Princess and sorceress of Colchis
Medea on her golden chariot, by Germán Hernández Amores
Personal information
ParentsAeëtes and Idyia
SiblingsAbsyrtus, Chalciope
ConsortJason, Aegeus
ChildrenVary according to tradition (names include Alcimenes, Thessalus, Tisander, Mermeros, Pheres, Eriopis, Medus)

In Greek mythology, Medea (/mɪˈdə/; Ancient Greek: Μήδεια, romanizedMḗdeia; meaning "planner", "schemer"[1]) is the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis. In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, she aids Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece. She later marries him, but eventually kills his children and his other bride. Medea is known in most stories as a sorceress and is often depicted as a priestess of the goddess Hecate. She first appears in Hesiod's Theogony around 700 BCE,[2] but is best known from Euripides's tragedy Medea and Apollonius of Rhodes's epic Argonautica.

As a daughter of King Aeëtes she is a mythical granddaughter of the sun god Helios and a niece of Circe, an enchantress goddess. Her mother might have been Idyia.[3] She plays the archetypal role of helper-maiden, aiding Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece. In said quest, she uses her magic to save his life and kills her brother to allow Jason to escape. Once he finishes his quest, she abandons her native home of Colchis and flees westwards with Jason, where they eventually settle in Corinth and marry.

Euripides's 5th-century BCE tragedy Medea depicts the ending of her union with Jason, when after ten years of marriage, Jason intends to abandon her to wed King Creon's daughter Creusa. Jason argues that their sons will have a better future in the city if he marries the King's daughter and his sons stay in the same city with him. He claims the sacred vows he has with Medea can be broken because she is a foreigner, which makes their marriage illegitimate. Medea is exiled from Corinth by King Creon, and is offered refuge in Athens by King Aegeus after she offers to help him get an heir with her magic.

In revenge against Jason, Medea murders her own sons and Jason's new bride, King Creon's daughter, with a poisoned crown and robes so that Jason will be without heir and legacy for the rest of his life. What happens afterwards varies according to several accounts. Herodotus in his Histories mentions that she ended up leaving Athens and settling in the Iranian plateau among the Aryans, who subsequently changed their name to the Medes.[4]

Genealogy and divinity

Medea in a fresco from Herculaneum

Medea is a direct descendant of the sun god Helios (son of the Titan Hyperion) through her father King Aeëtes of Colchis. According to Hesiod (Theogony 956–962), Helios and the Oceanid Perseis produced two children, Circe and Aeëtes.[5] Aeëtes then married the Oceanid Idyia and Medea was their child. From here, Medea's family tree becomes a little more complicated and disputed. By some accounts, Aeëtes and Idyia only had two daughters, Medea and Chalciope (or Chalkiope). There was one son, Absyrtus (or Apsyrtus), who was the son of Aeëtes through Asterodea. This would make him a half-brother to Medea herself. According to others, Idyia gave birth to Medea and Apsyrtus while Asterodea gave birth to Chalciope. Even with the two differing accounts, it is known that Medea has a sister and a brother.

As she becomes older, Medea marries Jason and together they have children. The number and names of their children are questioned by scholars. Depending on the account, it is two to fourteen children. In his play, Medea, Euripides mentions two unnamed sons.[6] According to other accounts, her children were "Mermerus, Pheres or Thessalus, Alcimenes and Tisander, and according to others, she had seven sons and seven daughters, while others mention only two children, Medus (some call him Polyxenus) and Eriopis, or one son Argos."[7] No matter the number of children, Medea eventually leaves Jason in Corinth, and marries the King of Athens (Aegeus) and bears him a son. While with him, it is questioned if that was when she had her son Medeius, who goes on to become the ancestor of the Medes by conquering their lands.

Understanding Medea's genealogy helps define her divinity. By some accounts, like the Argonautica, she is depicted as a young, mortal woman who is directly influenced by the Greek gods Hera and Aphrodite.[8] While she possesses magical abilities, she is still a mortal with divine ancestry. Other accounts, like Euripides's play Medea, focus on her mortality. Hesiod's Theogony places her marriage to Jason on the list of marriages between mortals and divine, suggesting that she is predominantly divine.[9] She also has connections with Hecate,[10] the goddess of magic, which could be one of the main sources from which she draws her magical ties. Although distinct from the Titan known as Perses, who is known for fathering Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica made Perses of Colchis the father of Hecate by an unknown mother; Perses' brother Aeëtes then married Hecate and had Medea and Circe by her.[11]


Jason and Medea

"Jason and Medea" redirects here. For other uses, see Jason and Medea (disambiguation).

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Medea is first introduced in Greek Mythology after Jason came from Iolcus to Colchis in an attempt to claim his inheritance and throne by retrieving the Golden Fleece. In the most complete surviving account, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, Hera convinced Aphrodite or Eros to cast a spell on Medea so that she would fall in love with Jason and promise her skills to help him. She does promise her skills, but only if he agreed to marry her. Jason agreed, knowing Medea and her powers would help him in the long run. In a familiar mythic motif, Jason is promised the Golden Fleece through Aeëtes, but only if Jason could complete a list of tasks. The first harrowing task was ploughing a field with fire-breathing oxen that Jason had to yoke himself. To aid him in this, Medea gave him an unguent to anoint himself and his weapons, to protect them from the bulls' fiery breath. After ploughing the field, Jason had to sow the teeth of a dragon. This task seemed to be somewhat simplistic but Medea forewarned him that the teeth would spring into soldiers. To combat this, she told him to throw a rock into the crowd to cause confusion among the soldiers. The soldiers, now confused, would then begin to attack and kill each other instead of Jason. For the last task, Aeëtes assigned Jason to fight and kill the sleepless dragon that guarded the fleece. Medea aided Jason in this task by putting the beast to sleep with her narcotic herbs. Once the dragon was asleep, Jason then took the fleece and sailed away with Medea as promised. Medea distracted her father as they fled by killing her brother Absyrtus.[12]

In some versions, Medea was said to have dismembered her brother's body and scattered his parts on an island, knowing her father would stop to retrieve them for proper burial; in other versions, it was Absyrtus himself who pursued them and was killed by Jason.[13] However, in the Argonautica, Medea and Jason stopped on her aunt Circe's island so that she could be cleansed after murdering her brother, relieving her of blame for the deed. This is one of the times we see Medea use her powers. During the fight, Atalanta, someone helping Jason in his quest, was seriously wounded. Medea was able to use her powers to heal the wound.

On the way back to Thessaly, Medea prophesied that Euphemus, the helmsman of Jason's ship, the Argo, would one day rule over all of Libya. Pindar alleges that this came true through Battus, saying that he was a distant descendant of Euphemus (by 17 generations).[14]

Bas relief of Medea, 2nd century BC, in the Ancient Agora Museum, Athens, Greece.

After the prophecy, the Argo reached the island of Crete, guarded by the bronze man, Talos (Talus). Talos had one vein which went from his neck to his ankle, bound shut by a single bronze nail. According to Apollodorus, Talos was slain either when Medea drove him mad with drugs, deceived him that she would make him immortal by removing the nail, or was killed by Poeas's arrow.[15] In the Argonautica, Medea hypnotized him from the Argo, driving him mad so that he dislodged the nail, ichor flowed from the wound, and he bled to death.[16] After Talos died, the Argo landed.

At some point while in Thessaly, Medea and the Nereid Thetis argued over which one was the most beautiful. They appointed the Cretan Idomeneus as the judge, who declared Thetis to be the most beautiful. In her anger, Medea called all Cretans liars, and cursed them to never say the truth.[17]

Jason, celebrating his return with the Golden Fleece, noted that his father Aeson was too aged and infirm to participate in the celebrations. Medea understood the impact this had on Jason and was able to invigorate him by withdrawing the blood from Aeson's body, infused it with certain herbs, and returning it to his veins.[18] The daughters of King Pelias saw this and asked Medea to perform the same service on their father. Medea agreed.

However, the service was never performed. Hera, who was angry at Pelias, conspired to make Jason fall in love with Medea, who, Hera hoped, would kill Pelias. Hera's plan worked, and the pair fell in love with each other. When they returned to Iolcus, Pelias refused to give up his throne to Jason. Jason had been promised the throne in turn for the Golden Fleece. So, Medea conspired to have Pelias's own daughters kill him.[19] She demonstrated her powers to them by showing her cutting up an old ram and putting the pieces in stew. Once the pieces were in, Medea added some magic herbs and stirred the concoction, a young ram suddenly jumping out of the stew. Excited at the sight, the girls cut their father into pieces and threw him into a pot. Unfortunately, the King never came to life. Having killed Pelias, Jason and Medea fled to Corinth.

While in Corinth, the couple were married and lived together for 10 years.[20] They had between one and fourteen children depending on the source. The known children are sons Alcimenes, Thessalus, Tisander, Mermeros and Pheres, Medus, and Argos, and a daughter, Eriopis.[21] As well as having children, a myth states that Medea ended a famine in Corinth by sacrificing to Demeter and the nymphs. Zeus then desired her, but she declined his advances in order not to incur Hera's wrath. As a reward, Hera offered to make her children immortal.[22][23]

Various Myth endings

Medea murdering one of her children, neck amphora, c. 330 BC, Louvre.

In Corinth, Jason abandoned Medea for the king's daughter, Glauce. Before the fifth century BCE, there seem to have been two variants of the myth's conclusion. According to the poet Eumelus, to whom the fragmentary epic Korinthiaka is usually attributed, Medea killed her children by accident.[24] She buried them alive in the Temple of Hera, believing this would make them immortal.[25] The poet Creophylus, however, blamed their murders on the citizens of Corinth.[26]

According to Euripides's version, Medea took her revenge by sending Glauce a dress and golden coronet, covered in poison.[27] This resulted in the deaths of both the princess and the king, Creon, when he went to save his daughter. Medea then continued her revenge, murdering two of her children herself and refusing to allow Jason to hold the bodies. Afterward, she left Corinth and flew to Athens in a golden chariot driven by dragons sent by her grandfather, Helios, god of the sun.

Statuette of Medea and a nurse protecting the child, Archaeological Museum of Dion, Greece.

Although Jason in Euripides calls Medea most hateful to gods and men, the fact that the chariot is given to her by Helios indicates that she has the Gods on her side. As Bernard Knox points out, Medea's last scene parallels that of a number of indisputably divine beings in other plays by Euripides. Just like these gods, Medea "interrupts and puts a stop to the violent action of the human being on the lower level" and "justifies her savage revenge on the grounds that she has been treated with disrespect and mockery" so that she "takes measures and gives orders for the burial of the dead, prophesies the future," and "announces the foundation of a cult."[28] This deliberate murder of her children by Medea appears to be Euripides's invention, although some scholars believe Neophron created this alternate tradition.[29] Her filicide would go on to become the standard for later writers.[30] Pausanias, writing in the late 2nd century CE, records five different versions of what happened to Medea's children after reporting that he has seen a monument for them while traveling in Corinth.[31] Fleeing from Jason, Medea made her way to Thebes, where she healed Heracles (the former Argonaut) from the curse of Hera (that led him to slay his sons).[32]

After the murder of her children, Medea fled to Athens, where she met and married Aegeus. They had one son, Medus. Another version from Hesiod makes Medus the son of Jason.[33] Her domestic bliss was once again shattered by the arrival of Aegeus's long-lost son, Theseus. Determined to preserve her own son's inheritance, Medea convinced her husband that Theseus was an imposter, making him a threat and that he needed to be disposed of. To do this, Medea was planning on poisoning him as she previously had other victims. As Medea handed Theseus a cup of poison, Aegeus recognized the young man's sword as his own, which he had left behind many years previously for his newborn son as soon as he came of age. Knocking the cup from Medea's hand, Aegeus embraced Theseus as his own.

Medea flying on her chariot, (detail), krater, c. 480 BC Cleveland Museum.

Medea returned to Colchis and found that Aeëtes had been deposed by his brother Perses, which prompted her to kill her uncle and restore the kingdom to her father. Herodotus reports another version, in which Medea and her son Medus fled from Athens, on her flying chariot. They landed in the Iranian plateau and lived among the Aryans, who then changed their name to the Medes.[4]

Recounting the many variations of Medea's story, the 1st century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus wrote, "Speaking generally, it is because of the desire of the tragic poets for the marvelous that so varied and inconsistent an account of Medea has been given out."[32]

Personae of Medea

Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862)

In Euripides's play Medea, she is a woman scorned, rejected by her husband Jason and revenge seeking. Deborah Boedeker writes about different images and symbolism Euripides used in his play to evoke responses from his original Athenian audience.[34] The Nurse, one of the characters, gives descriptions of Medea in the prologue, highlighting comparisons to great forces of nature and different animals. There are also many nautical references throughout the play either used by other characters when describing Medea or by Medea herself. By including these references, Boedeker argues that these comparisons were used to create connections to the type of woman Medea was. She holds great power (referred to by the comparisons to forces of nature), she relies on her basic animal-like instincts and emotions (connections to different animals like bulls and lions), and it draws the audience back to her original myth of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece and the sea voyage taken by Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts.

Emma Griffiths also adds to the analysis of Medea's character in Euripides's play by discussing the male/female dichotomy created by Euripides.[10] Medea does not fit into the mold of a "normal woman" according to Athenian philosophy. She is depicted as having great intelligence and skill, traits typically viewed as masculine by Euripides's original audience. On the other hand, she uses her intelligence to manipulate the men around her. This manipulation would have been a negative female trait to the Athenian audience. Griffiths also acknowledges the paradox of the methods Medea uses to kill. She poisons the princess, which would have been seen as a feminine way of murder, yet kills her children in cold blood, which is seen as more masculine. Medea is also shown as a 'normal' Athenian mother by having a dialogue about her children and showing a strong maternal love and connection to them. Yet at the end of the play, she is able to kill her children as part of her revenge. It is through these opposites that Euripides creates a complicated character for his protagonist.

Marianne McDonald argues that "Medea's anger turns to violent action, which can make her into a symbol of freedom, and emblem for the colonized turning the tables on the colonizer. Euripides, more than all other tragedians, has predicted many of the horrors that occur in the modern world, showing both the glory and the monstrosity of the oppressed turned oppressor."[35]

Although not the first depiction of Medea, the Argonautica by Apollonios Rhodios gives a fuller description of events that lead up to Euripides's play, mainly surrounding Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. In this literary work, Medea is presented not as a powerful woman seeking justice, but as a young woman who is desperately in love with Jason. So much in love that she decides to defy her father and kill her brother in order to help him. James J. Clauss writes about this Medea, attempting to unearth another version of this character for scholarship and discussion.[36] He looks into different passages in the original text to define the meaning and draw connection to the different feelings Medea was going through. He argues the feelings of Medea's initial love for Jason, the shame she feels for loving him and for going against her family, and final agreement to help Jason in his quest.

Multiple scholars have discussed Medea's use as a "helper maiden" to Jason's quest. A helper maid is typically a young woman who helps on a hero's quest, usually out of love. Instead of being the center of the story, like she is in Euripides's Medea, this version of Medea is reduced to a supporting role. Her main purpose is to help the hero with his quest. Jason would never have been successful on his quest without Medea's help, something that is pointed out and referenced many times in ancient texts and contemporary scholarly work.

Other, non-literary traditions guided the vase-painters,[37] and a localized, chthonic presence of Medea was propitiated with unrecorded emotional overtones at Corinth, at the sanctuary devoted to her slain children,[38] or locally venerated elsewhere as a foundress of cities.[39]

Medea as Divine Agent

Medea preparing to kill her child on an altar, while Helios, hauled by two snakes and bearing two flaming torches, witnesses the scene. Jason appears rushing from the side (detail), red-figure krater, c. 320 BC.

A mortal with divine ancestry –Medea is the granddaughter of Helios– she seems to kill without consequence, suggesting that she acts as a divine force and is immune from vengeance that typically comes to mortals who commit injustice. After Medea kills her brother Apsyrtos, she, Jason, and the others stop at Circe's island to be absolved of the crime. When they return to Thessaly, Medea convinces Pelias's daughters to kill their father with trickery. After this, they are an accessory to a murder, so they must leave. They go to Korinth, where Jason proceeds to court and marry Glauke, a princess of Korinth, where Jason loses Hera's favor and gains Medea's wrath. King Kreon tells Medea that she has twenty-four hours to leave, and if she doesn't she'll be killed. Jason comes to scold Medea and she in turn accuses him of denying his oath to the gods. Despite her previous crimes, Medea seems to have the approval of the gods. Next Medea resolves her time to kill Glauke with a potion that causes her to catch fire. Her father Kreon dies also when he in grief hugs his daughter and dies from the same poison. Medea proceeds to kill her and Jason's children as well, and before Jason can stop her, she is escorted away on a flying chariot sent by her grandfather, Helios. Later, Medea marries King Aegeus and the two produce a son named Medus. When Theseus returns in an attempt to prove he is Aegeus's son, Medea recognizes that he will be the heir to the throne rather than Medus, and convinces Aegeus to poison Theseus's drink. Aegeus realizes Theseus is his son and throws the drink away. Medea is forced to leave with Medus, where they return to Kolkhis where Medus eventually claims the title of king. Medea sits in an odd position where though she kills many people, she never seems to face any divine consequence from it. Perhaps her actions are in keeping with the favor of the gods. True or not, Medea is framed as a curiously nuanced figure, something rare for women in Greek Mythology.[40]

Modern references

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt quotes Medea talking about her struggle between her love to Jason and obligation to her father, as an example for "The divided Self" and the conflict between Id and Superego:

"I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.[41]

Cultural depictions

Main article: Cultural depictions of Medea

Written sources (in chronological order)

Heroides XII
Metamorphoses VII, 1–450
Tristia iii.9

See also


  1. ^ Room, Adrian (2003). Who's who in Classical Mythology. Gramercy Books. ISBN 978-0-517-22256-0.
  2. ^ Hesiod Theogony 993–1002
  3. ^ Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3.241–244, 269
  4. ^ a b Herodotus Histories VII.62i
  5. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 956–962
  6. ^ Euripides, Medea
  7. ^ Smith, William (2005). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. By various writers. Ed. by William Smith. Illustrated by numerous engravings on wood.
  8. ^ Apollonius, Rhodius. "The Argonautica". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved November 12, 2021.
  9. ^ "Hesiod, Theogony". The Center for Hellenic Studies. Retrieved November 12, 2021.
  10. ^ a b Griffiths, Emma (2006). Medea. London: New York: Routledge.
  11. ^ Diodorus Siculus, Historic Library 4.45.2
  12. ^ Schmitz, Leonhard (1849). "Absyrtus". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 1. Boston. pp. 3–4. Archived from the original on 2005-12-31
  13. ^ Euripides, Medea 165–166
  14. ^ Perseus Project P.4
  15. ^ Apollodorus I. Benezit Dictionary of Artists. 2011. p. 1.140. doi:10.1093/benz/9780199773787.article.b00006218.
  16. ^ Rhodius, Argonautica 4.1638
  17. ^ Ptolemaeus Chennus, New History Book 5, as epitomized by Patriarch Photius in Myriobiblon 190.36
  18. ^ Godwin, William (1876). "Lives of the Necromancers". p. 41.
  19. ^ Euripidies. Medea. pp. 1.1.483–485.
  20. ^ Godwin 1876, p. 42.
  21. ^ Smith, William (1870). "Medeia". A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology: Vol 2. p. 1004. Retrieved December 6, 2016. Her children are, according to some accounts, Mermerus, Pheres or Thessalus, Alcimenes and Tisander, and, according to others, she had seven sons and seven daughters, while others mention only two children, Medus (some call him Polyxemus) and Eriopis, or one son Argos.
  22. ^ Scholia on Pindar's Olympian Odes 13.74
  23. ^ Repath & Hermann 2019, p. 29.
  24. ^ As noted in a scholium to Pindar's Olympian Ode 13.74; cf. Pausanias 2.3.10–11.
  25. ^ West, M. L. (2007). "A New Musical Papyrus: Carcinus, Medea". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 161: 1–10. JSTOR 20191275.
  26. ^ As noted in the scholium to Medea 264.
  27. ^ Euripides, Medea line 788
  28. ^ B.M.W. Knox. Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theatre. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, p. 303.
  29. ^ See McDermott 1985, 10–15.
  30. ^ Hyginus Fabulae 25; Ovid Met. 7.391ff.; Seneca Medea; Bibliotheca 1.9.28 favors Euripides's version of events, but also records the variant that the Corinthians killed Medea's children in retaliation for her crimes.
  31. ^ Pausanias 2.3.6–11
  32. ^ a b Diodorus Siculus, 4.55–4.56
  33. ^ Hesiod Theogony 1000-2
  34. ^ Boedeker, Deborah (1997). Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press. pp. 127–148.
  35. ^ Clauss, James J. (1997). Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press. p. 304.
  36. ^ Clauss, James J. (1997). Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press. pp. 149–177.
  37. ^ As on the bell krater at the Cleveland Museum of Art (91.1) discussed in detail by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, "Medea at a Shifting Distance: Images and Euripidean tragedy", in Clauss and Johnston 1997, pp 253–96.
  38. ^ Edouard Will, Corinth 1955. "By identifying Medea, Ino and Melikertes, Bellerophon, and Hellotis as pre-Olympian precursors of Hera, Poseidon, and Athena, he could give to Corinth a religious antiquity it did not otherwise possess", wrote Nancy Bookidis, "The Sanctuaries of Corinth", Corinth 20 (2003)
  39. ^ "Pindar shows her prophesying the foundation of Cyrene; Herodotus makes her the legendary eponymous founder of the Medes; Callimachus and Apollonius describe colonies founded by Colchians originally sent out in pursuit of her" observes Nita Krevans, "Medea as foundation heroine", in Clauss and Johnston 1997 pp 71–82 (p. 71).
  40. ^ Kapach, A. (November 29, 2022). Medea. Mythopedia.
    "Medea". Drama for Students, Retrieved March 20, 2023.
    Medea. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 22, 2023.
    Medea in Greek mythology. Greek Legends and Myths. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2023.
  41. ^ Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The happiness hypothesis : finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York. ISBN 0-465-02802-0. OCLC 61211244.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  42. ^ Ovid also wrote a full play called Medea, from which only a few lines are preserved.