Medea - Witchcraft Hall of Fame

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraft Hall of Fame

High Priestess of Hecate, Circe’s niece, herbalist supreme, potions-mistress and spell-caster, Medea is among those serving as prototypes of the witch.

Medea’s name is related to metis or “wisdom” and is usually translated as “the cunning one.” She was the daughter of the King of Colchis, now part of modern Georgia. Her mother is variously described as an “ocean spirit” or even as Hecate herself. (Whether this was meant literally or whether Hecate should be considered her spiritual mother is subject to interpretation.) Medea is Hecate’s priestess and acolyte. She may channel and embody the goddess.

Circe, Medea’s aunt, is plainly a spirit; Homer uses the word “goddess” to describe her. Medea may or may not be a human being. It has been suggested that she is a pre-Olympian deity whose murders reflect past human sacrifices.

Medea was the central figure in at least ten Greek and Roman plays, of which only two survive in more than fragmentary form. From what does survive, she seems to have usually been portrayed as a foreigner witch. (Whether anything survives—or existed—in her Georgian homeland is unknown.)

She is the hero who accomplishes the task Jason is given credit for, obtaining the Golden Fleece.

In order to gain his throne, Jason, a disenfranchised prince of Iolchus in Thessaly, must obtain the Golden Fleece, which hangs on a branch in a grove in Colchis on the shores of the Black Sea. Jason was a student of the centaur Chiron and under the protection of the goddess Hera. The Argonauts include the shaman Orpheus, the sons of the North Wind, and even, for a while, Heracles.

Aeëtes, King of Colchis, son of Helios the Sun and brother of Circe, wishes to retain the Golden Fleece. He sets a task for Jason that should result in certain death, which would please both himself and the king of Iolchus and maintain the status quo. The appointed task, to be accomplished between sunrise and sunset, was to harness Aeëtes’ fire-breathing bulls, plough up a field and sow it with dragon’s teeth. If Jason is successful, he gets the Golden Fleece. If he fails, Aeëtes will snip out the tongues and lop off the hands of Jason and the Argonauts.

However Jason has Hera on his side. Hera asks Aphrodite to tell Eros to shoot Medea with an arrow of love. She falls madly in love with Jason. Without being asked, Medea concocts a salve for him that renders him safe from fire or iron for 24 hours. She requests that Jason meet her at the Temple of Hecate where she tells him she loves him enough to betray her father and gives him the salve. Jason says he loves her too and swears by all the gods to make her his queen and love her for ever, much to the delight of Hera, Aphrodite, and Eros.

Although Jason fulfills the task, Aeëtes has no intention of giving him the Fleece. He orders his men to seize the Argo and kill the foreigners at daybreak. Medea warns Jason, telling him to take the Golden Fleece and run.

At night, she leads him to the grove where the Fleece is guarded by a sleepless dragon. Medea bewitches it via incantations so that it does fall asleep. (Notably she does not kill the dragon, Hecate’s sacred creature.) Jason and Medea grab the Fleece and escape.

When the king’s men go to attack the Argo at dawn, it’s gone, as is the Fleece and the king’s daughter. Ships are sent in pursuit. A faster ship, steered by one of Aeëtes’ sons, overtakes the Argo. Medea again saves Jason: she arranges an ambush for her brother on a nearby island, having tricked him into meeting her. Jason kills Medea’s brother, and her father has to stop the pursuit in order to give his son immediate funeral rites.

After various adventures Jason and Medea finally arrive at Iolchus, Jason having been gone now for years. Jason is warned that Pelias the king knows he’s back and intends to kill him. Once again, Medea saves him. Disguised as a humble old crone witch peddling magical herbs that will rejuvenate the old, Medea tricks Pelias’ daughters into boiling their father to death.

The throne now belongs to Jason. He is welcomed home as a hero but the people don’t trust Medea, perceiving her as a foreigner witch. They refuse to accept her as queen and so another king is chosen in Jason’s place. Jason and Medea flee to Corinth.

Jason doesn’t love Medea anymore. He asks her to leave so that he can marry the Princess of Corinth and inherit her father’s kingdom. Medea sends a magic robe to his bride-to-be. It’s irresistibly beautiful, but as soon as the bride tries it on, it goes up in flames, as does her entire palace. Medea escapes in a chariot drawn by two dragons, sent for her by Hecate. (Other versions of the myth have her escaping in a chariot sent by her grandfather Helios, the Sun god.)

What happens to Medea then? Again there are different versions:

Image In her youth, Medea rejected Zeus’ advances, thereby earning Hera’s eternal devotion. Although she dies (she commits suicide), she is sent to the Isles of the Blessed, the Greek paradise, where she is happily married to Achilles

Image Now (or always) a goddess, she travels to Italy where she assumes the name Angitia

Image She married King Aegeus of Athens and tried but failed to poison Theseus

Image She went to Asia where the Medes were named in her honor