, or lived to see you happy, or ever I have graced your marriage couch, your bride, your bridal bower, or lifted high the wedding torch. Ah me! a victim of my own self-will. So it was all in vain I reared you, O my sons; in vain did suffer, racked with anguish, enduring the cruel pangs of childbirth. ‘Fore Heaven I once had hope, poor me! high hope of ye that you would nurse me in my age and deck my corpse with loving hands, a boon we mortals covet; but now is my sweet fancy dead and gone; for I must lose you both and in bitterness and sorrow drag through life. And ye shall never with fond eyes see your mother more for o’er your life there comes a change.Ah me! ah me! why do ye look at me so, my children? why smile that last sweet smile? Ah me! what am I to do? My heart gives way when I behold my children’s laughing eyes. O, I cannot; farewell to all my former schemes; I will take the children from the land, the babes I bore. Why should Iwound their sire by wounding them, and get me a twofold measure of sorrow? No, no, I will not do it. Farewell my scheming! And yet what possesses me? Can I consent to let those foes of mine escape from punishment, and incur their mockery? I must face this deed. Out upon my craven heart! to think that I should even have let the soft words escape my soul. Into the house, children!

The children go into the house.

And whoso feels he must not be present at my sacrifice, must see to it himself; I will not spoil my handiwork. Ah! ah! do not, my heart, O do not do this deed! Let the children go, unhappy one, spare the babes! For if they live, they will cheer thee in our exile there. Nay, by the fiends of hell’s abyss, never, never will I hand my children over to their foes to mock and flout. Die they must in any case, and since ’tis so, why I, the mother who bore them, will give the fatal blow. In any case their doom is fixed and there is no escape. Already the crown is on her head, the robe is round her, and she is dying, the royal bride; that do I know full well. But now since I have a piteous path to tread, and yet more piteous still the path I send my children on, fain would I say farewell to them.

The children come out at her call. She takes them in her arms.

O my babes, my babes, let your mother kiss your hands. Ah! hands I love so well, O lips most dear to me! O noble form and features of my children, I wish ye joy, but in that other land, for here your father robs you of your home. O the sweet embrace, the soft young cheek, the fragrant breath!my children! Go, leave me; I cannot bear to longer look upon ye; my sorrow wins the day. At last I understand the awful deed I am to do; but passion, that cause of direst woes to mortal man, hath triumphed o’er my sober thoughts.

She goes into the house with the children.


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To the extent possible under law, Charles Durning Carroll has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to A Philosophy Reader, except where otherwise noted.

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