Medea (left) brings Jason’s father Aeson back to life with a potion that includes foam from a werewolf’s mouth. Medea Rejuvenating Aeson, late 1870s, after a model attributed to Louis-Simon Boizot. Bronze, ca. late 1870s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 74.SB.6
In an earlier post about the Greek and Roman ancestors of modern witches, the focus was on Circe, an herbalist with ties to the underworld. Medea, like Circe, was related to the sun god Helios. She was a princess from Colchis, knowledgeable in herbs and plants, who evolved into a dark enchantress by Roman times. She is notorious for massacring her own sons in revenge for her husband Jason’s unfaithfulness. (This dreadful act may have been invented by Euripides, who produced his play Medea in 431 B.C.)
The best source for the backstory of Medea is book III of the Argonautica of Apollonius, written in the 3rd century B.C. Medea’s father guarded the Golden Fleece sought by the famous Jason and his Argonauts, and when Medea fell in love with Jason, she betrayed her family to help him. Apollonius calls Medea polypharmakon, which is translated creatively as “enchantress,” but means “skilled in many herbs” (III.27). In helping Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, Medea employed both protective and fatal pharmaka (herbs) stored in a special container (III: 802-3). One of her potent dried plants grew from the blood that once dripped from Prometheus’s body while he was chained to a cliff by Zeus and wounded daily by an eagle (III. 845).
Medea gave Jason the herb grown from Prometheus’s blood to soak in water and rub on his body and weapons. This potion helped him avoid death from fire-breathing bulls and an army of men who magically sprang from the ground. Medea also provided Jason with a liquid sleeping drug to sprinkle on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece.
As the pair escaped Colchis with the Fleece, Medea participated in killing her brother (or else killed him by herself, or even stabbed him and chopped him up), which distracted her father from pursuit. Back at Jason’s home city, Iolkos, she also tricked the daughters of Jason’s uncle Pelias, the usurper of the throne, into murdering their father. She boiled a cut-up ram in a cauldron with secret herbs and it hopped out, revived and young again. Believing they could similarly rejuvenate Pelias, the girls killed and boiled him, but since Medea did not give them the correct herbs for the broth, the old man’s death was permanent. Jason and Medea were therefore exiled to Corinth.
Writers and artists in the 5th century show us a Medea who is a powerful herbalist and murderess, a terrible enemy when wronged, but not yet the evil witch of modern fairy tales. She has secret knowledge and an indomitable will, but she does not control supernatural forces.
Euripides’s 5th-century B.C. version of Medea’s tale begins after she has learned of Jason’s betrayal of her and marriage to the daughter of the king of Corinth. When thinking through various ways to get revenge, including stabbing Jason and his new bride to death, Medea decided to use her knowledge of pharmaka (Euripides, Medea 385). First, to secure asylum for herself in Athens, she told Aegeus, king of Athens, that she could cure his inability to produce children by making him an herbal concoction. Then, to wreak revenge against the disloyal Jason, she smeared a poisoned potion on a gown and golden wreath and gave it as a wedding present to Jason’s new bride, causing her an agonizing death. (789, 1201).
As the final blow to Jason, she infamously murdered their two sons. She chose to avoid poison and stabbed them with a sword, so the second child had to watch the first one start to die. Vase paintings emphasize the bloody bodies of the children.
Although Medea escapes on a flying chariot at the end of the play, this is a loan from her divine grandfather, Helios, and not the product of her own magic. She is still within the realm of human, although terrible, behavior.
Medea in Ovid
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII.1-179), written about 500 years after Euripedes’s version, the poet clearly associates Medea’s herbs with incantations (songs: carmina, cantus) and secret arts (secretae artes). He characterizes her drugs as “bewitched,” activated by her incantations (incantata herba). She uses potent herbs (pollentes herbae), but they are enhanced by her sung or chanted words (like a witch’s spell). Medea has access to the grasses near the underworld river Lethe, and she teaches Jason the technique for sprinkling a soporific watery drug on the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. She also teaches him to recite three times the powerful words that bring sleep, calm the seas, and stop the flow of rivers. Such powers more normally belong to the gods.
In Ovid’s telling, Medea now also includes inanimate objects and animal products in her potions, along with herbs. To rejuvenate Jason’s father Aeson (in the same way she rejuvenated the ram that tricked the daughters of Pelias), she makes a hot, bubbling potion with stones and sand from far distant places, the wings and other parts of an owl, the head of a crow that lived for nine lifetimes, and the entrails or foam from the mouth of a werewolf! (VII.234-293).
Is Love an Excuse?
Circe, once attracted to Odysseus by his manliness and smarts in resisting her potion, was in the end not a bad girlfriend. Medea, according to some stories, was compelled by Aphrodite to love Jason obsessively, which explains why she betrayed her family and helped him obtain the Golden Fleece. However, she went far beyond helping Jason, turning into a murderess who used potions and the sword for personal gain and revenge.
It is no wonder that the Medea of today is known as a sorceress and child-killer. Ovid’s descriptions of her behavior, her reliance on underworld forces outside conventional religious rites, her bubbling potions and outlandish ingredients, and her association with the “dark side” of herbs all show her to be a new kind of polypharmakon. Transformed from herbalist to selfish manipulator and poisoner, Medea, like Circe, became another truly wicked witch.
- Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. 1999. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
- Apollonius, Argonautica
- Berti, Irene, and Filippo Carla. 2015. “Magic and the Supernatural from the Ancient World: An Introduction.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 1–18. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Collins, Derek. 2008. Magic in the Ancient Greek World. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Davidson, James. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge.
- Euripides, Medea
- Ogden, Daniel. 2002. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, book VII
- Perseus Digital Library, useful for comparing English and ancient texts.
- Rocca, Giovanna, and Montserrat Reig. 2015. “Witch, Sorceress, Enchantress: Magic and Women from the Ancient World to the Present.” In Ancient Magic and the Supernatural in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Irene Berti and Filippo Carla, 67–78. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Scarborough, John. 1991. “The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots.” In Magika Hiera, ed. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbrink, 138–174. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Stratton, Kimberly B., and Dayna S. Kalleres. 2014. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University.