In ancient Greek mythology, Medea was an occult-inclined princess from the Black Sea city of Colchis who betrayed her people and her family after she fell in love with Jason, an adventurer who came with his famous crew of Argonauts to pilfer the Golden Fleece from the region. Due to her extreme infatuation with Jason, Medea was willing to commit treachery and atrocities against her homeland in order to help the Argonauts accomplish their task and escape from the angry locals. Jason, at first, reciprocated Medea’s affection, and the two eventually married. When the couple finally returned to mainland Greece and found their way back to Jason’s home region of Iolcos, Medea again displayed the lengths to which she would go for her love. At Iolcos, she brought about the gruesome downfall of Jason’s foe, Pelias, the man who originally sent Jason on the quest to fetch the Golden Fleece. Medea accomplished her task by horrifically tricking Pelias’ daughters to cut apart and boil their father. As the poor girls had been told that this was an exotic ritual that would result in youth or immortality for their dad, they unfortunately carried out the grisly commands willingly, ending their father’s life in a most horrible manner. Medea’s plot, therefore, was a success, but the notoriety that came with the extravagant killing forced Jason and Medea to move to Corinth, where they tried to settle down and start a family.
Medea and Jason’s love story, however, soon went horribly awry. Jason, while ingratiating himself to the ruling family of the Corinthians, began considering a new marriage with the local princess, Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Creon fully endorsed the prospective match, and Jason was enticed by the power and glory that would come with marrying into the royal family. Nevertheless, Jason was already married to Medea and they had children. He must have also known the weight of the painful choices and sacrifices that Medea had undergone in her choice to spend her life with Jason. For him, she had abandoned royal life in Colchis, harmed her homeland, betrayed her family, and had committed numerous haunting deeds to help Jason progress in his adventures. Jason—despite Medea’s sacrifices, her displays of commitment, as well as their marriage and their children—decided to abandon Medea and pursue the new union with Glauce. Jason and Medea’s marriage was surprisingly easy to nullify, as Jason and Creon were able to portray Medea as a foreigner whose exotic marriage with Jason was legally non-binding in Corinth. Through these prejudices and legal technicalities, Jason was able to end his marriage to Medea and legally engage himself to Glauce. Nevertheless, Medea would not take this betrayal lying down. Her days of pleasing Jason were over; now she would use her terrible talents for revenge.
As the story goes, King Creon quickly banished Medea when Jason agreed to marry Glauce. Medea was given a short period of time to pack her things and leave, but this grace period also gave the formidable woman ample time to orchestrate her vengeance. Tales of her revenge varied slightly. The most prominent narrative said Medea gave Glauce a bewitched gift that set the princess on fire. King Creon tried to put out the flames that were burning his daughter, but, in doing so, he only ended up losing his own life to the deadly blaze. Another variant of the myth claimed that Medea did not only set Glauce on fire, but that she set the whole royal palace alight. Once again, King Creon rushed into the fire, hoping in vain to save his daughter from the burning building. In this second variant, King Creon died yet again with his daughter, as, presumably, did many other people who were unfortunate enough be in the palace when Medea set it ablaze. After the fire, be it a targeted burning of Glauce or a wider arson of the palace, Medea was said to have murdered the children that she had with Jason, and then she fled the region. Jason, meanwhile, was spared by Medea, but he never recovered after his past and future was murdered and burned.
Although King Creon and Princess Glauce were killed and their palace possibly burned, the royal family of Corinth was said to have survived. Medea’s flames had spared the life of one of King Creon’s sons named Hippotes, and this surviving son ascended to the throne of Corinth after the burning of his father and sister. Understandably, King Hippotes became obsessed with tracking down Medea and wanted to have her stand trial for her actions. Hippotes managed to find elusive Medea and indeed brought her to court. Yet, the trial did not go as he expected. The public, after reassessing the situation, had apparently begun to sympathize with Medea and instead scorn the actions of Jason and King Creon. As told by the historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), “in the opinion of everyone Jason, in losing children and wife, had suffered only what was just…certain writers give the account that, when her [Medea’s] person was demanded by Hippotes, the son of Creon, she was granted a trial and cleared of the charges he raised against her” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.55). Therefore, instead of holding Medea accountable for her killings, Hippotes ended up overseeing a court that cleared Medea of legal responsibility for her gruesome deeds in Corinth.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Medea, by Frederick Sandys (c. 1829-1904), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Birmingham Museums Trust.).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.