This painting, by the English artist John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), depicts two ill-fated lovers from Greek legend and mythology. On the right, the armed and armored man is Jason. According to legend, he was a claimant to the Thessalian city of Iolcos, which was controlled by Jason’s uncle, Pelias. The power struggle between uncle and nephew resulted in Jason being sent off on a perilous journey into the Black Sea, tasked with obtaining a golden fleece from the lands of King Aeëtes, ruler of Colchis. Jason, like many ancient Greek heroes, was helped along his journey by supportive Greek gods and goddesses. When the hero arrived in Colchis, one of the actions that the gods took to help Jason was to force the daughter of King Aeëtes to fall madly in love with the adventurer. This daughter, Medea, is the woman depicted by John William Waterhouse on the left side of the painting. She would help Jason overcome the trials placed in his way by King Aeëtes, and aid him in formulating a plan to take the golden fleece. Medea had a reputation of being greatly skilled in magic, and she was able to produce a potion for Jason that made him as strong as a god. Apollonius of Rhodes, a poet from the 3rd century BCE, described the scene of Medea explaining to Jason how to use her potion:
“At daybreak steep the drug I have provided
in pure spring water, strip off all your clothes,
and rub your body with it as with oil.
There will be awesome power and boundless valor
within it. You will find your strength a match
not for mere mortals but the deathless gods.”
(Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, book 3, approximately line 1050)
Medea eventually decided to flee from her father’s kingdom and join Jason on his ship, the Argo. The two married, but their lives did not turn out happily ever after. Jason eventually abandoned Medea for another woman, and it was a betrayal that the sorceress from Colchis did not take well. As told by the ancient playwright Euripides in the 5th century BCE, the enraged Medea went on a murder rampage, killing her own sons who had been fathered by Jason, and she also killed Jason’s new love, as well as the woman’s father.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.