This painting, by the French artist Charles-Édouard Chaise (c. 1759-1798), recreates an early scene from one of the most notorious myths about the mythological figure, Medea. According to ancient Greek myth, 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. Together, Jason and Medea sailed to mainland Greece and traveled to Jason’s homeland of Iolcos. The local ruler of Iolcos was Pelias—the man who originally sent Jason on the quest to fetch the Golden Fleece. When Jason returned home, he discovered that members of his family had been persecuted and executed by Pelias. After learning this horrible news, Medea chose (or was asked by her husband) to avenge Jason’s family by destroying Pelias. Accepting the morbid mission, Medea was said to have assumed the guise of a holy woman, and she convinced the people of Iolcos that she knew magical secrets, such as ways to reverse aging and achieve eternal youth. Pelias and his family were convinced by Medea’s acting, and they eventually gave the deadly woman their trust. Unfortunately for the royal family of Iolcos, Medea used this misplaced trust to achieve her mission—the death of Pelias. The scholar, Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), described the horrible outcome of the interactions between Medea and Pelias’ impressionable daughters, writing, “[Medea] went to the palace of Pelias and persuaded his daughters to chop their father into small pieces and boil him, promising to restore his youth with her drugs; and to gain their confidence, she cut up a ram and changed it into a lamb by boiling it. After that, they believed her, and chopped their father to pieces and boiled him” (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library, I.9.27). When the girls were done with that terrible task, Medea, of course, did not resurrect Pelias from his gruesome death. Such is the grisly myth that inspired Charles-Édouard Chaise’s painting. It shows an early stage of the tale, showcasing the moment when Medea was on the precipice of convincing the daughters of Pelias to unknowingly murder their father.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).