Medea by Evelyn De Morgan.

Medea (Greek: Μήδεια, Mēdeia, Georgian: მედეა, Medea) is a woman in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis,[1] niece of Circe, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, and later wife to the hero Jason, with whom she had two children, Mermeros and Pheres. In Euripides's play Medea, Jason leaves Medea when Creon, king of Corinth, offers him his daughter, Glauce.[2] The play tells of how Medea gets her revenge on her husband for this betrayal.

The myths involving Jason have been interpreted by specialists[3] as part of a class of myths that tell how the Hellenes of the distant heroic age, before the Trojan War, faced the challenges of the pre-Greek "Pelasgian" cultures of mainland Greece, the Aegean and Anatolia. Jason, Perseus, Theseus, and above all Heracles, are all "liminal" figures, poised on the threshold between the old world of shamans, chthonic earth deities, and the new Bronze Age Greek ways.[4]

Medea figures in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, a myth known best from a late literary version worked up by Apollonius of Rhodes in the 3rd century BC and called the Argonautica. However, for all its self-consciousness and researched archaic vocabulary, the late epic was based on very old, scattered materials. Medea is known in most stories as an enchantress and is often depicted as being a priestess of the goddess Hecate or a witch. The myth of Jason and Medea is very old, originally written around the time Hesiod wrote the Theogony. It was known to the composer of the Little Iliad, part of the Epic Cycle.


Jason and Medea

Medea by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (painted 1866-68); its rejection for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1868 caused a storm of protest

Medea's role began after Jason arrived from Iolcus to Colchis (The old kingdom of Georgia) to claim his inheritance and throne by retrieving the Golden Fleece. In the most complete surviving account, the Argonautica of Apollonius, Medea fell in love with him and promised to help him, but only on the condition that if he succeeded, he would take her with him and marry her. Jason agreed. In a familiar mythic motif, Aeëtes promised to give him the fleece, but only if he could perform certain tasks. First, Jason had to plough a field with fire-breathing oxen that he had to yoke himself. Medea gave him an unguent with which to anoint himself and his weapons, to protect him from the bulls' fiery breath. Then, Jason had to sow the teeth of a dragon in the ploughed field (compare the myth of Cadmus). The teeth sprouted into an army of warriors. Jason was forewarned by Medea, however, and knew to throw a rock into the crowd. Unable to determine where the rock had come from, the soldiers attacked and killed each other. Finally, Aeëtes made Jason fight and kill the sleepless dragon that guarded the fleece. Medea put the beast to sleep with her narcotic herbs. Jason then took the fleece and sailed away with Medea, as he had promised. Apollonius says that Medea only helped Jason in the first place because Hera had convinced Aphrodite or Eros to cause Medea to fall in love with him. Medea distracted her father as they fled by killing her brother Absyrtus. In some versions, Medea is said to have dismembered his body and scattered his parts on an island, knowing her father would stop to retrieve them for proper burial; in other versions, it is Absyrtus himself who pursued them, and was killed by Jason. During the fight, Atalanta was seriously wounded, but Medea healed her.

According to some versions, Medea and Jason stopped on her aunt Circe's island so that she could be cleansed after the murder of her brother, relieving her of blame for the deed.

Jason et Médée by Gustave Moreau (1865).

On the way back to Thessaly, Medea prophesied that Euphemus, the Argo's helmsman, would one day rule over all Libya. This came true through Battus, a descendant of Euphemus.

The Argo then 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 (Apollodorus 1.140). 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 (Argonautica 4.1638). After Talos died, the Argo landed.

While Jason searched for the Golden Fleece, Hera, who was still angry at Pelias, conspired to make him fall in love with Medea, who she hoped would kill Pelias. When Jason and Medea returned to Iolcus, Pelias still refused to give up his throne. Medea conspired to have Pelias' own daughters kill him. She told them she could turn an old ram into a young ram by cutting up the old ram and boiling it. During the demonstration, a live, young ram jumped out of the pot. Excited, the girls cut their father into pieces and threw him into a pot. Having killed Pelias, Jason and Medea fled to Corinth. This is much like what she did with Aeson, Jason's father.

Many endings

In Corinth, Jason abandoned Medea for the king's daughter, Glauce. Medea took her revenge by sending Glauce a dress and golden coronet, covered in poison. This resulted in the deaths of both the princess and the king, Creon, when he went to save her. According to the tragic poet Euripides, Medea continued her revenge, murdering her two children by Jason. Afterward, she left Corinth and flew to Athens in a golden chariot driven by dragons sent by her grandfather Helios, god of the sun.

Medea (about to murder her children) by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862).

Before the fifth century BC, there seems 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.[5] The poet Creophylus, however, blamed their murders on the citizens of Corinth.[6] Medea's deliberate murder of her children, then, appears to be Euripides' invention although some scholars believe Neophron created this alternate tradition.[7] Her filicide would go on to become the standard for later writers.[8] Pausanias, writing in the late 2nd century, 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.[9]

Fleeing from Jason, Medea made her way to Thebes where she healed Heracles (the former Argonaut) for the murder of Iphitus. In return, Heracles gave her a place to stay in Thebes until the Thebans drove her out in anger, despite Heracles' protests.

She then fled to Athens where she met and married Aegeus. They had one son, Medus, although Hesiod makes Medus the son of Jason.[10] Her domestic bliss was once again shattered by the arrival of Aegeus' long-lost son, Theseus. Determined to preserve her own son's inheritance, Medea convinced her husband that Theseus was a threat and that he should be disposed of. 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 previous for his newborn son, to be given to him when he came of age. Knocking the cup from Medea's hand, Aegeus embraced Theseus as his own.

Medea then returned to Colchis and, finding that Aeëtes had been deposed by his brother Perses, promptly killed her uncle, and restored the kingdom to her father. Herodotus reports another version, in which Medea and her son Medus fled from Athens to the Iranian plateau and lived among the Aryans, who then changed their name to the Medes.[11]

Personae of Medea

The statue of Medea in the center of Batumi, Georgia, one of the main Colchian cities.

Confusion and frustration may arise if modern readers attempt to shoehorn the disparate mythic elements connected with the persona of Medea into a single, self-consistent historicized narrative, in order to produce a "biography" in the hagiographic manner familiar to modern Westerners. Though the early literary presentations of Medea are lost,[12] Apollonius of Rhodes, in a redefinition of epic formulas, and Euripides, in a dramatic version for a specifically Athenian audience, each employed the figure of Medea; Seneca offered yet another tragic Medea, of witchcraft and potions, and Ovid rendered her portrait three times for a sophisticated and sceptical audience in Imperial Rome. The far-from-static evolution undergone by the figure of Medea was the subject of a recent set of essays published in 1997.[13] Other, non-literary traditions guided the vase-painters,[14] and a localized, chthonic presence of Medea was propitiated with unrecorded emotional overtones at Corinth, at the sanctuary devoted to her slain children,[15] or locally venerated elsewhere as a foundress of cities.[16]


Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)
  • Francesco Cavalli Giasone (opera, 1649)
  • Jean-Baptiste Lully Thésée (opera, 1674)
  • Antonio Caldara "Medea in Corinto" (cantata for alto, 2 violins and basso continuo, 1711)
  • Marc-Antoine Charpentier Médée (tragédie en musique,1693)
  • Georg Anton Benda composed the melodrama Medea in 1775 on a text by Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter.
  • Luigi Cherubini composed the opera Médée in 1797 and it is Cherubini's best-known work, but better known by its Italian title, Medea.
  • Simon Mayr composed his opera Medea in Corinto to a libretto of Giuseppe Felice Romano. It premiered in Naples in 1813.
  • Saverio Mercadante composed his opera Medea in 1851 to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano.
  • Darius Milhaud composed the opera Médée in 1939 to a text by Madeleine Milhaud (his wife and cousin).
  • American composer Samuel Barber wrote his Medea ballet (later re-named The Cave of the Heart) in 1947 for Martha Graham and derived from that Medea's Meditation & Dance of Vengeance Op. 23a in 1955. The musical Blast! uses an arrangement of Barber's Medea as their end to Act I.
  • Ray E. Luke's "Medea" won the 1979 Rockefeller Foundation/New England Conservatory Competition for Best New American Opera.
  • Jacob Druckman's 1980 orchestral work, Prism, is based on three different renderings of the Medea myth by Charpentier, Cavalli, and Cherubini. Each movement incorporates material and quotations from the music of Druckman's three predecessors. At the time of his death, Druckman was writing a large-scale grand opera on the Medea myth commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.
  • Star of Indiana—the drum and bugle corps that Blast! formed out of—used Parados, Kantikos Agonias, and Dance of Vengeance in their 1993 production (with Bartók's Allegro from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste), between Kantikos and Vengeance.
  • In 1993 Chamber Made produced an opera Medea composed by Gordon Kerry, with text by Justin Macdonnell after Seneca.
  • Michael John LaChiusa scored "Marie Christine", a Broadway musical with heavy opera influence based on the story of Medea. The production premiered at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in December 1999 for a limited run under Lincoln Center Theatre. LaChuisa's score and book were nominated for a Tony Award in 2000, as was a tour-de-force performance by three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald.
  • In 1991, the world premiere was held in the Teatro Arriaga, Bilbao of the opera Medea by Mikis Theodorakis. This was the first in Theodorakis' trilogy of lyrical tragedies, the others being Electra and Antigone.
  • Oscar Strasnoy's opera "Midea (2)", based on Irina Possamai's libretto, premiered in 2000 at Teatro Caio Melisso, Spoleto, Italy. Orpheus Opera Award.
  • Rockettothesky medea 2008
  • instrumental chamber music piece Medea by Dietmar Bonnen 2008
  • Dutch progressive rock band Kayak (band), with the song Medea, on their 2008 release Coming Up For Air
  • Vienna Teng, with the song My Medea in her 2004 album Warm Strangers.
  • The Finnish melodic death metal band Insomnium has a song about her called Medeia on their album In the Halls of Awaiting, which was released in 2002.
  • Mauro Lanza composed the music to Le Songe De Médée, a ballet choreographed by Angelin Prelijocaj for the Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris and featured in the film La Danse.
  • Alina Novikova (composer) and Daria Zholnerova, produced an opera Medea, based on Innokentiy Annenskiy, Evripid's translation. First performed in 2011, St. Petersburg, Russia

Cinema and television

Medea in popular culture

The dramatic episodes in which Medea plays a role have ensured that she remains vividly represented in popular culture.

Primary sources

Cicero In the court case Pro Caelio, the name Medea is referenced at least five times, as a way to make fun of Clodia, sister of P. Clodius Pulcher, the man who exiled Cicero.

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

Secondary material

Related Literature

See also

  • Greek mythology in popular culture
  • Medusa


  1. ^ Colchis was on the site of modern Georgia in the Caucasus.
  2. ^ Glauce is known as Creusa in Seneca's Medea and in Propertius 2.16.30.
  3. ^ See, for example, Nita Krevans, "Medea as foundation-heroine", in James Joseph Clauss, Sarah Iles Johnston, eds. Medea: essays on Medea in myth, literature, philosophy, and art (Princeton University Press) 1997:71-82.
  4. ^ For this general aspect, see especially Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth: Gods and Goddesses, Heroines and Heroes University of North Carolina 1994, part III: The Liminal Hero.
  5. ^ As noted in a scholium to Pindar's Olympian Ode 13.74; cf. Pausanias 2.3.10-11.
  6. ^ As noted in the scholium to Medea 264.
  7. ^ See McDermott 1985, 10-15.
  8. ^ Hyginus Fabulae 25; Ovid Met. 7.391ff.; Seneca Medea; Apollodorus Bibliotheca 1.9.28 favors Euripides' version of events, but also records the variant that the Corinthians killed Medea's children in retaliation for her crimes.
  9. ^ Pausanias 2.3.6-11
  10. ^ Hesiod Theogony 1000-2
  11. ^ Herodotus Histories VII.62i
  12. ^ The lost Corinthiaca of Naupactos and the Building of the Argo, by Epimenides of Crete, for instances.
  13. ^ Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, James Joseph Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, eds., (Princeton University Press) 1997. Includes a bibliography of works focused on Medea.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Edouard Will, Corinth 1955. "By identifying Medea, Ino and Melikertes, Bellerophon, and Hellotis as pre-Olympianprecursors 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)
  16. ^ "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).
  17. ^
  18. ^ Ovid also wrote a full play called Medea from which only a few lines are preserved.
  19. ^ Fragments are printed and discussed by Theodor Heinze, Der XII. Heroidenbrief: Medea an Jason Mit einer Beilage: Die Fragmente der Tragödie Medea P. Ovidius Naso. (in series Mnemosyne, Supplements, 170. 1997


  • McDermott, Emily, Euripides' Medea (University Park, PA, Penn State University Press, 1985).
  • Clauss, J. J. and S. I. Johnston (eds), Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997).
  • Wygant, Amy, Medea, Magic, and Modernity in France: Stages and Histories, 1553-1797 (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007).

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