The story of Medea is very old. Apollonius of Rhodes wrote about her in the 3rd century BC. The great writers of the ancient Western world –Ovid, Euripides and Seneca, among others — were fascinated about her myth. Unlike many other Greek tragic heroines Medea is complex and depending on the time and era that her story is being told there are many different sides to her personality. Medea the wife. Medea the mother. Medea the victim. Medea the witch. Medea the killer of her own children. The details change from author to author, but what is generally agreed upon is that Medea, if not an outright shaman or necromancer herself, was a priestess to the goddess of the night, Hecate. She falls in love with the hero Jason and agrees to help him find the Golden Fleece. There is some debate as to whether her actions were voluntary, Apollonius claims that the goddess Aphrodite cursed Medea to help Jason knowing it would lead to her downfall. Whatever the case, Medea and Jason at some point flee her native land and in the process she kills her own brother, Absyrtus. For ten years the two of them travel as exiles, living in various locations around the Mediterranean. Even though Euripides’ play states that she only had two sons, other sources say Medea was the mother of Alcimenes, Thessalus, Tisander, Mermeros and Pheres, as well as a daughter, Eriopis. It all goes to hell, however, when, while living in Corinth, Jason abandons Medea for King Creon’s daughter, Glauce. Medea’s revenge comes in the form of a wedding dress and golden coronet, both of which are covered in poison, which result in the deaths of both the princess and the king when he tries to save her. According to the poet Eumelus, Medea accidentally kills her children in the process, though Euripides’ much more famous version of filicide — premeditative murder of her own children — is what people most commonly associate with her. The story usually ends with Medea leaving Corinth for Athens in a flying chariot. It is interesting that Medea can be seen as both a powerless victim using murder as her only way to gain control of her life, as well as a force of nature beyond the control of mortal man, who does everything that she does not out of desperation but because she has complete agency.
What I present here is a rough outline concerning the plot points of the drama, what I’m using as I am (slowly) working on my own version. For anyone interested in watching a longer version of the play I suggest the 1969 film adaptation by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and featuring the opera singer Maria Callas in the title role.
MEDEA [by herself, mad with grief]:
Hecate! Gods! If you exist hear my sorrow. My pain demands justice! Jason of the Argonauts, I speak to you.
For ten years I have tried to be like you. I became your wife, the mother of your children, your shield against a world that would have destroyed you long ago. Ever since the first day when the Argo landed on the shores of Colchis have I tried to please you in every way that I can. But now I have been cast aside by the one that I called my husband, by the one whom I sacrificed everything for.
Ten years is a long time to live a lie. Was I ever a wife? Was I ever a mother? Was I even human? All the oaths that you swore to me have suddenly been forgotten now that you are about to marry another, daughter of the king.
Ten years, Jason, but tonight I shall see you destroyed! This hurt that has been done to me is bitter every time I think about my father, my city, my own brother, my own flesh murdered by my own hands. And why? For love of a man, I am told.
All is folly.
[enter KING CREON]
Sorceress! Gorgon! I order you to take your cursed offspring and leave this city at once!
But why? Why send me away?
I have heard your maddening threats against the royal family that gave you sanctuary when no one else would! I fear for my daughter’s safety. Best be rid of you now before anything can happen.
So you think that you can just take everything from me because I am a woman and alone? You think that you can cast me out to die upon the wasteland? There are many things that you cannot take, king. You cannot take my anger. But why should that bother you? It is only my husband that I hate. I mean you and your house no harm.
The more you talk the less I trust you.
You say that I must go but what about my children? Give me time to arrange for their safety and future. One day. Give me one day and then I will freely go. You will never see me again. We are both parents, after all.
So be it. Because of the love that I have for my daughter I will give you one day. But, witch, if you are still here even a minute longer by tomorrow at daybreak I will kill you myself.
Here I stand. Human evil is on every side but I shall slaughter my enemies: the king, his daughter and my bastard husband. But how shall I do it? What form will my revenge take? Shall I burn down the royal bridal bed? Shall I slit their throats in their sleep? No. Of all my dark arts it shall be poison that shall be my comrade in this crime. I shall weave a bridal dress worthy of a virgin princess and into it pour all my malice.
You didn’t have to get exiled, you know.
Jason! Have you come here to gloat over my misfortunes? Haven’t you caused me enough grief already?
You brought this on yourself. Your threats against the royal house guaranteed that you would be banished from the city.
My threats were not against the royal house but only you; the man who is marrying into it.
I think the king finds it hard to make such distinctions when you are vowing revenge against the whole world.
MEDEA [genuinely confused]:
Husband, why are you doing this? I saved your life time and time again! I killed my own brother for you. I have no family to go back to.
That is hardly my concern, is it? Quit thinking about only yourself and look at this from my point of view. Creon is a most generous king. He gave me his own daughter to wed. How could I refuse?
I do not say this for my own benefit but for our children, your sons. I will happily leave them with you if Creon wills it.
Your sudden motherly concern is touching. I have never seen you care this much about anything.
Why would you say that? I gave birth to them and now I am being sent out into the wilderness with nothing to guarantee my own safety, never mind theirs. They are your sons. Will you see to their well-being?
I’m not sure if the king can be swayed. He does see you as bad blood, after all.
Please, take them with you. Perhaps your new wife will love them as much as I have. Perhaps she will guarantee their safety.
I suppose that I will take them with me. Let it never be said that Jason left his own sons with someone with so few womanly sympathies.
Thank you. Please, take this robe as a sign of good faith between us. It is a beautiful garment for a beautiful lady.
Indeed! This is a handsome gift. The king and my bride shall be delighted.
And so it begins!
[enter the CHORUS with MEDEA’S TWO SONS]
Death! Disaster! Chaos!
The House of Creon
has fallen! We watched
in horror as it fell! Jason,
brought your sons
before the old king.
He brought the robes
that you had woven as gifts.
Never have we seen
craftsmanship so fine.
The loom must have been enchanted.
The young princess was so overcome
by the dress that she immediately put it on.
The king ordered a mirror
to be brought in so that
his daughter might admire
herself. What we saw
instead will haunt us
to the end of our days.
The princess screamed as bewitching fire
suddenly consumed her. Her entire body exploded
like a torch dipped in tar. The king ran to her side
and tried to put out the fire with his own hands
and in doing so the green hell-fire spread to him
as well. Father and daughter
writhed on the floor,
their eyes twisted
in their sockets, and so hot
were the flames that no
could be offered.
They lay in state now,
little more than charred
bones. Demonic mother!
We have brought
your children to you
for even an inhuman
creature as you should not
be separated from her sons.
MEDEA [taking her sons by their hands]:
Come now, wretched darlings. You shall be my final revenge against your father. I am constantly being told that I am not like all the other miserable mortals who pass by me every day. They say that I am not a fit mother, not a fit wife, not even human. So be it. If I am not human then how can I be judged by this act that I am about to commit?
[kills her children]
Cry, Jason of the Argonauts! You are undone. Your house falls! Your future perishes! Your sons are murdered by their own mother’s hand!
[summons up a fiery chariot pulled by two dragons]
Medea is no more! Let no mother name her daughter after me! Let no prattling fools talk of my sins or crimes! Let none ever call me human again. Medea the Witch! Medea the Bloody! I am the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, niece to the goddess Circe, granddaughter of the sun god Helios. I return to the land of nightmares, for nightmares are all that you can see in me.