Considering the mythology theme of this week, I thought it would be a good time to share a mythology retelling of my own. In high school I took a mythology class, and for our final we had an in-class essay, retelling one of the myths we’d studied. I can’t remember anymore if the teacher was expecting two paragraphs or two pages, but either way, I probably went overboard. And then I spent the next several months stalking my teacher to get the copy of my writing back. Once I did, I revised a little to end up with the story I’m sharing today.
I decided to retell the story of Jason and the Argonauts, from Medea’s point of view. All my reading up until that point convinced me that Medea didn’t get nearly enough credit in that story. Later mythology studies led me to realize that Medea’s point of view is better represented than I knew. But it’s still true that she isn’t represented in the retellings for children, since I’d read a lot and been left with the impression that Medea was pretty well ignored.
But I won’t wax on about that. There’s enough of that in the story.
Maybe you’re familiar with the story of the Golden Fleece. Maybe you know about the golden ram who carried off a boy and a girl to save them from their stepmother’s wrath, about how the girl slipped off and drowned and was never heard nor thought of again, about how the boy survived to land in far off Colchis. Maybe you know that the ram was killed and its beautiful golden fleece hung up on display. Maybe you know about Jason, who came to take over his rightful kingdom and was sent by the usurper king to obtain the Golden Fleece. Maybe you know that Argos built the Argo and that Jason filled it with any number of great heroes—Heracles, Orpheus, Castor, Pollux, the list goes on—and calling themselves the Argonauts they set off over the sea, dealing with storms and sirens and sea monsters to finally land in Colchis. And maybe you know that he did steal the Golden Fleece and go back home again.
But I bet you don’t know my side of the story. And I bet you don’t know that Jason was a lazy, good-for-nothing, ungrateful lout who couldn’t steal sheep’s wool to save his life.
I am Medea, princess of Colchis, and this is how I tell the story.
I first saw Jason when he came to the palace of my father, Aertes, the king. I was smitten. Never had I seen a more handsome man. He had dark brown hair falling into his eyes, skin tanned to a rich golden hue, and high, pronounced cheekbones. His smile…ah, well, the man knew how to smile. And as for his eyes…a rich brown, soft and liquid and fathoms deep. I got lost somewhere in those impossibly deep eyes, and never found my way out again. The moment I first saw him, I knew I’d do anything for him.
My father, however, was not so won over by Jason’s charm, nor was he eager to hand over his prized Golden Fleece. So he set Jason a task—plow a field with fire-breathing bulls and sow it with dragon’s teeth. The task as set out was impossible. I knew it, my father knew it, and Jason knew it. So he came to me.
You see, I am a sorceress, and somewhere Jason had learned this crucial bit of knowledge. So he came to me, praised my eyes and hair, kissed me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear. Drowning in his eyes and charmed by his smile, I gave up my father’s secrets. I gave Jason ointment to protect him from the fire of the beasts, and advised him on what to do after sowing the dragon’s teeth. They would spring up as soldiers ready for battle. I told him not to fight them directly but to throw a rock in their midst, upon which they would fall to fighting amongst themselves until all were dead.
Jason took direction well, I’ll give him that. He did everything just as I had said, and everything happened just as I had promised. And so Jason completed his task and began to gain his reputation as a hero.
Let’s pause and take stock for a moment now. Just what has Jason done thus far? Sailed a boat, with every hero in Greece to help him. Plowed a field. Sowed said field. Thrown a rock. Well, gee. Sailors, farmers and angry mobs do these things every day. He could never have completed his task if I hadn’t helped him. I’m the one who took the impossible task, handed over ointment and advice, and made the impossible very, very possible. Anyone could have done it. But Jason began to gain his reputation as a hero.
Of course, I didn’t think of all this at the time. I was simply elated that he was having success, and if he tossed a “hey, thanks, Medea” my direction, that was enough.
My father was less pleased. He had never anticipated Jason completing the task, and now that he had done it, my father flatly refused to give him the Fleece. So Jason came again to me.
I shouldn’t have done it. I know I shouldn’t have done it. Even then I knew it was a bad idea. But Jason smiled and charmed and kissed my neck, and I betrayed my father, my country and my people to the man with the deep brown eyes.
The problem with simply taking the Fleece is that it’s guarded by a sleepless dragon. Who isn’t actually sleepless, if you know the right magical song to play. So late that night we snuck out to where the Fleece was kept. I sang the dragon to sleep and Jason seized the Fleece. Then we ran.
Taking stock again. So Jason overcame a mighty dragon to steal the Golden Fleece, eh? No. He tiptoed past a dragon who was so far asleep a whole army couldn’t have woken him. A dragon I put to sleep. Jason showed no more bravery or heroics than a common thief. But that didn’t strike me at the time.
At the time, I knew there was no going back to my father after this. Besides, I didn’t want to. So I joined the Argonauts and we all sailed away. That night may have been the most wonderful in all my life. I was with Jason, and I believed I could see our lives stretching out before us, filled with nothing but light and joy and love. I wish that vision might have lasted for longer than that one lone night.
In the morning, two things happened. My father gave chase. And we realized my brother Absyrtus had stowed away on the Argo. I don’t know what possessed him to steal aboard the Argo and hide. Perhaps he wanted to be able to tell my father exactly what had happened, exactly what I’d done. Perhaps his intentions were more benign. It little matters. All that matters is that he was there, as our father gave chase behind. My father was gaining on our ship, and I knew what would happen if he should catch us. It would mean death for Jason and the others, and, after what I had done, I could only expect the same for myself. There was only one thing that could save us.
I know what I did was very, very wrong. But I was desperate and frightened, and I had temporarily mislaid my conscience and my heart somewhere in the depths of Jason’s eyes.
So I killed my little brother, chopped up his body, and threw it to the seas.
My father stopped his ships to gather my brother’s body, and the Argo escaped.
Note that all of Greece’s great heroes couldn’t fight my father. I had to ensure our escape.
We did get away, and we did get home. And Jason and I were very happy for many years.
How I wish I could say that, and end my story on that line. But I would be fooling no one, least of all myself. I was never truly happy, not for many years, not even for many days. Jason was constantly boasting of his glorious deeds, declaring war on new kingdoms, and running to me for help when his army started to lose. And while he did marry me and make me queen, he took after the king of the gods. He was, shall we say, intimately familiar with every woman at court.
But I loved him so I overlooked it all. Until finally the last straw came. He decided he was tired of me. He decided he didn’t need me anymore. He decided he’d prefer to just drop me and marry some cute little seventeen-year-old with blond hair and money.
I would dearly like to insult Jason in this paragraph, call him something appropriately vile. I don’t know any words vile enough, any words or insults or comparisons that could possibly express the fury in my soul or the pain in my heart.
He couldn’t even tell me in person. He sent a messenger with the news to the palace, while he was out with his army. Which was losing at the time, of course. Maybe if their king had spent more time on the battlefield and less in his bed they would have won occasionally. As things stood, they were losing, losing so badly the palace itself was under siege. Jason’s messenger was the last one to make it in before the enemy army closed off the last clear route in or out.
If that first night on the Argo was the best in all my life, the night Jason’s messenger came to me was the worst. I didn’t sleep, nor did I cry. My pain was too great, too deep, for mere tears.
In the morning, I knew exactly what had to be done. I had to leave, and at once, before the enemy army arrived. I have ways to travel that no army can hinder. Only I can take them though. So, lost deep in the mists of my heartbreak, I killed our two sons to save them from a worse fate at the hands of the enemy and then left. I did it to save them, and…and…I promised myself to be honest. And to hurt Jason. I wanted him to hurt the way I hurt, feel some of the ache and anguish I was feeling.
I’ve no idea if he felt that way or not. I haven’t seen him again. I’ve settled in another kingdom now and am living quietly, trying to make some sort of new life.
So that is the truth as I know it to be. That is the man behind the great legend: Jason of the Golden Fleece, Jason the heroic, the mighty, the wonderful, who could hardly take a step without the help of Medea. Not that anyone remembers me or the part I played. But I’m not helping him anymore. All the gods help Jason if he ever comes to me for help again. It will take all the gods and more to save him from me and my wrath. With Artemis as my witness, I swear I’ll gouge out those gorgeous brown eyes of his and never shed a tear for their loss.