Stories from the Greek Tragedians - Alfred J. Church

The Story of the Vengeance of Medea

Jason, being of right the prince of Iolcos in the land of Thessaly, came back to his kingdom. But Pelias, who had now for many years taken it for himself, spake him fair, and persuaded him that he should go on some adventure, and find glory and renown for himself, and so return; and he sware that afterwards he would peaceably give up the kingdom. Now in the land of Colchis, which lieth to the east of the sea which men call the Hospitable Sea, there was kept a great treasure, even the fleece of a great ram, which had been sacrificed there in time past. A marvellous beast was this ram, for it had flown through the air to Colchis from the land of Greece; and its fleece was of pure gold. So Jason gathered together many valiant men, sons of gods and heroes, such as were Hercules the son of Zeus, and Castor and Pollux, the twin brethren, and Calais and Zethus, that were sons to the North Wind, and Orpheus, that was the sweetest singer of all the dwellers upon earth. And they built for themselves a ship, and called its name the Argo, and so set sail, that they might bring back the fleece of gold to the land of Greece, to which, indeed, it rightfully belonged. Now when Jason and his fellows were come to Colchis, they asked the fleece of the King of the country. And he said that he would give it to them; only Jason must first yoke certain bulls that breathed fire from their nostrils, and slay a great dragon. But the Princess Medea saw Jason, and loved him, and purposed in her heart that she would help him. And being a great witch, and knowing all manner of drugs and enchantments, she gave him an ointment which kept all that anointed themselves with it so that they took no harm in battle with man or beast. But first Jason had promised, swearing to her a great oath, that she should be his wife, and that he would take her with him to the land of Greece, and that he would be faithful unto her to his life's end. So when he and his companions had yoked the bulls, and slain the dragon, and carried away the fleece, they took Medea with them in the ship, and so departed. But when Jason was come to the land of Iolcos, Pelias was not willing to keep his promise that he would give the kingdom to him. Whereupon Medea devised this thing against him. She took a ram, and cut him in pieces, and boiled his flesh in water, putting herbs into the caldron, and saying divers enchantments over it; and, lo! the beast came forth young, though it had been very old. Then she said to the daughters of Pelias, "Ye see this ram, how he was old, and I have made him young by boiling him in water. Do ye so likewise to your father, and I will help you with drugs and enchantments, as I did with the ram." But she lied unto them, and helped them not. So King Pelias died, being slain by his daughters, when they thought to make him young. But the people of the land were very wroth with Medea and with Jason her husband, and suffered them not to dwell there any more. So they came and dwelt in the land of Corinth. Now when they had abode there many days, the heart of Jason was turned away from his wife, and he was minded to put her away from him, and to take to himself another wife, even Glaucé, who was daughter to Creon, the King of the city.

[Illustration] from Stories from Greek Tragedians by Alfred J. Church


Now, when this thing was told to Medea, at first she went through the house raging like a lioness that is bereaved of her whelps, and crying out to the Gods that they should smite this false husband that had sworn to her and had broken his oath, and affirming that she herself would take vengeance on him. And they that had the charge of her children kept them from her, lest she should do some mischief. But when her first fury was spent, she came forth from her house, and spake to certain women of Corinth of her acquaintance, that were gathered together to comfort her, and said, "I am come, my friends, to excuse myself to you. Ye know this sudden trouble that hath undone me, and the exceeding great wickedness of my husband. Surely we women are of all creatures that breathe the most miserable. For we must take husbands to rule over us, and how shall we know whether they be good or bad? Of a truth, a woman should have the gift of divination, that she may know what manner of man he is to whom she joineth herself, seeing that he is a stranger to her and unknown. If indeed she find one that is worthy, it is well with her; but if not, then had she better die. For a man, if he be troubled at home, goeth abroad, and holdeth converse with his friends and equals of age, and is comforted. But with a woman it is not so; for she hath only the life that is at home. But why do I compare myself with you? for ye dwell in your own land, and have parents and kinsfolk and friends; but I am desolate and without a country, and am wronged by this man that hath stolen me from a strange land; nor have I mother, or brother, or kinsman, who may help me in my need. This thing, therefore, I would ask of you; that if I can contrive any device by which I may have vengeance on my husband, and on him that giveth his daughter to him, and on the girl, ye keep silence. And vengeance I will have; for though a woman have not courage, nor dare to look upon the sword, yet if she be wronged in her love, there is nothing fiercer than she."

Then the women said, "We will keep silence as thou biddest us, for 'tis right that thou shouldest have vengeance on thy husband. But see! here cometh King Creon, doubtless with some new purpose."

And the King said, "Hear this, Medea. I bid thee depart out of this land, and thy children with thee. And I am come myself to execute this word, for I depart not again to my own house till I have cast thee forth from my borders."

[Illustration] from Stories from Greek Tragedians by Alfred J. Church


Then Medea made answer, "Now am I altogether undone. But tell me, my lord, why dost thou drive me out of thy land?"

"Because I fear thee, lest thou should do some harm beyond all remedy to me and to my house. For I know that thou art wise, and hast knowledge of many curious arts; and besides, I hear that thou hast threatened grievous hurt against all that are concerned with this new marriage."

But Medea answered, "O my lord, this report of craft and wisdom hath wrought me harm not this day only, but many times! Truly it is not well that a man should teach his children to be wise, for they gain thereby no profit, but hatred only. But as for me, my lord, my wisdom is but a small thing; nor is there cause why thou shouldest fear me. For who am I that I should transgress against a king? Nor indeed hast thou done me wrong. My husband, indeed, I hate; but thou hast given thy daughter as it pleased thee. The Gods grant that it may be well with thee and thine! Only suffer me to dwell in this land."

But the King would not, though she entreated him with many words. Only at the last he yielded this to her, that she might abide for one day and contrive some refuge for her children; "but," he said, "if thou tarry after this, thou and thy children, thou shalt surely die."

Then he went his way, and Medea said to the women that stood by, "That at least is well; be ye sure that there is evil to come for the bridegroom and the bride in this new marriage, and for their kin. Think ye that I had flattered this man but that I thought to gain somewhat thereby? Surely I had not touched his hand, no, nor spoken to him. And now—fool that he is—he hath given me this day, and when he might have driven me from the land, he suffereth me to tarry. Verily he shall die for it, he and his daughter and this new bridegroom. But how shall I contrive it? Shall I put fire to the dwelling of the bride, or make my way by stealth into her chamber and slay her? Yet if I be found so doing, I shall perish, and my enemies will laugh me to scorn. Nay, let me work by poison, as is my wont. Well, and if they die, what then? What city will receive me? what friend shall give me protection? I know not. I will tarry awhile, and if some help appear, I will work my end with guile; but if not, I will take my sword and slay them that I hate, though I die. For by Hecaté, whom I reverence most of all the Gods, no man shall vex my heart and prosper. Therefore, Medea, fear not; use all thy counsel and craft. Shall the race of Sisyphus, shall Jason, laugh thee to scorn that art of the race of the Sun?"

When she had ended these words, there came Jason telling her that she did not well to be thus angry, and that she had brought upon herself this trouble of banishment by idle words against the rulers of the land; but that nevertheless he would have a care for her, and see that she wanted nothing needful. But when Medea heard him so speak, she burst out upon him in great fury, calling to mind how she had saved him once again from the bulls that breathed fire from their nostrils and from the great dragon that guarded the fleece of gold, and how she had done the old man Pelias to death for his sake; "and now," she said, "whither shall I go? who will receive me? for I have made enemies of my kinsfolk on account of thee, and now thou forsakest me. O Zeus! why can we discern false money from the true, but as for men, when we would know which is the good and which the bad, there is no mark by which we may know them?"

But to this Jason answered that if she had saved him in time past, she had done it of necessity, being compelled by love; and that he had made her a full recompense, taking her from a barbarous land to the land of Greece, where men lived by law and not by the will of the stronger and causing her to be highly reputed of for wisdom among the people of the land. "And as to this marriage," he said, "for which thou blamest me, I have made it in prudence and in care for thee and for thy children. For being an exile in this city, what could I do better than marry the daughter of the King? Nor is my heart turned from thee or from thy children. Only I have made provision against poverty, and that I might rear my sons in such fashion as befitted their birth. And now if thou needest aught in thy banishment, speak; for I would give thee provision without grudging, and also commend thee to such friends as I have."

"Keep thy gifts and thy friends," she said, "to thyself. There is no profit in that which cometh from such hands as thine."

So Jason went his way; and when he was departed there came Ægeus, King of Athens, who had been on a journey to inquire of the god at Delphi, for he was childless, and would fain have a son born to him. But he understood not what the god had answered, and was now on his way to King Pittheus of Trœzen, a man learned in such matters, that he might interpret the thing to him. And when he saw that Medea had been weeping, he would know what ailed her. Then she told him how her husband was false to her, marrying a new wife, even the daughter of the king of the land, and how she was on the point to be banished, and her children with her. And when she saw that these things displeased King Ægeus, she said—

"Now, my lord, I beseech thee to have pity on me, nor suffer me to wander homeless and friendless, but receive me into thy house. So may the Gods grant thee thy desire that thou mayest have a son to reign after thee. And indeed I have such knowledge in these matters that I can help thee myself."

Then said King Ægeus, "I am willing to do thee this service both for right's sake and because of the hope of children which thou promisest to me. Only I may not take thee with me from this land. But if thou comest to me thou shalt be safe, nor will I give thee up to any man."

Then said Medea, "It is well, and I trust thee. And yet, for I am weak and my enemies are strong, I would fain bind thee by an oath."

To this the King answered, "Lady, thou art prudent, and I refuse not the oath; for being so bound, I shall have wherewith to answer thine enemies, if they seek thee from me. By what Gods shall I swear?"

"Swear by the Earth and by the Sun, who was the father of my father, and by all the Gods, that thou wilt not banish me from thy land, nor give me up to my enemies seeking me."

And King Ægeus sware a great oath, by the Earth and by the Sun, and by all the Gods, that he would not banish her, nor give her up; and so departed.

Then said Medea, "Now shall my counsels prosper; for this man hath given me that which I needed, even a refuge in the city of Athens. Now, therefore, hear what I will do. I will send one of my servants to Jason, and bid him come to me, and will speak softly to him, confessing that he hath done wisely in making this marriage with the daughter of King Creon. And I will ask of him that my children may remain in the land. And I will send them with a gift to this King's daughter, even a robe and a crown. But when she shall deck herself with them, she shall perish, so deadly are the poisons with which I shall anoint them. But very grievous is the deed that I must do when this shall have been accomplished. For after this I must slay my children. Nor shall any man deliver them out of my hand. Thus will I destroy the whole house of Jason, and so depart from the land. A very evil deed it is; but I cannot endure to be laughed to scorn by my enemies. And yet what profiteth me to live? For I have no country or home or refuge from trouble. I did evil leaving my father's house to follow this Greek. But verily he shall pay me to the very uttermost. For his children he shall see no more, and his bride shall perish miserably. Wherefore let no man henceforth think me to be weak or feeble."

And when the women would have turned her from her purpose, saying that so doing she would be the most miserable of women, she would not hearken, thinking only how she might best wound the heart of her husband.

Meanwhile a servant had carried the message to Jason. And when he was come, she said that she had repented of her anger against him, and that now he seemed to her to have done wisely, strengthening himself and his house by this marriage; and she prayed him that he would pardon her, being a woman and weak. And then she called to her children that they should come forth from the house, and take their father by his hand, for that her anger had ceased, and there was peace between them.

And Jason praised her that she had so changed her thoughts; and to his children he said, "Be sure, my sons, that your father hath counselled wisely for you. Live, you shall yet be the first in this land of Corinth."

And as he spake these words, he perceived that Medea wept, and said, "Why weepest thou?"

And she answered, "Women are always ready with tears for their children. I bare them; and when thou saidst to them 'Live,' I doubted whether this might be. But listen. Doubtless it is well that I depart from this land, both for me and for you. But as for these children, wilt thou not persuade the King that he suffer them to dwell here?"

"I know not whether I shall persuade him; but I will endeavour."

"Ask thy wife to intercede for these children, that they be not banished from this land."

"Even so. With her doubtless I shall prevail, if she be like to other women."

"I will help thee in this, sending her gifts so fair that there could be found nothing more beautiful on the earth—a robe exceeding fine and a crown of gold. These shall my children bear to her. So shall she be the happiest of women, having such a husband as thou art, and this adornment which the Sun, my grandsire, gave to his descendants after him that they should possess it."

Then she turned herself to her children, and said, "Take these caskets in your hands, my sons, and take them to the new bride, the King's daughter."

"But why wilt thou empty thy hands? Are there not, thinkest thou, robes enough and gold enough in the treasure of the King? Keep them for thyself. She will make more account of me than of thy gifts."

"Nay, not so. Is it not said that even the Gods are persuaded by gifts, and that gold is mightier than ten thousand speeches? Go, then, my children, to the King's palace. Seek your father's new wife, and fall down before her, and beseech her, giving her these adornments, that ye be not banished from the land."

So the two boys went to the palace bearing the gifts. And all the servants of Jason that were therein rejoiced to see them, thinking that Medea had put away her anger against her husband. And they kissed their hands and their heads; and one led them into the chambers of the women, to the King's daughter. And she, who before sat looking with much love upon Jason, when she saw the boys, turned her head from them in anger.

But Jason soothed her, saying, "Be not angry with thy friends, but love them whom thy husband loveth, and take the gifts which they bring, and persuade thy father for my sake that he banish them not."

And when she saw the gifts, she changed her thoughts, and consented to his words. And in a very brief space she took the robe and clothed herself with it, and put the crown upon her head, and ordered her hair, looking in the glass and smiling at the image of herself. And then she rose from her seat, and walked through the house, stepping daintily, and often regarding herself.

But then befell a dreadful thing; for she grew pale, and trembled, and had well-nigh fallen upon the ground, scarce struggling to her chair.

And an old woman that was of her attendants set up a great cry, thinking that Pan or some other god had smitten her. But when she saw that she foamed at her mouth, and that her eyes rolled, and that there was no blood left in her, she ran to tell Jason of the matter, and another hastened to the King's chamber.

And then there came upon the maiden a greater woe than at the first, for there came forth a marvellous stream of fire from the crown of gold that was about her head, and all the while the robe devoured her flesh. Then she rose from her seat, and ran through the house, tossing her hair, and seeking to cast away the crown. But this she could not, for it clung to her very closely. And at the last she fell dead upon the ground, sorely disfigured so that none but her father only had known her. And all feared to touch her, lest they should be devoured also of the fire.

But when the King was come, he cast himself upon the dead body, saying, "O my child! what God hath so smitten thee? Why hast thou left me in my old age?"

And when he would have lifted himself, the robe held him fast, and he could not, though he struggled sorely. So he also died; and the two, father and daughter, lay together dead upon the ground.

Now in the meanwhile the old man that had the charge of the boys led them back to the house of the mother, and bade her rejoice, for that they were released from the sentence of banishment, and that some day she should also return by their means.

But the woman wept and answered doubtfully. Then she bade him go into the house and prepare for the lads what they might need for the day. And when he was departed she said, "O my sons, I go to a strange land and shall not see you come to fair estate and fortune; nor shall I make preparations for your marriage when you have grown to manhood. Vainly did I bear you with pangs of travail; vainly did I rear you; vainly did I hope that ye should cherish me in my old age, and lay me out for my burial. O my children, why do ye so regard me? Why do ye laugh at me that shall never laugh again? Nay, I cannot do the deed. When I see the eyes of my children how bright they are, I cannot do it. And yet shall my enemies triumph over me and laugh me to scorn? Not so; I will dare it all." And she bade her children go into the house. But after a space she spake again, "O my heart, do not this deed. Spare my children! They will gladden thee in the land of thy banishment." And then again, after a space, "But no, it is otherwise ordained, and there is no escape. And I know that by this time the King's daughter hath the robe upon her and the crown about her head, and what I do I must do quickly."

Then she called to the boys again and said, "O my children! give me your right hands. O hands and mouths that I love, and faces fair exceedingly. Be ye happy—but not here. All that is here your father hath taken from you. O dear regard, O soft, soft flesh, O sweet, sweet breath of my children! Go, my children, go; I cannot look upon your faces any more."

And now there came a messenger from the King's palace and told her all that had there befallen. But when she heard it she knew that the time was come, and went into the house.

And the women that stood without heard a terrible cry from the children as they sought to flee from their mother and could not. And while they doubted whether they should not hasten within and, it might be, deliver them from their mother, came Jason to the gate and said to them, "Tell me, ladies, is Medea in this place, or hath she fled? Verily she must hide herself in the earth, or mount into the air, if she would not suffer due punishment for that which she hath done to the King and to his daughter. But of her I think not so much as of her children. For I would save them, lest the kinsmen of the dead do them some harm, seeking vengeance for the bloody deed of their mother."

Then the women answered, "O Jason, thou knowest not the truth, or thou wouldst not speak such words."

"How so? Would she kill me also?"

"Thy children are dead, slain by the hand of their mother."

"Dead are they? When did she slay them?"

"If thou wilt open the gates thou wilt see the dead corpses of thy children."

But when he battered at the gates, and cried out that they should open to him, he heard a voice from above, and saw Medea borne in a chariot, with winged dragons for horses, who cried to him, "Why seekest thou the dead and me that slew them? Trouble not thyself. If thou wantest aught of me, say on, but thou shalt never touch me with thy hand. For this chariot, which my father the Sun hath given me, shalt deliver me out of thy hands."

Then Jason cried, "Thou art an accursed woman, that hast slain thy own children with the sword, and yet darest to look upon the earth and the sun. What madness was it that I brought thee from thy own country to this land of Greece, for thou didst betray thy father and slay thy brother with the sword, and now thou hast killed thine own children, to avenge what thou deemest thine own wrong. No woman art thou, but a lioness or monster of the sea."

And to these things she answered, "Call me what thou wilt, lioness or monster of the sea; but this I know, that I have pierced thy heart. And as for thy children, thou shalt not touch them or see them any more; for I will bear them to the grove of Heré and bury them there, lest some enemy should break up their tomb and do them some dishonour. And I myself go to the land of Attica, where I shall dwell with King Ægeus, the son of Pandion. And as for thee, thou shalt perish miserably, for a beam from the ship Argo shall smite thee on the head. So shalt thou die.

Thus was the vengeance of Medea accomplished.