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Mythological Background to Euripides' Medea
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Medea deals with part of the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. The legend of the fleece itself begins with the marriage of Ino, a daughter of Cadmus, to Athamas, king of Orchomenos. Athamas had two children, Phrixus and Helle, by a previous marriage. Ino, the typical fairy tale stepmother, decided to put them out of the way. She roasted the seed that was stored up for the next year's sowing and, when the inevitable famine occurred, bribed a messenger to report that the oracle at Delphi had proclaimed that the famine could be averted only if Phrixus and Helle were sacrificed to the gods. In the end, the two children were saved by their mother (Nephele, a minor goddess whose name means "Cloud"), while Ino met an appropriately unhappy end. Nephele saved her children by sending a magic flying ram, whose fleece was made of gold. Phrixus and Helle flew eastward on the ram's back, but Helle fell off and drowned in the body of water that bore her name (the Hellespont ["sea of Helle"], the modern Dardanelles). Phrixus, however, made it to the far eastern shore of the Black Sea, where he landed at Aia, capital of the kingdom of Colchis. The local ruler, King Aeëtes (son of Helius, the sun god), welcomed Phrixus, who settled down, married one of Aeëtes' daughters, and had children. In gratitude to the gods for his escape, Phrixus sacrificed the ram and hung its magic golden fleece on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares, where it was guarded by a magic dragon.

Jason's connection with the fleece is relatively tangential. Jason was the son of Aeson, king of Iolcus. Prior to Jason's birth, the throne of Iolcus was usurped by Aeson's evil younger brother, Pelias (not the same as Peleus, father of Achilles). At his birth, the baby Jason was smuggled out of Iolcus for safety, to be raised by the kindly centaur Chiron on Mt. Pelion. Eventually Jason grew up and returned to Iolcus. On his way he met an elderly woman (Hera in disguise) whom he helped ford a river. As he crossed, he lost one sandal in the mud, and so entered Iolcus wearing only one shoe. Pelias had been warned to beware a man wearing only one sandal, so on Jason's arrival he quickly found out who he was and what he wanted. Afraid to confront Jason directly, Pelias feigned a conciliatory attitude and told Jason that he would be happy to return the throne of Iolcus to its rightful heir, but that first it was necessary for Jason to fetch the golden fleece. (The details here are a bit sketchy, but in general we are dealing with the typical quest tale.)

Jason was disheartened, but with Athena's help gathered together a band of heroes and set sail for Colchis on the magical ship Argo (often said to be the first ship ever built). After a series of adventures along the way (the most famous, perhaps, being that of the Clashing Rocks — a narrow rocky strait that periodically crashed shut, usually associated with the Bosporus) Jason and his fellow Argonauts made it to Colchis. Aeëtes was far from happy to see these foreign interlopers, but, like Pelias, chose an oblique method of displaying his displeasure. He commanded Jason to yoke a pair of brazen, fire-breathing bulls and plow a field, which he was to sow with dragon's teeth. The teeth would yield a breed of earth-born warriors, whom Jason was to kill. Once again Jason was stumped. This time, however, it was Aeëtes' daughter, the young princess Medea, who came to his aid. Medea was a sorceress and, having fallen madly in love with Jason through the machinations of Hera, employed her magical powers to help him pass Aeëtes' test. She gave him a drug that, for a short while, made him temporarily invincible: this allowed him to manage the brazen bulls. She also taught him how to handle the sown men: the solution was simply to throw a stone in their midst, whereupon, in their anger, they would kill one another. With this help, Jason breezed through Aeëtes' test. Aeëtes was furious and planned to slaughter the Argonauts en masse; Medea got word of his plan, however, and, in the dead of night, ran to warn Jason. Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts sailed for Greece, having first stolen the fleece (once again, through Medea's magic) from the dragon that guarded it.

Aeëtes of course gave chase. In order to delay him Medea killed and butchered her young brother Apsyrtus and dropped the pieces of his body bit by bit off the stern of the Argo. Aeëtes was forced to stop to retrieve the pieces of his dead son, thereby allowing Jason and Medea the time they needed to escape.

After several adventures along the way (many of which the Argonauts survived solely through Medea's agency) Jason and his friends returned to Iolcus, where Pelias immediately reneged on his offer. Once again Medea came to the rescue. She took the daughters of Pelias aside and demonstrated a magic potion of youth on an elderly ram: she boiled water in a cauldron, added her magic herbs, and then cut up the ram and threw the pieces in the pot, only to have a young kid jump out. Pelias' daughters, eager to help their aged father, repeated the procedure on him when he was asleep, only to end up with father fricassee. Thus Medea successfully removed Pelias, but the people of Iolcus were so outraged that she, Jason, and their two young sons were driven into exile. They fled to Corinth, where they were received by the Corinthian king Creon. Creon and Jason arrived at an arrangement that would have Jason forsake his foreign paramour and marry Creon's daughter (Creüsa or Glaucê). At the beginning of Euripides' play, Creon, fearing Medea's wrath, banishes her and her two young sons from Corinth.


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Last Modified: Tuesday, 28-Sep-2010 18:13:58 CST
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