Back when I was studying Greek at the University of Newcastle, as part of my Classics degree, one of my set texts was Euripides' play Medea. While I was at school I'd read umpteen versions of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, and was vaguely aware of Medea as the woman who helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece, then did some dreadful things – killing her brother (older in some versions, or younger, sometimes directly, sometimes by treachery) and her children – but it had never meant much to me.
I'll never forget the shock of reading the Penguin translation of Euripides' Medea, and discovering that, by the end, I was totally on Medea's side, ready to excuse her for an apparently unforgivable crime. So many ancient Athenian women at the festival of Dionysus, and even some men, must have felt the same way. The play is fabulously subversive. It would be hard to feel Medea's suffering, and not to hate self-centred Jason's self-serving guts. How could he abandon her, and their children, after all she'd done for him, just so that he could marry a namby-pamby local princess half her age?
Even in Euripides' sympathetic version, Medea is best known for helping heroic Argonaut Jason to win the Golden Fleece, but her life is larger than that.
I'd never really understood, despite all the servings of myths and legends in my childhood reading, that Medea was the grand-daughter of Helios, the Sun, and far more powerful a being than Jason ever was. She was fabulously exotic: a Bronze Age princess and sorceress, whose turbulent life took her from exotic Colchis, at the far end of the Black Sea, to some of the greatest palaces of Mycenaean Greece: Iolkos in Thessaly, mighty Corinth, then finally Athens.
Medea served the dark, but well-respected, goddess Hekate. She was the niece of Circe, most famous of Greek witches, who ensorcelled Odysseus' crew. Her father was a powerful king and godling. After delivering the Fleece to Jason – who wouldn't have had a hope without her – and getting him safely back to Greece, Medea murdered Jason's treacherous uncle Pelias, healed the hero Herakles of his madness, and brought about the birth of Theseus.
Medea's myth reveals much about the place of women in ancient Greek society. In the earliest of the ancient sources, Medea is relatively innocent – according to archaic–era Hesiod, she's a "goddess" who marries a mortal man, Jason, and bears him fine sons. Nothing else is mentioned. As time goes on, evil acts accrete around her, so that she becomes an exaggeration of everything a Greek man would not wish for his daughter, wife or daughter-in-law.
By classical times, she does not merely help Jason to win the Golden Fleece, and elope with him: she also betrays her father and viciously murders her brother in the process, slicing up his body and throwing it into the sea. She does not merely help Jason to punish his treacherous uncle Pelias, bringing Hera's vengeance upon him: she tricks Pelias' virgin daughters into cutting him into pieces and boiling him in a cauldron, supposedly to rejuvenate him. When Jason deserts her for the younger, prettier, better-connected princess Creusa of Corinth, Medea is so violently jealous that she does not merely take her children away from him: she murders them, and flies off in her grandfather Helios' dragon-drawn chariot. Medea even tries to murder Athens' well-loved hero, Theseus.
It is clear in all the versions of the myth that Medea would never have left her home, betrayed her father, cut up her brother or murdered Jason's uncle, if Hera had not quite deliberately made her mad with love for Hera's beloved Jason. Even more unfairly, Medea would never have killed her own children, years later, if she were not still mad with love and jealousy. Indeed, after Medea kills the children and leaves Jason, her deeds become far less horrific. She heals Herakles of the madness that caused him to kill his own family, helps Aegeus of Athens to sire Theseus, lives amicably with Aegeus for years, and later fails to kill the young Theseus. Gradually she becomes a pathetic figure, an ageing foreign sorceress.
It's no great secret that I'm partway through a version of the life of Medea, taking her status as powerful sorceress and goddess seriously, as she deserves. It's time, I think, that there was a version of Medea's story in which Hera and Hecate are close to their terrifying Bronze Age originals, and Medea acts and thinks like a true Bronze Age princess – not a mere wicked girl. Wish me luck.
Jenny Blackford’s stories have appeared in places including Dreaming Again, Random House's 30 Australian Ghost Stories for Children, and Cosmos magazine, as well as in Aurealis. Alison Goodman described Jenny's novella set in ancient Delphi and Athens, The Priestess and the Slave, as "A compelling blend of vivid storytelling and meticulous research", and feminist sf icon Pamela Sargent called it "elegant". Jenny's website is www.jennyblackford.com. She lives in Newcastle with Russell Blackford and the cat who owns them.