Introduction and Synopsis for

Ovid, Heroides XII

Text of the Poem

The Basic Situation

Medea is the daughter of Aeetes, the king of Colchis, and is one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world.  When Jason and his Argonauts came to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, Medea betrayed her father and used her magic to help Jason take the Fleece.  In return, Jason promised to marry her and take her back to his home in Iolcus.  Later, the two of them were banished from Iolcus, along with their two children, and took refuge in the city of Corinth.  Now Jason has become engaged to the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth.  Because Creon knows Medea's reputation and fears her magic, she is to be banished from Corinth.  Medea writes to Jason, reminding him repeatedly of the services she has done for him, giving a moving account of her own feelings about being abandoned, reminding him of their children, and ending with dark hints of her coming revenge.

The Background

The background for this letter is going to sound remarkably similar to the background for Heroides VI  (Hypsipyle to Jason).  Jason had desertd Hypsipyle on Lemnos, marrying Medea instead.  Now he is abandoning Medea in order to marry Creusa, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.  The beginnings of Jason's liaison with Medea are part of the background for both letters.  Also, at the end of her letter, Hypsipyle curses Medea in fairly specific terms; it is the fulfillment of that curse which is unfolding here.

The story starts with Jason.  He is the son of Aeson, King of Iolcus, a city on the coast of Thessaly in Greece.  Aeson lost his throne to his brother, Pelias.  To protect his son, Aeson had Jason hidden away, and educated by the centaur Chiron.  When Jason reached manhood, he returned to Iolcus.  On the way there, however, he lost one of his sandals.  Pelias, who was now ruling Iolcus, knew of a prophecy that a man with one sandal would be his undoing.  So when Jason appeared, Pelias decided to get rid of him by setting him the seemingly impossible task of retrieving the Golden Fleece from Colchis, a distant kingdom on the far eastern shore of the Black Sea.  Jason commissioned Argos to build him a ship (named the Argo in honor of its builder), assembled a crew of the greatest heroes in the land, and set sail for Colchis.  

The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts became one of the great heroic legends of classical antiquity.  The roster of the Argo's crew varies from writer to writer, but many of ancient Greece's most famous legendary heroes occur on one list or another:  Orpheus (the greatest musician and poet of the ancient world); Hercules (son of Jove, famous for the Twelve Labors); Telamon (father of Ajax); Peleus (father of Achilles); Pollux and Castor (the Dioscuri); Meleager (who killed the Calydonian boar); Laertes (father of Odysseus).  During the voyage, in addition to other adventures, Jason and his crew of Argonauts became the first humans to pass through the Symplegades (the Clashing Rocks), and freed Phineus from the curse of the Harpies; they encountered the perils of Scylla and Charybdis and the isle of the Sirens, as well as Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete.  On the way to Colchis, Jason also landed on the island of Lemnos.  (For the episode on Lemnos, and Jason's desertion of Hypsipyle, the island's ruler, see Heroides VI.)  

When he reached Colchis, Jason was received cautiously by the king, Aeetes; the Argonauts were a formidable fighting force, and Aeetes seems to have felt the need to proceed delicately, but he did not intend to give up the Golden Fleece.  So he insisted that Jason meet a set of inhumanly dangerous conditions in order to gain the Fleece:  he had to yoke a pair of fire-breathing, brazen-hooved oxen and use them to plow a field; he then had to sow dragon's teeth in the plowed field, which would immediately yield a crop of fierce, hostile, armed men; if he could deal with this home-grown army, then he would still have to find a way to get past an unsleeping dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece day and night.  Only then could he take the Fleece away with him.

It is at this point that Medea enters the picture--one of the most colorful and compelling figures in classical mythology, and one of the most disturbing ones as well.  She is the daughter of Aeetes, and the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god.  Although she is just a young girl at this point, she is already one of the most powerful sorceresses in the ancient world.  She falls in love with Jason, virtually at first sight, and resolves to help him.  She meets with Jason and offers to use her magic to protect him from all the dangers of his tasks if he will marry her and take her back to Iolcus with him.  Jason agrees.  Medea then gives him protection against the fire-breathing oxen.  She tells him how to trick the armed men by throwing a boulder among them--they will fight over it and kill each other instead of harming him. Finally, she devises a charm to put the watchful dragon to sleep.  All goes smoothly, and Jason gains possession of the Golden Fleece. 

 However, King Aeetes still does not intend to let the Fleece leave his kingdom.  Jason and his Argonauts quickly set sail, taking Medea with them, but the ships of Aeetes are in hot pursuit.  Medea has brought her brother, Absyrtis, with her, and she kills him and dismembers him.  Then she throws the pieces of his body, one by one, into the sea in front of the pursuing ships.  The ships are forced to stop to retrieve each of the body parts, since a person whose body is not properly buried cannot pass into Hades and must wander as a homeless shade.  As a result of their delays, the Argo escapes.

The Argo makes it safely back to Iolcus after further delays and adventures, and Medea and Jason live as husband and wife.  Medea also continues her practice of sorcery.  She restores the youth of Aeson, Jason's aged father, by cutting his throat and filling him with a magical potion.  The daughters of Pelias approach her and ask her to do the same thing for their father.  Medea has no wish to help the king who had taken away the throne that Jason was supposed to inherit, so she tricks the daughters into killing Pelias, and then withholds the magic that would have restored him to life and youth.  As a result of Pelias' death, Jason and Medea are forced to flee Iolcus and take refuge in the city of Corinth.  

In Corinth, Jason and Medea are refugees with bloody crimes in their past, not members of a powerful royal family.  To improve his position, Jason decides to marry Creusa, the daughter of Creon, Corinth's ruler.  This is possible in part because Medea, as a foreigner, does not have the same rights as a Greek wife would. However, she is still clearly a danger.  She is a powerful sorceress with a violent past, and she is not likely to give up her husband without a fight.  So, whether at Jason's instigation or at the insistence of Creon, it is decided that Medea must be immediately banished.  But Medea is also clever.  When informed that she must leave Corinth before sundown, she pleads for an additional day in which to set her affairs in order.  Creon reluctantly agrees, and Medea uses the time to work her revenge on Jason, Creon, and Creusa.  

She sends her two children to Creon's palace with "wedding gifts" for the bride--a beautiful gown and tiara infused with deadly poison.  The bride-to-be is delighted with the lovely gifts, and she puts them immediately.  The poison starts to work quickly, and the garments cling to her, eating into her flesh and burning her alive.  When her father tries to embrace his suffering daughter, he too is destroyed by the poison.  The children return safely to Medea, who then murders them and summons the flying chariot of her grandfather, the sun-god.  Jason arrives after she has mounted the chariot; she displays the bleeding bodies of their children to him as he stands below, and she refuses to let him bury them or even say his farewells to them.  She then flies away, leaving Jason behind forever. 

Medea's letter is written after she has learned that she is to be banished, but before she sets her plans for revenge in motion.

Note:  In some versions of Medea's later career, there is an additional episode of banishment following an attempted murder.  In these accounts, after fleeing Corinth she takes refuge in the court of the aged King Aegeus in Athens, having promised him that she will use her magical powers to enable him to have children.  She marries Aegeus and has a child by him, a son named Medus.  However, Aegeus also has another son, Theseus, whom he has never seen.  When Theseus is a young adult, he shows up unexpectedly at Athens.   Aegeus of course does not recognize him, but Medea knows who he is (after all, she is a sorceress).  She is determined to dispose of this threat to her son's inheritance and convinces Aegeus that this stranger is a danger to him.  However, just as Aegeus is offering Theseus the cup of poisoned wine that Medea had prepared, he recognizes the sword that the young man has at his side.  He knocks the poisoned cup away and welcomes Theseus as his son.  Medea is once again forced to flee, this time taking her son with her.  She finally settles down in a new country, and her son, Medus, becomes king there.  The country is named Media after him.  

This episode does not enter into Ovid's accounts of Medea's career; if it did, it would create a completely impossible chronology.  To give you an idea of just how mixed up things can get when enough different people re-tell legends over the span of enough centuries, here is the list of events that would occur:  1) Medea gets married to Aegeus and tries to poison his young son, Theseus; 2) Theseus becomes the lover of Hypsipyle's grandmother, Ariadne, and is indirectly responsible for Ariadne's marriage to the god Bacchus (Hypsipyle's grandfather); 3) Hypsipyle herself gets pregnant by Jason before Jason even meets Medea, and long before Medea is banished, marries Aegeus, and tries to poison the young Theseus.  If you find this hard to follow, think of it this way:  the very young man who showed up at Aegeus' court was also old enough to have great-grandchildren of his own.  To make matters worse, the journey on which Theseus meets, elopes with, and then abandons Ariadne (Hypsipyle's grandmother) occurs after his reunion with Aegeus, and many years after Jason's marriage to Hypsipyle: so Hypsipyle has children before her grandmother does.  If any further complications are needed, Theseus is also sometimes mentioned as one of the Argonauts who accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.

The Letter

Lines 1-6:  The letter opens without any formal introduction at all, almost as if Medea has picked up a conversation in the middle and is replying to something Jason has just said:  "But I recall that I, queen of Colchis, found time for you..."  In the very first line, she emphasizes her own former position and status by calling herself "queen of Colchis" (even though she was actually the king's daughter rather than a ruler in her own right).  She also reminds Jason how different their positions were when they first met--she "found time" for him, and he "begged" for her help.  The tone of this first section is already very dark.  She refers to the Fates, who spin out the threads of human lives, and wishes that her own life had ended when she first met Jason; life since then, she says, has been only "punishment."  This darkness of tone will continue in the poem, along with the emphasis on status and the reminders of all the help that Medea gave to Jason.

Lines 7-20:  This section sketches in the origins of Medea and Jason's relationship.  Medea laments the arrival of the Argo ("Pelian timbers") on its quest for the Golden Fleece ("the ram of Phrixus"), and emphasizes the distance that separated her home from Jason's when she pairs "Magnesian Argo" with "Colchis" and the "crowd of Greeks" with the "waters of the Phasis."  She introduces her initial attraction to Jason in negative terms ("the false charm of your tongue"), and points out that, if she had not felt love for him, he "would have gone unprotected by charms" into the dangerous tasks that Aeetes had set for him.  Then, for the first of many times in the letter, she reminds him specifically of the perils she helped him survive, mentioning the fire-breathing bulls and the crop of armed men he had to contend with.  She closes the section by pointing out that, if she had just let him die, she would have avoided great troubles and suffering for herself.

Lines 21-28:  Here Medea sets up the next several sections of the letter, saying that she will reproach him for being ungrateful for the services she has rendered him.  What follows is a detailed review of the history of their relationship.  She begins by setting up a comparison between herown status in Colchis and that of Creusa ("the new bride") in Corinth: both had wealthy fathers who ruled large domains; by implication, they were equal with respect to birth, even though Jason has now chosen Creusa over Medea. 

Lines 29-38:  In this section, the dark tone of the letter is reinforced withn Medea describing the beginnings of her love for Jason in destructive terms.  Her first sight of him began "the ruin of my soul"; she compares her love to a fiercely burning fire, and accuses Jason of knowing full well what was happening to her.

Lines 39-50:    In this section, she sets up the account of the debt that Jason owes her by describing in full detail the dangerous tasks that Aeetes set for him if he wished to obtain the Golden Fleece.  Jason must yoke the bronze-hooved, fire-breathing bulls and use them to plow a field.  Then he must sow the field with "seeds that give birth to people"--fully armed warriors who will then attack him.  Finally, he must somehow get past the unsleeping "guardian" that watches over the Fleece itself.  

Lines 51-66:  Medea starts this section by describing Jason's reaction to Aeetes' demands.  He was "sorrowful" and departed "in sadness."  She also takes the opportunity to bring up the comparison with Creusa yet again, pointing out that she was of no help to him then, however enamored he may be now of her and her father's wealth.  Having described Jason's reaction, she goes on to describe her own.  She presents herself as a young girl hopelessly in love.  Her eyes were "moist" at his departure, and she passed "all the rest of the night in tears."  Lying in bed, overcome with love and fear, she reviews the perils that await Jason, and once again we hear about the "bulls," the "abominable harvest," and the "ever-watchful serpent."  In the morning her sister finds her in her room, distraught, and "begs help for the Minyans" (i.e., Jason and his crew).  In a touch of typical forcefulness, Medea ends the section by pointing out that, while her sister asked for help, it was she herself who actually provided it.

Lines 67-100: In this section, Medea describes her first meeting alone with Jason.  She sets a darkly atmospheric scene.  The meeting takes place in a dense wood where the "rays of the sun can hardly penetrate."  There is a temple of Diana there (a deity sometimes associated with magic and with the fearsome sorceress-goddess Hecate).  Medea taunts Jason with remembrance of the place, and makes it clear that he was the one who initiated the exchange, "with unfaithful lips."  She then recites a long and persuasive speech in which Jason appeals to her for help and vows his love for her.  He invokes the deities Helios (Medea's grandfather) and Diana in his plea, and then swears by both Juno (a goddess of marriage) and Diana that Medea is the only woman who "will be a bride in my chamber."  Medea once again presents herself as a naive young girl in love ("I, just a girl, was captured by your words") and says that she was taken in as well by the tears that "were part of the deception"; she agrees to help him.  She then goes on quickly to describe what actually happened when Jason undertook Aeetes' tasks with her assistance:  he manages the fire-breathing bulls "unsinged;" he plows the field and sows the seeds (here identified as "venomous teeth" for the first time); he lets the "earth-born men" fight each other instead of him.

Lines 101-112:  Here Medea comes to a climax in the account of her service to Jason.  She introduces the "unsleeping guardian," the giant serpent or dragon.  Then she compares herself yet again to Creusa, pointing out that it was Medea, not Creusa, who aided Jason when he needed it most.  She "subdued those flaming eyes in drugged sleep," and allowed Jason to "steal" the Golden Fleece.  She closes the section with an account of the cost to herself.  She has betrayed her father and country, and she has left her family behind in order to live in exile.  She has yielded her virginity to Jason, who is now characterized as a "wandering thief."

Lines 113-120:  Here Medea comes to one of the most difficult points in the letter, for one of her "services" to Jason was something that would inspire loathing in anyone:  she murdered and dismembered her brother, Absyrtis, and scattered the parts of his body in order to delay pursuit by Aeetes's forces.  She refuses to describe this episode as she described the previous "services," saying that "my words fail in this one place."  She then admits her guilt and embraces the justice of punishment, saying that she too "should have been dismembered."  She even questions divine justice ("Where is divine will? Where are the gods?") because she was not killed at sea for her actions.  However, at the very end of the passage she uses this episode in her own past to renew the attack on Jason, emphasizing his guilt and mitigating her own:  "Let our merited punishments / Overtake us on the sea: you for deceit, me for trustfulness."

Lines 121-128: In this section, Medea lists the ways in which she and Jason might have been killed on the voyage back to Iolcus, naming three of the most famous perils from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts.  She starts with the Symplegades, or "Clashing Rocks," which are supposed to crush ships that try to pass between them.  She then moves on to the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis ("she who spews up the flood") in the Straits of Messina, which are so placed that ships must choose between one or the other of them in order to pass between Italy and Sicily.  She adds an interesting twist to Scylla, apparently confusing the monster of the Straits with the Scylla who was cast off by her lover, King Minos, after she had betrayed her own father for him ("It would be fitting for Scylla to harm ungrateful men").  She ends the section with Jason's victory:  in spite of the dangers that should have been used to punish him, he has returned home safely to Thessaly ("the Haemonian cities") with the Golden Fleece.

Lines 129-136:  This section opens with what should be another difficult point for Medea--the murder of King Pelias of Iolcus.  Pelias had taken the throne that belonged to Aeson, Jason's father.  After Medea came to Iolcus, she promised the daughters of Pelias, who was quite old at this point, that she would use her magic to restore him to youth if they would first stab him to death.  The daughters kept their part of the bargain, but Medea did not keep hers--she simply tricked them into murdering their father, presumably in order to leave the throne open for Aeson, and ultimately for his son.  As a result of conniving at this murder, she and Jason were exiled from Iolcus and fled to Corinth.  Medea admits that other people were outraged by her deeds ("Granted that others blame me"), but she demands praise from Jason, placing responsibility for her actions on him ("you by whom so many times I have been forced to do evil").  She even blames Jason for their exile ("You have dared to say 'Give up the home of Aeson's clan!'"), saying that she followed him out of love rather than necessity.  

Lines 137-158:  This section shifts abruptly from her account of her past services to Jason and her complaint about following him into exile, to a narrative of the troubles of the present day in Corinth.  She suddenly hears the songs and sees the torches of Jason's wedding procession.  She gives her own emotions first ("I was filled with fear. I still did not believe such villainy could be"), then the reactions of those around her--even her slaves were weeping, and it is one of her children who actually give her the news that it is indeed Jason who is the groom in the procession.  She then returns immediately to her own emotions; the actions she describes are the conventional signs of overwhelming grief in the ancient world--she tears her dress, beats her breast, and tears at her face and hair.

Lines 159-174:  This section continues her expression of grief.  She calls on those she has betrayed--her father, her country, and her brother--and tells them that they can rejoice in her present misery.  She goes on to lament her own lack of power.  All of her magical arts, she says, are not enough to calm her own suffering.  She recalls once again the charms she worked to enable Jason to obtain the Golden Fleece, weaving them into her complaint:  she could "tame serpents and raging bulls," but cannot conquer "one man"; she "could repulse fierce fires," but cannot calm the flames of her own suffering; she "could put the dragon to sleep," but cannot sleep herself.  She closes the section with heavy irony:  all of her powers have served only to benefit the new bride (or "concubine," as she calls her).

Lines 175-182:  In this section, Medea begins to make overt threats.  She starts out by suggesting that Jason might talk about her to Creusa, his new bride, and might belittle her merits ("In my appearance and my customs you will invent new faults").  However much amusement Creusa might derive from his criticism and mockery, though, Medea says that her laughter will turn to tears.  She even predicts the "burning" that will destroy the new bride.  She ends the section with a rather chilling declaration:  "No enemy of Medea shall go unpunished!"

Lines 183-198:  In this next-to-last section, Medea shifts from threats to pleading.  She starts with a faint echo of the ominous tone of the preceding section, when she says that these are "words too weak for my soul," but then she goes on to present herself as begging Jason to return to her ("Nor do I hesitate to lie at your feet").  In the lines that follow, she revisits all the appeals she has made so far in the letter.  She mentions the children again, and expresses fear over their treatment by a stepmother.  She invokes the gods, specifically mentioning her own descent from Helios, the sun-god ("I plead by the gods, by the light of my grandfather's flames").  She reminds him of his promises and of her services to him, referring once again the fire-breathing bulls and the unsleeping dragon.  

Lines 199-212:  In this final section, Medea challenges Jason with his ingratitude, and then ends with dark threats.  She begins with her "dowry"--the services she rendered him that enabled him to obtain the Golden Fleece and return unharmed to Greece.  She then contrasts this "dowry" with the wealth of Creon and Creusa, calling it "the wealth of Sisyphus."  (Sisyphus was the legendary founder of Corinth; he was wealthy but also unscrupulous, and he is punished eternally in the underworld.)  She points out, with heavy irony, that it is only because of her (Medea's) assistance that Jason is even alive to be able to betray her.  She then uses the last few lines to hint at her revenge.  She is not at all specific here; she speaks of Jason's "punishment," and of the "monstrous warnings" of her "wrath," but she does not again mention burning or poison as she did earlier.  She ends, ominously, by saying simply "Something great, certainly, now drives my mind!"




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Last updated 06/23/2013