BUT, knowing now that they would have her speak,
She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,
Opening lines of The Defence of Guenevere, from The Defence of Guenever and Other Poems by William Morris, Bell & Daldy, 1858
He crouched down low at Jason’s feet, fitted the arrow-notch to the bowstring, the stretching his bow wide in two hands shot straight at Medea. Her spirit was seized by speechless stupor. Eros darted back out of the high-roofed palace with a mocking laugh but his arrow burned deep in the girl’s heart like a flame.
Jason and the Golden Fleece, Vv. 280 ff., translation by Richard Hunter, Oxford World Classics, 2009
The Argo, by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907).
The Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes, was written in the 3rd century BC. The original epic poem runs close to 6000 lines; it comprises the principal source of our knowledge of the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. The story is familiar to everyone: Valorous Jason, captain of the talking ship Argo, retrieves the Golden Fleece from the dragon-guarded sacred grove in Colchis. He has some help. The story does not end well.
Medea, who is instrumental in Jason’s success, is an enigmatic character. What we know of her reflects more the moeurs of the age in which her story is told than her true personality. The following is a (modest) attempt to peel away the darkened varnish of the many teller’s tales and encounter Medea herself, the woman behind the stories.
MEDEA THE WITCH
- Frederck Sandys’ Medeawas modelled on Keomi Gray, a Romani woman whom Sandys had met in Norwich and taken back to London to sit for many of his paintings. According to a critic in The Times, 1 May 1869: “it shows the enchantress Medea …in the act of incantation, the baleful light of her chafing-dish playing in the folds of her robe, and making the pale cheeks look paler, and the ashy lips more ashy, and kindling the array of foul ingredients and witch’s properties that surround her tripod – foul toads and strange roots, and images of strange gods, and quaint shells filled with evil compounds.”
- Medea the Sorceress – Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904 Here Medea gathers poisoned fungi from a serpent filled forest, which she will use to poison Glauce and her father.
- Medea, painted in 1886 by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) oil on canvas, 148 x 88 cm, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead, England. De Morgan, who painted Medea in a quattrocento style, was a prolific painter of women from mythology and allegory, and a major figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. On her seventeenth birthday, August 30th 1872, she wrote in her diary: “At the beginning of each year I say ‘I will do something’ and at the end I have done nothing. Art is eternal, but life is short”.
- Medea’s Cauldron, illustration by Warwick Goble for Legend of Good Women: Part !V The Legend of Hipsypyle and Medea, from The Modern Reader’s Chaucer: The Complete Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by John S. P. Tatlock and Percy MacKaye, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1912
As for the story itself, it is a typical hero quest. Here are the bare bones.
The Hellespont: five miles wide, full of tides and currents, where Helle slipped off the back of the ram, her fingers numbed from clutching Phrixos’ tunic. She sank without a trace, but, as she was a myth, she left her name on the waters. The ram carried her brother all the way to Colchis, at the far side of the Black Sea. There, the golden-fleeced ram instructed the boy to sacrifice him to the gods, and hang the hide from the oaken branches of the sacred grove of Ares. The flying golden-fleeced ram Krios Khrysomallos, wedding gift from Poseidon, was as fantastical as his mistress, the cloud-nymph Nephele. After an angry dispute with her husband Athamas, who repudiated her to marry Ino, Nephele feared for the lives of her two children (and rightly so; Ino had conspired to wither all crops, and then reveal an oracle had told her only the sacrifice of Phrixos would appease the gods) and sent the wondrous ram to spirit them away. As recognition of his sacrifice, Khrysomallos is now the constellation Aries, but it’s his fleece that interests us here.
˜ ˜ ˜
King Aeëtes of Colchis has welcomed him warily and set him three tasks, but they are daunting and Jason despairs of accomplishing them. Naturally the gods lend a hand (or interfere, but the Greek gods are always eager to meddle in the lives of men and heroes). Aphrodite causes Medea, Aeëtes’ daughter, to fall in love with Jason. Medea vows to help him in his quest. Jason accomplishes the first two challenges, yoking the Khalkotauroi, bronze-hoofed, bronze-mouthed fire-breathing oxen, and ploughing a field, then sowing it with dragon’s teeth. (These came from a dragon Cadmus killed; Athena had divided up the teeth, giving half to Cadmus, who sowed them straight away, and half to Aeëtes, who kept them.) Medea provides Jason with a potion to protect him from the oxen’s fiery breath. When Jason sows the teeth, fierce warriors spring up from the earth, but he tosses a stone in their midst; thinking themselves attacked, they slay each other to a man. These two deeds fulfilled, the Argonauts set out on the third and most dangerous task.
MEDEA THE HELPER MAIDEN
Jason looks on eagerly as Medea carefully adds ingredients to a potion. Jason and Medea, by John William Waterhouse, 1907.
They near the Rock of Typhaon, where blood from that monster’s huge head had dripped when Zeus struck him with his thunderbolts. The sacred grove is just beyond. (Diodorus Siculus tells us that there was a great wall about the place, erected by Aeëtes, guarded by fire-breathing bulls, although he cautiously states this to be a myth, inspired by the cruelty of the Taurians, who watch over the sacred precinct.) There, in the midst of the grove hangs the Golden Fleece, on the branches of a sacred oak. Around it, lying in endless coils, the never sleeping, ever vigilant “four nostrilled snake,” the Colchian Dragon, Drakon Kholkikos, offspring of Typhon and Echidna.
No one tells it better than Apollonius himself:
“A path led them to the sacred wood, where they were making for the huge oak on which the fleece was hung, bright as a cloud incarnadined by the fiery beams of the rising sun. But the serpent with his sharp unsleeping eyes had seen them coming and now confronted them, stretching out his long neck and hissing terribly…
The monster in the sheath of horny scales rolled forward his interminable coils, like the eddies of black smoke that spring from smouldering logs and chase each other from below in endless convolutions. But as he writhed he saw the maiden take her stand, and heard her in her sweet voice invoking Hypnos, the conqueror of the gods to charm him. She also called on the night-wandering Queen of the world below to countenance her efforts. Jason from behind looked on in terror. But the giant snake, enchanted by her song was soon relaxing the whole length of his serrated spine and smoothing out his multitudinous undulations, like a dark and silent swell rolling across a sluggish sea. Yet his grim head still hovered over them and the cruel jaws threatened to snap them up. But Medea, chanting a spell, dipped a fresh sprig of juniper in her brew and sprinkled his eyes with her most potent drug; and as the all-pervading magic scent spread round his head, sleep fell on him. Stirring no more, he let his jaw sink to the ground, and his innumerable coils lay stretched out far behind, spanning the deep wood. Medea called to Jason and he snatched the golden fleece from the oak. But she herself stayed where she was, smearing the wild one’s head with a magic salve, till Jason urged her to come back to the ship and she left the sombre grove of Ares.”
MEDEA SPELL-WEAVER AND SNAKE CHARMER
- Jason and Medea stealing the Golden Fleece by Henry Fuseli, 1806, Oil, one sheet affixed onto another. Medea on the right, with upraised and left arm, is pouring liquid from a vessel to send the guardian dragon asleep, while Jason reaches over and takes the Golden Fleece.
- Orpheus And Medea Charm the Snake that Guards the Golden Fleece by John D. Batten, Illustration from “The Book of Wonder Voyages,” 1919
- Sir William Russell Flint’s depiction of Medea, Orpheus and Jason securing the Golden Fleece, 1910
When Jason stole the fleece, the tree “uttered a groan and a gloomy darkness closed upon it.” The magic was gone, and the story did not end well either.
The Argo flees, pursued by Aeëtes. Medea murders her younger brother Apsyrtus and tosses his dismembered body overboard. Tarrying to gather the grisly pieces, Aeëtes falls behind and the Argo escapes. Jason’s homecoming ends badly, with the death of Pelias and the couples’ exile to Corinth. Finally betrayed by Jason, who falls in love with Glauce, King Creon of Corinth’s daughter, Medea murders their two children, and flees to Athens. (I’ve always felt sorry for Medea, she epitomizes all those women who give up everything to help their hero attain his goals and the bastard leaves them in the lurch anyway…) As for Jason, increasingly the melancholy outcast, he wanders alone, finding refuge under the hulk of the Argo, deserted and rotting on a beach. One day, the stern falls on him, killing him in his sleep.
The Golden Fleece by Herbert James Draper, 1904. Oil on canvas, 155 x 272.5 cm. Exhibited at the Royal Academy on 1904, Draper’s painting was accompanied by the following text: “Now when they were hotly pursued by the King her father Medea did cast her brother into the sea to drown, that the king should rescue his son’s body and the pursuit be delayed.” Although Draper enjoyed considerable acclaim around 1900, he rapidly became unfashionable as the century progressed. At the time of his death in 1920, the Times did not even bother to print an obituary.
˜ ˜ ˜
What Medea is doing in the story is entirely another matter. Her genealogy is not clear; only one thing is certain: she is a direct descendant of Helios, her father Aeëtes is one of the four children of the sun god and his wife Perses. Mortal with divine ancestry or goddess herself (according the Hesiod’s Theogony) she is an intruder in her own story, a spectator of her own destiny, before being the unwilling, or unwitting and despised anti-heroine of the later Greek tragedians.
Medea is classified as a “helper maiden”, the chanced-upon subservient savior of the errant hero from afar, as Nausicaa is for Odysseus, or Ariadne for Theseus. She possesses the knowledge and skills to help him succeed in his impossible quest, but she wields no power over him – it seems that many quests in ancient legend are inside jobs. First though, she must fall in love with the brave stranger. Cupid of course sees to that.
Cupid himself is a suspicious little fellow. Offspring of Venus and Mars,(his Greek counterpart is Eros) Cupid has progressively aged in reverse, from a slender youth to a chubby putto, as if the sexuality he embodies is too uncomfortably incarnate. In many depictions he is blindfolded, and always winged – in other words, arbitrary and flighty.
In the Argonautica, he is a little like the naughty child who has escaped his nurse and wanders among the guests at a party, unnoticed in a forest of legs. But Cupid is armed with the arrows of love, and his aim is unerring. Medea is struck.
That Medea, a sorceress so well-versed in spells and potions, should be vulnerable to Cupid’s arrow, is a pernicious aside and a cautionary note: love potions are inherently suspicious attempts to mold or guide fate, and poetic justice demands that the sorceress who trades in them receive a dose of her own medicine. To make matters worse, Apollonius hints that the vengeful goddess Hera is behind it all. Hera, outraged at King Pelias, determines that Jason shall bring the girl back as part of the curse she lays upon him. She causes Medea to fall in love so that Jason may succeed in his quest. Medea has no say in the matter.
And succeed they do, Jason flees aboard the Argo with his lover and the Fleece, Aeëtes in hot pursuit. This is where the tragedians truly take over: to escape, Medea slays and dismembers her younger brother Apsyrtus and casts the pieces into the sea. When her father halts to retrieve them, the fugitives escape. (The Argonautica has Apsyrtus confront Jason, who slays him. The lovers halt on the island of Medea’s aunt Circe to be cleansed of their sin. In both scenarios, he dies.)
They finally reach Jason’s homeland of Iolcus. (Medea, in passing, dispatches the bronze giant Talos in Crete.)
Much has happened since Jason set out on his impossible quest, quest that Pelias had considered so certainly to be a death sentence that he had not envisaged the hero’s return. The homecoming is no cause for joy. Of course, it does not end well. Euripides takes up the tale after the heroic quest is all but forgotten: Aeson, informed by Pelias that the Argo had been lost, has committed suicide by poison. Pelias refuses to give up his throne; Medea conspires to have his daughters slay him, pretending she can resurrect him as a young man. Medea resurrects Aeson, but breaks her word and leaves Pelias dead.
Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880), Medea (1870), oil on canvas, 198 × 396 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. The model for Feuerbach’s Medea was named Lucia Brunnacci, whom he met in Rome. Feuerbach painted Medea four times; once sitting alone, her knife fallen on the ground beside her; once with the urn depicting a murder scene, and another, lost in 1945, similar to the one in the Neue Pinakothek. In a letter dated November 1869, Feuerbach listed possible scenes: “Medea before the deed, Medea after the deed, Medea fleeing by the seashore at night, Medea as a loving mother, as a murderous fury” before concluding: “A history painting should portray a life in a situation, it should point to the future and the past and stand… for all eternity.”
Jason and Medea are driven out of Iolcos because of Medea’s vengeance. They are fugitives. Euripides’ play is set in Corinth. Wayward Jason falls in love with Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. Medea murders the king, his daughter (with a poisoned garment) and her own two sons by Jason, fleeing on a chariot drawn by winged serpents, gift of her grandfather Helios. She takes refuge with King Aegeus of Athens, and becomes his wife, but he drives her away when she tries to poison his son Theseus. Finally, she is exiled to Asia. 
- Lucanian Red Figure Krater, attributed to the Policor Painter, c. 400 B.C. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, “Medeia slew Kreon (Creon), Glauke (Glauce) and her sons by Iason (Jason), and escaped to Athens on a chariot drawn by winged Drakones which she had received from Helios.” Medea flees on her flying chariot, leaving a nurse to tear her hair in grief over the bodies of her two children on a sacrificial altar. Jason approaches from the left. Two Poenae, symbols of retribution, witness the scene. Medea and her chariot, a gift from her grandfather Helios, are encircled by the aureole of the sun.
- Medea Flees on her chariot, a book illustration by Harry Rountree, circa 1917. Rountree (1878 – 1950) was a prolific New Zealand illustrator, mainly for children. In 1901, he emigrated to England to attend the Regent Street Polytechnic under Percival Gaskell.One-time President of the London Sketch Club, Rountree was late largely forgotten and died in relative poverty in St Ives, Cornwall in 1950.
Once the tragedists take up Medea’s tale, it goes from bad to worse with each telling. Witch, necromancer, infanticide, she is a lifetime away from the hopeful maiden who fell in love with the glorious stranger. While Ovid maintains her ambiguity, Seneca definitively condemns her when he has her declare, when she decides to kill her children: Medea nunc sum. “Now I am Medea.”
- Eugène Delacroix shows a semi-naked Medea clutching her screaming children in his 1838 painting Médée Furieuse. The dramatic lighting, the vertical knife, all underline her unbridled folly and the imminent murder of her sons. Delacroix worked on the large painting (260 x 165 cm) from 1836 to 1838. It was a subject that had been on his mind for some time; as early as 1818, Medea appears in his sketchbooks. By 1828, he had done studies of the general composition, various details and finally the face. (A painted sketch and 31 preparatory drawings are conserved at the museum of Fine Arts in Lille.) The painting was well received at the Salon, and was also exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1855. “And she hates her children now and feels no joy at seeing them; I fear she may contrive some untoward scheme; for her mood is dangerous nor will she brook her cruel treatment; full well I know her, and I much do dread that she will plunge the keen sword through their hearts, stealing without a word into the chamber where their marriage couch is spread, or else that she will slay the prince and bridegroom too, and so find some calamity still more grievous than the present; for dreadful is her wrath; verily the man that doth incur her hate will have no easy task to raise o’er her a song of triumph.”– From the first scene of Medea by Euripides
- Sarah Bernhardt as Medea, by Alphonse Mucha, 1898. When Medea is abandoned by Jason for Glauce, she presents her rival with a dress steeped in poison. Mucha depicts Medea standing over her victim, holding the dagger with which she killed her children. The bracelet worn by Medea is the prototype of Mucha’s Snake Bracelet, commissioned by Sarah Bernhardt from the jeweller Georges Fouquet. Mucha and Berhardt met for the first time in late 1894, when Mucha created the poster for her production of Gismonda. The poster proved incredibly popular as soon as it appeared in the streets of Paris on Jan 1st, 1895; Bernhardt offered Mucha a contract to create more, as well as costumes and stage designs. Mucha produced six more posters: La Dame aux Camélias (1896),Lorenzaccio (1896), La Samaritaine (1897), Médée (1898), La Tosca (1898) and Hamlet (1899).
˜ ˜ ˜
The true tragedy of Medea is that she is far from powerless, but her position renders that power a weapon that can only be ill-used. Presumably she is as skilled at healing as well as she is unhesitant at taking lives (she does bring Aeson back from the dead) but her skills bring only treachery and death. This may reflect the increasingly masculine nature of medicine in the Greek and Roman worlds, a wrestling of power of healing from feminine hands, and a demonization of their skills, the transformation from healer to witch. Pausanias, for example, tells us the death of her children is the result of a botched attempt to render them immortal (Medea is, after all, the granddaughter of a god) and not a murder of innocents.
Nor did she travel well across epochs. The difficulty with Medea in the Middle Ages was that although classical texts were a principal and much-valued means of learning Greek and Latin, the pantheist and pagan subject matter did not always sit comfortably with the Church. Focusing on Medea as a witch and a murderess served to eliminate any appeal she may have had. Aiding and abetting was the demonization of female sexuality, an aggravating factor in the ready condemnation of Medea.
Nonetheless, her complexity and depth led 19th-century artists to interrogate their preconceptions inherited from the rather less inquisitive (but more inquisitional) 17thand 18thcenturies. Much of what we feel we know about Medea comes from revisitings of the classical myth, and reinterpretations of the original folklore, beginning with Shakespeare, but above all from the Romantic and Victorian eras, periods of ambiguous attitudes towards women who escape social norms. Medea is never redeemed, but the blame is spread wider, the nature of her fate is examined, the figure of the witch is redefined. (Oddly enough, Medea would even become popular with the suffragette movement, lauded for her rebellion against male domination, despite her sulfurous reputation.)
Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite painters contributed to a great degree in our notions of classical myth, far more than their predecessors. How regrettable that principally men depicted Medea, that so few women painters sought her out as a subject. The modernity of her love at first sight, as told in the Argonautica, is striking. Small wonder it was not truly approved or understood for two millennia. She is the tragic heroine who has no good choices left once she has fallen irredeemably in love.
MEDEA THE MADWOMAN
Lady Hamilton as Medea by George Romney. Born Amy Lyon in 1765 and daughter of a blacksmith, “Emma” Hamilton was of the most celebrated personalities of her time. Born Amy Lyon in 1765, daughter of a blacksmith, she was first mistress and later wife of the British envoy to Naples, Sir William Hamilton. (She was also the mistress of Horatio Nelson, until his death at Trafalgar in 1805.) She was renowned for her “attitudes,” a series of dramatic poses that wordlessly acted out mythological characters. George Romney first met her when her lover, George Grenville, brought her by his studio in 1782. She became a long-standing model and muse for Romney, who did hundreds of sketches and portraits of her, notably Circe (1782), a bacchante (1785), Miranda, Cassandra and Titania (1792). In a letter dated 1786, Romney wrote that his work on a series of her attitudes was progressing well, especially her re-enactment of Medea, that Romney describes as “Medea with her hair floating in the air.” The collaboration of Romney and Lady Hamilton is described as one of the most fruitful ones in English portraiture. Romney died in 1802, Lady Hamilton in 1815.
Whatever the complexities of Medea’s origins, her metamorphoses and contradictions, she is destined for simplification and ultimately despair and madness, the only way for the later tragedians to make sense of her contradictions. It is that Medea, pared to the bone, trapped in a supporting and insupportable role, that defines her today.
Perhaps the other lesson, or at very least a cautionary note, is that gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, exist as multiform and plural beings, they are syncretic, accretive, they pick up tales and attributes like a steamer trunk does labels, like a ship’s hull barnacles from every sea it crosses. There is no one Medea, she is multitude. And, while they are often powerful figures, they are compliant, relying on the voices, and later the writings, of tellers of tales, to take life in story. They play the roles they are given. Our advantage is we have that multiplicity of story annotated by history to not only entertain us, but to enlighten us.
William Morris provides us with clues in his 1858 poem The Defence of Guenevere, examining the motivations guiding and the constraints limiting Guenevere’s course. At the end, we are not so sure of her supposed betrayal of Arthur, and above all, we are forced to re-examine our own preconceptions.
As listeners, we remember what we like or what we can. Reducing myth to a manageable form means eliminating the contradictory elements, signposting against the detours and simplifying the characters, in order for the story itself to flow unhindered. Stories, though, are not tidy watercourses with regular embankments, they are meandering, sometimes rough, sometimes languid, always full of twists and turnings.
We are not obliged to accept any one version, any more than the original storytellers did, and we owe it to the figures of myth and legend to follow their entire careers, both in story and in history, appreciating each appearance at its own value. They are actors after all, and faithful to their lines. They deserve that we listen carefully to what they have to say.
– POSTSCRIPTUM –
There are innovative and compelling modern retellings of classical myth. I recommend The Song of Achilles and Circeby Madeline Miller, and Caitlin Sweet’s innovative and captivating retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur: The Door in the Mountainand The Flame in the Maze.
In the meantime… a postcard from Iolcus, addressed to C, Isle of Aeaea, by Mishi Bellamy:
Ma chère tante Circe….ça va?
OMG. I am so done with travelling.
Having lugged the Unmentionable around with me these past few months it now smells horribly ripe, suggest you think ancient feta cheese and rancid butter, undertone of school dinners. The gold is a joke, just glitter stuck in the fat. Blech!
Helped with the fire-breathing oxen, though. I smothered Jase in lanolin. Thx for that tip. Was only slightly singed. Eyebrows will grow back. Had a hoot with the daft dragon’s teeth soldiers, btw. Sewing confusion always make me happy. Entropy Rules! I looked that up, btw. Chaos too small a word. Haha.
Honestly, my ma is SUCH a pain. Jase had to thwack the sleeping dragon to get the Unmentionable, and you know how allergic he is to scales (well, the tiny dracomites inhabiting them, mostly) and the merest hint of sulphuric breath always floors him – so I had make another batch of potion, which does my head in as it takes forever collecting the right herbs and grinding bones of endangered species to a fine powder. Your idea about boiling small black kittens was vetoed by the Argonauts (oh, what a bunch of utter wusses) so I changed the recipe to three rats and two fruit bats. Kittens would have been so much quicker……sigh. :<()
Honestly, I’ve no idea why I’m in love with J….beginning to think Aphrodite spiked MY drink. She’s a pain, too. Really, it’s not safe to go out in the evenings anymore. I must say Our Hero has an amazing knack of getting into trouble and expecting me to hand him a bottle of something to flatten his enemies. My bro, Apsyrtus – the one you don’t like, who stole your iPod – has come to a sticky end. Did you hear? I sent u a txt. Well, I ain’t crying. He went to clock Jase on the head, but missed and hit Atalanta instead, nearly killed her and then tripped into a vat of potion I’d left simmering. I was hacked off, as you can imagine. All that work for nothing, ruined. But not surprised as he was a brat and Pa, Mighty King of Whatever spoiled him from Day One. My thought. His slutty ma wasn’t fit to iron my toga – well, you knew her, auntie darling. Lucky you left Colchis before I did. Was a bit of a witch-hunt after she went missing………….Oh, & PS as to what an’ all was in the pot. It was Pelias. Complicated story but his card was marked. Had to deal with it. Magic employed. His daughters though he was a young ram, caught and chopped him up for dins, in MY pot. So all in all the pot had more ingredients than were called for. I gave it to the Argonauts for lunch. They are stomachs on legs. Duh.
Was SO great to see you, been too long. Off to Corinth now. More later. Love to Telegonus. Miss you. Write soon? xxx
– FOOTNOTES –
Pausanias, who decidedly has little patience with marvels, claims that the two siblings crossed the Hellespont on a ship with a ram-shaped prow, and that Helle was so seasick she leaned too far over the ship’s rail, fell overboard and drowned. As for the origin of the golden ram, well… it’s complicated, as it always is when the gods are involved. Poseidon, lusting after Theophane, the beautiful daughter of Bisaltes, King of Bisaltia, abducts her and flees to the island of Crumissa, pursued by her suitors. Once there, he transforms himself into a ram, Theophane into a ewe, and the inhabitants of the isle into cattle and sheep. The suitors arrive. Mystified to find no inhabitants, they set up camp and begin to slaughter sheep for food. Poseidon transforms them into wolves and has his way with Theophane. The fruit of their union is the golden ram Khrysomallos.
The Argonauts, the crew of the magical ship Argo, deserve a tale in themselves. Rarely has such a patchwork collection of heroes been united on a single cruise. Many are offspring of gods and humans; Herakles is briefly part of the crew (he is put ashore mid-voyage), as well as Orpheus, Theseus, the ship’s builder Argus, and even Atalanta (included on the list by Pseudo-Apollodorus, but dismissed by Apollonius, whoclaims that Jason forbade her because as a woman she would cause strife in the otherwise all-male crew).
Power-hungry Pelias wished dominion over all of Thessaly. He imprisoned the rightful king, Jason’s father Aeson, who sent his son to the centaur Chiron, to keep him out of harm’s way. Pelias achieved his ends, but was warned by an oracle to beware of a man wearing only one sandal; years later, Jason, hurrying to arrive at the Olympic games, lost one of his sandals helping an old woman cross a river. (The old woman was the goddess Hera in disguise.) Jason’s arrival in Iolcus was noted, and the king alerted. When Pelias asked Jason how he would deal with a man destined to be his downfall, Jason replied he would dispatch him to seek the Golden Fleece, sealing his own fate.
The Khakotauroi were a gift to Aeuetes from Hephaestus. “He Hephaistos had also made for him Aeëtes king of Kolkhis bulls with feet of bronze the Khalkotauroi and bronze mouths from which the breath came out in flame, blazing and terrible. And he had forged a plough of indurated steel, all in one piece.” (Apollonius Rhodia, Argonautica 3.215)
Lycophron, Alexandra 1308 ff
Echidna and Typhon produced a profusion of monsters, many of them amongst the most famous in Greek myth: Cerberus, the Lernean Hydra, the Chimera, the Sphinx, Scylla, Gorgon, Ladon (guardian of the golden apples of the Hesperides), the Caucasian Eagle (who daily ate Prometheus’ liver) and several others. Hesiod describes “the goddess fierce Echidna” as a flesh eating “monster, irresistible”, who was like neither “mortal men” nor “the undying gods”, but was “half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin.” Typhon is just as fierce. Hesiod again: Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at another, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed.”
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 8. 54 ff
Or Ares and Aphrodite, Heaven and Earth, Night and Ether or Strife and Zephyr, depending on the writer.
Eros is a primordial god, the fourth to come into existence, at least according to Hesiod. He is also depicted as the child of Night and father of humanity, in the words of Aristophanes: “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Nyx (Night), Erebus (Darkness), and Tartarus (the Abyss). Earth, the Air and Heaven had no existence. Firstly, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Darkness, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in the deep Abyss with dark Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light.”
Talos, or Talus, is another curiosity of Greek myth. A giant automaton of bronze with a curious Achilles heel – a nail that sealed the vein that ran from his neck to his foot. He guarded the island of Crete, making three circuits a day around its shores. When the Argo tried to land, Talos kept the ship at bay by hurling great boulders at it. According to pseudo-Apollodorus, Talos was slain when Medea deceived him into believing that she would make him immortal by removing the nail. In the Argonautica, Medea, from aboard the Argo, raised the keres, female death-ghosts and goddesses of violent death that were known to haunt battlefields. Talos was driven to madness and dislodged the nail, and “theichor ran out of him like molten lead”. Other than his death at Medea’s hands and two differing versions of his origins, little is known of him.
Medea’s dragon-drawn chariot is a recurring theme; she uses it when seeking the secret and sacred herbs for her potion-making. It also serves her swift escape when she tricks Pelias’ daughters into slitting his throat, and finally, to flee through the sky to Athens. For her final exile in Asia, the land she chooses is called Media, later, the Medes would be thought to have derived their name from hers.