A priestess, a woman with magical powers, a mother, a lover, a woman abandoned by her husband, and a murderer. There are many faces of Medea.
Being a priestess of Hecate, Medea has knowledge of magic and witchcraft.
She will use this knowledge against her enemies.
|395 By that mistress whom I revere before all others and have chosen to share my task, Hekate who dwells within my innermost chamber, not one of them will pain my heart and get away for free.
Euripides Medea 395–398
As a woman who was betrayed by her husband, Medea is very sad. She cannot fathom the betrayal.
She lies fasting, yielding her body to grief, |25 wasting away in tears ever since she learned that she was treated without honor [tīmē] by her husband, never lifting her eye nor raising her face from off the ground. She lends as deaf an ear to the warnings of her philoi as if she were a rock or ocean surf; |30 except that sometimes she turns her snow-white neck aside and softly to herself bemoans her philos father, her country and her home, which she betrayed to come here with the man who now holds her without tīmē. She, poor woman, has by sad experience learned |35 how good a thing it is never to abandon one’s native land.
Euripides Medea 24–35
She is full of agony. She wants revenge.
Now that she hates her children and feels no joy at seeing them, I fear that she may contrive some novel scheme; for her phrenes are dangerous and she will not stand being treated [paskhein] badly [kakōs]. I know her well, and I am much afraid |40 that she will plunge the sharpened sword through their heart, stealing without a word into the chamber where the marriage-bed is made, or else that she will slay the turannos and bridegroom too, and so get herself some calamity still greater than the present. For she is terrible [deinē]; anyone who is her enemy [ekhthra] |45 will have no easy time raising the song of triumph over her. But here come her sons from their play. How little do they think of their mother’s troubles [kaka], for the thought of the young is unaccustomed to sorrow.
Euripides Medea 35–50
Could Jason obtain the golden fleece without Medea’s help? Medea does not think so.
|475 I will begin at the very beginning. I saved [sōzein] your life, as every Hellene knows who sailed with you aboard the Argo, when you were sent to tame and yoke the fire-breathing bulls, and to sow the deadly field. |480 And I slew the dragon that was keeping safe [sōzein] the golden fleece, keeping a sleepless watch over it with its many twisted coils; I raised up for you the light of your salvation [sōtēriā]. My father and my home I left of my own volition, coming with you to Iolkos, beneath the hills of Mount Pelion. |485 My eagerness was greater than my sophiā. Next I killed King Pelias by a death most grievous, at the hands of his own children. All these things you experienced [paskhein] from us, and you, who are the most kakos in the world, betrayed us by acquiring a new wife, |490 though I have borne you sons. If you still had none, I might have forgiven your passion for this new marriage.
Euripides Medea 475–491
Medea is very clear about how she will take revenge. She will send a special gift; the gift of death.
Now I shall explain to you my plan in full, but do not expect to hear a pleasant speech. I will send a servant of mine to Jason 775 and beg him to come; when he does, I will address him in soft words, saying that it pleases me, and that the royal [turannoi] marriage, by which he betrayed me, is good. And I shall add that it profits us both and was well thought out. |780 Then I will beg that my children may remain, not that I intend to leave them in a hostile land for my enemies [ekhthroi] to treat with hubris, but because through guile I intend to kill the king’s daughter. I will send them with gifts in their hands |785 to the bride, begging that they may not be banished from this land: a gown of finest weave and a crown of beaten gold. And if she takes this adornment [kosmos] and puts it on, wretchedly [kakōs] she will die, and likewise everyone who touches the girl; such are the pharmaka that I will smear on the gifts.
Euripides Medea 772–790
In Euripides’s play, Medea kills her own children.
|790 But here I quit this theme. I grieve at the deed I must do next; for I will slay my own children. No one will take them from me! And when I have utterly overthrown Jason’s house, |795 I will leave the land and escape punishment for my most phila children’s murder, having dared a most unholy deed. Philai, I cannot endure the taunts of enemies [ekhthroi]. So be it! What profit [kerdos] is life to me? I have no country, home [oikos], or refuge left from evils [kaka]. |800 I did wrong, the day I left my father’s home, persuaded by the words of a man of Hellas! Now he shall pay the price of dikē, if a god will help. And as for the children that I bore him, never again will he see them alive.
Euripides Medea 790–805
In the play, Medea does the unthinkable, killing her own children, and she escapes.
What kind of woman would you imagine doing that?
Even in the play, Medea signals that the children will be honored.
Never! I will bury them myself with this very hand. I will bear them to the sacred precinct of the goddess Hera Akraia [“of the Heights”], |1380 so none of their foes may treat them with hubris by pulling down their tombs. And in this land of Sisyphus I will order for the future a solemn feast and rituals [telos pl.] to atone for this impious murder. As for me, I am going to the land of Erekhtheus, to dwell with Aegeus, |1385 Pandion’s son. But you, kakos, will die a kakōs death, as is appropriate, your head crushed by a shattered fragment of the Argo, having seen the bitter coming to telos of my marriage.
Euripides Medea 1378–1387
Medea’s killing of her children only occurs in the play; there are other views about the fate of the children. In Sententia Antiquae, Joel Christensen quotes two sources which clear Medea for the killings: it was not Medea but the Corinthians who killed the children, and blamed Medea for it.
In the end, Medea still stands!
How do you imagine Medea? Why do you think Euripides wrote such an ending for her? Please join me in the Forums to explore many faces of Medea.
CHS Online Open House | Heroine cult and tragedy, with Richard P. Martin
Translation by E.P. Coleridge
Revised by Roger Ceragioli
Further revised by Gregory Nagy
Newly revised by the Hour 25 Medea Heroization Team (Jessica Eichelburg, Hélène Emeriaud, Claudia Filos, Janet M. Ozsolak, Sarah Scott, Jack Vaughan)
Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies
Medea boiling the ram before Pelias
Photo: Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) Library. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
The Capture of the Golden Fleece, Jean-Fronçois de Troy, oil on canvas, The National Galery.
This image is licensed for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons agreement.
The wedding of Jason and Creusa: Engraving by Master of the Die, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Medea and Creusa
Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Medea about to kill her children
Eugène Delacroix, Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Xion painter, ca.330 BC, Louvre Museum
Charles-Antoine Coypel, ca.1715, Public domain, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Flight of Medea, Public domain via The Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
Figure of Medea W. T. Copeland & Sons, Public domain, via The Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.
Images accessed October 2022
Janet M. Ozsolak is a member of Kosmos Society.