Summary of The Goddess Medea in Greek Mythology

Medea in Greek Mythology

Medea was a prominent figure throughout Greek mythology, appearing in texts from Hesiod’s Theogony to the works of Herodotus and Ovid. She is famed for having wed Jason of The Argonauts and was the muse for Euripides’ tragedy, the aptly-named Medea.

An herbalist, sorceress, princess, and witch, the Goddess Medea was a mighty force to be reckoned with. When the blood of the gods flows through a woman’s veins, do not cross her or face the wrath of a sorceress spurned.

In this article, I’ll discuss everything you want to know about Medea in Greek Mythology! Let’s jump in!

Please note that I make every effort to ensure this information is correct and accurate through my own experiences and referencing sources throughout AND at the bottom of this article.

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Who is Medea in Euripides?

So, who exactly is Medea of Greek mythology, and why is her story so important? The tragedy of Medea is hard to forget: a woman scorned by her family, kingdom, and the man who swore his heart to her. Medea’s response is a ruthless and complex act of vengeance.

“O what will she do, a soul bitten into with wrong?”

Euripides – Medea

The original play by Euripides was lost, but later found in Rome during the first century. It’s been revised and adapted many times since then, including Ovid and Seneca. Medea also appears in other stories, including Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, Histories by Herodotus, and Pseudolus by Plautus.

Is Medea a Greek Mythology Goddess?

Medea was born a princess – a daughter to King Aeëtes of Colchis and Idyia, an Oceanid. Her father, King Aeëtes, was said to be the son of the sun god, Helios, making Medea the granddaughter of Helios.

While this technically makes her a demigod, most scholars consider Medea a powerful sorceress. She was also a priestess of Hecate, an ancient witchcraft goddess predating the Olympians’ reign.

The strong potions, plants, and medicines Medea constantly carried with her gave her the power to control the outcomes of many situations.

Medea Meaning

Medea means to scheme or plot; however, it can also mean protection, healing, and wit. Medea is pronounced Muh-Dee-Ah.

Where is Medea From?

Medea was the Princess of Colchis ruled by King Aeëtes. Colchis was a strange and wild land residing near the Eastern end of the Black Sea.

In Greek mythology, Colchis was the home of Medea and the destination of the Argonauts, a land of fabulous wealth and the domain of sorcery.

Historically, Colchis was colonized by Milesian Greeks, to whom the native Colchians supplied gold, slaves, hides, linen cloth, agricultural produce, and such shipbuilding materials as timber, flax, pitch, and wax.

Britannica -Colchis ancient region

Jason Greek Mythology

Before Jason was born, his father was king of Iolcos until the king’s half-brother, Pelias, stole the throne from him. To keep Jason safe as the rightful heir to the throne, Pelias was told Jason was stillborn. However, he was actually sent to live with Chiron, the centaur.

When Jason was old enough, he returned to Iôlcos to claim the throne. King Pelias was very smart and sent Jason on a dangerous and impossible adventure. He told Jason he could have the throne if he retrieved the fleece of the Golden Ram from King Aeëtes in Colchis (Medea’s father).

Jason assembled his crew called the Argonauts. They went on many adventures until they eventually reached Colchis.

Who Were The Argonauts?

The Argonauts were Jason’s band of travelers that accompanied him on his ship, The Argo. In the many years that The Argo sailed, its crew nearly reached 50 and boasts such legendary names as the god Heracles and the great bard Orpheus.

Jason and Medea with her poison
Jason and Medea. Photo licensed by WikiMedia Creative Commons, Author credit: John William Waterhouse

Jason and Medea The Princess of Colchis

When Jason and the Argonauts arrived in Colchis, the kingdom of King Aeëtes, they were met with several challenges. To start, King Aeëtes told Jason he’d only give him the Golden Fleece if he accomplish three tasks: harness fire-breathing bulls to cultivate and plow a field, then fight and kill a local dragon who never sleeps, and lastly, sow the dragon’s teeth into the plowed field.

Even before Jason arrived in Colchis, the goddesses Hera and Athena had prepared the ground by securing the help of Aphrodite on his behalf.

Later, when Jason asked for the Golden Fleece during an audience with King Aeëtes, Eros [aka Cupid] was present as well; by means of a well-aimed shot, he ensured that the king’s daughter, Medea, would fall in love with the newly arrived stranger [Jason].

James J. Clauss – Medea

Jason was met by Medea, a cunning witch, and Princess of Colchis. She fell in love with Jason and used her potions, sorcery, and wit to aid him. In exchange, Jason promised to marry Medea, entitling her to reign as Queen of Iôlcos.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

In his first trial, Jason harnessed two giant fire-breathing bulls. To do so, he used a potion brewed by Medea to protect him from fire.

Then Medea used another of her crafty potions to lull the never-sleeping dragon who guarded the Golden Fleece, allowing Jason to claim it as his own.

After sowing the dragon seeds into the plowed field. The seeds quickly grew ancient ancestral warriors Jason would need to battle. Luckily, Medea warned him this would happen, and she told Jason he simply needed to throw a stone in between the soldiers. This tricked them into slaying each other while Jason remained unharmed.

King Aeëtes was pretty peeved Jason obtained the Golden Fleece. He and his warriors pursued Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts as they tried to flee the city of Colchis.

In her deep love for Jason, she helped him escape by killing her brother as a distraction while dropping the pieces of his body into the sea. She knew this would slow her father down because he would stop and gather his son’s remains to give him a proper burial. This is how Medea escaped with Jason on the Argo.

Medea Greek Mythology rejuvenates Aeson
Medea Greek Mythology. Photo licensed by WikiMedia Creative Commons, Author credit: Nicolas-André Monsiau

Jason’s Return To Iôlcos

Jason and Medea eventually made their way to Iolcos. Unfortunately, while Jason was away, King Pelias killed his father and refused to give the throne to Jason. Deeply sympathetic to Jason’s pain, Medea conceived a plan for retribution

The Goddess Hera hated King Pelias and plotted to make Jason fall in love with Medea. This would hopefully inspire Medea to murder Pelias.

Medea concealed her true identity and convinced Pelias she possessed powers to make him more youthful. She dismembered an old ram and stewed the parts in a pot with magical herbs until releasing a young lamb she had concealed in her cloak.

Convinced, Pelias let Medea enchant him to sleep. Medea then instructed King Pelias’s three daughters to chop up their father and cook the bits using the same cauldron she used with the ram. They believe this would make their father young again. Later they realized Medea had manipulated them into killing their father.

Obviously, this sparked fury throughout the kingdom of Iôlcos, and Medea and Jason were forced to flee. However, Hera’s strategy was successful, and Medea and Jason were later married in Corinth. (Other stories claim they were married on the way to Iôlcos when they stopped by Circe’s island (Medea’s Aunt through her father’s side), so she could exonerate Medea for killing her brother.)

Medea Urging the Daughters of King Pellias to Murder Their Father
Medea Urging the Daughters of King Pellias to Murder Their Father. Photo licensed by WikiMedia Creative Commons, Author credit: Antonio Tempesta

Medea in Corinth

Now, husband and wife Jason and Medea had several children (there are various stories on how many). After ten years, Jason became bored of his marriage, so he arranged to leave Medea to marry a younger woman named Glauce, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. After all, Jason really only loved one thing, his ship, The Argo.

In Medea’s pain and fury from Jason’s betrayal, she decided to destroy his chance for a new marriage. She turned to her beloved potions, creating a brew to poison a beautiful dress, which she would send to Glauce in the guise of a gift.

The robe poisoned Glauce as soon as she put it on. It also killed her father, King Creon, as touched the robe while desperately trying to save his daughter from her fate.

In Euripides’ tragedy, Medea, who is already seen as a barbarian by her peers, killed their children before fleeing Corinth on a dragon-led chariot provided by her grandpa Helios. It’s important to note there are other Medea stories claiming the people of Corinth killed Jason and Medea’s children in retribution for killing their King.

Medea Greek Mythololgy Fleeing Jason in Corinth
Medea flees Corinth and Jason on a dragon-led chariot. Photo licensed by WikiMedia Creative Commons, Author credit: Charles-André van Loo

Medea in Athens

After fleeing Corinth, Medea seeks safety and protection with King Aegeus of Athens. Eventually,  Aegeus marries Medea, and she gives him the son he’s always wanted. They named him Medus. 

King Aegeus, however, had a previous sexual relationship with Aethra, the daughter of the Corinthian hero Bellerophon (son of Posideon and killer of the Chimera monster). If she became pregnant with a son, he advised her to raise him discretely in Troezen. If the boy could lift a boulder under which Aegeus had concealed his sandals and sword, he should be sent to Athens as the rightful heir to the throne. Aethra did have a son named Theseus, who was able to lift the large boulder. 

King Aegeus didn’t recognize his son when Theseus arrived in Athens, but Medea did. Realizing he threatened her son’s claim to the throne, she attempted to poison Theseus. However, right before Theseus drank from the poisoned cup, King Aegeus recognized the sword Theseus carried. King Aegeus knocked the cup from Theseus’s lips and banished Medea from Athens.

Historical Context Behind Medea in Greek Mythology

It’s important to understand when Euripides’ play about Medea was first performed in Greece, Athenians believed themselves to be racially superior to foreigners. Their patriarchal society believed women to be subservient to men and didn’t allow them to vote.

Now given this historical context, let’s take a look at how Euripides used role-reversals to pull apart popular beliefs during this time. Remember, Athenians held deeply religious beliefs about their gods and goddesses and would already know any stories surrounding them.

Jason was cast as the typical youthful hero who comes from Greece. The gods, Hera especially, favored him on his path to greatness. Then there’s Medea, a foreign woman, a witch; Athenians viewed her as a barbarian. Definitely not the hero of the story.

Yet, Jason becomes the villain due to his lack of wit, ruthlessness, and betraying his vows to Medea and, worse, the Gods. Yet Medea shows true heroism with her loyalty to Jason, as well as her more masculine qualities as she helps him achieve his goals. This would be viewed favorably by Athenians.

By the time Medea murders her children, the audience is already on her side. It’s understood she’s a deeply loving mother who knows how horrible the crime she’s about to commit is. However, by ending Jason’s lineage, she destroys everything he has left. She chose revenge over love, and while she wouldn’t change her decision, it will always haunt her.

“Hate is a bottomless cup; I will pour and pour”

Euripides Medea

Why did Medea kill her children?

Despite everything Medea did to win her husband’s love, Jason was unfaithful to her. By killing her sons, Medea paid the ultimate price for revenge. She not only destroyed everyone Jason loved, but she also killed his bloodline. His descendants will never become one with the gods, and his name will never hold power of her strength and skills.

In sacrificing her children, she showed Jason she wouldn’t be submissive in his rejection of her. She wouldn’t be reduced to the simple role of mother, much less the mother of his children, while he went on to live his adventures and carve out his own place of power.

She destroyed everything symbolizing their marriage, and once again, Medea fled a world that didn’t want her. In Eumelus’ Korinthiaka, Medea killed her children by accident, burying them alive at the Temple of Hera in an attempt to make them immortal.

Although he [Euripides] does not ignore the darker side of Medea’s nature, neither does he distort it to the point where it dominates her character entirely. The Medea he presents is a woman who can be believed.

Katherine James – MEDEA

The Fate of Medea

After failing to kill Theseus (with poison, of course), Medea was exiled from yet another place she thought she could call home.

According to Greek mythology historian Herodotus, Medea traveled extensively (possibly teaching snake charming) before eventually settling in Iran, where it’s speculated she married an Asian king. Other stories about Medea state she simply moved to Iran and lived with the locals for a period of time.

However, eventually, she returned home to Colchis. When she arrived, she found that her father, King Aeëtes, had been dethroned. With her mighty sorcery, Medea slew the men in power, including her own uncle, and restored her father to his rightful place. Medea’s name was forgiven in her homelands, and when King Aeëtes died, Medea’s son Medus took the throne.

Medea’s death is unknown. It’s rumored she became immortal.

Sources

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Colchis”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Aug. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Colchis. 

Clauss, James J., and Sarah Iles Johnston, editors. Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art. Princeton University Press, 1997.

Euripides. Medea. https://gutenberg.org/files/35451/35451-h/35451-h.htm, Project Gutenburg, 2011

Grant, Michael. Hazel, John. Who’s Who in Classical Mythology.

James, Katherine. “MEDEA.” The Classical Outlook, vol. 50, no. 1, 1972, pp. 6–8. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43931735.

Robertson, Robin. Euripides Medea: A New Translation. Free Press. 6 October 2009.

Medea By Euripides. Translated by E. P. Coleridge. Sacred-Texts. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/eurip/medea.htm

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