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A character from Greek mythology, Medea (in ancient Greek Μήδεια

She plays a decisive role in the myth of the Argonauts and is responsible for Pelias' parricide.

Medea's name has been linked to the Greek verb μήδομαι

It is related to the Indo-European root *med-, *mēd-, which is applied to medicine in Latin, Avestic and Celtic in the name of the Irish physician god Airmed.

The common version of the myth (Euripides, Apollonius)

In the classical version, based on the tragedy by Euripides and the poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, the legend of Medea is particularly dark, consisting of a succession of murders punctuated by a series of escapes across Greece.

The story of Medea begins with the arrival of the Argonauts in Colchis, led by Jason in search of the Golden Fleece to reclaim his throne, usurped by his uncle Pelias, King of Iolcos. The Fleece is held by the King of Colchis, Eetes, father of Medea and brother of Circe, who agrees to hand it over on condition that Jason accomplishes three tasks: tame two enormous bulls with hooves and horns of bronze, spitting fire from their nostrils; force the two beasts to plough a field with a plow; finally, sow a bag of dragons' teeth in the furrows, which will germinate and give birth to an army of phenomenally powerful warriors. Aeetes has no intention of giving up his treasure, and thinks he's sending Jason to his death by imposing these insurmountable tests.

But Medea, his daughter, has fallen in love with Jason. She finds him on the sly and offers to put her magical powers at his service, confessing her love for him. Touched, Jason promises to pay tribute to her beyond the borders, to make her name known as far as he can. Seeing the girl's emotion and gentleness, he offers to take her with him and marry her. Medea doesn't accept at first, doubting the feasibility of such an undertaking, not least because her family despises the handsome Argonaut. But Jason finally persuades her. Seduced, the hero manages to accomplish the tasks set. He tames the bulls after being rendered invincible by Medea's ointment. After ploughing the field and raising the army of warriors from the earth, he throws a stone among them, on Medea's advice, so that they believe they are being attacked by their own companions and kill each other to the last man.

Jason now demands his due from Eetes. The latter, furious, not only refuses to give him the Golden Fleece, but threatens him with death. Jason, Medea and the Argonauts seize the Fleece and flee to Colchis. Medea has taken her younger brother Absyrtos (or half-brother, depending on the version) hostage. Aeetes sets off in pursuit with his fleet. Medea aids the Argonauts' escape by killing and butchering Absyrtos: she cuts him into pieces and throws them behind her, delaying the pursuers who stop to collect his body parts and give him a proper burial. Jason, Medea and the Argonauts lose their pursuers and return to Iolcos.

Jason realizes that Pelias has taken advantage of his absence to kill his father and get rid of his family. He asks Medea to help him take revenge. Medea goes to find Pelias' four daughters and poses as an envoy of Artemis (goddess of hunting and wilderness, but also of childbirth), charged with giving their elderly father a new lease on life. Faced with the young girls' incredulity, the magician prepares a cauldron of boiling water, throws some magic herbs into it, and has an old ram brought to her, which she cuts into pieces and throws into the pot. Then a little lamb emerges from the boiling water. Medea hands over the magic herbs to the amazed daughters, telling them to do the same with their father. The girls go to his chambers and present Medea's idea to him. Pelias, horrified by the proposal and furious that his daughters were so naive, chases them away. But blinded by their desire to rejuvenate their father, they immobilize him, then slit his throat. They dismember him and throw the pieces into boiling water mixed with magic herbs. Of course, Pelias does not rise again, and his daughters are cursed by the Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance, for this parricide.

Medea is denounced by the daughters of Pelias: she and Jason are banished from Iolcos by Acaste, son of Pelias. They take refuge in Corinth, where they are welcomed by King Creon. Jason and Medea lived there peacefully for several years, giving birth to two sons, Mermeros and Pheres.

But Jason falls in love with Creon's daughter, Creuse. The king, who has no heir, readily accepts this union, delighted that Jason will become his successor. He then repudiates Medea and marries Creuse for the second time.

Medea is devastated: the man for whose love she betrayed her father and her country, and killed her brother, gets rid of her. Moreover, rejected by the Corinthians as a foreigner, she is driven out of the city with her two children. Medea takes revenge by killing her rival: she gives Creuse a magic tunic which, as soon as she puts it on, bursts into flames, burning the young bride and her father, and then sets fire to the palace. Possessed by a vengeful, murderous madness, and despite the attempts of her nurse, Medea stabs Mermeros and Pheres, the children she has had with the traitor Jason.

Threatened with death by the Corinthians, Medea finds refuge with Aegeus, King of Athens. The latter is eager to have a son, and agrees to marry her after Medea promises to give him an heir. A child, Medos, is born shortly afterwards, for whom Medea hopes a royal destiny.

However, the arrival of Theseus, son of Aegeus, in Athens upsets her plans. After several unsuccessful attempts to remove him, Medea convinces her husband that Theseus is an impostor and must be poisoned. A tragedy is narrowly averted: at the last moment, Aegeus recognizes his son by the sword and sandals he had bequeathed him. Unmasked, Medea seizes Athens' treasures, including a large quantity of diamonds. As she fled in her snake-drawn chariot of fire, she let half of this royal booty slip from her grasp.

Medea and her son Medos head for Colchis, whose throne is then occupied by Perses, who had dethroned his brother Aeetes after the Argonauts fled. She kills him and restores power to Aeetes. Little is known about the end of Medea's life, as Euripides' version is silent on the end of her life and her death.

Variants of the myth

It seems that not all the earliest variants of the myth were so negative for the character of Medea.

The earliest mention of Medea's stay in Corinth is found in the Corinthian fragments of Eumelos of Corinth. From this point onwards, the Corinthian episode comes to a disastrous end, with the death of Medea and Jason's children, although Medea is not a murderer. At Eumelos, Helios offered the throne of Corinth to his son Eetes. Medea, then queen of Iolcos with Jason, is called upon by the Corinthians to rule the city directly in place of the legates from Colchis, with the agreement of Aetès. There seems to be no dispute between the latter and Jason, who is crowned king of Corinth with his wife. It was in the temple of Hera in Corinth that Jason and Medea's two children died, during a spell cast by their mother to share with them the immortality she derived from her divine ancestry. The accidental death of their children leads to the separation of Medea and Jason, who returns to Iolcos.

Creophylos of Samos, a contemporary of Homer and Eumelos, attributed the murder of Creon to Medea, but according to him, the murder of the couple's children was the work of supporters of the king of Corinth.

A similar version involving the murder of Medea's children by the Corinthians is also reported by the late Greek philologist Parmeniscus: the people of Corinth are said to have risen up against Medea, refusing to submit to the domination of a foreign female magician, and to have massacred the queen's fourteen children, who had taken refuge in the temple of Hera. The goddess then punished the city with an epidemic of plague. From then on, every year, seven boys and seven girls from the Corinthian aristocracy were to serve in this temple to carry out expiatory ceremonies. The rite is said to have lasted until 146BC, with the defeat of the Achaean League and the capture of Corinth by Rome. Indeed, it seems that the cult of Hera in the Perachora Heraion included expiatory ceremonies for Medea's children, although Medea was not accused of the murder.

Two other poets who also predate Euripides, Ibycos and Simonides of Céos, also present Medea in a much more favorable light: after her death, the sorceress is even welcomed to the Champs Élysées or the Îles des Bienheureux, where she becomes Achilles' wife.

On an Apulian scroll crater by the Painter of Darius (ca. 340 BC - 320 BC), we find a variant of the myth according to which Medea went to Eleusis. This crater, now in the Princeton University Museum, shows Medea in the temple of Eleusis, as attested by the inscription ΕΛΕΥΣΙΣ ΤΟ ΙΕΡΟΝ. Arthur Dale Trendall's interpretation of the vase suggests that it relates to the mythological tradition in which Medea would not have killed her children.

For Jean Haudry, the murder of the children by their mother reflects an earlier legend transmitted by Pausanias, who took it from Eumelos: initially, Medea would have tried to immortalize her children at birth by depositing them in the temple of Hera in Corinth. But this attempt failed, perhaps because Medea had refused Zeus' vengeance, and Jason separated from her because of this failure. It is probably to Eumélos that we owe the end of the story, set in Corinth.

Alain Moreau argues that Medea is probably a double of Hera: in the course of the story, she appears as her instrument, or even her human double. He notes that she also shares traits with Demeter: like the latter, she tries in vain to immortalize someone, and uses a chariot harnessed to winged dragons. Both are married to mortals with similar names. He concludes that Medea is a hypostasis of Demeter, "Mother of the Earth".

For German physician and alchemist Michael Maier, Medea represents "reason with excellent advice". He attributed to Medea, a magician, the art of medicines or poisons.

In psychoanalysis, Medea's murderous vengeance gave rise to the Medea complex.

Christa Wolf

In her 1996 novel, German novelist and essayist Christa Wolf refers to sources that predate the classical texts, and absolves the character of all responsibility for murder. Medea is a free, foreign woman, accused of being a magician whenever her presence disturbs.

The mute Queen Merope reveals to Medea the founding murder of the city. The hidden burial vault contains a child's skeleton, that of Iphinoe, Creon and Merope's first daughter, killed on Creon's orders, who feared his arrival at the head of the city.

This revelation breaks the silence, the false oblivion, the fear. The plague takes hold of the city. The people look for a culprit and find it in the foreigner, quickly banished by Creon, who must abandon her children. She angrily entrusts them to the goddess Hera, in her temple. The people stone them to death, and accuse Medea of having killed them.

Infanticide, fratricide and regicide, the character of Medea has inspired artists in every field and period.


  1. Medea
  2. Médée (mythologie)
  3. ^ Room, Adrian (2003). Who's who in Classical Mythology. Gramercy Books. ISBN 978-0-517-22256-0.
  4. ^ Hesiod Theogony 993–1002
  5. étymologie du nom Médée.
  6. Apolonio de Rodas, Argonáuticas 4.1665-1689.
  7. 1 2 MANTO (англ.)
  8. 1 2 Мищенко Ф. Медея // Энциклопедический словарь — СПб.: Брокгауз — Ефрон, 1896. — Т. XVIIIа. — С. 871—872.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Schmitz L. Medeia (англ.) // Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology / W. Smith — Boston: Little, Brown, 1870. — Vol. 2. — P. 1003.

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