I have been wanting to explore human women in Greek mythology for this blog, in addition to the great Goddesses. So, I’ve been seeking out, introducing myself, and chatting with some of them:
- Atalanta the swift runner
- Erigone who hanged herself by the well
- Queen Metaneira and her lovely daughters
- Nausikaa who helped Odysseus
Some of them were very forthcoming. Many are fascinating and will surely find their way here at a later date.
I was cleaning stalls the other night, which is one of my best meditative exercises, when she came marching in and shoved me against the wall, almost knocking me into the muck bucket.
The one we all love to hate, the uber villain who did the one thing which society cannot and will never forgive a woman- murder her own children.
Medea, the witch-bitch who turned traitor to her own family, brutally slaughtered her little brother, consorted with spirits, dabbled in poisons, murdered anyone who got in her way, all because of her insatiable lust and possessiveness over Jason.
Medea, held up for millennia as the anti-woman, the greedy, evil, conniving pharmakos whom your daughter might become if you don’t raise her right.
The root word for our modern ‘pharmacy’, pharmakos is nuanced in its translation issues. It can mean witch, spellcaster. It can refer to someone who kills with poisons – but it also refers to those who heal using herbs. In the ancient purification rite, the Thargelia, pharmakos means ‘scapegoat.’ A man and woman from each community were chosen for their ugliness, feasted and feted, then whipped out of town. In their banishment they took all of the community’s sins with them, leaving the inhabitants purified.
There are dark whispers of times and places where the pharmakoi were human sacrifices.
Medea, witch, poisoner, murderess – is she also a scapegoat?
Let’s back up. Where do we meet the famous princess of Colchis?
She shows up as early as Hesiod’s Theogony, but we get to know her best in the Argonautika, the famous tale of Jason and his Argonauts. Jason formed his crew to retrieve the Golden Fleece and set sail to find it in Medea’s father’s kingdom. It’s not surprising that his welcome was lukewarm since he made no bones about his plan to make off with King Aeetes’ famed treasure. What a piece of luck for him that the king’s daughter, a priestess of the Goddess of magic, Hekate, should fall hard for him. Not only did she help him get past her father’s safeguards and steal the fleece, she had the foresight to kidnap her little brother, the heir to the kingdom of Colchis.
When King Aeetes’ ships started getting too close, Medea cut pieces off the little fellow and threw them overboard. Aeetes was forced to call off his pursuit in order to gather up the bits of his small son so that the boy could receive a proper burial.
This alone should probably have given Jason pause.
She flowed around me as I trudged through the mud of my paddock, back to the house. What did she want from me? Everyone from Herodotus to Euripides had something to say about her. What could I possibly add?
“I was thinking of mortal women,” I said to her as we went inside. “You’re not, really. Granddaughter of Helios, niece to Circe – makes you a demi-Goddess at the very least, doesn’t it?”
“My troubles were those of mortal women, my loves and hates and sorrows. Like most heroes I have divine associations. But would a Goddess put up with Jason?”
We came in and sat by the fire. I made the tea for us – no point in taking chances.
She fixed me with almond-shaped eyes.
“Jason and his men arrived in my father’s kingdom all arrogance and swagger. Why on earth did they think the king would meekly hand over one of his kingdom’s two great treasures just for the asking?”
“What other treasure?”
She uncoiled on her cushion like a cat.
“Oh,” I said. I felt my cheeks warm. “Then you didn’t fall madly in love with him? Conquer the zombies, tame the wild bulls, put the guardian dragon to sleep, all to help your lover steal the Fleece?”
She shrugged. “It was fun thumbing my nose at Daddy. But why would I give up being the head priestess at Hekate’s temple and all my power and respect as a princess to be a saltwife to a conceited buccaneer?
“He took me just like he took the Fleece. I was a trophy.”
“Did you ever love each other?” I asked.
She sipped her tea. “I was bedazzled by him. The myths have that much right. He took me, but I knew that if I didn’t go with him my life was forfeit after the help I’d given him. He was attracted to me but he feared me too much to love me. He used me. But I also used him. To answer your real question – I decided to love him. He didn’t deserve it.”
“What about your little brother? Did you cut him up and toss the pieces overboard to distract your father?”
Those fabulous onyx eyes grew distant. “My brother was a warrior grown. He caught up to the Argos and tried to rescue me. Jason’s men mobbed him and cut him down, fifty to one. They blamed that one on me lest their own cowardice be known.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Then I said, “And Talos? Did you put the giant automaton to sleep so that his heel plug could be pulled and his ichor drained?”
Medea swirled her tea. “I am a priestess of Hekate. I know my herbs.” She smiled into her cup. “Even when we’re dealing with non-humans.”
I sat down my mug and turned to face her. The firelight played over the planes of her face, bright and dark. She was very beautiful.
“I know Euripides was the first to suggest you killed your boys. The earlier tales say it was the villagers, in retribution for your killing Princess Glauke and her father Kreon. Did he just make it up?”
She was silent for a long moment. Then her black eyes lifted and met mine. “Do you think you are the first storyteller to ask for my tale? Euripides invoked me in his seaside cave, plied me with libations and flowers, begging me for my truth. I gave it to him. Some of it he set down faithfully. But he also lied, as you storytellers do.”
“I want your truth,” I told her.
She twisted a coil of glossy hair between her fingers, then flung it back over her shoulder. “Is that how you think it works?” She laughed, a bitter, hard laugh. “Euripides’ play has become my truth. But truth is not simple or linear.”
I shook my head. “Don’t be enigmatic. I want your truth, not Euripides’ or Homer’s or Jason’s. Did you kill the princess? Did you kill your boys?”
She smiled slowly. “That girl was taking everything from me. She was welcome to Jason, that strutting buffoon. But if my sons and I were cast off, where could we go? Not to my family in Colchis. Not to any civilized part of the world where Jason’s exploits, and thus mine, were known.
“Not to mention she was a simpering idiot. I’ve never suffered fools gladly.” Her face darkened. “So, a little itching powder in the cloak I gifted her, in the crown. How was I to know she was allergic to the herbs I used? Or that she had inherited the allergy from her stupid father? But dead is dead. And those Corinthian animals avenged my mistake with the murder of my babies.” Her eyes met mine, dry and glittering. “They tore them apart in front of my eyes.”
I stretched a hand to her, but she moved away.
“I have blood on my hands. But not that blood. Yet, even if I had done, Eros is all that matters. I could make more.”
We were quiet for a time. We drank our tea.
Finally I said, “There’s such a blurring of lines between your mortal self, the Goddess you served, the archetype whom people associate with you, the egregores they create of you.”
“I’ve been dead a long, long time,” she replied. “I’m less than I was when I was warm and quick. I’m also more, much more, as I bleed slowly into those Others.”
I frowned at the cat, then asked, “Did you kill old Peleus?”
She sighed. “I did a lot of bad things. I take full responsibility for them. In retrospect there are some I wish I had not, and that smelly old goat is one of them. But I don’t spend my afterlife in self-flagellation. I did the best I could at the time. Jason had me in his power more than I care to remember. I killed to protect him, to protect myself, because he asked me to, because I cared less for my victims than for his regard. It terrified him and turned him on when I killed for him. Whenever I Worked my sorcery on his behalf he shagged me blind afterwards. But each time also moved him further from me.”
“What do you want people to know about you?” I asked her.
She frowned. “I don’t need to be explained. I’m not ashamed of my reputation. I didn’t do all the Bad Deeds ascribed to me, but,” and she smiled a smile that chilled me, “I did a lot of Very Bad Things that no one knows about.”
She stood, towering over me in the flickering light. “That old misogynist playwright got some of it right. The warrior monologue is mine. He got it down just as I gave it to him. The deus ex machina ending is right too.”
With that she left me. My dog began barking wildly. I stepped outside and watched Medea’s dragon-drawn chariot arc across the night sky.