Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles - Padraic Colum

Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea, unable to win to Iolcus, stayed at Corinth, at the court of King Creon. Creon was proud to have Jason in his city, but of Medea the king was fearful, for he had heard how she had brought about the death of Apsyrtus, her brother.

Medea wearied of this long waiting in the palace of King Creon. A longing came upon her to exercise her powers of enchantment. She did not forget what Queen Arete had said to her—that if she wished to appease the wrath of the gods she should have no more to do with enchantments. She did not forget this, but still there grew in her a longing to use all her powers of enchantment.

And Jason, at the court of King Creon, had his longings, too. He longed to enter Iolcus and to show the people the Golden Fleece that he had won; he longed to destroy Pelias, the murderer of his mother and father; above all he longed to be a king, and to rule in the kingdom that Cretheus had founded.

Once Jason spoke to Medea of his longing. "O Jason," Medea said, "I have done many things for thee and this thing also I will do. I will go into Iolcus, and by my enchantments I will make clear the way for the return of the Argo  and for thy return with thy comrades—yea, and for thy coming to the kingship, O Jason."

He should have remembered then the words of Queen Arete to Medea, but the longing that he had for his triumph and his revenge was in the way of his remembering. He said, "O Medea, help me in this with all thine enchantments and thou wilt be more dear to me than ever before thou wert."

Medea then went forth from the palace of King Creon and she made more terrible spells than ever she had made in Colchis. All night she stayed in a tangled place weaving her spells. Dawn came, and she knew that the spells she had woven had not been in vain, for beside her there stood a car that was drawn by dragons.

Medea the Enchantress had never looked on these dragon shapes before. When she looked upon them now she was fearful of them. But then she said to herself, "I am Medea, and I would be a greater enchantress and a more cunning woman than I have been, and what I have thought of, that will I carry out." She mounted the car drawn by the dragons, and in the first light of the day she went from Corinth.

To the places where grew the herbs of magic Medea journeyed in her dragon-drawn car—to the Mountains Ossa, Pelion, Œthrys, Pindus, and Olympus; then to the rivers Apidanus, Enipeus, and Peneus. She gathered herbs on the mountains and grasses on the rivers' banks; some she plucked up by the roots and some she cut with the curved blade of a knife. When she had gathered these herbs and grasses she went back to Corinth on her dragon-drawn car.

Then Jason saw her; pale and drawn was her face, and her eyes were strange and gleaming. He saw her standing by the car drawn by the dragons, and a terror of Medea came into his mind. He went toward her, but in a harsh voice she bade him not come near to disturb the brewing that she was going to begin. Jason turned away. As he went toward the palace he saw Glauce, King Creon's daughter; the maiden was coming from the well and she carried a pitcher of water. He thought how fair Glauce looked in the light of the morning, how the wind played with her hair and her garments, and how far away she was from witcheries and enchantments.

As for Medea, she placed in a heap beside her the magic herbs and grasses she had gathered. Then she put them in a bronze pot and boiled them in water from the stream. Soon froth came on the boiling, and Medea stirred the pot with a withered branch of an apple tree. The branch was withered—it was indeed no more than a dry stick, but as she stirred the herbs and grasses with it, first leaves, then flowers, and lastly, bright gleaming apples came on it. And when the pot boiled over and drops from it fell upon the ground, there grew up out of the dry earth soft grasses and flowers. Such was the power of renewal that was in the magical brew that Medea had made.

[Illustration] from Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

She filled a phial with the liquid she had brewed, and she scattered the rest in the wild places of the garden. Then, taking the phial and the apples that had grown on the withered branch, she mounted the car drawn by the dragons, and she went once more from Corinth.

On she journeyed in her dragon-drawn car until she came to a place that was near to Iolcus. There the dragons descended. They had come to a dark pool. Medea, making herself naked, stood in that dark pool. For a while she looked down upon herself, seeing in the dark water her white body and her lovely hair. Then she bathed herself in the water. Soon a dread change came over her: she saw her hair become scant and gray, and she saw her body become bent and withered. She stepped out of the pool a withered and witchlike woman; when she dressed herself the rich clothes that she had worn before hung loosely upon her, and she looked the more forbidding because of them. She bade the dragons go, and they flew through the air with the empty car. Then she hid in her dress the phial with the liquid she had brewed and the apples that had grown upon the withered branch. She picked up a stick to lean upon, and with the gait of an ancient woman she went hobbling upon the road to Iolcus.

On the streets of the city the fierce fighting men that Pelias had brought down from the mountains showed themselves; few of the men or women of the city showed themselves even in the daytime. Medea went through the city and to the palace of King Pelias. But no one might enter there, and the guards laid hands upon her and held her.

Medea did not struggle with them. She drew from the folds of her dress one of the gleaming apples that she carried and she gave it to one of the guards. "It is for King Pelias," she said. " Give the apple to him and then do with me as the king would have you do."

The guards brought the gleaming apple to the king. When he had taken it into his hand and had smelled its fragrance, old trembling Pelias asked where the apple had come from. The guards told him it had been brought by an ancient woman who was now outside seated on a stone in the courtyard.

He looked on the shining apple and he felt its fragrance and he could not help thinking, old trembling Pelias, that this apple might be the means of bringing him back to the fullness of health and courage that he had had before. He sent for the ancient woman who had brought it that she might tell him where it had come from and who it was that had sent it to him. Then the guards brought Medea before him.

She saw an old man, white-faced and trembling, with shaking hands and eyes that looked on her fearfully. "Who are you," he asked, "and from whence came the apple that you had them bring me?"

Medea, standing before him, looked a withered and shrunken beldame, a woman bent with years, but yet with eyes that were bright and living. She came near him and she said: "The apple, O King, came from the garden that is watched over by the Daughters of the Evening Land. He who eats it has a little of the weight of old age taken from him. But things more wonderful even than the shining apples grow in that far garden. There are plants there the juices of which make youthful again all aged and failing things. The apple would bring you a little way toward the vigor of your prime. But the juices I have can bring you to a time more wonderful—back even to the strength and the glory of your youth."

When the king heard her say this a light came into his heavy eyes, and his hands caught Medea and drew her to him. "Who are you?" he cried, "who speak of the garden watched over by the Daughters of the Evening Land? Who are you who speak of juices that can bring back one to the strength and glory of his youth?"

Medea answered: "I am a woman who has known many and great griefs, O king. My griefs have brought me through the world. Many have searched for the garden watched over by the Daughters of the Evening Land, but I came to it unthinkingly, and without wanting them I gathered the gleaming apples and took from the plants there the juices that can bring youth back."

Pelias said: "If you have been able to come by those juices, how is it that you remain in woeful age and decrepitude?"

She said: "Because of my many griefs, king, I would not renew my life. I would be ever nearer death and the end of all things. But you are a king and have all things you desire at your hand—beauty and state and power. Surely if any one would desire it, you would desire to have youth back to you."

Pelias, when he heard her say this, knew that besides youth there was nothing that he desired. After crimes that had gone through the whole of his manhood he had secured for himself the kingdom that Cretheus had founded. But old age had come on him, and the weakness of old age, and the power he had won was falling from his hands. He would be overthrown in his weakness, or else he would soon come to die, and there would be an end then to his name and to his kingship.

How fortunate above all kings he would be, he thought, if it could be that some one should come to him with juices that would renew his youth! He looked longingly into the eyes of the ancient-seeming woman before him, and he said: "How is it that you show no gains from the juices that you speak of? You are old and in woeful decrepitude. Even if you would not win back to youth you could have got riches and state for that which you say you possess."

Then Medea said: "I have lost so much and have suffered so much that I would not have youth back at the price of facing the years. I would sink down to the quiet of the grave. But I hope for some ease before I die—for the ease that is in king's houses, with good food to eat, and rest, and servants to wait upon one's aged body. These are the things I desire, O Pelias, even as you desire youth. You can give me such things, and I have come to you who desire youth eagerly rather than to kings who have a less eager desire for it. To you I will give the juices that bring one back to the strength and the glory of youth."

Pelias said: "I have only your word for it that you possess these juices. Many there are who come and say deceiving things to a king."

Said Medea: "Let there be no more words between us, O king. To-morrow I will show you the virtue of the juices I have brought with me. Have a great vat prepared—a vat that a man could lay himself in with the water covering him. Have this vat filled with water, and bring to it the oldest creature you can get—a ram or a goat that is the oldest of their flock. Do this, O king, and you will be shown a thing to wonder at and to be hopeful over."

So Medea said, and then she turned around and left the king's presence. Pelias called to his guards and he bade them take the woman into their charge and treat her considerately. The guards took Medea away. Then all day the king mused on what had been told him and a wild hope kept beating about his heart. He had the servants prepare a great vat in the lower chambers, and he had his shepherd bring him a ram that was the oldest in the flock.

Only Medea was permitted to come into that chamber with the king; the ways to it were guarded, and all that took place in it was secret. Medea was brought to the closed door by her guard. She opened it and she saw the king there and the vat already prepared; she saw a ram tethered near the vat.

Medea looked upon the king. In the light of the torches his face was white and fierce and his mouth moved gaspingly. She spoke to him quietly, and said: "There is no need for you to hear me speak. You will watch a great miracle, for behold! the ram which is the oldest and feeblest in the flock will become young and invigorated when it comes forth from this vat."

She untethered the ram, and with the help of Pelias drew it to the vat. This was not hard to do, for the beast was very feeble; its feet could hardly bear it upright, its wool was yellow and stayed only in patches on its shrunken body. Easily the beast was forced into the vat. Then Medea drew the phial out of her bosom and poured into the water some of the brew she had made in Creon's garden in Corinth. The water in the vat took on a strange bubbling, and the ram sank down.

Then Medea, standing beside the vat, sang an incantation.

"O Earth," she sang, "O Earth who dost provide wise men with potent herbs, O Earth help me now. I am she who can drive the clouds; I am she who can dispel the winds; I am she who can break the jaws of serpents with my incantations; I am she who can uproot living trees and rocks; who can make the mountains shake; who can bring the ghosts from their tombs. O Earth, help me now." At this strange incantation the mixture in the vat boiled and bubbled more and more. Then the boiling and bubbling ceased. Up to the surface came the ram. Medea helped it to struggle out of the vat, and then it turned and smote the vat with its head.

Pelias took down a torch and stood before the beast. Vigorous indeed was the ram, and its wool was white and grew evenly upon it. They could not tether it again, and when the servants were brought into the chamber it took two of them to drag away the ram.

The king was most eager to enter the vat and have Medea put in the brew and speak the incantation over it. But Medea bade him wait until the morrow. All night the king lay awake, thinking of how he might regain his youth and his strength and be secure and triumphant thereafter.

At the first light he sent for Medea and he told her that he would have the vat made ready and that he would go into it that night. Medea looked upon him, and the helplessness that he showed made her want to work a greater evil upon him, or, if not upon him, upon his house. How soon it would have reached its end, all her plot for the destruction of this king! But she would leave in the king's house a misery that would not have an end so soon.

So she said to the king: "I would say the incantation over a beast of the field, but over a king I could not say it. Let those of your own blood be with you when you enter the vat that will bring such change to you. Have your daughters there. I will give them the juice to mix in the vat, and I will teach them the incantation that has to be said."

So she said, and she made Pelias consent to having his daughters and not Medea in the chamber of the vat. They were sent for and they came before Medea, the daughters of King Pelias.

They were women who had been borne down by the tyranny of their father; they stood before him now, two dim-eyed creatures, very feeble and fearful. To them Medea gave the phial that had in it the liquid to mix in the vat; also she taught them the words of the incantation, but she taught them to use these words wrongly.

The vat was prepared in the lower chambers; Pelias and his daughters went there, and the chamber was guarded, and what happened there was in secret. Pelias went into the vat; the brew was thrown into it, and the vat boiled and bubbled as before. Pelias sank down in it. Over him then his daughters said the magic words as Medea had taught them.

Pelias sank down, but he did not rise again. The hours went past and the morning came, and the daughters of King Pelias raised frightened laments. Over the sides of the vat the mixture boiled and bubbled, and Pelias was to be seen at the bottom with his limbs stiffened in death.

Then the guards came, and they took King Pelias out of the vat and left him in his royal chamber. The word went through the palace that the king was dead. There was a hush in the palace then, but not the hush of grief. One by one servants and servitors stole away from the palace that was hated by all. Then there was clatter in the streets as the fierce fighting men from the mountains galloped away with what plunder they could seize. And through all this the daughters of King Pelias sat crouching in fear above the body of their father.

And Medea, still an ancient woman seemingly, went through the crowds that now came on the streets of the city. She told those she went amongst that the son of Æson was alive and would soon be in their midst. Hearing this the men of the city formed a council of elders to rule the people until Jason's coming. In such way Medea brought about the end of King Pelias's reign.

In triumph she went through the city. But as she was passing the temple her dress was caught and held, and turning around she faced the ancient priestess of Artemis, Iphias. "Thou art Æetes's daughter," Iphias said, "who in deceit didst come into Iolcus. Woe to thee and woe to Jason for what thou hast done this day! Not for the slaying of Pelias art thou blameworthy, but for the misery that thou hast brought upon his daughters by bringing them into the guilt of the slaying. Go from the city, daughter of King Æetes; never, never wilt thou come back into it."

But little heed did Medea pay to the ancient priestess, Iphias. Still in the guise of an old woman she went through the streets of the city, and out through the gate and along the highway that led from Iolcus. To that dark pool she came where she had bathed herself before. But now she did not step into the pool nor pour its water over her shrinking flesh; instead she built up two altars of green sods—an altar to Youth and an altar to Hecate, queen of the witches; she wreathed them with green boughs from the forest, and she prayed before each. Then she made herself naked, and she anointed herself with the brew she had made from the magical herbs and grasses. All marks of age and decrepitude left her, and when she stood over the dark pool and looked down on herself she saw that her body was white and shapely as before, and that her hair was soft and lovely.

She stayed all night between the tangled wood and the dark pool, and with the first light the car drawn by the scaly dragons came to her. She mounted the car, and she journeyed back to Corinth.

[Illustration] from Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

Into Jason's mind a fear of Medea had come since the hour when he had seen her mount the car drawn by the scaly dragons. He could not think of her any more as the one who had been his companion on the Argo. He thought of her as one who could help him and do wonderful things for him, but not as one whom he could talk softly and lovingly to. Ah, but if Jason had thought less of his kingdom and less of his triumphing with the Fleece of Gold, Medea would not have had the dragons come to her.

And now that his love for Medea had altered, Jason noted the loveliness of another—of Glauce, the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. And Glauce, who had red lips and the eyes of a child, saw in Jason who had brought the Golden Fleece out of Colchis the image of every hero she had heard about in stories. Creon, the king, often brought Jason and Glauce together, for his hope was that the hero would wed his daughter and stay in Corinth and strengthen his kingdom. He thought that Medea, that strange woman, could not keep a companionship with Jason.

Two were walking in the king's garden, and they were Jason and Glauce. A shadow fell betwen them, and when Jason looked up he saw Medea's dragon car. Down flew the dragons, and Medea came from the car and stood between Jason and the princess. Angrily she spoke to him. "I have made the kingdom ready for your return," she said, "but if you would go there you must first let me deal in my own way with this pretty maiden." And so fiercely did Medea look upon her that Glance shrank back and clung to Jason for protection. "O, Jason," she cried, "thou didst say that I am such a one as thou didst dream of when in the forest with Chiron, before the adventure of the Golden Fleece drew thee away from the Grecian lands. Oh, save me now from the power of her who comes in the dragon car." And Jason said: "I said all that thou hast said, and I will protect thee, O Glauce."

And then Medea thought of the king's house she had left for Jason, and of the brother whom she had let be slain, and of the plot she had carried out to bring Jason back to Iolcus, and a great fury came over her. In her hand she took foam from the jaws of the dragons, and she cast the foam upon Glauce, and the princess fell back into the arms of Jason with the dragon foam burning into her.

Then, seeing in his eyes that he had forgotten all that he owed to her—the winning of the Golden Fleece, and the safety of Argo, and the destruction of the power of King Pelias—seeing in his eyes that Jason had forgotten all this, Medea went into her dragon-borne car and spoke the words that made the scaly dragons bear her aloft. She flew from Corinth, leaving Jason in King Creon's garden with Glauce dying in his arms. He lifted her up and laid her upon a bed, but even as her friends came around her the daughter of King Creon died.

And Jason? For long he stayed in Corinth, a famous man indeed, but one sorrowful and alone. But again there grew in him the desire to rule and to have possessions. He called around him again the men whose home was in Iolcus—those who had followed him as bright-eyed youths when he first proclaimed his purpose of winning the Fleece of Gold. He called them around him, and he led them on board the Argo. Once more they lifted sails, and once more they took the Argo  into the open sea.

Toward Iolcus they sailed; their passage was fortunate, and in a short time they brought the Argo  safely into the harbor of Pagasæ. Oh, happy were the crowds that came thronging to see the ship that had the famous Fleece of Gold upon her masthead, and green and sweet smelling were the garlands that the people brought to wreathe the heads of Jason and his companions! Jason looked upon the throngs, and he thought that much had gone from him, but he thought that whatever else had gone something remained to him—to be a king and a great ruler over a people.

And so Jason came back to Iolcus. The Argo  he made a blazing pile of in sacrifice to Poseidon, the god of the sea. The Golden Fleece he hung in the temple of the gods. Then he took up the rule of the kingdom that Cretheus had founded, and he became the greatest of the kings of Greece.

And to Iolcus there came, year after year, young men who would look upon the gleaming thing that was hung there in the temple of the gods. And as they looked upon it, young man after young man, the thought would come to each that he would make himself strong enough and heroic enough to win for his country something as precious as Jason's GOLDEN FLEECE. And for all their lives they kept in mind the words that Jason had inscribed upon a pillar that was placed beside the Fleece of Gold—the words that Triton spoke to the Argonauts when they were fain to win their way out of the inland sea:—