Mythology

by: Edith Hamilton

Medea

Though Medea is generally less popular than some of the major male heroes of classical mythology, her story retains remarkable poignancy to this day. A princess from Colchis on the Black Sea, she first appears during the tale of Jason, a prince of Greece whose life she saves and for whom she secures the Golden Fleece, the object of his quest. After living with Medea as his wife for several years, Jason cruelly abandons her. Rather than meekly accept this wrong, Medea takes full vengeance on Jason—though at a terrible cost to herself—by killing his new bride and father-in-law, as well as the two small children she and Jason had together. Medea then rides off in a chariot drawn by dragons, which she is able to do because she is both a sorceress and a descendent of a god.

Medea is arguably the strongest non-Olympian woman in all of Greek mythology. There are many other wronged women in these myths: Dido and Ariadne, like Medea, sacrifice much to benefit their lovers and are also abandoned, while scores of other women are seduced or raped by the gods. However, many of the other female non-deities are either vain and jealous (Cassiopeia, the wicked stepmother Ino, and Hercules’ wife Deianira) or stupid, calm, and voicelessly beautiful (Helen, who more closely resembles a snow-white heifer than a person). Though it is Jason who openly breaks his oath to the gods by promising fidelity to Medea, it is she who is demonized by classical tradition, with its condemning portrayal of her murderous act and her unremorseful flight from Earth. The reason for this is unclear, as it appears more complex than simple gender inequity. Medea represents certain aspects of culture that Greek society repressed: first, she is a “barbarian,” from part of the vilified non-Greek world; and second, she is a witch and, as such, belongs to an earlier universe of religious beliefs and superstitions that were replaced by the Greek worldview. Even these considerations, however, do not entirely explain Medea’s nature or the reception she receives—which is perhaps why, even today, her complicated, wounded, and misunderstood character remains a subject of fascination.