The story of Jason and Medea is among the most famous doomed love affairs in classical mythology, and the Greek myths are known for having their fair share of doomed love affairs. But what is the meaning and significance of the Jason and Medea myth? What did Jason do to Medea, and what drastic action did she take in response to his actions?
Let’s take a closer look at the myth, first by summarising the story and then by offering an analysis of its deeper meaning.
Jason and Medea: plot summary
Jason was the son of Aeson, the king of Iolcos, but Jason was educated by the celebrated wise centaur, Chiron. Like many good heroes, Jason was educated in the art of war, hunting, and music, among other things: everything a prince needs to grow up and become the stuff of legend. Aeson was deposed by Pelias, his half-brother, who was in fear of Jason in turn usurping him, because he’d been warned by the oracle that he would be deposed by a man wearing one sandal. And when Jason showed up as a grown man to pay respects to the king, he was, sure enough, lacking a sandal on one foot – because he had lost it crossing a river.
Pelias decided to give Jason a mission which he was confident would prove impossible for the young man to complete: to go and recover the fabled Golden Fleece from Colchis. The fleece was guarded by a dragon. Jason rose to the challenge, building his ship, the Argo, and assembling a crew: the Argonauts.
In Colchis, the Argonauts located the Golden Fleece, but in order to gain it, Jason was given a series of seemingly impossible tasks: he had to yoke together two fire-breathing bulls, then plough a field and sow the teeth of a dragon. He managed to achieve all of these, thanks to the help of the daughter of Aeetes, the King of Colchis, a woman named Medea, who fell in love with him and used her sorcery to assist him.
Medea gave him a magic balsam to cover his body and shield before he yoked together the fire-breathing bulls, and told him to throw a stone at the dragon’s teeth, because this would cause all the men lurking among them to panic and start attacking each other, rather than him.
When the King went back on his word and refused to give Jason the Golden Fleece, instead attempting to burn the Argo and its crew, Medea used sorcery to restrain the dragon guarding the fleece, allowing Jason to steal it and escape, with Medea joining him and the Argonauts on board the ship. Medea was the niece of Circe, the great sorceress who appears in numerous other Greek myths, and most famously in Homer’s Odyssey. In some versions of the myth, Hecate – whose name is synonymous with witchcraft – was Medea’s mother.
According to Diodorus, Aeetes wished to kill all foreigners who entered his lands, but Medea spoke out against him. Some accounts of the story even have Medea as the witch or priestess charged with carrying out the execution of any foreigners who appeared in her father’s kingdom, but when she clapped eyes on Jason, she was struck by an even more powerful magic than her own enchantments: love.
So, the details vary from one text to another. But according to The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary), the day before Jason and the Argonauts arrived in Colchis, Aeetes had thrown his daughter in prison because she had challenged him over his foreigner-killing policy; however, she easily managed to escape. In many versions of the Jason and Medea story, Medea even killed her own brother, Apsyrtus, and threw him overboard in pieces, in order to give the Argonauts time to escape when Aeetes pursued them.
On the journey home, Jason and Medea were married (in most accounts of the tale), and the crew encountered a giant named Talos (whom Medea defeated with her magic); they then sailed into a dark fog, and Jason prayed to Phoebus Apollo to light the way forward. Apollo agreed, and sent them a shaft of fire to guide their way. They eventually made it back to Iolcos, with the Golden Fleece in their possession. Medea slew Pelias, the King of Iolcus, or rather persuaded the King’s own daughters to kill him, tricking them into thinking he would be made young again if they boiled their father in a cauldron.
With Pelias dead and the throne vacant, Medea had cleared the way for Jason to take the throne. The two of them ruled as King and Queen of Iolcus, and, later, Corinth.
However, Jason grew tired of Medea’s company and sought fulfilment in the arms of another woman. Who this other woman was varies from telling to telling, but she’s usually named as either Glauce or Creusa and she’s always the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. When Jason decided to leave Medea and marry Glauce (in one version of the myth), Medea sent Glauce (or Creusa) a wedding dress which Medea had poisoned. When she put the dress on, Glauce/Creusa found her veins began to burn and she was surrounded by fire, as was Creon when he rushed to help his daughter. They both died.
Medea murdered her two children by Jason, in the temple of Hera, before borrowing a chariot the god Helios had given her – a chariot driven by winged dragons – and riding off into the heavens.
Jason and Medea: analysis
The story of Jason and Medea is of considerable emotional importance to the third great ancient Greek epic poem, after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: that is, Apollonius of Rhodes’ epic The Argonautica. Apollonius has been credited with pioneering a number of new literary techniques in his epic poem, and it’s been suggested that Virgil was inspired by The Argonautica – specifically, the portrayal of Medea as a tragic female figure – when he wrote the fourth book of The Aeneid, which tells of Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido.
Whether or not this is true (and the great scholar and translator E. V. Rieu, for one, doubted it), Apollonius is credited with effectively being the first great writer to study ‘the pathology of love’, in A. W. Bulloch’s phrase, through his portrayal of Medea’s fierce jealousy and revenge when she is betrayed by the man she loves.
The trope of the female helper who uses cunning and sorcery to assist the male hero (compare the help Odysseus gets in Homer’s poem, or the assistance Perseus gets to enable him to kill the Gorgon Medusa, or Ariadne’s helping Theseus in the Labyrinth) is obviously an important part of the Jason legend, but in this instance, Medea is allowed to take an exacting and brutal revenge on the lover who spurned and abandoned her. The most shocking aspects of the whole affair is her killing of her children by Jason, of course, purely out of spite for how he has treated her.
What prompted Jason to divorce Medea and marry someone else? Although it’s true that he may have tired of her, as many of the legends state, there may also have been a legal reason: in Corinth, Jason realised that his sons with Medea were not recognised as legitimate heirs to the throne because Medea was a barbarian. ‘Barbarian’ comes from the ancient Greek for ‘foreigner’; ironically, after defying her father over his hostility to foreigners and helping Jason when he needed her, Medea was now going to be abandoned by her husband because she herself was viewed as an outsider.
However, although this is the commonest plot detail in the Jason and Medea story, it’s worthy of closer analysis, because in some versions Medea doesn’t kill her children at all. Instead, the two sons, whose names are given as Mermerus and Pheres, helped their mother to punish Jason for abandoning Medea, and they were caught with poisoned gifts in their possession – which Medea used to execute her revenge, and which played a vital role in the deaths of Creon and his daughter. The people of Corinth stoned the two boys to death for their crime. In yet another account, Mermerus followed Jason into exile and was killed by a lioness while on a hunting trip.