This image, by the Italian artist Salvator Rosa (c. 1615–1673), depicts the mythical Greek hero, Jason, disabling a serpent or dragon that guarded the coveted golden fleece. Although this image gives all the credit to Jason, he was just the muscle, and the brains behind this particular operation was his lover, Medea. She came prepared with spells and potions that she knew would calm and debilitate the creature. Step one was to lull the serpent into a trance with a supernaturally-charged song. When this was complete, step two of the plan was to apply a magic potion to the creature’s eyes. This scene was described in the poetic Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 3rd century BCE):
“The song, though, had already charmed the snake.
Loosening the tension of his coils, he settled
upon his countless spirals like a dark wave
settling soft and soundless on a sluggish sea.
Still, though, his crested head was lifted, still
he burned to grip them in his deadly jaws,
and so the maiden dipped a fresh-cut sprig
of juniper into a magic potion
and drizzled it into his open eyes,
warbling all the while a lullaby,
as the aroma of its potency
spread sleep. The monster laid his head down then,
and his innumerable convolutions
lay flat among the undergrowth behind him.
Then, at the maiden’s bidding, Jason took
the golden fleece down from the topmost boughs.”
(Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, Book 4, approximately lines 180-200).
Such is the scene that inspired Salvator Rosa’s illustration. Medea would continue to travel with Jason, and the two would eventually marry. Yet their story was a tragedy without a happy end.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.