Medea by Euripides.

Medea by Evelyn de Morgan (1889).
The Medea myth is one of my most favourite in literature. I've read a few versions now: Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book VII, 8 A.D.), Apollonius of Rhodes' The Argonautica (3rd Century B.C.), Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women (1386 - 1388), and now Euripides' Medea (Μήδεια), first performed in 431 B.C.

At the start of Euripides' play Medea is in Corinth, left by Jason who intends to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. By this time, much of action has already taken place, which Euripides' audience would know well. As Apollonius of Rhodes tells us (this came much later than Euripides' play, but his writings were too a re-telling) that Jason was instructed by King Pelias to retrieve the Golden Fleece - a dangerous and thought to be impossible mission (King Pelias was essentially trying to get rid of Jason believing, as told by the Oracle, that Jason would usurp him). And so Jason and his fleet (the Argonauts) travel to Colchis to secure the Fleece (and a very dangerous journey it was too). They eventually arrive and meet King Aeëtes, Medea's father, who sets Jason three tasks. To help him, Hera the goddess intervenes and with the help of Aphrodite and her son Cupid makes Medea fall in love with Jason. In Ovid's version, Medea reveals the three tasks set by Aeëtes as she fears for his life:
But unless I assist him, those fire-breathing bulls will blast him to ashes;
the warriors sprung from the seeds which he sows in the earth will fight
and destroy him; or else the greedy dragon will make him its prey.
Medea is a sorceress - she is the person to help him, but her magic is dark: she worships Hecate. As Hesiod tells us in Theogony (8th Century B.C.) she is the daughter of Iduia, the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and Aeëtes, the son of Perseis and Helios and the brother of Circe, another sorceress. And so she aids Jason, and, as Apollonius of Rhodes writes, the two return to King Pelias with the Golden Fleece, but there is much more to the story: as Ovid writes, on their return they find Jason's father Aeson dying: Medea, using her dark magic, rejuvenates him. Next, to punish King Pelias, she uses her magic to trick Pelias' daughters into butchering him. Previously, on the journey, she was also responsible for her brother Absyrtus as they fled Colchis.

Vision of Medea by J. M. W. Turner (1828).
Medea, then, is clearly not one to be messed with but that is precisely what Jason does. We see Medea's nurse at the beginning of Euripides' play setting the scene, telling briefly of the journey of the Argonauts, and then -
But now everything has turned to hatred and where love was once deepest a cancer spreads. Jason has betrayed my lady and his own children for a princess' bed: he has married the daughter of Creon, ruler of this land. And Medea, poor lady, dishonoured in this war, cries out, 'What about his oaths? His right hand that clasped mine and pledged his heart? You gods, I call you to witness Jason's gratitude to me!' From the moment her husband's criminal behaviour came home to her, she has remained where she lies, all thought of food dismissed, surrendering herself to anguish and melting each passing hour with tears, not raising an eye or turning her face from the ground.
As the nurse describes, Jason has left Medea for Creon's daughter: Creon, contemporaries would have known, was Oedipus' brother-in-law (he appears in Sophocles' Theban Plays - Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, and also Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, from The Canterbury Tales). Then, a sign of things to come, the nurse says "She hates her children and takes no pleasure in seeing them".

Creon banishes Medea from Corinth in fear of what she may do. She begs him for just one more day, to prepare, she tells him. He grants it, and she plans her revenge after meeting with Jason who reveals this marriage to Glauce is essentially political. So, first she asks Aegeus, King of Athens, if she may come to Athens (telling him that if he lets her she will give him a potion to cure his infertility). He consents, and next she convinces Jason that she accepts his marriage, and asks that he will take their children. As a token of thanks, she gives Jason a golden robe for Glauce, a robe given to Medea by Helios, her grandfather, which she has poisoned: when Glauce wears it she will be engulfed in flames. She later learns her plans come into fruition, and furthermore Creon threw himself into the fire.

Medea by Eugène Delacroix (1862). 
Medea's final and most horrific act of revenge is to kill her two sons Mermeros and Pheres, though she does doubt herself:
Oh no, no! Why do you fix your eyes on me, children? Why smile at me with that last smile? Ah, the pain! What shall I do? My heart dissolves, ladies, when I see the shining faces of my children! I could not do it! Goodbye to those plans I made! I will take my children away from Corinth with me. In bringing suffering on them to cause their father pain, why should I bring twice as much suffering on myself? No, I shall not do it. Goodbye to my plans.
But then she considers what would happen to them if Creon's people seek revenge. Having sent them into the house, she turns and follows and the Chorus hears their screams. Jason returns and finds his children dead and Medea in the chariot of Artemis (drawn by dragons), firmly blaming him for her actions.

Ovid wrote Medea as evil, but Euripides shows more sympathy towards her. Her heartbreak at being deserted by Jason is a truly painful read, she is utterly bereft. Yet, she remains a dark character, a witch, with little alternative course of action (so she believes). Her suffering made her yet more dangerous: passion makes Medea dangerous - for the love of Jason she killed her brother and betrayed her father. For the revenge of Jason she killed Pelias, and now, for the hurt and anguish Jason caused her that came close to driving her to suicide, she killed again - Glauce, Creon (indirectly) and then Mermeros and Pheres. Eurpides' Medea is one of the most powerful and moving plays in literature: she is terrifying, but insightful and driven mad with emotional torment. This is one of my most favourite plays, dark as it is.


The Plays of Euripides

Alcestis | Medea  Heracleidae | Hippolytus | Andromache | Hecuba


  1. Well, I REALLY didn't like Medea but we'll see if Euripides can change my mind. It would be enlightening to get more depth to their story. Ovid rushed over it like he was in a race.

    1. I liked Ovid's version, but only *liked it*. If that was my introduction to Medea I wouldn't have been interested to read more, fortunately however I'd already read Euripides for the first time (some years ago now!). It's a wonderful play so I hope you like it! :)

  2. Just read Medea....powerful.
    Her wailing sends chills up my spine (audio version) while reading the play.

    1. I'd love to hear the audio! That must have been spectacular :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.